Noon Sunday at Blake’s Restaurant on Otay Lakes Road. An unexpectedly chilly wind is blowing across the desolate outer-suburban landscape. Such minor inconveniences as the weather, however, don’t appear to bother the motorcyclists on the big. shiny Harleys, Kawasakis, BMWs, Hondas who drift, individually and in groups, into the restaurant parking lot.
Blake's is the final destination of a “surprise run” sponsored by the San Diego Road Cruisers motorcycle club. What’s currently worrying the folks, more than the subject of weather, is the emerging suspicion that the surprise run has proven a little too tricky for the 160 or so riders who signed in at San Diego Kawasaki in El Cajon more than four hours ago.
Since it was estimated that everyone should make it by noon and so far only 11 riders have passed the last checkpoint, event organizer Gil Sheppard is ducking the first of a series of good-natured jokes about his organizing abilities. This is Sheppard’s first try at organizing one of these things, it is explained, as he and fellow club members continue setting up the P.A. system and double-checking the order of field events to follow.
Road Cruiser Gene Gothberg, a man with a boisterous elbow-in-the-ribs sense of humor who looks like a youthful holdover from the 50s (and is in fact a hard-working equipment operator on North Island with five children and ten grandchildren), had explained to us beforehand the type of clues people were up against.
“If you’re a hard-core Yankee, you’d send your kids where to college after high school?" he asks, looking expectantly for the automatic answer. When none comes, he says, “North. You’d send your kids north if you’re a Yankee.” Then he laughs, “Maybe people don’t know what a Yankee is anymore."
Nobody cares if things get started an hour or so late out at the restaurant. Only it’s a bit embarrassing for the club if clues such as this are sending bewildered motorcyclists all over the county.
By 2:30 all but ten have made it through the 82-mile course and are now hunkered down, inside where it’s warm, clutching beers and pondering with much head-scratching and cross-room banter the questionnaires with which they are presented upon arrival. The first question, “How many massage parlors did you pass on the way?" is followed with the saving grace of.
How many churches did you see?"
Meanwhile out in the parking lot, amid rows and rows of clean, shiny machines, other participants play a good-natured little game entitled, “Put down the other fellow’s bike.” The kidding is especially keen between riders of “classic” bikes like Harleys and Triumphs, and those who prefer the less temperamental Japanese models. As is often the case with classic cars, bikes such as the Harley-Davidson are makes once pre-eminent in their field. But yesterday’s number one has since gone sadly downhill in many people’s estimation. Still, some people love the old Harleys because they were well built., or buy the new ones for the image and because they like to fix machinery. “You like to tinker, get a Harley," goes the conventional club wisdom. “But if you just like to ride and have a reliable bike, you’ll get a Honda, a Kawasaki, or a Yamaha.”
A little friendly rivalry is all part of the day’s events, along with a little drinking, general socializing, and waiting one’s turn for the restroom.
There are 44,577 motorcycles registered in San Diego County as of February this year, according to the San Diego office of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles. This figure includes dirt bikes and motorized bicycles such as Mopeds, however.
Of the large registered bikes, an unspecified number belong to “outlaw" clubs, the local variants of which include the Hell’s Angels, the Mongols, the Axemen, and the semi-outlaw Nuggets. There are also a couple of militant all-black clubs—the Cobras and the Black Sabbaths.
While a majority of motorcyclists remain rugged individualists, so-called “good-guy" clubs have been increasing in numbers and membership in recent years. There is not just a difference of philosophy between outlaws and good guys, there is also, or has been traditionally, a marked difference in equipment. With some of the new non-outlaw clubs, which include younger members, such distinctions are no longer true, but generally good guys ride “dressed" standard models and outlaws ride “chopped" or modified versions.
A full-dress motorcycle is a stock factory model with accessories; these include a “fairing," which is a windscreen-windshield, saddlebags, and trunk or boot. Preferably it should also have lots of chrome, and according to one club member, “AM/FM with air conditioning, and across the front, 42 lights saying I love mother but my Harley is fun.” A chopper is usually a modified Harley or Triumph, with an extended front end, fenders off, all model identification off, a kick starter, no mufflers, and possibly a swapped engine. The whole idea with them is to be lean and clean, down to the bare minimum.
