Volume 7, Issue 1: Spring 2011
Adventure Motorcycling: The Tourist Gaze
This essay examines the spectacular recent growth of a distinctive motorcycling phenomenon: Adventure Motorcycling. Using motorcycles to undertake extended journeys is not new. Since the invention of the motorcycle, individuals and small groups have been riding across continents and exploring different parts of the planet. Part of the motorbike’s appeal as a mode of transport is the ability it provides to travel across, or even in, the landscape in this way—faster than walking or riding a bicycle, but less insulated than in a car, bus or train. Many of the dominant ideologies of biking emphasise this “freedom to travel”—and numerous representations of travel resonate significantly in motorcycling mythology—from the fictional road trip genre, possibly exemplified in Easy Rider, to a wealth of road diaries, blogs, and websites written by travellers themselves.
What has changed in recent years, however, is the emergence of a distinctive set of businesses and companies offering packaged trips to would-be adventure motorcyclists. Accompanying this is the mushrooming of a range of specialist companies providing a wealth of goods and services to cater for this increased demand. One can now undertake previously unimaginable trips with the support of a full back-up team who can offer logistical planning, dealing with visas, carnet de passage, insurance, medical care, support vehicles to carry luggage, interpreters, local guides, hotel accommodation, re-fuelling, detailed GPS and printed map routes, shipping of riders” own bikes—or even hire of a bike for the entire trip.
This new growth can be regarded as the marketing and commodifying of the Adventure Motorcycle lifestyle. One company—Kudu Expeditions—promote themselves as follows in the introduction to their customer information pack:
Kudu Expeditions run supported motorcycle expeditions across the continent of Africa. Our trips are open to anyone who has the imagination, sense of adventure and determination to undertake such epic journeys. We aim to tell people that whoever you are, and whatever you do in life—with our help you can achieve something that is truly amazing. Our expeditions are for people who want to challenge themselves and their perceptions of what they are capable of. They are also for people who want to re-discover themselves well away from a life of work, paying the mortgage and following the same old routine week after week. We promise that there is nothing routine about what we do! (2)
A number of bold claims are being made here: the use of the term “expedition” clearly distinguishes this type of holiday from the norm, the appeal to the imagination and its “epic” and life-changing aspects are foregrounded, and sharply contrasted with the everyday. This is not just a holiday; it’s a life-changing event.
To examine the growth in the Adventure Motorcycling market, this essay will draw on the work of John Urry, in particular his much re-printed book The Tourist Gaze. First published in 1990 and reprinted 9 times since, with a second edition published in 2002 before a further two reprints in 2009, this has become a classic text in tourism studies. Whilst it covers a good deal of ground about different aspects of the tourism industries, its central thesis is that a fundamental appeal of “going away” is to gaze on or view a set of different scenes, or landscapes that are “out of the ordinary”: “When we ‘go away’ we look at the environment with interest and curiosity. It speaks to us in ways we appreciate, or at least we anticipate that it will do so. In other words, we gaze at what we encounter” (1).
The nature of this “gaze”—and how it is produced and consumed—are elaborated on and clarified throughout Urry’s book, and there will not be time or space to do justice to the full breadth of the concept or its varied applications. Instead, the focus will be on how this gaze might be seen to operate in relation to Adventure Motorcycling. Two other key terms that Urry develops will also be relevant here: the idea that all travel embodies a “quest for authenticity” and the linked notion of “staged authenticity” (9-10).
Finally, Urry’s discussion of corporeality (141) will be considered, in particular his observation that all travel involves bodily moving from somewhere to somewhere else, and that the people “moving from place to place comprise lumpy, fragile, aged, gendered, racialised bodies” (152).
