Friday, October 30, 2009

Leap of F#$%!

I wrote a while back about smells, and how they can conjure up memories of places you thought you’d forgotten. Tonight, I heard a sound that did the same thing.

I was watching Masterpiece on PBS’s website. The current series is about Inspector Robbie Lewis, who in an earlier series—and a series of books before that—was the sidekick of Inspector Morse, an Oxford, England, police detective created by Colin Dexter.

At the end of the episode, when Lewis and his sergeant had unraveled a murder so convoluted that I gave up trying to figure out whodunit and just went along for the ride, the uniformed coppers arrived to cart off the guilty party. They put her in a police car, and as they were doing it, an extra walked through the foreground of the scene, wearing a yellow jacket and a flip-up motorcycle helmet. In the final scene this extra rode off on a police version of the Honda ST1100, which is called the Pan European over there.

In a lot of movies and TV shows I’ve seen that have motorcycles in them, they often add the sound of the bike later—and they often get it wrong, either by not bothering to match the rise and fall of the engine revs to the scene, or by making everything from two-stroke 125s to four-cylinder sportbikes sound like Harleys with straight pipes.

This time they got it right. I heard the unmistakable whir of the engine as the starter turned it over, the quavering idle, and the staggered power pulses of the V-four engine pushing gas through the stock exhaust, and bingo, there I was aboard my old ST1100 again.

I’ve been thinking about that bike a lot lately. I did a lot of fun stuff on it, and had a scary experience that was almost the last experience I ever had.

I was riding north through Tacoma, Washington, on Interstate 5 near the Tacoma Dome, or whatever it’s called, in heavy traffic. I was in the hot lane, and some joker in a Dodge pickup was right on my ass. We were going maybe 75, and I was too close to the car ahead for comfort, so I glanced over my right shoulder at the number two lane, saw it was clear, and signaled to change lanes. As I leaned the bike into the open spot, I turned my head forward again and looked at the car ahead of me, and out from under it, as if on a conveyor belt, came a four-by-four wooden post sitting in the middle of the lane, perpendicular to my path.

I yanked the handlebar as hard as I could, steering left to try to get as upright as possible before I hit the post. There was an almighty whack that nearly wrenched the grips from my hands as the ST smacked the post and took off like a 600-pound gooney bird, first the front end and then the back; at about the same time my butt and the seat parted ways; for a harrowing second or two the bike and I were pretty much flying above I-5 at an altitude of about two feet; and then the bike came back down with a thud like a dumpster full of doorknobs, still going at least 65, and the front wheel almost shook itself off the bike.

I assume some of the drivers around me saw what had happened and reacted quickly enough to give me room; all I remember is bulldogging the bike across two more lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. The front rim was bent, but miraculously, the tire had held air. If the rim had bent enough to break the bead, I would never have made to the shoulder. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I’d gone down in traffic that heavy I’d have been reduced to a paste by the time anyone stopped to see what they had run over.

That could be why ST1100s continue to appeal to me; you come through something like that without a scratch and you develop a great deal of respect for the bike you did it on.

I sold mine because my wrists would no longer tolerate the weight the riding position put on them. I know if I got another one I probably wouldn’t ride it enough to justify the purchase.

But I have a feeling that if I ever needed a bike that would get me where I was going come hell, high water, or posts in the road, an ST1100 would be my first choice.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Six Things That Annoy Me

1. Celebrities Who Ride Motorcycles

I don’t have a problem with the celebrities themselves. Well, not with most of them. What I have a problem with is news stories about celebrities who ride motorcycles. They appear to be based on two false premises: (a) it’s news that celebrities ride motorcycles (news to me being defined as an important or significant piece of information), and (b) I care. It's my guess that most of these stories are generated by the celebrities' publicists and aimed directly at motorcyclists, because I almost never see one in a mainstream magazine or newspaper, and yet they infest motorcycle publications like termites in the attic. I'm not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be; if I ride, and so does Brad Pitt, then I...what? Feel validated because a movie star has the same hobby as me? Feel like he's a kindred spirit whose next movie (probably a remake of an infinitely better original) I'll want to see? Sorry, no sale. I’m not 14 years old, and I don’t need someone to tell me I’m cool every minute of the day. I ride because I like to, not because Brad does. If he quit riding, I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d almost prefer it if he did quit riding, because then I wouldn’t have to wake up one morning to read that he’d gone out on a bike in an open-face helmet and a T-shirt and jeans and gotten his ticket punched by a soccer mom in a Hummer talking on her cell phone, and I’d be spared the inevitable shitstorm of righteous editorial outrage against motorcycles that flares up only when something bad happens to someone famous while he was riding one.*

(A special note about Jay Leno: I met him once at a photo shoot for Cycle Guide. He invited me and a few others to his house to look at his bikes. He was a really nice guy, knowledgeable and full of genuine enthusiasm for all things internally combustible. But by now even the most solitary bushman in the remotest corner of the Australian outback knows Leno is a major gearhead with enough cars and bikes to take everyone in L.A. for a ride on the same afternoon. This is no longer news in any sense of the word. So please, enough with the Leno already.)

