Nov 25, 2013

#31 Professional Bikers
All Rights Reserved © 2003 Thomas W. Day

A few months back, a friend ― with whom I agree on practically nothing, motorcycle-wise ― and I had a confusing argument about "professional bikers." Before we talked, I had a pretty firm grip on what I considered to be a professional biker.

Now, I'm feeling clueless.

Here's what I used to think described a pro biker: someone who rides motorcycles and gets paid for it. I'd include anyone who does motorcycle stunts for television or movies, although I'd probably leave out the guys who pose for the stunts in Tom Cruise movies. I’d include Army guys who run messages on dirt bikes. I’d even include motorcycle cops. I’d include a lot of bike tuners, especially the ones who ride the bikes they tune to check their work. I’d even stretch my class to include people who make, ride, and sell custom bikes. But that wasn’t enough for my friend.

My buddy has added a whole collection of folks who seem so outside my definition that I'm reviewing my personal perspective on European politics and global warming. For example, guys who make leather gear and sell it at Sturgis are professional bikers. Tattoo artists who specialize in Harley and biker club art, and who show up at Sturgis. You guessed it; professional bikers. Chrome polishers, bike club patch knitters, chrome and leather accessories manufacturers of stuff that may, or may not, bolt on to big-iron bikes, the girls who sew those funny looking protective headbands, unhappy looking models who pose for Harley ads; all professional bikers.

He says it's a "cultural thing"; the biker culture. Everyone associated with it, everyone making money from the biker culture is a professional biker. I've tried, but I can't get my mind around this definition. I can't do anything with the concept that the leather and chrome crowd is a free-standing subculture that crosses geographical and political boundaries.

To me, that's like saying that a used car salesman who wears a Stetson, lizard skin boots, and drawls in a fake Texas accent is a "professional cowboy." You might as well tell me that a kid who wears a Viking's jerseys is a professional football player. Or a corporate exec with a gold guitar tie-tack is a professional musician.

You get the picture?

The most I can do with the concept is to group those rebels-without-a-cause-or-a-clue with the alternative lifestyle gangs. While some aspects of this definition of bikers has stuck with American pop culture for a while, almost 50 years, in some form or another, I don't see the principle characteristics of a culture in it. Look it up, if you don't believe me. I don’t find those characteristics in the Shriners, either.

All the cultural crap aside, I'm still stuck with my limited definition of a professional biker. A professional biker is someone who makes money from by riding a motorcycle. Not someone who wears biker clothes, models them, or makes them. Not even someone who makes bikes or customizes them. A pro biker rides bikes and is good enough at riding to get paid to do it. My list of professional bikers starts with guys like Roger DeCoster, J.N. and Kenny Roberts, Dick Miller, Jeff and Malcolm Smith, Bob Hannah, Geoff Aaron, Martin and Dougie Lampkin, Jeremy McGrath, and the list goes on for miles and miles. But my list stops where the riding for money stops.

Yeah, I know, Malcolm Smith makes gear and accessories and probably made a lot more money doing that than riding. Did you ever see On Any Sunday? I'm sticking with Malcolm, you do what you want.

MMM September 2003


Andy Mckenzie said...

I was thinking about this the other day. I realized that I identify myself to other people as a "motorcyclist" or a "rider", but never a "biker". When I started thinking about it, I realized that it's because the word "biker" to me mostly conjures up images of guys in sleeveless T-shirts, jeans, bandanas tied around their heads, and, in extreme cases, chaps. Motorcycles don't actually appear in the image, except possibly as a background, or a method of getting from one posing opportunity to the next.

This may be a generational thing: I'm in my 30s, and that's most of what I've seen through my life. "Biker" indicates a lifestyle of posing, hanging out at bars that have been carefully made or kept seedy, and trying to look threatening. "Motorcyclist" or "rider" indicates a lifestyle of going out and riding. Using the bike to commute, maybe, or travel, or at least going out on weekends and evenings and putting miles on the bike for the sake of riding, rather than being seen.

In that light, your friend's view of what a "professional biker" is sort of makes sense. I think it's unfortunate and kind of dumb, but it makes sense, in an odd sort of way.

T.W. Day said...

I know his version of a biker as a lifestyle makes sense to him. With that blindside, he's incapable of seeing how silly his gangbanger buddies look. A motorcycle is a vehicle first. Owning one does not make you anything but a motorcycle owner. Riding one well makes you a motorcyclist.

Andy Mckenzie said...

That's sort of my point, actually. Most of the "lifestyle" people I see don't really qualify as "motorcyclists." To me, a motorcyclist is someone who actually goes out and rides and doesn't really care very much about appearances. A biker is one of those people who care about appearance more than riding. At the extreme, they might not even own a motorcycle, just a lot of branded gear and a big sticker for their car (oddly, almost always a Ford pickup... I still haven't worked that one out).

I think it's sad, though, that "biker" now doesn't really have any connection to actually, you know, riding a motorcycle for me. I don't know. Maybe I'm the only one who makes that distinction. But it makes sense to me.