Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I received an email this afternoon from the editor of Rider about an article I sold him last year, a touring story about a ride down to Sonoma, California, for Harley’s 2009 model intro. He had just now gotten around to reading it in preparation for running it in the next issue, and mentioned that he liked it—“Great story!”

Distant as I am from the nuts and bolts of magazine production, I don’t typically get much feedback about my work. I write a piece, I email it to the editor, and a check arrives at some indeterminate point in the future, by which time I’ve long since moved on to the next assignment. So when the email arrived today, I searched the folder on the computer marked "Morgue" and punched up the Sonoma story, curious to see what made it stand out.

I still don’t know, because I got to a certain point in the piece and was stopped cold by a rush of memory:

“On the way back through San Francisco I stopped at the Golden Gate Recreation Area north of the bridge and climbed the winding road until I found a place to pull over that was more or less free of tourists. As I do every time I pass this way, I stood a while looking out at the city where I was born. It’s a beautiful, almost magical place, and, perched as it is on the San Andreas Fault, maybe a doomed place, as well. That’s why I make this pilgrimage to the high cliffs above it every chance I get.”

Although I was born in San Francisco, I lived there only for three days before I was taken across the bay to an orphanage in Oakland, where I was adopted by my parents. It’s fashionable these days to differentiate adoptive parents from biological parents, but I never did, and I still don’t. They were my parents. End of discussion.

In 1973 or so I moved to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and it was from there that many of the misadventures of my motorcycling youth were launched. I got a job as an apprentice machinist at an aftermarket motorcycle accessory distributor and manufacturer, and lived for a month in my dad’s camper pick-up in the parking lot, driving it home to Santa Clara on the weekends, until I found an apartment in San Rafael.

The apartment had no garage—it barely had walls—so I stowed my Honda CB-500/4 street bike and my TZ250 roadracer in the back of the warehouse. I became a regular on the Sunday Morning Ride, an appallingly dangerous and occasionally deadly street ride/outlaw race/lemming march up Highway 1, where—to shamelessly rip off one of Jeff Karr’s most memorable lines—I saw Jesus so many times I started using him as a brake marker.

Life on two wheels was very different back then. I rode a 900cc Ducati Darmah SS dressed in jeans, Full Bore roadracing boots, and a Bell Helmets down jacket that would have evaporated in a red puff of nylon dust had I crashed in it. I was particularly proud of the buckskin gloves I had bought at Orchard Supply Hardware for 14 bucks a pair.

I continued to ride south to visit my parents every weekend, taking Highway 101 over the Golden Gate, through the City on 19th Avenue, and on to Highway 280. In summer the ride was spectacular, thanks to a dense gray tunnel of fog that would barrel in from the ocean, blanketing the towers of the bridge, and roll across the bay until it broke apart on the Oakland hills. Pouring through the Golden Gate, hunkered down on the water like an enormous slug, it looked like a blind, remorseless, world-swallowing monster in a Norse myth.

It was cold, too. I’d start out in Marin in light gear and be shivering and damp by the time I got to Golden Gate Park. A few miles later the fog vanished, and the bright sun beat down on me again, turning the cold dampness to sticky sweat.

In the folly that was my youth, I never took the time to wander around San Francisco much. I was too eager to get somewhere else, with no appreciation of where I already was. And I didn’t have any real connection with the city then, except the accident of my birth there.

It was only later on, after moving to Oregon, that I started feeling that odd tug that seems to pull some people back to their place of origin. And so began the ritual of never passing through San Francisco without pausing to ride up the narrow road on the north side of the bridge to look down on the shining city by the bay.

A while ago, before I sat down to write this, I went out to the backyard to play fetch with Daisy, Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer. Daisy’s version of fetch involves a lot of chewing the ball, and rolling around on it, and sniffing the spot where she rolled, so I bring my iPod along to fill the interludes between throws.

