We attended the Mama Tried Motorcycle Show in Milwaukee, getting a proper look at handbuilt motorcycle culture.
On my last visit to Milwaukee, I visited the Harley Davidson Museum, getting a small glance into the motorcycle culture that is so deeply embedded in the city. However, a visit to a museum is not the only way of getting acquainted with what some call a way of life. The craftsmanship, culture and lifestyle that involves being on two wheels can only be properly experienced by interacting with the people who eat, breathe and sleep motorcycles.
As it happens, the 2017 instalment of the Mama Tried Motorcycle show was scheduled to take place in Milwaukee from the 17th to the 19th of February, showcasing handbuilt motorcycles from all around the Midwest. So, almost a year after my last trip to the city, I found myself on my way to the show. The location was in the industrial heart of the city, where buildings that have stood for at least six or seven decades abound.
As I joined the longish queue moving towards the doors, I looked at the people around me. Weather-beaten leather jackets with numerous patches sewed on, faded Levi’s jeans, an abundance of tattoos, long beards and tough riding boots. Yup, I was definitely in the right place. If there was any doubt, it was quickly dispelled by the numerous motorcycles parked on the street, forming a veritable barrier between the road and the queue. The whole area echoed to the distinctive sounds of Harley V-twins.
The show was divided between the first and fourth floors of an old red brick building that looked like it had once been a factory. The first floor housed all manner of vendors, selling a host of motorcycle accessories. Stickers, gloves, bracelets, wallets, boots, and even exhaust fittings were being sold. The place was crowded, but not overly so. In order to get to the fourth floor, one could take an old freight elevator that was as old as the building itself, or climb a few flights of a rather narrow staircase. Not wanting to waste more time in the queue for the elevator, I decided to take the stairs.
As I entered the show space, a number of things hit me. First was the not unpleasant stench of wooden floorboards that had been worn down through years of use. This combined with the unmistakeable smell of oxidized metal, which in turn combined with the scent of motor oil. A slight tinge of leather completed the complex aroma.
What I saw was a large number of motorcycles, spread out all over the space. People milled around them, lit by spotlights overhead, their shadows bouncing all over. Wooden columns held up the roof, also serving as leaning posts for those who wanted to admire a certain build, beer in hand.
Diverting my attention from the people to the bikes, I quickly realised I was looking at moto-diversity like nothing else. Iron can be bent into almost any shape, and it sure seemed as if the builders of these bikes wanted to prove that. Keeping the location in mind, it was no surprise that Harley Davidson was the most popular brand on show. Bikes from as far back as the 1930s were there, replete with their sidecar. Decades worth of patina, tank mounted shifters, stick thin whitewall tyres and small motors were the immediate details that jumped out at me. Choppers, cruisers, soft tails, bobbers, drag bikes and dirt trackers were everywhere, equipped with every conceivable variant of the Harley’s engines from the last century.
Other brands on display? Honda, Ducati, BMW, Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Norton, Victory and Royal Enfield. Absolutely nothing was stock. Every builder had done something or the other to make their bike stand out from the crowd. Some were gnarly, some were clean, others were garish and a few looked like they would have been perfect for Popeye. This wasn’t a place to discuss good taste; instead, it was a place to appreciate the effort and skill that men and women from all over the Midwest devoted to make a two-wheeled machine truly theirs. Whether they were winter projects or commissioned builds by well-known garages, they were all equally appreciated.
A long-handled meat cleaver for a sissy bar? Check. Front forks that were as tall as I am? Check. Harleys with the type of road presence that James Dean would have been at home with? Check.
The best part about the whole thing was that it genuinely looked like all the bikes were ridden on a regular basis. Builds from Analog Motorycles, Clockwork Motorcycles, One-up and Federal Moto(Stay tuned for more!) were all present, yet none of them gave off a garage queen vibe, which I think is extremely laudable.
After spending a few hours at the show, I headed for the exit. Coming back out into the uncharacteristically warm February sunshine, I looked up the street, and gaped. The queue that I had been part of had now managed to stretch all the way to the end of the block, with people joining every minute. The number of bikes parked on the street had now doubled, and any hooliganism was strictly prohibited, enforced under the watchful eye of the sole police officer on the street, who had dutifully rocked up on his police Harley Davidson.
In addition to exposing the industrial and motorcycle culture of the city, the Mama Tried show was able to bring together the who’s who of the motorcycle world, to appreciate the fun of modifying a motorcycle. It’s a sight for sore eyes watching a rider upshift using the shifter mounted on his tank, or a BMW R60 ride off into the afternoon sun. There was a certain honesty with the whole affair, which stemmed from the fact that were no posers among the crowd that day, just true motorcycle enthusiasts who loved their two wheeled machines, with the scars and stories to prove it.
It almost got me wishing I could ride. Almost.