Skip to main content

What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

Praise for the hipsters

I don't really know what to call them. The postmodernists, perhaps? The baroque classicists? The custom culturists?

The Old and Boring of motorcycle culture tend to call them hipsters; I'm never really sure. 

I think I get confused in part because I may be looping at least two different sub-cultures: the Iron & Resin crowd and the Born Free crowd. In both there are beards and Pabst and old motorcycles and Biltwell helmets and tattoos and genuflection to art and authenticity, but maybe there is a fine line that actually draws out more than one culture. 

Indeed, with the Born Free crowd one can convincingly argue they are simply the present incarnation of the long-lived American chopper culture, and that the fine line that separates them from hipsterism is one drawn by the wheels of a Harley-Davidson. But then Deus ex Machina builds a Harley and the crew from Death Science take Hondas on a Revenge Run and the waters are muddied. Not to mention the whole additional tangent of Roland Sands and Shinya Kimura and their ilk. Where do they fit? Are they part of the same breed? Or something entirely different?

Certainly the critics of hipsters seem to have trouble making a positive identification. This Motorcycle.com article, for example, is both dated and schizophrenic in its definition of a motorcycle-riding hipster. Whereas this Tumblr blog seems to class anyone not riding a brand-new motorcycle as a hipster.

For the sake of ease I will put all those different tangents in one tent and refer to them not as hipsters but as neo-classicists. In art, classicism tends to refer to a canon of widely accepted ideal forms. That is, the version of a thing most people would think of if asked to describe that thing. For example, if I were to ask you to describe rap music, you might, embarrassingly, do that arms-across-the-chest thing and make beat-boxy repetitive rhythms. Is this an accurate portrayal of current rap music? No. But it is many people's classical vision of it.

And if you ask a person to draw a motorcycle, what do you get? Something pretty similar to the machines being built, ridden and promulgated by the neo-classicists. Few non-motorcyclists would draw something that looks like my CBF600SA, for instance –– despite the fact it is one of the most common styles found on the road (outside the United States). Hardly anyone would draw the odd dinosaur front ends found on bikes like the BMW F800 GS, despite adventure bikes being one of the hottest trends right now.

The motorcycle neo-classicists hold quite strictly to the forms we know, but modify them just enough that each is an entirely one-off experience. In this way, I suppose, they are like the piano part in salsa music. Pick a salsa song and listen to the piano. At first, it seems to be doing nothing more than driving the rhythm with a single repeated stanza. But listen more closely and you'll hear that, in fact, nothing is repeated.

First off, from an aesthetic point of view I love what the neo-classicists are doing. They have scaled back from the Baroque excess nonsense of the Orange County Choppers crowd and helped return the motorcycle to its rightful place as a useable everyman machine. The bikes favoured by the neo-classicists look like they actually can and should be ridden. In some situations that may not be the case in practice (I am sure there are many a rebuilt Honda CB350 cafe racer that is as much a piece of expensive butt jewellery (1) as an overchromed Paul Jr monstrosity), but at least they look right. Neo-classical bikes look like motorcycles.

It is that adherence to the aesthetic –– visual, mechanical and experiential –– that annoys the Old and Boring quite a lot. The criticism seems to be that by holding to the classical forms the neo-classicists don't actually understand motorcycling. They don't know what it really is, man.

Criticism of the neo-classicists is pretty generic, similar to the tired and borne-of-envy laments I used to wage against over-privileged Volvo-driving Bard College students almost 20 years ago (2). It is catch-all and changes easily to suit the situation at hand. But the most standard complaint about "hipsters" is that they are a wealthy and, by extension, disingenuous breed who waste undeserved money on the beautification of outdated technology that was never really the top of its game. I mean, all that money on a CB350? It's like a movement to lovingly restore Dodge Neons.

And those hipsters who are riding Harleys? And, by extension, Harley-Davidson's (wise) decision to pursue them as a demographic? Why, that's just as bad. Because, well, uhm, just because.

