When my lovely wife and I lived in our first apartment in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., there were a number of guys who lived in ground-floor units in the complex who would roll their Harley Davidson motorcycles out through the sliding glass doors and then go for a ride. That meant that part of their living-room furniture was a big bike.
I remember one time I sat on our balcony and watched one dude roar off from the patio as his wife, dressed in a sweater and skirt, and preschool son with a mop-top of yellow hair waved goodbye to daddy. It would have been a Norman Rockwell moment, except for the fact that the fellow was dressed in his green and gold Pagan colors and wore a world-war-one style helmet with a spike sticking out the top.
The Pagans were our local notorious motorcycle gang. At the time, their leader known as “Little Jesus” was on trial for murder.
At that point in our lives, it was easy to believe in the stereotype of bikers as either criminal types or wannabe outlaws. Of course, the Marlon Brando movie “The Wild One” popularized the image with Lee Marvin’s help. Then there was the Rolling Stone concert at the Altamont Raceway, where the Hells Angels provided an excessive and extreme form of security.
The Hells Angels were already a nation-wide gangster organization, who all wore the standard uniform of silver-studded, black leather jackets, big black boots and do-rags instead of helmets. The image was set in our national and even worldwide consciousness. Of course, we knew about athletic dirt bikers (inspired by Steve McQueen) and occasionally saw a fellow in a suit and tie and a proper helmet riding his large Yamaha to work.
The style was set. Of course, it made a certain degree of sense to encase your body in leather in the off chance that if you fell or were knocked off your bike, the material would provide some protection against what became known as “road rash”. However, it was more than that – handlebar mustaches and tattoos offered zero protection. The look became a romanticized image of how a manly hombre should appear as he speeds down the open road with “a babe” on the seat right behind, clinging to him, with the wind rushing by.
I remember years later, when we lived out in a country town called Damascus, Maryland, my lovely wife and I would go out to eat at a roadhouse known as Lou and Joe’s. Sometimes, when we arrived, there would be as many as 30 “Hogs” parked out front. Would we hesitate or not go in because we felt threatened? No – for one thing, the place served great hamburgers and even better steak sandwiches. Yes, many of the customers looked the part of wild ones but were there mainly for the burgers and karaoke. They never seemed to mind that I looked like a schoolteacher in a button-down shirt, khaki pants and loafers. We were never beaten over the head with pool cues.
So yes, by now, most of us know that the stereotype of the big bad biker is overblown. We understand that many of the attendees at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota aren’t angels, but they’re not all bats out of Hell either. Some are tough as nails and/or mechanics, construction workers or lawyers, dentists or childcare providers, dads and moms, straight and gay, old and young out for a weekend joy ride, showing off their expensive transportation and partying (maybe sometimes raucously or even excessively). The point is that the black leather, Viking hair, tattoo style is a constant.
With all that said, when we finally arrived in Portugal, I was still a bit surprised to find that there was a vibrant biker culture thriving in the Algarve. Yes, there are Hells Angels and they’ve even gotten into some trouble over the years, but there’s so much more to the scene. For example, there’s the Algarve Senior Bikers who are covered rather regularly in these pages. A recent Resident headline says it all – “Dancing with landscapes” is exactly what these men and women do.
These riders seem to like to go on challenging and scenic road trips and visit historic landmarks and, instead of hanging out in pool halls (which is allowed of course), they’ve been known to visit museums. They also have regular picnics, and BBQs with the whole family often in support of local charities.
Then there’s the annual Faro Motorcycle Festival, which will be held this year from July 20 to 23 at Vale das Almas, near Faro International Airport. Even though it was cancelled for two years because of the pandemic, last year’s and this upcoming event will once again make Faro the international capital of two-wheelers for the long weekend as nearly 40,000 bike enthusiasts will be in attendance.
Promoted as “one of the largest and best biker concentrations in Europe,” this event promises “beer, concerts, exhibitions and street entertainment” as thousands gather in what is mostly a joyful community of people who like to get on their motorcycles and ride around.
While late July might not be the ideal time for a shopping trip to the harbor section of Faro, since motorcycles are literally parked everywhere (and I’m not exaggerating) or for a quick trip to the airport (you’ll get there, don’t worry, but your Uber will be surrounded by swarms of bikers), the overall carnival atmosphere has a positive vibe emanating from the vibrations of powerful engines.
For the rest of the year, the biker culture revolves around local motorcycle clubs. Most towns and many villages have one or more such clubs that tend to be private, with some being quite exclusive. Since I’m not a biker, I have no firsthand experience with these clubs, but I understand that the emphasis of many of them is community and camaraderie based on a shared interest in motorcycles.
