Wednesday, March 31, 2010

American Rider Magazine: RIP

Just moments ago I got an email from Reg Kittrelle, my editor at American Rider magazine, informing me the plug was pulled on the title today.

I wrote for every issue of AR, starting with the Winter 1994 issue, right up until the most recent one, the June 2010 issue. I'm sorry to see the title go; when you work for a magazine for that long, and invest so much of your energy into it, you can't help but feel sad when it goes away.

I went through this before, when Cycle Guide folded in 1987, but there were other magazines to work for at the time, which is how I ended up six months later at Motorcyclist.

In this economy, though, that's not an option. Freelance budgets are shrinking at the few print titles that remain, and even long-time staffers at those titles are looking over their shoulders, wondering where the ax is going to fall next.

Sentiment aside, my biggest concern right now is that writing for AR accounted for a large chunk of my annual income. Without that chunk, freelancing as my primary source of income is no longer a viable option. At 58, I'm back on the job market. Along with several million other people.

...You want fries with that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blasts From Tread Life's Past

I’ve been taking a break from Tread Life to make some money; while blogging nourishes my spirit, it doesn't do squat for my bank account. There’s still a lot to read here, though, especially if you’re new to TL. Here are a few suggestions from the archives to keep you amused while I attend to business elsewhere.

Bikes I'd Like To Ride

Being a motorcyclist means never having to say you have enough motorcycles. No matter how good the bike I'm riding is, I always want to try out others. Here are some of the ones I've wanted to ride recently. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

Honda DN-01
Royal Enfield Bullet 350
Ducati Sport 1000S
Harley-Davidson XR750
Suzuki Burgman

Flattrack Racing

Go straight, turn left, repeat. The breeding ground for great American racers, past, present, and future.


I'm nothing if not opinionated. What's your opinion on these topics? Comments, please.

That's it for now. More later, but until then don't hesitate to have a look around Tread Life on your own. Use the Labels column on the left side of the page (scroll down) to search for specific topics.

Video: Life Is Hard Inside An Engine

Here are two videos that show what goes on inside your bike's engine, or your car's. Watch them, and think about how fast all this happens at 11,000 rpm.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cars vs. Bikes: Why Mixed Track Days Are A Bad Idea

Traffic at the 'Ring from AC MCoupe on Vimeo.

Kids, don't try this at home. Or on the track. Or anywhere else.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Perfect Garage

One of my friend Paul’s favorite stories from Cycle Guide was “The Perfect Garage.” In it, CG editors each picked three bikes to fulfill all of their two-wheeled desires—street, dirt, track, in any combination. That story ran before I joined the magazine, so since I’m grounded for a few days I thought I’d turn in my entry now, only about 25 years late.

Honda GL1800 Gold Wing

I first rode a GL1800 in 2000, when Rider shipped me a bright yellow pre-production unit for a long-term write-up. I was appalled by its outlandish bulk and the sheer amount of natural resources required to build something that large and complicated, and at the same time hopelessly smitten by how well it worked not only as a tourer but as an all-around motorcycle, and by the way it seemed magically to shed 300 pounds as soon at it got rolling.

I put 4,000 miles on the Yellow Submarine and loved every one of them. But the relationship was doomed from the start, since all pre-pros eventually met the same fate—the crusher.

One of the Wing’s many functions was the “opening ceremony,” which was two or three screens of text that appeared on the LCD screen in the dashboard when you turned the ignition on. The default message was “Welcome to Gold Wing” or something like that.

One day I discovered the text was programmable through a complicated series of button pushes, so I added my own message. I really wish I could have been there to see the face of the tech who took the Sub for its final ride to the jaws of destruction as he turned the key and read, “PLEASE DONT CRUSH ME.”

Honda Interceptor

I have only a few miles on a VFR, in this case one belonging to Paul’s wife, Ess, but that was enough to make me want more. After years of reading how well-balanced and competent the bike is, I’ve always wanted to find out for myself. When Honda came out with the anniversary color scheme on the Interceptor, I came that close to buying one. Last year, when Honda announced it was blowing the few unsold Interceptors it had left out the door at a killer price, I came even closer.

