Sunday, September 24, 2006

More Than a Matter of Semantics

I was drinking adult beverages with some friends the other day when the subject of "choppers" came up. One fellow (for purposes of this discussion and for my future safety, we'll just call him Rider X) had recently purchased a Big Dog Pit Bull and was holding forth on the virtues of his new "chopper". I had to admit, it was a beauty. I loved the look and sound.

I don't know whether what came next was the result of some testosterone driven "cycle envy" or a beer-enhanced fondness for disputation, but I heard myself saying, "Rider X, you don't have a chopper."

"Whaddya mean I don't have a chopper?" What the f**k is it then." X is a big guy and he leaned across the table in a rather aggressive manner as he said this. My other friends ordered two more pitchers and sat back to see what would come next. Their expressions seemed to suggest that this might be an interesting development in the same way that the tv show Jackass has its special moments.

" Rider X what was your bike before it became a Big Dog?" He seemed perplexed.

"What? " What are you askin' me?" He seemed a bit confused now, but maybe that was just the three boilermakers kicking in.

I went on, "Before your beautiful bike became a Big Dog, what kind of bike was it?"

"It was always a Big Dog," shouted Rider X "That's stupid. It was just metal before that."

Discretion not being one of my many virtues, I pressed on. "You make my point Rider X. A chopper, by definition is a bike that has been "chopped". Your lovely, and dare I say, manly, ride is a new bike from the tires up. It is not a modified or "chopped" bike at all. It is a custom motorcycle. A custom, Rider X, not a chopper."

Actually , I'm not even sure that Big Dogs are customs. The word custom , to me, implies one-of-a-kind. I can go down to the Big Dog dealer, plunk down my $30-$50K and ride off on a bike just like X's. They are really production motorcycles made by a small manufacturer. Anyway, the discussion terminated when the bartender interrupted and told X that his wife had called and said that he was supposed to "Get his Big Dog ass home." X left quickly and as the sound of his pipes faded into the night, talk returned to more esoteric subjects like the butt on that red-headed cocktail waitress and the qualities of various football teams.

Is there more to this argument than just semantics? I recall in my youth when I could take my car to the local drag strip on Sunday. My '55 Ford with three-on-the-tree and a little 292 c.i. engine could, when in tune, get through the quarter in about 15 seconds and hit speeds in the 85 mph range. Raced in C or D stock, I can't remember for sure. My friends did the same thing. After the races were over, we put the mufflers back on and drove the cars home, and to school the next day. No expensive equipment. Only a few modifications allowed. The "real " dragsters that we watched were built and raced by by amateurs, shade tree mechanics many of them. I don't know when it changed but it did. Drag Racing now is a multi-billion dollar industry. I don't pay much attention anymore.

It seems to me that the same thing is happening in Motorcycling. The "bobbers" built in garages, the old knucklehead, rebuilt and hot-rodded,with a "chopped" frame made-by-owner has, to some extent, been replaced by the customs of OCC, Billy Lane, Arlen Ness, and others. Don't get me wrong. I like these bikes, but who can afford them? Not I.

It's not all bad. The new bikes are safer, better engineered. A friend of mine had a "chopped" 750 Triumph three cylinder that was positively dangerous to ride. Fun too. The steering geometry with that extended front fork was pretty strange. He crashed the bike and it damn near killed him. it just didn't do curves well at high speed and there were lots of others out there too. Of course some of the bikes I see on Biker Build-off are death traps too. No front brakes, open belt drives. But they aren't meant to be ridden much. At the prices charged, they are showpieces, either literally or figuratively. The old school bikes were built by riders to ride.

Of course all of this is moot. We can't, won't and probably shouldn't go back. But those bikes, those old choppers, bobbers, two-wheeled hot rods, we shouldn't forget.

Keep on keepin' on

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