For me, though, I'm all for it. The superbike movement of the 1990s drove a stake into the soul of motorcycling (does anyone pine for the bike Rob van Winkle rode in Cool As Ice? No. No they do not). The glamour chopper movement of the early 2000s served as life support but still missed the point: the simple independence offered by a motorcycle. Independence that is gained affordably and instantly, regardless of whether your setting is urban, rural, or somewhere in between.

As I've said many times, I got my motorcycle license in the mid 90s, but then did nothing with it. The neo-classicist movement is what properly rekindled my interest in riding a bike. OK, yes: in the end I fell on the side of ABS, low MPG, and the like. When it truly came down to choosing my own bike, I chose (slightly bland) modern reliability. I don't regret that choice, but the fact is: it is not what pulled me into motorcycling. I consistently rank this video as a key impetus in my deciding I needed to get a motorcycle, followed very closely by this video. Neo-classical choppers and a hipster Bonneville.

I still dream of owning a Bonneville. I tell myself it will be my next bike. I don't think of myself as a neo-classicist but I dig their world. If I were on my own Road Pickle adventure, my map would take me to See-See in Portland, Deus in Venice Beach, and wherever it is that the Show Class Magazine dudes hang out in North Carolina.

So, shine on you crazy Instagram diamonds. Keep drinking your Pabst and waxing your moustaches because you are making motorcycling cool and relevant.

–––––

(1) Credit to Lucky for coming up with that term.

(2) I didn't go to college there; my girlfriend of the time did. I always say she majored in breaking hearts.

Comments

  1. You've got to start attributing your photos, brothah. Also, are there more photos of the girl on the Harley? Because that photo isn't doing anything to make me like Sportsters less.

    You know what motorcycles are really about, man? Hooning around on motorcycles. I hate all the "no true biker" shit. Two wheels? Motor? Hooning? Biker.

    For me, the term "hipster" makes me think of a smug asshole in skinny jeans, a v-neck and horn-rimmed glasses. The "smug asshole" part is what really makes one a hipster, in my dictionary. Alternately, a hipster could be one who chooses style over substance (along with being a smug asshole).

    Really, it seems to be a catch-all derogatory term for someone doing something cool that is different from the cool thing you are doing.

    Personally, I like PBR (though I like Grain Belt Premium better). I have a few overly-expensive black notebooks with an italian name, because I like them. I like typewriters. I think UJMs are cool motorcycles, and I think cafe racers are really cool. I wear Wayfarers (until I can find the right pair of aviators). I listen to underground music.

    Apart from my lack of v-neck tshirts, I appear to qualify as a hipster.

    An aside, I'm thinking a Bonnie might just be my next bike too.* I'm sure all the HD riding, latent-racist-but-progressive-you-know rednecks here will call me a hipster for it.


    Seriously, though, where do you find these fantastic photos? The woman with the flag? Feeling pretty patriotic, yo.



    *There's not many roads where I can take advantage of a Daytona here on the middle coast the way I could take advantage of it on the west coast.

    I might consider a Sporty as well, but I think my loyalty lies w/ Triumph. S'ok, though, they were our Allies in WW2, so it's alright to ride them. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dude, the Fonz rode a Triumph (sometimes –– he also rode a Harley early on). I agree that a kick-ass sport bike would mostly be a waste in the Central Time Zone, so you should definitely get a Bonneville.

      I'm with you that anything with two wheels gets my love. The more I get a chance to ride, the more I feel that. Indeed, as much as I like the look of a Bonneville, I would just as quickly go for so many other bikes. The other day it was announced that the Honda NC700X will be expanded to a 750-cc bike in 2014; when I read that I thought: "Boom. That's my next bike."

      But it can all change. I still like my CBF600 and the way it seems to basically ignore my stupid moves. It also seems keen to train me to be a better rider ("Hey, Chris. You're getting a little sloppy coming into junctions. How 'bout I give you a false neutral as punishment?"). So, it'll be a little while before I feel the need to be on something different.

