The Journey

Where fat, old men ride bikes

Stillwater, MN
Hola, by the way. I was so eager to write up a post about the Harley-Davidson LiveWire as soon as I got back that I didn’t even take the time to mention it’s good to be back. Well, back blogging, at least. I wouldn’t have minded staying in America for a little longer.
Mrs. Cope and I were there for a little shy of three weeks, visiting my family in various parts of the Central Time Zone. First we spent a few days in Texas, where we celebrated my grandfather’s 90th birthday. Then we flew up to Minnesota to spend some time with friends and family in the Twin Cities, as well as celebrate the United States’ 238th birthday.
As I say, I would have liked to have stayed longer, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get a chance to meet up with Lucky, who I count as one of my real influences in this whole motorcycle obsession thing. I especially would have liked to have gotten his thoughts on some of the things I observed about the state of motorcycling in the United States. Or, at least, the state of motorcycling in Minnesota.  
I guess I had always known but never truly observed just how dominant Harley-Davidson is in American motorcycling. But, yeesh, it was almost creepy to see that level of uniformity. Outside of Austin, I’d say a solid 95 percent of the bikes I saw were cruisers. 
In Austin, I saw a little more moto-variety (I even spotted an old BSA!), so that gave me hope. Which is somewhat the opposite of what I felt when I was up in Stillwater, MN.
Get your wobble on 
It’s likely you’ve never heard of Stillwater, Minnesota. The town gets name checked in Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” but beyond that it’s pretty unspectacular. 
Or, at least, I think it gets mentioned in that song. The line “I’ll take the river down to Stillwater/ And ride a pack of dogs” certainly makes sense in a Minnesota context; Stillwater sits on the St. Croix, once a major logging river. I’m not wholly sure about the “pack of dogs” bit, though. Maybe Chris Cornell is referencing sled dog racing, which takes place in the surrounding St. Croix Valley.
I could be grasping at straws, however. Perhaps Soundgarden is singing about a different Stillwater. In which case, the Minnesota town’s claim to fame is that it is a quaint Americana spot on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border that has become a destination for local motorcyclists. The roads through town are arrow straight, and curves on the surrounding roads are few and far between, yet the rumble of motorcycle engines is constant. Perhaps bikers of the Upper Midwest just really love homemade fudge and bridal boutiques.
You could be forgiven for thinking
only one type of bike is sold in America.
Jenn and I visited Stillwater one afternoon and chose to take a leisurely lunch at a place called Charlie’s, which is notorious for its slow service. Never go there hungry, or if you want good food, or if you have anything to do that day. But on a sunny summer afternoon its large patio is a great place to drink beer while taking in the boats on the river, and the endless parade of V-twins that trundle the town’s main streets.
Jenn and I sat at Charlie’s for nigh two and a half hours. It was a weekday, so traffic was light, but I’d venture to say that a bike would pass by at least every two minutes or so. I saw just one bike that wasn’t a V-twin — a BMW K1600 — and only a handful of riders wearing helmets. The longer I sat there, the more disheartened I felt by the apparent state of motorcycling in Minnesota, and, by extension, the United States.
“This is where fat, old men come to ride their bikes,” observed my wife.
She had said it in a joking way, but the truth of her statement was undeniable. A good 80 percent of the riders we saw were very definitely closer to (or beyond) retirement than middle age, and not one of them looked to have skipped a meal since the Carter administration. Almost without exception, the only people wearing helmets were female. And no one — not one person — wore a protective jacket of any kind. By and large, riding gear consisted of T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes.
We were sat within eyesight of two intersections, so we got to watch no less than two dozen dudes nearly drop their bikes as they struggled to overcome the oh-so-mighty challenge of going in a straight line slowly. Everyone else (but the BMW guy, of course) took off from a stop with both feet splayed out. Additionally, I saw an annoyingly large number of dudes attempting to navigate town while keeping their feet on the highway pegs. And, of course, almost all were revving their engines (because, yeah, you need to keep the RPM up on that brand new fuel-injected bike). 
It was a constant flow idiocy that suddenly reminded me why I hadn’t gotten a bike after earning my motorcycle endorsement 20 years ago: I didn’t want to be associated with people like this. What 18-year-old kid wants to loop himself in with these goobers? Sitting there, I felt a wave of embarrassment to think that this is what my Minnesota friends must imagine when I tell them I now ride a motorbike.
I thought of my previous assertion that the Upper Midwest is the motorcycling heart of America. I thought, too, of a conversation I had in April with one of the UK engineers for Victory Motorcycles. He told me of getting to visit Polaris headquarters in Minnesota, and the company organising a group ride to Stillwater. Thinking about that now made me sad. This is the sort of thing that Victory engineers are shown; this is the audience they are targeting. No wonder they don’t bother putting good brakes on the Victory Judge.
And all of it offers a less-than-rosy picture of the future of motorcycling. If you look at the people and bikes rolling through Stillwater, there is very little to make you envious, to make you think: “Ooh, I want to be like that guy.” And if you love bikes like I do, seeing the utter lack of good examples in terms of riding and riders makes you feel that motorcycling must be doomed.
I’m ashamed to inform you that the behaviours I spotted in Stillwater extended to many other parts of the state I so desperately love. My people are morons.
The comforting news is that there are other people in other states. And somewhere out there — in Austin, for example — there are people who aren’t living up to bad “South Park” stereotypes. Enough of them that even Harley-Davidson is making some new, different and interesting bikes, like the LiveWire. It’s just a pity that so few such people are visible in my adopted home state.
So, for the sake of my 18-year-old self and the 38-year-old man who wishes he had gotten a bike way back when, if you are one of the non idiots of America please do what you can to make yourself visible. Be a good example. Ride your bike properly. Don’t be a bonehead. Help combat this stupid, embarrassing image. 
If you are a motorcyclist in Minnesota, meanwhile, please take an MSF course and learn how to ride.