The good guys include the seven clubs which currently make up the membership of the San Diego County Road Riders Association (SDCRRA). The Road Cruisers, with about 35 members, is the oldest, until recently largest and, some say, best organized club of the association. Among the other member clubs are the Chaparrals, Poway, and the Paladins. Three new clubs joined in March: Murphy Canyon, U.S.S. Horne Knight Owls, and Motorcycle Safety Education Course (MOSEC). Both Murphy Canyon and MOSEC have about 100 members, thus are sizeable additions to the association.
Newly elected association president Bob Aimada, a loquacious, easygoing sort who rides a 750cc full-dress Honda with C.B. radio, and who is earnestly trying to build up the association membership (with some success so far), says. “If I could reach one-tenth of one percent of the registered motorcyclists, that would be fantastic. So far this year more than 81 outriders asked to join the Association.” (An outrider is someone who is not a member of any club, but who participates individually in club or association-sponsored events.)
The person who joins a club is a different type animal, according to Aimada. He's one who likes the security of an organization and people around him.
“A lot of beginners join clubs. After they’ve been members two or three years they feel they know the ropes and then they become outriders. It gives them more of a feeling of freedom. There’s only about six members of the Road Cruisers (of which both Aimada and his wife Vi are members) who have been in the club five years or longer. Let’s face it, you learn a lot about your brother when you’re in a club. You see people under pressure and how they brush their teeth on a camp-out. But on the other hand you know if you ever really need someone, they’re there.
“Single gals come down to the club. Maybe they’re divorced, looking to meet people. Single guys too,” adds Aimada. “One gal stuck with us for a year; she was rough on one of the guys. But we never have any husband-wife trouble. A lot of goofing around goes on but it’s all in fun."
There are now about 350 people who belong to the association. In addition, there are between ten and 15 unaffiliated clubs in the county with ten or less members each, according to Almada’s estimation. Several clubs, like Murphy Canyon and the younger, scruffier-looking (and so far unaffiliated) Free-wheelers, number primarily military personnel among their members. The other SDCRRA clubs are made up of primarily middle-aged, middle-income couples, occupied in a diversity of jobs, who arc finding a little freedom on the roads now that the kids are old enough to look after themselves.
What these clubs and outriders have in common, besides a love of riding and a desire for good, clean fun, is a sense of mission, not shared by all members, but still predominant. It is to change the image of motorcyclists in the public eye.
Inside Blake's, waiting for the last stragglers to show up, Don Paine professes himself not too interested in image-making. Paine, the husband of the Road Cruisers’ first-ever woman president, is a quiet man with a latent twinkle in his eye. Though somewhat crippled by arthritis, they say he’s a hard man to beat on his 1200cc full-dress Harley. Paine puts it bluntly: “There are two different types of people riding and if other people can’t tell the difference, they have a problem."
The official sentiment is voiced by Vi Aimada, however, when she says: “We are trying, it’s a losing battle, but we are trying to show that there’s something out there other than the Hell’s Angels. Little by little we’re trying to erase the image of chains around the neck and so on."
The good guys have been trying for quite a while. The SDCRRA was formed in 1957 with seven original clubs—all now defunct. The Road Cruisers were formed a year later. There is some puzzlement among members about the obsession of the media with the “bad guys” and a certain feeling of good works gone unnoticed. Aimada tells the story of how the Road Cruisers offered to help establish a volunteer fire department at Lake Marina out beyond Pine Valley in the eastern part of San Diego County. The club thought Lake Marina was a nice spot for an overnight run and wanted to help the local community-deal with such an intrusion of outsiders. They promised Lake Marina the proceeds from a benefit run and then showed up with 400 people. The terrified residents promptly called the sheriffs office with the complaint that there was a motorcycle riot going on.
“But we finally won them over," says Aimada. “They now have their fire department and when we take a run down there nowadays the women’s auxiliary makes dinner for everyone. Steak, apple pie, just fantastic."
So the straight clubs have made their share of friends. And if the general public is unaware of their existence, the outlaws ignore them too. But there had been initial attempts, back in the 50s and early 60s, at harassment and intimidation. Billie Hurst, a longtime member (“she’s the oldest and meanest,” kidded one of her male fellow club members) and a rare female rider with 34 years under her wheels, leans away from her table at Blake’s and momentarily balances on two thin chair legs. She remembers the early days when riding with a club wasn’t universally respected.
“The outlaws were around first and we banded together to show we weren’t all Angels. We just like to ride and enjoy things and not tear up other people’s property. And there was a time they (the outlaws) harassed the hell out of us. But we bucked ’em."
