Ian Kerr MBE takes a look at a US-based group of motorcycle stunt and drill riders with a difference…
AFTER the cessation of hostilities in the 1940’s, motorcycles became the main form of transport for many families in the UK and probably most countries involved in World War II. Many of the returning servicemen had experienced motorcycles during their time in the forces and learnt to ride them whilst serving. In comparison to cars they were a lot cheaper and when a family came along, a sidecar could be added so the bike could still be used as transport. Such additions also helped those with limited movement caused by injuries sustained in combat.
As well as being a useful mode of transport, powered two wheelers also provided a social scene with motorcycle and scooter clubs being formed long before the café racer culture of the sixties made mainstream headlines. Touring was of course on option, both home and abroad, along with sporting trials and road trials if anybody is old enough to remember them?
There were also other activities like motorcycle football, (which still exists in a much smaller format) road racing on airfields and something called motorcycle gymkhanas, where a series of challenges were set for the riders, who often competed in teams and sometimes with a pillion aboard.
Games included, carrying water in buckets, apple dunking, jousting with rings and so on – all fun activities that tested a rider’s skill and could be done on a road going bike that was often the only form of daily transport.
These events were also a breeding ground for stunts, although not the sort we are accustomed to today, like ‘stoppies’ and ‘wheelies’, because let’s face it the bikes did not have enough power. At the bigger shows display teams performed, very much like the army’s famous ‘White Helmets’, with man-made pyramids and the odd fire jump.
As we know the face of motorcycling has changed over the years and those events have almost disappeared. Especially since the yearly BMF rally was consigned to the history books a few years ago, leaving just the White Helmets to bring back the memories or introduce a new audience to precision riding.
However, in the USA there is still one group that harks back to those days – the Seattle Cossacks, who still perform about 20-30 shows each year. Using vintage motorcycles the group exhibit the skills of slow and precision riding, producing manoeuvres like intricate cross overs and creating pyramids where riders balance on each other. No ropes, no props, no skyhooks, no gimmicks – they just climb atop each others shoulders while bike handlers hold the machines steady.
Formed in January 1938 after a meeting – which included many of the motorcycle racing fraternity and hill climbers based around Seattle on the north west coast of the USA, who had developed ‘stunts’ to primarily entertain themselves between events – riders came from a variety of backgrounds, including delivery personnel, business men and other bike enthusiasts.
The group name came from the fact that bikes were often called “Iron Horses” at that time and the Russian Cossacks were (and are) known for their outstanding horsemanship, so the Seattle Cossacks seemed a fitting title. Members soon laid out a set of by-laws that included the words “to entertain and promote the positive image of motorcycling”. And later on emphasis was also put on ‘promoting rider safety’.
The Cossacks began performing in 1938 and their fame spread quickly, with displays taking place at many high profile events. They temporarily disbanded during World War II, as many members were young men called to serve their country, and reformed in the spring of 1946.
Still to this day, the group consists of riders who own and maintain their machines. Newcomers are only accepted after an extensive period of compulsory training and practice to ensure they have the necessary skills to perform the stunts. Everyone in the team must have confidence they can rely on each other while they are riding in close proximity or climbing over each other to form pyramids etc.
Perspective riders must also be sponsored by a team member and new riders spend one year as rookies, riding in drills and progressing to stunts at the close of that year. They are then either voted onto the team or asked to ride another rookie year.
Riders possess no special physical characteristics, although some work out to keep in shape, and the main requirement is an ability to control a motorcycle at all speeds with complete precision so everybody can rely on them, especially when topping the pyramid!
According to the team roster, one member has been riding with them for 46 years, four others have over 30 years each and the remainder have one-to-26 years riding with the team. In terms of age, members range from 27-to-74 years old, and includes brothers, fathers and sons.
The bikes ridden by the team are just as impressive in terms of age, with stock vintage Harleys from the 30’s and 40’s regularly used. The oldest bike in use is a 1930 VL and the newest a 1949 45 CI. The only alteration to these is that they are fitted with late ‘50’s ‘Flanders’ handlebars to take the weight and help maintain control.
Wearing a riding uniform that is very much in keeping with the team name and the period of the machines, whilst devoid of crash helmets and modern personal protective equipment, it reminds you when watching them that you do not need high speed to demonstrate machine control and be spectacular. And they seem to sit well with any vintage gathering or family orientated event for that matter.
Although there is no dramatic action involving fire or ramps, the Seattle Cossacks hark back to simpler times and make a pleasant change from vertical stunts and exploding tyres. Hopefully they will go on for another 75 plus years.
Any takers for a similar UK group?