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!

Let’s Talk About Crashes

You know that motorcycle riding is dangerous. We all know this. Well-intentioned dimwits remind us all the time with their epiphanic insights (“Isn’t that dangerous?”) and fatuous humor (Every time some maroon mentions the term “organ donor” [as if I’ve never heard it before], I whip out my driver’s license to show them that I am, in fact, an organ donor. [I really do this] That generally shuts them up.).


So, yeah, we all know it’s dangerous. Or rather, we have this general sense that it’s dangerous. We don’t truly understand the danger of motorcycling. How dangerous is it really? What types of riding are dangerous? What are the factors in crashes that I can and cannot control? How effective is “defensive riding” in preventing accidents? Do loud pipes really save lives? Am I becoming a safer or less safe rider as I get older? Is a big, heavy cruiser safer than a nimble sport bike? Does lane-splitting really increase or decrease rider safety?


We don’t have good answers for these, because motorcycle safety is seriously understudied. Maybe it’s because we’re a small constituency, or maybe it’s because, frankly, we haven’t asked for it, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes since nineteen-eighty-freaking-one. That study, Motorcycle Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, (informally called the Hurt Report [after its primary author Harry Hurt, not as a kind of sardonic humor]) looked at 900 crashes. This was an examination of case studies rather than an aggregation of overall national data. It was also limited to the Los Angeles area, so the results may not be entirely (or at all) extrapolatable to the whole country.


And it was 34 years ago; do you think anything might have changed since Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5” and Walter Cronkite retired? (Not trying to imply that those two events are related)


Well, there is a new study going on right now, and according to the AMA (the motorcycle people, not the doctors), it just received additional funding to continue through 2015. This is a good thing, but it also has some serious limitations.


The Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is being conducted by Oklahoma State University and is funded by the states of Oklahoma (natch), Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, and by the Federal Highway Administration, NHTSA, and the AMA (again, the bike folks). The study is expected to be published in Spring 2016.


Like the Hurt Report, the MCCS will examine a limited number of accidents in detail to understand causes with the goal of providing the background information to other institutions to develop countermeasures and safety standards. There will be about 500 crashes included in the final study. This type of in-depth analysis of specific incidents is critical to understanding the how and why of crashes and to training bikers in safe riding practice. Hopefully some of this will also filter into training car and truck drivers in how to not “not see” bikes.


However, this data set is even more limited than the original Hurt set of 900 crashes. We understand that this is a labor-intensive (and therefore expensive) process, but smaller data sets do not make for more universal results. This case-study analysis would be much more meaningful if it were complemented with large-scale data analytics of overall national crash statistics. This could illuminate regional differences and demonstrate how broadly the conclusions from the 500 case crashes can be applied to everyone and help states and individuals assess their risks.


This report also needs to be correlated with the June 2013 NHTSA publication of the Prioritized Recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS). This report makes 82 specific recommendations for increased motorcycle safety. The very first recommendation is “Government and industry research studies, both comprehensive and specific,” so we are starting in the right direction just by fact of conducting the MCCS itself. Of course, the industry doesn’t appear to be involved here, which is a shame, but it’s a start. (I can understand why manufacturers might be shy about getting too real about the dangers of using their product, but they need to take the long view and help promote knowledge and education for biker longevity. They don’t want their customers being splattered.) The MCCS might validate or debunk many of the other 81 recommendations in the NAMS report. These need to be put together and assessed when the MCCS is complete.


The number of crashes in the MCCS is not the only limitation of the study. Similar to the Hurt Report, the MCCS is only studying crashes in California. No-one could reasonably say that CA is representative of the nation as a whole when it comes to riding. First, there is a different level of driver awareness of bikers in CA, and possibly a different attitude (bikers tend to be seen more as “outlaws” in CA, which might [do you think?] result in different behavior on the part of car drivers). Second, adverse weather conditions for riding are much more common in other states and so will be underrepresented in a survey of CA accidents. The lack of freeze-thaw in much of the state also means roads may be in better condition, thus underrepresenting potholes, cracks, and loose asphalt as causes. Finally, and most importantly, CA is the only state which allows lane-splitting. That means this survey cannot make any intelligent statement about whether lane-splitting increases or decreases biker safety. This is one of the most burning questions about motorcycle regulation and safety, and this study cannot address it. There are surely other significant (I mean “significant” strictly in the sense of actually statistically significant) differences between CA and the other 49, but these three are obvious important differences that seriously limit the applicability of the MCCS to other states.


Finally, the study only looks at accidents that resulted in injury. You might think, well, that’s fine: we’re really mainly interested in accidents that cause injury. Isn’t that the point: to understand injury? Safety, right? Yes, but to understand what causes injury, you need to understand the difference between injury accidents and non-injury accidents. Therefore you need to study both. It’s like having a control for the experiment. What are the factors that are common in injury accidents but not so common in non-injury accidents, and vice-versa? We cannot know from this report.


