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