Monday, 5 August 2013

Editorial - Thoughts on the Cult of Persecution

SV650 Custom Streetfighter

Time for a break from legitimate motorcycle journalism to showcase another rambling, raving editorial from OddBike's benevolent dictator and sole contributor, Jason Cormier.

Being a dedicated long-term motorcyclist ingrains in individuals a certain mindset that is particular to our sport. In joining a tight-knit fraternity of like-minded people who share a common passion, odds are you will start to develop a strong sense of belonging and will become defensive of your hobby. But few hobbies have as confrontational an attitude as motorcycling. Therein lies the peculiarity of being a “true” rider – you will find that you are constantly defending yourself against an onslaught of dangers, detractors, authority figures, and general disdain for your enthusiasm. This brings with it an attitude that I can only describe as a “Cult of Persecution” whereby your very participation in the sport forces you to develop a strong us-vs-them mentality.

SV650 Suzuki Streetfighter Custom

Being a motorcycle rider in itself is a process of exposing oneself to danger. It’s not, as the average person would think, due to the nature of straddling an obscenely fast machine that is powered by a series of barely-contained explosions with nothing to protect you from harm aside from what you are wearing, though that does play a factor. No, the real danger in riding lies in the very real threat posed by other people. A good education in how to ride a motorcycle usually begins with “here’s how you control the bike, here are the rules of the road, and by the way, everyone else on the road is a colossal idiot who is driving with the express intent of killing you dead”. The best piece of advice I was ever given as a beginning rider, aside from “look where you want to go”, was “ride like everyone is trying to kill you”. It’s an unfortunate fact but the majority of accidents are due to interactions with other people on the road (see page 4 for a good summary).
Honda Interceptor VF750F Ratbike

The Road is a dangerous place to be a rider. We must contend with the constant presence of these moving hazards in addition to the usual considerations of weather, road surface, obstacles, doddering pedestrians, schizophrenic wildlife, self-entitled bicyclists, and anything else that might conspire to ruin your day. You have to contend with distracted drivers piloting massive boxes of steel and glass who simply “didn’t see you” when they abruptly cut in front of you, across two lanes of traffic, without turn signals, and without any sense of spatial awareness. As such a long-term rider who has survived any time on public roads is going to develop a keen insight into how astonishingly dumb and dangerous other drivers are, which will inform his or her level of perception while riding. You must constantly assume that the drivers around you will do the most irresponsible, negligent and idiotic maneuver possible – then when they (inevitably) perform this action, you will be prepared to react and you won’t be caught off guard. This constant heightened level of awareness, and the regular close calls experienced by every rider, is probably the single most important determination of this attitude of persecution that we riders nurture. We say everyone is out to kill us in jest, but after a few years on the road you'll swear it is the honest-to-God truth.
BMW Honda Cabot Trail Cape Breton

The other determinate is the consistently ignorant and ill-informed opinions you are bound to encounter spouted off by any halfwit who decides that motorcycles are bad and you should feel bad for riding them. We all know these dolts, and we all lose a considerable amount of respect for them as soon as they open their maws and vomits out the terms “dangerous”, “scary”, or that cliché that grates to no end: “donorcycles”. Yes, we all know “that guy” or “that gal” who has thrown the ol' DC at us, with that smug expression on their face as if they were so incredibly clever to have come up with such a brilliant contraction. Because I haven’t heard that damnable term from every white-bread nitwit who is too scared to throw a leg over. Worse still, in my opinion, are the fallen riders - those former motorcyclists who have turned vehement enemies of the sport because they got scared off by some unfortunate circumstances. They are often the first ones to pull the out the dreaded "I knew someone who was killed on a bike" card, which is one of the most insulting and insensitive comments you can throw at a motorcyclist.
Sportbikes Montreal

If I have been riding bikes for many years, and I too have known many people who have been killed on bikes, and have had my own share of close encounters with the far side of death, you can be goddamned sure I’m well aware of any real or imagined “danger” and I chose to ride anyway because nothing else in my life makes me as happy as a perfect day on the back of a motorcycle. I'd rather take my chances and live, instead of resigning myself to an impossibly dull Suburbanite life with nothing to look forward to except playing golf every Sunday morning with a bunch of old dead-on-the-inside WASP men. Frank Drebin summarized it quite nicely: "You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan."
Sportbike Dyno Day