Although motorcycles are used for a wide range of activities (on-road and off-road), Adventure Motorcycling is a relatively new development, combining both on- and off-road riding, and many manufacturers now produce dedicated machines specifically designed to cater to this market. Developed from the desert racing bikes that competed in major long distance events such as the Paris-Dakar rally and the Baja 1000, these bikes are the two-wheeled equivalent of the increasingly popular 4x4 SUV sports recreational vehicles. Major players include BMW with their GS Adventure range, KTM with the 640, 950/990 Adventure bikes, Honda’s Dominator and Africa Twin models, Yamaha’s XT series, Kawasaki’s KLR bikes, Suzuki’s V-Strom and DR series, and even smaller manufacturers such as Moto Morini, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi and Triumph. Designed with long suspension travel, dual-purpose tyres, larger fuel tanks, and a wide range of luggage carrying options, these bikes are purposefully styled to proclaim their long-distance abilities. What they also share with their SUV counterparts is their largely limited use as commuter or weekend leisure vehicles. Not that long ago bikes such as these would have been referred to, in the UK at least, as “big-capacity trail bikes” or “big trailies.” But, as Kevin Ash points out, the term “trail-bike” conjures up images of off-road riding, which a majority of road riders simply aren’t interested in: “‘Adventure’ means something altogether more glamorous – using your bike to see far off lands and go on exciting journeys, an image many more riders like to be associated with” (7).
Nonetheless, comparatively few of the owners of these bikes do more with them than ride locally. The potential far outweighs the reality. What is most attractive is the lifestyle image that an “adventure” motorcycle can offer, regardless of whether it spends its time entirely on tarmac or not. “The ability to go off road adds credibility to the adventure angle and a dimension to the bikes which, while few actually use it, plenty like to think they might” (Ash 7).
Thus the “adventure” soubriquet is highly semiotically significant to manufacturers. The KTM website and marketing literature for the 990 model are adorned with images of riders crossing wilderness, either on- or off-road (KTM), whilst BMW operate their own training centres in Germany and in the UK, based in Wales, where riders can acquire or develop off-road riding skills (BMW).
Adventure Motorcycling does not, however, require an adventure motorcycle. Many riders have tackled extreme long-distance journeys—even going around the world—using a surprisingly wide range of machines, from Vespa “scooters” (“Vespa360”) to small-capacity commuter bikes such as the Yamaha XT225 Serow. (See Lois Pryce’s books.) But for the purposes of this article it is necessary to establish some distinctions. There are the lone travellers—impossible to generalise about, but highly likely to be experienced riders with a degree of commitment to long distance riding that far exceeds that of the average biker. The dedicated lone traveller—and there are many hundreds of them at any one time circumnavigating the globe, and blogging about it on specialist websites or via the HUBB (see below)—thrives on the sense of satisfaction and achievement that being solo affords. For these individuals, a significant part of the thrill and pleasure derives from doing it for themselves. Coping with the logistics and planning, learning new languages and unfamiliar customs, dealing with border crossings and authorities, sorting out somewhere to sleep, finding where’s good to eat—all the daily rituals of life on the road—these are part and parcel of the experience. Letting an organisation do all these on your behalf is just not the same. It might be easier and less painful to have someone else book everything for you. It may be less lonely and difficult to know where you are going to sleep every night and where/when your next meal is scheduled … but it’s not nearly as exciting or thrilling, and for many lone riders the loss of that sense of achievement is a bridge too far.
Those who ride with a small group of friends or acquaintances may be club members, outlaw patch wearers, or have connected through websites ranging from Facebook to more specialist ones such as the US based IronDingo, which promotes itself as “the motorcycle rider’s social network.” Promising that you need “never ride alone again” and with 3500 members from every state, the site aims to link people who explicitly seek to eschew the challenges that the lone rider actively embraces. Biker Sites is another web-based network that provides a detailed listing of hundreds of clubs in many different countries. These individuals don’t seek “adventure” per se but companionship. The impulse is to have someone you can share the pleasures of riding with—predominantly on summer evenings or weekends. Even club riders going together on a long-distance ride—to attend an annual rally, for instance, or just going on a road trip for a week or two—are unlikely to perceive themselves as “adventure motorcyclists.” They might have exciting encounters along the way, and would, in fact, be disappointed if that were not the case—and the telling (and re-telling!) of war stories form an essential ingredient—but these are short-term holidays not “expeditions.” This distinction is not entirely clear-cut and I wouldn’t want to suggest that a group of friends cannot—by definition—have an “adventure,” but that typically the scale of their riding activity is more limited and less extensive.
