May 27, 2015

Un-Vesting Interests

WI is taking on the “updated” MSF while Minnesota is sticking with the old program for a while. There are nasty rumors coming out of WI about loads of instructors quitting or failing the new certification program. On top of that, many of the people who are still with the program hate the new course, both in the classroom and on the range. The MSF, of course, says things like “The new BRC skill test was also revised to better align with the licensing tests used by many states.” If you’ve ever seen the DMV’s motorcycle test, you know what they are saying. If you can’t pass the DMV’s test, you probably can’t walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. It is grossly, ineptly, irresponsibly, dangerously easy. Apparently, the MSF test has taken that same route even further. The idea that everyone belongs on a motorcycle is industry suicide, but maybe the industry doesn’t care? The real question is, do we? Do motorcycle riders actually care if motorcycles retain their rights and privileges to use the public roads?

If we do, California’s 2015 motorcycle training experiment is where we should all be looking. In most states, the wrong people are in charge of motorcycle safety training and the related income and expense. It’s not that I’m accusing the people who run state programs of being corrupt, but I am accusing them of being marginally interested in the effectiveness of their programs. California’s Motorcycle Safety Program makes the “California Highway Patrol (CHP) . . . statutorily responsible for California's official motorcycle safety training program.” I think this makes a crap-load of sense. The people who have to clean up the mess made by motorcycle crashes, sort out who was at fault in each incident, and those who have the political clout to make big decisions about who provides safety training without a lot of ass-kissing in the state capital to counteract the lobbying by a major manufacturing association (MIC, for example). Whenever possible, the people in charge of a budget should also be the people who are most effected by the effectiveness of the money spent. In most states, unvested bureaucrats of varying sorts hold the purse strings for motorcycle training. That’s almost as dumb as paying for a police department’s liability insurance from a municipal general fund. If the department resources are directly effected by how well they do their job, they do the job a lot better.

The California Highway Patrol changed the requirements for the training program they wanted and the MSF bet that no one would compete with their national franchise. They lost. This year, California replaced the MSF program with something designed to produce better motorcycle riders. The model CHP picked was based on the Idaho state program (derived from the Oregon state program), the Oregon state program, and Lee Park’s Total Control Advanced Riding clinics. Total Control is the core provider. As AsphaltandRubber.com put it, “The two programs differ in that while the MSF curriculum is based on the idea that anyone can be taught how to ride a motorcycle, Total Control Training’s sets higher failure rates for students, and weeds out new riders who would likely not excel at riding on two wheels.” In other words, the MIC/MSF is primarily interesting in putting as many butts on seats as possible. That seems like an obvious conflict of interest, but the MSF/MIC relationship has been largely unexamined for a couple of decades. Total Control’s program has no vested interest in motorcycle sales. The intent of that program is to reduce crashes and fatalities. You would think any state program seriously looking at spending taxpayer money effectively would take that conflict into account.

While Wisconsin’s program appears to be “weeding out” a lot of instructors, I know for a fact that a few of those weeds were good instructors and solid rider-coaches. In a reasonably intelligent world, every state would be reviewing their commitment to a program that repeatedly reminds us that there is no connection between MSF-style “training” and reduced crashes or fatalities. In my opinion, that is a damning statement. “Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System data indicates motorcycle fatalities in California increased 175% in ten years, from 204 in 1998 to 560 in 2008.  These increases in motorcyclist deaths occurred at a time when significant gains were achieved in other areas of traffic safety.  Although California did experience reductions in motorcycle fatalities in 2009 and 2010; the 2011 data shows an increase.  Motorcyclists are [grossly] over represented in overall numbers of traffic deaths.” A lot of eyes should be on California and Oregon, two states who have pulled away from the MSF machine. If they manage to produce something that effectively reduces motorcycle deaths and crashes, the rest of the country should be paying attention.

There is substantial evidence that the current current generation of autonomous cars is (dramatically) more competent than the average driver, which wasn’t a high bar to clear.

May 25, 2015

#110 Proving A Point?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

I'm not sure what I was proving. I set out to make a loop around Lake Superior with my brother, Larry, on my 650 V-Strom and me on my Yamaha WR250X. At first, this seemed like a good idea. Through town and into the backroads country side, the 250 was perfect. For the first 100 miles I thought I had the better deal. Then we started making miles on long straight 2-lanes in Wisconsin into Michigan and across the plains to Ontario the 250 showed its other side; the under-powered, butt-numbing, over-capable side. A bike that can stop on a dime, turn like a ballet dancer, and go from 0-50mph as fast as you can shift from 1st to 6th is under-utilized in a world designed for bad drivers, big trucks, and boring scenery.

An Electroglide or Goldwing is more suited to boring roads, but so is a station wagon (or SUV, if that designation makes you feel less wimpy for driving a station wagon) with cruise-control and HVAC. While I sat on my skinny dirt bike perch, I had way too much time to think about the mechanics of the trip. Both bikes, the DL650 and the WR250X knocked down the exact same 55mpg, mile-after-mile and fill-up-after-fill-up. The difference being two gallons more capacity in the 650, even after I'd installed an aftermarket fuel tank on the WR. So, I stalled the trip for fuel stops twice as often as Larry. Plugging along at 65mpg for 1600 mostly-straight miles gave me more than enough time to think about what I was doing on that road.

One of the things I thought about is that, obviously, mathematically and practically-speaking group motorcycle rides don't make sense. Even little groups, like our two-man crew. Two guys on 55mpg motorcycles are spending more transportation money on their bikes, than they would taking one car, if the car got at least 28mpg. My Ford Escort gets 34mpg and it's a crappy old station wagon with 200k on the odometer and 1998 fuel economy. Four 55mpg bikers could have been traveling in a 16mpg camper. Six bikers would have been able to justify a rented luxury bus.

It proves to me, again, that motorcycles are best suited to solo travel. When one person wants to, or needs to, get from point A to Z. Of course, you could argue that two people can travel more economically on one motorcycle. Obviously, 55mpg is history, going two-up, since even an efficient bike is going to be less efficient with more weight and greater wind resistance. Tire wear is accelerated. Maintenance becomes more critical and more expensive. The two-up motorcycle is bigger, more expensive, and less maneuverable; a Goldwing instead of a KLR, for example. More important, one person can ride anywhere.