Time to digress. With all that being said, you can argue with these people until you pass out – they will never understand that the danger isn’t inherent, it is introduced in large part by absent-minded jerks like themselves, and the negative perceptions they propagate does nothing to advance our sport. They had long-ago convinced themselves that you are stupid for being so irresponsible as to enjoy yourself on a motorbike, and they will proselytize the error of your ways because they somehow feel smarter than you for recognizing the risks involved. This whole attitude against bikes speaks to a certain anthropomorphizing of the machine, whereby these naysayers fail to acknowledge that there is a person on these “donorcycles”, a person who extracts great enjoyment from the act of riding. To these detractors the machine and man are one, but not in the positive sense – it is a result of ignorance and a lack of respect that they view motorcycles as machinations that are threatening and dangerous in themselves, their inherent nature being unrelated and completely divorced from the pilots perched atop them or the circumstances surrounding them. Simply put without the flowery language – they fucking forgot that there are actual people riding these motorcycles.
Ducati Owner's Club of Montreal

So you have the actual dangers introduced by others and the constant parroting of the perceived dangers from everyone else. Those two factors alone would be enough to introduce an inferiority complex in the best of us. But there’s more. So much more.

The very act of riding a motorcycle inspires visions of outlaws and neo-wild-west fantasies of lawless escape on both sides of the continuum. Many motorcyclists flaunt the law and cultivate an image of badassitude, be it the patch-addled biker gang reject or the leather-clad wheelie-popping Power Ranger racer-wannabe. Lately we’ve had a resurgence in the Rocker image, with many a perfectly-groomed young punk astride his/her carefully modified classic machine outside the local espresso bar – you might call them café-racers, I’d call them hipsters who graduated from fixies. I’ll leave motocrossers out of our catalogue of stereotypes because they operate outside the public eye on closed courses and backwood trails, the lucky buggers. The ignorant public makes no attempt to look past these carefully constructed images and immediately labels anyone on two wheels an obnoxious, antisocial menace, further reinforcing the old tropes. To them we are nothing more than noisy, negligent, speed-crazed hooligans.The façade effectively becomes the reality. And then one side informs the other, and the cycle continues. And all the while you are creating a further division between the rider and the “other”.
Kawasaki Zx12 Burnout

Our predilection for modifying and tinkering with our rides tends to aggravate things. We are not ones to leave well enough alone. I can't recall the last time I encountered a bone-stock motorcycle. The obvious (and most illegal) changes are exhausts and fueling to improve sound and performance, which puts us at odds with every noise and emissions law this side of California. We love the hearty sound of an uncorked motor, and the precise throttle response of proper carburetion. A little extra performance is always welcome as well. Yes, we read those "for off road use only" tags and ignored them, even if we tell Mr. Officer we had no idea these pipes were illegal. We adjust fuel metering to make the bikes respond properly and run smoothly, something that is often lacking in lean-as-dammit-to-abide-by-the-EPA stock tuning. We make changes to the point where we no longer recognize the laws we are breaking, we just take it for granted and expect to be given a free pass because there is no way we wouldn't change this items. And then get sore when we are taken to task for our violations and fight back as if we were in the right all along. It becomes the classic outlaw mentality, where we no longer recognize the nature of  our deeds and take offense to anyone who tries to serve us punishment - only now we get mad because we were issued a fix-it ticket, not because we were caught robbing the Union Pacific No. 3.      
Motorcycle Flaming Burnout Kawasaki ZX12

Insurance companies, government bureaucracies, and law enforcement further ingrain our sense of alienation. Depending on your locale, you might face obscenely high insurance and/or registration rates for being so bold as to chose a motorcycle as your mode of conveyance. Speaking from personal experience, in my province of Quebec we have faced significant opposition over the last 10 years in the form of astronomical increases in registration costs. I currently pay $1100 per year (taxes included) to register my bike. Register. A license plate and a slip of paper, and a vague statement about how my choice of "high-risk" motorcycle is too expensive to insure under our no-fault insurance system in spite of my 10 years riding experience and a flawless driving record. I still pay my actual vehicle insurance on top of that fee. The cost of registration peaked at $1400 a year and were scheduled to go over $1800, but those kind souls at the SAAQ (our dimwitted equivalent of the DMV) were so generous as to reduce our rates to $1100, only slightly up from the the $320 we paid before 2008. I just rolled my eyes so hard I think I may have detached my retinas.
Honda NC24 BMW Flying Brick

To add insult to injury we are charged an additional annual fee on our license renewal to retain our motorcycle endorsement, and every time I call or visit a SAAQ outlet they ask me if I want to keep renewing my motorcycle class as if it were some blight on my record that I should erase. And so it is that we here are made to feel like second-class citizens, guilty of enjoying a passion that was seen as an easy target to milk for funds. Lately we've been targeted en-masse for loud exhausts, not to mention the usual speed traps, with widespread harassment and hefty fines becoming the norm for riders in this province. It all contributes to a general sense of malaise and disrespect that has given our province a bad name among motorcyclists all over the country. Aside from destroying the local motorcycle industry and putting a serious damper on bike sales, it has turned off a lot of would-be two-wheeled tourists who would rather not encounter our notoriously overzealous law enforcement.
1987 Honda VFR400R NC24