This essay, however, focuses squarely on those riders who chose to travel as part of an organised group and who elect to sacrifice the “pleasures” of uncertainty and the possibility of danger for the reassurance and safety of the carefully planned and guided tour. In descriptive terms these riders arguably more closely resemble “tourists” than “travellers,” although this is an unstable dichotomy and one that generates a great deal of discussion. Travelblogs.com, for example, has a set of pages dedicated to the debate. The arguments rage back and forth and emit more heat than light, yet it’s clear that the snobbery at work here seeks to castigate the “tourist” and celebrate the “traveller.” At its starkest, “tourists” are mocked for their conformity and superficiality—these are people who paddle in the shallows of the experience—whereas the intrepid “traveller” boldly goes, and dives in at the deep end. As one contributor puts it: tourists expect toilet paper; travellers carry their own.
Notwithstanding the condescension and one-upmanship of these debates, the tourist/traveller distinction may still help clarify some of the differences between lone travellers and club members on the one hand, and “adventure motorcyclists” on the other. As participants in an organized tour these riders are (albeit tautologically) “tourists.” But as I will show in more detail, the distinctions go further. The tourist gaze is structured, organized and catered for in a multiplicity of ways, and is overdetermined by the interplay of a range of factors. Urry even suggests that “mere sightseeing” can be embarrassing. This quintessential tourist activity is disparaged as too shallow and contrived to offer a truly meaningful experience. By giving primacy to the visual it also suffers in comparison with the other senses. In this hierarchy, “seeing” lacks the connections that “feeling,” “tasting,” “smelling” and presumably even “hearing” possess. “Sight may be viewed as the most superficial of the senses getting in the way of real experiences that should involve the other senses and necessitate long periods of time in order for proper immersion” (Urry 149).
As stated earlier, motorcycling long-distances is not new—and a fascinating wealth of literature (itself worthy of much further study) chronicles some extremely arduous and courageous journeys. Early examples include Richard E. New—the “Legless Motorcycle Rider”—who rode a machine adapted to be controlled entirely with his hands after he had to have his legs amputated following a fall from a balloon, which also robbed him of sight in one eye. He journeyed from California to New York and back, across some extremely rough terrain, between 1915 and 1920 (“Long Distance”).
In a similar vein, Teresa Wallach’s The Rugged Road (2001) describes a journey she and her colleague Florence Blenkiron made from London to Cape Town in South Africa, riding a Panther motorcycle with a sidecar and trailer. They rode straight down the centre of Africa, crossing the Sahara, in 1934-35.
More recent examples would have to include Ted Simon, whose books Jupiter’s Travels and Dreaming of Jupiter offer accounts of his 64,000-mile round the world journeys undertaken between 1974 and 1977 and then repeated in 2003-2006.
Dozens of contemporary books offer accounts of a bewildering array of journeys, written in a variety of styles, ranging from the Bryson-esque comedy travelogue of writers such as Geoff Hill (his book The Road to Gobblers Knob  relying heavily on the “joke” that “knob” is a euphemism for the male sex organ) and Mike Carter (whose Uneasy Rider: Travels through a Mid-Life Crisis  is a more genuinely witty and well-written book) to the more prosaic road-diary accounts by Werner Bausenhart, Lois Pryce, Carla King, Simon Gandolfi and Jonny Bealby and many others. There is also the gonzo-influenced work of Dan Walsh—a biker from Manchester, UK—whose book These Are the Days that Must Happen to You (2008) chronicles a chaotic and anarchic series of long distance journeys in Africa and the Americas (North, Central and South). Two valuable Internet resources can assist readers in finding both historical and recent examples of motorcycle travel literature: Tim Fransen has produced an interactive Motorcycle Travel Literature Timeline and Bernd Tesch has created a bilingual database offering bibliographic details of over a 1000 motorcycle travel books published from 1907 to the present.
The Internet is also replete with travellers’ blogs, road-diaries and websites. Many of these are linked via the HUBB, but there are dozens (probably hundreds?) of other sites which chronicle on-going journeys worldwide.
