Me & My Bike
THE SEATTLE COSSACKS were formed in 1938. We’re coming up on our 80th anniversary. It was a group of early Seattle hill climbers who were looking for ways to entertain themselves in between riding the hill. They started to create stunts like lowspeed pyramids—that sort of thing—and then they found that people really wanted to watch.
The term “Cossacks” was not really a regional or ethnic reference. They used that term to describe anybody who was a skilled rider. It started with Ukrainian Cossacks who were recognized worldwide as being renowned horsemen. The press in the early days would talk about motorcycle Cossacks, so it made sense that when the team was formed we were the Seattle Motorcycle Cossacks and then just the Seattle Cossacks.
We’ve had about 135 members in 80 years. We have fathers and sons, we have brothers on the team, and we even have some third-generation Cossacks. The sense of history is pretty amazing. Right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all the cities up and down the West Coast of the United States were worried that they were going to get hit next. The Cossacks actually volunteered to perform blackout duty on their motorcycles. They patrolled downtown Seattle, and if they saw open windows or lights on that weren’t supposed to be, they would report those. We have actual police logs from the time.
The motorcycles we ride are all hand-shift, foot-clutch Harleys with springer front ends. The oldest bike we have on the team is a 1931 VC, and the newest we have is a 1954 G Motor. We have flatheads, both 45s and big twins, we have 61- and 74-inch knuckleheads. The bikes we ride are basically stock. There are several elements of the old Harleys that are particularly good for what we do. The throttle has no return spring. That’s the way Harley built them. The other thing is the rocker foot clutch. You can put that foot clutch in a middle position and it slips a little bit. That makes it really easy to ride in close formation with other riders. They have a very low CG. They’re way overbuilt, so they’ll tolerate all kinds of weight.
My machine is a 1938 U. It’s a V-twin, 74ci Flathead. Lovely bike. I found it through a guy in California. It had been stripped and was a bobber. I put it back stock and restored it, but I’m not the kind of person who likes to just sit around at a motorcycle meet. I was looking for something more active to do with it. Then I saw the Cossacks perform and I was hooked, hearing 10 or 12 of these old bikes fire up.
I always describe the old Harleys as being half motorcycle and half tractor. They’re crude by modern standards, and yet with a little bit of TLC they’re bombproof. That’s the other part I especially like about the Cossacks. We’re passing on things that guys who knew these bikes new learned. Tricks about how to get them running and how to get them to run better. Subtle things about riding and doing the tricks and stuff. The tradition part means a whole lot to me.
Anybody who rides an old motorcycle will tell you that they form kind of a special bond with the bike. You just have to know your own machine better, and I think that works well with the Cossacks. We have several old bikes that are the same vintage and the same model, and yet each one of them is different. Each one of them will like something a little bit different as far as starting, or it will feel a little bit different in how the clutch is set up. That’s just the nature of these bikes.
I always describe the old Harleys as being half motorcycle and half tractor. They’re crude by modern standards, and yet with a little bit of TLC they’re bombproof.