Sometimes the sense of persecution can be indirect as well. Recently there have been some slapshod repairs done to some local riding backroads in the form of tarsnakes. Tarsnakes are a threat to riders in general, being enough to upset traction in a turn, but these are a particularly sinister type of 'snake that are the most diabolical thing I've ever encountered on a public road. They are some sort of new formulation that is horrifically slippery - black-ice slippery. Forget diesel spills and gravel - these are sudden-death overtime game enders. Riding over them is terrifying, the bike simply skates and shimmies across the surface - and that is at speeds well below the limit. There have been several serious accidents along one popular stretch of road where these menaces were applied. My immediate reaction upon encountering this stretch of road was that some pencil-necked bureaucrat had approved a new supplier for the material that would save the government a few pennies per year, only to inadvertently endanger thousands of motorcyclists across the province. I felt personally affronted - someone had made a casual, uninformed decision that might result in my death or injury. A few half-hearted conspiracy theories were concocted that the locals were trying to drive us off their road with shoddy repairs (my personal theory of them driving their cars up and down the route at 10 under the posted limit without giving way is continually proven by subjective testing, however). It's clearly a case of inadequate testing, or poor application of the repair, but our immediate reaction as riders tends towards "they are out to get us!". 
Ducati 916 Winter

The attitude of riders in these situations can sometimes be quite surprising to people outside the motorcycle community. After years of harassment we tend to become indignant at any suggestion of wrongdoing, no matter how wrong our doing may be. We snap like cornered animals whenever someone denounces us - no room for polite discussion. With our recent rash of loud-pipe tickets issued as part of the Quebec crackdown on noisy bikes (motorcycles are specifically and explicitly targeted) the prevailing attitude has been to fight back and take the citations to court. While I'm not one to advocate laying down and accepting the bullying of an authority at the expense of your rights, let's not kid ourselves - if you break the law, expect to get caught and prepare to pay for the infraction. If your pipes aren't legal and you get a ticket, you shouldn't be surprised. If you speed and get pulled over, you shouldn't be blaming the cops. If you get caught pulling wheelies... You get the idea. We are not any more above the law than those pompous dolts on bicycles who ignore every traffic signal and then moan loudly on the local news about the injustice of getting ticketed for blowing through a red light. Except we aren't as likely to get the media airtime to make ourselves look like self-entitled morons.
Ducati 900 Super Sport and 916

This sort of opposition to anything and everything that impinges on our riding can create odd situations, like we are seeing in many US states where there is vocal opposition to mandatory helmet laws. I think anyone with half a brain can agree that crashing without a helmet means you are going to have a bad time. A helmet can and will save your life, I would hope everyone is willing to admit. The point of fighting mandatory helmet laws is not because of any objection to the helmet itself so much as it is to fight the removal of one more element of personal freedom. Riders who object to helmet laws do so to protect their right to chose for themselves, even if that choice is one of self-endangerment. Soon the actual law becomes secondary to the cause it represents and much rhetoric and misinformation gets bandied about on both sides, and pretty soon a nice little quagmire has developed where riders are in the news claiming that helmets somehow don't contribute to safety. Then you end up with surreal developments like the AMA standing against helmet laws and making motorcyclists in general look dumb. And then when the laws are finally repealed, the motorcycle injury rates promptly spike. We fight to the extreme and end up going backwards, all the while alienating ourselves from the public.
Ducati 916

I try to maintain a certain balance in my attitude towards "outsiders". I defend my interests and my love of the sport. I will never let anyone get away with dismissing my community with ignorant rhetoric. I maintain a healthy skepticism of the machinations of authority and their supposed benevolence to us tax-paying motorists (fool me once, shame on you; fool me 3,586 times, what the fuck am I still doing here?). But despite this I remain a civil and agreeable member of my community. I wish to present a strong but friendly image to non-riders, one of a man who is passionate and will defend his interests vehemently but without aggression or unreasonable demands. I think this is the best approach for the community in general - throw off the bad-boy image and replace it with a cool, collected and intelligent disposition that shows confidence without obnoxious bravado. Show that we are people who enjoy what we do, and that we won't take your bullshit sitting down. Civil action and public discourse is required - if we stand in the corner and complain amongst ourselves, further alienating our group from the public, we won't get our issues noticed and we certainly won't get anything changed in our favour. Our position in society is a precarious one at times, and we are impinged upon from all sides. The cult of persecution is real and entirely justified, but it should be an impetus to act and improve our station, not to back ourselves into a corner and lash out at our attackers.
SV650 916 Cabot Trail

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