- He rides with America. (Photo: flickr/elvertbarnes)
This Friday, around 1,800 motorcycles are expected to create a bit of a traffic problem for northern Virginia. They're riding as part of a four-day march in remembrance of 9/11's tenth anniversary in a trip that'll take them to both the Pentagon and Ground Zero. Virginia police will accompany the motorcyclists through their trek in the state tomorrow to ensure their safety, and the state police have an announcement about the routes affected in Loudoun County, Leesburg, the Dulles Greenway and Toll Road, and interstate 66. The memorial ride will affect area roads starting around mid-afternoon through evening.
But the ride got me thinking. How has the motorcycle survived all the past decades of the 20th century to remain such a big symbol of American power and freedom?
Harley-Davidson was founded more than a century ago, and the brand has become iconic of much more than a mode of transportation. Like the allure of bicycling, motorcycles have that extra edge of power, sex, freedom, and rebellion that have inspired so many followers over the past decades. After World War II, the motorcycle exploded and somehow has never ceased to lose its allure.
I remember reading Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels about the band of motorcyclists that rose up in a bigger, more intimidating movement throughout the 1960s. Local authorities came to fear the sight of these outsider, swastika-adorned dudes. Somehow the controversy of the politically right-wing motorcycle gang didn't hurt the overall appeal of the bikes. Daredevils like Evel Knievel emerged to win over the hearts of countless people in his time. Check out the craigslist motorcycle section for D.C. today, and you'll see people are as excited as ever. Motorcycles have become intrinsically tied to America, which make it only fitting that a motorcycle tribute is happening over these four days.
The Rolling Thunder rally from earlier this summer also revealed the macho, chest-pounding glory of what the motorcycle is to modern-day politics, especially a certain type. Sarah Palin showed up seated on one herself in a flashy gesture of solidarity. Motorcycle-lovers still exude a tough front, but it's hardly one that rejects authority.
What had been a symbol of counterculture rebels — think back to the sense of terror a motorcycle gang inspired in the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One — has transformed over the years into a vehicle for extreme patriotism. The Leesburg-based America’s 9/11 Foundation, Inc., sponsors the ride and features GPS tracking of the motorcycles as they move across America. Their website, in addition to country music, red, white, and blue, and the phrase "God bless America," contains its own traffic alerts page about the tribute that begins today in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
Times change, and these videos allude to the way the motorcycle has evolved in the American mindset. By the 1980s, the "motorcycle maniac" starred in a commercial for Honeycomb Cereal. The grizzled masculinity of the motorcycle is no longer threatening as it once was. In 2011, its presence is harmless, cute, commodified, and kitschy. The essence of the American motorcycle is entirely draped in the national flag. It's a vehicle that now comes with a default cultural mode — saluting.