UNEASY RIDER

Our intrepid reporter takes the Harley-Davidson Love Ride

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

 

 

      Running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and 90 miles an hour down the center stripe -- like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus.

      Those aren't my observations. They belong to Hunter S. Thompson, who documented a Labor Day motorcycle ride for his 1966 book "Hell's Angels."

      The extent of my knowledge of motorcycling comes from that book and from those jerks who loudly whiz between your car and the next in traffic, causing you to check if your sideview mirror is still attached. Of course there was also "Easy Rider," which might have had a greater effect on me had anyone ever adequately explained what Peter Fonda meant when he declared "we blew it" to Dennis Hopper, just before the movie's climax.

      These images are how I imagined the Love Ride would be when I registered: a gaggle of outlaws roaring like ignoble animals at the straight world, dislodging sideview mirrors in the name of living free.

      But what do I know? The last time I was up on two wheels, there was a basket on the handlebars filled with Sunday papers for me to deliver.

      The Love Ride is a pledge drive from Glendale to Castaic Lake, 50 miles north. Sponsored by Harley-Davidson of Glendale, the 16th annual event raised a reported million dollars to fight muscular dystrophy and illiteracy. Celebrity participants included Peter Fonda, Billy Idol, Larry Hagman, Lorenzo Lamas, Lindsay Wagner and Robert Blake.

      It was not such a smashing success for me, at least not in the beginning. The first indication that my Hunter S. Thompson fantasy was steering toward a crash was being told what a motorcycle license requires: a 16-hour course from the DMV. Foolishly, I informed the Love Ride people of my plan and they refused to let me participate even if I got the license, because of my inexperience.

      If I want to know riding, I'm told, I'll have to do it in a sidecar. Riding sidecar is one step up on the machismo scale from holding on to the driver's back.

      Hunter S. never rode in a sidecar.

      I request a dangerous driver. If I'm going in such wimpy style, I need compensation. I want a guy with his insurance canceled and license dangling by a thread, a guy with only a few teeth whose girlfriend recently cheated on him with his best friend and who drinks malt liquor out of a paper bag while driving.

      Appearances suggest that many gentlemen loitering around the Love Ride starting area may fit my requirements. I spot one with a T-shirt whose back is emblazoned with -- honest -- "If you can read this, the bitch fell off!"

      I get Doug Bingham instead. He is a likable 60-year-old native of Buffalo, New York who owns a sidecar-manufacturing company in Van Nuys. He has some likable older friends and seems to play riding by the book. He even refuses to let me rev the throttle on his handlebar, just so I can know what it would have felt like.

      "I want you to know, I turned down Lindsay Wagner for you," Doug tells me, kidding but probably a little annoyed. "I put her in my buddy's sidecar instead, so I expect good publicity from you."

      Nearly 20,000 bikes are lined up to go this crisp Sunday morning, chrome glimmering like Donny Osmond's teeth. As we look them over, my photographer, Andrea Ross, is overcome by testosterone. She says she'd like to take one home, referring to either one of the rides or one of the riders, I can't tell.

      Rides are what bikers call their motorcycles, by the way -- as in "Live to Ride, Ride to Live," the Harley slogan. The ride Doug and I have is a Honda, unfortunately. Instead of the Uzi sound of a Harley Fat Boy, the Honda CB750K emits the buzz of a giant gnat.

      "They made a mistake by putting you on one of those," I was told earlier by a man who would identify himself only as No Good from Lakeview Terrace. He stated that real men drive only Harleys.

      "You've got the vroom power and the vibration," Mr. Good enlightened me, "nothing but (expletive) power."

      I didn't have the gonads to admit that I wasn't even riding on the Honda, but in a sidecar next to it. Of the six other sidecars I spot lined up to ride, there's either a female, a child or a pet in every one.

        The whoosh of taking off is a gas. My legs vibrate like an unbalanced washload. The wind whips so strongly, it almost sucks my helmet off. And my leather motorcycle jacket is finally doing what it was made for, after 5 years of bad heavy-metal concerts and 10 years of retirement.

      "Ride 'em cowboy!" one of a blur of spectators yells. From every overpass, they jump up and down and wave. I experience the sudden urge to claim a sideview mirror.