And there are, of course, Ewan and Charlie—that is Ewan McGregor—an actor perhaps best known to many as the young Obi Wan Kenobi in Stars Wars—and his friend Charlie Boorman, son of the film director John Boorman, and himself an actor (who appeared briefly in Deliverance directed in 1972 by his dad) and more recently a travel writer and TV presenter. They have to date made two long-distance journeys on motorcycles: the first Long Way Round was a round-the-world trip, the second Long Way Down a trip from the northern most tip of Scotland to Cape Town in South Africa. Riding BMW GS1200 Adventure bikes (which BMW generously gave them for free and in return gained a massive boost in sales!), they were accompanied on these trips by a crew including a third motorcyclist/camera operator, and at least one (sometimes more) support truck. In addition they had an office and support staff located in the UK, and enjoyed the pre-arranged services of local guides and translators at each stage of their journeys. The accompanying TV series, books, and DVDs have certainly brought long-distance motorcycle travelling to the attention of a much wider public. Although the full extent of their impact and influence would require closer inspection and analysis, if nothing else, their exploits have inspired a greater interest in adventure motorcycling than existed hitherto—and thereby significantly contributed towards the growth in businesses providing similar journeys.
What’s on Offer?
The range of companies and businesses established to cater for the desires of would-be adventure motorcyclists is enormous—and appears to be growing steadily. The January 2010 issue of TBM magazine in the UK—a specialist publication aimed at Trailbike, Enduro and “Dirt junkies”—carries six pages of adverts offering guided and/or supported tours to destinations in 23 different countries: England, the Isle of Man, Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, several different parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Russia, Cyprus, Thailand, the Philippines, the USA, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, South Africa, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Tibet.
The trips on offer range from a few-days guided tour around some off-road trails in West Wales, with bed-and-breakfast accommodation, to the Austrian-based firm Edelweiss who advertise a full round-the-world trip, crossing 5 continents, lasting 248 days, covering 40,000 miles, with 100% hotel accommodation guaranteed.
One of the market leaders in the UK is Globebusters whose 2010 30-page full-colour brochure offers at least seven full-scale tours: Trans-America, the High Andes, Trans Canada, Silk Road, Trans Asia, Southern Africa, and North/West Africa. The costs for these trips range from £3995 for a four-week trip in North Africa, to £19,000 for a fourteen-week around the globe voyage—but excluding the costs of flights, insurance, vaccinations, fuel, bike servicing and repairs, tolls, spending money, drinks and the majority of meals, so the eventual cost to participants is considerably higher!
Certain manufacturers such as KTM also offer their own packaged tours. Branded as “Adventure Tours,” these range from a few days trail riding in Austria, to full-on dune-busting in Tunisia, and they even provide off-road tuition and bike hire.
Other than these, there are now several companies offering “ethical” or “charity fund-raising” trips. For instance, Enduro Africa aim to raise funds for orphanages and other projects in Southern Africa by charging participants an “entry-fee,” which they can either pay entirely themselves, or by asking friends and family to sponsor them (in other words, get your mates to pay for your holiday!). In return you get the use of a bike for a week, and full support and accommodation. They also run versions of these trips in India and Nepal, branded as Enduro India and Enduro Himalayas. The experience on offer is regarded as so safe and protected, that in November 2008 two members of the British Royal Family—Princes William and Harry—took a holiday with Enduro Africa, which gained the firm much positive press coverage. One imagines they would have found it harder to garner public support for taking a week-long holiday without the “charity” angle on offer. Alongside these main tour operators there are a plethora of specialist service providers, such as Touratech, which sells equipment including crash bars, sump guards, long-distance fuel tanks, GPS mounts, and the like.
One key resource for the would-be adventure motorcyclist is the HUBB, the Horizons Unlimited Bulletin Board. Established by Grant and Susan Johnson, themselves long-time motorcycle travellers, the website functions as a one-stop-shop for wannabe and already existing adventure motorcyclists. It contains thousands of pages divided into sections such as “travellers seeking travellers”—which enables people to make contact with others planning or already embarked upon their journeys—to detailed advice on trip planning, equipment, visa applications border crossings, paperwork and the like. It also carries banner advertising from adventure motorcycle companies hosting trips, (such as Globebusters). In addition, the HUBB also organise events (known as HUMMs [Horizons Unlimited Motorcycle Meetings]) which take place in different locations all over the world, including Australia, Ireland, Canada, the USA, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Thailand. These gatherings of adventure motorcyclists attract large numbers—the last one held in the UK in June 2010 was attended by over 500 bikers—and feature dozens of presentations, discussions, and workshops all related to journeying long distances by motorbike.
