Monday, December 29, 2008

Family Ties

Dad was an aircraft mechanic. He was born 10 years after the Wright Brothers flew, and dreamed of being a pilot himself someday. But he failed the eye exam. So he did the next best thing and got a job working on planes for companies like Vultee, Convair, and Pan Am, and finished out his career at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, California.

In his life he saw the Spruce Goose fly, worked on P-51 Mustangs bound for the war in the Pacific, and shook hands with Neil Armstrong, who was just back from the moon. Dad had big, rough-knuckled hands with thick blue veins running down the back, and if I close my eyes I can still see them turning a wrench, or sawing a board, or hammering a nail. To this day I use hand tools exactly the same way he did. Exactly.

We weren't the kind of father and son you see on old sitcoms, playing basketball in the driveway or working on cars together. We had fundamental differences of opinion about certain things. He thought Nixon was trying to save Vietnam from the Communists. I thought Nixon was trying to get me killed by the Communists. Dad wanted me to go to college, I wanted to go to the Daytona 200. It wasn't that we were mad at each other, it's just that we didn't have a lot to say to each other, and a lot of years passed between us in uneasy silence.

Once during those years, while I was out in the garage trying to graft a Yamaha RD-350 front brake caliper to the Ceriani fork on my TD2-B road-racer, he came in and asked what I was doing. As I explained, he squatted beside me, and with his ever-present translucent green mechanical pencil with "Property US Government" stamped on it he began making sketches on a piece of cardboard, taking several measurements with a small steel ruler he kept in his shirt pocket next to his pencil. Then he stood up, put the pencil and ruler and the sketches in his shirt pocket, and left.

A few hours later he returned with an aluminum bracket he had fabricated at the San Jose airport, where he moonlighted making radio cabinets for private pilots. It was a masterpiece of three-dimensional design, a single piece that spanned the distance between fork and caliper as economically and as elegantly as if da Vinci had dreamed it. Four marks with a center punch and another trip to the airport later, and mounting holes appeared exactly where they needed to be.

At the bike's—and my—professional road-race debut, Harley-Davidson racing chief and certifiable legend Dick O'Brien stopped in his tracks to admire that bracket. For the next several years my life was metaphorically in my father's hands every time I grabbed the front brake in a race. I eventually sold the bike, kept the front end for its replacement, and finally sold that bike when I quit racing.

Dad got old, as men will, and needed a quadruple bypass. The years went by, and he needed another, only this time he didn't rebound from it the way he had the first time. When it became obvious there wasn't any point in occupying a hospital bed any longer, he moved into my sister's house to die. I was living a thousand miles away by then, and we tried to fill the gap that lay between us with frequent phone conversations. Of all the things we could have talked about, that bracket came up more often than not. It was our way of proving we were connected after all.

A month before he died I found a blurry photo of that old race bike, with the bracket barely visible on the off-side of the front wheel, and sent it to him. After he died, my sister told me he had kept it beside his bed, with his Bible and a few other treasures from a life well lived. I took a lot of his stuff home with me—his letter sweater from his track days in college, mementos of his work with NASA—but I never found that photo. My sister looked, too, and she never found it, either.

They say you can't take it with you. Maybe they're wrong.

(Update, January 8, 2010...I found the pic above tonight and replaced the one that ran with this post originally. It shows the bracket in its unfinished state. Still a thing of beauty.)

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Remembrance of Things Fast

I don't remember the first flat-track race I went to, but it was in the early 1970s. It was what they called Sportsman scrambles back then. The tracks had a hard-packed dirt surface, and were laid out in a rough oval, with at least one right-hander and a jump.

Scrambles were a staple of the Sportsman class, which had three levels, Novice, Junior, and Expert, with separate displacement categories within each. Sportsmen were amateurs who raced for tin—cheesy trophies with winged naked ladies on top, or engraved wooden plaques—mostly on converted enduros and the odd stripped-down street bike in the Novice ranks, and serious track-only equipment in the Expert classes.

After you clawed your way to the top of the Sportsmen ranks, you could get a Class C license and race in Nationals for money at big tracks like San Jose, the legendary mile oval next to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. But in Class C you went up against hard, hungry, card-carrying professionals instead of the dog-walkers and paper boys you'd been playing weekend racer with until then.

