Tucson Vintage Motorcycle Riders meet to talk, admire bikes

Vintage-bike aficionados meet to admire one another's rides; swap meet is Sunday
2013-04-18T00:00:00Z 2014-08-20T09:59:31Z Tucson Vintage Motorcycle Riders meet to talk, admire bikesDan Sorenson Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The Hells Angels they ain't.

As motorcycle clubs go, the Tucson Vintage Motorcycle Riders aren't much of an organization. There are no officers. No dues. They can't even agree on what kind of a motorcycle you have to own, or even if you have to own one, to be part of this nonclub.

Probably nobody would even think of it as a club were it not for the fact that one member of the group silk-screened a bunch of T-shirts - black, of course - with an image of an old motorcycle on the front and the words "Tucson Vintage Motorcycle Riders."

The only things they agree on are that they like old motorcycles and, most of them at least, enjoy a cold beer while talking about and looking at motorcycles old and new.

They don't even drink all that much beer. It's not a good idea when you're riding a motorcycle. And, as one of the typically vintage members mentioned, "Even if it wasn't for the DUI problem, it's hard to make it all the way home without stopping for a pee break if you've had more than one or two (beers)."

They get together every other Wednesday at Barrio Brewery, 800 E. 16th St.

Motorcycles, mainly English, German and Italian marques, start putting, thumping or rumbling up to the microbrewery next to the railroad tracks off Toole Avenue downtown sometime after 5 p.m. The brewery provides a bit of parking out front on Bike Nights.

Most of the riders sit at outdoor tables on the former warehouse's loading ramp, looking out over the rail at the bikes below, maybe planning a ride with one or two others, or walking over to the rows of BMWs, Ducatis, MotoGuzzis, Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs, Hondas, Yamahas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and a few Harleys for a close look at some detail.

The Euro makes are rare enough on Tucson's streets to make the typical Bike Night turnout surprising. Sometimes there are as many as 30 or 40 bikes, and sometimes in the heat of summer or on the coldest nights of winter as few as a dozen or even less.

But occasionally some truly rare bikes show up, obscure marques such as the legendary British Vincent, an Italian Laverda or even the king of American motorcycles, the all-but-extinct Indian.

Conspicuously absent, with a few exceptions, are the otherwise ubiquitous Harley-Davidsons. There is some playful speculation among the vintage-motorcycle guys that the wild individualists who often ride Harleys aren't comfortable with such a disorganized outfit.

And the Harley riders certainly have many other options, a half-dozen or so clubs that are Harley-Davidson-centric, including the paradoxically named Loners Motorcycle Club, a regional club that has a Tucson chapter.

"They come in once in a while," says John Shadeck, the Vintage Motorcycle Riders founder - that's as much title as he'll own up to. "They (the Harley guys) look around and pull out."

Bikes you won't have seen anywhere else

What they see is a bunch of mostly old motorcycles and mostly older guys (mostly), sitting around or walking around talking about old motorcycles. That's almost all there is to the group. Almost.

The only other thing the Vintage Motorcycle Riders do is an annual motorcycle show and swap meet. That's coming up Sunday at Barrio Brewery. It's free. Entering bikes in their contest is even free.

There are prizes, donated items from local motorcycle shops, in various categories. And some motorcycles that you probably won't have seen anywhere else, other than a motorcycle museum in some distant city.

And this loose organization is all just fine with the man who started it. Shadeck says he unintentionally started the group when he moved here from Rhode Island to begin a post-grad program at the University of Arizona several years ago and was just looking for a few guys to ride with.

"When I moved out here, I put an ad on Craigslist, 'Anybody with an old bike want to ride?'" Shadeck says. A few guys showed up, one on a new Triumph and others on a BMW, a Honda Nighthawk and a chopper.

"We met at a cafe," Shadeck says, "and rode through Gates Pass and said, 'Let's do it again.' " That was five or six years ago."

The occasional gathering grew, eventually moving to the friendly microbrewery.

"I never had any intention of a club," Shadeck says. "But the second year into it, we decided to have a show."

As best he can tell, there are a couple hundred old-bike fanciers who consider themselves part of the group. "At the end of the first year, we did a Yahoo group," Shadeck says. "There were 180 members on that. Guys mostly, the whole age gamut. We get new people all the time."

As for the every other Wednesday meet-up, Shadeck says the consensus was that every other week was often enough. But he admits it's sometimes tough to remember which Wednesday it is. "I've shown up on the wrong night."

Shadeck, like many, likely most, of the group started out riding Japanese motorcycles - a 1978 650cc Yamaha that was essentially a Japanese take on a classic twin-cylinder British bike, a Triumph or BSA. Then he got a Yamaha SR 500, a single-cylinder Japanese bike that was loosely inspired by old English singles. He's owned a number of bikes, Japanese and European, but he says a 1970 BMW R75/5 was "the bike that changed everything."

Many regulars have several bikes. Mik White brought his latest acquisition, a relatively new (early 1990s) BMW K1, to a recent Wednesday-night meet-up.

One man's trash

Ray St. Clair is another of the regulars. His only bike is a head-turner - a 1955 BSA Gold Star, a model with a racing pedigree but a reputation for being somewhat unreliable and a thorny beast to start and maintain. When a Gold Star owner goes to start his bike, other motorcycle guys have been known to bet on whether it will start on the first kick, the sixth or at all.

And while St. Clair's Gold Star isn't perfect, it is a wonder. To the amazement of knowing onlookers - especially those who have owned old Brit bikes - it often starts on the first kick. Stranger still, St. Clair rides the 58-year-old BSA almost every day and hardly ever has to do anything to it.

The big cork sink-stopper that he stuffs in the carburetor intake when the bike is parked - to keep out curious creatures and other foreign objects - gets some laughs. But the bike's story is far better.

St. Clair says it was found abandoned in an Austin, Texas, alley in 1971. It was then used to thrash around off-road, suffered some abuse, but was still functional when the finder gave it to St. Clair. He managed, after much legal wrangling, to get a Texas judge to declare it abandoned and had the state name St. Clair the new owner.

"This is the only motorcycle I've ever owned, or am likely to own," St. Clair says. I've taken it from one end of the U.S. to the other since 1971."

He says he's never had to rebuild the engine, and it's never left him stranded.

So, for a bit of legwork and $17.50, the fee charged by the state of Texas to title it to him, St. Clair got a classic bike - a model that, when in pristine condition, can sell for as much as $20,000.

St. Clair's bike, a standout every other Wednesday, probably won't even be the only Gold Star at the show. The show usually brings out some of Tucson's and Southern Arizona's rarer old bikes, including Indians, maybe a Velocette, and even a Norvin - a hybrid of a Norton and a Vincent.

And it brings out a lot of stories, though probably none stranger than that of St. Clair and his old BSA.

IF YOU GO

• What: The Tucson Vintage Motorcycle Riders Fourth Annual Vintage & Classic Motorcycle Show & Swap Meet.

• When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Barrio Brewery, 800 E. 16th St.

• How much: Free admission and free entry of bikes in 12 classes: British, Italian, German, Japanese, Scooter, Antique (1955 or older), Vintage (1956-1980) Modern Classic (1981-present), 250cc or smaller displacement engine, Grand Champion, Café/Custom, and Competition Dirt Bike.

Dan Sorenson has been riding motorcycles since he was 15 years old, a time when you could buy a new Honda 50 Cub for $285. He did.

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