Whoa. Is this a truism or what? Of course they are us. That's why we are so taken with them. That's why we feel so strongly about our motorcycles. That's why we take umbrage when someone acts as if their bike is superior. Motorbikes, boys and girls, are us. We are what we ride.
What better ego defining accouterment is there? "Please don't judge me by my shoes," Bob Dylan once said. But, of course we can judge folk by their footwear. How else you gonna do it? It's just that footwear alone does not make the man, or woman, though it came close with that Imelda Marcos babe.
Cars might say a little bit about us, but bikes offer a much more accurate statement, a much clearer view of the person. Who of us would deny that even simple ownership of these magnificent machines lends us each a special distinction? "Hey, is that your bike?" And this distinguishing function of just owning a bike, even if you don't really ride it, occurs right in the midst of our modern culture of conformity. `Frankly, you don't even have to know how many cylinders your bike has to make an impression on the masses. Simply owning a motorcycle, and talking about it as if you are a biker, is often sufficient.
Conformist culture is a biker's friend if one of your goals is to set yourself apart. I often say in defense of my own brand preference, which name most folk can't even pronounce, "What ya gotta do to be different these days?" Few of us want to be seen as ordinary. I work hard to promote Moto Guzzi, but, truth to tell, I don't really want to see these great bikes become fashion statements. Nor would I want to start seeing Guzzi window decals on every other teenager's wheezing Chevrolet Camero. A world where Guzzis were suddenly as common as Harleys would be a frightening world indeed.
If motorcycle ownership alone says something, then think of the volumes spoken by the serious pursuit of a genuine sport which actually uses said machine. For example, imagine the ego identification that goes with motorcycle racing. What a rush! Being the fastest, or one of the fastest, or soon to be the fastest ...the one of a kind speedster that you've always known in your heart you were destined to be. This is good, healthy ego stuff - personality and sport all rolled into one. We are what we ride. (We are what we eat too, but I think that is more cardiopulmonary than psychological, if I'm not mistaken..)
Then there are bike builders...some who create masterpieces that don't really get put into actual road or track use but are designed more for show than go. Again, think of the personal statements made by these bikes, and the glimpses they provide into the unique psyche of the builder himself. Motorcycles that are so stunning that they turn heads just standing still.
Other machines are purpose-built, and draw attention to their creators by what they can do more than how they look, most often in stark distinction to the store-bought machines of the regular folk, my own included, which perform strictly in accord with a pre-determined manufacturer's script and not beyond. The unique personality of the builder comes to life in the machine, and the motorcycle affirms its owner in ways that few other things can. Other objects simply don't do it like the personally built motorcycle does. The bike becomes the man, and the man is more "becoming" because of his ride. Personality finds expression in the bike, whether that creation be racer, intrepid touring rig, or street brawling dragster.
For those of us who keep our bikes in factory stock condition, we might define ourselves more by how we use them, either via our riding exploits or our riding skills. We may take special pride in certain kinds of trips, or the duration or frequency of these excursions. In a group, the high miler will sneak a glance at the odometers of other bikes. Or, our egos see expression in specific riding, tuning or maintenance skills. Some of us are fast. Others are steady. Some of us are agile and smooth. Others get there with a rigid muscling of the bike. Some of us fuss over our bikes endlessly. Others seem to be able to ride the same bike for years without any apparent sign of maintenance activity. Some can endure the harshest of weather for hours on end, while others boast of never having ridden even in rain. Some own an entire line of high priced riding gear. Others tool about in street clothes. These habits are both revealing and affirming. They are fun to indulge in when it's us, and fun to observe when it's someone else.
But back to the larger picture. How has modern culture's powerful, prevailing and historically recent emphasis on "self" affected the world of motorcycling? In a word, profoundly.
Most new motorcycle ads target middle aged, somewhat affluent adults who are hoping to recapture a [perceived] lost youth. Or, they are hoping to finally indulge a wild side of themselves that was never fully explored during the highly responsible early career and family years. Whether a person did the responsible stuff first, or plans to become responsible someday in the future, in mid-life they can struggle with meaning and purpose. Motorcycles have something to say to that.
Our local Harley Davidson dealer here likes to remind me that he'll be able to sell those ego-enhancing, under-engineered, overpriced parade bikes "as long as we've got Baby Boomers." That's a curious boast. There are a lot of ways to think about such an airy statement, but one can't deny its economic and psychological honesty. Ours - I'm 47 years old - is an American generation that, like none other, has enjoyed the historically unique luxury of focusing almost exclusively on itself. And that is precisely what we've been doing for a number of years now. Enter the motorcycle ...all purpose ego extender, able to overcome hair loss, family breakdown, sexual dysfunction, and that sinking feeling that life may be passing you by, as well as a host of other ego ailments. Being unhip is extremely unsettling for Boomers, and, in the spirit of the age, we simply don't put up with it. We go out and find a fix. Increasingly these days, that fix will involve a motorbike.
Marriages can be difficult and demanding. Jobs can be so boring that any diversion is welcomed, or they can be so stressful that any diversion is soothing. Parenting can nearly kill ya (and the children too). Few of us can be romantic Don Juans [all the time] or community pillars who must fight off the media at every turn, but any of us can buy a motorbike. From there it's a short step to imagining ourselves misunderstood outlaws, living dangerously, defying authority and now, finally, quite distinguished by our stunning individuality, not to mention good looks.
The problem is that if you don't really take the motorbike seriously, this erstwhile attempt to define yourself will be enfeebled, or worse. Ill-conceived posing as a real biker could become cause for snickering among your acquaintances and friends. We all know of the tragic figure who thought that his bike, and his leather outerwear alone, would make him the person he never really was before. Ouch. This is NOT something that we'd wish on anyone, but, thankfully, there is an antidote for that kind of misstep.
It's fine to begin your move into, or back to, the bike world in response to a basic ego drive for self-definition, but you'd best not stop there, lest all the world mark you as a pretender - save for aging relatives, of course, who always thought you were a renegade anyway, no matter how normal your life really was. Not being taken seriously is the kiss of death in most biker circles, so be careful when you are pretending. That is, be very sure to add some reality to this gambit. Go on real trips, for example, or race in real races. Or, if you insist on the tough guy approach, you really need to be tough once in awhile, not just talk tough.
After buying the bike, and taking it home, be sure to do the rest of the gig. You can't very well hope to impress anyone as a real biker if you just sit around chit chatting about how much of a motorcyclist you are. After a while folk catch on that you don't really ride much, but simply use your bike as an ego prop, and a rather transparent one at that. You might have once done these things, and been defined by them, but somewhere along the line you wandered off to other pursuits, leaving real biking as just an artifact of the past. Or, you never really engaged in the first place. Other bikers, in particular, are rather quick to spot the half-hearted amongst us, so take this sport seriously if you have any hope of reaping the benefits - yea, the ego benefits - of your endeavor, your defining relationship with the always ready motorcycle.
Once you really use your motorcycle, and develop those features of your identity that would otherwise not find expression, a whole world of self definition awaits your exploration, a world that begs for full involvement. You can call it life, or you can call it biking. It's best, however, not to worry about what to call it, but to simply get into it ...you and that rare and unique motorcycle of yours.
As soon as the weather warms a bit, go define yourself silly. Just remember to keep the rubber side down, cowboy, and be your own dog.