In Hayward, California, there was a small, beat-up, roach motel of a scrambles track I grew to love like my own home. It had a long back straight with a jump in the middle of it that funneled into a decreasing-radius left-hander bordered by a chain-link fence, which was all that kept the racers and the spectators apart. Then the right-hander, a short straight, a shallow right followed by a 180-degree left, and onto the straight again.

The fence along the back straight was made of plywood, and was painted with ads for local bike shops, burger joints, and gas stations. The chain-link fence outside the left-hander was concave from the impact of riders who misjudged their entry speed, or got high-sided into it by someone passing on the inside.

The track was lined with yellow sodium lights that made it look like a Safeway parking lot at night, which was when most of the races were held. The pits were as dark as the inside of a cow.

The 250 Novice class was more competitive, and a whole lot more fun to watch, than the name would suggest. The 250s and the 650s—mostly big, bucking, thundering BSAs and Triumphs—were what the fast guys rode, both in Sportsman and later in the pros.

The races to watch on any given night were 250 Novice and Expert, and 650 Novice and Expert. The 250 Novice races were like little league baseball, where gaping holes in experience were plastered over with enthusiasm. The 650 Novices were just more of the same, except the bikes were faster, noisier, and a lot harder to control. The Expert races in either category were simply wonderful, cut-throat duels between masters of the craft.

But it was San Jose that turned my infatuation with flat-track into hopeless adoration. They called it The Mile. When you said it, everyone knew which mile you were talking about. Nothing I had ever seen before prepared me for the first time I stood on the outside of turn one, my fingers laced in the chain-link fence, as a pack of riders appeared first as tiny dots in the shimmering heat coming up off faraway turn four.

They came barreling down the front straight, chins on the tanks and left hands gripping the fork tubes, the roar of voices in the grandstands marking their progress, the confused knot of bikes and riders dissolving into discrete shapes, jockeying for position, darting this way and that, testing, probing, drafting.

As they separated into Brelsford and Scott and Rayborn and Mann, the frantic thunder of the unmuffled engines rose to a shattering roar. Then one by one the riders snapped the throttles shut, dropped steel-shod boots off stubby pegs onto the track, slick and black with rubber, the famed "blue groove," began feeding in the throttle again, balancing the rear tire on the knife edge separating traction and disaster, blowing by one after the other with a concussive wham wham wham like the shock wave of jets flying right on the deck, the sound rocking me back, then fading, fading, until they disappeared down the back straight, leaving me standing on wobbly knees, as dazed and euphoric as a teenager after his first kiss.

I never forgot that feeling, and I hope I never do. The Mile is gone now. So is Hayward, and Fremont, Hall’s Ranch, and Ascot, where I once saw Mert Lawwill lean his Harley over so far in turns one and two that when he picked it up again for the back straight there was dirt on his left number plate.

I went to the last Ascot half-mile, on September 29, 1990, and took along a wooden-handled garden trowel and an apothecary jar in a backpack. After the main event was over, and the riders started rolling their bikes back to the pits for the last time ever, I dug a big divot out of the fast line in turn one, took it home, and put it on the shelf next to another jar with a slice of The Mile's blue groove, in which the imprint of tire tread was still visible.

There aren't any flat-track races in the part of the country where I live now, and I haven't found the time to travel to any others, so I haven't been to one in years. But any time I want to remember what it was like, all I have to do is look at those jars of dirt. And even if I never see another flat-track race, well, I'll always have San Jose.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

A complete lack of evidence is proof the conspiracy is working

“You can’t trust anything you read in motorcycle magazines. They’re all in the pockets of the advertisers.”

You’ve probably read something like this on internet motorcycle forums a dozen times. It’s a known fact that any magazine that accepts advertising is corrupt, right?

I’ve been making my living writing for motorcycle magazines, as a staffer and a freelancer, for most of 25 years, and not once have I ever been told by an advertiser what to write. Nor have I ever been told by an editor to change something I wrote to make it more appealing to an advertiser.

