Gentlemen, start your engines

Café racers pick up speed in Tel Aviv: "Distinguished Gentleman's Ride" Israel, 2014.

This was the first year the Gentleman’s Ride has been held in Israel. (photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
This was the first year the Gentleman’s Ride has been held in Israel.
(photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Fifty motorcycles gather in a parking lot near the army base, their riders clad in leather shoes and suit jackets.
They rev up their engines over the chorus of “Highway to Hell” playing on repeat for the third time.
No, this isn’t a scene on US Route 66 or the back streets of London in the 1950s. The atmosphere feels incongruous for Israel, especially socially liberal Tel Aviv, where people are more likely to be seen riding around on environmentally friendly green bike shares than souped-up motorcycles.
But the men who have congregated for today’s ride are proud of their refurbished motorbikes and the history behind them.
Distinguished Gentleman's Ride, Tel Aviv 2014.(photo credit: SERGEY RUDAEV)
They call the bikes “café racers,” modeled after the biker culture of mid 20th-century England, when men would take normal bikes and make them into something they could use to race from one café (or bar) to another.
Israeli café racers jazz up their bikes to become more aerodynamic, but they still have that vintage flair.
The handlebars are lowered, the seat shortened, the outer plastic shell removed. Basically, the bike gets stripped down to its bare essentials, making it as fast as possible.
Today, the men have gathered for the 2014 "Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride", an old-fashioned motorbiking event to raise awareness and funds for men’s health, held worldwide the weekend of September 26 to 28. This was the first year the event was held in Israel, and it was also the first year that it was designated as an event to raise money for prostate cancer. Organizers of the event were surprised by the number of people drawn to the new event.
Distinguished Gentleman's Ride, Tel Aviv 2014.(photo credit: SERGEY RUDAEV)
“I felt like us guys with the classic bikes didn’t have a group here before this,” said Eran Kaufman, one of the organizers of the ride. “There was something for the guys with the Harley Davidsons here, but not something for us. We wanted to organize something for people of our type. We’re about restoration and rectification.”
The culture of vintage café racing is slowly growing in Israel. But refurbishing a new bike to look like a café racer isn’t easy, and the parts are expensive.
Prior to Sunday’s inaugural ride, there was no group for café riders in Israel. And at this time last year, many of the men riding in the race didn’t even have the bikes.
The ride wasn’t just about bringing together café racers in Israel or raising money for men’s health research, it was about letting Israel know that this café racer culture exists and that it is going strong.
“There are almost none in Israel, unlike the United States,” said Lior Shwartz, another one of the organizers. “Here, café racer culture is just beginning to evolve and grow. People love it, but in Israel people are often afraid to restore their bikes. Mainly because it’s so expensive.”
Due to Israeli trade regulations, it is very difficult for café racers to import parts to remake their bikes. To buy a motorcycle in Israel, they have to pay at least 120% taxes, and that’s just importing the bike, not to mention the cost of the expensive parts they would need to refurbish it.
Buying a bike in Israel is about three times as expensive as buying a bike in the US. What’s more, in the US most motorcycle enthusiasts have a garage where they can work on their bikes.
But in Israel, there isn’t so much of a garage culture, with local tune-up shops and spare parts easily on hand. Café racer enthusiasts can hunt down what they need, but everything is imported. And with big imports come high shipping costs, foreign taxes and regulations and red tape at customs.
Thus an Israeli motorcycle enthusiast will end up paying an arm and a leg to pursue the hobby and end up waiting a long time to receive the shipment of parts. Then, once he receives the parts, he has to teach himself how to assemble and refurbish the bike.
Distinguished Gentleman's Ride, Tel Aviv 2014.(photo credit: SERGEY RUDAEV)
Despite all these challenges, one thing has changed for the better.
Now they have a community, a group of like-minded passionate riders. And in numbers, the café riders of Israel feel they can begin to make changes that will allow them to pursue their passion. Because that’s what this is for most of the participants – a genuine passion and a hobby.
Lior Baruch has created more than 50 café racer bikes, refurbished from modern motorcycles. The process of turning new bikes into old bikes is tedious and time-consuming, but a bike gains value once it has been refurbished to look like a café racer, and can be sold at a much higher price.
But for Baruch, it’s not about the money, it’s about the passion behind the craft.
“I’ve been doing this for about 20 years, taking old new bikes and turning them into old bikes. The major change came about two or three y e a r s a g o , ” he said.
“People changed their way of thinking, and more people began changing their bikes. It’s not too common yet, but it is growing.”
So in a young nation that prides itself on start-ups, ingenuity and new possibilities, it seems strange that there would suddenly be a trend back into the past. Isn’t that at odds with the Israeli mind-set of constantly looking towards and moving into the future? Yet despite the incongruities, the large pack of café racers rode around Tel Aviv the morning after the second day of Rosh Hashana, from the North, through main city streets and down to the beachfront in Jaffa. As they rode, they revved their engines and waved to the many admirers who had stopped to take a gander at the spectacle.
They don’t mind the stares. It’s just nice, finally, not to ride alone.