More beer, more laughs, and the last of the Road Cruisers have finally arrived. The little tavern sways with the sounds and movement of nearly 100 motorcyclists. Vi and Bob Aimada head for the door and cool air outside. In the parking area surrounding Blake's, an obstacle course is taking shape: it’s rather crude—a slalom course, a bullseye target but far more club members than necessary seem intent upon helping to set it up. Most runs include field events like the ones about to take place, and Vi says they’re so much fun and enjoyed by so many that each time the games seem to get more bizarre.
As the first couples begin to move through their paces (blindfolded passenger taking loud directions from driver and heaving a sandbag in the general vicinity of a target), the Almadas talk about the role of women in their club. While women can ride separately, those who do so form a small minority.
“A good rider requires a big-time investment." says Vi. “And if your husband has already invested that time .... Then there’s the hardship of a smaller person handling those big machines; plus the expense of maintaining two motorcycles." She adds that part of the attraction of motorcycling is being together on one bike.
“But I used to have a small motorcycle and Bob was teaching me how to ride. You know how it is. It’s like having your husband teach you how to drive a car—all the yelling .... When I ran into the patio. Bob said. ‘That’s it.’ But I was afraid of the bike. too. You can't let the machine control you or it'll destroy you.
“There’s about two women in every club (out of 20 or 30) who ride themselves and a few more who know how. But I don’t think it's unfeminine. The trend is just not here yet."
If women arc still largely content to be passengers on the bikes, they take an equal and increasing interest in club activities. Bob Aimada. who actively pushed Grace Paine’s historic and successful bid for presidency of the Road Cruisers, sums it up: “Women’s liberation is upon us."
The motoring competition draws to a close amid the hoots and squeals of members who find a miss much more fun than a hit. Everyone so inclined has had the chance to weave through narrow gates and attempt a perfect circle with a paper bag on his head. The time has now arrived fora somewhat more solemn competition—the judging of uniforms.
Though not strictly adhered to at day events such as this, each club has its own distinctive uniform. The Paladins, for instance, true to their namesake and amended motto (“Have Bike Will Travel"), wear powder blue Western garb. The uniforms generally reflect the generation gap as well as a conscious attempt to stay far away from the blue-jeaned “macho" look of the outlaw clubs. A uniform such as the Road Cruisers’, which would cost a new club member at least $150, consists of color-coordinated pants and vest of some kind of wash-and-wear fabric, the vest carrying the club insignia or “patch" over long-sleeved shirts, topped off by matching windbreaker or parka.
This style is becoming less common with younger clubs such as the Silver Eagles or the Freewheelers, who wear the same Levi pants and “cutaways" (Levi jackets with the sleeves ripped out) as their outlaw counterparts. This indeed may be part of the problem from the outlaws' point of view.
The Silver Eagles who’ve come by Blake’s on their own are eager to talk, and as the trophy presentations begin, a few of them move to the side. The Eagles don’t want their names used because, they names used because, they say. of a very real fear of retaliation from the outlaws for what they may say.
By their own estimation the Silver Eagles are currently in limbo. They are counting on their club's charter being accepted by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA)—a large national association—to put them over the top and land them irrevocably on the side of the good guys. “We’re rednecks," says Joe (not his real name), “but we also have long hair and beards and we have families. We don’t want to adhere to any stereotype.”
Since most of the Silver Eagles have associated with outlaw clubs in their past some are former members of the now defunct Argonauts, an outlaw club they claim they are being harassed and followed by the Hell’s Angels and others. A lot of new clubs trying to get started have problems with the outlaws, maintains Joe. “It depends on your appearance and w hat you ride, you know, full-dress or chopped. If you look and ride too much like them, they feel you may be a threat to their territory. Once we join the AM A. they’ll concede we’re lost. Hell, then we’ll be just a bunch of sissies. But make no mistake, right now this is no game. They don’t just slap you around. They’ll beat the shit out of you, they’ll kill you.”
“All this bullshit about the outlaws changing their image is just so much crap,” says another club member. “You can’t trust those SOB’s; they all carry guns. If they don’t have it, their old lady has it. or it’s on the bike. We try to avoid them but when they find us they’re always pushing, needling." The Eagles stress that they definitely don’t carry guns. But security and organization are tight, more so than with the other legitimate clubs. Patches can only be worn at approved times and places; they always stick together when identifiable as Silver Eagles; and women never go anywhere alone at such times. (They also won’t divulge how many members belong to their club for “security reasons”)
One of the reasons for all these rules, says Joe, is that “colors" or patches are very important to outlaws. “They worship them. Taking colors from another club is like counting coup.” Naturally, such patch snatching tends to start fights. Therefore, women in the Eagles are forbidden to wear patches because it's not considered safe. “They send the outlaw women after you,” says one female member of the Silver Eagles. “They all carry either a gun or knife; they’re deadly."
