Cruising with the Rough Riders
The first time I ever heard about the Rough Riders was in motorcycle safety school, about 10 years ago now. My instructor told us that the Rough Riders were a motorcycle gang worse than the Hells Angels, and we would be giving the industry a bad name if we joined. I held that opinion for years.
It turns out that I knew the president of the Dago Chapter Rough Riders, personally, through work. This wasn’t the Rough Riders I learned about in MSS. This was Rough Riders the community organization made up of veterans working towards Children’s and veterans causes. This Rough Riders was closer to the Shriners than the Stone Masons, if you catch my drift.
So to celebrate my purchase of a new Harley, the Rough Riders invited me to do the 17th Annual cosmic toy run with them. This event consisted of riding our motorcycles in tight formation from the Escondido Club house to the Balboa Naval Hospital to give sick children toys, then to a Memorial Site where we honor past motorcycle club members that have died. There was then a party afterward back in the Escondido Club house. This event would be close to 80 miles of driving for me, and I needed the mileage.
I put my best foot forward on this one. I felt comfortable with my co worker as a friend, and I know how to ride a motorcycle. I learned how to ride on a 250cc when I was just 11 years old, and I’ve taken up to the experienced riders course in Motorcycle Safety School. I have done rides in college with the UCSD hypercycles motorcycle club. I knew I didn’t exactly fit into the Rough Riders aesthetic, but I tend to pride myself on being one that never judges a book by its cover. I dived in when no expectations.
I rode into the Escondido clubhouse around 10am on Saturday morning. They waved me in and awkwardly told me to park with the other motorcycles. I immediately noticed that I had the only sportster. The lot was filled with some beautiful ultra classics, fat boys, and soft tails. I saw my coworker and immediately expressed my awkwardness about having the least cool bike in the lot.
“Everyone starts on a sporty!”, the toughest guys on the planet exclaimed warmly, enthusiastically even.
I didn’t want to be defensive by saying that I may be a girl, but I’m not just starting out. But yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
There was then a safety briefing. The sergeant of arms sweeps the back, and we change lanes from the back. They described three methods to indicate lane changes, and a short description of several other hand signals. I felt like this part of the talk was specifically for me. The chosen group formation is a tight side by side configuration. I suddenly felt quite insecure about that one. I have only been in staggered formations, and from what I remember from litanies of DMV required examinations, that that was what the DMV suggested and recommended. The side by side formation had obvious benefits when it came to lane changes and blocking of other cars, but it required a lot more experience, and the consequences were dire if any of us fell.
My friend introduced me to a man wearing a baseball cap with a jauntily upturned bill. I’ve never seen a hat so stylish and so perfect paired with a leather vest. They called him Romeo, and he had an intoxicating accent. He was the Sergeant of Arms, and in charge of making sure I don’t fall behind. Tenker told me that I could chose to trail behind Romeo, or speed ahead of him if I wanted to ride in the Saddle. Honestly, I was dubious of the side by side formation, and said verbally that I would like to trail Romeo and allow myself to fall behind if I needed some distance.
But, like a sheepdog rounding his flock, Romeo got me into the saddle just as we turned right out of the lot. There were 15-20 riders total.
The start was rocky. To keep the group together, the group ran stoplights and only the leader stopped at stopsigns. I had to follow because I felt like I was being pushed up from the back. And, as a vital error, my side cap covering my battery popped off right before we turned right onto the freeway. Oh my goodness, I felt so flustered. Three rough riders were behind me, and I paused long enough and fumbled with neutral long enough that Romeo was able to get off his bike, pick up my side cap, toss it into his saddle bags, and mount again before I was able to even find neutral.
One of the fellas behind me pulled up along side and said,
“Stick we me kid, and I’ll catch us up”. I screamed affirmatively through my closed helmet, but I’m sure he didn’t even hear me.
By the time we got onto the free way moments later, the rest of the rough riders were out of sight, 5 miles up the road.