But don’t take my word for it. Trust self-appointed internet-forum authorities like gixxerboy555, turbotom, and VFRlad, none of whom have ever worked for a motorcycle magazine, or even read one all the way through, but know all about them.

As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, no one has stopped to really think this one through.

The assumption is that the more ads a company places in a magazine, the more favorable the editorial coverage is toward that company’s products. If, say, Honda has eight pages of ads in an issue, all the Hondas tested in that issue will get good reviews.

Never mind that Hondas are pretty good bikes, and likely would have gotten good reviews regardless of the ad count. The fix is in.

Or is it?

If there really is a trade of ads for editorial going on, it necessarily has to be done out in the open. Anyone could count the ads in a given issue, evaluate the editorial coverage, and demonstrate a direct and ongoing relationship between the two. If the company that runs the most ads gets the best coverage, case closed, right?

Not necessarily. A company that makes good products, and sells a lot of them, can afford to advertise more than a company that builds poor products that don’t sell as well. So the number of ads in a magazine might not be a reliable indicator of anything other than how successful a company is.

Which still doesn’t convince the tinfoil hats.

A lot of the people who say bike magazines are corrupt believe those that don’t accept ads are somehow above suspicion. Without advertising and its insidious influence, they’re free to tell it like it is.

Or are they?

A magazine that doesn’t run ads would be the perfect place for a crooked advertiser and a corrupt staff to do their dirty work in complete secrecy. With no printed ads to give away the game, the advertiser would be free to lavish the writers with cash and gifts in return for favorable editorial. No paper trail, no smoking gun. The perfect crime.

Of course, both these scenarios—ads for coverage vs. cash and gifts under the table for coverage—are based on the unproven, and might I add totally scurrilous, premise that the people who write motorcycle magazines are sleazeballs whose integrity is for sale to the highest bidder.

If that’s true, why isn’t anybody bidding for mine?

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Okay, it's been a minute...yep, there's another one

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
—H. L. Mencken

Ever wondered just how gullible people can be? Here’s a little experiment you can try to find out.

Change your name to Valentino Rossi. You don’t have to have it legally changed, but it shows real commitment if you do.

Now go to any motorcycle event. A race, a rally, the grand opening of a new bike shop. Walk around introducing yourself as Valentino Rossi. Bring along a box of T-shirts with your picture on them to sell. Offer to sign autographs. Remind everyone about that hairball pass you put on Casey Stoner in the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca.

About 10 minutes into this exercise you’ll notice people starting to edge away from you as if you were contagious. After 20 minutes someone will probably tap you on the shoulder and offer to take you to a nice quiet place for a long talk with a sympathetic person in a white coat.

And yet odds are you'll actually sell one or two T-shirts to people who don't know the difference between you and the real Valentino Rossi.

Crazy? You bet.

Now consider this. Every few years some entrepreneur drops a load of cash on the rights to the name of a motorcycle company that went belly-up years ago, cobbles together some unexceptional motorcycles out of a mélange of parts from a few chopper catalogs, or designs some off-the-wall wonderbike that will cost the gross national product of Luxembourg to bring to production, and proclaims the rebirth of a long and storied tradition.

What happens next is nothing short of miraculous. Before the first bike is even built—but not before a full line of shirts, hats, jackets, ashtrays, and key fobs is designed and marketed—customers with fistfuls of cash arrive, banging on the factory doors, clamoring to own a piece of reincarnated history.

Blinded by the barrage of large-caliber marketing hype, no one stops to think that if the motorcycle in question were any good in the first place, it wouldn’t need the name transplant. And if it isn’t any good, a fancy badge on the gas tank won’t save it from the obscurity it deserves.

And yet there they are, cash in hand, eyes alight with the fervor of the quest for validation through identification.

Who are these guys, anyway?

They’re the guys who bought those Valentino Rossi shirts with your picture on them.

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Unpopular Opinions: Sound? Off.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."
—Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Talking to motorcyclists about loud pipes is like bringing up the subject of gun control at an NRA meeting. The argument—not the discussion, mind you, but the argument—gets emotional before anyone has the chance to think calmly about the facts of the issue, if indeed anyone ever has.