Two, not so much.

The idea of riding with someone is much more interesting than the reality. In a group, you have to lead or follow. I suck at either position. I don't look back and I like to keep at least two miles between me and whoever is in front of me. I have another unpredictable human mind to anticipate. More distractions and obstacles to deal with. Twice as many maintenance problems to solve. Fuel stops are more complicated and take way longer. I'm either slowing someone up or someone is dragging me back. I have to pay attention to moods, interests, habits, problems, and other personality issues. I'm lucky to know what I'm thinking. I have no idea what is in your head and usually don't care.

So, the next time someone asks to go somewhere with me, we're going to take the cage. The advantages are obvious. First, I might not have to drive. Second, the trip will be cheaper. Since I'm going with someone, I'll have the chance to talk to them on the trip. We can easily carry more camping and travel gear. We can save money by sleeping in the car; that's what reclining seats are for, right? We can venture away from the parking lot, since we can lock up our stuff in the cage and worry (less) about thieves and vandals. [You can't meaningfully vandalize my Escort because Ford and I beat you to it.]

There are places where all this logic falls apart. Not many, but some. When there is a good reason to go somewhere with someone else, next time I'm going to shut off my analytic mind and enjoy the ride. To do that, I have to stay away from boring roads to ordinary places.

Trail riding is an obvious buddy event; ride a few miles, fall down, make fun of the victim, pick the bike up, tell stories about the last ride, hydrate, share power-bars, ride some more, fall down and start the sequence all over again. I'm not sure the riding part of an off-road trip is a group event, but the falling down parts are. Other than trying to avoid running over the other guy or being run over by him, all I have time and capacity to think about is staying on the trail. But there is always some time along the trail for extracurricular activities when I'm on the trail.

So, while I left on last summer's trip with the idea that I would prove that my little bike was a serviceable touring bike, I came home with the proof that touring with someone else is a silly idea. At least, I proved that to myself. Your mileage will probably vary. As far as the original concept, the WR250 did fine. I'd take it places over my 650 on at least three out of four mid-length trips and about 99% of my usual commute and around-town errands. However, if I'm going to be bored with the road, I'm going to take the big bike. At least I'll be comfortably bored.

MMM July 2012

May 24, 2015

Is A Motorcycle “Good for You?”

Whenever possible, I find a good excuse to head for Duluth whenever Aerostich is having an event. This spring, the excuse was the company’s Open House in mid-May. One of the barely-mentioned benefits of the open house would be a collection of speakers, including company founder Andy Goldfine. Near the top of the list of good-to-great things that have happened to me as a result of my sixteen years with MMM has been getting to know Andy. So, with more than enough justification in hand I set off for Duluth last Friday afternoon.

Andy’s talk was about the history of his company, a story I’ve heard more than a couple of times, and the company’s mission. If you’ve been around Andy for any time at all, you know that he believes commuting, traveling, and riding motorcycles for fun is “good for society.” He has studied this idea and promoted it as much as anyone on the planet. In 2008, Andy and Aerostich published a scholarly book on the subject, Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling written by Stephen L. Thompson. During his talk, Andy described how motorcyclists suffer fewer of the usual litany of modern human maladies: obesity, depression, anxiety,

Andy’s description of the benefits of riding made me wonder which way this activity works: does motorcycling make you a better person or do better people ride motorcycles? It could be either, right? Or both. We ride motorcycles because we are people who are more tolerant of risk and we are more driven to seek the sensation of motion. The alternative is that accidentally stumbling into motorcycling has provided us with the benefits of becoming more tolerant of risk, change, and physical stress which makes us healthier.

An article by “naturopathic” practitioner Pamela Reilly titled "How Motorcycle Riding Improves Physical Health" describes how motorcycling burns calories, improves knee stability and strength, etc. Otherwise, I can’t find much on the internet that makes this claim. If anyone has a source or study that argues motorcycling’s health benefits, I’d like to hear about it.

May 18, 2015

#109 Abusing Statistics

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

One of my all-time favorite books is Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science, a line-by-line scientific refutation of every anti-evolutionary argument written by a wonderfully logical, scientific mind. (Yes, I am agnostic, a firm believer in evolutionary theory even with all of the evidence that humans are probably de-evolving into something less intelligent than lemurs, and a cynic.) I have owned a copy of this book since a philosophy prof recommended it to me in 1984, after an extended debate in his Logic and Critical Thinking class. Using reasoning that is below the standards of Abusing Science, but in my own version of Kitcher's critical spirit, I was inspired to write this rant after reading the 2011 Minnesota Motorcycle Rider Survey Results. I'm not sure whether the authors of that document or I am abusing statistical evidence more enthusiastically. I'm inclined to make connections where only my biases allow me to see the dots. Regardless, I know we both are on infirm ground.

The 1,349 rider survey found that 46% of the surveyed had "basic" rider training, 35% owned "cruiser" style motorcycles, 37% owned Harley Davidsons, 34% wear helmets "never" or "rarely," 48% "never" ride wearing reflective gear, 60% own black helmets, 66% thought that "driver inattention" poses the greatest risk to motorcyclists, 53% rode less than 3,000 miles/year, and 65% were motivated to get rider training to get a motorcycle license. There are so many connections to be made in those statements that I can almost see a sketch of Peter Fonda before I start connecting the data points.

The 65% who got "safety training," primarily to get their license, present an easy target. There is no real age spike in that statistic, either. The over-60 crowd were 10% less likely to have had that motivation with a slight bump in the "increase personal safety" impetus (a stat that has a slight linear rising slope with age). Put this information together with the substantial percentage of cruiser owners and those related puzzle pieces make perfect sense. While cruisers are the status-symbol-of-the-decade, they are a bitch to ride well. "I trailered the bike home, crashed it in my driveway, and decided I needed to take a class" or "I couldn't pass the DMV test, so I wanted to take the test on a bike I can control" is a story MSF instructors hear a few times every class. The driver's license motivation is the worst of all possible reasons to take a safety class. The safety classes teach a new rider how to ride in a swept clean, empty, stress-free parking lot; an environment the student is unlikely to ever see again. A rider with some skills may pick up useful tactics in the basic class, but a first-time rider will concentrate on getting through the class and the test and often leaves with false confidence and a ticket to ride into traffic without a clue how dangerous or complicated that experience will be.