We then went faster than I’ve ever been on the freeway for those 15 minutes before we caught up. I was hitting 85s, 90s. I am too light for that motorcycle. The wind was whipping me around, and I my forearms were screaming to keep me upright onto the bike. I felt put off that my side cap caused me to split up the group. I felt likeI was ruining this ride for a portion of the group.
We were able to catch up with the rest of the group around Carmel Mountain road. I immediately felt at ease. Being in a big group like that offered safety. Vehicles stayed out of our way, and they could hear us coming. They even changed lanes to stay out of our way.
As we passed Cops, the Rough Riders made a submissive gesture by patting the top of their helmets with their clutch hands. I did it as well, despite riding dirty. The motorcycle cop giving someone a ticket in the HOV lane made an appreciative gesture back.
We got off the 15 to the 163 junction when something terrifying happened. I got into a high speed wobble. I don’t know exactly the cause. I felt it happening, and it felt like it was happening for long minute spans. I stayed calm, I didn’t fight it. I actually resigned pretty quickly to death. I glanced at the side of the road and visualized tossing off. It felt different than the last fishtail I was in. It originated from the front, and not the back. I know I am supposed the fight the back. The riders behind me gave me space. I decided to stop pulling in the clutch to let the motor take over. And just like that, it was over. I didn’t cry like the last time I felt myself fish tail. I just felt warm humbled sense come over me. I am a complete newb. These guys have been riding for decades in a tight side by side configuration, and I show up, tell them I rode in college, then wobble around threatening to kill everyone including and especially myself.
“We are on our own rides,” they assured me, despite being obviously affected by the experience.
We got to the Childrens Hospital in the navel medical center in Balboa Park. I told Tenker what happened. He took the keys to my motorcycle and rode it around for a little while. In that moment I was very appreciative to be riding in the club. It could have been a myriad of things that caused it. I was pretty sure it was tire pressure. If the pressure was low, the tire could have been seated funny and caused it to be side heavy. Tenker came back and asserted that everything felt fine. Additionally, some of the other folks in the club indicated that sometimes it just happens with sportsters. The bike is just sort of squirrelly since it has such a smaller front tire.
The bike is a lot squirlier than my old 600cc Honda shadow, that’s for sure. I did not expect that since this bike is 233ccs larger.
Romeo spoke to me, comforted me even after I spilled my guts about how terrified the wobble was. He assured me that I don’t have to worry about wiping them out, and their job is to protect me from the rest of traffic. So despite how terrified I am about my experience riding in a side by side formation in a pack, the pack served a purpose.
We entered the Childrens Hospital and I was blown away by how sweet this gesture was. All year the Rough Riders had events to raise money for buying toys for the Childrens hospital. They sent people out, selecting toys that were both age appropriate and hospital appropriate, meaning that they could be easily disinfected and not swallowed accidentally. A child with a broken arm came out and chose a toy, hugged his dad, and said thank you. A small child with eyebrows came out and picked out a miniature Harley Davidson. It was all very sweet.
Tears came to my eyes, and I saw that some of the men involved had tears in their eyes as well. Something about poor innocent children going through hospice over the holidays just seems so unfair.
After the Children’s Hospital we went to the Cemetery. It was an emotional event. I learned much later, 2 weeks later, that the cemetery portion of the event had never included outsiders before, and my participation was taken as an offense to some. That devastated me. I obviously don’t fit in. I wanted very much to be accepted despite that, and I was already feeling like a burden because of my near miss accident earlier in the trip.
We rode back to the Escondido clubhouse and had some of the most delicious steak tacos I’ve ever had at an outdoor grill. We huddled together around a parking lot fire pit. Those kids really knew how to party.
I ache to belong to a motorcycle club now. Their friendships were so close, and it was touching. The rough riders won’t have me because of my lack of veteran status and my innate femaleness. I have been on the lookout for another group to join but I probably can’t hit that hard until I come back from my trip to Thailand in January. And who knows what my priorities will be like after I get back from Thailand. I expect it to be a game changer.