It’s worth noting that both motorcyclists and gun owners hotly defend their respective positions on the basis of personal freedom, a cherished American birthright, ride free or die, cold dead hands, blah blah blah.

Of the two groups, gun owners are on far more solid ground, thanks to the Second Amendment, which—although grammatically tortuous and speckled with extra commas that still leave its original meaning open to interpretation—has withstood all attempts to neuter it.

The personal-freedom rationale for putting loud pipes on a motorcycle is hogwash. I can't find anything in the Constitution about the right to be a pain in the ass. Federal law prohibits fitting any non-approved exhaust system to a motorcycle that’s ridden on the street. The only reason people get away with it so often is the U.S. has no national police force, and state and local law enforcement agencies have no authority to enforce federal laws. They can, however, issue citations for violations of state and local noise limits.

But as long as you’re prudent with the throttle, you probably won’t get caught. Many riders take this as permission to gut their pipes and ride loud and proud. They’re not totally without shame, though, because they’ve come up with a noble-sounding justification for this: Loud pipes save lives.

The theory is that car drivers—you know, those goobers with the cell phones pasted to their ears, the screaming kids in the back seat, and the stereo turned up loud enough to shatter the windows—will hear motorcycles even if they don’t see them, and not run them off the road while reaching into the backseat to give little Timmy a good smack.

The emotional appeal of this argument is undeniable. Most accidents involving a car and a bike turn out to be the car’s fault. It’s not unusual to hear of the car driver in such cases getting a small fine, and the bike rider needing years of physical therapy to walk again. All of us who ride have had days where it seemed like we had targets on our backs, and every car on the road had crosshairs for a hood ornament.

The problem is the claim that loud pipes saves lives doesn’t hold water. There’s no objective, peer-reviewed study that I’m aware of that shows they do, and no thinking person should be convinced by the hand-me-down evidence (“A friend of a friend says he knew a guy who...”) loud-pipe advocates so often resort to.

It’s also notoriously difficult to prove a negative. If something happens, like a car hitting a motorcycle, it’s often possible to work back from the point of impact, reconstruct the series of events that led up to it, and figure out why it happened.

But if an oncoming car fails to turn in front of you, what’s the reason? What prevented that? Your headlight? Your brightly colored riding gear? Your loud pipes? The fact that the car driver was paying attention to traffic and saw you coming?

Another problem with depending on loud pipes for protection from cars is it relies on someone else—the driver—caring enough about your safety and well-being to react, and react properly, and react in time. By subscribing to the loud-pipe method of non-defensive driving, motorcyclists place their safety in the hands of the very people they don’t trust not to run them off the road or turn in front of them, and who prompted them to buy loud pipes in the first place.

This passive strategy also assumes drivers are actually paying attention to the sounds outside their cars. Ask any firefighter or cop or paramedic how often cars fail to pull over to the curb in response to a fire truck or ambulance coming up behind them with the siren wailing and the light bar flashing. Do you really think a set of loud pipes is going to work any better?

Then there are the broader social issues. Loud pipes piss off non-riders. That’s indisputable. And they’re pissing off an increasing number of riders, too, who find their welcome less warm at events where the local cops conduct mass sound checks, corralling everything from Harleys with straight pipes to BMWs with catalytic converters; in urban areas where motorcyclists’ downtown access is restricted to certain hours, or prohibited altogether; and in national parks where the only kind of rolling thunder anyone wants to hear precedes the storm blowing in off the mountain.

In response to some of the laws being contemplated to silence noisy motorcycles, biker’s rights groups, including the AMA, say it’s unfair to target bikes when some trucks and buses make just as much, if not more, noise. They also point out that no one stops car drivers from installing non-compliant replacement mufflers and exhaust systems when the stock ones on their cars break or wear out.

But the non-riding public isn’t complaining about trucks and buses as often as it is about motorcycles. And there aren’t an awful lot of people putting straight pipes on 10-year-old Toyotas and then driving around town goosing the throttle at stoplights.

Is it fair to single out bikes? No. Is it happening anyway? Yes. Can “they” go ahead and pass laws against loud bikes—maybe against all motorcycles—if they want to? Yes. Is that fair? No.