Likewise, the 34% of rarely-to-never helmet wearers are guaranteed to be over-represented by cruiser and new riders; two groups of notoriously low skill riders. In my opinion, that crowd will be a good portion of the 66% who think the big threat to motorcyclists is other drivers not looking out for them. According the the 2008 NHTSA data (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811159.PDF), 81% of motorcyclists killed in Minnesota were helmetless, 26% were alcohol or drug impaired, 25% collided with "fixed objects," and 43% died in single-vehicle crashes. Minnesota statistics similar to data from the rest of the country. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Even worse, we're not smart enough to know we're the problem and we want everyone else on the road to "start seeing motorcycles" so we don't have to start learning how to ride them.

[Someone should make a camouflage headband with the kamikaze logo.]

The number of riders who wear protective gear, visible gear, or take safety training to improve their safety odds is so insignificant that you'd think we're a suicide squad. Maybe all those 1%'ers should scrape off the swastika tats and replace them with the flag kamikaze pilots wrapped around their heads before taking off on a suicide run. That's probably unacceptable because the red and white image would be too visible. You should never commit suicide half-heartedly.

The one "safety feature" the study didn't look at was noisy exhaust systems. Random and constant noise seems to be the only nod to self-preservation that most motorcyclists are willing to make, even though every piece of evidence has found that noisy exhaust systems are a waste of effort. It's a shame that question wasn't asked, just to round out the general impression of foolishness and irrational behavior that motorcyclists take so much pride in. Even the pubic opinion conscious AMA seems to be afraid to buck the "loud pipes save lives" argument.

I know this is a marginally rational way to look at the data from a relatively small, voluntary survey. However, since the data fits my own experience, the best I can do is to say I wasn't surprised by any of it. For me, the pieces fit together exactly the way I expected. Scientifically, that is exactly not how you should interpret data. So sue me. Humans are a marginally rational animal and if we're going to insist on being a foolish species, why should I behave differently?

MMM June 2012

May 11, 2015

#108 Why Stop?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

I've written before about the newbie claim "I'm good as long as I'm moving," but this is a different take on changing momentum. Holding on to momentum is not a "skill." The fact that you're able to continue wandering in a generally forward direction is less about your ability and more about Newton's Laws of Motion. When you jump off of a cliff, you're "ok" as long as you're falling. It's when you stop that you discover Newton's second law also applies as your mass and acceleration result in forces that rearrange your body parts.

Stopping quickly and safely is a basic motorcycling tool. Everyone needs to know how to do it and the only way to perfect any physical skill is practice. You can read books, listen to riding coaches preach technique, and sit in your garage squeezing controls until your tires rot off and you won't be better at stopping until you do the real thing. The best time to practice an emergency skill is in a safe, low stress, non-emergency environment. By that, I mean you should be practicing your braking technique every time you need to slow down or stop. By "every time," I mean every time. Every opportunity you have to decelerate, you should be working on your technique so that it is automatic when the cell-phone-yakking, coffee-sucking, self-absorbed bozo in a 4,000 pound SUV sails through a stop light and obscures the sun with his rolling mobile home. One of the great advantages of learning to ride the old fashioned way, off-road and on little (250cc and under) motorcycles, is that learning to use both brakes in a variety of situations is less threatening. When all conditions are less-than-ideal, you get used to sliding tires and shifting center-of-gravity when your brake application is imperfect. Dropping a hippobike on asphalt is almost always a catastrophe of some sort. Dumping a 225 pound dirt bike in gravel or grass is often just funny.

Late last season, I took my street-tire attired WR250X out for a trail ride with a friend. On the gravel roads, in deep sand, and through the muddy sections, I spent a lot of time sideways, but stayed upright and did ok with the throttle and brakes. On a couple of soaked clay sections, those street tires let me down and breathing on the brakes or bailing from the throttle resulted in an unceremonious, but comedic, dip in some pretty sloppy mud puddles. My Aerostich needed washing and my friend needed entertaining, so it was all good. By the end of the ride, my braking and throttle technique was a lot smoother and when we hit the gravel road back to the truck I was a lot more confident in my skills.

Move that experience on to my 470 pound V-Strom and the chances are that I wouldn't have been laughing when I ended up under the bike in a foot of mud. Move that experience to the street and put me on something like the Honda VT1300CX I tested a while back and there might not be enough protective equipment in the world to keep me whole.

One of my biggest complaints about hippobikes and cruisers is that they are not designed for emergency maneuvers. I know there are riders who can haul a Harley or a Goldwing down to full stop in incredibly short distances, but most riders are afraid of their brakes and couldn't swerve around a 747 on a full runway at LAX. I spent an afternoon working on the MSF braking exercises, while I had the VT1300 Honda and I never hauled that monster down quickly enough to feel good about my personal safety in heavy traffic. I can stand my WR on its nose and approach the maximum G-force my arms can support on the V-Strom without feeling out-of-control. I'm not saying I'm a great rider and those big bikes are beyond anyone's capability. I am confident that I'm a better rider than anyone who comes out of one of my MSF beginner classes and I'm not worried about putting my skills against the majority of riders who take the Experienced Rider Course. Many of those people are going to hop on to bikes I am uncomfortable around and I know they are hoping that Newton keeps them vertical and that exhaust noise and the kindness of strangers keeps them safe.

So, what do you do if your faith in luck and momentum is realistic? First, buy a motorcycle that fits your skills and ability. If you're an inexperienced rider, that won't be an R1, a Fatboy, a Goldwing, or a customized piece of garage candy. You don't need big power, nothing you can do will make you look cool if you aren't cool already, and the more mass the more force required to rapidly decelerate. Go small and go light and put your body in a riding position not a rolling Lazy Boy.

