Backmarker: Ghosts of Biking Past, and Future

Mark Gardiner | December 24, 2015

Another year has drawn to a close. Across the northern tier, at least, motorcycles have been tucked into their winter beds, and motorcyclists are warming their feet by the fire and basking in the glow of their laptops. (Except for those hardy few ice racers. I doff my toque to them.)

This is also a time of year when people naturally set goals and make resolutions. I find myself wondering about the feasibility of brokering a sort of ‘great unification’ of two motorcycling camps that, for now, barely overlap.

No, I’m not thinking about negotiating a truce between Harley-Davidson riders, and everyone else. That’s never gonna’ happen in my lifetime.

Backmarker Ghosts 2015

As my club ages, the phrase ‘nice scooter’ threatens to take on a whole new meeting.

Rather, I’m thinking about bridging the divide between old, experienced motorcyclists and the millennials who have dusted off the very same Honda CB350 Twins we rode in the ’70s. Hipsters have fitted them with clip-ons and solo seats, and now ride around wearing helmets we stopped using decades ago, too.

Long-time Backmarker readers will know that I’m a member of a motorcycle club based here in Kansas City, called the Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts. Even the name is quaint and out of date. The number of members that show up for monthly meetings has dwindled since I first dropped in about 15 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. Those guys still ride; a few of them damned smartly. After all, they say that seventy is the new fifty. The problem is that 85 is still 85. One glance around our monthly meetings confirms it: if the HoAMEboys don’t lure younger members, the club will wither.

For years, HoAME’s biggest annual event was a summer motorcycle show. We used to spend thousands renting a huge aircraft hangar, where we displayed hundreds of bikes including a quite a few museum-quality pieces. It was always one of the best motorcycle shows in the middle of the country. But if the goal of the show was to attract new members to the club, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Backmarker Ghosts 2015

The 2015 edition of the HoAME Vintage Rally and motorcycle show was a downsized and informal affair, held in the context of the big Kansas City ‘First Friday’ art fair. The goal was to expose the club to a younger crowd.

This year, we tried something different. Kansas City has a big street art fair called First Friday, in the Crossroads district. It draws thousands of people; the crowd skews (much) younger and hipper than our club’s membership. We thought, “What if we held a smaller show, in the Crossroads, and tried to attract a younger crowd?”

It sorta’ worked.

One of our club members owns a garage in that neighborhood, which he either volunteered as a location (or, Dave was strong-armed into letting us use his building.) We staged a ride-in show; anyone was welcome, and we ‘curated’ the show by telling people who arrived on the most interesting bikes that they could display them right in front of the garage. Lesser machines parked at street level. We brought in a lot of beer and, conveniently, there was a pizza joint next door.

From an organizational point of view it was much easier to pull off; we didn’t make any money from ticket sales, but our expenses were dramatically lower. And it seemed as if quite a few younger guys did drop by. Jim Van Eman coordinated the whole thing. He remarked that millennials had a tendency to just ride up and park in the lower parking lot; they didn’t even try to meet the standards of the show’s ‘curator’ — which were not too stringent!

One thing that came up in conversation, among that younger crowd, was that they were all planning to rendezvous somewhere else, later that same weekend. All the cool kids hung out at a coffee roaster in the West Bottoms, called ‘Blip,’ on Sunday mornings.

Backmarker Ghosts 2015

Ian Davis, the 25-year-old creator of the Blip brand, sold his pickup truck to buy his roasting machine.

Way back in Kansas City’s heyday, it was a crucial transport hub. Stern wheelers came up the Mississippi from New Orleans, turned left at St. Louis, and plied the Missouri River to Kansas City where the main East-West railroads crossed the river. Right there, in an area called the West Bottoms only a mile from the city center, there was a massive stockyard.

When I first arrived in KC, the West Bottoms was a sprawling ghost town of steam-era warehouses. But now, there’s urban renewal in the West Bottoms, and it’s motorcycle-flavored.

