Big Wheel Keep on Turning

RIDE TO WORK by Steve Lita, Editor

…it was a wise-man-atop-the-mountain moment for me

You know the song lyric, I’m sure, but the title of the tune is not Big Wheel. The actual title is Proud Mary, in reference to a riverboat. It was written by John Fogerty and first performed by his band Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969. One year later, the popular, upbeat version by Ike and Tina Turner was released. And since then it’s said that over 100 artists have covered it, even Leonard Nimoy and Elvis. But, frankly, I’m partial to the Tina Turner version. Now that I have you humming Proud Mary to yourself, read on.

I’ve mentioned my Daytona Bike Week adventure in a couple of my editor’s columns recently. And there’s a full story on the horizon. But I thought I’d write about a particular Bike Week fashion statement: the ubiquitous big bagger front wheel. At American Iron Magazine, we acknowledge the trend and feature the bikes. But we always temper our features with some not-so-tall-wheel bikes as well. You know, bikes that are more common in Every Town USA.

But for one week in March, in a particular town named Daytona, the big front wheel is almost as common as the black biker T-shirt. They’re almost impossible to avoid. Probably the only place you can seek refuge from the big wheels is at an antique or classic bike show. Isn’t it ironic that the penny-farthing bicycle of the late 1800s, with giant front wheels sometimes measuring over 5′ tall, are classics in their own right. The purpose of those wheels was for higher speeds with the direct drive pedals and larger diameter providing a smoother ride over bumps.

Some people try to tell me the trend is dying. But I don’t see that happening just yet. Even our American Iron Magazine Best of the Beach powered by Mobil 1 bike show Wild Harley class winner was a huge wheel bagger. I visited a local custom paint shop where the owner showed me the pile of parts he’s installing on his Road Glide. One item was shipped in a box about as big as a mattress. Guess what’s inside that one.

With the loss of Arlen Ness, the king of the bike customizers, it made me think about this trend. He wasn’t particularly known for bikes with crazy-tall front wheels. Yet still he was able to rise to his place of distinction with radical mods done to the rest of the bike. Much has been written about Arlen in the motorcycle press recently—and elsewhere in the issue—so I won’t carry on about it. And I only had the pleasure of meeting the man a couple times. But each time he was pleasant and as cordial as could be. A true gentleman. This reminded me of when I was a kid and I met George Barris at a New York City car show. I was in my early teens, and here I was, standing in front of the George Barris. I was speechless. The only question I could blurt out was “Did you really build the Batmobile?” I immediately thought to myself, what a stupid question.

The first time I met Arlen was on top of a mountain in Sturgis. Yeah, it was a wise-man-atop-the-mountain moment for me. I had an appointment with our staff photographer to shoot the bike I rode to Sturgis that year, a brand-new Victory Vision Arlen Ness Special Edition. When I arrived for my photoshoot, the photog was shooting Arlen’s latest creation, and there he was, the man himself, Arlen Ness. I introduced myself and pointed out what I was riding. He smiled, and we joked about it for a little while. The photographer told me I had a long wait and suggested I should go get lunch to kill time. So, I said my goodbyes, geared up, and proceeded to ride down the twisty mountain road. When I got to the stop sign at the bottom, I thought to myself, Hmmm, I wonder if the photographer got a shot of me and Arlen chatting. Remember, this was before the days of snapping a selfie. I whipped the bike around and blasted back up the mountain. I yelled to the photog, “You got that shot, right!?” He replied, “What shot?” So, there I go again, reliving my embarrassing George Barris moment, and I asked Arlen if we could get a picture together. In a job where unexpected souvenirs pop up all the time, I have to say, it’s one of my favorite pictures.