"Standards" often fit the bill in all of their available sizes, from 125 to 650cc. The standard riding position is familiar to anyone who has sat on a mountain bike. The weight distribution is rational and functional. The upright riding position provides a slight advantage in visibility, too. You can see over most cages and most cagers will see you, too. Since your feet are under you, strong deceleration doesn't feel like you are being launched over the bars or sliding over the tank and that gives you confidence to put more power into stopping.

The MSF Basic and ERC classes shoot for a 20' or less stopping distance with an entrance speed of about 15mph. (20feet/second). I think that's a worthwhile goal. If your stopping distance is in that territory, you are riding a motorcycle that you might be able to stop in an emergency. If you can't squeeze your braking into that space, when your speed gets up to highway velocity you're going to be counting on magic for your survival.

MMM May 2012

May 4, 2015

#107 Too Big, Too Small, Just Right?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

During a test ride last fall, I decided to compare bike butt sizes. You know what I mean. To answer the age-old biker question, "Does this bike make my butt look big?" I had, in my garage, a trio of dramatically different street bikes. Two that I loved and one that I didn't like so much.

There are a variety of reasons for picking a motorcycle. The older I get, the more limited my options become. As much as I love modern MX and DP bikes, I can't get my arthritic legs over the 36" and greater seat heights. I love 'em, but I can't ride 'em.

Or, at least, I can't get on and off of them safely.


Likewise, the low seat height of most hippobikes could be attractive, but riding in that straddle-legged, feet-forward position is too painful to describe without going all Eric Cartman on my gentle readers. The three motorcycles that co-existed in my garage for a few days span the range of what I can ride comfortably, dimension-wise: the Honda VT1300, my Suzuki 650 V-Strom, and my Yamaha WR250X (at the very back). The picture at left gives you a butt's-eye view of the difference between seat height on those bikes: 26.8" (VT1300), 32.3" (V-Strom), & 35.2" (WR250X). Seated, there is almost a whole foot of difference between the seat height of the WR and the VT.

Size-wise, there is weight and there is length to consider. Size is a big deal, in my opinion, and the VT1300 is flat-out huge with a 70.3" wheelbase (101" total length) and 712 pounds wet while the V-Strom is mid-weight at 434 pounds wet and a 60.6" wheelbase and the WR is downright diminutive at 56" and 298 pounds soaking wet. In the pork dimension, the VT1300 makes the other two motorcycles look bicycle-like. The bars, tank, seat, and saddlebag profile of the big Honda is as contraindicated for lane-splitting as a Ford E150 pickup. It's hard enough to share a lane with another VT, but sharing a lane with a full sized cage is out of the question. The other two motorcycles are lightweight and maneuverable enough to effectively commute in heavy traffic and to negotiate the quick maneuvers necessary to survive modern traffic situations.

Yeah, I'm biased. Deal with it. I don't know how else to ride a motorcycle. If a bike can't go where I want to go, why would I ride it? If I'm just as comfortable and capable in my crappy Escort Wagon, I'd rather be in the wagon with a heating system, decent surround sound audio system, and room for all of my stuff and two or three other adults. At the dead minimum, the roads I want to travel on my motorcycle require a decent suspension. The VT1300 has 5" of squishy, imprecise suspension and it is not only ungainly but uncomfortable on rough roads. That puts a damper on my interest in that kind of motorcycle.

Power-wise, what you give up in flexibility in the VT, you do not get back in power. The VT1300CT's rear wheel power delivery is a paltry 56hp. The V-Strom dyno's at about 56hp and the little WR puts out about 28 rear-wheel horsies. When you need to change speeds quickly, the VT is not much better at acceleration than the WR and the V-Strom is a world quicker than the big cruiser. Acceleration is all about power vs. mass and the more mass you're hauling, the slower you're going to go. All that goes a long ways in explaining why I am having less fun on a bicycle in my dotage, too.

It seems to me that the purpose of garage candy is to be seen riding, rather than to be riding. Since I'm inclined to go places where there aren't any other people, the "being seen" purpose is lost on me. If you can see me, I'm not far enough away, yet. I have a habit of riding my motorcycles anywhere I'd take a horse, if I rode a horse. Both of my bikes have bashplates because of that tendency. The picture at left illustrates why I spend most of my riding time on the WR250X and why the VT1300 would be unlikely to survive a weekend of actual motorcycling. The VT's ground clearance is a speed-bump smacking 5" (unloaded) and that design feature rears its head every time you try to turn sharply. The high price for that low 26.7" seat height is a motorcycle that is more inhibited than an Amish carriage on a NASCAR track. Riding the VT1300 constantly reminds me of being all dressed up with no place to go. No suspension and no ground clearance is the motorcycling equivalent of being wounded and blind. You can't look around because when you do all you see are places you can't go.

So, from the Goldilocks perspective it's probably obvious which bike was the papa bike--too big, too soft, and too clumsy for anything I want to do on a motorcycle--the Honda VT1300CX. Honestly, except for low density urban cruising, I don't think a bike like the VT is safe, let alone fun, in many riding situations. It is absolutely no fun to commute in heavy traffic on an 800 pound, 8 1/2' long motorcycle. The VT1300 is a two-wheeled car without the advantages of a car or a motorcycle. The bulk, cumbersome relationship between the controls and riding posture, and weight distribution all add up to too much motorcycle for me and about 99% of the people I see riding this kind of motorcycle.

The momma bike, the V-Strom 650 is just right for long distance hauls, especially with the Sargent seat upgrade. 434 pounds is not insignificant, but even a fat old dude like me can wheel it around and through slow moving traffic. Where it is legal, I do not hesitate to split lanes on the V-Strom. The 32" seat height is a problem for some riders, but I have a 29" inseam and I've lived with my V-Strom for 60k miles without the height being an issue. Sitting up almost a foot above the VT1300 puts me where I can see over and around a lot of traffic, which is a safety advantage. The "standard" footpeg/handlebar/seat design allows for aggressive braking and steering and a more natural posture, which is a big deal for long distance riding and safe commuting.