Two things held me back. Money, of course, was the big one. The other was VTEC, about which I’d heard enough mixed reviews to make me hesitate. So I passed on a VFR, which I’ll likely regret more and more as time goes by. But since we’re talking hypothetical here, we’ll just go ahead and park one of these right next to the GL1800 I can’t afford, either.

Yamaha SR500

Shortly after I moved to Southern California, I got a call from a friend back in the Bay Area. He’d been in a BMW shop and had seen a mint SR500 sitting in the corner of the showroom like an unwelcome guest at a fancy party. The shop had taken it in on trade in exchange for a box of parts someone needed to restore an old BMW. About the same time, my father offered to give me his 1969 Ford F250 pickup if I came and got it. So I booked a flight to San Jose, met my dad in the airport parking lot where he handed over the keys to the Ford, and drove straight to the BMW shop, where for $750 I became the owner of an SR500.

It was a matter of right bike, wrong place. The SR500 was a lot of things, but a fun ride in heavy commute traffic on the 91 freeway wasn’t one of them. I was living in Lakewood, California, at the time, about a tank of gas away from any road that might be even slightly entertaining on a big single. Still, despite it being already well behind the technical curve the year it was introduced, I loved the little thumper dearly, and rode it every chance I got.

Then another love entered my life—a 1982 CBX that a friend who worked at Honda’s old Gardena HQ had spotted in the back of a warehouse. It was a retired test bike/Honda-rep loaner/service-school cadaver that had been ridden hard, put away wet, and finally taken apart and put back together so many times that everyone got sick of looking at it. But it was a CBX, the legendary six, and that’s all I needed to hear.

I paid $2,200 for it and brought it home to my tiny garage, which already held the SR500 and a Honda CB400F. There was literally not enough room for all three bikes; one had to go, and it was with genuine regret that I sold the slender Yamaha to make room for the double-wide CBX. Odds are I’ll never find another SR as nice at a decent price, but in my Perfect Garage I already have one, right next to the GL and the Interceptor.

That’s my Perfect Garage. What’s yours? Post it to the comments section.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lehman Monarch Trike: Day 5

I knew there’d be things I’d have to unlearn when I first settled into the saddle of the Lehman Monarch, and for the most part I’ve made all the necessary mental adjustments, such as steering instead of countersteering, and being mindful enough of the width of the Monarch’s hindquarters to avoid shearing off a wheel on a curb or a parked car. But there’s another thing I need to unlearn that has more to do with me than the trike.

Despite being based on a Honda Gold Wing, the Monarch’s cornering characteristics are anchored in the car world. Because it steers like a car instead of leaning like a motorcycle, it needs to be held more deliberately on your chosen line. The faster you go in a corner, the more it resists being turned, and the more force is required on the handlebars. What I learned yesterday was to slow down on twisty roads to avoid turning an afternoon coffee run into an aerobics session at the gym from hell.

This bit of wisdom came in hindsight, as the twisties ended and I turned onto the highway for the last 10 miles of the ride home. Once I had a chance to relax, I realized my shoulders were knotted with tension, and my back was screaming at me. The Monarch simply cannot be ridden as quickly as a motorcycle, and I had paid the price for trying.

To be fair, I’d already been told all of this by several veteran trike riders. From now on I’ll listen more closely to the voices of experience.

Update: And to the voice of my Gold Wing-riding chiropractor, as well. The day after I wrote this my back started spasming so hard that taking a full breath was difficult. Between two crashes, one on a bike and the other in a car, I've broken all of the ribs on my right side at least once, and some twice; those screwed-up ribs pull at my spine, with predictable if dismal results. This afternoon Dr. Ed put things more or less back where they belong, and told me to take it easy for a few days until everything calmed down. "And when you get back on that trike," he added, "slow down."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dine And Dash

The crew's reaction to the successful completion of this odd stunt is based entirely on the knowledge that they don't have to pick all that stuff up off the floor.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Inside Lines: Daytona Edition

Somewhere in Daytona engines are firing up, bikes are accelerating through the gears, crowds are cheering...and that's just the scene on the main drag through town. Meanwhile, over at the Speedway there's some kind of race going on. It's been going on every year for quite some time, apparently, and you can see a gallery of vintage photos from races gone by here.

If you're a fan of the Daytona 200, you should check out The Daytona 200: The History of America's Premier Motorcycle Race, by Don Emde, who won the 200 in 1972 on a 350 Yamaha. Get your copy here.