2. Formation Riding

Where the whole idea of a group of motorcyclists riding in a staggered formation came from, I have no idea. But I do know it’s a crappy idea. It’s dangerous for them and annoying for everyone else. If something happens—a deer, a left-turning car—the bikes are too close together to react without taking out every other bike nearby. It’s impossible to pass them when they’re strung out for a hundred yards, weaving back and forth trying to maintain their position while traveling at a speed dictated by the slowest, least experienced rider in the pack. If you and a dozen friends were all driving your cars to the same place, would you line up nose to tail, bumper to bumper, and drive all the way there like that? Of course not. So why do it on bikes?

3. Loud Pipes

See here. ‘Nuff said.

4. Anti-Helmet Groups

If you don’t want to wear a helmet on the grounds that you feel your personal safety is your own affair, not the government’s, that's fine, I suppose, although I’d be interested to hear what your spouse and your kids have to say about the increased likelihood of you dying or becoming a vegetable if you fall off and try to punch a hole in the asphalt with your head. But where some anti-helmet groups forfeit their credibility is their insistence that helmets don’t work. That’s bullshit, and there’s abundant data to prove it. Stick with the libertarian argument and stop spreading lies about the effectiveness of helmets, lies that could convince someone not to wear one who might otherwise choose to if he knew all the facts. Consent is one thing; informed consent is another.

5. Bluetooth-Enabled Helmets

They let you listen to music and make and receive calls on your cell phone while you’re riding. They’re operated by taking your left hand off the handlebar and groping for tiny buttons you can’t see on the side of the helmet. Mark my words, the day will come when this will be seen to have been a very bad idea.

6. Motorcycle Poetry

Read some. You’ll see what I mean.

*UPDATE: Did I call it or did I call it?! (Okay, a photographer and not a soccer mom, but still, I'm buyin' a lottery ticket.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inside Lines

"Bob Klein, Harley's director of corporate communications, reiterated that Harley is 'discontinuing the Buell product line rather than selling the business because of how deeply integrated Buell is into our business systems and distribution network.'"

Harley's not interested in selling Buell.

But some riders are interested in buying them...

...and this might be why.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I was contacted through this blog a few months ago by a woman who worked for what was then Buell’s advertising agency. She had read a post here in which I wondered why roadracing wasn't more popular in the U.S. For some reason she thought I might be able to tell her why, given Buell’s recent successes in AMA roadracing, sportbike riders weren't flocking to Buell showrooms.

She was aware that Buell’s wins were tainted in some race fans’ eyes by virtue of the 1125cc twin running in the same class as 600cc fours. I wasn't too sure there was any real basis for that resentment—the Buells weren't exactly walking away with every race—but it certainly had to be thrown in the mix.

I then shifted into full bloviating mode. Buell’s real problem as I saw it was more complex than resentment at its roadrace wins against smaller bikes. First, although they were tricker and faster than anything Harley had ever put on the street, they weren’t any faster—and were a lot less trick—than your average 600cc four from Japan. Sportbike sales live and die on performance, and Buells didn’t outperform the competition sufficiently to make them a viable alternative.

Also, in order to buy a Buell, in most cases you had to go to a Harley dealership. For years now Harley has been selling the sizzle instead of the steak. A lot of veteran Harley salespeople didn’t know what to make of an actual steak sitting on their showroom floor. They were unprepared to answer the kind of questions sportbike riders asked, and had little or no interest in the Buell line of motorcycles except insofar as they took up space where another blinged-out Big Twin could have been sitting. A lot of them just didn’t care about Buells, and equated selling them with some tedious community service they were obliged to perform, like picking up roadside litter after a DUI.

It has to be said, too, that most of the “innovations” Buell loved to crow about—fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm, the rim-mounted front brake, the underslung muffler—had all appeared first on other bikes. Buell collected them all into one package, for which he deserves some props, I suppose, but it smacked of the “because we can” school of engineering. None of those things made the bike substantially faster or better handling than its competition, just different.

