After the helmets come off, Rita Pfeifer, a local nurse practitioner and former Air Force flight nurse, is all smiles. The ride between Memphis and Sardis took longer than expected on the back roads, but this cyclist-turned-motorcyclist stretches her legs in front of TriBecca Allie Café, chatting excitedly about the unseasonably cool day and the tempting smell of pizza coming out of the small restaurant. “I just bought this bike last November,” she says. “It took me months to build my [riding] skills and confidence enough just to get out of my neighborhood. Now I want a bigger bike — I want to do some touring.”
Rita, like most new motorcyclists, has encountered driving challenges that are never considered while piloting a car. On two wheels, there are no seat belts or protective layers of metal to protect you from the inevitable dangers on the road. Raw instinct is the only life preserver, so you have to learn to trust it (again); all while in the middle of the action — smelling it, tasting it — not just driving past it. It’s a lot to take in at once. “Learning to ride a motorcycle at my age is a huge mental challenge because I don’t have the fearlessness of a 20 year old,” she says, while easily passing for 20 years younger than the birthdate on her driver’s license. While Pfeifer agrees that the willingness to take risks is one of the contributing factors to her own fountain of youth, she admits that it’s something to approach cautiously. “I know the risks in riding and it involves much more skill and precision than I ever imagined.”
Pfeifer is one of a growing number of MidSoutherners, women included, who have fallen in love with motorcycling the area. It’s a love that draws motorcyclists from every walk of life to ride across the MidSouth, on bikes ranging from a fully-restored 1919 Harley Davidson to a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 that can go 0-100 mph in 4.8 seconds. So what’s behind the motorcycling craze and who are the people riding? What you don’t know might surprise you.
The face of motorcycling is changing.
The stereotypical motorcycle rider is disappearing, as an increasing number of people from all occupations and life stories gravitate toward two wheels. And it’s easy to get hooked. Once you ride a motorcycle, all other vehicles feel like cages, prompting the term “cagers” among motorcyclists for anyone not on a bike. However, ask any rider why they do it — what got them into motorcycling in the first place — and you’re likely to get one of four answers.
For some, it’s about the thrill. In a day-to-day grind consisting of locked doors, cautionary steps and safety belts, it’s no wonder people seek ways to balance the scales a little, to take some risks.
For some, it’s about community. Simply passing another motorcyclist on the roads prompts a friendly salute, and camaraderie is a powerful feeling when you ride with a large group in thunderous solidarity for a cause. For some, it’s about challenge. Pfeifer explains it like this: “[Motorcycling] is an ongoing challenge to get it right and it’s an unmatchable confidence builder when you do. For some, it’s about curiosity. MacKenzieStonis, a local vintage motorcycle enthusiast, adds motorcycling to a long list of other activities that make life a little less boring. “I tried small metal sculpture once out of curiosity,” she says. “I’ve also tried a personal trainer, Italian lessons, glass fusing, and rapping. Curiosity is one of my best motivators. Motorcycles hit that button for me.”
The motorcycles on the roads are changing, too.
Due to a widening interest that’s moving beyond the stereotypical “biker” image of decades ago, even the bikes are changing, although you’re still more likely to pass a Harley-Davidson machine than any other motorcycle in the area. With a focus on heritage and loyalty, the Harley-Davidson brand and the MidSouth have shared values, and Harley-Davidson-sponsored events still draw the biggest crowds throughout the region.
Lisa Rossmeyer-Wade, owner of Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson in Southaven, sees crowds of over one thousand motorcyclists — mostly on Harley-Davidsons — join annual rides benefitting Wounded Warriors and Operation First Response. In addition, according to Rossmeyer-Wade, “In the past 12 months, our dealership has trained approximately 140 women to ride through the Rider’s Edge New Rider Course.”
But Harley-Davidson doesn’t completely rule the local roads, particularly in Memphis, where you’re more likely to see a sportbike pass by than a Harley cruiser. Chris Rotenberry, co-owner of Bellevue Suzuki Kawasaki in Memphis, organizes a group ride down to ‘Bikes on Beale’ each month during the summer, seeing a blend of brands and motorcyclists participate in those events.
“About 70 percent are on sportbikes and the rest are on Harleys,” he says, noting that as a dealer, he has seen a lot of motorcycling trends come and go. “Light kits and ‘blacking out’ the chrome on the bike,” says Rotenberry, are this year’s top crazes. With more women riding than ever before, there is also increased interest in bikes that are lighter, lower to the ground and easier to handle for smaller, petite frames.
Old is “in” Again
If you know the expression “ton up,” then you’re probably one of the growing number of people interested in vintage bike culture, and in particular, the sleek, lightweight café racer—a bike that was originally stripped down and rebuilt for one purpose and one purpose alone: speed. The MidSouth is no exception to this craze, and you’re likely to see one of these bikes throughout the area, particularly in October during the annual Run to the Sun benefitting Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and hosted by the Memphis Mummies, a local vintage motorcycle club.
While the international café racer craze focuses on early-model British and Italian machines, Southern nostalgia weighs in down here, with reconstructed 1970s-model Hondas and Kawasakis — the bikes that were likely sitting around during the boyhood/girlhood years of many MidSouth residents. As replicas of bikes customized for speed and agility by racers and adrenaline junkies in the 1950s, café racers reflect an era of rebellion that had rock-n-roll and the black-leather-clad rebel as its exclamation point. It makes this particular bike style as ‘Memphis’ as barbecue and Elvis Presley.