It was probably started by a HoAME member, Greg Williams. His shop, called Cafe Racer, has long been the default setting for any Kansas Citian who needs work done on a bike that’s too old or odd for modern dealerships where service techs are baffled if there’s no place on your bike to plug in a diagnostic computer.

Years ago, Cafe Racer was one of the first legit businesses to recolonize the West Bottoms. But last spring Blip Roasters opened up a couple of blocks away. Even before his retail cafe was open, Ian Davis— the 25-year-old proprietor—had the idea of inviting the local bikers down for coffee on Sunday Mornings.

Within a few weeks, the Sunday morning ride-in attracted several dozen bearded, man-bunned, tattooed 20- to 30-somethings. Their taste in motorcycles—while catholic—generally fell along a spectrum from ‘70s-era Hondas to modern Triumphs. Blip was easy to find, because so many of them were already familiar with the location of Cafe Racer.

Photos of a street chock-a-block with motorcycles started showing up in my Facebook feed earlier this summer, but I did not actually get around to checking out the Blip scene until the Sunday after the HoAME show.

Backmarker Ghosts 2015

Guys of my vintage, we actually love suspension and try, if anything, to make it better whenever we can. That said, I gave this machine a second look and thought, “I’m not sure what that is, but it seems to be a good example of whatever it is…”

I ran into a few familiar faces down there, mostly older guys like me who were bemused by the idea of putting fat Coker tires on a single-cam Honda 750. I have to admit, we were impressed by the number of attractive young women hanging about. This was not your dad’s motorcycle meet-up, that’s for sure. And by ‘your dad’ I mean, people like me.

So why build this coffee brand around motorcycles, I wondered? Ian told me that he’d only been riding for a few years, but I gave him extra credit when he said the he sold his pickup truck to buy his roasting machine—meaning that all last winter he relied on a CB550 as his only transport. Riding straight through a KC winter shows commitment, and I gave him a pass on the chunky dual-sport tires fitted to the CB.

He waxed pretty poetic on the philosophical connection between coffee and motorcycles, and on the similarities between his roasting machine and his bike; both share a mechanical honesty, throw off a bit of white and smoke smell of oil; both have burned him, and will again.

Blip is a model of 21st-century marketing and branding. The business had an Instagram page before it sold its first batch of beans; the shop still doesn’t even have heat (except for the heat thrown off by the roaster) but Ian’s got a line of t-shirts, leather patches, and stickers.

Backmarker Ghosts 2015

Blip quickly built a following on social media, which led to the Sunday morning coffee klatsch becoming a real thing.

Whatever; it’s working. Most of his business comes from supplying high-end coffee to local restaurants and shops, but he has far flung customers too. While we chatted, Ian packaged beans for shipment to Brother Moto, a cool garage/club in Atlanta, and he had an order ready to send to the Isle of Man for Conor Cummins.

Those Sunday crowds attracted the attention of a couple of bikers who were looking for a location for their new business. This winter, they’ll open a communal garage called Hickory Union Moto, a block away from Blip.

This urban-renewal-by-motorcycle got me thinking about another renewal problem. What if we moved our monthly HoAME club meetings from Wednesday nights in the suburban tavern where we currently assemble, to Sunday mornings at Blip, or Hickory Union Moto?

I know exactly what resistance I’ll get to this idea; to the grizzled HoAME boys, the Blip crowd are Johnny-come-latelies. We call them ‘hipster’ with the same sneering tone that we used to used to reserve for ‘yuppie.’ But unless we somehow come to see them as potential new members, our old club will just fade away.

I remember starting out as a motorcyclist. There were no mature, experienced riders I could turn to. In hindsight, it was lucky that I survived long enough to become one. If us old guys could get over some of our skepticism — and the young guys could overlook the rest of it, both groups have a lot to offer each other.

“Sure they’re hipsters,” I said at the next HoAME meeting. “And the only thing a lot of them know about motorcycles is, they like them. In short, they’re exactly like we were, 40 years ago.”

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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