As I scrolled down the playlists I came to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album that got a lot of airplay during my time in Marin, and has since become for me a touchstone of those years. I clicked on the title track, and just as the guitar started strumming, a cool breeze out of the south swept over the backyard fence, bringing with it a whiff of what I could have sworn was salty air, with a hint of cool, damp fog, and before I knew it I was standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a brick-red bridge, its towers framing a shining white city in the distance.

Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world
I'm nothing but a stranger in this world
I got a home on high in another land
So far away, so far away...

I hope you enjoy reading the Rider story as much as I enjoyed living it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Physics 101 (degrees)

There are lots of reasons to question the standards of education in America, like the fact that commercials actually sell useless products (no logic or critical thinking taught in schools); that anyone believes either Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann are anything but cynical, hypocritical fear-mongers (see previous); and every segment of “Jaywalking” ever shown on the Leno version of The Tonight Show.

The reason to despair for our educational system I’ve been noticing most lately is that a lot of motorcyclists seem to think when the weather gets hot enough, the laws of physics are suspended. The evidence for this belief is clear, judging by how many of them I saw today riding around in T-shirts—those that are actually wearing shirts at all—and shorts. The more safety-conscious wore high-top sneakers instead of flip-flops.

Then again, maybe I’m the one guilty of an incomplete education, because I believe if I fell off at speed on a 90-degree day wearing a T-shirt and shorts, it would be very much like being tossed onto a belt sander that’s been heated with a blowtorch.

In all fairness, as a product of the American educational system myself, I’m forced to admit I could be wrong. It might not hurt that much at all. In fact, it might actually be warm and cuddly instead of horrific and disfiguring.

If you know, or if you are, someone who’s riding a motorcycle with nothing but a few square yards of thin cotton between you and the pavement, and you crash, and you don’t die as a result of third-degree burns or massive infection, I’d like to know what it was like. Call me when the morphine wears off.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Signed copies $200 extra

I was browsing just now, looking for a few items (Amazon carries a lot of motorcycle stuff now) and thought, what the hell, let’s see if they’re still selling my Harley book, which if you’ve been a regular reader you know is now out of print.

So I looked up Harley-Davidson Bolt-On Performance and up came the page. And that's where it got weird.

The price of a new copy varies from a low of 79¢ (how depressing is that?) to a high of $57.21. Fifty-seven bucks?! Holy crap, I’m sitting on two cases of this book that I haven’t even opened.

I think I’ll contact the seller and see if I can unload them for, say, $25 a copy. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a reply, but meanwhile I can fantasize about what I’d do with the money. Like actually order all the motorcycle stuff I found on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcyclist Maintenance

I wrote a while ago about back problems keeping me off the bike. A talk with my chiropractor convinced me the solution was to sell my V-Strom and get a cruiser. Well, the financial climate being what it is, that’s not going to happen. So I started thinking about other ways to deal with the situation.

I did some research on the web and found a number of exercises designed to help torn back muscles heal, and to help weak ones get stronger. The kind of injury I had was common among athletes, not just former motojournalists who had pushed the envelope to the point of tearing once too often.

I actually found this information several months ago, but hadn’t followed the exercise plan. Or rather, I had followed it too diligently. I got some weights and started using them every day. That, as it turned out, just created another problem. The pain got worse.

I know now that I overworked the injured muscles, and didn’t give them time to recover between workouts. So it was back to the chiropractor for a couple of lengths of something called Theraband, essentially a flat strip of stretchy rubber used for light, low-impact muscle and joint rehabilitation.

I’ve been using it every other day—no more often than that—for about a month now, and the improvement has been remarkable. Not only are my arms and back stronger, I can ride farther without pain than I could six months ago, and I feel less fatigued at the end of the ride.

The point of all this is that I’m finally learning, at the ripe old age of 57, to take it easy on myself. It’s usually my tendency to charge straight at any problem with all guns blazing; that’s what got me through the injuries I sustained after the Willow Springs crash in 1986, and the car crash of 2006. I was a rehab fiend both times, and my reward was the astonished look on the faces of several doctors at how fast I bounced back.

