Dec 30, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, we were looking for quotes on windows for our new house and one of the salesmen turned out to be that kid's brother. It wasn't the experience you might have expected. Apparently, he helped pick out her Kawasaki 250R, hoping the superior brakes and mild engine might help keep her alive. She, of course, wanted a R6 or a 650, but he managed to damp that insanity at the dealership. He, however, absolutely disagreed with his mother that his sister had any business on a motorcycle. She was a train wreak in a car, on a bicycle, and on foot and was convinced that the laws of physics did not apply to her superior being. He, on the other hand, was on his way to Iraq and didn't have a lot of leverage.
It was a really uncomfortable conversation for me. My feeling for her family and for her created a sad mix of Darwinism and sympathy. Motorcycles, regardless of the stupid crap the MSF/MIC wildly hope, are not for everyone. It's one thing to buy one and a whole different thing to ride one well enough to survive traffic.
Dec 29, 2014
Late in the summer of 2008, I rode to Nova Scotia. It was my first trip, on any vehicle, east. In 60 years as an American, other than some business flights to New York in the 70's that only allowed a view inside a factory, the only "east" I'd seen was Florida and Ohio; and the points in-between here and Ohio. On this trip, I looped the Great Lakes, out on the Canadian side and back on the US.
Altogether, I put on about 5900 miles in 20 days, including a 4 day semi-stationary interlude in Nova Scotia with my wife. I also hung out with friends in New York and friends in Cleveland for two days each. It wasn't a mile-pounding trip, like the previous year's trip to Alaska. Counting the days off, I averaged about 295 miles a day.
However, the days off were the days that meant the most in many of my memories of the trip. As time dillutes the memories of back-roads in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and the grand views of Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail, the stationary moments take on even more meaning. This is probably just me, your mileage differs, I expect.
It is the people I met, the places I savored, and the things I learned about the places I traveled that stick with me. The pure mile-covering fact that I rode somewhere, met some people, and burned their fuel will wither away into faint recollections. At one that summer, I almost canned the whole idea of riding across the northeastern portion of our continent on my 650 and replaced it with a North Dakota tour on my my 250. I hadn't yet worked out the 250's fuel capacity problems or the more "pressing" seat design, so that option never really gained traction. However, carrying minimal gear and really exploring a place foreign to me has an even stronger appeal after my second long tour. A year earlier, I did a bit more than 10,000 miles in 26 days. in 2008, 5900 in 20.
Before that, my longest motorcycle trips were 4,000 miles in ten days and a collection of 1,000-2,500 mile trips in five to ten days. It's a luxury to have 30 days to play around with. I'm lucky to have stumbled into this point in my life when I can gamble with security and time and still have some sort of employment to come home to at the end of the trip. I gave up a lot of money for this flexibility, but it was worth the tradeoff. In fact, I wouldn't consider returning to the corporate life for any amount of money.
Ok, that's sort of a lie. If I were offered the kind of cash that would require a short commitment to provide security for the rest of my life, I'd probably sell out, again. I am an American, after all.
All my life, I've known that "money is time," not the reverse. Before committing to my current life, it was only a theory that I desperately wanted to believe. Now I know that people who believe that "time is money" are boring types who desperately need a hobby or three. Anyone who thinks money has value outside of the time it can buy for adventures, time with friends and family, and time to relax and enjoy life is someone I don't want to waste my time on. A pile of money is a poor exchange for life. I have way too many hobbies and way too little time. Most likely I will never have much money, but I can always remember what I did with the time my money bought me. I have no good memories of actually earning that money.
Traveling at even the modest pace of 300 miles a day doesn't leave much time to meet people, learn about local history, see the important attractions, and absorb a little of the culture. If you're on the gas, averaging 50mph, you're barely slowing down to see the landmarks if you're on the road 6-8 hours a day. You aren't spending enough time anywhere to have a decent conversation, let alone get to know anyone. The difference between traveling by cage vs. a motorcycle is as dramatic as covering miles vs. taking time to get to know a place. I think there is a place for both. Before I'd taken my first trip west, I didn't have any idea what I might like out there. Once I'd made my first tour of the western states, I began to get an idea of what I wanted to see more of. The same went for traveling east. None of the eastern cities have any draw for me, but that's mostly true for cities as a group. Having traveled through a fair bit of the east, I found a lot to like about parts of New York and most of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Quebec, and all of Nova Scotia. So, I want to go back and see more of those places someday soon.
