Of bikes and bikers
Daytona Beach, Fla. — ‘Bikers welcome here!” read the signs at almost every establishment, and given that over half a million of them arrive each March for the city’s annual Bike Week, it is a sensible policy. They come from all 50 states — even Alaska and Hawaii — and have gathered almost every year since 1937. The Second World War caused a brief hiatus (in lieu, those not overseas held an informal rally), but when the fighting ended, the tradition was resumed, and it has now grown to be the joint biggest motorcycle convocation in the United States — an honor it shares with South Dakota’s more famous meeting in Sturgis.
For one kaleidoscopic fortnight, Daytona’s warm air is filled with engine noise and rock music and its streets are marked out in fast-moving chrome and brightly colored lights. Bike Week’s habitués more or less take over their host city, changing its character from slightly run down Floridian beach town to hot mess. Theirs is the America of Hotel California — of dark desert highways, flickering neon signs, the wind in your hair, and the ineffable, perhaps apocryphal, “spirit of ’69.” America is deemed the Great Satan by the modern era’s neo-puritans, primarily because it is the greatest tempter on earth; and its glittering charms are nowhere more plainly on offer than on its roads. It is a land of contradictions, in which churches stand next to strip clubs — and in Daytona there are cars and bikes parked outside both.
Motorcycles have long been associated both with America’s harder edge and with liberty itself. It is no accident that, in The Great Escape, Steve McQueen rides away from tyranny and toward freedom on the back of a Triumph two-wheeler, but one also gets the impression that if Satan were to use earthly forms of transport to deliver his seductions, he, too, would be carried along the highways and byways on the back of a chopper. (Indeed, hellfire — and the underworld more generally — is a favorite decorative theme among those who ride, and bats, skulls, and the Grim Reaper are among the most popular decals.) Bikers thus inspire mixed reactions in the public’s imagination, and it is maybe inevitable that even those who feel positive toward them tend also to perceive their culture as being emblematic of an unfortunate American tendency to metamorphose liberty into license and make fiends of the free.
In a seminal 1965 essay for The Nation, a young Hunter S. Thompson noted that the bad reputation bikers enjoyed was largely undeserved, but that there was no smoke without fire. Cataloguing both the true and the false accusations, Thompson argued that, while a few on the fringe exhibited dangerous — even criminal — tendencies, most were in fact just “harmless weekend types . . . no more dangerous than skiers or skin divers.” This has most likely been true from the outset, but truth does not always reign in the court of public opinion, and the bad-boy image has stuck, tarnishing all with the transgressions of a few. This stubborn perception does a disservice to what is actually a remarkably conservative and deeply patriotic group.
They’re religious, too. Daytona Beach is filled with churches, and on weekends during the rally the churches are filled with bikers. Here too — giant signs make it abundantly clear — they are “welcome.” The city’s Catholic Church of the Basilica of St. Paul does not just invite riders to attend services but also holds a “Blessing of the Bikes” on the festival’s opening Sunday. Farther down, opposite the beach itself, there is a rudimentary “Drive-In Christian Church,” which offers space to thousands of motorcycles in front of a bare wooden stage. Despite their menacing appearances, bikers are a surprisingly pious bunch, and Christian clubs proliferate among them. There are the Bikers for Jesus, the Bikers for Christ, the Bikers for Life, Christ’s Cruisers, and a whole host more, all operating under the aegis of a prominent Evangelical group, the Christian Motorcyclists Association. The CMA’s 1,116 American chapters comprise 125,000 members, and their organization is thriving: In 2010, CMA affiliates were active in over 30 countries, donated $806,841.65 to partner ministries, and preached to over 170,000 people — most of them motorcyclists — around the United States. In Daytona Beach, they have come to the right place — there are 246 churches in a city of only 60,000 people, and while the festival is on, attendance rises dramatically.
In a local Five Guys burger joint at lunchtime, I stop and talk with three big and burly men, each with a shaved head, a de rigueur salt-and-pepper horseshoe mustache, and a vaguely mean image. They are all members of the Chariots of Light club, and have come down from Pennsylvania for the festival, stopping on the way to preach the Gospel and to pray against abortion. I ask what they are about, and the biggest man in the group points to his expansive right bicep, on which a faded tattoo of a cross with a motorcycle leaning against it is sandwiched between the words, “I ride for Him because He died for me.” The word “LOVE” is inked in capital letters across the knuckles of his left hand. All three wear identical leather jackets, identifying them as members of their club and advertising quotations from Philippians and the Gospel of John.
Not all the bikers at the rally carry slogans on their clothes and motorcycles, but those who do promote overwhelmingly conservative sentiments. Many fly American flags and exhibit slogans about freedom and the open road. Others are more directly political. The Rolling Thunder group — which boasts more than 90 chapters nationwide, is overwhelmingly populated by veterans, and endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2004 — advertises its POW-MIA and veterans’-rights causes. (Its 2011 ride on Washington, D.C., attracted 400,000 participants.) There are bumper stickers that simply read “God and Country,” or “It’s Time for Another Tea Party,” or “Helmet Laws Suck: Let Those Who Ride, Decide.” About the only arguably liberal cause I see endorsed in my three days among them is the legalization of marijuana, which National Review has also long supported.
With the notable exception of the Ron Paul contingent — which is well represented and typically vocal — bikers tend to take positions rather than endorse candidates and, more than anything, seem fed up with the little things: with mandatory-helmet laws, interference with gun rights, and incessant nannying about food and drink and light bulbs. They are weary of being lectured about the environment and burdened with endless mandates and taxes. One festival-goer describes the current climate as being like “having your mother constantly calling you to check whether you’ve eaten your f***ing vegetables.”
