What is “Neo-Retro”?

The first sentence of every description of the Yamaha XSR 900 must include the phrase “neo-retro,” and this one is no exception. It seems to be a somehow apt descriptor, but I don’t think any of us really know exactly what we mean when we say, write, or read it. Is it really a word? It is two prefixes (prefices?) linked together without a root. It is certainly an oxymoron, although “neo-paleo” would be a more perfect diametric pairing. Personally, I would be very excited to see a neo-paleo bike. Something made of meat.

 

I suppose we must conceded that “neo-retro” is a word, inasmuch as people are using it and somehow investing it with some meaning. Neologisms like this often take some time to find their proper semantic place, and this one seems to be at that crisis point where it either hones itself to something useful or just become another useless filler word. Time to drill into that word and extract the real meaning so that we all stop throwing it around so promiscuously.

 

First, let’s make some important exlusions to be clear what “neo-retro” is not. Some would say that “neo-retro” means a technically and mechanically modern machine that wears styling taken from the past, like the new Bonnevilles or Moto-Guzzis. But no, that is simply “retro.” “Neo-retro” must reinterpret. It is Post-Modernist, not Classicist.

 

It is also not the uninterrupted making of the same thing for decades. No-one refers to Harleys as “neo-retro” or even “retro.” They are simply Harleys. Indian Chiefs might be “retro,” because there is a discontinuity between the current machine and the precedent. You have to leave home in order to enjoy homesickness. You can’t be nostalgic for something that’s just always been there and never left. Oddly, people often refer to Royal Enfield as “retro,” which is wrong due to this Continuity Exemption. I think people call Royal Enfields “retro” because they themselves have re-discovered (or just discovered) them, and therefore what’s old is new to them, whereas in fact what’s old is simply old. (The Contintal GT would be an exception to the Exemption, and thus could rightly be called “retro.”)

 

Got it?

 

OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:

2016-01-10 xsr900_1

 

What about this design is retro? What clues tie this bike to, say, the 1970s? Apart from the round headlamp and the optional bumblebee livery, not a damned thing. We could go through the bike piece by piece by piece and not find anything that ties this bike to the past. Look at it: the tank? The frame? The engine? Even the fenders? Anything? OK, maybe the tank badge. The name, certainly, is a reference to the venerated XS 650, a prince among UJMs, but that’s it.

2016-01-10 xsr900_2

 

Every single thing about this design is modern. It doesn’t even look like what someone in the 1970s would imagine a futuristic bike would look like – they would probably assume a bike of the future would be some kind of Craig Vetter Streamliner deal.

 

2016-01-10 xsr900_3

Perhaps the only truly retro thing about this image is the clothing of the rider.

 

Let’s take another example: the BMW R Nine T:

2016-01-10 R9T

 

Of course this bike has the “classic” BMW Boxer engine, but that is not retro – that’s merely a staple powerplant that is still in BMW’s regular lineup. (Would you call the R1200RT “retro”?) Again, there is a round headlamp, but surely that can’t be it? Everything on this bike is thoroughly up to date, both technically and aesthetically. The trellis frame, the brakes, wheels, seat, components, suspension, lines, curves, forms – it’s all neo, and where’s the retro?

 

Contrast this with the new new Bonnevilles, which carefully and knowingly extract details and proportions from old bikes to create their new composition. There are little Easter eggs for connoisseurs. They are modern, but they make aesthetic allusions with the precision of a McKim, Mead, and White, and no-one would question that the genre of these bikes is “retro.”

 

Yet we are compelled to describe the XSR 900 and the R nine T (and let’s throw in the Honda CB1100) as “neo-retro.” We almost can’t help ourselves. Why?

 

The truth is, when we look for historiated styling cues, we are looking at the wrong thing. What’s retro about these bikes is not the design details or specific allusions to past models. In fact, it’s not styling at all: it’s design at a deeper level.

 

The “retro” in these bikes is an attitude of simplicity. Unadorned, bullshit-free. Unassuming, but direct and tough. It’s a recognition that many of the products (not just bikes) that we use every day have become encrusted with features, complications, and upgrades that stand between us and the pure enjoyment of the object. It is the opposite of the plastic engine cover under the hood of your Audi. It’s the same ethos as the naked bikes taken in a slightly different direction.

 

Our nostalgia for older bikes is closely tied to how much fun we had on them. It seemed that the bikes had character. That character was rooted in the direct experience with the machine, unintermediated by other amenities. Now we are being offered bikes that present that kind of character without the flip side of those simpler bikes – unreliability. We are seeing technology in the service of a better experience, rather than tech for its own sake.

 

It’s also a reminder that a motorcycle does not have to be either a sportbike or a cruiser. It can just be a bike. And you don’t have to choose between being a pirate or a squid. You can just be a biker.

 

There was no better time, when things were simpler, people were more honest, and beer was free. In that sense, nostalgia is naïve. But there were great ideas and moments of delight in our collective youth that are worth remembering. If “neo-retro” brings us fun, honest bikes that look good and ride great, we are all for it.

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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.