      Because our entourage includes the former Bionic Woman, Doug and I are among the first bikers on the road. I keep a concerned eye out for Billy Idol, who made motorcycle accidents famous in the early '90s, and earlier today required someone else to jump-start his bike for him.

      It's not Idol but a Ford Mustang that cuts uncomfortably close to Lindsay Wagner, who is ironically a Ford spokesperson. I feel protective of my childhood icon before I realize that she has nothing to worry about -- they can rebuild her, they have the technology.

      Harleys flashing chrome as traffic on the 101 moves over, nervous, to let the formation pass like a burst of dirty thunder.

      More Hunter S. Thompson. Sorry, but I love that book.

      In reality, once we're on the 5 North for a few minutes, I realize that we're not parting traffic or even evoking disapproving stares from any of the automobile drivers alongside us. It's more like born to be mild.

      Only one group of people seems to glance over and down at my sidecar: female bikers as they vroom by in their Harleys. Or maybe it just seems that way. I'm glad I'm wearing a full-face helmet to conceal my identity. A rather large gnat has crashed into the front of it, by the way, probably attracted by the mating call of our Honda engine.

      Another thing I notice is the lack of any Hell's Angels jackets.

      "It's mainly yuppies that have the bikes now," Bingham screams over the buzzing. "It's expensive to buy a new Harley."

      Some of the interviews I conducted earlier, as I overcame my fear of being beaten senseless with motorcycle chains, confirmed Bingham's point. Michael Gardner, for example, is no degenerate. He's a sales manager from Dana Point who paid $23,000 for his Harley.

      "You really can't tell by looking at someone what they do or what they're worth," said Gardner, 47.

      No Good could have been Dr. No Good, podiatrist, for all I knew.

      Bingham, perhaps sensing my disillusionment, pulls an attitudinal 180 on me. He guns the gas and screeches up to within 4 inches of the motorcycle in front of us, at 70 miles per hour.

      "Is that close enough?!" he screams through a menacing grin. One thing Bingham had neglected to tell me before: in his youth, he was a professional motorcycle racer.

      In 1997 there were 7,374 serious motorcycle injuries in California, 233 of which resulted in the death of the rider. But who cares right now? This Bingham guy has turned out to be a nut and I'm having fun.

      "You oughta see how close I can get to bike in front of me at 100!" Bingham yells.

      We arrive, somehow alive, at Castaic Lake, which is bedecked with a Motorpalooza of exhibits and a stage where Sammy Hagar will later perform. Here, in this hog heaven, people are making friends based solely on an association with mechanical parts.

      "What do you ride?" I'm asked by a perspective new pal, who's obviously itching to tell me what kind of bike he rides.

      "Sidecar," I say, ending our friendship before it began.

      One booth features a motorcycle painted with three nude pictures of Carmen Electra overlaying a leopard base coat. A placard says it's for Dennis Rodman. I question whether the former basketball star will ever take delivery, considering his recent divorce from Electra and his court order to remain at least 500 feet from her at all times.

      "What can I tell you?" says Al Martinez, owner of Al Martinez's Custom Paint of Orange, Calif. "I just paint what they pay me to."

      Backstage awaits the opportunity I've been hoping for since age 15. Peter Fonda, the most famous biker in the world, is milling about among the VIPs. If there's any hope of my ever adopting this lifestyle, I first need to know what he meant by "we blew it."

      "We, everyone, we," Fonda responds. It takes about 5 seconds before I realize what he means: we, the human race, have blown it.

      "Take a look around and tell me that we haven't," Fonda continues. "We have destroyed this planet."

      I will apparently never become a biker, because this not a real answer. It makes no sense. "Easy Rider" was about two renegades searching for their souls in the underbelly of America. There was never any environmental connotation.

      It is obvious now that the line was meaningless, an "Emperor's New Clothes" artifice designed merely to get people speculating, and only spun with an Earth Day theme in retrospect.

      Of course, a person who rides sidecar is not about to argue with Captain America. I smile and shake Fonda's hand, thanking him for the illumination.

       I guess I'm just a nice boy from the suburbs doomed to forever roam the freeways enclosed in automobiles. I've come to accept that now.

      But the Love Ride has changed me. I will forever be less annoyed when bikers whiz between my car and the next.

 

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