I ask a leather-clad woman how she feels about the contraception mandate. “It has got nothing to do with the government,” she scoffs. “I don’t want it banned and I don’t want it forced. I run my own business and nobody’s sex life ain’t no one’s but their own.” Then she pauses and looks me up and down, perhaps mistaking me for someone who might wish to force or ban contraception. “What am I, twelve years old?” she asks. (It is abundantly clear from the way she is dressed that she is not.) Her attitude is typical. Bikers exhibit much that is consonant with individual liberty and with its most enduring icons. They mistrust rules and reject the supposedly superior wisdom of others. Ruggedly individual, they are the new cowboys — the tattooed pastors of America’s iron horses in an era in which trains have lost their romance and cars all look the same, and theirs is a simple refrain: Leave Me Alone.
That bikers lean rightward, with their knees close to the floor, is unsurprising. Personal transport has always been a redoubt of freedom — for good and for ill — but biking is particularly so. Although theirs is an inherently solo enterprise, bikers look out for one another; but they do not need to be instructed to do so, and some I speak to wonder out loud “what the hell is wrong with people” who need to be commanded to help out.
That bikers tend to be conservative is also demographically predictable. The first question I ask myself as I leave the airport and the bikes swarm around my car is, Where are all the young people and women? I am not helped by the local classic-rock radio station, which offers only the lazy platitudes by which our superficial age is marked, repeatedly pretending that motorcycle riders are a diverse crowd: “There is no such thing as an ‘average biker,’” one such advert claims, before casually relating that black hip-hop producers and female first-grade teachers own Harley-Davidsons too.
That is probably true, but the sentiment is disingenuous: There demonstrably is such a thing as an average biker. The gathering overwhelmingly consists of white, middle-aged men with the same facial hair and clothes — who enjoy both sufficient income and sufficient free time to sustain an expensive and time-consuming hobby. The few under-forties who attend Bike Week appear on the non-American bikes — “Jap bikes,” they are called by the Harley-Davidson crowd — and largely keep themselves to themselves. (They better resemble the cast of Jersey Shore than the Hells Angels and stick out like sore thumbs in the sea of leather and tattoos.) If women are riding they’re riding pillion. No motorcycle with a man on it is ever driven by a woman, for that would upset the natural order; but then women tend not to be involved in the subculture, period. Nearly 600,000 people have descended on Daytona Beach for the rally, but only 130 take part in the Women’s Ride, and this is a record turnout.
The ranks are disproportionately filled with professionals, ex-military types, and retirees. The average age of a Harley owner is 47, and his median household income is $83,000 — well above the national median. Moreover, the income and age brackets are both rising: A recent study commissioned by Harley-Davidson showed that in 1987 half of all Harley riders were under age 35 and that their average household income was $38,000. If the trend continues, by 2035 the average biker will be receiving Social Security checks. In fact, many attendees already do. I meet a group of retirees from Wisconsin — all Vietnam vets — who have ridden down to Florida together. They plan to attend the entire festival. All in all, their time commitment is the best part of a month.
And what of the bad guys? Well, where there are cowboys, there will always be outlaws, and the “one percenters” — a term coined by an exasperated American Motorcycle Association to describe those few whose income is derived from illegal sources such as crystal-meth production and whose involvement in the subculture is not desired — still occasionally color the sport for all. Indeed, as recently as 1999, Taco Bowman, the “world leader” of the American Outlaws Association — perhaps the largest and most dangerous “one percenter” group of its time — was sentenced to two life terms in prison for carrying out multiple murders and bombings. So serious were the charges against him that Bowman, who boasts a swastika tattoo and has ties to various white-supremacist groups, made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1998.
Sipping giant beers, my retired friends from Wisconsin tell me that, in some parts of the country, they are still very much treated with suspicion. “You have to stay in a lot of hotels when you cross the country,” one explains, “and if the weather is bad, you don’t always get to choose where you stop. A few places are not happy when nine guys in leather jackets turn up on bikes. They can freak. You have to judge it carefully.” While the outlaw tradition may still be honored in some circles, it is not honored by those I meet in Daytona. Biking is still ceremonially communal, but its edge has largely been blunted and the most its participants are guilty of is a wholesome enthusiasm for their hobby. Like Las Vegas, motorcycling has become a pastiche on itself.
By and large, bikers such as the Wisconsin nine are more likely to take part in groups such as the Patriot Guard Riders, which was formed in 2005 in response to the execrable Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of the funerals of fallen soldiers. The Patriot Guard comprises various existing clubs, including military groups such as the In Country Vets Motorcycle Club, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, the American Legion Riders, and Rolling Thunder, in addition to a 20,000-strong law-enforcement group called the Blue Knights, and the stalwart Christian Motorcycle Association. Its stated mission is to “show . . . sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities” and to “shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors,” and the group’s members, its website notes, have “one thing in common besides motorcycles,” that being “an unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America’s freedom and security.”
Indeed, if there is one unifying sentiment among the people I have come across, it is love of country. It is profoundly important to most that Harley-Davidson is an American brand, and rare to see a biker without at least one American flag on his clothes or his bikes — often on both. They constitute a legion of volunteers on wheels, representing — in sundry ways, and in the pursuit of various good ends — the “vast number of voluntary associations” of which Tocqueville spoke so warmly. They make their cases in rough language, and they go about their business ostentatiously; but their unifying cause is freedom and their sworn allegiance is to America — and, with this in mind, we might well agree with the ubiquitous signs around Daytona Beach: Bikers Welcome Here.