In 2009, I made my first trip "back" after the original exploration trip. To and from Alaska, I blasted through a good bit of North Dakota. I liked a lot of what I saw there and decided to do it again a lot slower. Friends told me, "You're gonna hate North Dakota." But they were wrong.
North Dakota is not Kansas, although a big chunk of the northeast section of the state is at least as boring and industrial. Industrial farming has not made a total conquest of North Dakota, owing to the rugged topology of the west and general lack of water resources to violate for the God of Corn. The southeastern corner of the state has its share of corporate farming, but it also has the Sheyenne River Valley. The collection of state roads that make up the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway are among the coolest, most interesting roads I've ever traveled. Due to technical problems with my intended ride on this trip, my 250 Kawasaki Super Sherpa, I didn't spend as much time on the Sheyenne trail as I'd intended. That gives me a wonderful excuse to go back and do it all again. I didn't cover nearly as much of the southwestern corner of North Dakota as I'd planned, which leaves me another opportunity. I can't imagine spending too much time in Teddy Roosevelt's namesake national park. I hit most of the historical sites in Bismarck, but that city has a music scene that I didn't slow down long enough to experience. I chose exploring the Canadian boarder over the North Dakota/Minnesota boarder, so I'm still a stranger to Grand Forks and I've barely skirted Fargo.
The parts of Alaska and Canada that I skipped over the first time, California and Oregon's northeastern mountain towns, and all of the southeastern portion of the United States are still on my list of places-to-go, but it's nice to have a collection of targets within easy reach. If you can't travel far, travel slow and near and poke a hole in your comfort zone the easy way. If I'd have listened to advice about North Dakota, I'd might never be able to say I have ridden a Vincent, enjoyed a three-hour pre-Columbian-to-Custer history lesson from Mandan historian, cruised a motorcycle through a herd of buffalo, or spent a night in the over-grown town park of a completely abandoned town. All stories that hold as much meaning to me as remembering the rides to Alaska and Nova Scotia.
Dec 22, 2014
“Everyday is the first day of the rest of your life,” right? I’ve heard that phrase for so long I’m not sure when it first popped into popular culture. Being the glass-half-empty kind of guy I am, I’ve had more of an “everyday gets you one step closer to the end” perspective for most of my 66 years. But this could be the start of something really new and different.
For the first time in my life, I have an actual office with a door and a bit of acoustic isolation and enough privacy to think about writing a lot. In other words, all of my excuses for not writing are gone. It’s not a perfect world, because my wife is about 60% hearing impaired. So, unless I’m up and writing at 5AM I am cursed to need background music to mask the blaring sound of television coming through the floor and HVAC vents. That’s not much of a hardship, though. I have a large music collection and Pandora fills in the blank spaces. The office also houses the remainder of my recording studio gear, so the sound quality is excellent although the room acoustics aren’t up to my old studio’s standards. Still, I’m not complaining.
This morning, I knocked out two Geezer column submissions (for MMM and the new Rider’s Digest) and added 1500 words to a book I’ve been putting off for years. Today is the first day this new office was fully furnished, organized, cleaned up, and property lit. Could be the start of something brand new for me?
[When I was still looking for a "career," I made a couple of my Geezer rants into video productions. This was one of them and my brilliant grandson, Wolfgang, animated a short section of the video. It might still be out there in YouTube land.]
The weekend before this year's Ride to Work Day, I enjoyed lunch with Andy Goldfine on a beautiful spring day in Duluth. As usual, we got wrapped up in a discussion about motorcycles. In particular, motorcycle parking, inspired by stuffing three motorcycles into a single parking space near the restaurant. In most cities, putting more than one scrawny motorcycle in a metered space is a serious crime, regardless of the fact that a half-dozen bikes might reasonably fit in that space.
