Me & My Bike

Motorcyclist - - Contents - —Rob Root

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.

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