Ratbikes: Vermin in Suburbia

Motorgirl from the issue September/October 2007

RATBIKE: rat-byke (noun) Rat bikes are motorcycles that, over time, have fallen apart but have been kept on the road and maintained for next to nothing and are usually modified for stylistic reasons.

SUBURBIA: sub-rrr-bee-ah (noun) The area on the periphery of a city or large town that falls between being truly part of the city but is not countryside either.

It happened. A day not unlike today, I accidentally ended up in Suburbia. Yes, the outer limits for us City folks. It was one of those afternoons, head in the clouds versus focus on street names. It was weird, this place of higher living – too polished and pretty with every tree perfectly lined up. No wonder I felt uncomfortable and with a twist of the wrist I changed direction and headed towards the edginess of my trusty East Vancouver ‘hood. Then something else happened. A strange occurrence. Right there in the middle of quiet conformity, parked outside a tudor-style mansion, there they were…two hard-core Rat bikes. Yes, Rats and looking incredulously conspicuous, thus raising suspicion in me. What’s the deal? Who in this fancy neighbourhood would sport a Rat?

Now understand – I adore rat bikes. I mean, heck I used to be part of this posse especially during my university years. It’s a lifestyle choice not unlike any other tribe within the big umbrella of motorcycle tribes out there. They’ve chosen their ways, their sociology for a reason. Essentially, a rat bike and the philosophy attached to their way of living can be broken down into three main categories: attitude, aesthetic and machinery.

Attitude. Now there are few reasons why I adore rat bikers, but the main one is their freakin’ attitude. A perfect example, the “C” word (chrome) it’s the baddest of all bad words. “SAY NO TO CHROME” is their motto. They have a way, an energy that just roars, “we really don’t give a f#*@!” For example, my ex-boyfriend, a hard-core rat biker never washed his motorcycle but he hand washed all of his black clothes and then hung them up in the dark so that his precious shirts wouldn’t fade. The bottom line: they do things their way. I mean, why spend hundreds of dollars on a new chrome part when you can spend it on a new black wardrobe you’ll have for the rest of your life? Although, I must note that most rat bikers are not down with the consumer lifestyle, hence why motorcycle parts are made out of items from somewhere in your kitchen like the gas tank I saw on a bike in Chinatown. The owner had duct taped a rice sack around the tank as a quick fix paint job. Practical…I guess.

Another term used regularly in the community is “sunshine biker”. This obviously defines the motorcyclists who smile and ride shiny new bikes. I stumbled across a chat room on www.ratbike.org and read a heartfelt observation, “I nodded at a sunshine biker and all I got was the finger.” Awww…even these folks in matte black have feelings. One more discussion that made me raise an eyebrow was regarding recipes for small birds posted by a rat biker named Fred, “One of my cats likes to bring me cardinals at 5:00 a.m. He does this as a sign of love and respect. Normally I just look at the dead bird, then roll over and go back to sleep. Once I’ve refused the bird, it’s then OK for him to eat it. But I’m thinking that the next one he brings me, I’m going to cook it and eat it myself. Anyone got a good recipe? Cardinals are, I think, a native American bird. Any recipe that calls for sparrow would probably do just as well.”

Aesthetic. The second most important characteristic to being a rat biker is aesthetics, or perhaps more appropriately, a lack of aesthetics. We’re talking about the look of the bike and rat bikes generally defy description unless you’ve actually seen one yourself. Let me paint a picture for you: A little black rain cloud on the side of the road – maybe. A forgotten pile of junk deposited in a parking lot – perhaps. More like a motorcycle glued, stapled, duct taped together with matte black, more matte black and then some rust thrown in just for fun. The bike I stumbled across in Richpeopleville had a rear fender made out of a two litre pop bottle cut in half and mounted with bailing wire. Nice.

Paint on a motorcycle is everything, or at least the faded oxidization of the original application. I found a chat room entirely devoted to this important skill and being a painter myself I laughed my butt off. A guy from Holland named Roadkill posted, “I stumbled on to this by accident, while painting my tank I screwed up most triumphantly by spraying heat resistant paint over not so dried up primer, the effect when I came back later to check out my paintwork was great, the black layer was cracked up completely like little thunderbolts. Just spray on a light layer of black to cover the white from the primer in the little cracks and it’s good and ugly!” The good and ugly being the motivating factor in this process, of course. A far more important topic seemed to rely heavily on what matte black paint to choose from, “Hammerite BBQ Black is a fantastic ‘dusty’ matt black and it’s heat resistant up to about 600 degrees, I think. It sticks to everything as well (even that nasty shiny stuff they call chrome).” But my favourite was from a dude named Mad Dan; “I dripped green candle wax all over my bike. I then painted over it with Matte black. It gives the bike that melted look. Even better on hot days it melts, and green oozes from under the black paint, horrifying people!” Ironically, my ex-boyfriend had done a similar process but instead of wax he used petroleum jelly. And yes, it horrified me even on cold days.

Machinery. The final mandate to gain entry into the rat bike world. You need a bike and honestly, any bike will do. Any style of repair will do as long as it’s under five bucks – no kidding. The main reason, you spend less time and money on your bike and you spend more time RIDING!! Rudolph from New Zealand had expert advice for other rat bikers, “Keep your old smoky oil burning bikes on the road by using transmission oil. It is thicker and will not get past the rings. It also stops bearing noise. As for muffler packing, use pink fiberglass wall insulation.” Other rat mechanics have more creative repair jobs. When asked if your exhaust leaks between collector box and pipe, the answer was simple, “Cut the case of an old hi-fi cd player up, then wrap around the joint making sure the gap is packed with exhaust repair putty and secure with two hose clips.” You have to admit, these guys get creative, not unlike environmentalists with their recycling techniques. (Trying to keep a serious face.) Anyway, the two mystery bikes never exposed their owners to me nor did they answer the question of why they were parked in Suburbia, and to be honest, in the big scheme of things – I really didn’t care. But on that day, like any day I was drawn to those matte black beauties with their simplicity and distilled style. There was purity parked there in front of that eight-bedroom house and it reminded me to go for a longer ride that day and skip the cleaning. Like the tattoo said: MUTATE AND SURVIVE. MMM

More rat bike stuff can be found at www.ratbike.org or check out www.foerdermaschine.de for an interesting European selection. And as usual, www.motorgirl.com is where you can see more words and images by Lesley Gering.

 

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