Bike Fever: On Motorcycle Culture

Bike Fever: On Motorcycle Culture

by Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind’s memoir of motorcycling, and an ode to the solitude, independence, and exhilaration of the open road

Few things loom as large in our imaginations as the idea of a cross-country trip, exposed to the elements and open to whatever challenges lie around the bend. In the early 1970s, looking to experience and explain the allure ofSee more details below


Lee Gutkind’s memoir of motorcycling, and an ode to the solitude, independence, and exhilaration of the open road

Few things loom as large in our imaginations as the idea of a cross-country trip, exposed to the elements and open to whatever challenges lie around the bend. In the early 1970s, looking to experience and explain the allure of the road trip, Lee Gutkind embarked on a long motorcycle road trip, documenting the misadventures and magic that he found along the way. He writes of the men whose journeys continue to resonate, from Lawrence of Arabia to the Hell’s Angels. He explores the appeal of the motorcycle—his vehicle of choice—and its historically loaded place in the American imagination. And he revels in the country’s diverse and striking landscapes, as seen while moving through woods, plains, mountains, and deserts.

An inspiring and evocative tribute to the power of the journey, Bike Fever is a classic rendering of the unique freedom wrought by a motorcycle and a long highway.

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Bike Fever

On Motorcycle Culture

By Lee Gutkind


Copyright © 1973 Lee Gutkind
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-7129-0


First, there are the gypsies. They roll from town to town, from place to place, like marbles shot into a maze. Like the machines they ride, gypsies are usually older and bigger than the diverse culture, more stubborn with enemies, more reliable with friends. Gypsies do not look too good. They are faceless men, heads hooded by helmets or old-time, beat-up leather hats and goggles. Their wardrobes are never coordinated. They may wear workman's overalls with a white shirt and a bow tie. The tie protects their necks from the wind. Or you might see them dressed in gabardine pants and suspenders and a denim jacket over a gray T-shirt. The T-shirt is gray because of countless washings in streams along the road or in bathtubs with hand soap in cheap motels. But you recognize a gypsy and judge him primarily by his hands: heavy, big and dry, cracked and black—almost like tree bark. A gypsy's hands have been scraped along gravel and concrete and macadam many times from falls, torn by stubborn bolts and faulty tools, lubricated with new oil, blackened by old grease; they have been broken and broken and put back together in slightly different variations every time. A gypsy's hands, mangled and calloused, will scratch a woman's arm.

Sometimes a friendly gasoline attendant will offer a gypsy coffee and donuts, or ask him if he has "mosquitoes in his teeth" or if he belongs to an outlaw gang. Other times a gypsy will be refused both friendliness and simple consideration. Occasionally he might find an inexpensive boarding house with clean sheets and towels and home-cooked meals. More frequently, especially when it's very late, or raining and cold, there will be nowhere at all to eat or sleep.

A gypsy has worked at a hundred different jobs to support himself and his machine—as a shipyard worker, a carpenter's helper, a driver for a beer distributor—but he hasn't worked at any of them for long. Now that motorcycles are fashionable, there is always work available, sometimes selling, but mostly fixing two-wheeled machines. He prefers the latter because it requires neither a suit nor fancy clothes.

Most gypsies have no real destination, but a motorcycle gypsy has far too many places to go. Real gypsies characteristically know only the nomadic life; they have been wandering and migrating, supporting their families as they can, in Europe since the fifteenth century and since the nineteenth century in the United States. But a motorcycle gypsy isn't born to the clan. He may have started from a stockbroker's home, a plush estate, or a politician's suburban split-level. He may have had a house of his own once, and the children, credit cards, and cars that go with it. A motorcycle gypsy has not been granted a lifestyle, he has chosen it: what he does or will ever do revolves around the motorcycle. And that's why he'll always have friends, places to head for and people to see.

In March he will appear at Daytona for Speed Week; in June you'll see him at Laconia for hillclimbing, speed tests, or dirt racing. The next month he might go to Birmingham or Amarillo or Tulsa for scrambles or motocross races, or to Ohio for endurance events. He has participated in them all at one time or another, including ice-racing and cycle polo. He has done everything on a motorcycle that can be done. Like the legendary French lover, he has tried every position and variation, every trick and trail.

He will always reserve some time for touring. There are new places to see and many old ones to visit again. His memories might bring him back to the Great Smoky Mountains, to the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, or the Everglades. He might roll down into Mexico or climb for Canada, traveling as far north as Alaska, dipping as far south as the Argentine. He is not haltered by responsibilities, except for those pledged to himself and his machine. Many people will question a man's total dedication to a machine, but a gypsy and his motorcycle are like a cowboy and his horse. A gypsy cannot conceive of life without his machine, so he works hard to preserve what is, in truth, his only link to stability and security.

Some men become gypsies later in life. Like Henry Gill, a sixty-nine-year-old retired carpenter who, while on his way to visit friends, made a wrong turn at a traffic light one summer and decided it was easier to keep going than to turn around.

