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GOING THE DISTANCE
"THE KICKSTART FETISH"
PHOTO BY GENGHIS
KICKSTART ONLY: MY '68 XLCH "SALLY THE BITCH"
EXCERPT FROM A CURRENT BIKER MAGAZINE FEATURE ARTICLE:
"My bobber started out with the idea of building a traditional looking bobber with modern drivetrain. I love kickstart bikes but...."
Fe-tish, noun: An object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.
A-pol-o-gy, noun: A spoken or written expression of one's regret for having failed.
That excerpt was the biker's way of introducing his Harley---an electric start only Harley---to the readership of the magazine.
It's the "but" that nails it. Reading between the lines with language, is a lot like analyzing body language. The nuances of either reveal more than the speaker/mover intended to, about closely held attitudes.
The remorseful tone with respect to foregoing kickstart on his custom Harley is unmistakable, a clear byproduct of a cultural extreme that deems kickstarting somehow more purist and hardcore, than electric starting. This is not my attitude. Not having kickstarting does not constitute a failure.
My kickstarting technique is extremely good. People used to randomly stop and watch me kickstart my bikes on the street, because they found it to be a fascinating exercise from a bygone era, as exotic and spellbinding as hand-cranking an automobile engine to get it started.
Staying on the right side of the bike with both hands on the handlebars, my left knee resting easily on the seat, and my right foot on the kickstarter, I'd find top dead center on one of the cylinders with the kickstarter, and then let the kickstarter ratchet to it's highest position again.
I was the direct beneficiary of my kickstarting technique, from an older biker I grew up around in my hometown of Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York. His name is Stevie Biondo. Stevie taught me correct kickstarting technique one day in the late 1960s, and he deserves all the credit in the world for not only teaching me this valuable lesson as one biker to another, but also for his friendship throughout my childhood and teen years---a friendship and brotherhood that continues. I still see Stevie periodically when I return to Jackson Heights. Stevie was and is a true inspiration to me. I will always look up to Stevie like an older brother. Specifically with regard to kickstarting technique, he taught me the difference between merely adequate technique and superior technique in kickstarting. Stevie rode a righteous rigid Pan.
An experienced kickstarter demonstrates total relaxation, unitl the very end of the kicking thrust.
This is analogous to throwing a powerful punch by maximizing speed by relaxing through the technique until the end, when all the musculoskeletal elements contract in a coordinated effort for the most power. All the energy explodes at the end of the technique, where it counts, whether it's in throwing a punch or kickstarting a bike.
These mysterious deliberations built up the suspense among the crowds. Man, there were times that I could've charged admission for a fine show of technique.
"Come watch the cool biker kickstart his beast! Only five bucks!"
Then using my arms and shoulders, I'd push off the handlebars and dramatically raise my body in the air as high as possible, while maintaining contact with the kickstart pedal with my right foot, and launch downward on the kickstarter using gravity to let my full bodyweight take the motor through its cycle, starting the motor with a "...Wooomph....ROOOAAARRRRR..."
This conspicuously gaudy display had the same effect on onlookers, as them seeing a full-force lowering of a one-ton guillotine during a public execution: Swift, inexorable---and too awesome for words. Too cool fer school, baby! Off with their heads, start those bikes and let 'em eat cake!
Unlike other bikers who straddled their Harleys and depended on muscular leg strength to push through the kickstarter, my "right-side" technique was more effortless as it depended on gravity and physics rather than muscular effort alone.
Ha! These straddlers! What did they know?
Also as opposed to the "straddlers," keeping one's body strictly on the right side of the bike distributes more of the kicker's weight on the kickstarter, instead of focusing that weight over the center-line of the motorcycle. It's physics, man.
I also intensified the kicking force, by aiming my bodyweight through the kickstarter. It's like punching "through" an opponent. A punch thrown to a point beyond an opponent's head, produces more velocity at the point of initial impact. The same is true with kickstarting.
People did find my kickstarting fascinating. I'll tell ya what, though.
I didn't give a crap.
I could've done without the public attention. I ain't no drama king, man.
For all the pride I have in my kickstarting technique, it was never enough to cause me to tout kicking a bike over, as the "one way" to start a Harley.
I was never one to make a value judgement about whether kickstart was somehow more righteous than electric start, or vice versa.
The biker who otherwise wrote a fine article about his boss bike, shouldn't sound apologetic regarding passing up kickstart. Having an electric start in no way invalidates the righteousness of this guy's Harley.
What's cool and what's not in the biker subculture is largely a matter of perception, and in the end is influenced by how independently each biker thinks, outside of the confines of peer pressure-driven conformity.
Many in the biker subculture place kickstarting on an impossibly high pedestal.
I didn't become good at kickstarting for the public adoration. I got good at it so I could get rolling on the bike, period.
It's not about ideology. It's about using what works, man. In the biker subculture, there are those who are dogmatic and those who are pragmatic. I happily fall into the latter category.
