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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…

Motorcycle race

In a recent post I mentioned the fact that one of the reasons I like wearing a full-face helmet is that there's no particularly good way to tell who I am. That is to say, unless you are close enough to peer through my legally-required-to-be-clear visor, you can't really tell what type of who I am.

Sure, from my frame it's not too difficult to guess I'm male. If you are a keen motorcyclist, perhaps you might assume from my choice of bike (the ever safe and reliable Honda CBF600SA) that I may be somewhat new to the game. But beyond these semi-educated guesses all else is unknowable. What's my age, for instance? What's my race? With every part of me hidden, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest a viable answer to these questions.

Any answer a person might give would be based wholly on his or her assumptions. They may have a picture in their mind of the person beneath all that leather, textile and plastic. But that picture is nothing more than a reflection of the person's perceptions of a motorcyclist. This is why some people will seemingly go out of their way to have a ridiculous argument with you about something you didn't do –– because they're not actually having an argument with you. They're angry at someone who dresses sort of like you, whom they encountered last week.

In this way, I suppose being a motorcyclist gives me a small sense of what it's like to experience racial discrimination.

But it's the overall lack of race that interests me about motorcycling. Before I become so incredibly obsessed, I have to admit I was very much one of those people making unfounded assumptions about the two-wheeled folk zipping past me on the motorway.

If they were on a "crotch rocket" (a ridiculous term that my former self would have used as a blanket description of every bike that was not a cruiser), I assumed the person to be white, male, and in his 20s. On the other side were "Harley riders," i.e. people on cruisers. Because of their open-face (or complete lack of) helmets and aversion to protective gear, I was able to gain more info about them. And in Minnesota, at least, almost all of them were white men. The vast majority of whom were greying and carrying a fair bit of insulation (a).

I am resisting the urge to rant here about suburban Minnesota males in khakis and golf polo shirts who once a year ride glittering Road Kings and drop them in the middle of intersections on easy turns.

But the point is: white males.

For the longest time, that was my image of a motorcyclist. Certainly that's an image upheld by media portrayals. Presently I cannot think of a single example of a film or TV show in which features a motorcyclist who is anything other than a white man. Motorcycles are Hollywood shorthand for white-guy coolness.

But as I started to give in to my motorcycle obsession, joining Google+ discussion groups and interacting with more and more riders, I found myself surprised and delighted to discover that my previous assumptions were not entirely correct.

Firstly, it's not just men. There are plenty of women who ride, and who ride well. And what I mean by that is that women are not just a token aspect. When I was younger, I dated a girl who rode a motorcycle, so obviously I've always known that some women ride, but I suppose I assumed them to be fringe. 

Additionally, I had no doubt that there were, say, blacks or Hispanics who rode, but assumed them, too, to be in very small numbers.

That's not really the case, though. It's estimated there are roughly 8 million female motorcyclists in the United States –– some 3 million more than all the motorcyclists in the UK combined. Numbers are less easy to Google search in terms of racial background, but I am willing to accept that the number of non-whites are substantial. 

Certainly there are enough blacks and Hispanics riding motorcycles that Harley-Davidson has invested the time and money to pursue them with initiatives like Iron Elite and Harlistas. And I'll awkwardly point out that two of my favourite motorcyclists certainly don't appear to be of the same Irish stock as myself. 

And I like that. I love it. If not simply because it gives me something to cling to in hoping that I am not just adhering to the stereotypes of white men who reach a certain age (the fact I tend to like cruisers and/or sport-touring bikes doesn't help me in this, admittedly).

I suppose there are two ways to look at the issue of race in motorcycling: One is that it is an open brotherhood –– that all who choose to ride are welcome regardless of race or creed.

Another is that, you know, it's a motorcycle is a mode of transportation. Like cars, which black people also use. Freedom is not the sole purview of white men, and if a motorcycle is a person's chosen method of getting around perhaps that doesn't actually say anything about the method being used. No more than blacks who Rollerblade, Asians who waterski, or Hispanics who get to work on Segways. Perhaps a motorcycle is just a thing that humans use and there's nothing beyond that.

I suppose, though, either way, I am happy to realise that it's not just me and "my kind." I'd hate to think that the next step for me is khaki pants and golf shirts.

(By the way, if you are interested, here is an interesting article on blacks and motorcycle culture in America)

–––––––––

(a) Remember: it's not a beer belly, it's insulation for your love furnace.

Comments

  1. Chris:

    I know what you mean about being stereotyped. Riding makes me feel young(er) and it would surprise many how much older I am than I appear.

    and there's nothing wrong with Khaki shorts and T-shirts under riding attire

    bob
    Riding the Wet Coast

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can think of a couple examples of non-white motorcyclists in movies. One is in Armageddon (Michael Clark Duncan being the best character in that movie...), another is in Bubble Boy (Danny Trejo). That said, your point stands... in Hollywood, motorcycles are for tough white guys.

    There does seem to be a racist/sexist/shithead faction of the motorcycling subculture, but it appears to me that the numbers are dwindling as everyone slowly figures out that we're all in it together. And I suspect motorcyclists are more accepting of other motorcyclists regardless of race/gender/creed/etc than non-motorcyclists are of motorcyclists period. That's probably not a profound thought, but I'm tired...

    Say, remind me to tell you about the awesome black guy I know who rollerblades.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Lucky - there seems to be a shift in the undertones in some clicks. I find certain cruiser clicks to be a bit on the racist side if one hangs out with them for any length of time, really non-sensitive jokes and references will be made. One can hope it will change. I also think where one is located geographically will play a large part in the attitudes and types of riders.

    In our riding group we have a handful of lady riders, but most are men over 40. More often than not I am the only female at Saturday Morning Coffee.

    When riding people can guess my gender by the large blue flowers on my Arai helmet (and my braids flying in the wind behind it). Although I do appreciate being able to legally wear a tinted or mirrored face shield. It's my shield of invisibility so no one really knows who is on the bike unless they know me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well I certainly agree with you and with Lucky I have to say that bikers are our own worst enemy when it comes to perceptions. I go ATGATT and (more or less) obey the speed limit and traffic laws. Here comes some idiot with no gear on lane spitting on a 2-lane road pipes screaming.

    He, or she, gives us all a bad name. When the wannabe's dress like extra's from "Sons of Anarchy" it gives us all a bad name. I've not seen a instance of racism in the biker community yet, but I know it exists. I've seen more sexism than anything.

    All I can hope for is as more people ride, as more people mix (Over my life I've had good friends of various creeds, sexual orientations and colors) this racism will die out. The roots sadly run deep.

    ReplyDelete
  5. When Tina4U rode into Bikes on Beale Street in Memphis, I was in love. A beautiful black lady on her custom Harley, I walked, following her for 2 blocks to meet her. I didn't even realize her name was Tina until we met. She rode that motorcycle with grace, strength and power and I was mesmerized. I wish I had taken a photo with her. She was following her mother who had been riding for over 30 years and the two of them simply owned that street.

    One day I hope to possess the grace and beauty of those women, but most of all, the skills. Any beautiful female that can roll an Ultra Classic at 5 mph down a street with thousands of people with complete confidence, without breaking a nail or breaking a sweat, has my complete admiration!

    https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/FGIqx7ETOp8NzfuyJmdootMTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=directlink

    Smooches,
    Sash
    www.SashMouth.com

    ReplyDelete
  6. My online research thus far shows that the groups are split. There are white groups, and there are black groups, but not mixed. But all the references I found were from 1%/Outlaw clubs. What if the group is not a MC/RC, is it ok then?

    ReplyDelete

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