Or like Julius Kegel, a retired businessman who turned eighty in 1970, probably the oldest active cyclist in the world. He hitched his first ride on a motorcycle back in 1911. Next day, he bought one for himself. He's been sitting on or sprawled under one ever since, first as a dirt track racer, next in 1917 as a driver in a sidecar outfit for a brigade adjutant in World War I. Kegel's been back to Europe thirteen times since, logging hundreds of thousands of miles, officially accounted for in plaques, in honor of his voyages, presented by the BMW motorcycle factory in Germany. And he has no plans to hang up his helmet.

"I intend to keep up just the way I am," says Kegel, "as long as the good Lord keeps my system in repair."

Some men become gypsies quite early. Red Madison is one. After his freshman year in college in 1937, Madison hooked up with Jess Tunney, and they took off on their motorcycles for the summer. They haven't gone back to school or found a permanent home since.

Some men, like sixty-four-year-old Stanley George, a Presbyterian minister, become gypsies for a purpose. The Reverend George thunders, in a cloud of commandments, out of La Puente, California, and covers 12,000 or 15,000 miles each year, seeking out and talking to America's younger generation, delivering his psychedelically-decorated epistle on the love chapter of the Bible. A black leather jacket and motorcycle boots are his vestments, but his message is love. And he says his rewards have been peace and a feeling of optimism about our country and a greater respect for young people.

There aren't too many motorcycle gypsies left. There were thousands at one time, when cars and gasoline were expensive and jobs were scarce, when men were much freer and not pressured into leading socially acceptable lives. There were once thousands of gypsies, when riding a motorcycle meant riding a big motorcycle, a machine most enjoyable and designed to go fast on a long, straight road. Now, at best, there are probably only a few hundred gypsies remaining.

But the gypsies were important, just as important as Barney Oldfield, or the Wright Brothers, or maybe Henry Ford, because they were the pioneers. And they're still important because they are the ones who have remained free. Back at the beginning, when gypsies bought a motorcycle they had their choice of two or three, at most, all of which were of relatively the same size, weight, and capabilities. They cruised on roads dogged with dust clouds, tripping on ruts, their way often blocked by boulders or fallen trees. They were their own mechanics, repairing machines with cuttings from empty soup cans, bent coat hangers, pieces of fishing line, or string.

Today, if you consider all the brand names and different models, there are more than 500 bikes from which to choose. Today motorcycling is easy. Bikes with year-long warranties, shops for service, fancy tools, and electronic gadgets to tune your machine are available almost anywhere. There are laws to protect the cyclist and statewide safety standards. Many things have been made easy for the modern motorcyclist, partially because of men like Kegel or Gill or Madison, men like Lawrence of Arabia, King George VI, Charles Lindbergh, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom rode motorcycles when horses were cheaper and cars more practical. These men, plus a few thousand others, rode through war and peace and depression, holding onto the machine, preserving its life, until the machine could hold its own. These men were the fathers not only of a multi-million dollar industry and popular sport, but of what can today be called America's national pastime.

Noted the New York Times on August 22, 1965:

In Detroit, a grandmother hops on her Harley Davidson and rides to Florida to visit her grandchildren.

In New York's suburban Westchester County, an Episcopalian minister makes his pastoral rounds on a Lambretta scooter.

In Sanford, Florida, a pair of middle-aged men start off on a 12,000-mile motorcycle trip just for the fun of it.

In Hartford, Connecticut, a state representative on his motorcycle is a common sight at the state capitol when the General Assembly is in session.

In New York, Mrs. Chet Huntley, wife of the television newscaster, cruises across 69th Street on her lightweight motorcycle on a trip to the supermarket. On her way, she passes film producer Ted Devlet, heading for the studio on his heavyweight cycle.

In Beverly Hills, California, singer Dean Martin and his wife beat traffic jams on their motorcycle, making the trip in 15 minutes.

Baseball is no longer our national pastime. Neither is basketball nor football nor hockey. We hardly ever play baseball anymore; in this world of specialization we spend our time watching others play for us. There are three million tennis players, seven million bowlers, and twelve million golfers in the United States. But there are many more motorcyclists, many more people actually participating in the motorcycle experience. Altogether, there are close to twenty million motorcyclists—enough to make motorcycling, far and away, our national pastime.

Motorcycles, of course, are popular in other lands—first in France, England, and Germany, the countries that developed the first motorcycles and the many recreational and practical ways to use them. A motorcycle culture has emerged in the Soviet Union, and Russian-made bikes will soon be offered on the American market. A person wanting to buy a motorcycle in India must wait nine years after registering for one before he receives delivery. In Udaipur, in September 1971, prospective cyclists smashed through police lines to register for their bikes. There were four people injured that day—and ten people killed.

