Where fat, old men ride bikes

Stillwater, MN
Hola, by the way. I was so eager to write up a post about the Harley-Davidson LiveWire as soon as I got back that I didn't even take the time to mention it's good to be back. Well, back blogging, at least. I wouldn't have minded staying in America for a little longer.

Mrs. Cope and I were there for a little shy of three weeks, visiting my family in various parts of the Central Time Zone. First we spent a few days in Texas, where we celebrated my grandfather's 90th birthday. Then we flew up to Minnesota to spend some time with friends and family in the Twin Cities, as well as celebrate the United States' 238th birthday.

As I say, I would have liked to have stayed longer, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn't get a chance to meet up with Lucky, who I count as one of my real influences in this whole motorcycle obsession thing. I especially would have liked to have gotten his thoughts on some of the things I observed about the state of motorcycling in the United States. Or, at least, the state of motorcycling in Minnesota.  

I guess I had always known but never truly observed just how dominant Harley-Davidson is in American motorcycling. But, yeesh, it was almost creepy to see that level of uniformity. Outside of Austin, I'd say a solid 95 percent of the bikes I saw were cruisers. 

In Austin, I saw a little more moto-variety (I even spotted an old BSA!), so that gave me hope. Which is somewhat the opposite of what I felt when I was up in Stillwater, MN.

Get your wobble on 

It's likely you've never heard of Stillwater, Minnesota. The town gets name checked in Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," but beyond that it's pretty unspectacular. 

Or, at least, I think it gets mentioned in that song. The line "I'll take the river down to Stillwater/ And ride a pack of dogs" certainly makes sense in a Minnesota context; Stillwater sits on the St. Croix, once a major logging river. I'm not wholly sure about the "pack of dogs" bit, though. Maybe Chris Cornell is referencing sled dog racing, which takes place in the surrounding St. Croix Valley.

I could be grasping at straws, however. Perhaps Soundgarden is singing about a different Stillwater. In which case, the Minnesota town's claim to fame is that it is a quaint Americana spot on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border that has become a destination for local motorcyclists. The roads through town are arrow straight, and curves on the surrounding roads are few and far between, yet the rumble of motorcycle engines is constant. Perhaps bikers of the Upper Midwest just really love homemade fudge and bridal boutiques.

You could be forgiven for thinking
only one type of bike is sold in America.
Jenn and I visited Stillwater one afternoon and chose to take a leisurely lunch at a place called Charlie's, which is notorious for its slow service. Never go there hungry, or if you want good food, or if you have anything to do that day. But on a sunny summer afternoon its large patio is a great place to drink beer while taking in the boats on the river, and the endless parade of V-twins that trundle the town's main streets.

Jenn and I sat at Charlie's for nigh two and a half hours. It was a weekday, so traffic was light, but I'd venture to say that a bike would pass by at least every two minutes or so. I saw just one bike that wasn't a V-twin -- a BMW K1600 -- and only a handful of riders wearing helmets. The longer I sat there, the more disheartened I felt by the apparent state of motorcycling in Minnesota, and, by extension, the United States.

"This is where fat, old men come to ride their bikes," observed my wife.

She had said it in a joking way, but the truth of her statement was undeniable. A good 80 percent of the riders we saw were very definitely closer to (or beyond) retirement than middle age, and not one of them looked to have skipped a meal since the Carter administration. Almost without exception, the only people wearing helmets were female. And no one -- not one person -- wore a protective jacket of any kind. By and large, riding gear consisted of T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes.

We were sat within eyesight of two intersections, so we got to watch no less than two dozen dudes nearly drop their bikes as they struggled to overcome the oh-so-mighty challenge of going in a straight line slowly. Everyone else (but the BMW guy, of course) took off from a stop with both feet splayed out. Additionally, I saw an annoyingly large number of dudes attempting to navigate town while keeping their feet on the highway pegs. And, of course, almost all were revving their engines (because, yeah, you need to keep the RPM up on that brand new fuel-injected bike). 