      Delete
  2. I don't know why but certain brands do seem to have a certain look or evoke in us a certain emotion. Scooters are all modeled after the iconic Vespa. Harley's seem to be the "outlaw" bike - which considering the price you have to rob a bike to buy a new one. Although most that ride them are anything but "outlaws." It is just the image, the emotion it brings up in us.

    Bonnie's, and to a lesser extent Royal Enfield's, are the "classic bike" look. Marlon Brando, the movie "Giant", the 1950's when motorcycles first started to make inroads to the American psyche...a simpler time period is what these bikes promise us. Is that such a bad thing?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really enjoy following your blog. Interesting and sensible stuff about bikes etc.

    I got my license and first bike this season. I also ride a Honda CBF 600SA. It's a great bike and I've so far managed to get 3000 km on the meter. The Honda is more than enough for me at this point, but I'm already dreaming about a bigger and faster bike. The alternative to a bigger bike would be to buy an older Honda and grow a mustache ;)

    It's funny how I'm also inspired by the old school biker image and stuff, but I myself ride the most boring bike on the market and wear goretex... :)

    Anyways keep up the good work and ride safe!

    Kalle, Helsinki Finland

    ReplyDelete
  4. Since our blog got a honorable mention in this I feel it would be only fair for me to reply and clarify our position. We're not critiquing culture or trying to squash the fun other people are having. If someone want's to wear fancy shoes and ride a CB350 around they have every right to do so. The blog came into existence from a night of sitting around with some friends and watching vimeo videos and laughing our asses off at some of the things we saw. We're just poking fun at some strangers who seem to take themselves a little too seriously. That's all.

    I have no problem with hipsters, having recently crossed the 30 year mark I know what I think doesn't matter much and I'm not mad at younger people having fun and doing their own thing. I support it. However the term hipster works well as a catch all for certain types of people.

    I've been riding for 16 years and have owned all sorts of bikes I was even into 70's Hondas for a while back in the early 2000's having owned a CB750SS and a CB400 I can totally appreciate the appeal those motorcycles have. However having been in this hobby for a while has lead me to have some strong opinions, but that's all they are, my opinions. I believe in riding, not worshiping motorcycles as objects.

    To be fair I should open myself up to a critique, you can watch my horrible motorcycling videos on my youtube channel here http://www.youtube.com/user/AutisticAndroid

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh I almost forgot to tell you, don't buy a Bonneville. I rented one in Califronia and I seriously considered buying one before purchasing my current bike. Boy was I glad I didn't buy it, when I got the rental one in Cali. I know it's supposed to be a modern retro but seriously it's more retro than modern. It's comfy but slow as dirt and heavy as hell. It's all centered pretty low so it's manageable but seriously it's a big sloppy pig. I have the Cali video somewhere on my youtube if you want to check it out.

    PS I'm reading your blog non stop, you've got good stuff on here.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Loved the article.

    Out of curiosity, what model is the honda in the top left picture?

    Peace

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid I don't really know. If I had to guess I'd say it's a CB350.

      Delete
  7. This is all fine and good, but as a San Francisco resident and an avid motorcyclist since the age of 15 I can tell you that the vast majority of these kiddies on new/old looking bikes can't ride to save their lives. I get some moron on a five-year old, rattle canned Triumph almost sideswiping on the weekly.

    I dig the idea of trying to sandpaper your way into authenticity, but these cats need to a safety course instead of another tattoo. I know many who riders in the SF area (most with roadracing backgrounds and nerve damage) that are sick of morons in costumes almost crashing into them, usually with attitude.

    An no, I'm not bitter old man. I commute on an XR650R supermotard (that I built) that is the very definition of evil. It doesn't need the pretense of a ratty paint job (on an ironically newer bike) to give society the finger. Its existence is unholy enough.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. this guy is awesome. I want to buy this dude a beer.

