Stop Imitating Outlaw Biker Gangs

Since last week’s shoot-out between the Bandidos and the Cossacks in Waco, Texas, many bikers – or perhaps they’d rather be called motorcyclists – have been making protestations that the actions of these outlaw biker gangs do not represent the attitudes, lifestyles, and actions of most people who ride motorcycles. True enough.

They say that this incident puts us bikers (I’m just going to say “bikers”) in a bad light. That it casts a shadow over the rest of us. Well, I don’t think most civilians have any confusion between the typical biker dudes they see every day and outlaw gangs, any more than you might confuse, say, your neighbor’s basement home-brew set-up with an underground meth superlab. But I guess I could see the point.

They say that they want to distance themselves from this harmful image of outlaw culture. This is where I have to throw a bullshit flag.

If we’re so all-fired keen to distance ourselves from the stigma of outlaw biker gangs, why do so many bikers go to such lengths to imitate them? The hair, the vests, the chaps, the boots. Not the mention the type and style of motorcycle. The entire persona of many ordinary bikers is, intentionally or not, overtly derivative of the outlaw biker archetype. Even the loud pipes: most bikers who have drag pipes have them because they convey that dangerous, outlaw image. It’s not a performance thing, and it’s honestly not a safety thing.

The most blatant homage to the outlaw biker gangs are the club vests and patches that explicitly imitate the style of the gang, complete with club logo and chapter rocker. The most obvious example is the Harley Owners Group (HOG – one of the least clever backronyms of all time). HOG is a corporate-sponsored community branding and marketing effort, which is the polar opposite of an outlaw biker gang. HOG is to a biker gang what the “by Mennen” jingle is to Jimi Hendrix. Yet they, quite brilliantly, co-opted the exact iconography of the gangs, triggering the same psychological mechanisms of tribal loyalty and converting them into brand loyalty. To the untrained eye, a HOG chapter pulling into a Denny’s looks an awful lot like some bad shit is about to go down. At the Denny’s.

Even more bizarre are the riders who sport “Sons of Anarchy” gear. It’s not just a fantasy, it’s a fantasy of a fantasy. These really belong more at ComiCon than at a bike rally.*

There is nothing wrong with regular motorcycle clubs, but so many of them use these vests and patches it reinforces the unstated assumption that the only “real” bikers – the most legitmate bikers – are the outlaws, and that all the rest of us are just varying degrees away from that pure core. That’s what’s really wrong with this.

The appeal of the outlaw is very real, powerful, and completely understandable. For most of us, that’s part of what got us into motorcycling in the first place. There is a genuine delight in terrifying soccer moms. It’s the cowboy, it’s Johnny Strabler, it’s Han Solo. Every romantic hero plays by his own rules, right?

Well, we are undercutting that independence instinct when we spend so much effort imitating members of some other group. We have to acknowledge that what biker gangs are doing and what the rest of us are doing are completely different things. We don’t have to emulate them because we really share nothing in common with them.

Many ordinary bikers already feel that in some ways they’re on the fringe. There’s something in us that is not like our peers. We are doing something not that many people do, something that our friends or family may not understand or approve of. We invest time and money in something that is dangerous and impractical. This, too, is part of the appeal. For much of life, we have to fit in, but as a biker we can be comfortable as an outsider. But again, being an outsider is a completely different thing from human trafficking and running guns and drugs.

If you truly want to be in an outlaw biker gang, then that’s what you should do, but recognize that it is not a life of freedom: it will take a tremendous commitment and sacrifice, including possibly losing the relationships of the people you care about most. I doubt most of us are willing to do that.

If you don’t want to be in an outlaw biker gang, then drop the affectations and stop whining about getting a bad rep from the outlaws.

You have to pick one or the other: you cannot both have and reject the outlaw biker fantasy. This is like someone who dresses as a knight at a Renaissance fair complaining that they don’t want to be associated with the negative stereotypes of European nobility.**

The world of bikers is one of amazing biodiversity. So many types of people and machines, different backgrounds and reasons. A lot of histories and stories. And for the most part, we’re all cool with each other. Even people from backgrounds who would otherwise not interact are generally decent and accepting in the context of bikes. There really are not a lot of rules to “how to be a biker,” and that’s part of what’s so great about it. Maybe the one universal tenet is that you need to be yourself. Be your damn self. You don’t need anybody else’s approval to be a biker, and you certainly don’t need to emulate a group you don’t actually want to join. It’s so much easier to just be yourself.

