Blood 'n' Blue: Adventure Riding Along the Mississippi

By Tonya L. Thompson

What Kerouac Knew, But Not About Motorcycles—Café Racers Vs. The Digital Gods

Sometimes, I’m afraid the world’s too digital.  When I watch a table of three at a restaurant—on the edges of their seats smartphone surfing—the nostalgia’s so bad I can almost taste it.  It’s the little stuff I miss, like animated conversations over dinner, photos in analogue color and a time when people weren’t so constantly interrupted while living. I miss that time when every event wasn’t reduced to a photo op for Facebook, and when people lived in the moment, not in the digital recording of it once they are finally able to sync and upload. I know we were there once. I have memories of living that life, although it seems so far away from this one.

This is why the café racer, to me, is such a thing of beauty.  Words like ‘simplicity’, ‘basic’ and ‘only the necessities’ are dying in our culture.  Part of me wonders if café racers aren’t one niche way to mourn that death.  On the inside, where the grease meets the piston, it’s a return to the raw basics.  On the outside, while generations of bikers have divided into motorcycle patches and lifestyles, status symbols and outlaws, the rider of a café racer focuses on simplicity, baring his bike’s soul for the sake of removing excess and returning to the heart of the thing.  Why? I think it’s because sometimes, it takes straddling a seat built for one, with very little cushion, to rediscover what motorcycling is really about for the individual on the bike. The core of riding was never about money and women, gangsters and brotherhood. If you’ve felt it once, then you’ll know what I’m saying—motorcycling is, and always will be, about four very basic things: wind, speed, lightness and BEING.

The metaphors connecting a café racer bike and a return to the basics are almost endless. For the café racer restorer, there is recycling and redirecting, all while removing the rust created by years of neglect and the elements that piled up as the digital gods subtly staked their claim.  The flair is taken off, the parts providing comfort but slowing the whole thing down are removed, and the core of the motorcycle—its frame, engine, suspension and wheels—are laid bare.  These core pieces are the focus, and they are meticulously healed through fire and sand, elbow grease and water, cursing and bleeding, until the bike is as new as when it came off the line.  The rewards of that restorer’s work pay off: For the café racer rider, what you see is what you feel is what you get, and you’re reborn along with the bike as the clean engine sucks in the air of an open road and open throttle once again, like it did when it was first created.

And it’s here, on the road, where the aesthetics of the thing comes alive.  It’s rebellion and independence, reclaiming the freedom that should have never been taken.  It’s living on the edge of social norm because that’s where the most truths are revealed.  It’s the personification of James Dean and Marlon Brando, with fire under their skin and contempt for the establishment that would have them conform and forget how to live.  It’s notorious and lonely, and yes, even dangerous; but it’s in that moment, with the wind in your face, that you’ll understand what Kerouac meant when he wrote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”  He didn’t ride a café racer, but he should have—he would have been at home on the thing.

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26 comments on “What Kerouac Knew, But Not About Motorcycles—Café Racers Vs. The Digital Gods

  1. beautifulthingchicago
    November 14, 2012

    Great post!

  2. legendsofyouth
    November 14, 2012

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I must admit I am somewhat uneducated in this area. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  3. segmation
    November 14, 2012

    Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was certainly an awesome American novelist and poet as well as a literary iconoclast. I think it is sad though, that in 1969, at the young age of 47 he died from internal bleeding that many felt was due to his long-standing abuse of alcohol. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Tonya Thompson
      November 14, 2012

      “The light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long…”

  4. sula1968
    November 14, 2012

    I agree with you about the world being too digital which is why I now have ‘Technology Free Tuesdays’ there is too much meaningless clutter in our lives which robs us of the essence of living. Read ‘On the Road’ recently and loved it!

  5. The Walrus
    November 14, 2012

    Tonya, what a great post! I don’t ride, but your writing made me feel the rush of the wind and the road beneath me! Brava!

  6. icittadiniprimaditutto
    November 14, 2012

    Reblogged this on i cittadini prima di tutto and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  7. Ray G.
    November 14, 2012

    In lieu of a comment I’ll just add two bits to the conversation. Here’s one and here’s the other.

  8. lionlylamb
    November 15, 2012

    Many years back, I was once bitten to riding the roads on a motorcycle but alas, all goodness must ever come to an ending and my once bitten became but a memory fading in the windy shorelines of coastal desperations wanton for the otherly riders who like me do galavant in networks of ‘neticisms’ on the daily adorations portraying the very whymsical while rallying to make the grades. May the God that does reside upon one’s inner workings grant one and all their heartfelt needs.

  9. CJ Vali
    November 15, 2012

    Great post. I ride a carbureted Triumph and drive a carbureted Chevy pickup with no heat or A/C. I also write my blog posts and other things on paper before typing them. I do wish I could disconnect from my computer a bit more often though. A favorite Kerouac quote of mine: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” I try to live based on that line.

  10. Matthew Wright
    November 15, 2012

    I would never have thought of juxtaposing Kerouac with cafe racers…but you’re right – indeed, thinking about it, Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ (my favourite book) was a metaphorical ‘cafe racer’ ride through life – that same breathless, exciting rush, a stripped-down novel, reflective of his stripped-down, headlong attitude to life.

    Apropos the bikes themselves, I have three words: Vincent. Black. Shadow.

    Ultimate cool. And I believe there’s one built recently from new-build spare parts – shipped out here to New Zealand.

  11. belluci
    November 15, 2012

    I like clasic,

  12. sportsandthecross
    November 15, 2012

    Woah, really nice post. Congrats on FP!

  13. sykose
    November 15, 2012

    Reblogged this on sykose's Blog.

  14. sykose
    November 15, 2012

    Reblogged this on sykose's Blog.

  15. hillarysangel
    November 16, 2012

    Like horses, really. Only I’m getting too scared of getting thrown these days! Thanks for the reminder of what’s really important :-).

  16. outdoorcanvas
    November 16, 2012

    You make very valid observations in your opening paragraph that I personally tend to notice & agree with 100% myself! How you parlay those thoughts of modern distracted life & contrast it with the uber basic Cafe style bike is intriguing as well. I like how you think! TFS.

  17. alastair walker
    November 17, 2012

    Reblogged this on Social media and SEO from the North and commented:
    Having ridden motorcycles for over 30 years I’d agree you completely lose yourself in the experience. And that’s exactly as it should be.

  18. jacksonjoseph1
    November 19, 2012

    Reblogged this on motostjoseph and commented:
    So true! This week my wife and I actually had an arguement in person and not over text! It felt great!!!

  19. Larry Reiter
    November 25, 2012

    Hunter knew a thing or tow about the need for speed:

    “I am a Cafe Racer myself, on some days – and it is one of my finest addictions.”

    Of course, his is more a tale of unbridled, reckless sprint into the light…

  20. nvnl
    December 22, 2012

    “motorcycling is, and always will be, about four very basic things: wind, speed, lightness and BEING”

    Exactly, well put.

  21. Pingback: What Kerouac Knew, But Not About Motorcycles—Café Racers Vs. The Digital Gods | The Bridge Club Too

  22. abitrb
    February 3, 2013

    Nice read!

  23. abitrb
    February 15, 2013

    Reblogged this on From The Ground Up Cafe' Racer and commented:
    I can’t add anything to this…..except to say that I agree wholeheartedly.

  24. Pingback: What Kerouac Knew, But Not About Motorcycles—Café Racers Vs. The Digital Gods | Vintage Racing and Motorcycles

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2012 by in cafe racer, Motorcycles and tagged , , , , , .

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