So what do we do?

We start by getting real.

Let's say there are bears—big, hungry, vicious ones—in the city park. They shouldn't be there, maybe there's even a law against bears being in the park, but they're there anyway, and everybody knows it.

Now, anybody with a lick of sense will stay out of the park. Some people, however, will get all indignant about the situation, and puff up their chests and go marching into the park anyway, loudly insisting it's their right to do so. And they'll get eaten by the bears. They'll damn well deserve it, too.

Just as there is sometimes a difference between what's legal and what's right, there's often a huge gap between the way the world is supposed to work and the way it really does. The trick is to recognize the difference, and act accordingly. Those who can't or won't will get eaten by the bears.

Whatever we motorcyclists do about loud pipes and the corrosive effect they have on the relationship between motorcyclists and the rest of society, we need to do it ourselves, and soon.

Because if we don’t, the bears will do it for us.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Racing history for sale

I started taking photographs of dirt-track races in the early 1970s. Back then the San Jose Mile ran twice a year, once in May and again in September. This was the era of AMA racing in which riders vying for the Grand National Championship competed in five forms of racing—mile, half-mile, short-track, TT, and road racing. The rider who went home at the end of the season with the Number One plate damn well earned it.

A lot of American riders who would later become famous road racers got their start on dirt tracks like San Jose. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, and of course Kenny Roberts all learned about traction and bike control while sliding around dusty dirt ovals.

The photo at right shows Rob Morrison on a Norton and Kenny Roberts on a Yamaha accelerating out of turn 2 at San Jose. Top speed on that track was something in the neighborhood of 140. Look closely at the bikes—the spindly frames and skinny tires, the brakeless front wheels—then imagine pitching them into a corner at that speed, and you can see why these men were giants.

A few of the photos I took at San Jose and other tracks, including Laguna Seca and Sears Point, are available as art prints from Vintage Arte. If you were a race fan during those years they’ll remind you what it was like when fearless young men with gunfighter eyes duked it out on Yamahas and Harley-Davidsons and BSAs and Triumphs and Nortons on podunk tracks from coast to coast for a little glory and less money. If you weren’t lucky enough to witness it first-hand, you owe it to yourself to see what you missed.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

In case you're wondering what to get me for Christmas...

You don't even have to wrap it.

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Retro Redux

Yesterday I lamented the passing of Motorcyclist Retro, which was axed a few days ago by publisher Source Interlink. This evening I heard from Mitch Boehm, who edited Retro. He said the magazine isn't dead. It's getting a name change and will be sold directly to readers rather than being available on the newsstand.

More details when I know them...

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Riding bitch

Daisy, Tread Life editorial assistant and morale officer.

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Unpopular Opinions, first in a series

"Loud pipes save lives" is the mantra of motorcyclists who lack basic defensive riding skills. The principle behind it is to annoy the crap out of everybody so they'll notice you. To the extent that it works at all, it's the equivalent of stepping off the curb into traffic with your eyes closed and your hair on fire and yelling, "Please don't hit me!" And while it might work now and then, it's far more efficient at turning the non-riding public into lifelong enemies of motorcycling.

More on this topic later...

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Museum of the Mind

I read yesterday that publisher Source Interlink has axed Motorcyclist Retro, which was edited by Mitch Boehm, who I worked with at Motorcyclist for the first six months of 1988 before I fled L.A. for the bucolic splendor of Oregon.

I’m sorry to see the title go, even though only a handful of issues were produced. I like reading about old motorcycles despite having little interest in owning or riding them. I used to own a very nice '75 Honda CB400F that I got while I worked at Cycle Guide. We had run an article on a couple of Honda 400s—a Japan-only 400cc four-cylinder with a trick valve train not unlike today’s VTEC, and a three-cylinder two-stroke decked out in Rothman’s livery—and a sidebar about the editor’s own CB400F.

The sidebar prompted a letter (no email in those days) to the magazine from a reader who said he had six—that’s right, six—CB400Fs in his garage, none of which had more than 1,100 miles on the clock. He had bought his first one in 1975, the first year of production, and loved it. Not long after that, someone told him Honda wasn't going to make any more of them after that year. So he did what anyone would do—he went back to the dealer and bought five more.

