On his 16th birthday, as soon as he legally could, Mike Seate bought his first motorcycle. It was a Yamaha 750 that the Wilkinsburg kid "instantly" attempted to customize. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says today, laughing.
More than three decades later, Seate's still all about remaking motorcycles. But it's on a whole different level.
On Jan. 28, the Velocity Channel series he conceived, Naked Speed, begins its fifth season, with Seate as writer, coordinating producer and co-host. The globetrotting Discovery network show (formerly Café Racer TV) explores a world where riders retool their bikes — often drastically — to make them as light and fast as possible. And in May, the Sewickley resident will mark his seventh anniversary publishing Café Racer, a glossy, bi-monthly magazine with national advertisers and distribution as far-flung as Australia.
Café racers are a niche interest: With their sleek, low-shouldered look, DIY ethic and emphasis on performance, they're the flipside of the showy, high-handlebarred choppers many envision when they hear "motorcycle" (or when they saw Discovery's old soap-operatic hit reality series American Chopper). So despite its international reach, for instance, Café Racer's circulation of 50,000 is a fraction that of such general-interest moto-mags as Hog Magazine and Cycle World.
- A Royal Enfield café racer, property of Mike Seate
Seate too fills a singular niche: As far as he knows, he's the only African-American motorsports publisher around.
There have always been plenty of black motorcyclists, of course — even in the 1980s, when Seate himself was still into chopper culture. But "it's considered a white sport, like hockey," he says. In the 1990s, when Seate was a reporter and columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he freelanced for bike magazines. More than once, he says, he applied for a staff position and was told, "If you were white we would have given you the job."
Seate has published several books on motorcycle culture, including 2000's Two Wheels on Two Reels: A History of Biker Movies. He became obsessed with café racers during a 1995 trip to England. Café-racer culture was born there in the late 1950s, with leather-clad rockers aspiring to "do the ton" (reach 100 m.p.h.). The café-racer moniker was originally derogatory, mocking how these crazy kids "raced" from bar to bar. But especially in the U.S., contemporary café-racer enthusiasts often copy that traditional look (think Brando in The Wild One). And rockabilly music and pinup girls still inform the iconography at gatherings like Pittsburgh's own annual Steel City Mods vs Rockers rally.
In 2008 (the same year he started his magazine), Seate worked with noted motor-sports film producer Chet Burks to complete Café Society, a feature-length documentary on the subculture's history. That film birthed the pilot episode of Café Racer TV for Discovery, whose popularity led to the series ... and to Seate quitting the Trib.
Since 2010, he's made his living from the magazine and show. Even at 106 pages —with distribution at Barnes & Noble and some supermarket chains — the mag is a homemade affair, with Seate as editor; his wife, Kim Love, as managing editor; and former professional racer Blake Kelly as test-rider and contributing editor. The slickly produced TV series, meanwhile, has featured bike-builders from across the U.S. and around the world, and enthusiasts ranging from famed racing brothers Ben and Eric Bostrom to celebrity collectors like Billy Joel and Jay Leno.
CP emailed Geoff Baldwin, the Melbourne, Australia-based editor of Tank Moto magazine who also runs thereturnofthecaferacers.com, to ask about Seate's show and the magazine. "The show's well known all [over] the world. ... The mag is also available down here through specialist stores and some workshops," Baldwin replied. "I do think they both have influenced the scene here and globally."
The revamped show, now called Naked Speed, has added noted hot-rod builder Bryan Fuller as co-host; Seate says the series is branching into other kinds of fast customized bikes, like street trackers, and focusing less on café-racer history.
Seate, who has his own sizable motorcycle collection and rides whenever he can, continues to be amazed by the growth of café-racer culture. As a fairly private person who'd rather "watch Downton Abbey and read the newspaper" than sign autographs, he's also nonplussed at his own newfound celebrity at rallies and bike shows. "I don't buy into any of that star crap," he says.
He is gratified, though, at helping popularize café racers. When he first visited England, he says, grizzled Brits were dismissive. "What the fuck you Yanks know about fuckin' bikes? Fuck off, then," Seate recalls them saying.
Now it's different. "They're just happy to see the stuff that they love on TV," he says. "They say, ‘Thank you for what you've done.' I say, ‘I'm a journalist, I just tell people what you do.'"