Depending on what you're planning on doing, the V-Strom is damn close to "just right." The baby bike, the Yamaha WR250X, might be as far from "perfect" as the Honda for a lot of riders. The 35" seat height is a hard bar to cross. The upright seating position, the quick steering, precise braking evenly balanced weight distribution (including the rider's weight) demands less from a rider than you might expect. Many of the complaints I've heard about motorcycles this small and lightweight are more directed at tires. With modern, sticky street tires, a bike with low weight and relatively wide tires will stick to the road, resist wind turbulence, and handle suspiciously like a larger, heavier motorcycle from 20 years ago. The WR's 28hp will haul my 200+ pounds at 70mph all day and will pass at speeds around 85mph on flat ground. It's not a race bike, but it is a pretty damn good commuter and its surprisingly fun on a 2,000 mile tour.

A friend, who is considering getting a motorcycle, told me he had to have a cruiser because he looks ridiculous on smaller bikes. Dude, a fat guy on a cruiser looks no sillier than that same chunk of meat on a scooter. It's not the bike that makes your butt look big, it's the big butt that does you in. The fact is, the skinny WR does make my butt look big. The V-Strom is probably "just right," appearance-wise. The VT just makes me look like a poser with an oversized garage candy budget. Think about it.

MMM April 2012

Apr 27, 2015

#106 Geezertude

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

I just got back from the Progressive International Motorcycle Show. Seven weeks away from my hip surgery and I managed to put in 2.5 miles at the show and between the Convention Center and the rest of my day. That is a low mileage day, I know, but it's not bad considering that about fifty days ago a guy in a white mask cut off my leg and nailed a titanium railroad spike in the hole. Considering that my left leg felt like it weighed hundreds of pounds six weeks ago, it's amazing that I can walk at all, let along take more than 6,500 steps and climb 11 flights of stairs. (Yeah, I'm anal. I wear a Fitbit thingy that tells me how much harder I should worked each day.)

I ran into MMM publishers, Victory and Tammy Wanchena, at the show. Victor had to remind me that a hip replacement is pretty much a geezerly credential. Athletes have knee replacements. Old farts have hip replacements. He's right. Between 200,000 and 300,000 hip replacements are done in the US every year. Only about 10% were patients younger than 50. Mostly, that's because docs advise patients to put off hip replacements as long as possible because "the limited life expectancy of the prostheses" and the relatively long and painful post-surgery recovery period.

Creepy, don't you think? Me too.

I found at least one prediction that US hip replacements will rise to 600,000 by 2015. There could be one coming to your town any day now. At about $50,000 per replacement, hips ought to wipe out Medicare alone. On the other hand, about 300,000 knees are replaced every year, just in the US. About 70% of those are geezer (over 65) surgeries. Knees are even more expensive.

The upside is that most (65%) hip replacements last at least 25 years. My upside is that I'm in less pain today than I was on December 13th, the day before my surgery. When I got back from the bike show, I made my first attempt to get on the WR250X. I didn't try to get on to a single bike, even the handicap-enabled hippobikes, at the bike show. If I was going to fall on my ass, get stuck halfway between on the bike or on the floor, or end up buried under a motorcycle, I wanted it to happen privately. When I tried to swing a leg over the WR's tall seat, I half-expected to be disappointed. I was not. Painlessly and fairly smoothly, I found myself sitting on the seat, comfortably. Damn. I don't know if it ever felt so good to be on a motorcycle seat.

Two months ago, I worried that I was making a choice between walking or riding. Walking is nice, but riding is something I live to do. Not just motorcycles, but all things two-wheeled. I enjoy riding my bicycle almost as much as my motorcycles. Almost. If the choice had been clearly "walk or ride," I might have given up walking. My surgeon kept telling me, "You'll be able to do what you want to do." I decided to trust that very non-specific statement and it looks like he wasn't whitewashing the pig (me).

My wife reminds me, regularly, that this should teach me something about being positive.

A week into "recovery" and I was convinced I'd ruined my life, that I would be lame for the rest of my life. I was miserable. My usually sunny outlook was darker than a black hole. [Yeah, I know. I couldn't buy a sunny outlook with Warren Buffett's money.] I was walking, slowly and carefully, from the kitchen to the living room; for exercise. I couldn't put on my own socks or shoes, find a comfortable position for sleep, or think half-clearly on my morphine-laced meds. A week later, I was dragging my ass to the malls and struggling to knock out a half-mile in an hour. A week later, my wife and I walked about 1/2 way around Lake Como. That week, I crawled on to my wife's stationary bicycle and managed to put in ten minutes before running out of steam. Week four, I walked a mile for the first two days, a mile and a half the next, and by Saturday, I was covering two miles a day.By the end of the week, I was pedaling the stationary bike for thirty minutes and that has been my minimum routine since. The big benchmark in week five was tying the laces of my hiking boots. Week six, I could put on my shoes without a long shoe horn.

Now, at seven weeks out, I'm walking 2 1/2 to 4 miles a day, doing a half-hour of therapy, pedaling a stationary bike for a half-hour, and working on increasing my flexibility. I got on the bike today, but I'm not strong enough to ride safely, I couldn't pick up the 250 if I dropped it in the garage. I'm working on that. I'm almost as strong as I was before the surgery, which was a pretty poor benchmark.

Every day is a step closer to getting back to being me. I'm on the edge of being able to imitate a sunny outlook. For the first time in years, I expect to be in less pain and more mobile in a couple of months. Come May, I will be back in the saddle.

Ride safe, ride hard, and "rage against the dying of the light."

MMM Spring 2012

Apr 22, 2015

Catching Up

One of the features of being retired is that I don't have to carry a cell phone, answer my voicemail until I'm good and ready to hear whatever bad news has been lurking on the machine for the past week, or check up on the comments on my blogs until I've had at least two cups of coffee and a donut. I get that some people think I'm giving up on a lot of my old "life" because they are right. I was tethered to a cell phone for 20 years, on-call in two industries and with four different companies and if I never have to answer another phone call it wouldn't bother me at all. We lived with an interstate practically in our backyard for almost 20 years, I don't miss the noise or the traffic and, surprisingly, I don't miss the immediate access to the Cities. I have absolutely left that life behind.

