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Going Full Cycle : Biker Image, Especially in California, Has Undergone a Major Overhaul

October 31, 1987|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

Like Rodney Dangerfield, motorcyclists would like a little respect. It's tough to live down the bad-guy image that bikers have had for 40 years, but there are signs that things may be changing.

Middle-aged or retired couples, widows and widowers have taken to the road on what are called luxo-tourers, big luxury touring bikes that exude comfort and sport CBs, stereos, tape decks and intercoms. There are young motorcycling families with children riding in sidecars, and more and more businessmen, many dressed in suits and ties, commuting to and from work.

"I don't think you've got the paranoia out there you used to have about bikers," said Tom Jefferies, a 43-year-old truck driver who has been cycling for more than 20 years.

Jefferies lives in San Dimas and rides his bike daily to Van Nuys, where he works for the City of Los Angeles.

Whole Different Concept

"There's a whole different concept to the biker image than there used to be," he said. "You've got people from almost every vocation and income level touring around the country. There are truck drivers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters. A lot more women. In the last five years, there's been a really big turnaround with the motoring public about motorcycles."

There also has been a vast increase in riders. In 1960, there were only half a million bikers. Now, there are more than 5 million. California leads the nation with 940,000 registered cycles, scooters and all-terrain vehicles, and Los Angeles and Orange are No. 1 and No. 2 counties in the country with a combined total of more than 300,000.

"These are people who like being as close to the environment as possible," explained Steve Bransky, a Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor. "You have more freedom than in a car and you need more skill to stay alive. It's the challenge and the environment, openness and exposure. There's a risk involved in anything you do.

"People who use them for commuting are those who want something more maneuverable than a car," Bransky added. "You can keep moving, even if you're only going six miles an hour."

"There's a certain independence in riding, getting away on a two-lane country road with the wind in your hair," said Scot Hunter, a 45-year-old member of the local Golden State H.O.G. (Harley Owners' Group) chapter who spent 20 years as a technical manager for ABC-TV. Hunter bought his first bike in 1981. He no longer owns a car.

Smelling the Environment

"When you ride through someplace in a car, you're not in the environment," Hunter continued. "You don't come to a temperature pocket and feel the temperature drop 15 degrees or notice the smell of trees, mustard. You smell the environment, you feel it and you're part of it. A motorcycle says you're a free spirit."

But being a cycling free spirit is not cheap. Motorcyclists spend anywhere from $3,000 for the smaller bikes to $10,000 and up for the large touring motorcycles fully equipped. Overall, motorcycle enthusiasts constitute a $963-million-a-year retail business nationwide on cycles, accessories, insurance, etc.

Some people have color-coordinated clothing, helmets and bikes. Others prefer to stick with their protective leather, the traditional black for Harley-Davidson riders, brighter colors for riders of other makes, particularly the fast sport bikes.

For every kind manufactured here, in Europe or Japan, there is a national motorcycle club with local chapters in the states. They have monthly rides, club rallies, hold yearly conventions and put out newsletters. Although they don't make it a requirement, some clubs ask that their members wear helmets as a safety precaution.

Most motorcycle clubs are heavily in charity work, including Christmas toy drives for underprivileged kids, events to raise money for hospitals and the homeless, and an upcoming 100-mile Southern California ride to benefit muscular dystrophy.

And in carrying out some of these projects, there's a lot of camaraderie and fun.

But Jefferies and other motorcyclists admit that the image of bikers as outlaws and thugs has been no joking matter, ever since that July 4, 1947, weekend in Hollister, near Santa Cruz, where the beer-guzzling, leather-jacketed lawless reputation was spawned during a biker gathering.

Marlon Brando's portrayal of a violent biker in "The Wild One" in 1954 delivered another crippling blow to cyclists' image, and in years past the Hells Angels' nationwide reputation, fueled the outlaw branding of cyclists.

Still a Stigma

"There's still a stigma attached to motorcycles," said Dr. Steven Kane, a dentist in Westfield, N.J., who belongs to the Motorcycling Doctors Assn., a national group about 125 physicians, dentists, medical and dental students, veterinarians and podiatrists formed in 1976. "It's hard to get people to believe motorcyclists are not Hells Angels anymore."

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