Motorcycles and the rebels who ride them have come a long way since the days when parents, preachers and politicians railed against the evils of biker gangs like Brando’s Black Rebels. Today’s highways are filled with two-wheeled family road trips, gospel-preaching motorcycle clubs and ex-governors crashing their Hogs in the Alaska wilderness.
People in the industry and in the biker community agree that motorcycling is more popular and socially accepted than ever before. And along the mountain trails and beachside paths of Alabama, biker culture is thriving.
David Haynes, author of Motorcycling Alabama: 50 Ride Loops through the Heart of Dixie, grew up outside Birmingham racing dirt bikes. In 2005, he caught the biker bug again and has since clocked nearly 200,000 miles.
“It’s not about going from here to there; it’s about the roads getting there,” Haynes explained. “That’s part of it, leaning over and feeling that centrifugal force, rolling the throttle coming out of the turn, feeling the power of the bike.”
Haynes spent three years traveling the state in search of the routes featured in his book and caught a firsthand glimpse of Alabama’s motorcycle culture along the way.
“People from all walks of life are now riding motorcycles,” he said. Haynes recalled a bike run near Chattanooga, Tenn., where he was joined by a munitions expert from Anniston, a lawyer from Rome, Ga., a former NFL player, an accountant, a teacher, an artist and a cop.
“You just never know who you’re going to meet on the road,” he said.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s owner survey, considered the unofficial census of the biker community, the number of motorcycles in use in the U.S. grew 18.7 percent between 2003 and 2008. In Alabama, that number jumped 30.6 percent.
“Even with the recession, we wouldn’t want to trade this decade for the ‘80s or ‘90s,” said Ty VanHooydonk, MIC’s director of communications.
VanHooydonk credited a number of factors for the rising popularity of motorcycles, including improvements in safety and training, rising gas prices and the industry’s lobbying efforts. And, of course, motorcycles are cool.
“People are a lot more active and adventurous than they used to be,” he added. “And how does something become cool? Cool people do it.”
Even CEOs do it
If by cool, VanHooydonk means young, then he might be right. The same MIC survey showed that the number of bikers isn’t just increasing; it’s increasing in surprising demographics:
• In 2003, around the time bikers started conjuring up images of beer-bellied grandpas with ZZ Top beards rather than brooding bad boys, motorcycle owners from the Baby Boomer generation outnumbered those from Generation Y (born after 1980) by four to one. Six years later, that gap had closed considerably, down to almost one to one.
• The number of female bike owners rose 52 percent between 2003 and 2008, making nearly one out of nine owners a woman.
• And to top it off, that increase was primarily due to Gen Y women, who jumped from 6 percent to 14 percent of total motorcycle owners between 2003 and 2008.
Keith Edwards and George Silva, owners of the Mt. Cheaha Harley Davidson store in Oxford, said they have noticed a huge increase in the number of female riders, as well as couples, visiting their store.
One of those women, Peggy Weigel, said she spent 25 years riding on the back of her husband Steve’s Harley Davidson.
“When we first got married we didn’t have a car, just a motorcycle,” she recalled. “I actually rode on it while I was pregnant with my first baby.”
The Weigels still enjoy riding together, but now Peggy has her own set of wheels. She bought her first motorcycle, a three-wheeled Harley Trike, last June, and has already put 7,000 miles on it.
“The view from the front seat is better than the back,” she confirmed.
Dan Parrish, owner of DMZ Cycle in Alexander City, has been riding for 43 years and has noticed another facet of the biker community.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, lawyers and CEOs wouldn’t even consider getting on a motorcycle. Now you see Harvard grads riding,” he said. “You go to the rallies in Daytona Beach or Sturgis and you don’t know if those bikes belong to someone who makes $25,000 a year or $25 million a year. Talking to them you’d still never know. Riding is one thing that puts everybody on the same playing field.”
It’s a biker thing, you wouldn’t understand
As different as each rider may be, members of today’s biker community agree steadfastly that they are a tight-knit group and their skyrocketing diversity has not changed that.
“I have never seen a motorcycle pass another motorcycle on the side of the road without stopping to help,” Parrish said. “Doesn’t matter what race, age, what kind of bike you’re on. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 in the morning, if someone needs help, we help.”
Haynes said he once saw a post on a biker forum from a guy stranded in Hayden on his way home to Indianapolis. He got in touch with the stranger, fixed his flat tire and gave him a place to stay for the night.
“Anybody would do that for me, and I’d do it for anybody. Because it could easily be me,” he said.
Haynes attributed the strong camaraderie among bikers to the shared risk of riding, and the knowledge in the back of his mind that every ride could be the last.
“Everyone that rides knows someone who’s been hurt or killed. You sort of have a bond naturally,” he explained. “Everyone around you is riding in cars with four steel walls around them, and you and this other person have made the choice to trade that safety for the risk.”
There is another sentiment echoed through the biker community, that the reward is worth the risk. And unless you’ve experienced the unrivaled reward of motorcycle riding, you just don’t get it.
“Open road, open air, open mind. If I had to explain it, you wouldn’t understand,” Edwards said.
“The calming effect and freedom of being on that motorcycle,” Parrish tried to articulate before trailing off. “I wish there were words to describe it.”
Haynes came the closest to capturing the thrill of the ride.
“Say that it’s springtime. You’re going down a twisty, curvy mountain road and everything is just blurring by, all these colors and fragrances from the honeysuckle and whatever else is blooming. But you feel like you’re in it, with it. You’re part of it in a way,” he said, before conceding as well. “It’s hard to describe if you’ve never ridden, but there is nothing like it.”