Recently, my lovely wife mentioned that the husband of her hair stylist worked as a painter of custom motorcycles in a shop in Loulé, so I decided to pay him a visit and maybe discover more about the biker culture.
I met up with Helder Silva at Rusty Wrench, a very trendy shop on Rua Nossa Senhora Da Piedade, not far from the McDonald’s in Loulé. The shop has a large back area where the work of customizing bikes is done, but in the front of the shop, they not only sell apparel, from tee shirts to helmets, but there’s also a small, pleasant tavern serving drinks and also a barber shop (El Rato) and a tattoo parlor (Needle Marks). Talk about one-stop shopping – this open-to-the-public location seemed to me to be right at the heart of the local biker scene.
First of all, Silva showed me his work. Owners of bikes come to him so he can paint the gas tanks and fenders of their machines in a unique manner to distinguish their bike from the factory look. Sometimes the change can be relatively subtle, such as a glossy black or other vibrant color, but often the paint job consists of intricate designs, occasionally even psychedelic. Personally, I think Silva has a creative job. Not only does he get to work on vehicles he likes, but there is an artistic element to his craftsmanship.
Silva seemed like an ideal guy to tell me more about biker society. First of all, I brought up my preoccupation with the standard almost required look that was supported by the apparel sold out front. Silva agreed that most bikers liked the look and thought that they “were imitating the American style” (Easy Rider). As far as the lifestyle was concerned, Silva said “It’s not better, it’s different.” He enjoys “doing miles,” making trips with new phases. “It’s everything – the noise, the wind, riding not closed in a box.”
I then visited with the owner of Rusty Wrench, Francisco José Lourenço, who opened the shop a little over two years ago after running a smaller operation in Faro. He is quite proud of his business, which is based on the mechanical maintenance of motorcycles, but, as he noted, “customizing is the cool part.” His customers are “looking to express their personal identity,” he said. “They want to say ‘This is my bike.’”
When asked the stereotype question, he mentioned The Distinguished Gentlemen Riders, a worldwide organization that likes looking good while showing off their classic or vintage bikes, in a nice style.
This proud owner, whose business has grown busier since the pandemic, loves bikes and drinking beer. A bit of a lone wolf, he says. “We’re free riders. We go where we want without worries about colors.” His very welcoming shop is open to everyone.
When I was leaving, I noticed a mom watching her 10-year-old son getting a haircut in the barbershop. And then I came across just the guy I was looking for. Ronald Hamelin, a recently retired American from Albany, New York, had just finished discussing a custom paint job with Silva and was getting ready to climb aboard his huge 1800cc Indian Pursuit Motorcycle. He looked very much the part with a gray beard and in an all-black motorcycle outfit complete with kneepads and some tattoos snaking down his fingers.
Turns out he’s a hybrid version of expats who have moved to the Algarve and decided to reinvent themselves by pursuing a new lifestyle that interests them. As we continued our conversation, I was surprised to discover that he only took up riding motorcycles after he arrived in Portugal, just a bit over two years ago.
Since then he has clearly embraced a new method of getting from point A to point B. Hamelin is not only the proud owner of the monster parked out front, but he also owns an Indian FTR 1200 and a Honda CB 500X (not being a motorhead, I don’t really get CCs, but apparently the higher the number the bigger the bike), which he has for just riding around, doing chores and groceries. “I didn’t want a car,” he said. “I prefer the freedom of the open road.” Then he hit me with the ultimate quote – “There’s a saying,” Hamelin noted with a grin, “Four wheels move the body; two wheels move the soul.”
Hamelin, who now lives in Olhão, has done a remarkable job of assimilating. Since he was a language teacher – he ended up teaching English to foreign students in the States – he already is quite fluent in Portuguese (this puts ol’Pat to shame, since I’m not much past ‘bom dia’ and ‘obrigado’). Because of his language ability, he hasn’t had to rely on expat happy hours to meet new people.
While he has gone for rides with the senior bikers (of course), he has also become associated with a couple of motorcycle clubs in the area and hopes to earn full membership status soon.
“I find the brotherhood and fellowship attractive,” he explained. He’s also associated with a small informal group of five or six fellow enthusiasts who occasionally go out for scenic rides as a form of “wind therapy.”
I decided to give Ron the last word with another expression he was kind enough to share. “Just remember that I straddle a 410cc machine and hug a tank full of flammable liquid at over 130 miles per hour as often as I can – just for the fun of it.”
By Pat the Expat
|| [email protected]
For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.