Cause the players gonna play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off
—Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”
Those kids are a bunch of phonies. Walking around New York, L.A. and San Francisco with their long beards and clothing carefully selected to make them authentic and interesting despite their suburban, middle-class upbringing. They think they’re so special, which is ironic, as they all kind of look the same. And just like they ruined food, music and fashion by adopting and discarding trends like gum wrappers, they’ve done the same thing with motorcycles, hacking and destroying beautiful classic bikes to turn them into unrideable abominations. Yep, those hippies that plagued our streets in the late 1960s and early ’70s were pretty obnoxious.
What, did you think I was talking about modern-day hipsters? Nah, when you compare it with other cultural phenomena, the hipster thing has had minimal impact on our Zeitgeist. Hippies, on the other hand, touched almost every aspect of our culture, including motorcycling.
Sure, motorcycles were loud, polluting symbols of the patriarchal fascist-class structure, man, but they also offered a cheap ticket to adventure on the open road, a ticket to finding the Real America. Media reflected the counterculture’s obsession with motorcycles – movies like Hell’s Angels on Wheels and Easy Rider showed youths doin’ their thing without being hassled by The Man, while books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels got the more intellectual side of the brain dreaming of escaping conformity by becoming a rugged solo road warrior.
I’m not going to credit Hippies and other trend-following Baby Boomers for creating demand for motorcycles in the United States far in excess of anything we saw before (or will likely ever see again). Lots of factors did that, including the emergence of cheap and reliable Japanese brands, a huge youth market as well as modern advertising and communications. But the Hippies had a big impact as tastemakers, or at least tastelessmakers. To paraphrase Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, they didn’t want motorcycles, they wanted choppers.
Choppers, of course, were the original bad-boy motorcycles. Ironically, customizers created choppers and their forerunners, bobbers, in order to extract maximum performance from heavy and underpowered World War II-era motorcycles. They would chop or “bob” fenders, frames and every other component that didn’t make them go, turn, or stop better. That functionality created a distinct and iconic look that was copied and recopied, first by professional customizers and builders like Arlen Ness and Denver Mullins, and then by the unwashed masses.
Those freewheelin’ ’70s dudes weren’t really slaves to fashion, photojournalist and author of Art of the Chopper Tom Zimberoff told me in a brief interview, but built their choppers out of economic necessity.
“Few people [in that era] could afford a new bike,” Zimberhoff told me, “so they’d buy them used or crashed,” fixing and customizing wrecks and clunkers with parts from wherever, including shopping-cart handles. (“They were already chromed and the right shape and size,” Zimberoff said). The counterculture did leave its mark. “They all wanted something unique or special for themselves,” said the author, so the chopper look was a popular route, since it can yield so many variations on the same theme, but café racers were popular as well – it kind of depended on where you lived and the kind of riding you did.
These new bikers didn’t value shiny, perfect paint and acres of chrome the way modern V-Twin enthusiasts do. Choppers from the ’70s can be spotted by their cheap accessories, bad paint jobs and rusty, clunky welds and modifications. “They weren’t pretty, they were rough,” Zimberoff added.
I’ve seen my share of bad choppers from that era, and I was quick to dismiss the owners and creators as cheesy guys with Jewfros, Ban-lon shirts and pointy side-zip boots or just smelly, freeloading hippies. But digging down, as I did with Zimberoff, I recognize that these guys just wanted to ride, and as their fortunes improved, so did their taste – by the mid ’80s they were buying motorcycles you’d be happy to ride today. Smooth, fast, good-handling and reliable bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja 900, Honda VFR, BMW K75 or Suzuki Katana. Not a raked-out front end made of rebar or beer-keg gas tank in sight.
So before you go a-hatin’ on your neighborhood hipster as he (yet again) bump-starts his straight-piped CB550 across the street at 11:00 pm, send a little benefit of the doubt his way. Sure, he looks silly with his sparkle-painted open-face helmet and giant beard, and sure, the craptastic ride he paid way too much money for is as well maintained as a Saudi Arabian snowblower. But if he lives long enough to ride it for more than a few thousand miles, he’ll learn.
He’ll learn how to fix his bike by the side of the road. He’ll learn how to patch a tire, he’ll learn how to adjust his valves and carburetor, and he’ll know what kind of oil works best. He’ll know how to lube, adjust and replace a chain and he’ll understand gearing. He’ll learn to feel anxiety when his engine suddenly sounds different 100 miles from home.
He’ll have become a motorcyclist, and he’ll turn from being one of them into being one of us. And he’ll find that what he looks like on the bike isn’t as important as the experience of the ride itself. His old CB will go into the back of the garage, behind bicycles and maybe an old stroller, and though he’ll have good memories of riding it – the adventures he had, the friends he made – he’ll ride a modern, high-functioning bike much more.
Hate Hipsters all you want, but don’t worry about Hipsters ruining our sport, because Hipsters don’t ride. Once you buy a motorcycle and commit to riding it, you’re no longer a hipster – you’re a motorcyclist. And a motorcyclist can’t be a phony.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is the hairiest non-female child born to Haley Joel Osment and Mary Kate Olsen. His rough childhood led him into a wasted life of motorcycle worship and competitive Habitrail design competitions. He’s fairly adept with hamsters.