When a biker throws a leg over the saddle and hits the starter, the sound of that motor revving up is like a choir of angels. Freedom, joy, love — all the good stuff in life — can be found from atop two wheels. Whatever troubles you, a long ride on an empty road can help. There’s nothing a trip on a rumbling bike can’t make better. At least, those are the prevailing feelings that draw our neighborhood’s motorcycle community together. Since the shootout in Waco, bikers are feeling more misunderstood than ever. Even though violent biker gangs exist, the vast majority of people who ride motorcycles are not part of one. Don’t let the leather chaps and tough looks fool you. These are professionals, parents, community volunteers and all-around nice people… who sometimes hang out at biker bars.
People start rolling in on their bikes around 7 p.m., and there are all kinds. Vintage Triumphs, Ducatis, Kawasakis, adventure bikes, scooters, even a bicycle.
“Bike night is open to everybody,” says Greg Barham, standing in his front lawn on Tyler.
much fun over the years. It’s a happy machine.”
Barham and his wife, Jeanne, have been riding motorcycles for decades, and he has restored several vintage bikes over the years.
The crowd at the party consists mostly of guys, whose ages range from 20s to 60s. But there are a few women too. Once all the bikes are lined up, they wander around the yard in twos and threes to check out one another’s machines.
It’s not just about camaraderie.
The more pals who put their eyes on your bike, the more likely you are to catch potential mechanical failures, says Michael Marshall, one of the founders of bike night. Or you might just learn how to run your bike better.
“It’s a lot of sharing knowledge,” he says.
There is beer and wine at the party, but no one appears over served. They grill hotdogs and talk about work, their kids, their home improvement projects, the real estate market, and of course, motorcycles.
It’s just like any other party one might find in an Oak Cliff front yard, just with more “vroom.”
“No one here brought their nunchucks,” says bike night regular Annette Jensen.
Another regular is Oak Cliff neighbor Ben D’Avanza, a commercial photographer who pulls up on a 2009 Ducati GT 1000. This is his everyday ride, and he loves it. But he has several more in his home shop, and he has restored many vintage motorcycles for himself and friends over the years.
When he was about 20 years old, he rebuilt a Norton Commando, which was “what you would call a basket case,” D’Avanza says. He built the engine and whole bike in the living room of his bachelor pad in East Dallas. That bike was totaled when a truck hit him, and afterward, he bought and rebuilt a 1968 Triumph TR6, also in his living room, and that is still his favorite one, he says.
Asked why he rides, D’Avanza tries to describe the feeling of being outside on two wheels as opposed to a car. Later, he comes up with a simple explanation for why he loves motorcycles.
“I just really love rebuilding Triumph motors,” he says. “It’s like functional art.”
D’Avanza reveals that most of what he’s learned about rebuilding old motors came from a guy they call Chopper Bill.
William Neal was born and reared in Oak Cliff, and he lives with his wife and child in his grandmother’s old house near the Dallas Zoo.
In the late ’70s, he was riding a Honda 200, and all the mechanics at motorcycle shops would make fun of him for it, he says.
“I’d say, ‘but I’m here to buy parts for a Triumph I’m rebuilding,’ ” he says. “Then they were OK with it.”
That was a 1967 Triumph for which he paid $175. It is still his main bike and his favorite. He’s been riding it for over 35 years.
So on the first time out, he met a pretty girl and avoided a ticket.
“The machine has brought me so much good luck and so much fun over the years,” he says. “It’s a happy machine.”
He’s made many modifications, has rebuilt the engine several times and rebuilt the entire thing about 15 years ago.
“There’s not a part in here I haven’t touched,” he says.
Rebuilding engines is like a puzzle, he says. British-built engines, such as Triumph, particularly appeal to him because he says they are more straightforward than Japanese bikes. Their electrical systems are easy for him to understand, he says. He’s proud of his mechanical skills, and he’s not stingy with them. Chopper Bill has been a mentor to many Dallas bike mechanics and enthusiasts.
Some motorcyclists hold back a little when describing how they really feel about riding. Not this guy. It’s a spiritual experience, he says.
In the imagined scenario where Bill rules the world, everyone would have to ride a motorcycle for two years before they could be allowed to drive a car.
In general, motorcycle riders are more courteous and more attentive, he says. When was the last time you saw a biker littering, eating or texting while driving?
“On a motorcycle, you notice every bottle cap, every little pothole,” he says. “You have to watch the road.”
The roads would be safer if every driver could have that perspective, he says.
Chopper Bill has had his hands in the motor of Annette Jensen’s 1969 Triumph 500. She and friends built it up after her son’s father gave her the front end as a Christmas gift about 20 years ago.
“I found the frame in Chopper Bill’s backyard, and he sold it to me for $75,” she says. “Someone else sold me the motor for $250.”
She pieced it together in the kitchens, living rooms and garages of friends’ houses.
The Triumph wasn’t her first motorcycle. The hairstylist, who owns Sweet 200 in Oak Cliff, first started riding at age 12. Her father and uncle had bought a 1972 Harley Rapido dirt bike. They told her she could ride it if she could kick start it, and even though she only weighed about 80 pounds at the time, she did. She spent the summer riding that bike around her family’s vast property in Wisconsin, and she was hooked.
She bought a Kawasaki Eliminator when she was 19 and brought it to Dallas after she moved here in the late ’80s.
She later had a 1998 Triumph America, which was too big for her. And now she has a 2006 Ducati Monster, her “baby.”
“It’s fast. It’s easy. It has an electric start,” she says. “Everybody always wants to buy it. It took me about two years to find one.”
She says she “hasn’t laid it down yet,” but wiping out is just part of riding motorcycles, she says.
Even so, it’s worth it.
She has taken long trips on motorcycles, once making a solo trip to camp in Colorado, a liberating and meditative experience, she says. But one doesn’t have to go far to feel far out on a motorcycle.
Sometimes on a “Monday fun day,” she and other biker pals in the service industry take day trips out to, say, Gun Barrel City and Cedar Creek Reservoir.
“Just being 20 miles outside of Dallas, you feel like you’re really in the country,” she says. “It’s such a different experience from being in a car. You can really clear your mind when you’re out there.”
Upon her arrival at bike night, Jensen makes the rounds, hugging and joking with the tough-looking dudes, hipsters and biker chicks, some of whom she has known for 20 years or more. This is what it’s really about.
“These are some of my oldest and best friends,” she says. “These are my people.”