This brief overview has established—crudely and incompletely—that not only is interest growing in adventure motorcycling, but that this interest has been catered to by the emergence of tour operators, commodifying the marketplace and making it easier than ever before for someone to ride around the world (provided they have enough money to pay for the services on offer).
Having identified the existence of this market, I want now to turn in more detail to the work of John Urry referred to earlier, and in particular the concept of the “tourist gaze.”
The Tourist Gaze
Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, in particular his analysis of the “medical gaze,” Urry argues that a principle motivation for “going away” is to “gaze upon places and people unfamiliar to the gazer.” This gaze is not neutral or passive, but is actively produced and consumed by a series of discursive strategies, and a vast infrastructure has evolved to nurture and direct the specificities of the gaze—to encourage particular ways of seeing, and to frame these experiences in ways that are manageable and profitable. He writes, “A gaze is after all visual, it can literally take a split second, and the other services provided are in a sense peripheral to the fundamental process of consumption, which is the capture of the gaze” (42). Urry further suggests that the central figure in all of this—“the tourist”—has “developed as essentially a collector of places often gazed upon” (57).
Rather than there being a single tourist gaze, however, Urry posits the existence of several different varieties of gaze. In the early stages of his book he identifies two: the “romantic” gaze and the “collective” gaze. In the final section, written in response to criticisms of his original concept, he further develops the idea to include the “spectatorial” gaze, the “reverential” gaze, the “anthropological” gaze, the “environmental” gaze and the “mediatised” gaze (150-1). Whilst these are valuable theoretical developments which provide a more nuanced account of the complexities involved, here I want to concentrate on the initial dichotomy between the “romantic” and “collective” varieties.
The romantic gaze emphasises solitude, privacy and a personal, semi-spiritual relationship with the object of the gaze. Citing J. Walter, Urry illustrates how “the romantic notion of the self is found not in society but in solitudinous contemplation of nature” (43).
In contrast, the “collective” gaze requires other people, since they give atmosphere and a sense of carnival to a place (43). Furthermore, these groups do not simply generate congestion—as opponents might argue—they create a market for services such as accommodation, meals, drink, travel and entertainment (44).
Connected to the development of the collective gaze are several other factors: the number of people involved; the predominant object of the gaze, whether it is a landscape, a natural feature, a major city, a group of other people, or even a way of life; the character of the gaze,whether it requires prolonged exposure (such as experiencing the “romance of Paris”) or can be acquired in a quick glimpse (seeing/photographing the Eifel tower); the organisation of the industries developed to service the gaze, from multi-national tour operators to local indigenous guides; and even what Urry describes as the “trinketisation” of local crafts providing souvenirs (51).
Central to this flurry of activity is the quest for authenticity, conceived of as “a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred” (9). Tourists seek the “authentic” as a counterpart to the mundanity and routine of their everyday lives. Going on holiday—even for two weeks at a beach resort—is thus not simply a way of relaxing and getting away from it all. It is simultaneously a search for a way of connecting with an authentic experience in other places. The reality, however, is that genuine encounters with the authentic are extremely unlikely for most tourists, since that would involve intruding into the lives of others, which would be socially embarrassing or even unacceptable.
Thus what they discover instead is a “staged authenticity,” a version of the “backstage” lives of people that has been reproduced, often as a series of “pseudo-events”—such as folk dancing in the lobby, themed evenings in the bar, and organised visits to local houses to eat and drink in a “traditional” manner.
Whilst one could argue that all cultures are “staged,” constantly being remade and the elements reorganised and that thereby authenticity is largely a myth, clearly the particular ways in which places, people and their local customs are packaged for tourist consumption do suggest a performative dimension which exists solely for the tourist market. In fact, staged authenticity may have the effect of keeping out what may be deemed the intrusive eye while providing visitors with what seems properly authenticated (151).
Finally, Urry makes some perceptive observations about corporeality, notably that tourism involves corporeal movement and forms of pleasure. Some of these are kinaesthetic, the sixth sense that informs one what the body is doing in space through the sensations of movement registered in its joints, muscles, tendons and so on (152). But perhaps of more relevance here is the mobility of the tourist gaze, in contrast to the static gaze paradigmatically “captured” through the lens of a camera. Mobility of vision involves “swiftly passing panoramas, a sense of the multi-dimensional rush and the fluid interconnections of places, people and possibilities” (Urry 152). Urry quotes Schivelbusch: “the traveller sees ... through the apparatus which moves him [sic] through the world. The machine and the motion it creates become integrated into his visual perception” (153).
