By Tonya L. Thompson
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.