What I haven't (yet) left behind are the good relationships from 53+ years of work. I stay in contact with many of my old friends (especially the ones still alive) and we're living a lot more social life in Red Wing than we had for the last few years in the Cities. I've even recorded two CDs in the last month; one for Southeast Technical College and one for a local songwriter. I'm working regularly for a local performance theater and doing a little work for two other facilities. I got involved in the Red Wing Red Hot Hack! last month and was even part of a group that developed some interesting tourism software.

Motorcycling in southeastern Minnesota is exceptional, but we've been so overwhelmed with our new home and the work (we think) that is required to make it our place that I've barely broken 200 miles so far this year. Last year about this time, I'd ridden the 250 7,500 miles or more during the same period. My first MSF class is this weekend and it's going to be chilly. I gotta get out in the next couple of days and put in a little practice time.

My old MMM editor, Sev Pearman, sent me this link with some points of disagreement with the author: NoiseOFF -Motorcycle Noise Pollution . We had to agree to disagree. I didn't find a single statement off base. I'd like to hear your opinions.

Apr 20, 2015

#105 You Can't Ride Forever

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

I have officially reached the point in life where I can look back at a lot more things I’ve done than I’m likely to do for the rest of my life. For me, the identifying factor in making that measure has been arthritis. Both of my hips are trashed, bone-on-bone and little chunks of debris spitting out the sides of both hips and an “osteoarthritis” diagnosis from both my regular doctor and an orthopedic surgeon.

For the last year, I’ve been avoiding the surgeon and trying to slip past that nasty bit of personal history with physical therapy. If the definition of “it’s working” is that I’m still mobile and working, it’s working. If the definition is being pain-free (or even mildly inconvenienced by pain) and able to be as active as I expect myself to be, it’s not working at all. So, I’m looking at a total hip replacement this winter, followed by weeks of pain and disability and months of rehab. If that isn’t a marker for being “old,” I don’t want to hear about the next step.

While wrestling with the surgery decision, I’ve been carefully comparing the best post-surgery case to my current physical status. There are things that I can do now that I may not be able to do after surgery. There are things that I can’t do now that I could do a year ago. Currently, I don’t do anything with my legs that doesn’t involve pain. So, while I’m arguing with myself my wife chips in, “If the big part of the decision is whether you can ride your motorcycle after surgery, you know you can’t ride forever.”

No, I don’t know that. Ok, I do. I understand that I'm not going to live forever; nothing and no one does. But I don't concede that I won't be able to ride for nearly all of my life. Not yet. I'm not even willing to concede that decision is in my near future.

I’ve taught Experienced Rider students who were seventy and even eighty-years-old. I’ve worked with MSF instructors who are almost a decade older than me. I plan to be one of those guys ten years from now. My father-in-law, Bob, is 93 and he gets around easier, faster, and more gracefully than me. If I’m going to have a chunk of bone (the femoral head) sawed off of my leg and a six-inch chunk of titanium inserted in the hole, I expect to be at least as mobile as a 93-year-old man as a result. If that’s too much to ask, I can live with the pain for a few more years. Like, until I’m 93.

Pain is a relative thing. You think you can’t stand any more until you get more. Then, your old reference is replaced with a new one. Literally, it is replaced. A few years back, I crashed and separated my left shoulder, cracked some ribs on my right side, and broke the metacarpal forefinger bone on the forefinger of my right hand. I’ve enjoyed at least two of those injuries in the past, individually, and thought they were almost beyond tolerating. When I broke several ribs in an off-road crash in 1978, I thought the world was ending. I was out of work for several weeks and hobbled for three months.

When I separated a shoulder and broke my collarbone in an off-road bicycle crash in 1988, I sold the family’s beloved VW camper because I couldn’t manage the unpowered steering or the shifter. When I jammed (and fractured) that very same finger on my left hand in a basketball game in 1991, I was unable to use my left hand for much of anything that required strength.

When I revisited all of those injuries together, I turned my bike around and rode it 400 miles back to Dawson and “fixed” everything in a boiling-hot bathtub, a ten yards of Ace bandages, and a bucket of Aspercream™. I didn’t know the ribs were damaged for several hundred miles until my shoulder pain dropped below the rib threshold. Other than not being able to hold a fork with my right hand, I barely noticed the hand injury for almost a week and 2,000 miles when I stopped at a clinic in Valdez for X-rays and discovered my hand was healing almost perfectly. What I learned from that is that big pain overwhelms less-big pain. I half-suspect that smashing my big toe would solve my hip problems for at least a couple of days.

If this column runs in the Winter issue, by the time you hear from me again we’ll all know if I’m right; or that my wife wins another argument. Or we’ll learn that I’m a total wimp and limped away from the surgeon’s knife like the gutless cowboy I am. I can always smash a toe every morning and distract attention from that damned hip.

MMM Winter 2011

Apr 13, 2015

#104 "You Are A Motorcycle Bigot"

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

For the hundredth time in our acquaintance-ship, the dude called me a "bigot" because of my general dislike of the cruiser class of motorcycles. I get this charge from a couple of folks and a fair number of readers. They think the accusation is a major blow to my credibility as a motorcyclist and a writer and a person. I think they are somewhere between goofy and overstuffed with themselves.

For starters, bigotry is no small thing. It's a word with meaning, history, and authority. Webster's defines a bigot as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance." In respect to motorcycles, my first thought is, "Get over yourselves."

Nothing about disliking a particular type of machine is anywhere near as despicable as racial hatred or intolerance. An overweight, barely mobile, noisy, awkward, and gaudy motorcycle design is still merely a silly toy. I'm not even disliking a means of transportation, just a style. In general, I don't like bagpipes, banjos, women's basketball, hillbilly music, hip hop, uncomfortable shoes, liver and onions, cancer and heart disease, or the sociopathic institution of "incorporation." In specific, there are some instances of each of those (except cancer, heart disease, and corporations) that I can tolerate in small doses. Except for three exceptions, I don't hate any of that list.