With all this in mind, we can perhaps begin to apply Urry’s concept to Adventure Motorcycling. The romantic gaze is what is sought by the lone traveller. It involves individual effort and challenge, and a degree of commitment to the journey not necessarily easily available to all. It requires a resourcefulness—financial, emotional, and practical—that goes beyond simple holiday-making.
Thus the tour operators provide more for the collective gaze, allowing groups of riders to undertake long journeys but without having to deal with the hassles and difficulties of doing it solo. They also provide company, security and the pleasures of a shared experience. The pre-planned nature of these trips offers a carefully selected menu of venues: well-ridden routes, hand-picked accommodation and full back-up systems to support the riders. The collectivity involved is a vital component in the pleasures offered by the trip.
For many riding a motorcycle is an inherently individual activity (although one should not entirely discount the pleasures of riding pillion) and mythic versions of this abound in motorcycling literature and representations. One notable instance of this comes from Maz Harris’s book Bikers (1985):
The very act of riding a bike is itself an exciting and potentially dangerous experience. Unlike the car driver, the biker constantly exposes himself [sic] to the hazards of the road. Out there on the highway, winding it on, he is truly the master of his own destiny, a free-willed individual engaged in a relentless quest for the spirit of life. There are no half-measures. Like his cultural predecessor, the American Indian, he may go down, but he’ll certainly go down fighting. (9)
This may be an extreme instance of the romanticising tendency, but these pleasures resonate in motorcycling cultures to varying degrees. Connected to this is the desire sought by many riders to share the experience. Riding out as part of an organised club or even with a small group of friends is an integral aspect. The collective imperative is thus already present for many bikers—and the Adventure Motorcycling tour operators are simply tapping into a pre-existing impulse.
What we have then, in Urry’s terms, is a triangulation: traveller—tourist—sightseer. An organised tour may afford opportunities for all three of these, although the dominant trope more closely resembles “tourist”.
In terms of authenticity, in addition to the places being visited and the people encountered along the way, the journey itself offers authenticity and the chance to emulate the high-priests of Adventure Motorcycling: the Ted Simons, or the Ewans and Charlies. But the guided tour is much more likely to offer experiences closer to staged authenticity. Meetings with local people and customs are tightly presented and managed—and in this Adventure Motorcycling tours are little different from other package holidays. The itinerary typically includes visits to notable landmarks and cultural sights (cathedrals, monasteries, even museums), visits to people’s homes perhaps to have a meal, and opportunities to partake in indigenous ceremonies, such as the Sweat Lodge ceremony used by some Adventure Motorcycle tour companies in Alaska as a prelude to the journey south to Tierra del Fuego. As Globebusters state in their brochure: “We have selected every route to include a huge variety of terrain and potential challenges, have checked out each hotel and know where the best view points are.”
As Paul Nagy has perceptively suggested,
if the goal of adventure motorcycling is partly to tread the road not usually taken, to go where few have gone before, how can a motorcycle tourism company possibly provide that part of the experience, when their commercial survival ultimately depends on getting many people to do that exact same thing? These companies may ultimately have to provide riders with a substitute, something else to cover the obvious and necessary violation of exclusivity. The group bonding and emotional connection is cultivated to give a layer of meaning to the experience that might otherwise be lost on, or lacking for, the individual participant.
Ethnographically Adventure Motorcyclist tourists appear to come from similar social backgrounds. They tend overwhelmingly to be white, middle-class, and middle-aged (in other words, people like me!). This is not to deny the existence of other kinds of travellers—notably women—but they are much rarer. The HUMM event that took place in the UK last summer was predominantly a white, male event, although there were some women-only sessions, and Lois Pryce and Susan Johnson gave main-stage presentations. People of colour are noticeable by their absence. The brochures produced by Adventure Motorcycle Tour companies show that tourists are white and, as Urry says, “if there are any non-white faces in the photographs it would be presumed that they are the “exotic natives” being gazed upon” (139).