The near paranoia and the stringent security measures are both common among outlaw clubs and are now used by the Silver Eagles in defense against them. “When you’re a biker you’re in constant danger," says Joe, and the others agree. “From pretty much everyone it seems. From the outlaws, the cops, and the public, too. But we have our people around us. There’s safety in numbers, and all our members know what their program is as part of the whole. Everyone is a brother or sister. Everyone looks out for one another. And everyone loves motorcycles.”
That’s very important. More perhaps than with the other straight clubs who feel no restriction on their riding possibilities, where they go. or how they’re dressed, motorcycles appear to be an integral part of the Silver Eagles’ lives. Biking is more than just a weekend hobby; it’s more a way of life, a religion, a group identification. “It’s in my blood,” says Joe. His friend speaks for the first time; “Freedom machine," he says.
The Silver Eagles are planning to join the SDCRRA, and the good guys, for their part, are looking at the Eagles as something of a victory.' “The Silver Eagles used to be bad guys.” explains Bob Almada, “but they gave up the dope . . . some of them still have long hair, but they’ve grown up, that’s w hat they’ve done."
Joe says the Eagles are quite pleased with the way they have been treated by members of the SDCRRA. As illustration, he recalls a recent occurrence. While the Silver Eagles were peacefully attending a “Chaparral Day" event at Picnic Lake in southeastern San Diego County, in nearby El Monte Park the Hell’s Angels were allegedly harassing innocent tourists. The local sheriffs came looking for the Silver Eagles (only they called them Silver Wings), who were mingling with all these good guys they want so much to become a part of. But the latter, in the person of Bob Almada, rose to the occasion by suggesting that certainly the officers were free to come on in and look for the “Silver Wings." The entrance fee was only $3.50, after all. The cops apparently grinned and left.
But that’s a normal type of thing, says Almada. Even if there’s a gathering of three Yamahas (“which an outlaw wouldn’t have on a bet”) the law hassles you a little bit.
One really big gathering, which the law has probably come to terms with by now is the May Jamboree in Bakersfield. More than 10,000 bikes and maybe twice as many people are expected to gather there. Almada, never at a loss for graphic description. notes, “You’ll have a hard time brushing your neighbor’s teeth there." Such large gatherings are fertile grounds for recruiting new club members, he says, and he and the SDCRRA plan to take advantage of that chance this year.
But for an opportunity to see the whole cross-section of the bike scene, the place to be is Yuma. Arizona, the end of April, when several thousand bikes will converge in the desert for the 16th annual Yuma prison run into Arizona. Last year 3.000 bikes were there, outlaw and good guy mixed. The outlaws have been making the run since Arizona repealed its helmet requirement for motorcyclists. “There’ll be trouble for sure,” cautions Joe. “But you should be there if you really want to see what goes on.”
There’s a little town outside Yuma, says Almada, which is the party town for all the bad guys. “If you go to Yuma, stay in a motel,” he advises. “That’s what we tell our club members. Two years ago the outlaws were shooting up the campground. Not at anything in particular, just shooting. One guy heard someone moving around near his gear. He tried to get up and check what was going on and got pretty badly stomped.” Despite such dire precedents, Yuma is still firmly on the calendar of events and everyone is looking forward to going. As Almada says. “We get by all right; we look after our own.”
The last awards have been presented, the last drinks downed (more coffee now than beer), and 160 friends begin a ritual —the strapping on of glistening, colorful crash helmets. Then with an awesome, ear-splitting roar, 90 thundering motorcycles race their engines in the parking lot outside Blake’s. As the machines are mounted, it appears for an instant that the random, swirling motion of the Road Cruisers’ bikes is lost in confusion. But just as quickly, as they move in close and funnel toward Otay Lakes Road, there is a grouping, a formation both intimidating and graceful. They are in their element—the noise; the precision of movement; the invigorating strength of numbers. When the dust recedes there is not a single piece of litter left on the dirt expanse of the parking lot. and they are gone.