*I don’t mean to dis on the ComiCon folks. They at least are generally aware of what is and is not a fantasy, and they’re usually pretty cool.

**Again, nothing against the Ren Fair guys. Joust on!

Are You a “Biker”?

Well, are you? What do you call yourself? Do you call yourself a “biker,” or do you avoid that term? Do you call yourself a “motorcyclist”? Do you just say you “ride a motorcycle”? That’s a convenient way to distance yourself – to take the identity out of the activity. You just happen to ride a motorcycle, but it has nothing to do with who you are. Well, if it has nothing to do with who you are, why do you do it?

 

Most people who ride don’t call themselves “bikers,” but we should. We should use it, embrace it, own it, be it, and we should give exactly fuck-all what anybody else thinks. Take this epithet, this malediction, and make it our black honor banner, our sacred blasphemy.

 

There are two main reasons people avoid calling themselves “biker,” and they’re both wrong: because they think they’re too good for it, or because they think they’re not good enough.

 

Let me explain. The first group doesn’t want to be associated with the criminal dirtbag connotations they think “biker” carries with it. They ride a sophisticated piece of liquid-cooled metric engineering, not some loud, greasy, low-slung lead sled. Well, just how high is the saddle on that sport-tour-venturer that you can’t step off for a cold one? The moniker doesn’t come with a criminal record attached, and nobody is going to make you put fringe on your jacket. We might have our share of sketchy santas, but I don’t see investment bankers avoiding calling themselves “investment bankers” after 2008, and they have a lot more to answer for than the bikers of the world do. Likewise sales managers, priests, mayors of Detroit, PR flacks, doctors, news anchors, or any other damn group you care to mention. No small deviant minority defines you, unless you can’t define yourself.

 

The second group thinks they’re just not enough of a biker to call themselves that. Like you have to be fully dedicated to the biker “lifestyle,” whatever that is, in order to be worthy of the term. Like somebody is going to call you out for not being a “real” biker because you also own a car, or because you have a full-time job. This is understandable but wrong. All subculture groups are keenly aware of authenticity – who really belongs and who is a poseur. Bikers are probably more hung-up on authenticity and validating that you’re one of us than any group since Cold War spooks. But it’s not a club, and you can’t be kicked out if you don’t have a long beard or leather vest. Authenticity does not equal stereotype.

 

Let me say that again: Authenticity does not equal stereotype. Being a real biker has nothing to do with your patches, belly, or dental hygiene. It has everything to do with a love of riding. It has to do with motorcycles. It’s a thrill that you know and love – that you are bewitched by – if you are a biker, and you don’t if you’re not. If there is a litmus test for who is a “biker,” that’s it. And that’s all.

 

Whether you’re metric, standard, or Whitworth; whether your heart beats like a potato or fibrillates in four beats; whether you belong to a Laborer’s Local or a yacht club; whether you’re an iron-butt or a weekend-warrior; whether you carve canyons or drag downtown; whether you’re whiskey or cognac, we at least share that one thing. We don’t have to all be brothers, but we are all bikers.

 

We need to hang together and respect each other. I am seeing a general decline in biker courtesies – things like stopping when you see another bike stopped on the freeway to see if they need help, leaving space for another bike in parking spaces, falling into a stagger formation when you happen to be riding along the road together, even something as simple and silly as the “biker wave.” Bikers should at least show each other a little class, and it starts with embracing that identity.

 

It needs to be said here that some bicyclists have started calling themselves “bikers.” This must stop. As I have written elsewhere, there’s nothing wrong with riding bicycles, which is a fun, healthy activity for kids and adults, as long as you’re not an arrogant ponce about it. We should be cool with the cyclists, but we can’t let leave our name for them to pick up. We are the bikers.

 

We are the bikers. Do not be ashamed or shy. We are strong, not evil. We take risks others don’t and are rewarded with benefits they cannot imagine. Chasers after the ineffable, the inexpressible. Handlebar philosophers and bug-spitters. There is no one type. We may not have anything in common but this: we are the bikers.