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Almost Fiction: The Golden Age

By Sam Jones

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For many, the Golden Age of Motorcycling was the late 1930s, when beauty mated with technology to create some of the most stylish and mechanically advanced machines seen to date. Cantilever, hydraulic and air suspensions, overhead cams, fuel injection, supercharging, lightweight aluminum frames, fairings to cheat the wind were all tried. Harley-Davidson’s Art Deco paint schemes were among its most elegant and sophisticated. AJS fielded an impressive 500cc race bike with four cylinders, water-cooling, overhead cams and dual superchargers that set lap records at Grand Prix tracks all over Europe. Some ideas worked, some did not; some were ahead of their time and when metallurgy and science finally caught up, they were tried again with success.

Without desecrating or negating the sophisticated fabrications of the 1930s, it is my suggestion that we are living now, today, in the Golden Age of Motorcycling!

Never has there been a better selection of inspired, highly-developed machinery from which to choose. An infinite number of categories of street-legal motorcycles—custom, touring, sport, supermotard, power cruiser, dual purpose and race replica—all allow the diligent shopper to choose the correct model for his perfect fit. Dozens of manufacturers all competing for the same dollar have created this Golden Age in which, even if you try, it is difficult to buy a bad motorcycle.

In addition, there is a codicil; an appendix to my thesis that goes unnoticed but strengthens my Golden Age theory… riding equipment. At no time has our selection of riding accoutrements been larger or more competent.

Thinking back, that has not always been the case. For 50 years, helmets changed little. Racing leathers languished in mediocrity, showing few, if any protective pads and no innovative notions. Hockey players were better protected than most motorcycle racers. Did no one care about safety or comfort? Was it a religious edict that demanded a rider pay some penance for being silly enough to choose a motorcycle? If he wanted to risk life and limb, shout at the weather, shake his fist at Mother Nature, did sanctified ideology refuse to make him comfortable while engaging in such foolishness?

Apparently so, because things changed slowly. During the ’60s your riding ensemble was an army surplus field jacket, jeans, gloves from the hardware store, work boots from J. C. Penneys, sunglasses and maybe a red bandana if you wanted to add a little style to the picture. Rain gear was the heavy rubberized stuff road workers and fishermen wore. At the end of the decade, Bell Helmets came out with one of the first high-quality helmets. Dirt racing gloves showed up with rubber strips sewn onto the backs to ward off bushes. With padded palms, they also worked for the street. The finest tool you could find was a used Highway Patrol leather jacket.

The collection of riding gear that we can now choose from is unlimited. For example, turn on your computer and look up motorcycle boots. There are as many categories of boots as there are categories of motorcycles, and within each, the selections are endless. Shop one company or choose another—there are hundreds. In fact, several companies specialize in women’s and children’s sizes.

This holds true of helmets, coats, vests, gloves, pants, socks, underwear, electric liners, non-sweat rain gear and anything else you can think of. All of this comes in touring, racing, profiling, hot-weather, cold-weather or rainy-weather varieties. In addition to the basics, there are little bits and pieces that cater to every rider’s whim. Evidently, the Puritanical perception that life is pain that cannot be overcome, and that it has to hurt to feel good, has been substituted in the marketplace with supply and demand. Riders have demanded to be more comfortable and manufacturers have complied. High-tech coats with removable warm liners, rain liners, removable pads, removable sleeves, dozens of pockets and water hydration bladders now reign supreme.

To the age-old question, “What will you do if it rains?” With good rain gear, you stop and put it on. When seeing oncoming traffic using their wipers, stop. It is no big deal.

Even trinkets are now useful. One of my favorite gewgaws is a little plastic squeegee thing that fits on my thumb so it can be used as a face shield wiper.

“What if it gets really cold?” I plug in my electrics. If you have good equipment, good electrics and traction, you can ride regardless of the weather. If Mother Nature gives you snow and ice… well… that is the time for sidecars. (Google “German Elephant Rally.”)

All of this brings up an interesting query. If this is indeed the Golden Age of competent motorcycling, why are there so few motorcyclists on the road when the weather gets edgy?

Of course, some riders never intend to go out on anything but a sunny day; nevertheless, there is a type of rider who has adequate equipment but nitpicks and always wants better. His excuse for not putting on mileage is that he needs to replace his kit. “My rain gear is not the best; it’s a little clammy when it gets humid. When I replace my electric vest with a full liner and get better all-weather tires, then I’ll be ready for a real expedition.” While waiting to purchase the most current paraphernalia, he missed the ride we all went on last weekend. (Are you reading this, Mark?)

With too many options, “Perfectionism breeds procrastination breeds paralysis.” Lucky for me I am far from a perfectionist.

I tour with a combination of new and old personal effects, some of it very expensive and some of it free, stuff I have found that works. Interestingly, while running errands on my dual-purpose bike, wearing an aged army surplus coat, work boots and a worn-out helmet, an epiphany bit me. I noticed the ride was just as enjoyable as when I am decked out in my overly-designed $700 German tech coat and $300 racing boots.

Sometimes, we miss the point, blinded to the forest for the trees. In any age, but certainly in this Golden Age, putting mileage on the motorcycle is the only reason to own one. It is too easy. Chrome, fringe, and over-engineered coats are impressive, but remember, it was just as much fun with army surplus.

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