Notes from the Lost Tribe: the 2012 International Motorcycle Studies Conference

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It seems there is no tract of jungle so dense it hasn’t been mapped, no tribe so remote they haven’t been the subject of three dissertations and two documentaries. Reclusive Yanomami in the Amazon have Pepsi t-shirts. Nomadic herdsmen in Outer Mongolia are tweeting about their favorite fermented horse milk.

Likewise, every single possible American subculture seems to have been dissected, investigated, and described to the point of utter exhaustion. There is no fresh territory. No group so weird, no misfits so misfitty they haven’t been absorbed. Well, none except for one: you, the motorcyclist

Photo: Allan Grant/LIFE

But how can someone really study bikers? The most fractious bag of contrarians, hippies, nihilists, Dudes, adrenaline junkies, Zen junkies, “nicest people,” criminals, elitists, anti-elitists, dentists, hipsters, and guys like you and me who of course do not fit into any labels at all. If they can be defined at all, it is only by the central biker paradox: a group of non-joiners. Loners in gangs. Herds of cats. Asphalt Ahabs on monomaniacal quests for the transcendent 11-dimensional whale that hides in the apex of a turn or on a desert highway.

Last week, I attended the 2012 International Motorcycle Studies Conference in Colorado Springs, CO. Most academic conferences spend a lot of time taking a hair that has already been split seven ways and trying to see if you can split it one more time and still call it a hair. The hyperspecialization will continue, I guess, until every individual has their own personal researcher following them around. This conference was the opposite of that. While there is a lot of talk out there about “interdisciplinary” whatnot, here was a truly eclectic group of people studying what they’re passionate about from a bunch of different angles.

So who goes to a conference like this? These are academics in engineer’s boots. Professors who ride – who seriously ride. Almost all of the attendees are bikers, many have been riding since the 1960s or 70s, and some rode to Colorado from as far as LA, Maryland, or Florida. BMWs were heavily represented in the group, some Ducatis, some HDs, and a couple Japanese sport bikes. There was even one CanAm, but no non-HD cruisers; I don’t know if that means anything.

They teach in a variety of areas: English, Sociology, History, American Studies, History of Technology, Anthropology, Philosophy. There was one filmmaker and (ahem) one architect. For many of them, I get the impression they pursue research in motorcycles without a lot of support from their departments or colleagues. I think they study this because they can’t not. They are both the subject and the object of study. They are Donald Johanson and Lucy rolled into one. Jane Goodall and a chimp.

So what do they talk about? “Give me liberty or give me death,” was the opening quote of the first presentation, an apt beginning for a narrative talk on patriotism and biker culture by Charles Johnson of Valdosta State University, but also for the whole show. The next presentation, by J. Richard Stevens of UC Boulder, was about Captain America and how he changed over the decades with American culture, and how the motorcycle in the comic book stories, toys, and movies participated in that change. Then Jeffrey Montez de Oca of UC Colorado Springs dissected the opening drag-race scene from the movie “Black Rain” in the context of the late-80s economic and cultural climate. I’m not going to list every single topic, but what I’m trying to say is, there was some very unexpected and surprisingly fascinating stuff right off the bat.

Some of the presentations might be more what you would expect. What makes a vintage bike valuable – not just the price but the value? What caused the decline of the British motorcycle industry? (Answer: it’s complicated. If you’re really interested in this, you should get Steve Koerner’s book The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry. His presentation was very in-depth, and he has obviously done a tremendous amount of first-hand research.) Of course, we talked about the Coco Chanel / Kiera Knightley / Ducati video.

This is just a random sampling of the 22 presentations plus one film, “Fugue for Motorcycle.” They ranged from technical topics to fashion to helmet laws to Existentialism to gender issues to motorcycle literature. Some of the best discussions were actually not in the lecture hall, but in some of Colorado Springs’ finest drinking establishments, where freewheeling debate mixed with road stories.

Was this a little nerdtastic? Sure. But honestly, if you can’t shamelessly geek out about obscure 80s turbo-charged bikes or a short-lived anarchistic/punk biker mag in London in the late 70s called “On Yer Bike!” then what’s the point? We can’t let our culture be defined by the innumerable bullshit reality biker shows (which, come to think of it, we never talked about – maybe because they don’t have anything to do with anything). We own this.