      Delete
  8. I agree. Its all about riding. If you never have ridden a bike much and want to get one to fit in, your a hipster. But your going to kill yourself or hurt one of your fellow riders, that doesn't know you can't ride.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Just stumbled upon this site. You know what I hate about hipsters and there love for Triumph and cafe' racers.

    They look down at those who don't dress like a fucking moron. I played football, work at a gym, in shape, clean cut and have one sexy badass cafe'd up Bonneville. No tattoos either and these jagoffs act like I am an outcast and am ruining their image of what these bikes are supposed to represent. Dumbshits just got into these bikes a few years ago and I had to grow up around them because my dad and I restored his '70 Triumph 10 years ago when I was 13. So screw them .

    Really rustles these dumbasses jimmies seeing a good looking couple on a Triumph and they try so hard to be different and on the edge. Goddamn. Don't give them any encouragement! I hope more of my buddies get into cafe racers so these toads can move onto something more "edgy"

    ReplyDelete
  10. About to turn 40 and about to get back into the game. I've had my license for 12 years now but my wife(ex now) bitched and moaned about it every time i brought it up. Test rode the bonnie and the 48 and i honestly loved both. So decisions decisions. The reason i am posting here is mainly because the EXACT same videos has inspired me so much just to say f it, its time to live again. Thanks for the wonderful blog. Out

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Ride review: Harley-Davidson XL 883 L (aka Sportster SuperLow)

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like riding a tractor.
That's the criticism so consistently levied against Harley-Davidson motorcycles: that there is something agrarian to the experience. And I can now say from personal experience that all those critics are right. But I can also say those critics are leaving out a key piece of information, which is this:
TRACTORS ARE FUCKING AWESOME!!!
It's a tractor that hurtles forward with roller-coaster intensity, a tractor that goes really fast, a tractor that makes you feel like Brock Lesnar in a children's ball pit. A tractor from the Land of Bad-Ass, with which you can sow the seeds of awesomeness.
But let me back up a bit...
A few days ago, I decided to take the day off, solely for the purpose of getting a chance to ride around and finally make use of the free breakfast coupon sent to me by Thunder Road. As I was gearing up, I suddenly decided that since I was already heading west, I might as well push a few miles further and che…

Ride review: Yamaha XV950 / Star Bolt

Imitation, Charles Caleb Colton famously noted, is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, the flattery the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 receives from Yamaha's XV950 is enough to make one blush. Put the two bikes side by side, and the inspiration for the latter is undeniable. Yamaha claims its bike has a "new neo retro Japanese look," but that's clearly just nonsense –– lorem ipsom that was used instead of "totally looks like a Harley-Davidson Iron 883."
Certainly the XV950 –– known as the Star Bolt in the United States –– isn't the first example of a Japanese OEM adhering faithfully to the styling cues of America's best-known motorcycle manufacturer. The orthodox members of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson write these bikes off as "wannabes," and tend to be pretty dismissive of anyone who would dare consider purchasing one. But I'm going to commit blasphemy here and tell you that the XV950 is unquestionably the …

Ride review: Triumph Bonneville

"OK," I said. "I want one." "Well, you know, maybe you should ask your wife first." "She loves Triumphs," I said. "Still, Chris. You should give it a think. Go home, discuss it with your wife, give yourself a chance to think clearly. After all, this is one of Triumph's most popular models; there's plenty of stock available."
The voice of reason in that conversation was Drew, the salesman at Bevan Motorcycles. He was doing his best to talk some sense into me after my test ride of the 2014 Triumph Bonneville. I was wild-eyed and yammering like a teenage boy who has touched boobies for the first time. This, my friends, is what the Bonneville does to you. It is an instantly rideable, instantly enjoyable, instantly lovable motorcycle that surprises you in just how good a simple motorcycle can be.

The Bonneville, of course, is a storied machine that's been around in one form or another for 55 years. It is a classic. Partially b…