People get so wound up in following one ideology or stylistic philosophy in the biker subculture, that this strict loyalty to form at times overshadows what's truly important: What gets the job done.
Even the standardization of terminology in biker rags, some would call it a blind adherence---calls into question, how much freethinking there really is in the culture. "Chopper." "Bobber." It sure gets tedious, man. People get used to living by code words, allowing these code words to dictate their decisions and behavior.
There is so much overlap with these categories, that I think it's silly to absolutely pigeonhole bikes as either this, or that.
Inflexible loyalty to form also locks people into predetermined modes of thought regarding motorcycles. It introduces ironclad labels as to what's good, and what's not--what's hot and what's cold. Bikers have ceased to some degree, to think for themselves, trusting instead on GroupThink to make their value judgements for them, oftentimes subconsciously. It's opinion by concensus.
I could not help but feel that the feature bike owner's apologetic tone about not having a kickstarter, represents an insidious indoctrination of attitudes that borders on fetishization. From a class point of view, there is no difference between kickstarting and electric starting, merely a difference in mechanisms, to me.
Kickstarters and electric starters are merely different means to achieve the same end: To...."....getcher motor running, head out on the highway..." Different methods for the same result, man. That's all they are.
In my view, a needless apology for not doing or using something, is nothing but an implied bow to conformity.
I never had an attachment to kickstarting for ego-boosting reasons.
There were times when my kickstart bikes had a tough time lighting up. The day I had Andrew Rosa convert my kickstart Harley 74 to electric start, turned out to be one of the happiest days of my entire biker life. Man, wotta dream to just hit that switch and just go!
The kickstart fetishists can have kickstart only, man.
That's not to say that retaining the kickstarter on Mabel, my '71 shovel stroker wasn't without benefit. In the twenty years since Andrew added the electric foot to Mabel, I did have to kick 'er over once about five years ago when Mabel had a low battery. That one time was the only time I gave any thought to her kickstarter in that span of time, and was grateful to have it in that instance. I otherwise have been blissfully happy to turn 'er over by starter motor. Electric start rules, man.
Yet, the fetishization of kickstarting, is but one example of numerous objects of fetishization in the biker subculture, where fetishists idolize objects as "the only cool" way of doing things. Other objects that inspire fetishization are for example, brakeless front ends, and jockey shifting. Let's examine jockey shifts. Many bikers are either vaguely apologetic for having a modern foot shift system, or outright bragging that they use a jockey shift, eschewing those inferior and uncool conventional foot shifts. All that is missing from the latter are little girl squeals of "Ewwwwwww....foot shifts!" That's how deeply entrenched many bikers are in loyalty to form.
I never got into the fascination with foot clutch/hand shift systems. Jockey shifting has always struck me as doing harder work to get the same result of changing gears.
I'm an advocate of doing things the simpler way. This is Occam's Razor methodology in practice.
Do the simple thing first.
You can't go wrong by doing this.
Look at the no-front-brake fetish. I'll let the facts speak for themselves: Seventy per cent of a motorcycle's braking power comes from the front brake. For a biker to intentionally diminish the braking of his bike to a mere one third of its capacity, is ridiculous in my view. Especially if the reason is because, "This is they way they did it in the '70s..." or "Because it looks rad..." This seems particularly mindless and lemming-like to me.
Can't you picture a parent asking his ten year old.....
"If your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump with 'em?"
If you had a hundred bucks in yer wallet, would you throw seventy bucks away, because having only thirty bucks "saves weight?"
Look at it another way. Do you think that the biker who left the brake off of his fork, would intentionally and happily reduce his 100 horsepower Harley motor to a mere 30 horsepower? If lopping off 70% of your braking power is "cool," then why isn't deleting 70% of your motor's power just as cool?
How about a one-cylinder panhead? Man, that would really save weight. You can save the other cylinder for another bike. Of course, if customizers from the '70s built one-cylinder Harleys, then this trend would certainly provide a historical rationale for a one-cylinder Harley. We could call this a Harley 37. Who needs a Harley 74, when a Harley 37 is considered much cooler? Conformity does have its costs.
I'm on my Harley 74, gettin' ready to start 'er up. People are milling around us on the sidewalks of NYC. They cast careless and casual glances at us. I reach for the toggle switch that completes the circuit to the electric starter, and start 'er up.....and nobody stops to watch. Who cares? Mabel's stroker crackle and evil, loping idle do get some attention from onlookers, and that's all good.
There are some things worth idolizing when you ride a Harley. But the sound, the sound, it is biorhythmic, baby---coordinated with the beat of my soul. It is profound, unlike kickstarting which is expendable. I need that sound.
What I don't need, is bystander attention to the kickstarting ritual. What's far cooler than kicking Mabel over, is blasting off into the sunset,with no muss, no fuss and no fetish. Later.