Opinion

Praise for the hipsters

I don’t really know what to call them. The postmodernists, perhaps? The baroque classicists? The custom culturists?

The Old and Boring of motorcycle culture tend to call them hipsters; I’m never really sure. 

I think I get confused in part because I may be looping at least two different sub-cultures: the Iron & Resin crowd and the Born Free crowd. In both there are beards and Pabst and old motorcycles and Biltwell helmets and tattoos and genuflection to art and authenticity, but maybe there is a fine line that actually draws out more than one culture. 
Indeed, with the Born Free crowd one can convincingly argue they are simply the present incarnation of the long-lived American chopper culture, and that the fine line that separates them from hipsterism is one drawn by the wheels of a Harley-Davidson. But then Deus ex Machina builds a Harley and the crew from Death Science take Hondas on a Revenge Run and the waters are muddied. Not to mention the whole additional tangent of Roland Sands and Shinya Kimura and their ilk. Where do they fit? Are they part of the same breed? Or something entirely different?
Certainly the critics of hipsters seem to have trouble making a positive identification. This Motorcycle.com article, for example, is both dated and schizophrenic in its definition of a motorcycle-riding hipster. Whereas this Tumblr blog seems to class anyone not riding a brand-new motorcycle as a hipster.
For the sake of ease I will put all those different tangents in one tent and refer to them not as hipsters but as neo-classicists. In art, classicism tends to refer to a canon of widely accepted ideal forms. That is, the version of a thing most people would think of if asked to describe that thing. For example, if I were to ask you to describe rap music, you might, embarrassingly, do that arms-across-the-chest thing and make beat-boxy repetitive rhythms. Is this an accurate portrayal of current rap music? No. But it is many people’s classical vision of it.
And if you ask a person to draw a motorcycle, what do you get? Something pretty similar to the machines being built, ridden and promulgated by the neo-classicists. Few non-motorcyclists would draw something that looks like my CBF600SA, for instance –– despite the fact it is one of the most common styles found on the road (outside the United States). Hardly anyone would draw the odd dinosaur front ends found on bikes like the BMW F800 GS, despite adventure bikes being one of the hottest trends right now.
The motorcycle neo-classicists hold quite strictly to the forms we know, but modify them just enough that each is an entirely one-off experience. In this way, I suppose, they are like the piano part in salsa music. Pick a salsa song and listen to the piano. At first, it seems to be doing nothing more than driving the rhythm with a single repeated stanza. But listen more closely and you’ll hear that, in fact, nothing is repeated.

First off, from an aesthetic point of view I love what the neo-classicists are doing. They have scaled back from the Baroque excess nonsense of the Orange County Choppers crowd and helped return the motorcycle to its rightful place as a useable everyman machine. The bikes favoured by the neo-classicists look like they actually can and should be ridden. In some situations that may not be the case in practice (I am sure there are many a rebuilt Honda CB350 cafe racer that is as much a piece of expensive butt jewellery (1) as an overchromed Paul Jr monstrosity), but at least they look right. Neo-classical bikes look like motorcycles.

It is that adherence to the aesthetic –– visual, mechanical and experiential –– that annoys the Old and Boring quite a lot. The criticism seems to be that by holding to the classical forms the neo-classicists don’t actually understand motorcycling. They don’t know what it really is, man.

Criticism of the neo-classicists is pretty generic, similar to the tired and borne-of-envy laments I used to wage against over-privileged Volvo-driving Bard College students almost 20 years ago (2). It is catch-all and changes easily to suit the situation at hand. But the most standard complaint about “hipsters” is that they are a wealthy and, by extension, disingenuous breed who waste undeserved money on the beautification of outdated technology that was never really the top of its game. I mean, all that money on a CB350? It’s like a movement to lovingly restore Dodge Neons.

And those hipsters who are riding Harleys? And, by extension, Harley-Davidson’s (wise) decision to pursue them as a demographic? Why, that’s just as bad. Because, well, uhm, just because.

For me, though, I’m all for it. The superbike movement of the 1990s drove a stake into the soul of motorcycling (does anyone pine for the bike Rob van Winkle rode in Cool As Ice? No. No they do not). The glamour chopper movement of the early 2000s served as life support but still missed the point: the simple independence offered by a motorcycle. Independence that is gained affordably and instantly, regardless of whether your setting is urban, rural, or somewhere in between.

As I’ve said many times, I got my motorcycle license in the mid 90s, but then did nothing with it. The neo-classicist movement is what properly rekindled my interest in riding a bike. OK, yes: in the end I fell on the side of ABS, low MPG, and the like. When it truly came down to choosing my own bike, I chose (slightly bland) modern reliability. I don’t regret that choice, but the fact is: it is not what pulled me into motorcycling. I consistently rank this video as a key impetus in my deciding I needed to get a motorcycle, followed very closely by this video. Neo-classical choppers and a hipster Bonneville.

I still dream of owning a Bonneville. I tell myself it will be my next bike. I don’t think of myself as a neo-classicist but I dig their world. If I were on my own Road Pickle adventure, my map would take me to See-See in Portland, Deus in Venice Beach, and wherever it is that the Show Class Magazine dudes hang out in North Carolina.

So, shine on you crazy Instagram diamonds. Keep drinking your Pabst and waxing your moustaches because you are making motorcycling cool and relevant.

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(1) Credit to Lucky for coming up with that term.

(2) I didn’t go to college there; my girlfriend of the time did. I always say she majored in breaking hearts.