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Bikers. Encyclopedia of American Folklore

Persons whose individuality and social identity are in good measure expressed through motorcycle riding, modification, and decoration. In some senses, anyone who “rides” is a biker, but those who ride only occasionally are motorcycle “owneroperators” or “enthusiasts” to those who understand a narrower, gender- and brand-chauvinistic notion that “a biker is a guy with a Harley who rides a lot” Bikers ride as often as they can and express an aesthetic of “the ride” through dress and bike modification or decoration; through customary ways of being on the road, at the track, and in parked array; and through participation in large ritualized gatherings—rallies and races, rides, or runs. Men and women who ride are harassed by media-maintained images of bikers as rough, raunchy, paunchy, boozy males covered with hair and “tatts” (tattoos), dressed in worn denim, weathered leathers, and glinting chains, astride large, loud (typically HarleyDavidson) cycles, roaring two abreast along highways in packs of a dozen or more— mavericks, at best, or dangerous, unsavory misfits. Male bikers, members of clubs whose “colors” and “attitude” (club insignia and demeanor) purposefully resemble those of “outlaw” organizations like the Hell’s Angels, Pagans, Banditos, and the Family are the reference for this “citizen” or “straight” nonrider image of bikers. This oudaw persona of bikers developed in the United States since the 1940s, fertilized by film images like The Wild One (1953) featuring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin in Stanley Kramer’s portrayal of bikers as reckless, rebellious threats to ordinary folks, inspired by the 1947 “riot” during the Hollister, California, Independence Day motorcycle races, when the Booze Fighters rampaged the town, then posed for Life magazine photographs. In biker legend, “Hollister” is the genesis for the oudaw image and for the “one percenter” designation, worn as a jacket patch (“1%”) by outlaw bikers, distinguishing them from the other ninety-nine percent of law-abiding motorcyclists—members of the national Motor Maids Inc. or a chapter of Women on Wheels (WOW), members of Stoney Lonesome MC in Columbus, Indiana; the Orphans MC in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania; the BMW Rim Riders of Arizona in Scottsdale; the Copper Kettle Soul Riders in eastern North Carolina, or the Idontknow MC in Central Islip, New York. In 1994, American Motorcyclist reported that six million persons in the United States owned motorcycles and 200,000 were members of the seventy-yearold American Motorcyclist Association. Within the majority, bikers continue a process of esoteric discrimination that conflates cycle brands, engine types, models and production years, factors for vehicle modification, regularity of use, length and level of the biker’s experience, a biker’s affiliation with a motorcycle group, and the biker’s gender. Some bikers distinguish “American-made” (Harley-Davidson) and “import” (Japanese manufacture) motorcycles, derisively termed “rice-burners.” Harley bikers joke about pranking an “import” owner by throwing a handful of rice under the cycle, and telling the other biker, “Hey, you got a leak.” Conversely, Harleys are called “John Deeres” or “tractors” by bikers who characteristically ride hunched forward in racing posture astride brightly colored “crotch rockets,” aerodynamically snub-nosed and all fairing. “Harley owners wear black leathers, so the oil won’t show” is a snide reference to a purported tendency for Harleys to leak, and aspersions concerning Harleys’ unreliability are various—a Harley road repair kit needs only “a hammer and a pickup truck with tie downs.” Bikers dress for safety and comfort, but also for theater. Leathers, helmets, face guards, and boots protect from cold, wind, flying debris, and contact with the road— “going down” or “dropping the bike.” Leather or denim vests and jackets are bedecked with souvenir patches or pins commemorating specific rallies and runs, and memorial patches for bikers killed in collisions with automobiles. An affiliated biker will “fly” the club “colors” on a vest or jacket back—an embroidered symbol emblem centered between curved “rockers” that name the club (top rocker) and the club’s location (bottom rocker). The Christian Motorcyclists Association center patch shows praying hands at the base of a cross, and the rockers read, “Riding For” (top) “The Son” (bottom). Though not members, a few women fly the colors of fraternal clubs with additional appliqués declaring them to be “Property of…” some male member whose biker name—like “Nub” or “Jake”—completes the “property tag” message. T-shirts abound, naming biker clubs or far-flung bars, dealerships, rides, or rallies the wearer has visited. Helmets reflect biker attitudes toward their compulsory use; they are the smallest “token” helmet the law will allow; they bear sticker messages—“Let Those Who Ride Decide” or “Helmet Laws Suck”; and, for festive occasions, imaginative parody helmets appear for slow-ride parade wear—aluminum colanders and stew pots; “Visigoth” helmets widi fur and horns. A Harley “shovelhead” owner wears a shovel blade fixed to his visor cap; and owners of Indian motorcycles may wear full feather war bonnets. Bikers identify with their motorcycles in various ways. They individualize engine performance or body styling through “chopping,” “customizing,” or “trick” work, and they sometimes refer to themselves and others by their “rides”—“I’m the ‘48 panhead chopper,” or “He’s the ‘88 Softail.” Motorcycle paint decorations are like biker tattoos: they follow the contours of the cycle body—gas tank, fenders, luggage pods—and are self-conscious, symbolic expressions of the individual biker’s “attitude.” Individualized motifs and murals are configured by traditional patterns: (1) symbols of death and violence (skulls, stilettos dripping blood, Vietnam combat helicopters above the legend “A Great Day to Die”), speed and power (flames, lightning bolts), magic and fantasy (bearded sorcerers, dragons), femininity and nature (pink ribbon bows, peacock feathers, bees, hummingbirds, and flowers), machismo and nature (nude cartoon women, eagles, snakes, a Native American brave in loincloth, bareback on his horse, solemnly scanning a desert vista above the legend “The Last Ride”); (2) portraits of persons as significant to the biker as his or her cycle, such as first-born sons and wives; and (3) legends alone— “Loud Pipes Save Lives,” “Live to Ride-Ride to Live.” “Rat bikes,” a perverse alternative in the mode of cycle as identity extension, are often oil caked and corroded, assembled from mismatched parts, with elaborate use of coat hanger wire and steel alloy cans for patch; rat bikes may also be decorated with assemblages of found objects—antlers, turtle shells, jingle bells, pieces of vintage Chevy, raccoon tails, shopping carts, and whatever. Bikers find companionship and safety in numbers; solo riders are most vulnerable to being stranded by cycle malfunction or being “downed” in accidents caused by automobile drivers. If a touring “full dresser,” weighing hundreds of pounds, breaks down or that biker goes down, more than one person is needed to turn it “rubber side down, shiny side up” and push the machine to a sheltering overpass. Where possible, cyclists ride two abreast to force passing automobiles to use the adjacent lane and to make themselves more visible, day or night. Or bikers do road runs in staggered single file for their own visibility and, again, to encourage car and truck drivers to pass without crowding. Bikers greet each other on the road with customary gestures, rather than horn noises—a subdued right hand “thumbs up,” a raised right fist, a modest helmet bob and hand wave, or a flamboyant, “tall in the saddle” turning wave. Bikers set their cycles to go when they park, in paramilitary closed ranks, all leaned into the same kickstand angles, facing the exit route. Customary parking renders individual motorcycles less vulnerable to damage from automobiles and signals biker group identifkation and control. In any parked array, “bike looking” is expected and managed by protocol—avoid coming within two feet of a bike whose owner is not standing next to it; never lean over a bike, lest studs or chains accidentally scratch; point, but never touch, lest a ring or wrist zipper cause harm, or a concealed razor blade purposely cut a wire; and speak only admiring words—never bad mouth: “People know their faults; you comment on the good things; it’s etiquette.” Local communities of bikers draw together for holiday and theme runs, often with charity fund-raising as “license” to assemble and ride in large numbers. A HOG (Harley Owners Group) Strut or Honda Hoot features brand-bike trophy shows; a Poker Run or Carnival Run involves a series of stops along a route at which bikers draw cards for poker hands or play carney games of chance; a Toy Run is a parade of bikers with assorted large pink plush elephants, archery sets, Raggedy Ann ‘n’ Andy dolls, and bright plastic ride toys bungeed to their bikes, riding two abreast through town, often with police escorts giving bikers right of way by blocking automobile traffic at intersections. Biker day events or week-long rallies involve competitive cycle shows, stunt or skill driving or racing events, and games—the helmet toss, plank ride, weenie bite. Regional events draw 6,000 bikers to such as the Golden Aspen Rally in Ruidoso, New Mexico. A weekend of treacherous ice- and snow-covered-mountain road riding is the reason for the Elephant Ride in the Colorado Rockies in Febru-ary. Since the 1950s, the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, and Daytona, Florida, Bike Week have become national gatherings, attended by more than 50,000 (motorcycles)—event counts are important; bikes are tallied first, then people. Biker festivals as large as Sturgis or Daytona, or as significant to the local biker community as the annual Saturdaybefore-ThanksgivingToy Run in Greenville, North Carolina, give context for understanding the attraction to motorcycling that biker folklife artistic forms provide, and some of the reason bikers spend so much time on and with their cycles and with others who ride. Diversity and individuality are important to bikers, tolerance and camaraderie are necessarily complementary, but, in the end, the ride is most important, as a Texas biker with fifty-two years experience pointed out during one Golden Aspen Rally: “I did 100,000 [miles] lastyear, and this motorcycle’s not a year old and it’s got 75,308. I ride a motorcycle every chance I get. Fresh air, in the wind, the people—that’s why I ride.”