Authenticity is very important to most bikers, it seems to me. I guess you can say that for most groups, but it seems especially true for us. We like to sniff out phonies and snarl at outsiders who claim to understand us, so one of my first questions about this conference was whether these people were the real deal. Would this just be detached ivory-tower types judging and analyzing us with post-Freudian mumbo-jumbo? Will they really “get it”? Well, they is us, and they do this because they is us. It was totally genuine, and genuinely fun. It’s great to know there is this small group of people standing up and saying, hey, this is legit. This is real scholarship. It reminds me of Dr. John saying, “Your steak ain’t no hipper than my pork chop / Your Cadillac ain’t no hipper than my bus stop / Your champagne ain’t no hipper than my soda pop.” Your Homer ain’t no hipper than my biker life.

The next conference will be in 2014. You should go. If you can’t wait that long, check out the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. Now make no mistake, this is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, so expect serious articles, not “An Ode to the Road.” You might also check out the book “Motorcycle” by Suzanne Ferriss and Steven Alford, the editors of IJMS. Put it between your “Big Book of Deus” and your unread copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

  • ike6116

    Cool article.

    Who is Carter Edman?

    • Gene
    • carter

      Who is Carter Edman? hmm. I’m an architect, a writer, and a biker. I have a lightly modded 2008 Bonneville and a non-running 1970 BSA Lightning project. I also teach part-time at CWRU, including a course on motorcycles and American culture. I’m a Clevelander and everything that implies. I’ve been from Maine to Spain to Spokane, I was born on the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep. I believe in the hanging curve ball. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! Who’s with me? AAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaa!!!

      • ike6116


        What does being a Clevelander imply? You were possibly an extra in Major League and you hate LeBron James?

        • hops

          Actually most of Major League was shot in Milwaukee

      • Wes Siler

        Damnit, forgot the boilerplate AGAIN. Working poolside really makes me worthless.

        • ike6116

          Tell me again how you’re hard at work on a lot of behind the scenes features?

          • Campisi

            Research, man. Research.

            • muckluck

              put your blinders on!

          • Sean MacDonald (the other Sean)


  • the_doctor

    Neat. Sounds like a seriously good time.

  • Gene

    UC Boulder is really into their bikes.The Denizens of Doom online-MC-club-thingie started there 20 years ago on USENET, before the web, and almost before the Internet.

    I haven’t read “The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry” but “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry” is really really good. It’s by Bert Hopwood, who worked for Ariel, Triumph, BSA, & Norton at the time when the “shit was going down”

    It was hell to read that book because I see a lot of it happening in the IT industry.

    • muckluck

      didn’t all stem off of the union laborers and their protests?

  • JMcMahon

    I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when I was 15 and first got my motorcycle permit. What I took away from it was they following; cool book about a ride out west, a little preachy, man that kid is a whiner, Persig is kind of a smug dick. I was proud to have finished the book but thought that it would probably make more sense to me after more life experience. I re-read the book at 27 and came up the exact same conclusions.

    • aristurtle

      I liked it, but it was more about Pirsig’s philosophy than motorcycling; he’s more or less using the motorcycle as a prop for his chautauqua (or whatever you might call it)

      • JMcMahon

        It is a book that is often suggested as a must read for any motorcyclist or budding philosopher. For me, I think it is one of books that can only fail to live up to the built up expectations. Its a good book, but fell short of life changing.

        • Tyler

          It’s been a loooong time since I read the book (and it took me two try’s to get through it) but I thought it was about trying to define what quality meant. Maybe I’m thinking of something else though.

          • filly-fuzz

            No, that’s the one.
            one of my favorite books of all time.
            If you dig that defiantly read Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Now that is life changing.

            • Ed Bisdee

              It’s really three books in one: The metaphysics bit about “quality”, the story of the camping trip, and the “Chautauqua”, the bit that’s actually about Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance.
              The first one, as far as i can tell, is handwavy codswollop, makes no sense and was never taken up as a serious philosophical theory by anyone but pirsig. I’m sure it seemed very profound to anyone who was on drugs, but it doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense. The camping trip bit is interesting, but pirsig comes across as a bit of a dick to his son. Ignore these two bits, skip through them if you get lost, or find them dull.
              However, the sections talking about Zen and how it relates to motorcycle maintenance (and any other practical work for that matter) is just fantastic. It really provides a well though out philosophical and mental approach to hands on work that isn’t ever covered by any other book about building or fixing things (that i’ve found, if you know of one, please tell me!). I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially if you find that sort of work stressful!

