Getting up to speed

A handful of young café racer devotees are spearheading a movement in Michigan. It was only a matter of time. And the wrenches at Café Racer in Ypsi — set to open its doors on Aug. 15, with a Rockers vs. Mods throwdown this Friday, July 30, at Ann Arbor's historic Heidelberg bar — have embraced their rich Brit history and their more immediate community. No mean feat. Taking a cue from the legendary Ace Café in London, Café Racer will double as a coffee joint and general hangout for café racers far and wide. We queried its co-owner on some basic questions.

Metro Times: Why do you think the trend in café bikes is growing the way it is?

Patrick Somers: These bikes have been growing in popularity, growing year after year. I think once people see that old bikes can be as cool as, if not cooler than, new ones, it makes quite an impact. What's going on now is kind of like when guys used to go to junkyards in the '50s and build hot rods out of spare parts — it's the same sort of thing, only with motorcycles from the '70s. They look cool, they sound cool, and you can afford them.

MT: So, you dig the vintage look and you're ready to drop some change on your first motorcycle. What's your first step?

Somers: If you find something that you think you like, contact a shop and ask them if they know of any known problems with the particular make and model. Don't be afraid to ask someone who knows about these bikes to come with you to take a look at the bike. People that are into these bikes are pretty cool and want to foster the community.

MT: What's the most common problem with these older bikes?

Somers: Carburetor issues and hacked electrical jobs.

MT: Can a novice get in there and tinker around with that stuff?

Somers: Maybe the carbs. If you don't feel really comfortable ripping into them then try an oil change or spark plug replacement. Those are easy pretty easy to do and they get you a little more familiar with your bike.

MT: What's the easiest thing that most people don't do for their bike?

Somers: Check the tire pressure and keep air in them.

MT: What's a project you're really looking forward to getting into once the shop is open?

Somers: We'd really like to build an electric motorcycle that can go 80 mph and travel 60 miles on a charge before switching to gas. It'd have to have a classic look though. Everything is about the balance of being progressive and practical. We're close to the river, so all the chemicals we use in the shop, including the degreaser, are totally non-toxic.

MT: Author Mathew Crawford, in his book Shop Class As SoulCraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, calls out America for being complacent with cubicle-type, hands-off "knowledge work." He uses motorcycle maintenance as an example for people to reinvest in manual work …

Somers: I've worked for a high-end German auto manufacturer for years now, and it sounds like Crawford's right on the money — people are not willing to change a light bulb or swap out their wiper blades. The majority of the public has become hands-off to a point that it's sickening. It's good to get your hands dirty and figure out how stuff works.

MT: Crawford has lines like "Old bikes don't flatter you, they educate you," and talks about how working on motorcycles, or any kind of hands-on skilled labor for that matter, provides a sense of freedom that you can't ever feel if you're dependent on paying someone to do the "dirty work."

Somers: This is true, but don't think that anyone can just tear apart any bike or car with no training and expect to put it back together. I've seen this happen — it's not pretty. Just start small if you don't feel comfortable doing something bigger. Or just take it in to get fixed, but see if you can find a shop that will show you how the fix is done so you can learn for next time.

MT: Can getting into café bikes counteract the decline in how we value labor?

Somers: Not just say motorcycles! Hell, try fixing your own lawnmower or propane grill. People should just try and make their minds work in ways they're not used to.

MT: Does your shop encourage educating new riders?

Somers: Absolutely, but you have to really want to learn and you have to understand what you're getting yourself into. This fall, there's a local high kid who's going to work at the shop for school credit. We have to outline and implement a stringent curriculum for the year that will go over everything he needs to know about motorcycle mechanics. The whole time he'll be building a café racer of his own from the ground up. How cool is that?

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