To me, choppers have always been an expression of art. There is a point when the art takes over and the chopper ceases to be a functional form of transport. The dichotomy of the genre is clear: Compromise function and safety for aesthetics? Or vice versa? There are those that will point out that the original choppers were just stock bikes that the riders began ‘chopping’ parts off, not for style points, but to make the bike lighter and therefore faster. Back then, just about every bike was rigid, foot clutched and equipped with a front brake so ineffective, it wasn’t worth the extra weight it added.
Sometime during the late 1950s, choppers began to be stylized. Springers were stretched out, seats were laid back. More attention was paid to form and color, making the chopper an independent expression of the individual riding or building it. Let’s be honest here, some of those bike became whacked-out stretched out and totally non practical. Or were they? If someone designs an aesthetically pleasing chopper and in the process makes it so difficult to ride that only the creator can ride it… What’s wrong with that? If someone wants a foot throttle and has no problem riding the bike like that, where’s the harm? Some things are impractical AND stylistically awful. For instance, the long shifter with a clutch lever on the end. If you have no left foot, then I guess this makes sense. Although it will still look bad. The problem being, of course, that if you have to take off quickly, you will always only have one hand on the bars. Again, if you can master this, it’s all good.. other than the looks.
This brings me to the experiences I’ve been having lately with my 1953 Panhead chopper.
I converted my Shovelhead to footclutch the second year the Smoke Out was in Salisbury. I used a dog chain for a ‘rod’ and had to put a soft spring to keep the pedal from rotating backwards all the way when I was at freeway speeds (even though the jangle of the dogchain bouncing on the beltdrive amused me). Before I did it, I was nervous at the thought of riding through the crowds and trying not to stall the bike. The Shovel has a front brake though, so the worst case scenario I faced was an embarrassing stall. With the Panhead, there’s no front brake to use as a safety valve.
It’s undeniable, a long springer front end (especially a Sugar Bear) looks SO much better with no front brake. Clean, classic looks that just scream CHOPPER! Hammer doesn’t run a front brake on his bikes, but on his Knuck and Shovel, he has a handlebar lever for the back brake. This means he doesn’t have to do “The Dance” when he has to stop.
When I’m approaching a stop sign (where I’ll to have to stop), it’s fairly easy, downshift to first and apply rear brake. Then find neutral so I can take my foot off the clutch pedal and use it to hold the bike up as I stop using the rear brake. No problem, right? It’s when you’re approaching intersection where you don’t have (or want) to stop but you cannot see if there’s approaching traffic until you get there. So you knock it into neutral and coast toward the intersection with your foot on the brake just in case. If it’s clear, you just hope there’s enough momentum to take your foot off the brake, hit the clutch and get into gear before you fall over. Like anything else, with enough practice, it’ll become second nature… but I ain’t there yet.
When you leave World Headquarters, the first intersection you hit is decidedly uphill. Not only that, it is usually slick because of vehicles exiting the neighboring car wash dripping waxy liquid all over. Ignoring the slimy road for a minute, stopping on an incline presents a problem. If you knock it out of gear into neutral, coast to the intersection (which is ALWAYS busy) and put your foot on the brake to hold you in position.. you’re doomed! Taking your foot off the brake will let the bike roll backwards. You cannot take both feet off the floor long enough to disengage the clutch, put it in gear, increase RPM and let the clutch out. Back in the ‘day’ when there were real steel cars on the road, you could get away with gently rolling back against the chrome bumper of the impatient car behind you, slap it in gear and go. These days, you’re likely to do $800 worth of damage to the flimsy plastic front clip of whatever vehicle is behind you. Theoretically, you could take your foot off the brake and then jam your shin up against the right footpeg and try and hold her while you get in gear. This doesn’t seem to work really well in practice. No, the only way to do it is to stay in gear and slip the clutch on the incline. This does take practice and I was practicing it all last year on the Shovel, only using the front brake when I absolutely needed to.
Another note about the Sugar Bear front ends. When you’re learning to ride with a footclutch, you learn to turn the wheel to the left when you stop. This leans the bike over to the right so if you are still in gear, you don’t HAVE to take your foot off and stall the bike. With the Sugar Bear springer, this does not happen… at all. So any weight shifting has to be done physically.
Why put myself through all this abuse? It’s FUN! Although I do have reiterate here that the Baker N1 drum is what makes all this possible for me. If I had to fiddle around looking for neutral between first and second life would be SO much more difficult. Big props to you guys riding non- ratchet top jockey shifts, footclutches and no front brakes.
Chopper riding isn’t for everyone. I understand if you need the comfort of antilock brakes because you feel the need to scream around like a madman. If you want safety, buy a minivan. If you want roll your own piece of art around and be totally involved in making it go and stop, build yourself a chopper!