The parking meter turned 70 in 2005. As you might have guessed, it was invented by an evil Oklahoma "genius" named Carl Magee. (I would have guessed his name would be "Magoo," but I was wrong.) The constitutionality of parking meters has been challenged several times with several conflicting conclusions. The economic effect of meters has been successfully challenged by surburban malls all over the country and it is depressing that this evidence has been ignored for more than 50 years. A simple modification of the rules to reflect modern vehicles and to encourage downtown activity is long overdue.
For example, San Francisco and much of California have no bridge tolls for motorcycles during rush hour. Motorcycle parking is permitted on sidewalks in many areas. Multiple bikes in a metered space is permitted. At municipal ramps, motorcycles pay a lower rate than cars. Of course, the state allows filtering and lane-splitting. San Francisco is a famous motorcycle destination and the city enjoys substantial income from motorcycle tourism.
The U.K.'s most congested city, London, is even more liberally inclined toward cycles and scooters. Two-wheeled vehicles are granted free parking city-wide, free access to bus lanes, and receive a pass on the access fee cagers pay to get into the city's center. When public transportation is on strike or downed by terrorists or power grid failures, cyclists of all sorts are the only people still able to freely move about to get the city's business done. In fact, cycles are a critical part of traffic planning in practically every major European and Asian city.
The motivation for parking space law is financial, since parking meters provide an obvious income source for the city. The more spaces they can meter, the more work they generate for themselves, the more "jobs" they create, and the more buildings they need to build to house themselves. With that limited worldview, parking meters make sense. A drive through downtown St. Paul (and most major city downtown areas) after 5PM or on any weekend will demonstrate the flaw in that argument. If you can find any sign of life in the city during those time periods, avoid it. It could be a zombie, vampire, panhandler, or a a lonely, pissed-off metermaid. The only "safe distance" is a long distance.
An alternative parking plan could be one that encourages social and economic activity in the city. All of those empty municipal parking lots and spaces could be used to park vehicles which could be used to transport people and their money near downtown businesses. The more vehicles, the more people and money. Crazy, right? Why would a city try to mimic the tactic that suburban businesses used to draw customers away from cities?
With motorcycles, if more than one vehicle is in a metered space the administrative problem is who gets the ticket when the parking meter expires? If this is the toughest decision a mayor and city manager have to deal with, why are these full-time positions?
The solution is simple. There are two alternatives:
- When several motorcycles are occupying a space with an expired meter, ticket them all. Any moron cheap and lazy enough to depend on "the kindness of strangers" to pay for his parking deserves a $25 parking ticket.
- Ticket the vehicle closest to the meter, equating proximity with responsibility. This would create opportunities for strategic parking tactics adding to the downtown adventure. Sort of like a mini-low-speed theme park attraction, with the participants trying to find ways to legally park within the boundaries of the space and furthest from the meter.
The other problem is limiting the number of vehicles in a space to allow for safe and uncomplicated access and exit of the space. I offer the following suggestions:
- A maximum of four (4) motorcycles, parked with the rear tire against the curb, in a parallel parking space.
- Two (2) motorcycles backed into the space and staggered with sufficient space from the parking lines to allow unrestricted clearance for adjacent vehicle doors and space for movement around the motorcycles for both riders.
While we're at it, I can't think of a good reason why a pair of Smart cars, Suzuki Altos, or Kia Souls can't share a parallel parking space with the same rules that might apply to motorcycles. If they can provide each other with enough room to exit the space, why not? Encouraging efficient small cars would be a benefit to the city and the world. Obviously, a smarter option is to absolve cycles of parking meter obligations altogether. Encouraging the low energy, low real estate usage, high mobility characteristics of two-wheel vehicles is the smart, modern tactic for any city trying to solve congestion and economic problems.