Karen Ealdwin

References

Baldwin, Karen. 1993. “Bring a Toy and Leave Your Attitude at Home”: A Festival View of Biker Folklife. North Carolina Folklore Journal 40:1–18. Borhek, J.T. 1989. Rods, Choppers, and Restorations: The Modification and Recreation of Production Motor Vehicles in America. Journal of Popular Culture 22:97–107. Burns, John. 1991. Born to Be Mild. Cycle42 (January):64–69. Dorrance, John. 1986. Brotherhood of the Black Hills: Sturgis. Cycley 37 (December)44–49, 67. Gutkind, Lee. 1973. Bike Fever. Chicago: Follett. Hopper, Columbus B., and Johnny “Big John” Moore. 1983. Hell on Wheels: The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Journal of American Culture 6:58–64. Johnson, David. 1993. Family Affair: Four Men, One Dream: Harley-Davidson at 90; 1903–1993. Cycle World 60 (September). Krakauer, Jon. 1993. A Hog Is Still a Hog, but the “Wild Ones” Are Tamer. Smithsonian 24 (8):88–99. Sagnier, Thierry. 1974. Bike!’ Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them. New York: Harper and Row. Walle, Alf H. 1985. Harley Davidson: The Renegade Image Free at Last. Journal of American Culture7:7l–76.

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