Honda has had its share of Daytona glory, too, with Dick Mann first under the checkered flag in 1970 aboard a CB-750-based racer. The CB-750 has been called the bike that changed motorcycling (it's been called some less complimentary things by the British motorcycle industry, which the CB knocked on its ass) and Honda has come up with a streetbike that's designed to evoke its landmark motorcycle. There's a longish and sort of repetitive video of it here. But don't get too wound up about it just yet. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on the CB1100 never reaching U.S. shores.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Franco Files: 1987 Yamaha New Model Intro

In November of 1986 Cycle Guide editor Jim Miller tapped me to go to France in early December to cover Yamaha’s 1987 new-model into. I’d never been out of the country up until then, nor had I ever been on the cover of CG. I’d be doing both very soon.

Some parts of that trip stand out in my memory more than others. Here are some of them, along with the story as it ran in the March 1987 issue of Cycle Guide.

* * * *

Our flight began in Los Angeles and ended in Marseilles after about 20 hours in the air and in various airports. When we got to the hotel in the seaside town of Bandol, it was early morning local time, and who-the-hell-knows internal-clock time. Several of us wandered around the wakening town in a daze looking for something to eat, and found a vendor selling roast-beef sandwiches out of a cart by the waterfront.

As I ate my sandwich I noticed an odd scent on the breeze. It was warm, heavy, totally unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. It seemed to be coming from the south. I looked that way and realized where it was coming from. Africa.

Africa. Right over there, across that short stretch of water. I was so struck with how far from home I was that I wouldn't be surprised if my jaw actually dropped.

I scrambled down a rocky slope to the beach and dipped my hand in the water of the Mediterranean and thought about all the history that had taken place on the shores of that sea. Greece. Egypt. Rome. I’d never been out of the U.S. before, and look where I was.

Suddenly there was a huge splash next to me. My jet-lagged colleagues were pitching rocks at me, and laughing like madmen.

And just like that, I was home again.

* * * *

We were sitting around a table at an outdoor cafĂ© in some small town, talking about the old stone houses that lined the narrow cobbled street. Someone asked the French Sonauto rep how old they were, and he said, “Oh, many of them are very old.” One of the U.S. journos said he was from back east, where some of the house were 400 years old. The Sonauto rep laughed and said, “Here, the new houses are 400 years old.”

* * * *

We had dinner one night in a restaurant in Bandol. While we ate, a guitar player, maybe 17 years old, strummed away on a stool by the door. One of the journos thought it would be funny to get the kid drunk, and sent glass after glass of wine over to him. The kid had probably started drinking wine with his meals when he was seven, and just smiled and thanked the journo with each glass. By the time we left, the kid’s playing was still flawless, which was more than could be said for the journo’s walking.

* * * *

There was a sign on the wall of the Paris airport where we changed planes. It said, “Luggage left unattended will be instantly destroyed by the police.” As if to hammer the point home, there was no lost and found in the airport terminal.

* * * *

At a lunch stop lunch in Cannes, I was seated next to one of the French National Police officers assigned to escort us. He was wearing a stainless-steel revolver in a white leather holster. I asked him what type of gun it was, and to my surprise he pulled it out of the holster, popped open the cylinder, dumped the rounds on the table, and handed it to me. If I’d had any doubt that I was no longer in America, that dispelled it.

* * * *

The Mistral straight at Circuit Paul Ricard was about a mile long. I was about two-thirds of the way to the end of it when I glanced down at the speedo of the FZR1000 I was riding and saw the needle swing past the 165mph mark. Corrected for speedometer error, that was close to 160 actual. That’s the fastest I’ve ever gone on a motorcycle, and the fastest I ever care to. Since it had been only five months since I’d had a big crash at Willow Springs that took me several months to recover from, I decided it was also as fast as I needed to go for the rest of the trip. I came into the pits and handed the FZR over to someone else.

* * * *

Near the end of a banzai street ride from Bandol to Monaco, we stopped at a turnout overlooking the harbor of Monte Carlo. We could see almost the entire country from up there. I tried to pick out the streets that made up the track the Formula 1 cars ran on. Clem Salvadori was standing nearby, and since he spoke French I asked him to ask our French National Police escort to point it out.

