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At the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Motorcycle Club, we find two familiar joys: speed and camaraderie

Wednesday, Jun 23 2004
In the summer of 1905, less than a year after its formation, the San Francisco Motorcycle Club held its first run, a five-mile journey from the clubhouse on Market Street to the hilltop overlooking Daly City, by way of Mission Street. The foray was ambitious. While the bone-crushing wooden chassis of earlier motorbikes had already given way to more comfortable spring frames and spring-mounted seats, motorcycles at the time resembled little more than glamorized bicycles, complete with little bells and step-through frames for women. The wheels on these motorbikes were slender, the engines were anemic, and climbing hills was considered an achievement. Add to all of this a typically inclement San Francisco summer and the fact that, south of Army (now Cesar Chavez), Mission Street was just a long dirt road, and it's little wonder that the 12 charter members quickly succumbed to a quagmire of mud and frustration. (It would be another two years before Indian introduced the first American V-twin engine and yet two more years before Harley-Davidson would present the 45-degree V-twin with its signature rumble and the blood-quickening top speed of 60 mph.) Of course, the cancellation of the SFMC's first run did not discourage the dirty dozen or dampen the Bay Area's growing interest in motorcycles. By 1911, four years after the foundation of the neighboring Oakland Motorcycle Club, SFMC membership had swelled to 500 and counted San Francisco Mayor P.H. McCarthy among its ranks. Like most clubs at the time, both the SFMC and the OMC were nondenominational in that motorcycles of all makes and models were welcomed, as were members of any rideable age and both sexes, but it's worth noting that, in 1913, a spirited rider named Dudley "Red" Perkins joined the SFMC and distinguished himself as a champion hill climber on his Harley. One year later, he opened his still-famous dealership, and his influence could be felt in the predilection of the club for many years to come.

"When I joined up, 80 percent of the members rode Harleys," says current Road Captain David Schiller without any hint of nostalgia. "Now, there's about six of us. There are a lot of sport bikes now. Dual sport. Some rat bikes. ... My son rides a rat bike. Honestly, I don't know what those guys are doing." Schiller chuckles, pointing out that Eric Schiller is the current vice president of the SFMC.

"I used to bring him down in a sidecar," says David, who has been an active SFMC member for more than 24 years.

"It's really amazing to see a club that's been around for so long, where multiple generations can just walk right in and feel at home," says Rocky Mullin, a member of the Bavarian Illuminati Motorcycle Club, a loose association of pagan motorcycle lovers whose primary tenet is "do what thou wilt," as long as it harm none. "You see that sort of longevity with churches but not in many other places. The historical record in this place is absolutely amazing."

Despite a fire in 1985 that gutted the SFMC clubhouse's northern wall and the earthquake that did more damage four years later, the group's history has been carefully preserved. New track lighting hangs from the richly burnished ceilings of the clubhouse, illuminating a hundred years of club banners, ribbons, black-and-white photos, and newspaper clippings; trophy cases brim with memorabilia honoring members' achievements in competition, community action, and racing. There is a Hap Jones wall commemorating the beloved member's inaugural, if uninvited, ride over the Golden Gate Bridge during its first pedestrian crossing in 1937, and follow-up coverage from 1987 when Jones was invited by the city to repeat the historic ride. (He happily accepted, doing the run aboard a vintage Henderson with the granddaughter of the company's founder riding in the sidecar.) Other photographs of great rides and greater parties line the wall near the bar. Antique bikes hang from the ceiling above a pool table and a vintage foosball table, under which a group of children plays hide-and-seek. A mountain of jackets piled against the southern wall threatens to become an avalanche of black leather. A group of bikers -- some of them proudly designated outlaws, some of them attorneys, carpenters, and schoolteachers -- raises glasses to the 100-year anniversary of the second oldest club in the nation.

"Our club was founded in 1903," says Vermin, a life member of the Yonkers Motorcycle Club from New York. Unlike David Schiller, who wears a white button-down dress shirt, gold braid, and captain's hat, Vermin looks like every father's nightmare -- long hair, big mustache, thorny complexion, difficult teeth, and well-worn leather covered with well-earned insignias. But he's sweet as can be.

"My father did everything he could to keep me from following in my uncle's footsteps," admits Vermin, "but here I am." He looks out over the block party where bikers have come from all over the country to honor the centennial clubhouse.

"Last year, a bunch of the [SFMC] guys came out to celebrate our 100-year anniversary, so we wanted to reciprocate," says Road Captain Vince Grimaldi.

"You always meet great people when you're on the road," says Vermin. "The only thing different is the geography. The camaraderie is the same. I've spent every Friday and most weekends of my adult life with [the Yonkers MC], and I wouldn't have it any other way."

That, despite several broken arms, a broken leg, and a multitude of other physical injuries.

"Danger is part of it," points out Rocky Mullin. "The history, the design, and the camaraderie is part of it, too, but there's something to the danger."

"I have always loved speed," admits Katrina Decker, a 34-year-old attorney and three-year SFMC member.

"I bought my first bike when I was 18 and hid it from my parents for two weeks," explains the native San Franciscan with a toss of her blond hair. "I only just bought another bike. I had six bikes at the time of the accident." Decker indicates the black leather sling in which her left arm hangs limply.

"It's been two years to the day," says Decker, who has spent the last six months of those two years organizing the SFMC centennial festivities. "I have a friend who is going to make me a custom glove that will clamp onto the handlebars. I'm going to have to teach myself how to ride all over again. The balance will be completely different, but I can't wait."

Onstage, the Crosstops yodel through "Boob Song," and their fans -- a colorful conglomeration of aging punks and white-trash bohos -- gather to dance. Elly Sinclair, a member of the Bayview Rockets who joined her first motorcycle club back in 1972 (the year in which many Crosstops fans were born), sits in a folding chair, bobbing her head and sipping a Pepsi.

"I grew up around bikers," gloats Sinclair, who looks every bit the middle-aged housewife, down to the curlers in her hair. "My father's friends used to take apart their bikes in our living room. The bikes have changed, but the people haven't. We all love to ride."

I join a small crowd near the rat bike exhibition, where Sacramento Pits Trials Club member Martyn Holgate has set up a tight course composed of a small box truck, several small circular platforms, and an unbelievably steep, narrow ramp, all of which he navigates with short bursts of speed, precision turns, and shuddering, abrupt stops. SFMC President Dennis Casey lays his body across the ring. With barely any speed buildup, Holgate jumps over his legs, scraping the top of Casey's knee with his back tire. Casey smiles and shakes his head, indicating the tire-to-body violation. With a short burst of speed and a well-timed jerk of the handlebars, Holgate clears Casey entirely. Everyone applauds appreciatively, some of us speculating about the bump to the knee.

"Did it hurt?" asks 3-year-old Melinda Kavanagh.

"No, honey," says her clean-cut, silver-haired father. "Do you still want a motorcycle when you grow up?"

"Vroom-vroom," growls the little towheaded angel. "Vroom-vroom."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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