The final question is, how will this report’s findings be communicated to riders, regulators, and the industry? How will this information be translated to regular schmucks like you and me so that we can assess our threat? What, if anything, will manufacturers do differently once this report is out there? How might state laws change, and (very importantly) how will we bikers have a say in that? We (bikers) need to take ownership of this. This report is something that everyone who uses a road (or trail) should see and understand.


Of course this study is limited – my intent here is to be realistic, not negative about it. The MCCS is important, but it is only a long-overdue (as in like generation-overdue) next step in understanding and protecting ourselves against the hazards of our life on the road. Without unlimited funding and time, there is no perfect study. When this study comes out, it should be welcomed and lauded by the biker community, but we need to understand more than the headline (“Helmets prevent injuries!” No shit.) and get deeper into the methodology to really grok what the data are (and are not) truly telling us. Researchers are generally very careful about framing their results to provide the context of those limitations, but that framing tends to get lost in the re-telling and in the popular media, so let’s look deeper into the study and push for more research in the future.


A skeptical biker is a safer biker.




Natty Bumppo: Original American Biker

James Fenimore Cooper is little read today, perhaps because of his daunting, elliptical prose, but his books, especially The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, helped carve the mold of The American Novel.  Writing at a time when both the novel and the nation were just coming of age, Cooper created settings, plots, and above all characters that felt distinctly American and very different from existing European literature.

Cooper’s novels draw emotional impact from his readers’ love of country, by which I mean the physical country – the landscape, the woods, streams, and lakes of a vast continent.  They also gain narrative drive, interest, and sometimes humor by subverting inherited European notions of class and propriety.  The American landscape, anti-elitism, and adventurism are integral to Cooper’s writing in a way that was new and would endure in American writers through the twentieth century.

Natty Bumppo, better known by his Delaware name “Hawkeye,” is the central character in these books and the embodiment of all these sentiments.  He is not, strictly, the protagonist, but he is the most interesting, memorable, and ultimately significant character.  He is the biker character.

Born of white parents, raised among the Delaware Indians, he is forever a man apart.  He speaks both languages and is of both worlds, but does not fully belong in either one.  He is independent of the rules and expectations of society and almost supernaturally capable in the manly arts of the woods – hunting, tracking, shooting.  More mainstream characters like Major Heyward, who would be the unquestioned hero in a novel a generation earlier, are almost comically out of their element in Hawkeye’s wooded world.  There is a supremacy of wildness, which a natural man must master as he masters himself, rather than mastering the rules and mores of society.  By being more natural, Hawkeye is more free than his counterparts in either the Indian nations or the English society; he is closer to the Rousseau ideal.  In a sense, he is taking the American revolution against distant aristocracy to is Platonic ideal form.

Hawkeye is quick-witted, a jokester god who offers asides other characters cannot.  He can comment on everything, being the perennial outsider; he does not say too much, but when he speaks, he cuts away the grease.  He is cunning and morally ambiguous, or at least lives by his own moral code, which may not be congruent with society’s code.  He is fiercely loyal to his friends and has a sense of chivalry, but these values stem from his innate nature, not society’s expectations, and so his behavior often seems odd to the square characters that surround him.

All this may sound like a cliché Romantic hero today, but in 1826 this was certainly revolutionary.  This was a proto-American archetype.  Our ingrained images of the frontiersman, cowboy, rough rider, fighter pilot, private eye, and above all biker share these fundamental elements.

These characters are all outsiders, living on the in-between, masters of their own world and outcasts in ours.  They are people we look to with equal parts trepidation and admiration.  They do not respect and do not fear the things we wish we didn’t respect and fear.  From Huck Finn to Tyler Durden, they live what we yearn.

Of all these archetypes, the biker is the most unredeemed and the most on the outside, the most associated with danger and criminality.  Although most real bikers are firmly part of square society, part of what draws us to ride is the reminder of that elemental being.  When we open the throttle and the adrenaline pumps, there is a native recall, an atavistic displacement from ordinary life.  Woods long lost close in around us, and we are briefly marksmen and masters.  Hawkeye is our Adam.

This lineage has survived as a central part of the American psyche in literature and film for almost as long as the nation itself.  Now, however, it is in decline.  The real longing for adventure and drive to be uncaged have recently lost their cultural purchase.  In place of the Hawkeye/biker character is the superhero.

While superheroes are outsiders, have special skills, and often live by their own codes, there are important differences between them and the Hawkeye type.  Central to the idea of a superhero is a supernatural/fantasy element (or supernatural wealth) and sheer physical impossibility of their feats.  This can serve well for childhood imaginative role-play, but is not a trait that has enduring worth as the reader/viewer matures.  (Fortunately for studios, most males do not mature any more.)  Their cartoon exaggeration overwhelms any moral complexity in their stories.  The superhero’s victory is always a deus-ex-machina cop out.