But some problems can’t be solved by full-frontal assaults. You have to creep up on them, and nail them when they aren’t looking, especially at my age. You’ve heard that saying about how “old age and cunning beats youth and enthusiasm”? It’s true.

There’s also a bit of Zen going on here. As a freelance writer, I’m always looking ahead—to the next story, the next interview, the next paycheck. The now tends to get lost in the concern over the later. In my imperfect understanding of Zen, however, the now is all there is; the past is gone, and the future isn’t here yet, and when it arrives, it’s the now.

Lately I’ve been working on being mindful of what’s going on right now. When I ride, I try to think about how the ride is going right now, and not about how much it’ll suck if my back starts to hurt; that hasn’t happened yet, and it might not happen at all. And if it does there’s not much I can do about it anyway—why let it affect what’s happening now?

So I’m keeping the V-Strom. I have it set up just the way I want it, it’s paid for—a huge plus for any bike—and the Sargent seat, well-shaped but originally pretty firm, has finally broken in completely. Either that, or I have permanent nerve damage in my ass.

I’m even thinking of taking another trip to Canada before the summer is out, this time on the bike instead of in the car. When I first entertained the idea, I immediately thought, What if my back starts hurting? What if the bike breaks down? What if...?

Then I stopped, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought, What if it’s the best ride ever?


Friday, July 3, 2009

Dog Gone

Winfield Sweet Dreams Winzer (CGC, CD)
August 31, 1995-July 3, 2008

Still miss ya, buddy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dire Straights

Twenty-three years ago today, I had one of those life-changing—almost life-ending—moments that can sometimes divide your life into “before” and “after” stages.

In 1986, someone at Cycle Guide got the idea to round up a number of current bikes, take them all to Willow Springs Raceway, and try to find the best-handling one in the bunch. So one day we all trooped out to Willow, a track I never liked much and liked even less before the day was out.

The drill was simple. All the bikes were lined up along the pit lane. We—me, Marc Cook, Jim Miller, Mike Gillies, Dain Gingerelli, and Wes Cooley, who was our “hired gun” at a time when every moto-mag boasted a genuine go-fast guy in its masthead—would hop on one, cut a few laps around the track, come in, swap bikes, and go out again until we’d ridden all of them. There were some specific tests set up for later, involving weaving around cones and things like that, but you can’t put a bunch of motojournalists in close proximity to a race track and a lot of fast motorcycles belonging to someone else and not expect the journos to go out and burn off some adrenalin first.

I’d ridden four or five bikes by the time I got on the 600 Ninja. Its big selling feature for that year was its 16-inch front wheel; 16-inchers had been appearing on race bikes lately, and several manufacturers were experimenting with them to quicken up the handling of their sportbikes, with mixed results. Some bikes worked better, others just got twitchy and scary. I seem to recall that John Ulrich was writing about crashes allegedly caused by 16-inch wheels in Cycle News around that time.

At any rate, I went out on the Ninja and took a lap or two to get up to speed. As I said, I never really liked Willow. I never got the rhythm of the track down to where I could string together more than two or three turns without some huge mid-course correction. It’s the only track I’ve ever had that problem with.

I came off the last big sweeper onto the main straight that runs past the pits. I glanced down at the speedo and saw about 140 indicated. I held the throttle open until my braking point, then sat up and squeezed the front brake lever. And that’s when it all went bad.

Memory is a funny thing. I won’t swear any of what I remember next actually happened, because some of it doesn’t seem possible. Or maybe it's just too weird to think it really happened that way.

White smoke billowed up through the fairing, swirling around the instruments and the handlebars—tire smoke. The bars slapped side to side so quickly and with such force that I couldn’t hold onto them. Before I could process all this, everything went black.

It stayed black for a while. I distinctly heard a small voice say, “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right in a minute.” This voice came from inside my head. It was very calm, and I trusted it.

I came to abruptly, gasping like a beached fish. Every breath I took was agony, forcing knives into my side. I was on my back in the dirt, lying on sharp, baseball-sized rocks with the desert sun beating down on me. I was terribly thirsty.