Sitting in my office at Cycle Guide, reading this letter, I had to wonder if the guy was putting us on. Then I got to the good part. He was willing to sell his bikes for $500 each. He said they were in pristine condition. All we had to do was come and get them.

At the time I had no history with CB400Fs. I had owned a CB500F and a CB550F years before, and they were competent if dull machines. I’d never ridden a CB400F, but I’d heard other people who had talking about them as if they were something special. That pretty much convinced me I had to have one. Mark Twain had a phrase for it—getting drunk on the smell of somebody else’s cork.

As it happens I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the man lived. It was December, and I had plans to drive north to visit my parents for the holidays. I finagled the Cycle Guide van for the trip, took $1,000 out of savings—to buy one for me, and one for a buddy—and hit the road.

When I got to the man’s house and he opened the garage door, I was amazed. Every word of what he’d written was true. I stood there looking at a row of CB400Fs—five red ones and a blue one—each one absolutely showroom fresh. I walked down the row checking the odometers. The highest mileage on any of them was 1,111.

The man explained that he used to ride them all once a week to keep the batteries charged, but as he got older this became more of a chore than he cared for, hence the decision to sell them. The sidebar had given him the impression that among the staff of Cycle Guide might be one or two enthusiasts who’d appreciate these bikes.

I appreciated two of them, a red one for me and a blue one for my buddy, into the back of the van, handed over $1,000 in cash, and grinned like a Cheshire cat all the way back to L.A.

Some people who buy vintage and classic bikes pamper them like Faberge eggs. I’m not one of those people. If I can’t ride a motorcycle I don’t see the point of owning it. And that’s where I began to see the flaw in my plan.

First, the little 400F was, as advertised, pristine. The problem was the real world was anything but pristine. For every hour I rode the bike I spent another hour cleaning it. That got old fast, but I wanted to protect my investment. The only other option was to build a museum and put it behind velvet ropes. But the house was barely big enough for its human occupants, never mind moving the inhabitants of the garage inside.

The second problem was how far motorcycles had come in the 12 years since the 400F was made. It just wasn’t much fun to ride. I had to wring its neck to get anything like decent acceleration out of it, and the brakes and handling weren’t up to the cut-and-thrust of city traffic, never mind L.A. freeways.

I brought the bike with me to Oregon in 1988, and rode it now and then. But the winters up here are long and wet, and it spent most of its time in the basement. I finally took the battery out, drained the gas tank, drained the engine oil and replaced it with fresh oil, and threw a sheet over it. That’s where it stayed until I sold it to a motorcycle magazine editor a few years ago.

Even though I never had much fun riding it, I always enjoyed looking at it. Some days I’d go down to the basement, take the sheet off, and sit on it. It was a beautiful little bike, as cute as a puppy, and reminded me of good times in a warm, sunny place.

And that’s why I’m so sorry to see Motorcyclist Retro go away. In four decades of riding that includes working at three national motorcycle magazines, I’ve thrown a leg over a fair number of bikes, and while these days I occasionally have a hard time remembering where I left my car keys, I can remember at least one day on every one of those bikes.

The last issue of Retro I saw had an article about the Yamaha RD-350. I have a lot of history with Yamaha twins, starting with an R5, and including an RD-350 and several 250cc road racers, all of which I rode in either AFM or AMA races, or both.

Just seeing the pictures in the article brought good memories flooding back. But I’m pretty sure that to ride any of those bikes now would only disappoint me. And since I still don’t have room for a museum in my house, I’ll just stick with the one in my mind.

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Give me what I want and nobody gets hurt

Not only do I make my living writing about motorcycles, but over the last 40 years I’ve returned a considerable chunk of that living to the motorcycle industry by buying bikes and accessories. Having stuck with the sport through good times and bad, through the boom years and the tariff years, I feel like I'm entitled to ask for—no, demand some changes.