But the largest and most lucrative motorcycle market exists in the United States. You can find a motorcyclist on practically every residential street in the nation. There is probably a cyclist in every subway car, in every delicatessen, in every office building in New York City. Every Lions Club, American Legion post, synagogue, hospital, college, department store, lumber camp, factory, museum, law library, police department, plumbing union, movie studio, or talk show audience contains at least one. Anywhere you look, there'll be a motorcyclist, a former motorcyclist, or a future motorcyclist. You can recognize one by looking in the mirror.

There are not only more Americans participating in the motorcycle experience, but more different kinds of people. You will see motorcycles jamming the parking lots of downtown Philadelphia, lining the curbs in Harlem or Watts, stationed around Columbus Circle or Rockefeller Plaza in New York. In the mornings, men in suits and ties, or in coveralls and steel-toed boots, commute to work on motorcycles. They call on clients, chug to lunch, head to the health spa, a local bar, or a gym. In the afternoons, housewives go to beauty salons or bridge club meetings on motorcycles. Their children travel back and forth to school or deliver papers on two-wheeled machines. Motorcycles are used in Vietnam to speed pilots to waiting bombers, used by doctors speeding to hospitals to deliver a baby or to cut out an appendix. On the average, there is one motorcyclist in every four American families, and twice as many as there are college students, doctors, and attorneys combined. Everybody rides motorcycles. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Polly Bergen, Hugh Downs, Keenan Wynn, Michael Ansara, and the Smothers brothers. Even General Dwight David Eisenhower rode a motorcycle before visions of the Presidency danced in his head.

People even get married on motorcycles. As it happened in June 1971 on the edge of the reservoir in Pittsburgh's Highland Park when Walt Rogowski, sitting on his chromed, customized chopper, and Shirley Piper, standing beside, exchanged vows. Shirley wore maroon, crushed-velvet hot pants, with a white and blue garter, a leather vest, and a see-through blouse. Walt had on black leather bell bottoms, and a red, white, and blue jersey and, naturally, a sleeveless denim jacket.

Little children have been bitten by the motorcycle bug. More than two million mini-bikes have been sold in the United States since 1967. Mini-bikes are shrunken replicas of the big machines, with power mower engines and fancy designs that can rip and snort around a backyard at forty miles per hour or faster. The super-charged variety can be purchased at cycle shops for as much as $700, or as little as $99 for the assemble-yourself, discount store variety.

Mini-bikes are not big or powerful enough to be made street legal. But they are used in the woods or on miniature racetracks around the country. Kids from four to twelve years old race mini-bikes under the guidance of the American Motorcycle Association. The mini-bike competition, according to industry prophets, is the beginning of a minor league system for the professional cycle racing circuit. Now, with mini-bikes, cyclists need not wait until they're sixteen to sophisticate their skills racing two-wheeled machines.

Older kids like to customize their mini-bikes, adding long front forks, lower saddles, and icing them with chrome. Some of the least experienced kids have training wheels on their mini-bikes. And a few of the most confident refuse to honor the restrictions their parents and the law have imposed. In December 1971, a boy from Illinois was arrested and charged with, among other things, driving his mini-bike at fifty miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone. He was seven years old.

But generally speaking, most motorcyclists are much older and more mature than the average four-wheeling American might expect.

Early in 1971, Charles Clayton, publisher of the weekly Cycle News, circulation 50,000, reported that the average motorcyclist is between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five. "He is," said Clayton, "a highly skilled blue collar worker or an executive working his way up. He owns his own house, has a wife, more than one child, and at least one car. His income reaches more than $13,000 annually."

And Cycle Magazine, the largest monthly cycle publication (circulation 279,000), in its bi-annual reader survey for 1971, stated that the median age of subscribers owning a bike was 25.7 years old. The median yearly income of all subscriber households was $11,078.

"Approximately 55% of you," said editor Cook Nielson in a recent editorial, "are businessmen, 3% of you are in the professions, and 9% are in civil service. And out of the whole of businessmen, 41% are executives, managers and professionals."

In a 1970 survey of 506 motorcyclists conducted for Cycle News, Barbara Adams Dahms reported an average of 1.5 bikes per person. Of the families, 37% had two riders, 15% had three, 14% had four, 7% had five, and 4% had six riders or more. The largest mentioned was ten riders per family.

The men of the Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine ride motorcycles. Shriner motorcycle units, operating in 300 towns and cities across the United States, might be as large as a drill team of fifty riders or as small as a ten-man patrol. For nationwide activities, Shriners can muster 5,000 vehicles, ranging from small mini-bikes to mammoth Harleys, at a total vehicle valuation of close to $2 million. In any area, a Shriner motorcycle unit might work with the city police or county sheriff's office as escorts for dignitaries or on civil defense alerts. Like any topflight marching band or drill team, Shriner motorcycle units have left-obliqued, right-flanked, to-the-rear marched and Virginia-reeled in football stadiums, town squares, hospital parking lots, prison courtyards, and on parade grounds across the country.


Excerpted from Bike Fever by Lee Gutkind. Copyright © 1973 Lee Gutkind. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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