One huge thing that held Buell back was there from the very beginning—that engine. Sportster engines, like steam locomotives and Stearman biplanes, are charming devices in an antediluvian sort of way. But sportbike powerplants? Please. Stuffing one in a purported sportbike is like breeding a thoroughbred and then breaking one of its legs before the race. By the time Buells got the engine they deserved from the outset, it was way too late.

The nice lady from the ad agency listened patiently to what I said, thanked me, promised she’d be in touch, and never called back. Later I read that her agency had been dropped by Buell. It probably wasn’t the first messenger to be shot that way, and likely won’t be the last.

In the press release announcing the closing of Buell, Keith Wandell, the new, non-motorcycle-riding CEO of Harley-Davidson, said, “We believe we can create a bright long-term future for our stakeholders through a single-minded focus on the Harley-Davidson brand.” Wandell hasn’t been with the company very long, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing that this “single-minded focus” is a strategy of convenience, easily set aside when there’s a shiny bauble within reach. Harley is subject to fits of compulsive shopping, often followed by deep bouts of buyer's remorse. In the last 25 years it bought and discarded Tri-Hawk, Holiday Rambler, and now Buell and MV Agusta. Each of these purchases was hailed as the beginning of a bright new partnership; each of these corporate marriages ended in tears.

So when news of Buell’s demise broke last week, I was shocked but not surprised, except perhaps by how long Harley stuck with Buell before casting it aside. Anyone who comes under the Harley umbrella, even willingly, has to be thinking, night and day, that he could be the next one thrown out of the sleigh.

Maybe that was Erik Buell’s fatal mistake—ignoring history.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Inside Lines

"But with a limited sample size of approximately 300, we believe the study will not provide sufficient statistical significance of the OECD identified study variables and the MSF Board of Trustees has determined that MSF must continue to make its commitment of funds contingent upon a sample size of at least 900 cases."

What price safety? Depends on who you ask.

The AMA is happy about a new study into motorcycle crashes.

The MSF is unhappy about that study being underfunded, and is keeping its money.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bye Bye Buell, Arrivederci Agusta

“Buell Motorcycle Company officials thanked the company's customers, employees and dealers for an unforgettable ride, following today's announcement by Harley-Davidson, Inc. that it will discontinue the Buell product line as part of Harley-Davidson's go-forward business strategy. The new long-term strategy aims to drive Company growth through a focus of efforts and resources on the Harley-Davidson brand.”

Shocker from Milwaukee: H-D discontinues Buell, sells off MV Agusta.

A video message from Erik Buell.

A press release from Buell.

A press release from H-D via the AMA's website.

The XS Files

When I first got into bikes, there was an engine tuner named Jeff who worked at McCoy Motors, the Kawasaki dealership where I bought my first bike, an F3 Bushwhacker. He later went out on his own, rented a wing of a machine shop next to his house, and did two-stroke porting.

A number of people—many of them kids like me—hung out at his shop. Some of us brought our cylinders and heads for him to work on, while others just wanted to soak up the backyard speed-shop ambience and talk bikes. Most times when I stopped by, I’d find Jeff bent over like a big question mark above a cylinder clamped in a wood-jawed vise, poking a Dremel tool into a port, the metal chips bouncing off his safety glasses. He worked day and night; one time he invited me to his house, and as we entered the kitchen his wife looked at both of us with the same puzzled expression: Who are you, again? He seemed to subsist on Camel straights and chocolate milk; at least that’s all I ever saw him ingest.

Jeff loved Yamahas. He rode a 180 twin for a while, then got a 350 twin; both had ported cylinders, of course. Two-strokes were his passion, and so the day he bought a four-stroke XS-1 Yamaha 650, the world almost spun out of orbit.

In those days, moving from a 90cc bike to a 125 was considered a big step up. A 350 was a middleweight many riders toured on. A 650 was a big bike. A really big bike. We were in some serious awe of Jeff’s 650 Yamaha.

Now and then he liked to take off for a few days and ride. He’d come back with tales of running his 180, or his 350, wide open for hours at a time, of re-ringing the engine by the side of the road, of all the bigger bikes he passed. Those Yamahas, he’d say, they’re great.

One day after he got the XS, he left his shop in San Jose, California, and headed for Twin Falls, Idaho. (Why Twin Falls? Shrug.) He bungeed a slab of that yellow foam rubber they put in cheap sofas onto the seat, lit up a Camel, put on his sunglasses, buttoned up his denim jacket, and left. No helmet, no gloves, no luggage except an extra pack of smokes.

He came back several days later, looking like a strip of beef jerky, sunburned and wind-burned and bug-stained from head to toe. He hadn’t had to rebuild the engine, or work on the bike at all, he said, except to lube and adjust the chain. This Yamaha, he said, is great.

