Traditionally motorcycle riders have given each other bells as a symbol of friendship and respect.
Origin of Biker Bells
The true origin of the biker bell may have ties to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
In the 1930’s the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club was formed in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The rally started as a half-mile dirt-track race, with a few racers and small group of about 200 onlookers.
It is said that a bell was given to entrants to pin on their shirt as a token of entry—much like a button or wrist band might be given today.
One traditional application of motorcycle bells has been as a commemoration to a fallen friend. A brass bell is hung from the left side of the swing arm of the motorcycle. Each time the bike is cleaned, and the biker is bending down to polish the bell, they are reminded of their lost loved one.
Legend of the Gremlin Bell
As the story goes, an old gray-beard was riding home from Mexico, with saddlebags loaded full of toys and trinkets for some kids in an orphanage near where he lived. It was a cold night in the high deserts just north of the border. As he rode he thought of rides past, epic journeys with long lost friends and the many nights just like this spent in the saddle.
Ahead in the small beam of his old headlamp he thought he saw something. As he rode on it appeared again, this time there were more of them. Tiny little creatures that seemed to dart in and out of the beam as fast as the wind. They were dark little dodgy spirits, quick, and all but translucent in the moonlight—they were road gremlins. Before he could react they were on the bike. As he mashed on the brakes the front tire blew, and the old rear drum brake that had served him well for years locked up.
When he came to he was nearly ten yards from his bike. One saddle bag had been torn loose and was lying next to him in the cold, hard packed dirt. In the light of the moon he could see his bike, the little spirit like road gremlins dancing on top. He raised himself up to his elbows, where he could see them more clearly, and they caught a glimpse of him too. That’s when they began to approach. Slowly, almost curiously, they stalked towards him. As they advanced he picked up the only thing that was within reach, the saddle bag, and began to wave it at them trying to keep them at bay. From inside the bag came a ringing noise.
He noticed that if he shook the bag the little gremlins would fall back, plugging their ears in retreat. He quickly unstrapped the bag and dug out two sleigh bells from a set of toy reindeer buried in the bag. As he knelt there shaking the bells the gremlins retreated off into the darkness.
As if attracted like a moth to a flame, two staggered lights approached from the distance, and came upon the lone rider in the darkness. To the lone rider they seemed like angels coming upon him with wings, guided by the sound of the bells. The two riders helped the old gray-beard brush himself off and gather his belongings. They set up camp and talked long into the night, about the old man’s brush with the road gremlins, and of many rides past. The old man offered to pay, but as-is biker tradition, the two men would not accept any form of repayment.
In the morning the men helped the gray-beard patch his tire and limp to a little service station in the next town. Again, as they prepared to go their separate ways, the men refused payment. The old man had suspected this, so in the early morning hours just before dawn, he had awakened and attached two bells, one to each of his angel rider’s bikes. As the old man watched his new friends roll out of the dusty service station driveway, he thought he could hear the ringing of bells over the low rumble of the bikes.
There are many variations of the ride bell legend, and almost as many ways to tell it as there are bikers to tell the tale. Like many other time honored stories of past, in the beginning it was passed on through word of mouth, from one biker to the next.
In a way, this story is just like any true biker, it doesn’t matter how you dress it, the core of the story remains. Protection is offered in the generosity of friends or in random acts of brotherhood along the road. The spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood between bikers is what the ride bell encompasses.