Wes Cooley was standing over me. He was in his leathers, and he was laughing. I prefer to think it was out of relief that I wasn't dead. With every breath I barked in pain like a seal. Each bark hurt like hell, and I barked even louder. Maybe that's why Wes was laughing; he thought it was funny. I probably would have thought it was funny, too, if it had been him on the ground instead of me.

Someone must have taken my helmet off, but I don’t remember who it was or how they did it. The ambulance Miller had hired for the day arrived. When they put me on the backboard the pain was agonizing. The ride to the hospital in nearby Lancaster seemed to take hours, when in fact it took about 20 minutes. Every bump in the road shoved spears into my side.

My next memory is of lying on an exam table after they cut my leathers off. At that point I didn’t know which was worse, the pain or the thirst. Then they left me alone. No one came for a long time. I called out. No one answered. I asked for water. No one came.

Finally two men in white arrived. I assume they were doctors. Maybe they had taken X-rays by now; I don’t remember. My shoulder was dislocated, one of them said, and they were going to pop it back in. He wrapped a towel around my shoulder and pulled it taut, while the other one grabbed my arm with both hands. Because the collarbone and most of the ribs on that side were broken, there was little holding me together but skin and muscle. He said, "On three," but I blacked out before I heard it.

Over the next couple of days a lot of things happened that I don’t recall clearly. They involved X-rays and pills and lots of doctors saying “Hmmm...” Mary, who was my partner at the time, came to Lancaster. She stayed with me at the hospital during the day, and in a local motel at night; Miller put the motel on the Cycle Guide tab.

Mary was my reality check, and my mama lion. They had me on enough drugs to light up a Grateful Dead concert, and I didn’t know which way was up most of the time. Mary says one day I sat up in bed and tried to catch butterflies. On another occasion an obnoxious nurse bustled into the room and asked for—or rather demanded—a urine sample. I said I didn’t have one for her just then. She insisted. I declined again. She insisted again, this time thrusting the sample bottle at me. I threatened loudly to punch her face in if she didn’t go the hell away and leave me alone.

If I sounded like a combative drunk it’s no wonder, given how many painkillers they were pumping into me every day. The nurse huffed out of the room. Mary went after her. Words of some kind were exchanged with someone, and that nurse never came back to my room.

The next several months can be boiled down into a few sentences. My injuries were extensive: lots of broken ribs on my right side, a couple of fractured vertebrae, a dislocated shoulder, a torn-up rotator cuff, a separated shoulder tendon, two fractures in the right collarbone, and some abrasions that no one seemed to care much about; a couple of weeks later one of the scabs on the back of my wrist fell off and there was a small rock under it, probably picked up as I slid down the track.

Piecing it together after the fact, it's apparent I grabbed too much front brake that day as I approached turn one and locked up the front wheel. I got spit off the bike and hit the pavement at about 120 or 130. I was wearing a brand new Arai helmet; I hit head-first hard enough to crack the shell in two places. Marcel Fortney—Cycle Guide’s ad guy and a genuinely good human being who died way too soon in January of 2007 at the age of 49—later told me he’d seen the crash as he walked along the track toward turn one. I slid a long, long way, he said, clear off the end of the straight and out into the rocky infield.

I always prided myself on being good on the brakes. I had to be, since I was almost always the biggest rider in the 250 Novice class; there was no way I was going to beat anyone out of the corners, so I made it a point to do it on the way in. But I wasn’t racing anyone that day at Willow when I reined in the little Ninja so hard it bucked me off.

I’m not sure whether it speaks to my determination to bounce back from adversity, or my tenuous grip on sanity, but five months later, there I was doing a buck-sixty on an FZR1000 at Circuit Paul Ricard in France, and three months after that I hit the deck again, at a vintage race in Daytona, when some clown trying to win practice squeezed between me and the haybales on the inside of a corner and clipped my handlebar, sending me and a borrowed Ducati 250 spinning down the track.

But even though I went back to Willow Springs several more times for stories in the magazine, I never again rode the track. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.