In subsequent model years the XS-1 morphed into the XS-2, with a disc front brake and an electric starter, and eventually fell victim to the nascent custom craze. The clean and classic Triumph-looking model vanished, replaced by what to my eyes was a hack job, an abomination with a buckhorn handlebar, a stepped seat, and a chopperesque gas tank. The original versions remained, to my eye, what real motorcycles looked like. The others were impostors, of no importance.

One of the perils of trying to recapture the thrill of bygone motorcycles is that when the fog of nostalgia that surrounds them burns off, as it eventually does, sometimes you find yourself in possession of just another old motorcycle; slow, crude, and kind of sad. So when I learned my friend Larry had an XS-1 with 15,000 miles on it, a bike he'd bought new 38 years ago, mixed in with my desire to see it was the knowledge that I’d probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

I got to the coffee shop before Larry, and as he pulled up I recognized the sound of the big twin even before I saw it. The bike wasn't perfect, but it was in exceptional shape for one that old. Larry said he was thinking of selling it, and that someone had told him $4,000 was a good asking price. If I’d had that kind of money to spend that day, he might have had to take a taxi home.

After coffee and a chat we parted, and on his way home the XS died on him, right at the end of his driveway. He suspected an electrical problem, which I guessed might be traced to the local mechanics who had tuned it up never having seen a set of contact points in their short lives, and who probably left a wire loose somewhere. Or maybe the unbalanced twin shook the battery to pieces.

That’s another one of the perils of getting snared by an old motorcycle—sometimes they just up and leave you stranded. But I can’t think of a classier bike to be pushing along the highway when the fire goes out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thanks For Sharing

The Aerostich catalog isn’t just a catalog. That’s because Andy Goldfine not only has a sixth sense when it comes to making and selling the most practical motorcycle gear around, he has an offbeat sense of humor, too. (Yes, it's a real product.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The One That Got Away: Honda CB550

At the Honda dealer in Sunnyvale, California, where I worked for a short time, there was a loft above the service department where they stored parts that had been taken off wrecked bikes. Most of these parts—dented gas tanks, ripped seats, a bent fork tube with a usable slider, a dinged rim laced to an intact brake drum, an engine that had miraculously emerged unscathed from the accident that completely destroyed the rest of the bike—had been damaged badly enough to replace under the rider’s insurance policy, but not so badly that they wouldn’t work if you didn’t care how they looked.

Every now and then some pimply-faced kid trying to cobble together a bike to ride to school or work would come in looking for used parts. He had little or no money, of course, which meant it wasn't a question of beating the parts department out of a sale, so someone would trudge up the stairs and dig out the dinged pipe or the bent lever that would get him on the road, accept a token donation for the Six O'Clock Beer Fund, and send him on his way before the boss got bored enough to wonder what was going on in other parts of the store and come snooping around the service department.

One day the service manager was looking for something for the latest hard-luck case when he realized there was almost enough stuff up there to build an entire motorcycle. So he did. It was a CB550K/F/WTF, with some parts from the four-pipe K model, others from the sportier F, and a few that appeared to have come from a lawnmower.

I was without a ride just then, and when he offered it to me for $600, I took it. Then as now, I was not sufficiently ruled by vanity to turn down a good deal, no matter how homely. But eventually I decided a few small cosmetic enhancements wouldn’t hurt.

There was a big dent in the tank. I filled it with putty and spent hours sanding and refilling it to a contour that stubbornly refused to match that of the surrounding metal, dispelling any illusions I might have had about a career as a body-and-fender man. I painted the tank in what turned out to be the ugliest shade of orange ever—the color on the can was probably listed as Ugly Orange. The resulting finish had the same texture as the peel of an orange, so in the end it was an inspired choice.

There’s something gloriously freeing about riding a mutt. The hours you would ordinarily spend cleaning and polishing a nicer bike can instead be spent riding. You don’t have to worry about anyone stealing it, because it’s so ugly no one would want to, and even if someone did boost it, the other bike thieves would make fun of him until he brought it back.

I don’t remember how many miles I put on that bike, mainly because I don’t remember how many speedometers from the loft I put on it until I found one that worked for more than a week. I do remember one odd trait it had—the quietest idle of any bike I’d ridden before or since. Most of the time, if it hadn't been for the tach needle twitching like a frog leg hooked up to a car battery, I wouldn’t have known the engine was running at all.

In 1984 I was offered a job at Rider, which required moving from the Bay Area to L.A. Since I’d presumably have access to new and infinitely nicer-looking bikes in my capacity as features editor, I sold the CB550 to a friend of a friend before I left, for the same $600 I’d paid for it; the paint job didn’t add any value to the bike, but at least it didn’t subtract any, either.

