Riding with Purpose
The Tradesmen Motorcycle Club Leaves Some Stereotypes at the Curb
The sun is already scorching the tarmac at 7 a.m. and the wind is still as I let the big bike glide silently from the driveway. Pop the clutch, neglect the throttle so as not to wake the neighbors and slip the clutch at the end of the street to gun it out to the interstate. Even at 70 mph the world is already an oven, and the wind is a scalding promise of more to come.
In many parts of Virginia and Maryland this morning, motorcycles roar to life and vintage cars rumble as their dustcovers slither off. Later, these cars and bikes will circle and convene in a strip shopping center in Monrovia for a car and motorcycle show to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research.
The world has become familiar with the phenomenon of motorcycle gangs. The TV show Sons of Anarchy pretends to offer a glimpse behind the curtain of “biker life.” Reality TV pays the bills with sensationalist documentaries in which shadowy figures with disguised voices describe the horrific acts they’ve committed in the name of a two-wheeled lifestyle.
The Tradesmen Motorcycle Club, like those guys, drink, cuss and wear their “colors” proudly. They announce their presence with authority just like those guys, their hair is long, their beards wild, and they do not suffer fools gladly, just like those guys. They ride huge V-twin bikes whose dates of manufacture span nearly the entire history of Harley-Davidson, and they take pride in the brotherhood which they’ve forged and nurtured in a world that tends to look askance at their heavily tattooed presence … just like those guys.
But these guys are not those guys.
By 10 a.m., on this blistering parking lot the Tradesmen Motorcycle Club Probates (men serving a probationary period while attempting to “patch out” and become full members of the club) have been hard at work for two hours setting things up in time for the show to begin. By 11 a.m., the crowds have arrived and veteran members of TMMC, “Panhead” Pete, “Hardwire,” “Freak” and “Snakeman,” among others, will spend the day joking, having fun, ensuring that their guests are having fun, and raising money to aid Cystic Fibrosis sufferers.
“The kind of members we want are family men who love motorcycles, love their families and love their jobs.”
Panhead (members typically prefer to use their club monikers instead of their civilian names) has been president of the club “for a long time, man. They won’t let me quit!” He’s a very big guy with a booming voice like a chromed exhaust pipe fed into a meat-grinder. What comes out the other end is a gruff, growling tenor that commands respect. “What we have here,” he explains, “is a family-oriented drinking club with a motorcycle problem.” In fact, this tongue-in-cheek explanation doesn’t even come close to explaining the Tradesmen.
“Hardwire” is one of three surviving founding members of the club and was its first president. Without his vest, this clean-cut biker would resemble any other powerfully built guy on his way to work. “We weren’t expected to last more than three years when we formed this club. We’re still here because we’re original. Our first rule was ‘Family, Job, Club,’ in that order, because we wanted only good men in this club. We do what we say we’re going to do and we’ve never pretended to be something we’re not.”
This “Family, Job, Club” theme comes up in almost every conversation with the Tradesmen. William Rice, aka “Freak,” is a wiry, no-nonsense guy with a shaven head and tattoos. “The kind of members we want are family men who love motorcycles, love their families and love their jobs.”
The boom of motorcycle clubs in the United States began after World War II. As William L. Dulaney explained in the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies in 2005, “Veterans, searching for relief from the residual effects of their wartime experiences, started seeking out one another just to be around kindred spirits. … Soon enough American motorcycles became part of the equation, largely due to the high level of performance and excitement the cycles offered a rider, as well as for the relatively antisocial characteristic of loud exhaust pipes and the large, imposing size of the bikes.”
The Tradesmen club is part of this lineage and, as such, follows many of the same traditions: an all-male, members-only attitude, probationary periods for prospects, and wearing colors (insignia denoting the name and symbol of the club, and the letters “MC”) on their sleeveless, denim vests.
With the Tradesmen however, there exist some very important differences. When the club was formed in 1993, the members knew that they may be in for a hard time from the police and other clubs. “Right in the middle of our colors,” Hardwire says proudly, “is the ‘Independent’ patch, which we are. We’re not affiliated with any other club.” Panhead growls, “We’re fiercely proud of our working man status, fiercely proud of our independence, fiercely proud of our brothers, and our club.”
And though they are reluctant to boast, they are also fiercely proud of their charity work. At this day’s bike and car show, the club will raise more than $800 to combat cystic fibrosis. The three chapters in the region estimate giving between $5,000 and $6,000 dollars a year to various charities. That’s every year from 1993 to the present.
How does one earn the right to wear Tradesmen colors? Freak offers this explanation: “Show up at our events. Support the club’s efforts in raising money for charity. Help out. If you’re good, someone will ask you if you’re interested in becoming a probate.”
So, how did Freak earn his colors? What heinous act did he have to commit? “When you wear a patch like my brothers and I wear, it’s inevitable that you’ll get pulled over by the cops a lot. You get pulled over and it’s a game of 20 Questions. We know it’s coming, and they’re just trying to get information because they want to try and feel out if you’re in an outlaw club. I got pulled over and the officer asked me what I had to do to get my patch. I told him, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but the night I patched out, I had to walk through a cornfield in the dark in order to find my patches.’ He closed his ticket book and told me I was free to go.”
Hardwire offers up the final thought on the subject of the Tradesmen. “In order for a probate to advance to being a full-patch member, the vote for him has to be unanimous, because you can’t force someone to be a brother. We have chapters in three states and I’d stand by every single one of these men.”