Only in America do we put our expensive cars in the driveway so we can fill our garages with useless crap.

How do you tell your motorcycle story?

Every motorcyclist has his or her story. It starts with what inspired them to ride, then the harrowing first-ride tale, then that heady discovery of the freedom granted by their first motorcycle. There’s the recounting of adventures, then the realization of danger – usually accompanied by tales of injury and other mayhem – and how the rider either quit or scaled down to a sustainable level.

Photographer and storyteller Jean-Philippe Defaut decided to lay his story out for all the world to experience as a visual, tactile exhibit. It’s called “I am this Motorcycle,” and he invited me to come see it last week.

The show, at San Francisco’s Heron Arts gallery, uses photos, artwork, artifacts, books and, yes, motorcycles to tell the stories of riders from all over the world. The show isn’t about looking at cool stuff – though there’s lots of cool stuff, including a gorgeous Norton Atlas racer and a signed photo from Evel Knievel – it’s about examining what makes motorcycles interesting and valuable to people.

Beautiful Norton Atlas roadracer embodies the raw, essential spirit of motorcycling.

Beautiful Norton Atlas roadracer embodies the raw, essential spirit of motorcycling.

“I’m interested in telling people’s stories,” the British-born (to French parents) Defaut told me. He’s good at it, too: he’s worked for decades as a portrait photographer. You’ve probably seen his photos in the New York Times and other places, and he’s been working in branding for 20 years as well. Five years ago, he started work on this project, mainly “to explore my own curiosity.” After shooting riders in New York, London, Paris, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco (where he moved recently), he put together displays of all the ephemera – books, clothing, photos, mechanical bits and pieces and other items – that tell his motorcycling story.


Defaut also used his considerable talents as a photographer to tell the story of riders and their motorcycles, displaying them with the other items. His subjects are varied: men, women, American, English, French, but their passion and interest in motorcycles is universal.

He’s also gotten some of his friends to display their favorite motorcycles in the show, from a gleaming BMW R69 to Ezikial Decanay’s not-so-gleaming CB550. The battered and much-loved 45-year-old Honda is described as “a gun slinging, whiskey drinking, dirty old girl,” by the owner. “She’s bare bones and just wants to go.” A ’70s-era Harley chopper crouches in the center of the show, stark contrast to the clean and polite ’60s Honda CB77 against the wall, the same bike Robert Pirsig rode on his trip across America in his world-changing book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s parked neatly beneath a shelf of vari-colored copies of the book. “If you haven’t read it, it’s not too late,” admonishes a sign next to the books.

 Defaut contemplates his stuff... and his life on two wheels. Photo by Jennifer Winfrey

Defaut contemplates his stuff… and his life on two wheels. Photo by Jennifer Winfrey

He’s planning on taking the show to other cities, including Los Angeles, New York and eventually Europe, and is working on a book as well. But I’m not here to tell you to go see the show (though you should, if you have an opportunity). I’m here to tell you to make a show of your own.

If you’re like me, you have piles of stuff that has no value or use to anybody but you – but tells the story of your motorcycle-riding life. That means you can’t throw it away, and nobody but you understands why.

Looking around my office, I see my old First Gear Kilimanjaro jacket that kept me dry through so many San Francisco commutes. I’ve worn it once in the last 10 years, but I just can’t get rid of it. There’s a fragment of the little fairing from my old BMW R100S, recovered after I crashed my bike on nearby Mount Hamilton in 1995 (Defaut also crashed up there and like me, enjoyed the in-flight morphine service on the helicopter ride to San Jose, which he is still paying for). There’s a quartet of trophies from my last season of roadracing that were won in such a non-competitive way I’d be embarrassed to tell you about them in detail (one involved beating grown men riding XR50s), and the alternator cover from local racing legend Frankie Mazur’s Interceptor 750 – he passed before I could sell it for him on eBay.

Yes, it’s all the same book. Defaut buys copies of Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance whenever he sees one and hands them out to youths he meets through his Stay Curious mentoring program. Somehow, this book is better when it’s a beat-up, second-hand copy.