              • stempere

                Books written taking drugs should be read doing so.
                I’m more of a red wine & Bukowski amateur myself, but i’m french so that’s a given in both case.

                Gonna get Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the kindle for this summer.

              • Ed Bisdee

                Here’s a great article on ZAMM in the journal mentioned above, written in the same style. Worth a read!


            • M

              egb is an awesome, awesome exercise in thought experimentation — the things it suggests about the way we think and reason are extremely interesting.

              however, it’s one of those things that is kind of a curtain in front of the man, really. in terms of the fields the author taps or at least is parallel to when he’s making his arguments and illustrations, what he’s really doing is propping up some interesting speculation on some very, very old foundations. sometimes in ways that are pretty anachronistic.

  • jpenney

    Too bad about The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry not being in a digital format. I would have already bought it and started reading it.

  • Zach

    Glad to discover the journal archives are open-access.

  • Campisi

    “… And your unread copy of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’”

    Hey, just because someone gives me a book doesn’t mean I have to read it. I was too busy reading Camus and The Principia Discordia, until the next excuse not to read it came around.

  • dux [87 CBR600, 95 XR600R]

    Dammit, I read that book. I may need to take a trip to Colorado in a couple years, too to check out the bike nerd convention.

  • Erik

    Some more scholarly bike books for the reading list;
    “Riding with Rilke” Ted Bishop, an English professor goes for a ride, (much better than Zen)
    “The Rebels: A brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers” Danny Wolf, grad student becomes a prospect for 1 percenter club as research for Phd Thesis. (Possibly the most accurate, non sensational but still readable picture of the outlaw lifestyle.
    “Shopcraft as Soulcraft” Mathew Crawford, ex philosophy student discovers useful work. (Should be required reading for those who have never experienced earning their living by making or fixing useful things, and probably avoided by those who actually have.)

    • Ed Bisdee

      Great suggestions Erik! I’ve just ordered Shopcraft as Soulcraft after reading the essay it was based on.

      • Wes Siler

        Shopcraft is terrible. That chapter they excerpted in the NYTimes was the only relevant part of the entire thing.

        • Gene

          Same here. Awful. One of the few books I’ve thrown across the room.

          • BMW11GS

            Ah shoot, I have tried to get through it but have been stopped several times now. I was hoping it would get better. Arn’t there a few good points about working with your hands in their?

        • gregc

          I really wanted to like this book, and I was able to wade through the mess until about halfway through. Some good points, stretched way past their breaking point, and dressed up in big words.

          • Ed Bisdee

            balls… ah well, i’ll still give it a read once it arrives.

  • MotoRandom

    Okay, just found a used copy of “Motorcycle” and it’s on the way. Instant internet gratification. As far as “Zen and the Art…”, I just learned two interesting things recently: One, Robert Pirsig spent time struggling with mental illness 10 years before the book was published. It’s important to remember as you work your way through the book that the bike trip itself and the book are intertwined with his journey to cope with his internal struggles. It is a challenging book to read and as Ed Bisbee pointed out above, it’s really three different stories mixed together. Use at your own risk and your mileage may vary. Two, sadly, Robert’s son Chris who featured prominently in the book was stabbed to death in 1979 during a mugging outside of the San Francisco Zen Center. I’m sure that even this far removed from the event, condolences are still in order.

    As far as motorcycle reading, especially of the intellectual variety, I would strongly recommend “Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling” by Steven L Thompson. Easily the best book I have ever read on why we ride and what makes us different from those who don’t. Very well written and easy to understand. You will come away with your eyes opened much wider and will be more excited about your next ride. In fact, you will probably stop a couple of times while reading it to go for a quick ride. It’s just that good.

    • gregc

      Thanks for the recommendation, it’s headed to the Kindle right now. I also really liked “The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles”. I read it when I was just started to ride, and it nicely captured the blend of fear and excitement of merging into high-speed traffic. I might re-read it to see how it holds up after 5 years of riding.

  • Gregory

    All you have to do is read “Song Of The Sausage Creature”.


  • mugget

    This one, awesome line: “Asphalt Ahabs on monomaniacal quests for the transcendent 11-dimensional whale that hides in the apex of a turn or on a desert highway.”

    I can relate to that!