Dec 15, 2014
About 30 years ago, I worked for a small "acquire and mangle" company in Omaha (Sort of a mini-Bain Capital run by three min-Mitt Romneys.). The business plan was to buy companies that made decent products, "turn them around" so that the acquisition company's managers could milk the maximum profit in the minimum time, and sell what was left to the next set of suckers before the cooked books could no longer hide the damage done. One of the companies we bought was owned by a semi-retired engineer who told me "the secret of a successful retirement." He said the trick is to find a product or business that had past its prime, but still had customers with money to spend. For an engineer, the perfect market would be some sort of technology that was approaching obsolescence but still had a core of affluent customers. In that market, a business will have a predictable cash flow and minimal competition and a reasonable business lifetime.
For example, the business my employer bought from this engineer made high voltage coil testing equipment. That product was, and probably still is, in steady demand from transformer and electric motor and generator manufacturers and high-end users, like power plants and heavy machinery. However, building and testing that kind of equipment required manufacturing exposure to extremely dangerous voltage and current. Larger companies tend to shy away from products that occasionally fry assembly workers and customers. So, those constraints resulted in no competition and an exorbitant profit margin. His product was so consistently profitable that even the characters I worked for couldn't screw up the business--and these were some seriously talented MBA-types who normally had no problem busting bowling balls in padded rooms. Two years after I left, they sold that one division to a much larger company for a reasonable profit.
Since that career moment, I've kept my eye open for that kind of product or business. The older I get, the more interested I become in self-employment (especially if I can ever figure out how to avoid doctors and hospitals). I've identified a few of this sort of business opportunity in thirty years since I met that insightful engineer.
One of the first examples that I spotted was practically anything related to high-end bicycles. On a trip to the old Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle Week, I stumbled on a custom bike builder brazing together a titanium frame road bike for a wealthy, overweight (saw his picture), middle-aged wanna-imagine-myself-a-bicycle-racer. This custom bike was going to cost the rich customer $10,000! Yeah, it had top-of-the-line components. True, the paint job was really cool. More importantly, the builder got to spend two months working on one bike and he made a good living doing it.
I picked up a bicycling magazine in that shop and read a three page article about how to blow snot while bicycling; how to use a "farmer's Kleenex" without getting it on your expensive Lycra. I realized that any customer-base dumb enough to need that kind of assistance with what ought to be an animal response is my kind of customers. I've kept bicycle crap in mind, ever since.
If you don't believe me, check out a high end bicycle shop. Look at the $2,000-10,000 bicycles and explain to me how a 22 pound bicycle can cost as much as a liter sportsbike. Better yet, look at bicycle helmets. Those things are as low-tech as a motorcycle faceshield and, yet, a "decent" bicycle helmet can easily set you back $100-250. There is no way a bicycle helmet has even a fraction of the manufacturing/liability costs of a motorcycle helmet, but even with a much larger customer base bicycle helmets' retail price is in the same ballpark. Bicyclists are clearly a total sucker market, but that is so obvious that everybody wants a piece of it and bicycles are unlikely to "approach obsolescence."
More directly in my line of sight has been audiophile products. A company like Mapleshade will give you an idea of how many crazy, over-priced products are possible in that realm. This guy sells a 15" x12" block of maple for $300 and it is intended to be a stand for a power amplifier! Now we're talking about a business aimed at complete whackos. Whackos with $300 to spend on $30 worth of wood. There are so many crazy products in the Mapleshade catalog that I wouldn't know where to begin creating competition for this dude. That's not a bad problem to be stuck with.
Two years ago, at least a couple of sections of the motorcycling market were ripe for this kind of marketeering. The guys who sold $100 billet aluminum foot pegs for cheese-burners, for example. Why do you need a lighter foot peg on an underpowered 800+ pound motorcycle? How many things are wrong with a foot peg shaped like a spike? How about the characters peddling stick-on faux $350 "works" carbon fiber tank covers? Sure, the real "works" riders glue crap to their steel tanks to make them lighter. For the yuppie "adventurer tourist," at least a couple of companies sell spray-on dirt products, one of which is "a bottle of real Shropshire mud" for the owners of dual-purpose bikes that see the same adventurous use as 99.99% of the world's SUVs. You can spray this crap on your $80,000 Range Rover or $125,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, too. Obviously, no sane person would ever take one of those finicky rattletraps off-road. Whether a sane person would buy a Range Rover is another question.