A more significant difference is that the superheroes are heroes, which a Hawkeye is not.  There may be moments when society turns on the superhero in a story, but ultimately is it the superhero that saves the day, because they share square society’s values, even if the hero is at times misunderstood.  (This often makes the superhero boring, and it’s why the Joker is the only interesting character in all the Batman movies.)

Not so the Hawkeye/biker characters.  They value independence over acceptance.  That proposition has sadly since been inverted for today’s heroes.

We need Hawkeye.  We need that other, the wolf that stares back at us from outside the light of the campfire.  We need to be more hungry and less satisfied.  Superman will not come in and punch evil for us.  If we lose the zero-fucks-given free thinkers, we will be just as hopeless, feckless, and moronic as the citizen of Metropolis.

America needs bikers.

What Does “Orange County Choppers” Say About Us?

CMT is a sluice that accepts the offal and refuse from other networks and safely conducts it away to a network where no-one might accidentally watch it.  They receive a special grant from the EPA for this service.  It is our cultural Yucca Mountain.


Last weekend, they premiered Orange County Choppers, the oops-baby of the contentless American Chopper.  The premise is the same: an hour-long commercial for a corporate sponsor, interlaced with random yelling while some metal fab happens in the background.  For the premier, that sponsor was Slappy’s Nasty Popcorn, or something like that.  This makes sense to me, because I associate pre-packaged popcorn with unrideable stretch choppers.  Since there was a popcorn theme, naturally the show included lots of throwing cherry bombs in toilets and whatnot.


Remember the first time you saw American Chopper ten years ago?  It was exciting to think there might be a real show about choppers and garage culture.  Remember, this was back when the Discovery Channel had content.  You imagined all the fascinating machines and interesting characters they could explore.  No matter what we ride, we’re all fascinated by cool customs and chopped bikes.  There is so much talent, attitude, and individuality expressed in the work of little garages and home builders around the country.


There is something really quintessentially American about the chopper as a material expression, a defiant, “This is who I am,” with an implied, “motherfucker.”  Some are really beautiful, some ugly, some both.  They may be elegant or grungy, neo or retro, fat or narrow, raked or… super-raked, but they are profoundly individual.


Were we wrong to hope to see some of that in a new show called American Chopper?  Yes.  Wrong and naïve.  Our failure of imagination was to assume that this show would have anything to do with motorcycles, riding, biker culture, or, well, choppers.  We didn’t see yet that of course the show had nothing to do with us and our rides.  It had more to do with I Love Lucy.


Over the course of that decade, many people who have no connection with motorcycle culture watched the show and innocently thought they were getting some insight.  They thought those bikes must be the ultimate bike that all us bikers would kill to have, if only we could.  How many times were you asked about American Chopper by well-meaning friends and family who thought they finally had some connection, some means to have a conversation with you about bikes?  I always just said I never heard of it, and then I would complain about the latest episode.  We just loved to hate it.


So here’s what AC said about us as bikers: nothing.  It’s like asking what Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, said about psychoanalysis.  What’s more chilling is what is said about us as an audience: in order for us to accept even a mildly deviant subculture, it has to be a clownish caricature and a transparent branding opportunity.  Of course, our media have a pretty nasty history dealing with subcultures, and we consumers have an equally ugly history of lapping it up, so this should be no surprise.


Also, the show tells us that the content doesn’t matter.  The motorcycle build process in this show was basically just the three-sided living room of any sit-com.  It’s just where the antics happen, and it is the same antics every week.  Apparently, we love that.  We also love our characters completely predictable and monodimensional.  Senior’s sole character trait is that he blows up a lot.  That’s it, and that’s all we need.


Finally, the show tells us that sponsored content, while nothing new, is now the sole reason for being for much entertainment.  Let’s call this the Apprentice model.  The schlock tide is rising; don’t trying standing on the shore like Canute.


Ultimately, though, even this crass programming model could only last so long.  It played itself out.  Whew.  No need to put another bullet into that psycho-killer – just turn around and walk away.


The new show demonstrates perfectly that there is always another drop of blood to be squeezed out of that ridiculous, aging, mustachioed turnip.  Thanks to the sponsored content model, bald tires like this show can still roll.  Someone will pick it up.  There is no lowest mountain, so to speak.  When it somes to the lowest common denominator, you can divide by zero.  After all, there are people who eat at Pizza Hut.


As we see this unfortunate coda to the decade-long stunt, we might ask how long Orange County Choppers can last.  Does it matter?  There is really only one thing I am genuinely curious about regarding these shows:


What happens to these corporate choppers after the show is over?  There must be hundreds of them out there by now.  They’re certainly not on the roads – that would make no sense at all.  How about a show where guys from different garages around the country take these discarded corporate choppers, strip them down, and make choppers out of them?  Why not?  There’s a perfectly good engine and tranny in there – let’s do something with it!  I would watch that show.