They did better than that. After we crossed the border into Monaco, they led us on a couple of laps of the course, motioning slow cars out of the way so we could wick it up some on the straight bits. Do they have jurisdiction here? I wondered. I still don’t know. But I wasn't complaining.

* * * *

During an off-day in Monte Carlo a few of us went to Le Roche de Monaco (the Rock of Monaco), site of the palace of Prince Albert. We found a small restaurant nearby and went inside for lunch. One of us spoke a bit of high-school French and tried to order for everyone. The waitress waited patiently while he savaged her native tongue without managing to put together a coherent sentence. Finally she said, “Pizza for four and a pitcher of beer, is that right?” in near-perfect English. We would run into this phenomenon—French speakers who were reluctant or too embarrassed or contrary to speak English—several times during the trip.

* * * *

On our last night in Monaco we had a huge dinner in the hotel restaurant and later walked to the fabled Casino Royale. James Bond wouldn’t have recognized the place. I’ve since been in Indian casinos that would have shamed it. We handed over our passports at the door and were directed to a cavernous room that was half empty. At the far end were some gaming tables and slot machines.

I’m not a gambler, but I have no objection to watching other people gamble. A few of the journos sat down at a baccarat table and lost quite a lot of what they would later realize was not expense money, but their own money, since the casino didn’t give receipts for gambling losses, and their magazines’ accounting departments weren’t about to reimburse them for doubling down on a bad hand.

We were doing just fine there for a while, enriching the local economy, when somebody spilled a drink. On the felt baccarat table. In the middle of a hand. We were asked to remove ourselves, given back our passports, and shown the door.

* * * *

Before the trip we had all been sent an information sheet by Yamaha outlining the itinerary, the travel schedules, and what to bring, including attire suitable for formal occasions, which is to say a suit and a tie, not just an spare clean T-shirt.

I bought a suit, but I ran out of time and money before I found a pair of dress shoes. Which is how I ended up as the only guest in a luxurious five-star hotel to be seated at a lavish six-course dinner wearing new, shiny black Bates roadracing boots.

* * * *

A week after I got back to the office I filled out my expense report and turned it in. The next day the money guy walked up to my desk and tossed a small piece of paper on it. It was a 30-franc receipt from the Oceanographical Museum of Monaco, where I had spent a few hours looking at bizarre sea creatures in jars of formaldehyde.

“Your souvenir receipt got mixed up with the real ones,” he said, and went back to his office.

Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.

Lehman Monarch Trike: Day 1

Well, that was different.

I put about 75 miles on the Lehman Monarch today. First impressions aren’t usually lasting when it comes to road tests—it takes way more that 75 miles to bring out most bikes’ personalities—but here they are, for what they’re worth.

Like the GL1800 it’s based on, the Monarch is smooth, and torquey as hell, and scary fast. Among other goodies it comes with an audio system and cruise control, both of which I left off so I’d be able to concentrate on the driving technique. (I think “driving” is the right verb.) The heated grips and seat (heated seat!) I turned on right away and never turned off.

The GL top case swallowed everything I normally carry on the V-Strom—toolkit, tire repair tools and pump, extra gloves, emergency spares and other on-the-road miscellany, a camera and tripod—with room to spare. Under the top case is the 4.5-cubic-foot trunk, which looks big enough for everything I’d take on a week-long ride.

The big difference between the Monarch and a motorcycle is, of course, in how you turn it. You steer a trike like a car—left to go left, right to go right. The faster you’re going when you initiate the turn, the more effort it takes. I discovered that if I rolled off the gas as I entered the turn, then rolled it back on as I exited, the initial effort was lower.

You have to hold a trike in a corner; let go of the bars and it wants to go straight. I learned to lean my upper body to the inside of the corner, and stiff-arm the outside bar, a technique that’s called lock and roll. Going fast on a curvy backroad can be a pretty physical undertaking.

The Monarch works best on the highway. In big, fast sweeping corners you still have to hold it on line, but it’s not as hard to do as it is in tighter corners. Straight-line stability is great; just remember to stay in the middle of the lane.

I can’t imagine I’d want to do a 200-mile stretch of twisties on a trike unless I had a lot of time to cover it, with some rest stops built in. I bet that on day 30 of riding the Monarch I’ll have more upper-body strength than I had on day one.

That’s it for now. More impressions as the miles pile up.