In today's wreaked economy, I'm questioning the viability of some of those products. When 15% of us are out of work and 360,000 of our homes are in foreclosure and 20% of the properties listed for sale are bank-listed, I suspect that hippo-lightening and fake mud is not at the forefront of many consumer's minds. Fluffy, pointless products don't sell in times of depression. So, I'm back to scanning the mid-tech business world for something practical with limited competition, moderate setup-costs, and wealthy customers.
It's just as well, though. I've always suspected that I needed a cool Italian last name or upper-crust British accent to sell audiophile gear. Not many rich guys are silly enough to buy a racing bicycle from a fat guy who clearly couldn't out-petal a Hoveround. There is still the motorcycle market, but I wonder if I could sell that stuff without laughing? It takes a lot of self-control to take advantage of P.T. Barnum's marketing advice, "There's a sucker born every minute" or H.L. Menken's observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Just ask any banker. There's a reason that bankers live with a perpetual scowl, though. You have to make an effort to keep from laughing in the faces of your intended victims.
Dec 12, 2014
I recently stumbled into and out of a classic senile geezer situation, a high pressure, in-my-home sales pitch that, eventually, overwhelmed my resistance and stuck me, temporarily, with a lousy deal. Lucky for me, Minnesota has a 3-day cooling off period that allows consumers to bail out of bad deals after they’ve had a chance to review it. The thing that tripped my investigation trigger was something the salesman said about his company late in his pitch. He mentioned that his employer had been “was the 74th largest remodeling company in the nation and had been selected as one of the top 500 by Qualified Remodeler Magazine.” Having written for a variety of magazines in a variety of industries for 50 years, early the next morning I decided to check out that recommendation. As you might expect, Qualified Remodeler Magazine is an ad-rag containing no actual useful information, no critical reviews, and that magazine’s “recommendations” are purely for hire.
The whole world of media reviews is equally screwed up and, as a result, has about as much credibility as 1950’s used car salesmen. My daughter recently discovered that a book review magazine/website, Kirkus Reviews, charges over $400 to “review” a book. The book reviewing “process” is pretty disgusting and about as cynical as a current Supreme Court decision, “Standard (7-9 weeks) $425.00, Express (4-6 weeks) $575.00.” Once you have the review in hand, “If you choose to publish your review on our website, we will distribute it to our licensees, including Google, BN.com, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.” That’s how book reviews work in the Brave New World of “opinions for hire.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise. At least five members of the highest court in the land made it clear they don’t believe that money and power corrupt. Of course, their personal levels of corruption makes a pretty good argument against that opinion. The Sticky-Fingered Five never met a conflict of interest they couldn’t profit from. Judge Kennedy summed up that level of crazy with his statement,”We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Not only is justice blind, she’s become pretty stupid and really corrupt.
If everything you read is a paid political/commercial announcement, where do you get information you can trust? That’s a tough call, but word-of-mouth is gaining a whole new level of clout. The Better Business Bureau was the first real information I got on my home improvement characters. Since they weren’t BBB “accredited,” there were limits to the information available by that route, but what was there was bad. Organizations like Angie’s List are where lots of consumers go for opinions from their neighbors. So far, the low fee ($10/year) for Angie’s List membership seems like a deal. There are pseudo-sites, like HomeAdvisor, that pretend to be a free version of Angie’s List but they are just paid referral services. In fact, HomeAdvisor.com is how I got hooked up with my latest snake oil salesmen. I’m not sure how much research goes into ensuring that their rules are obeyed, but when you submit a review you do have to pledge, “I confirm that the information contained in this Service Evaluation Form (i) is true and accurate and (ii) represents my actual first-hand experience, or experience which I am authorized to discuss. I acknowledge and understand my responsibilities under the Angie's List Membership Agreement, and that Angie's List is relying upon the accuracy of the information in order to serve other members. I confirm that I do not work for, am not in competition with, and am not in any way related to the service provider in this review.” That, of course, wouldn’t keep a “reviewer for hire” from writing a glowing review of a lousy service, but it would be expensive to try to overwhelm real reviews with that tactic. Likewise, a lot of products are well-covered in Amazon.com’s customer reviews. In fact, a lot of manufacturers, publishers, record labels, and importers use Amazon.com’s reviews as the bulk of their marketing. This pair of customer reviews for the WR250X skid plate from Moose Pro is pretty typical: short, sweet, and informative.