However, taking the accusation half-seriously I thought about comparing the typical cruiser to the description of a person, using the word's definition. What I came up with is someone who is grossly overweight, stubby-legged, physically incapacitated to the point of presenting a hazard to himself and anyone nearby, wealthy (or expensive, if a dependent) and high maintenance, noisy and constantly trying to draw attention to himself, and who dresses like one of those characters at the Renaissance Festival. Shakespeare's Falstaff is exactly my mental image of a cruiser-as-a-person. Falstaff may be the kind of guy you want to hang out with in a bar, but he'd be a lousy choice of partner in a bar fight. If you don't need intellectual challenge, Falstaff might be an entertaining conversationalist, but not in a library or hospital corridor where his noise, bluster, and stupidity would piss off anyone with an IQ over moronic. As a whole, Falstaff is exactly the kind of person I try to avoid under all circumstances. You'll notice there is no color or ethnic component to my description. I don't buy that avoiding this character qualifies as bigotry. I'd call it "discretion."

However, cruisers are not animate objects and are unworthy of hatred; any more than banjos are truly despicable or heart disease and JPMorgan Chase deserve to survive into the next decade. I can't generate anything near hatred toward any kind of motorcycle. What I do dislike the most about the run-of-the-mill cruiser is that they violate my esthetic sense. Like Falstaff, they are not pretty. Since I'm stuck with a personality that requires form to follow function, the lack of function in cruiser-form is just ugly.

If you're honest, you'll have to admit that I'm not obstinate in my objection to the cruiser style. I've ridden a couple dozen of the genre over the last two decades and I'm always open to the hope that "this one is different." So far, I've been disappointed. The least disappointing of the bunch was the H-D Sportster Sport, but grinding the right-side pipe exiting the Denver dealer's parking lot as I merged into Colfax Avenue traffic didn't raise that bar very high.

Not being a roadracer, there have been a few sportbikes that disinterest me as much as cruisers. Since my mid-fifties, I can't twist myself into that riding position for more than a few minutes without permanent injury. The only cycle style I haven't tried out has been trikes and I gave them up when I graduated to bicycles in 1954. My Hoveround® days will arrive soon enough, I don't need to accelerate the decline.

I have always felt the only real defense I have in traffic on a motorcycle is maneuverability. That's it. If I am not able to change or split lanes quickly, stop or swerve, see over and around other vehicles, or abandon the lanes of traffic and head for a ditch or someone's lawn, I feel naked and exposed on a motorcycle. The only part of motorcycling on the street that approaches a "sport" is the part the motorcycle plays.

Cruisers don't have the ground clearance necessary to pretend to be athletic. Their weight and weight-distribution, width and length, silly handlebar shapes and irrational foot-peg placement, and parts placement are the antithesis of "athletic." That blubbering potato-potato noise sounds practically asthmatic. The louder it is, the more injured it sounds. My term for that design, "hippobike," comes from watching the things wallow through corners. It's almost painful to watch those crippled machines attempt to escape from a stop light before they are run over by the distracted or irritated SUV drivers behind them.

So, while you may call wanting to avoid a noisy, dangerous, cowardly, clumsy, fat man a prejudice, I don't buy it. You can tell yourself that my dislike for overweight, lumbering, badly designed, noisy motorcycles is bigoted, but the reaction you're going to get from me is a chuckle and a little more social distance. If you can't pick your friends any better than that, you are already used to disappointment. If those are the characteristics you look for in a motorcycle, you're "crusin' for a bruisin'."

MMM October 2011

Apr 6, 2015

#103 Magura Levers and Preston Petty Fenders

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

Every year that I have taught MSF classes I’ve spent a good portion of at least a few BRCs cobbling together a lever out of busted pieces of Japanese aluminum. Beginning riders crash, they break stuff, the stuff they break most often are brake and clutch levers.

For my own replacements, I try to never, ever buy a factory Japanese lever. They don’t bend, they break. Always.

Almost any kind of alternative lever will be more indestructible and more reusable than the aluminum-powder crap that the Big Four dumps on their customers. Twenty-five years ago, that was the rule for brake and clutch levers and shifters, regardless of where they came from; England, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the US. All crap. The slightest impact and the levers snapped like pencils. For that matter, so did the bars. Today, nothing has changed.

Back in the bad old days pretty much every brand of lever was as fragile as factory metal, except a Spanish company called Magura. Magura made slightly more expensive levers that could be bent, straightened, bent again, and straightened over and over. It wasn’t that they were easier to bend, either. They were tough and repairable. For some of us who had wrestled with the problem of carrying a half-dozen levers in the toolbox, Magura levers were freakin’ magic parts. Once Magura came out with a replacement lever for the bike of the season, that problem was solved indefinitely.

Sometime in the early-70s Magura upped the ante by introducing “dog-leg levers.” Today, practically every bike lever sold is a copy of those 70's Magura parts. However, the levers pawned off on ignorant consumers by the major manufacturers only copied the shape. The reliability and strength of the original design got lost on the drawing board or on the manufacturing floor. Magura still makes really cool bicycle and vintage motorcycle replacement parts. Our loss. My last trials bike had a pair of Magura bicycle levers in place of the junk Yamaha had installed. I crashed that TY350 a few hundred times and the levers were still in like-new shape when the new owner picked up the bike and trailered it away.

A common gripe among sportbikers is the expense of replacing fragile plastic. “Drop a sportbike, spend a few thousand,” is the sequence we’ve all experienced. Even a slow spill in the garage can cost a month’s wage in repair parts, most of them plastic. Forty years ago, all factory fenders were metal and they were fragile and often replaced. Europe started using fiberglass bodywork, but that was only a cosmetic “improvement.” Parts still broke easily and replacement parts were no better than the OEM bits.

A west coast desert racer, Preston Petty, designed a line of ABS plastic parts that was guaranteed to be “unbreakable” and, under most circumstances, they were close to indestructible. Petty branched out to fuel tanks and other body parts and, for a lot of years, you could find a Preston Petty parts section in most shops that catered to dirt bikers.

My experience with Petty’s fenders varied a little from the indestructible reputation. Every spring my one-man bike dealership would ship a box of fender pieces for warranty replacement. After three years of this routine, I got a call from the company asking what my customers were doing when they broke the fenders. When I told them we were motocrossing in near-zero-Fahrenheit weather, they weren’t amused. It’s the truth, though. We’d crash and the fenders would break like glass. On ice and snow, we crashed a lot and we broke a lot of fenders every winter. I never broke a one between March and November, though.

