Owen Edwards | Essays

My Month as a Mocker

Rockers and Mods. (Source: Cyril Huze Post)

When I lived in London in the late sixties, the usual social divisions were fully in effect: The aristocracy, the middle class, and the plebs. Often middle class folks were richer than the estate-poor aristos, but having a well-decorated family tree still mattered. On the streets of the city, however, there were two notable tribes: The Mods and the Rockers. The Mods wore tight suits and the Rockers wore leather jackets and jeans. The main distinctions between them, however, were their ways of getting around: Rockers rode motorcycles, mostly Triumphs and BSAs (called, at the time, café racers, since they tended to speed from one café to the next); and Mods rode scooters, mostly Vespas and Lambrettas. Like motorized Montagues and Capulets, each group thought itself clearly superior to the other. When a reporter asked John Lennon whether he was a Mod or a Rocker, he solved the diplomatic problem with his usual linguistic dexterity: “I’m a Mocker.”

As a long time motorcycle rider, I tended to side, stylistically, with the Rockers, though the miniskirted Mod maidens exerted a powerful allure. Years after my London sojourn, I still ride sport bikes, and so remain allied to the long-vanished Rocker tribe. But recently, thanks to some friends in the two-wheeled world, I spent a month as a Mocker. In sequence, I was given a new Suzuki GSX750R, the latest incarnation of the four-cylinder Japanese machine that revolutionized road and racing motorcycles in the eighties, and a Honda Silver Wing, a super scooter with a 582 cubic centimeter, four-stroke twin engine — definitely not a scooter for a mild Mod.

Top: Suzuki GSX750R; Bottom: Honda Silver Wing

I was instantly at home on the Suzuki, since it’s out of the same gene pool as the Kawasaki ZX10 that I use on the track, with the down-and-forward racing position that melds the rider’s body with the bike. It is this “at one with the motorcycle” connection that is one of the great appeals of sport riding. (Not for nothing do the Italians call riders and racers centauri.) The 750cc motor of the GSXR (aka Gixxer) is smaller than either the Kawasaki or the Ducati that I ride, but it winds up fast through its six gears, and thrives on rpms up to around 14,000, so I felt no loss of power. And the bike, which weighs in at 419 pounds, has a light, quick handling that more than makes up for any slight loss of straight ahead grunt. For many seasons, back when 750cc was the upper limit for four cylinder racing motorbikes, the Suzuki was the reigning champion of the American competitive circuit. Since the size limit went up to 1000cc, Suzuki is the only manufacturer that has continued to evolve a 750, and the bike is more sophisticated, agile and faster than ever, a near-perfect machine for both road and track. After my two weeks on the Gixxer, taking on the twisties of Northern California, I was one grateful old Rocker. They just about had to pry the bike out of my hot, gloved hands.

The author with the Suzuki GSX750R.

The switch to the Silver Wing scooter was a shock to my long-cherished man-and-motorcycle swagger. The rare times when I ride scooters is on Greek island vacations. For me, they are a practical way of getting around, but not vehicles that do anything for my ego, or my pursuit of fast fun. But a scooter with a motor the size of a mid-size sport bike is another creature entirely. Riding any scooter is a much less tactile experience than riding a motorcycle — you don’t, for instance, hang off to the inside of turns to steer the bike by shifting body weight; the rider’s feet are sedately placed front and center, with all the physical dash of sitting on a chair. But after a few rides, I reluctantly gave in to the novel idea of actual comfort. Perhaps my biggest mistake was to give my wife a ride on the commodious back seat. She was thrilled, and promptly announced that she was not about to get back behind me on my trusty Triumph new Bonneville. Much to my surprise, the scooter was nimble at speed and didn’t feel nearly as stodgy as I suspect it (and I) looked.

Given the fact that the Silver Wing has real, motorcycle-like acceleration, no gears to shift, and a top speed that makes it fine on freeways, I quickly realized that this is a machine that one could ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles with no difficulty. (I’ve done that ride on a sport bike, and it was… how shall I put it?... taxing.) While I will admit that buzzing around on a scooter, even the muscular Silver Wing, felt a bit testosterone-depleted, I liked the simplicity of operation, and the phenomenal gas mileage. I didn’t do an exact calculation, but in the two weeks I had the scooter — including some rainy days when I didn’t roll it out of the garage — I never needed to fill the tank. The only difficulty I had with the transition from motorcycle to scooter was curbing my habit of mistaking the left-hand brake lever for the clutch (as is the case on a motorbike). The Silver Wing brakes are formidably effect, so after a couple of unexpected, adrenalin-infused full-on stops, I became aware that there is no clutch, but a smooth transmission that does all the shifting for you.

After two weeks on the scooter, I have not switched tribes; I am still a Rocker. I’d have loved more time on the Suzuki GSXR. But I am man enough to admit that riding the Honda scooter was a far more satisfying experience than I’d expected. Who knows? It may be what awaits me down the road.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [4]

Sport bikes, scooters, cruisers, dual-purpose bikes, yes, why not all of the above instead of limiting yourself to one kind of ride? Do you like looking at the same painting all the time? Eating the same food every day? Mix it up. There are horses for courses, as I've heard a British acquaintance say about having the right steed for the ride at hand.

How many motorbikes should one own? As many as can fit in the garage, I say, plus one fine old classic rolling piece of motorized art that belongs in the house, in a place of honor. That's becoming more common these days as well, among the well-heeled (booted?) motorcyclists.

It's also refreshingly more common to see riders of all types of bikes waving at each other out on the roads. Used to be that Harley guys would only wave at their own kind. Sport bikers would only nod at other go-fast enthusiasts. Seems to be more appreciation these days that there are all kinds of fun to be had on two wheels.

I agree with Ty. Own as many as can fit in the garage. Plus, more often these days I'm seeing a lone chopper guy in a sport bike crew and vice versa. This reminds me of a funny culture clash in mountain biking where cross country enthusiasts (read: lightweight, less suspension, spandex) butted heads with downhill riders (read: what weight?, gobs of suspension, body armor). XC folks ride up hill and, you guessed it, DH folks go down. Inevitably there were trail encounters. Then manufacturers started making hybrid bikes that were lightweight AND had enough suspension to hit a downhill trail. The gear changed accordingly and so did a subset of the riding culture: pedal up and blast down.

The two camps still exist and you'll still often hear each bicker about one another, but being a part of the MTB culture, I read a lot of rider comments in magazines and blogs and the consensus often boiled down to this: You're on two wheels and that's all that matters. Same applies here. Besides, when you're twisting the throttle be it on a ribbon of highway, the downtown grid or a dirt road, (at least for me, anyway) does anything but the raw experience of being on two wheels really matter? Or are you too busy thinking about what sub, sub, sub moto culture you look the part of?

It was Ringo Starr who said, in "A Hard Day's Night," that he was a mocker.
Marc Oxborrow

I wouldn't get too hung up on what vehicle makes your more or less of a man. Best to just twist the throttle and go have fun. As others have said, if it has two wheels? I'm down for a ride!

On a side note, a story about scooters on a site about design and not a single mention about Corradino D'Ascanio? Let's give some props to the man who ushered in a revolution on eight- and ten-inch wheels.


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