On any given sunny weekend they arrive. Many are heading up the hill from valley towns and the Bay Area. They work their way up the twisty roads like swarms of bees heading to the hive. Clubs, groups of friends and the lone wolves, all with the same goal in mind. To travel the backroads, revved up engines screaming, leathers in place and the sense of freedom nothing but a motorcycle can give.
But this is certainly nothing new here. We have a long history with the motorcycle, and all it takes is a look through the Historical Society’s photo collection to see the beginning of this love story.
Let’s start with a brief history of the bike itself. The earliest was made in France at Michaux & Co. who was the first to come up with the idea of bicycles with pedals. They named this newfangled contraption the velocipede (not to be confused with Jurassic Park and velociraptors, that’s a whole different prototype), and in 1867 Michaux’s son Ernest decided to add a small steam engine and the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede was born.
I wonder if when Ernest cruised up to the chateau on his bad-boy steam popping velocipede to see Marie for some courting, did her mother clutch her daughter tightly and warn her about this daring rebel, as mothers are prone to do? And then as daughters are prone to do, did that make Ernest even more desirable? My guess is yes. The legend of the biker begins.
With Sonora and its early fascination with the automobile, it only stands to reason that the motorcycle would follow. The above images, Fred Leighton’s circa 1910 transportation, Bob Shields rocking that circa 1932 Indian, and the epic 1940’s Europa image shows that the machines were firmly in place here long before Hollywood would put its glossy spin on the subject.
Think racing up a steep hill with crowds cheering and the dust billowing is a fairly contemporary sport? Think again. In 1939 the Northern California Motorcycle Rally was held right here.
There have been the inevitable changes through the years. The thrill of getting a bird or fruit bat in the face at 60 mph has been replaced with mandatory helmets for safety.
There are just as many weekend warriors who strip off that suit and tie, jump that Harley and head up for a weekend of wine tasting as there are the old-school bikers that would catch that doomed bird in their teeth, spit it out and keep on riding. But that’s OK. We have plenty of backroads for both.
Billie Lyons is curator of the Tuolumne County Museum.