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Benny riding his bike.
Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

The Bikeriders: a realistic depiction of the camaraderie of a motorcycle club

As a motorcyclist and a researcher looking at the significance of motorcycle clubs in influencing motorcycle behaviour, the film The Bikeriders would seem to tick all my boxes. It’s inspired by Danny Lyons’ 1968 book of the same name, which followed the lives of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club through posed and non-posed photographs.

The movie opens with a violent confrontation in a bar in Chicago when a man refuses to take off a jacket studded with badges from his motorcycle club. This is Benny, one of the film’s main characters.

Benny would rather get into a fight than take off his jacket because of his feelings for and loyalty to his biker club, the Vandals Motorcycle Club. I have encountered such club loyalty and allegiance in my work and the film takes us on a journey of understanding of those sorts of feelings through the eyes of Kathy, Benny’s wife.

Kathy is initially reluctant to take part, given the deviant nature of the club. However, Benny’s persuasion and the draw of the motorcycle is such that once he takes her out for the first ride, Kathy changes her mind. She cannot ignore the thrill of the loud pipes and the feeling of companionship of other riders.

Riders going over a bridge on motorcycles.
Lyon’s pictures come to life in The Bike Riders through Kathy’s eyes. Focus Features

This scene in particular is a perfect example of how well the film has translated the feeling and look of Lyons’ striking images. When the other bikers overtake Benny and Kathy, you can see that the imagery is almost identical to the photograph in Lyons’ book. In one distinct picture, Lyons captures the backs of the riders on their motorcycles as they take up the whole road riding over a bridge. This is recreated almost perfectly in the film where Lyon’s lens becomes Kathy’s view from her vantage point on the back of Benny’s bike.

Another thing the film does well, is realistically show the development of clubs.

The Vandals Motorcycle Club starts as a group of men in the 1960s who enjoy riding motorcycles, drinking beer and not conforming to societal rules or pressure. In the film, as membership increases, the club builds to the point where the men develop and agree on their own rules. This is true of real club structures, which normally have an organised committee that is underpinned by their rules and regulations, with various consequences for non-compliance.

Their non-conformist way of life chimes with new members who have returned from fighting in the Vietnam war. Policing and security expert, Kira Harris’ research in 2016, found this was true to the membership of such clubs in Australia as many of these men came home unable to find the social camaraderie and adventure after fighting. Many of these ex-soldiers found solace in the idea of non-conformity to societal restraints of membership of motorcycle clubs.

As such, there is a fierce loyalty to the club and its rules. Violations of the code are often dealt with violently. In this sort of brawl, there are only two options: fists or knives.

We see this sort of blind loyalty play out in an important scene in the film where one of the original long-time members of the Vandals decides he wants to quit the club, and he is violently attacked by three other members. They consider this disloyal. As soon as the other original members find out about the attack they go straight to his aid, finding a solution to enable him to leave without further repercussions.

Benny and the Vandals on a ride.
Benny and the Vandals on a ride. Focus Features

While there are moments like these, overwhelmingly there is a sense that there is deep respect and companionship for one another. In real life, this is strengthened by regular rides and meetings at the clubhouse, along with other activities, such as family events and charity support.

The film is a slow burner, but is a striking representation that allows the viewer to get into the mindset of a club at this time. It’s a welcome addition to the canon of motorcycle stories, especially since it’s told from the rare and welcome perspective of a woman.


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