It was a constant flow idiocy that suddenly reminded me why I hadn't gotten a bike after earning my motorcycle endorsement 20 years ago: I didn't want to be associated with people like this. What 18-year-old kid wants to loop himself in with these goobers? Sitting there, I felt a wave of embarrassment to think that this is what my Minnesota friends must imagine when I tell them I now ride a motorbike.

I thought of my previous assertion that the Upper Midwest is the motorcycling heart of America. I thought, too, of a conversation I had in April with one of the UK engineers for Victory Motorcycles. He told me of getting to visit Polaris headquarters in Minnesota, and the company organising a group ride to Stillwater. Thinking about that now made me sad. This is the sort of thing that Victory engineers are shown; this is the audience they are targeting. No wonder they don't bother putting good brakes on the Victory Judge.

And all of it offers a less-than-rosy picture of the future of motorcycling. If you look at the people and bikes rolling through Stillwater, there is very little to make you envious, to make you think: "Ooh, I want to be like that guy." And if you love bikes like I do, seeing the utter lack of good examples in terms of riding and riders makes you feel that motorcycling must be doomed.

I'm ashamed to inform you that the behaviours I spotted in Stillwater extended to many other parts of the state I so desperately love. My people are morons.

The comforting news is that there are other people in other states. And somewhere out there -- in Austin, for example -- there are people who aren't living up to bad "South Park" stereotypes. Enough of them that even Harley-Davidson is making some new, different and interesting bikes, like the LiveWire. It's just a pity that so few such people are visible in my adopted home state.

So, for the sake of my 18-year-old self and the 38-year-old man who wishes he had gotten a bike way back when, if you are one of the non idiots of America please do what you can to make yourself visible. Be a good example. Ride your bike properly. Don't be a bonehead. Help combat this stupid, embarrassing image. 

If you are a motorcyclist in Minnesota, meanwhile, please take an MSF course and learn how to ride.

Comments

  1. hahahahaha!

    Man, oh man.
    This is precisely what I was trying to tell you with your whole cruiser obsession. South Park couldn't have put it better.
    It's like how can somebody like Nascar? --- you have to be poor and stupid.
    I spent 7 months in Milwaukee in 2012. I just couldn't believe the level of idiocy I saw. No protective gear at all. Even the ones on crutch rockets were wearing gang vests and all that crap.
    I think you have to experience the cruiser thing, find out how crappy those bikes are, and the whole gang thing, and move on. I did. I don't want any more noise in my bike neither be associated with gangster wannabes.

    In Milwaukee however, I saw so many other brands of motorcycles. I'd say only 50% were HD. All others were modified Japanase bikes. Very tastefully modified, and lots and lots of BMWs. Needless to say, the non-HD and non-crutch rockets riders were wearing full gear, even in the heat of the summer. So not all hope is lost for America.

    ... again, that's what I was trying to tell you... but you have a way with words, I'm just an Engineer, you put the message in a compelling and entertaining manner. Good job.
    Now, get out of the cruiser mentality and get a real bike.
    KTM 1190 ADV, BMW R12GS, Yamaha Super Ténéré and Triumph Explorer come to mind. Those bikes will do ANYTHING you need to a certain degree. They're awesome.

    if you like the whole streetfighter, naked bike thing better (not good for long trips) these will do: KTM Super Duke, BMW S1000R, Yamaha MT-01, Yamaha VMax, Triumph Street Triple, Ducati Monster...

    There are even retro-bikes that are awesome like the Honda CB1100

    Anyways, there are so many good bikes out there it's mind boggling.

    I think you'd be better off with the ADV bikes.

    Enjoy and I'm happy for your enlightenment!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, perhaps. Certainly I enjoyed the 130 or so miles I had on the Triumph Tiger Explorer XC (though, I've since read it suffers from a number of issues, which may explain why the brand new bike I was on hated high speed so much), but as I said then: I just can't get with the look of an ADV bike.