Yes, it’s all the same book. Defaut buys copies of Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance whenever he sees one and hands them out to youths he meets through his Stay Curious mentoring program. Somehow, this book is better when it’s a beat-up, second-hand copy.

031616-skidmarks-i-am-this-motorcycle-IMG_3658And there’s more. Photos of my girlfriend and me saddling up to ride to Oregon on our motorcycles, long before marriage and mortgage and baby. Special tools from three or four bikes ago that are as useful now as a shrimp fork at a bar mitzvah. My copy of Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and armor from jackets and trousers long gone. A poster of Angel Nieto riding his Derbi 50 to a victory in the 1970 Dutch GP. I’m starting to think I have more stuff that I don’t need than stuff I need, which must be in the psychiatric literature somewhere as a symptom of something. Hopefully, it’s treatable.

My closets and bins of stuff tell of a quarter-century of fun, failure, hope and injury, the stories of friends gained and lost, experiences won and then forgotten. How will you tell your story? Telling our stories helps us move on. It helps us start new ones. Keeping our stuff doesn’t drag us down – it gives us somewhere to stand.

Tell us your stories.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is an interactive app available for Android and iPhone. The app will only work on the HTC Dream and iPhone 2.

  • JMDonald

    I didn’t keep much from my early days but wish I would have kept my old Bell helmet from the late 70’s. The jeans, Frye boots and army coats I rode in have long since disintegrated away. So did the one no name leather jacket I had in the 80’s. My box of old photos riding as a kid what I used for gloves and face shields along with my Captain America back up helmet were lost in a fire in Houston in 79. After the fire I didn’t bother trying to keep much stuff after that. I still remember. That seems to be enough.

  • Gruf Rude

    Heck, I’ve still got my BIKE from the late 60s – a ’69 CB750 . . .

  • John B.

    I would have a difficult time telling my motorcycle story through artifacts. I became a motorcyclist late in midlife, and shortly after being diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes. As such, I do not have any old motorcycle gear, but the gear I have is increasingly well worn.

    These days I think long and hard before I buy anything, and each month I throw out, recycle, sell, or give away many things I acquired back when things were more important to me. Travelling on my motorcycle and learning to manage DM-2 without medication made me realize how little (food, clothing, money, stuff) I need to thrive, and to better understand having more than you need is sometimes harmful.

    When I think about motorcycling, I don’t usually think about things. I am not attached to objects, motorcycle-related or otherwise; not even to my motorcycle. Rather, I think about the joy I experience while motorcycling, the vistas I have seen, and the people I met along the way.

    For years, my personal and professional schedule accounted for nearly every waking moment of my life. I cannot adequately convey the joy I experience when I wake up on a motorcycle trip with no plans whatsoever. Many times, I have found myself stopped at a road junction pondering questions like, “Do I want to ride to Vegas? or Arches? or Jackson?…, or should I just stay here awhile?” That’s an experience any motorcyclist would enjoy.

    Every time I roll down my driveway on two-wheels I make a conscious decision to live life at the tip of my nose, and to use all my wherewithal to ride safely. I will not be able to ride forever, but I can ride now, and now is the only time anyone can do anything.

    That’s my motorcycle story – short version.

  • Glen

    The show closed on March 3rd. Why didn’t you publish this back when the show was just opening so people could actually go see it. Timely info is much appreciated…

  • Jay Dee

    I wish I had kept some stuff from the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of the helmets would have been good to still have. Being a school teacher I gave away helmets and jackets to students as I bought new stuff. So they went to a worthy cause. Wished I still had the bikes! Have a growing collection now but that is costly compared to just keeping what you had. Still have stuff from the 1980s and 1990s and some of that is on display. My first bike was a 1968 Bridgestone 100 sport. Basically impossible to find now in Australia. One day, maybe one will come my way! My bike addiction started on that little two stroke!

  • Kevin Duke

    Another thought-provoking piece from Gabe!

  • Ezikiel Dacanay

    Gabe, it’s Ezikiel Dacanay. Great read.