Ban the black

It's not the 1950s any more. Black leather was fine back then because motorcycles were so rare that car drivers actually noticed them. These days bikes are practically invisible on crowded highways and surface streets, especially in overcast or rainy weather. Wearing predominantly black riding gear under these circumstances makes as much sense as wearing a steak suit in a lion's den.

But try to find really colorful, conspicuous riding gear. Aside from a few exceptions like the hi-viz yellow offered by Aerostich, you won't have much luck. And yet the most common car-bike accident usually ends with the motorcyclist taking an ambulance ride, and the car driver saying, "I didn’t see him."

Any other industry, recognizing that a significant number of its customers are biting the dust because they aren't visible in traffic, would begin thinking hard about making its products easier to see. Why hasn't the motorcycle industry?

And while I'm a roll, let's talk luggage, both soft and hard. Ever try to find something inside a black tank bag on a cloudy day, or at night? What's so hard about lining soft bags with a light-colored fabric, or painting the inside of hard bags white? And how about zipper pulls big enough to grab while wearing gloves?

Cogitate ergos some

Rodney Dangerfield wasn't the only one who couldn’t get any respect. Older motorcyclists—the ones who've stuck by the sport through thick and thin—are getting short-changed by manufacturers who are putting the bulk of their engineering efforts into sportbikes and cruisers, the former having ergonomics not unlike the fetal position, and the latter enforcing the heels-forward stance of a rodeo cowboy bulldogging a steer.

If you want a rational seating position—one the puts your feet under your spine and lets you sit more or less upright, without weighting or yanking on your shoulders—you can try touring bikes, or dual-sports. But what if neither of those lights your fire?

I want somebody to set aside a fraction of the time, effort, and money that goes into making this year's 185 mph hyperbike go 187 next year, or adding 50 pounds of chrome junk to a cruiser that already weighs twice what it ought to, and use it to make a motorcycle that accelerates, stops, and handles about 80 percent as well as a sportbike, and has the low-end grunt of a big-inch cruiser, but doesn't leave me feeling like I've been mugged after an hour in the saddle.

Put a quick-disconnect windscreen on it, and some detachable hard bags, and while you're at it use some supercomputer time to figure out how to make the pegs and handlebar adjustable, just like the seats in the cheapest, nastiest four-wheeler on the road. And sell it for a reasonable price, say under 10 grand. C'mon, manufacturers, do it for me. After all, I stuck with you all these years. It's time to repay my loyalty.

Clear out the deadwood

You know who I mean. The dealers whose names seem to pop up over and over in customer complaints, the ones who don't stock common service parts, or hire competent mechanics, or treat their customers fairly. Shape these clowns up or ship 'em out. They're bad for business. They piss off enthusiasts and scare off potential motorcyclists, and they'll kill off the sport in time if they're not weeded out.

Here's a hint—when customers ride a hundred miles to get an oil change at an out-of-town dealer rather than have it done by the local guy, that's a red flag. Sure, some customers are whiners and malcontents. But where there's smoke, there's usually fire. And there are plenty of dealers out there ready to burst into flame.

Sweat the small stuff

Don't manufacture a chain-drive bike with tube-type tires, and then make a centerstand an extra-cost option. You can't easily lube the chain or fix a flat without one. Don't equip a $10,000 motorcycle with a horn that wouldn't wake a sleeping baby. That sucker ought to raise the hair on a truck driver's neck at 50 yards. Either make gas gauges accurate, or stop making them. Build accurate speedometers. The speedos on many bikes read high, some as much as 7 mph at highway speeds. Why?

Offer a decent range of usable accessories for your motorcycles—and by usable I don't mean logo ball caps and chrome axle-nut covers. I'm talking about things like dedicated hard luggage, and different seats and handlebars. Otherwise just admit right up front you're going to obsolete the bike next year anyway, so why bother to support it with accessories in the first place?

Finally, three words.

Mirrors that work.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

When We Were Stupid

I wrote this almost 10 years ago for Motorcyclist. It seemed like a good introductory piece for this blog...

"You know," Larry said, "I think I enjoyed motorcycles a lot more when I didn't know anything about them."

I was talking on the phone to a long-time buddy who has an FXRS Harley. He's been thinking about replacing it with a Road King, and during one of our lengthy conversations on the merits of the swap, we got to talking about the days, years ago, when we both rode Honda 350 twins and thought they were pretty neat bikes.