      I mean, I REALLY don't like the look of them. I'd happily -- nay, blissfully -- ride one around if given one, but I simply can't force myself to suffer their fugliness to the point that I'd be willing to spend my money on one. Especially considering how much money I'd have to spend.

      I think I'd rather just build up my skills to such a level that I could ride a Victory Hard Ball on dirt, like you see that one dude do in the 2013 lineup video (http://youtu.be/ER2d27u4mpo). Then I could just stick with my visions of getting a Cross Country.

      That all said, ever since returning from the US, the BMW F800GT has looked a lot more interesting to me...

      Delete
  2. Boxer BMW bikes are quite reliable, even with today's BMW known unreliability.
    You should look up close a R-NineT. I really hope they make their "Roadster" boxer.
    I don't like the Rotax twins. They lack something for me. The boxers and the gearboxes are so smooth, it's incredible. Like cutting through butter with a hot knife.
    The R1200R, you can find an used one for about $10K methinks. That's one awesome bike. I like BMWs (in spite of their crappy reliability), and I have sampled a lot of them. Currently in my garage: K1200LT, K1200R (both mine), R1200GS, K1200S, R1200R (a friend's but sit on my garage most of the year).
    So, if you want riding impressions let me know. The R1200R would really, really impress you.
    Let me know if you can sample one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've seen the RT in person; that thing is a bus. Sort of defeats one of the main advantages of motorcycling in the UK: filtering. Also, those things are well beyond my price range.

      Delete
  3. Wow. How very disappointing.
    You, that is. How very judgemental & pious you are.
    What a revelation.
    Are you sure you're not still 18, because you seem to know everything, just like a teenager.
    Good luck with that.
    Sash

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not sure why you're upset. None of my criticism would apply to you or Steve. From what I've seen y'all are very accomplished riders who would put these Minnesota boneheads to shame.

      Delete
    2. Chris,
      My philosophy on riding is this.
      There is nothing I've ever done that is more individual that riding a motorcycle. I love the ability to make choices for myself, to affect my own existence, to do what feels right for me, in the moment.
      I've learned so much since I've taken my own handlebars. One of the lessons was something my Father felt very passionate about, giving me one particular speech that is burned upon my memory for my lifetime. After some time on the road, meeting many other riders, as well as people from all over the country, I learned how little I know.
      Now I try not to judge others. We all ride differently, just as we dress, speak, believe and live differently. Who am I to determine if my way is the better way? Who am I to point a finger and insult someone for their choices?
      I love your writing and I'm always drawn to your stories. I was so shocked to read this that I reacted emotionally in my comment. But you've become someone I enjoy following, reading your work, and it was frustrating to read such criticism. Whether it's of me or not is immaterial. It just seemed so negative, and not worthy of you.
      So that's my issue. I appreciate your compliments of Steve and me.

      Delete
  4. Hi Chris,

    Just found your site while doing a Google for Triumph Scrambler reviews. Read your Bonneville review and like what I read. Enjoy your writing style and have forwarded you link to friends.

    As far as the HD goes, here in northern CA near the NV border, we see the HD cruisers as the majority. And they often have an "attitude". One dude bragged that he went to a rally where the burned a "Jap bike". Really?! And for the most part the helmets worn are a joke, along with their HD vests over tank tops and cutoff shorts.

    The two lane roads I ride in the northern sierra have plenty of curves, are for the most part well paved and not all that much traffic so one can relax and just have a good time. I ride with two women, one rides a HD Sportster Low Boy (is that right?) and the other a Honda VFR 800. Guess who I need to wait for at the coffee shop.

    BTW, for my 77th birthday I purchased a Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS. Sweet bike. Not quite what I remember from riding a mid-seventies Triumph Bonnie but it sure has a lot of neat features. And it is not an overweight lead sled.

    ReplyDelete

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