Bikers these days only think they're tough.
More than 100 years ago, real men raced 1,000 cc bikes Ñ with no brakes Ñ on wooden tracks at up to 100 miles an hour. Los Angeles-based Ashley Frank 'A.F.' Van Order was there to see it.
Better than that, he photographed it, and 240 of his pictures Ñ taken at various locales throughout the United States Ñ are being painstakingly restored digitally, thanks to Van Order's great-grandson, Jim Bolingmo of Big Bear Lake, Calif.
Twenty of Van Order's photos are on display at the Photographic Image Gallery this month as 'Man and Machine: The Golden Era of Motorcycling.' Images date from that of a single-cylinder 1898 Apache to dirt-track racers in the 1940s.
In picture after picture, stern-faced young men stare at Van Order from hulking V-twin motorcycles with spindly wheels and bicycle tires. Manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson Ñ now celebrating its centennial year Ñ Indian, Excelsior, Thor, the Merkel and Cyclone are just some of the 20 manufacturers who competed in the early years of the 20th century.
The riders in Van Order's photos raced on wooden tracks banked as steep as 60 degrees. The longest tracks were up to a mile long, built of 2-by-4 boards laid side by side and on edge. They could be slippery as soap when wet. Riders who crashed wearing merely sweaters and leather helmets stood the chance of being 'porcupined' by splinters Ñ an ugly prospect with antibiotics yet to be invented.
Crashes became such a problem by the mid-1920s, with bikes flying off the top of the banking into the spectators, that one cylinder of the engines was disconnected to try to slow things down.
By 1930, high-maintenance board tracks largely had been replaced by dirt, and such 'flat track' racing continues to this day. Van Order was there to document that, too.
'My great-grandfather was into motorcycles in a huge way,' says Bolingmo by phone. 'He raced them, he sold them, he worked on them, he was a race referee.'
Family history has it that Van Order crashed in 1910 and was in a coma for three weeks.
'My great-grandmother told him: It's either me or racing,' he says.
So Van Order took up motorcycle journalism. He wrote a column for Motorcyclist magazine called 'The Throttle Twister' as early as 1917 and was still cranking it out as late as 1953, shortly before he died.
'Because of his involvement, my grandmother developed an enormous distaste for motorcycles, but the affliction got passed onto my dad and then me,' says Bolingmo with a laugh.
When Bolingmo was a photography student in high school, his grandmother gave him a box of his great-grandfather's negatives, and he started developing them.
But the pictures needed repair Ñ many were on glass plates. Bolingmo mentioned the problem to his friend Tim Wolcott, whose Museum Gallery Store in Big Bear Lake began digital restorations, a process that takes six to eight hours per photo.
One hundred pictures have been digitally restored since 2000, and the aim is to do all 240 eventually.
But as sharp and interesting as the photos are, Bolingmo still seeks information on many of them.
'My great-grandfather wasn't wonderful about captions,' he says. 'He was good about logging the
F-stop and shutter speed but who? And where? Some he got, and some he didn't.'