I had spent the day hanging bells and whistles off my 1200 Bandit. So far the list of frills on that bike—things I never dreamed existed back in my CB-350 days—includes heated handgrips, an automatic chain oiler, auxiliary driving lights, a CB radio, three hard bags each big enough to stuff a goat in, and a power cord for my electric jacket liner and gloves. A radar detector and a microwave oven are in the works.

Back in the days when I didn't know much about motorcycles—or anything else—in about 1971 or so, another buddy of mine, coincidentally also named Jerry, and I saddled up our bikes, his a 500cc Suzuki Titan and mine a 350cc Yamaha R-5, and rode from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles. The purpose of our trip was to visit the offices of the U.S distributors the big four Japanese brands, which all had their headquarters in southern California. We had some fuzzy notion there would be tours on the hour, and exhibits, and test-rides on new bikes, and maybe even free key fobs, and we fully expected to return home brimming with tales of glory guaranteed to permanently inflame our friends' envy glands.

My entire collection of motorcycle luggage began and ended with a pair of vinyl throw-over saddlebags that cost $9.95. I lashed them to the Yamaha's seat with a couple of bungee cords, and crammed the left-side bag full of tools, chain lube, shops rags, a couple of spare inner tubes, (no tire irons, though), and a spare master link. The other side held some clothes, some more tools, some more shop rags, and a quart of Torco two-stroke oil.

My riding gear consisted of a jacket nearly identical to the one Fonzie later made famous, and a pair of 20-pound (each) engineer's boots, both purchased at The Workingman's Store (an establishment that catered to a clientele that had either been in, or was headed for, Juvenile Hall), a pair of buckskin work gloves from Orchard Supply Hardware, blue jeans, a Buco open-face helmet, and Fuji Penguin goggles. I couldn't tell you now what I expected to wear in case it rained. I probably couldn't have told you then, either.

I have no memory of the trip to L.A., not the route we took or any of the stops along the way. When we arrived, we took up residence in a motel in Buena Park, near Knott's Berry Farm and right across the street from a Denny's. As soon as we unpacked we began mapping out the quickest way to each of the brands we wanted to visit. The first one we went to was Suzuki. As we pulled into the parking lot in front of the building, our imaginations furnished it with wonders the likes of which we had never seen in our short, innocent lives.

The astonished receptionist couldn't decide whether to take us home and feed us a hot meal, or call security. She looked at us like we were a couple of pimply-faced, dumb-ass kids—which we were—and patiently explained that, no, there were no tours. There was nothing to tour, unless we wanted to look at the accounting department, or the shipping dock, or the snack bar, and we weren't allowed to look at any of those things.

Undaunted, we tried Honda the next day. Same result. Yamaha and Kawasaki, ditto. No dream ever died a harder death. And the hell of it is, we really didn't care. We took in a half-mile at Ascot. We clomped around Disneyland looking like deserters from a rumble between the Sharks and the Jets. We were completely on our own for the first time in our lives. We could—and did—eat SuzyQs and Coca-Cola for dinner whenever we felt like it. We had breakfast at Denny's so many times the cook started greeting us by name. We thought we were the two luckiest guys on the planet.

We took Highway 1 on the way home. The cold wind whistled up the sleeves of my jacket and right through the three sweaters I had on underneath it—windshields were for sissies. My hands went numb, and my brain nearly stopped working. We made Santa Cruz on the coast and turned inland. The weather warmed up—a lot. Now we were panting like whipped dogs, our overheated two-strokes pinging and surging as we crawled along in the sluggish beach traffic that stretched to the summit of twisty, dangerous Highway 17 and down into the Santa Clara Valley. By the time we got home that night we didn't have another mile left in us. And we would have turned right around and done it again the next day.

"Sounds like it was a real fun trip," Larry said over the phone.

"It was," I said, "although I doubt it would have been if I'd known about electric vests and fairings and rainsuits."

"Then it's a good thing you didn't know about them," Larry said.

"Yes," I replied. "Sometimes it's good to be stupid."

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

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