Clearly adventure travel is undertaken for a variety of reasons, but its “ludic” or playfulness characteristics can be shown to have restitutive or compensatory functions, revitalizing Adventure Motorcycle tourists for their return to the familiar place of home and work (Urry 11). It also offers a marker of social status and thus maps well onto Urry’s argument that where one travels to becomes a mark of distinction: “Holiday making is a form of conspicuous consumption in which status attributions are made on the basis of where one has stayed” (23).
This is most clearly visibly in the stickers that adorn the long-distance motorcyclist’s bike, typically on the panniers. These emblems and badges are powerful signifiers of status in Adventure Motorcyclist circles, with much ridicule and scorn being poured on anyone lame enough to have stickers on their bike from places they haven’t actually been to! Ian Mutch in his book Harley to Mali (2009), which deals with his experiences as part of organized tour group travelling down West Africa, recounts an episode where a fellow rider is mocked relentlessly for having purchased, and affixed to his bike, flag stickers for all the different countries to be ridden through—before the start of the journey!
The phenomenon of the Adventure Motorcycle Tourist prompts some further questions. Is this development necessarily a problem? It can sensibly be argued that the tourist gaze is constructed and produced in such a way that ends in bland sameness or, as Urry quotes from Turner and Ash (1975), “the pursuit of the exotic and the diverse ends in uniformity” (8). Is this not exactly what the adventure motorcycling business is doing to motorcycle touring? Packaging it, whether it be a spin through the Italian Alps or a trip across the Argentine pampa, into bland sameness for commercial ends? Is something being lost with the increasing commodification and marketisation of Adventure Motorcycling, so that it becomes just another niche segment of the tourism economy? Does the characterisation of Adventure Motorcycling as a series of encounters with staged authenticity, however, necessarily constitute a difficulty?
After all, the participants are getting the “experience of a lifetime,” and complaining about the packaged and cocooned nature of this experience may not only be churlish but actually irrelevant to those taking the journey. They may well counter that without the existence of this package holiday market such trips would not be possible, since not everyone is equipped physically, emotionally, or culturally to take a trip like this without support and assistance. Nonetheless, it does chime oddly with many of the (pre)dominant mythologies of “biking”: the lone rider, braving the elements, coping with danger, exploring and discovering alone.
In certain respects, these businesses actually present a unique form of encroachment on the motorcycle’s role as a tool of resistance, and more specifically, resistance to the alienation caused by advancing commodification of human experience. Clearly, motorcycles have been sold en masse as forms of faux “rebellion,” but they have also served as tools for authentic resistance because they enable riders to ride in a landscape, not through it. The relative openness (some would call it vulnerability) of riders to social and climatic conditions demands an interaction with the environment that breaks down the distance between rider/tourist and object/landscape. Any long-distance rider knows from experience that responding to changing travel conditions means connecting with local people around you and (usually) meeting them on the common ground of commerce; and being open to the possibility of changing one’s travels, including one’s riding schedule, to reflect a new reality shared by both the rider and the locals. For many, some of the most interesting, albeit brief, connections with local people have been through conditions caused by a mechanical glitch or breakdown. But now, with support teams, pre-arranged lodging and meals, Adventure Motorcyclists need hardly ever interact with locals—not even to get gas! Add to that pre-arranged sightseeing, pre-packaged videos of the trip, and a flight back home … and it all starts to sound like something out of Total Recall (1990).
Adventure Motorcycling is experiencing a boom. In a period of world-wide recession where the latest neologism to hit the UK and the US is the concept of the “staycation”—or the holiday at home—Adventure Motorcycling is bucking the trend. More and more specialist companies are setting up – and those already existing are developing bigger and better trips. The Globebusters brochure proudly proclaims that 2009 was a momentous year with “record numbers of riders participating.” It may be a direct response to the global recession that has led to this increase. As more of the middle-aged and middle-class are losing their jobs, there has arguably never been a better time to finally take the trip of a lifetime—without having to worry about organising it yourself.
Speculating on the individual motivations underpinning the desire to travel long distances by motorcycle is an inexact science. But the Roman philosopher Seneca offers what could almost be a manifesto for many Adventure Motorcyclists: “Men [sic] travel widely to different sorts of places seeking different distractions because they are fickle, tired of soft living, and always seek after something which eludes them” (qtd. in Urry 4).
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