These days, when I think about getting a project bike to putter with during the long, wet winters, I always seem to search online for CB550s. If I ever find the right deal I might have to find a few cans of Ugly Orange, too.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Carpe Doggem

Winter's coming. Every sunny day is a gift. Treasure each one.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On The Job

Most people have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. I know this because every time someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m a writer, they say, “Oh, you’re a writer? That must be so interesting!” Or “fun.” Or “exciting.”

Being a writer and working from home is, in fact, almost always none of those things. It’s mostly work, like any other job, except you don’t have to pick up heavy things, deal with the public, or wear a tie—or pants.

And if you think working at home is cool, just remember that also means you live at work.

I originally got into the writing business because I wanted to get into motorcycle races without paying for a ticket. I wrote a letter to Cycle Guide, offering to take photos at the San Jose Mile and Laguna Seca if the magazine would get me a press pass. To my astonishment, the sport editor took me up on that offer. Eventually he asked me to write stories to go with my photos, and I more or less backed into my current career.

For the past 21 years I’ve been a full-time freelancer, which means I hire myself out to various publications on a per-story basis. I come up with an idea and pitch it to an editor, or an editor comes up with an idea and asks me if I’d like to write a story about it. Either way, my livelihood depends on a constant supply of fresh ideas, mine or someone else’s.

Sometimes the ideas don’t come. That means checks don’t come, either. That’s when I do one of two things. Plan A is stare a hole in the wall until an idea crawls out of it. Some people can make things happen this way, by sheer force of will. I’m not one of them. Plan B is to go do something else and let the ideas come in their own time, a method that paradoxically combines work with the avoidance of work. In other words, I can ride to a coffee shop, spend the afternoon there reading the paper, and still be technically on the job. I love Plan B.

Some of the work I do is behind the scenes. I edit and copyedit for one of the magazines I write for, and now and then for a book publisher. Writing a magazine or a book is, or should be, a collaborative process. The more eyes that see a story or manuscript before it goes to press, the better the chances are of ferreting out errors of fact, style, grammar, and usage. (The more attentive among you will no doubt find some of these scattered around this very blog. To which I can only reply, where were you when I needed you?)

My own eyes have seen some pretty terrible things in the course of editing, like a recommendation of the Honda Gold Wing as the perfect bike on which to circumvent the globe; the fact that an injured racer took a year off to coalesce at home; the assertion that earthquakes are caused by Teutonic plate movement; an exhaustive review of a book about Buells that the reviewer read all the way through without noticing that Buell’s first name is spelled Erik, not Eric; and the words publically, desparate, and preformance (which of course should be publicly, desperate, and performance), a clear indication that some writers who pride themselves on an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of automotive and motorcycle technology have not yet figured out how to work their computer’s spell checker, or a dictionary (hint: the words are in alphabetical order).

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Either way, it’s my job to fix it. This process has been referred to as “making someone else’s resumé look good,” because when the writer whose story you’re working on wants to impress another editor, he’ll seldom offer the story as it was submitted—known as raw copy—as proof of his skills, but rather the version someone like me labored over for a couple of hours to turn into something approximating English.

Hey, it’s a living.

Actually, it’s less of a living now than it used to be, thanks to the internet, which has been siphoning advertising away from print magazines for years, and the current economy, which has only made the internet effect worse by making advertisers afraid to come out from under the bed until the scary monsters go away. Fewer ads mean fewer pages per issue of your favorite magazine, and that means fewer stories an editor needs each month, and that means some really good ideas—some of them mine—die quiet deaths before their time.

I realize that by this point I’ve painted a grim picture of writing for a living, and you might well be asking yourself why I don’t get out of the business. It’s a question I’ve asked myself often as I sat at my desk, losing a staring contest with a blank screen on my laptop, and there’s only one answer that makes any sense.

You’ve heard of people who say they love their job so much they’d do it for free? I’m one of them, and you’re reading the proof. There’s something about starting with a bunch of unconnected thoughts, and then lining them up in the right order so they make sense, that appeals to me in a way that goes beyond mere enjoyment. When everything is going right, my conscious brain almost steps out of the way, as if something is writing through me, using me as a conduit. You’d think that as a writer I’d be able to convey that feeling more clearly, but I can’t. It’s indescribable, and it makes me feel very alive.

Still, I have to consider the practical side of all this. It takes money to keep the lights on around here, and to keep Daisy supplied with tennis balls. There might come a time when I give up writing as a full-time occupation and get a job someplace where I have to wear pants to work.

But I get the feeling that if I ever do, I’ll miss the interesting, fun, and exciting life of a freelance writer.