Artwork by Mr. Jensen
Artwork by Mr. Jensen

From a Long Way Off

When I look at today’s young motorcyclists, I despair, as you’ve no doubt sensed in previous columns. I know I sound like a cliché, a grumpy old man, but I can’t help myself. I see the boring sameness of their rarely used bikes, their silly gear and the amazing uniformity of their behavior.

But maybe I’m not the best guy to judge them. Yesterday, thanks to a conversation over coffee with a friend, I had an insight, one that may make me less critical. We’ll see.

I’d just watched Bullitt for perhaps the 20th time. This time I watched it with a strong sense of nostalgia. I lived in San Francisco while the movie was being filmed, 50 years ago.

I’ve had coffee in the cafe on Broadway where McQueen goes with Jacqueline Bisset, ridden all those streets he covers with Bob Duval in the cab, ridden the roads you see in the chase scenes, and the highways he drives with gorgeous Bisset in her gorgeous open Porsche.

I was telling my friend about what I’d seen in the movie, how you could smoke in the airport and how you stopped your car at the curb and used payphones to make calls and how you had no cellphone to call for backup from your personal green Mustang.

How cops could send fingerprint records from place to place with a device as slow and noisy as the clatter-wheels of destruction or an MRI machine. How men shielded women from seeing the seamy side of life. How you could make a movie about manly men with only one word of profanity.

Artwork by Mr. Jensen
Artwork by Mr. Jensen

I was 25 years old in ‘67, the year Bullitt was made. I worked as a parts man in a Honda shop in The City, as we called it, as if there were no other cities. At that time, if you were young and as yet unsettled into some pigeonhole in society, it was the place to be. Ah, the Summer of Love.

Because I was a rider and worked in the bike business, I was surrounded by other riders, often seven days a week. Mostly, they were my age, plus or minus a few years. They were street riders, road racers, mechanics, tuners and guys who cow-trailed or rode scrambles or enduros.

I know we felt we’d invented the sport, that any motorcycling that had gone on before us was primitive and probably redneck. County fair racing on horse-tracks. Mom and pop in their yachtsmen’s caps on their heavily fringed Harley backfiring and shooting flames out the exhaust. The Black Rebel MC in Hollister.

I never paused to reflect on how we looked, we mid-’60s motorcyclists, to folks who’d been riding for years. I’d give anything to know how they felt about us. I’ll bet they disapproved of us just as some of us do of young motorcyclists today. They were too polite to say anything, I think.

Here’s where the epiphany came in: When I gaze critically at 25-year-old motorcyclists, I am gazing from a long way off. I’m 50 years older than they are, half a damn century.

Motorcyclists 50 years older than I were born before the First World War! They’d be over well 100 years old now!

They’d learned to drive in Model T Fords, cranked the handle on the telephone and asked Mabel to put through their call. They spent their riding lives on side-valve motorcycles with kickstarters, tank-side shift levers, no rear suspension and almost no brakes.

They were 25 as WWII was looming. Thousands fought the Japanese. Many learned to ride in the service. They laid their lives on the line, believing surely that they were making the world safe for guys like me. And what did I do? As soon as I could afford it, I bought a Honda!

When they noticed me in ‘67, 20 prosperous years after their discharges, I was riding an overhead-cam bike with flat handlebars, huge alloy brake drums and adjustable rear shocks — made, as I’m sure they thought, from old beer cans on machines supplied postwar by the good ol’ USA.

What must they have felt when they saw me and thousands of longhairs like me on tiny, buzzy, bright-colored motorcycles made for God’s sake in JAPAN?

And if one of them had asked me about my choices in equipment or clothing or whatever, and if that person had sounded critical… I’d have doubted that a creature so rooted in the rigid-frame past could have an informed opinion about mid-Sixties motorcycling, my motorcycling.

What could he know? He’d never heard of the TT or the Rockers. He’d never met those nicest people. He’d have died before wearing one-piece racing leathers that looked like shiny black long-johns. He’d never thought of paying someone to change his oil. He’d never pressed a button to start a motorcycle.

And I’m just as far removed in time and technology from today’s Millennial motorcyclist as that old man was from me, back when a Manx Norton was a World-beater.

Why, back then most road-going motorcycles had street tires, not oversize knobbies. They had rear fenders (might rain, y’know) and glossy paint. And over 1,000 miles on their odometers. They had proud owners who knew a bit about marque history and motorcycle maintenance.


I’m gonna try to be kinder to today’s motorcycling youth, see if I’m not. Even if I don’t feel kinder in my heart of hearts, I believe I can fake it.

This story originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.