I’ve been a big fan of ABS plastic stuff ever since. Maybe not for Minnesota winters, but it’s great stuff the rest of the year. Rustproof, durable, light, when it’s scratched it doesn’t show because the color is injected into the plastic, and it’s even weld-able so you can repair it or modify it, it’s the perfect motorcycle body material. Apparently, ABS is expensive. The street bike parts from the major motorcycle manufacturers has little of the qualities that made Preston Petty’s fenders so durable, except for the rustproof-ness. The only reason I can imagine they use this crap plastic is because it is cheap. Obviously, it’s no skin off their noses if we have to cough up thousands for replacement parts as long as we have no alternative sources for the parts we buy.

Acerbis has taken up the slack for dirt bikes and their parts are tough. I haven’t raced or crashed on the ice in more than twenty-five years, so I don’t know if their parts hold up at low temperatures. I’m curious, though. I have used Acerbis tanks, fenders, lighting, and all of that stuff has survived my abuse. It looks good, too.

Whenever someone tries to tell me that the major manufacturers are doing me a favor by building great bikes, I remember Preston Petty and Magura. When the majors couldn’t figure out how to do a job right, someone does it for them, turns it into an industry, and forces the big guys to do their job. Without all of those pioneer privateer bike part designers, we’d still be riding bikes with crap suspensions, fragile body parts, boring cosmetics, and poor performance. I don’t feel any need to thank Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, or any other manufacturer for today’s motorcycles, but I do want to thank Preston Petty, Magura, and the other great designers and motorcycle fanatics for polishing the big company turds into the wonderful motorcycles we ride today.

MMM September 2011

Mar 30, 2015

#102 Turning Corners

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

Regardless of the manipulation of political hacks and word spinners, words have meaning with historic context and those meanings, thanks to dictionary publishers, don't change with the breeze. I'm a big fan of a couple of words that have been abused for the last 30 years; "conservative" and "liberal." I use them all the time and I try to remember the actual definitions of those words to remind my listeners, sympathetic and otherwise, that I'm sticking with the historic definitions regardless of what idiocy the media is farting at us this week.

If, for instance, I suggest that your cornering style is "conservative," I mean "one who is marked by moderation or caution . . .a cautious or discrete person."1 If I compliment your "liberal" application of throttle in a difficult section of road, I mean "generous." If you make up your facts from whole cloth without knowledge of history or human nature, you could be a pseudo-liberal or a pseudo-conservative and I'm completely uninterested in your opinions. And so on, as the "liberal" writer Kurt Vonnegut once ended many paragraphs in at least one book.

One of the advantages to getting old is that you are risking less every year that passes. The idea that aging and conservatism go together bugs the snot out of me. All of the 60's "liberals" I know who "turned conservative" in middle age were as disconnected and disengaged as kids as they are as geezers. They didn't change so much as continue on the same path to nowhere. I turned 63 in July. That's not ancient, I'll admit, but it's more than twice as long as I expected to live. In many ways, I feel more bulletproof today than I did when I was 30. About a decade ago, I turned a corner on having dependents who counted on me for their survival. My wife requires my existence less every passing year, since her dependant list has shrunk along with my own. I have never been afraid of dying, but I've always been worried about getting hurt. One "advantage" of getting old is that I hurt all the time so I'm becoming a lot less sensitive to pain as I decay. That is a surprise. I am, however, continuing on the same personal path as as I started.

A friend and constant source of insight into all things, Martin Belair, was explaining his theory on why motorcycling events are losing their audience and participants. Outside of "everything is economics," he ascribed much of the vanishing sport to a increasing American aversion to risk. "We don't take chances anymore. We're afraid to get hurt." Martin, an ex-US trials champ, described telling his daughter that she could forget about riding a scooter on the street. "Too much risk." That was an interesting limitation, considering the source.

Risk is part of any worthwhile activity and a necessary part of growth, cultural and personal. If you're so afraid of getting hurt that you never venture outside of your comfort zone, you'll find yourself living in a shrinking comfort zone. If you're not pushing against the walls, the walls will close in on you.

A while back, I got tangled up in a discussion with a kid about motocross. I raced, a long, long time ago, and he talked about racing as if he knew something about it, until he started talking about stunting during races. Pretty quickly, I realized that he was talking about playing a motocross video game and he had deluded himself into believing there was a connection between the real thing and twiddling your thumbs in front of a television. I extracted myself from the conversation and decided to never again talk about motorcycles with anyone under 21. Apparently, some of those squirrels can't tell virtual from real world experiences. Later, a young friend tried to equate Guitar Hero with playing a real guitar or other real games; like basketball or even non-virtual golf. Conversations like that make me fear for my grandson's generation's mental and physical health. Get this straight, wiggling a control bar and pushing five buttons is not playing guitar and twiddling your thumbs while watching interactive television is not racing a motorcycle. Those activities barely qualify as activities, let alone an interesting skill, and they are in no way "sport."

A few weeks after the virtual-vs-reality conversations, I found myself at a cornering seminar at the Dakota County Technical College's drivers' range. A friend loaned me his DRZ400 Supermotard for a few laps and after a while my knees were coming close to the track in the tighter corners. In my last lap around the course, I managed to take one corner particularly well, for me, and I noticed that I could have touched the ground with a hand without much of a stretch. Spontaneously and totally out of context to anything I was thinking at the moment, I shouted "f--k video games" when the Suzuki popped out of the corner and lifted the front wheel a little on the exit.

I guess we've turned a corner, as a country. Coming across the ocean, or floating down a big river, to get to America was once a major risk. If you came willingly, out of necessity, or in slavery, you were at risk of losing everything, including your life. Now, immigrants expect to have welfare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, health care, and public education benefits from the moment they cross the border. Some argue that immigration is the lifeblood of the "American spirit." I think a willingness to take risks is more important. If we become a conservative nation, we're not going to be very interesting and the Brave New World will happen, regardless of how cowardly we behave.

MMM August 2011 1 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary