Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Image is everything...at least to some people

Lots of people have stereotypes, stereotypes about race, age, religion, creed, what have you. Some stereotypes can be negative, some can be "positive", but it all stems from the same thing: ignorance. Ignorance about a lifestyle, an orientation, a choice or maybe something that's not even a choice, and ignorance that could often be dispelled quite easily with a little education of one form or another.

One of the stereotypes that has had me thinking quite often about image is the stereotype of the "biker". Now, when someone says that, most people have two images that break the surface immediately, either it's the rebel, "one-percenter" as they're known, scruffy, long hair, tattooed to the gills, swathed in leather as though he emerged from the womb that way and straddling an enormous chopper thundering down the road. Or it's the "stunt biker", the young, wild guys that run tricks down the public highways on "crotch rockets", weaving in and out of traffic, and generally doing things that make most of us riders say, "Ooooo, can you say 'road-pizza' in a minute?"

Stereotypes often have a basis in the reality of a few individuals. If anyone's watched the local news in Dallas/Ft. Worth lately, you've seen the blurbs about "stunt biker gangs" terrorizing the highways in Dallas. Whether it was the sensationalism of the death of one of their numbers due to some great stupidity (he ran into the back of another vehicle at a dangerous rate of speed while racing) or just more people have brought it to the attention of the media, they've been tagged quite a bit in the public eye. These are the guys that will zoom by your vehicle at 100 mph, zip through lanes, jump out in front of your car with no warning, and wheelie down the road. Generally, they're young, male, and riding some modified Japanese "crotch rocket." Overall, they're not too bright riding like that, and while some can be experienced, even the most experienced rider knows that a trick, no matter how often you've practiced it, can go bad very quickly, ask Indian Larry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Larry Riding can be dangerous alone, even without any distractions, stunts or daydreaming. All it would take would be a stray rock, an inattentive motorist, or something malfunctioning to turn one move into a death sentence. There's also recent speculation that some of these guys are involved in a theft ring as well.

That being said, not all young men, or women for that matter, who ride crotch rockets are reckless stunt fiends. My husband worked with a rider of a crotch rocket who never broke the speed limit on his bike. It's a stereotype, perpetrated by a few, blown up by the media, and feared by hardline drivers that see all bikes as evil and unworthy of sharing "their" road.

Now, let's address the other stereotype, the "one-percenter". If anyone's curious as to the origin of this name, it reportedly came from the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) in response to a riot in 1947 where they stated that 99% of all motorcyclists were law-abiding, good citizens, and only those involved in the riot, purportedly in Hollister, were among the bad 1%. The AMA denies it and says it has no record of such a statement. Since then, outlaw motorcycle gangs, the Hells Angels, the Banditos, the Mongols, et cetera ad nauseum, will wear the "1%" patch signifying that they are the rebels, the outlaws and renegades against societies order, and will live by their own rules and code. Now, the reality of that is, if you do encounter a one-percenter, make no mistake, they are tough cases, and you shouldn't mess with them. They are often entangled in drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, and other forms of organized crime. If you're looking for the bad boy with the heart of gold, I'd say look elsewhere. The one-percenter has been romanticized by Hollywood, but the grim reality is that often times, they lead a violent existence that involves prison time and some pretty dirty deeds.

The other part of that reality is, they don't comprise the bulk of riders, either. We make up a diverse group, from the people who ride cruisers, the baggers, the crotch rocket riders to the sport bike riders. We come from all backgrounds and places. I never rode until three years ago, had never grown up with bikes (my parents thought they were too dangerous as a kid, go figure), and my first ride was a Honda Shadow Spirit 750. That's a big bike to start off with for a woman, as I've learned, but she was my baby and I loved her dearly. She made it through the mountains and wind-beaten plains with no problems, and took me 16,000 of the 23,000 miles that I've ridden. Sadly, her time was ended on 7/11/09, when I almost met my own end. My husband has been riding since his early twenties (he's 34 now, but you'd never hear that from him) and has owned a variety of bikes. He currently rides a Honda Shadow Spirit 1100, which I bought for him about two years ago. Our neighbors across the street are Harley riders, practicing Christians, and all around some of the best people you'll find, but without the usual snobbery that you see from such "Hardly" riders. I kid, really, I do. Last weekend, we attended the Denton Toy Run, and an elderly gentleman, a perfectly respectable-looking senior citizen, approached my husband asking his advice about riding in the run, since it was his and his wife's first. We've met many people that ride, from the weekend warriors to the die hards that will take their rides through sleet, wind, snow and rain, all for the love of the road. We're somewhere in the middle of all that, we'll ride to work if we can, we take the road trips, and we enjoy going on the toy runs and jaunts to nowhere in particular. However, if it's snowing, sleeting or pouring, you won't find us on our bikes. We've been there, done that, multiple times, and it ain't fun.

But let me be clear, as my husband says, "Fifteen thousand bucks and fifteen minutes does NOT make you a biker". You own a bike, fantastic, but if you don't put miles on it, that just makes you an owner, NOT a rider or biker. Anyone can scoop up a bike and make it down the street. Anyone can drop several grand for the loveliest piece of metal in the show, but if you don't use it, ride it, and cherish it and the feel of the road, then you can't appreciate what any rider has been through. If you haven't earned your stripes in dropping it, wrecking it, or being so scared that you think you might turn into a gibbering fool at some given point....then you haven't earned the honor.

I can hypothesize that people cling to these stereotypes of the biker because they haven't experienced what we have and connected to something in such a way. I say this without judgment on the non-riders. It isn't for everyone, not everyone wants to, or should, do it. When we take up the saddle, there is a risk, and everyone who truly understands what they're doing accepts that risk. When you ride, you WILL put the bike down at some point, it's not a possibility, but an inevitability. But that risk has an incredible reward. When you ride, you feel the road in a way you never have before. You notice every crevice and cranny, you smell all that's around you, good and bad, and sometimes it's very bad (skunk roadkill comes to mind especially), you feel the wind on your face (yes, it gets in through the breaks in your helmet),  and your field of vision is expanded one-hundredfold. You experience the ride and all that surrounds you in an entirely different manner than in a car, which feels so limited after being in the open air.

I can also hypothesize that people use these stereotypes out of fear in some cases, seeing the outsiders and non-conformists as a threat. As a female rider, I'm still something of an anomaly even among others. Lots of women ride with their husbands, boyfriends or friends, but not that many have and ride their own, although our numbers are growing. I can understand that. It sometimes takes a lot of strength to push that beast around, and if you drop it, it's a friggin' pain in the arse to pick it up. Even though my husband will get wary looks when he's dressed in biker gear, I usually get anything from confusion to revulsion when I'm decked out and strolling through a public place. Another stereotype that exists, and I'm blaming Hollywood on this one, is of the "biker chick". We're either "loose", rowdy and flagrant, or "dykes". While yes, I'm assertive and don't mind speaking my thoughts, I certainly don't fit either of those molds. I'm not property, I ride and can handle my own, and that's the size of it.

In the end, while I've spoken my peace about this issue, I know that these stereotypes will never truly fade or evaporate from the common man's consciousness. What I do hope, however, is that some may understand a little bit more about what it means to ride and the biker's love for the road. If someone never picks up a bike in his or her life, that's their choice, and I'll respect it. But, hey, if I'm willing to share the road, maybe they'd be more willing to share it as well.

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