Ace Cafe on London's North Circular Road has been serving bikers since 1938. Hattie Garlick visited recently and learnt how, after being destroyed in an air-raid in 1940, it became the world famous haunt it is today getting through an astonishing 7 tons of sausages a year. But how does a vegan survive in this world of leathers and bacon sandwiches? Hattie tracked down Vegan Biker Boy for some answers.
Being a vegan biker sounds fraught with difficulties – you can’t wear leathers, or eat bacon sanwiches, and what about all those dead flies collecting on your visor? Hattie Garlick caught up with one vegan who’s raising hell the green way.
A vegan biker… explain yourself.
I’m Jame, a 30 year old environmental consultant and businessman from Ledbury in Herefordshire. I’ve been a vegan since about spring/summer 1998 and became the infamous ‘Vegan Biker Boy’ in June 2001. I currently ride a Ducati 747.
How did you get hooked on the two passions?
Although I was a vegan before becoming a biker, my dad always had bikes when I was a kid, so I’ve always wanted to ride them – although I’d say being a vegan is now more central to who I am. I suppose looking objectively, the two don’t go hand in hand – the traditional image of a leather clad biker doesn’t sit comfortably with vegan ideals. But there are arguments for the environmental benefits of two wheels over four…
Did you enjoy the traditional biker food with your dad before you became vegan? Was it a blow giving it up?
I did always enjoy the traditional biker breakfast, but I didn’t give up meat because I stopped enjoying it, I gave it up because it felt wrong. So although I now miss the convenience of the biker café, I don’t miss the indulgence.
What’s it like being a vegan riding with a community of bikers?
I’ve never had any real problems from other bikers. I visited the MCN Skegness weekend in 2005 and spent a long weekend drinking with 5000 bikers, no problems at all, and even met a female vegan biker…!
In my experience, bikers are most interested in riding, then beer, then girls - so food and ethical preferences are relatively low down the list. I find in general they are less judgemental than other groups of people (like sports men) – not eating meat doesn’t mean you can’t ride a bike fast, and so long as you can, you’re ok!
I get some good humoured comments, asking whether I’m padding my jacket out with other vegetarians, and I get the one about dead flies a lot (‘You can’t be a vegan, look at all the dead flies on your visor’). And you’ll always get jibes about how good their food is! Generally I give as good as I get - all that animal fat will slow them down in the afternoon, and I always take the opportunity to remind fellow bikers their outfits look better on cows!
Ever played the evangelical and tried to convert them?
Although I find most people accepting, converting them is a long way off, certainly from an ethical point of view. Have you ever tried force feeding a veggie burger to a 16 stone leather clad biker?! It ain’t going to happen…
I try and base any tentative attempts on material benefits, like some fabrics are more waterproof than leather, or a flap-jack might have better energy release than, say, a fat laden burger… not that it usually cuts much ice, but at least they can’t dismiss it…
How can you avoid wearing leather?
I was vegan by the time I was doing my shopping for my first outfit, so right from the start I had to exclude leather. The sales reps were actually very helpful in helping me avoid animal products – with no funny comments. But I was looking for kit I could commute in everyday, and by 2001 it wasn’t unusual for some of the all-weather kit to be textile anyway.
Boots were more of a problem, so I ended up with a pair of Frank Thomas Aqua Boots (expensive wellies!). Glove were impossible, I had to hunt down an American shop online, but they didn’t feel good enough, so I had to cave in and bought a second-hand pair of leather gloves from a friend (at least I wasn’t contributing to further suffering). They were replaced as quickly as possible.
Do you think the market is opening up now?
Yeah, since then it has become easier. Last year, for the first time I have ever seen, Ride Magazine claimed that a leather suit had been out performed by a textile one. Looks like synthetic is the way forward!
Is the same happening in biker cafes? Have you found places starting to open up to offering veggie options or soya milk, for example?
Well… The Sunday morning spin to a bacon buttie can’t really be avoided, just a black coffee for me!
Many places do cater for veggies actually, but I think the step to catering for vegans is a long way off. Having said that, it is so much easier now to find vegan options at service stations – soya milk and things that they never had before, so it can only be improving.
If you’re confined to black coffee, doesn’t that make longer rides tough – do you end up sneaking off to health food shops when the others are bent over their burgers?!
On longer rides I usually know the places on route - where to stop and where not to. My biking friends are understanding as long as they get their feed, although sometimes they’ll go to the butty van and I’ll disappear off and return with a packet of hobnobs! But yes, I have gone hungry all day before, because of the way the stops have worked. I’m determined never to show my veganism as an inconvenience, so will just grin and bear it. I’m usually organised enough not to let this happen, or else survive on energy drinks!
I had an altercation at a Little Chef a couple of years back, when we’d been riding for hours. It was wet, and cold, we rode from Inverness to Worcester in one day. We saw a Little Chef on the horizon, and pulled in to eat and warm up. Both of us were vegans, so we ordered two black coffees, 2 side orders of beans, and 2 side orders of chips. The waitress said she couldn’t serve us because you can’t order side orders without a main course. After many minutes of arguing I asked to see the manager. I asked him to show me where exactly on the menu they catered for vegans, and if they didn’t, that they should be more flexible to their customers needs. We got our chips and beans!
Can you really argue that burning up the motorway with a fleet of bikes is an environmentally sound choice?
Well… although the fuel consumption on my bike isn’t great, the consumption in a car rockets when it’s sat in traffic, and that’s less of a problem on a bike. And of course, if everyone was on bikes, there would be less congestion.
Is it easy being ‘Vegan Biker Boy’?
I guess I’ve been asked some daft questions, including some judgemental voices from vegans, but I don’t think there’s any reason why a vegan can’t be a biker and vice versa – the only assumptions to the contrary are based on misconceptions. My vegan friends are without exception the most non-judgemental people I know, and bikers are without doubt the most welcoming and friendly bunch of people I’ve ever met, if you have a bike! I think being a vegan biker puts me in a very fortunate position (in fact, I’ve met three female vegan bikers, and had relationships with two of them… haha!)
And finally, a word from the Vegan Society:
Vegans come from all walks of life and there should be no reason why vegans cannot enjoy the thrill of the open road, especially with the growing number of faux leather products on the market from heavy duty boots to gloves and jackets, as well as a large range of synthetic bikers wear. The availability of vegan food continues to grow as more and more people realize the benefits of the vegan diet, so bikers traveling around have more and more options open to them.”
A definition of Veganism, from the Vegan Society:
“A vegan is someone seeking a lifestyle free from animal products for the benefit of people, animals and the environment.
A vegan therefore eats a plant-based diet free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey. Most vegans do not wear leather, wool or silk.
Vegans eat a wide range of tasty food which of course can be enjoyed by non-vegans too.”