Still, there’s more to the area’s homage to vintage motorcycling than café racers. David Lloyd, newsletter editor for the TN/MS/AR Antique Motorcycle Club Tennessee Chapter, known as the Confederate Chapter AMCA, is taking vintage to an entirely different level with the restoration of his 1919 Harley Davidson J model project. Lloyd plans to ride the nearly 100-year-old motorcycle in the 2014 Cannonball Motorcycle Run — a ride spanning 4,000 miles in 16 days and going from Florida to Washington. “I found this bike in Hot Springs Arkansas,” says Lloyd, an Olive Branch resident. “It originally belonged to a family for nearly 60 years. The man passed away at the age of 97 and the family held on to the bike for a few more years. They did sell the motorcycle and I purchased it after that. I have been restoring it for nearly 3 years. This is not a piece of machinery that you run down to the NAPA parts store to pick up some replacement parts. You have to machine many parts yourself.”
Lloyd also organizes the Century Race at Barber Vintage Fest every year, featuring 100-year-old-plus motorcycles that still have it in them to tackle the challenge of the race track. Featured on the Velocity channel’s, What’s in the Barn, this race is part of a larger gathering of vintage bikes and racers that draws crowds of close to 60,000 every year, and is a spectacle that every vintage moto-enthusiast shouldn’t miss.
The MidSouth has a bad reputation for motorcycle safety but local motorcyclists are working to change that.
One hard fact that is undeniable is that motorcycling can be a dangerous activity anywhere, particularly in the MidSouth. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s crash statistics, Mississippi ranked #23 (out of 50) in having the most motorcycle-related deaths in the country, with Louisiana coming in at #1 and Tennessee at #15. Many of these deaths are related to accidents caused by other vehicles and a large number involve at least one driver who was under the influence at the time of the accident.
To combat statistics like these, the Motorcycle Awareness Campaign’s North Mississippi Chapter holds annual events along Goodman Road to promote awareness of motorcycling safety — both for the drivers of other vehicles and the motorcyclists, themselves. With bright yellow signs requesting that all drivers “watch for motorcycles,” the group hopes to call attention to the importance of driving without distractions, particularly without texting and talking on the phone.
Other local motorcyclists such as Gayle Minard, a trauma surgeon and Professor of Surgery at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, have seen how a little prevention can go a long way in saving a life. “Way back when we [had] moto people from Memphis International [come into the trauma unit], they would come in wearing [full gear] and not have all that much wrong,” says Minard. “A lot of motorcyclists in accidents are irresponsible [about riding safely], although obviously not all. I see people drunk on motorcycles all the time, not wearing the proper gear, going 200 mph on the freeway, etc.”
Minard is also playing an active role in encouraging a political push toward motorcycling safety and awareness. When learning that Tennessee was attempting to repeal the helmet law through House Bill HB0044, Minard offered expert testimony at the House Transportation Committee in Nashville in support of keeping the law.
Some MidSoutherners have a serious need for speed (and air).
While some MidSouth motorcycle enthusiasts limit their travels to area roads and speed limits, there is a small group that looks forward to competitive racing at places like Millington Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park, a world-class racing track located near Birmingham, Alabama. Minard started riding there before ever hitting local roads on her newly purchased Kawasaki Ninja 250. “Many trauma surgeons are adrenaline junkies,” she says. “A friend talked me into going to a moto track weekend at Barber and started teaching me on the pit bike. I was hooked.”
After racing Motocross and becoming the MidSouth MX champion at the age of 10, Horn Lake resident Jamie Thompson raced competitively in the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Pro Road race series and earned titles with Western EasternRoadracing Association (WERA) and American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA). “When racing a bike you become a part of it,” says Thompson. “Man and machine working together, pushing it to the edge and beyond. It is an amazing experience that few people get to experience.”
Larry Reiter, a Memphis resident and winner of the AHRMA 250cc Classic MX Novice Class Championship on his vintage Rickman Montesa, puts it like this: “The only place I can ride my bike fast without getting arrested or being hit by a car is on the motocross track.”
On the more extreme end of the sport, Dean Dotson, from Drummonds, Tennessee, is a 25-year-old motocross freestyler who performs around the world at Arenacross, monster truck shows, fairs and extreme sports shows. His summer visits to Memphis consist of high-flying adventures off ramps, and at many points, over concrete with nothing to protect him from a fall. As the first place overall winner in the expert class of the FMXeast Challenge Series, Dotson has been doing dangerous things on two wheels (of some sort) since a teenager. “When I was growing up, my friends and I were always jumping our bicycles and it was super awesome fun, now everything is on a bigger scale,” says Dotson, who will be heading to Guyana, South America for a FMX show at the beginning of September.
The MidSouth has some hidden gems for riding.
Kudzu-lined roads that twist through fields might not be the most direct path from point A to point B for other vehicles, but on a motorcycle, they create the perfect path for riding. Without the congestion of traffic, rider and machine can breathe a little, with only the sound of the wind and the tires meeting pavement for company. In North Mississippi, East Arkansas and West Tennessee, these roads are abundant, providing area riders the opportunity to take scenic and historical journeys on their bikes, while stopping at markers denoting music history and southern lore that might not be seen from the highways.
Among these roads is the Mississippi River Trail, which extends from the Mighty River’s headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, offering area cyclists and motorcyclists a tree-canopied, meandering ride along the river’s path. Shelby Forest, Arkabutla Lake, Holly Springs National Forest and Natchez Trace Parkway are other favored roads for motorcycling, and when traveling them on any warm weekend, you’re likely to pass as many motorcycles as cars.
The MidSouth’s motorcycling craze has a long history, with local legends like Elvis Presley in its ranks. Although there is more to the craze than meets the eye, as an increasing number of new riders take to the roads, you might just become one of the thousands of two-wheeled pilots this time next year. If you do, keep in mind the words of the late journalist and writer, Hunter S. Thompson, who was also enthralled with the motorcycle’s iconic appeal: “Drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.”
Evolving culture of southern roads and rides
Story By Tonya Thompson