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From Brando to French biker culture.

By Gregory McNamee

JUNE 1, 1998:  The Perfect Vehicle, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson (W.W. Norton). Paper, $13.

IN THIS ENTERTAINING vade mecum for the aspiring Dennis Hopper, Evel Knievel, or perhaps Malcolm Forbes of the family, journalist Melissa Holbrook Pierson sets out to explore the motorcycle mystique. Her account ranges from peeks at by now tired icons like the Marlon Brando of The Wild Ones to fresher ones like the nascent French biker culture.

The French, of course, have an elaborate classification system to distinguish true bikers from les sportifs, the sham articles. For her part, Pierson calls the fixation with bikes "motolust," and she admits to being a victim herself--one of the growing number of women who reject the phallic-substitute imagery long associated with "chicks on bikes" for what is, all in all, a fun ride in the open air.

Pierson takes the reader on wild spins, hitting cross-country races and motocross tournaments up and down the East Coast, cataloguing the thrills and, especially, the manifold dangers that await: "wet leaves, gravel, sand, decreasing-radius turns, painted lines, tar patches liquefying in sun, antifreeze, oil deposits at gas stations or toll booths, metal plates and manhole covers made deadly by rain, a beam falling from the back of a truck, heavy wind on a bridge," all the little things that can quickly send a biker to the grave.

Pierson is often funny, often deep, occasionally sharp-edged, and almost always right on the money. She is also fully aware of her minority status within a minority culture--as she notes, only 7 million Americans ride motorcycles, as against 20 million who call themselves birdwatchers--and she does her best to convey the spirit of motorcycling to the countless uninitiated. You don't have to be a two-wheel devotee to appreciate Pierson's work, but it probably helps. Still, even if you don't much care for motorcycles or your mother won't let you ride one, this engaging memoir is worth a look.

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