In short, consumers are all in this together, since the forces of media, power, money, and influence are against us. However, we have the numbers, the information outlets, and they won’t be rich if we don’t buy their shit.
Dec 11, 2014
Once again my MMM editor, Guido Ebert, picked an article from my slush pile, “The Trouble with Being the Solution to A Big Problem” for the 2014-2015 Winter issue that I never expected to see in print. If you haven’t seen it, it’s on the stands at your local motorcycle dealer or parts house in the Cities and elsewhere this week. The article explores the answer to the question, "Why would highway planners make any accommodations for a vehicle that contributes less than 0.001% to commuter traffic but 15% of fatalities?" The answer is, even to motorcycle manufacturers, obvious but painful and beyond the average MBA’s ability to find an easy, non-functional, answer. (So far in my meager 66 years I’ve yet to see an MBA provide a useful answer to question. The only people I put lower on my totem pole of respect are politicians and marketing morons.) My editor is a pretty serious motorcycling true believer, so selecting this article from a collection of considerably less agitating essays was a statement. Before one of the guys who subscribes to this list, Paul Young, sent me this article about the catastrophic hit the MSF took in California this month (Is A Sea Change Coming to New-Rider Motorcycle Training?), I was a little confused about Guido’s motivation.
The breaking news is “Total Control Training will take over the CSMP from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) starting January 1, 2015. The class is administered by the California Highway Patrol, and is a major gateway for new riders in the Golden State — roughly 65,000 new motorcyclists take the CSMP each year, at 120 sites.” As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation?
On the closer-to-home front, Wisconsin is diving head-first into the new MSF BRC program and the unintended (I suspect) consequences has been a fair amount of instructor dropout (8 of 12 “passed” the instructor training in a recent class and “several” opted to quit teaching after looking at the course preparation material). A surprising (to me) number of instructors decided the hassle and lack of value-added to learning and teaching the new curriculum was not worth their time and effort. The CHP, apparently, agreed that the MSF program was not providing the impact on motorcycle fatalities expected for the money being spent and has decided to try Lee Park’s Total Control version of the BRC. The world is watching.
Dec 9, 2014
In Road and Track on-line, Chris Cantle wrote about his California experiences splitting lanes, “Lane splitting will change your life, not end it.” He writes, “It's good for everyone: For those comfortable in their cars, the lane splitting motorcycle cruising past is one less vehicle between the front bumper and their destination. You can fit two motorcycles in the footprint of one small car. It's easy math. For the rider, the reward is being nearly impervious to congestion. My fellow lane-splitting riders in Los Angeles and San Francisco will back this up, as they regularly and safely trim hours off of long distance commutes.”
I agree. I miss lane splitting a lot and constantly have to squash the inclination to filter to the front of a line of cars while we’re all waiting for a light to change. It is, in fact, almost the only thing I miss about California. The article uses a UC Berkeley study to remind us “We've long suspected that riding between cars was safer than rolling along in a column at the mercy of the fickle attention span of commuting traffic—that's inherently unsafe, from the perspective of a rider boxed in by heavy, potentially deadly cars and trucks. I'd take my chances clipping a rearview mirror because of my lack of skill over being rear-ended because of someone else's lack of caffeine any day.” If anyone really represented regular motorcyclists, like ABATE or the AMA or RTWD, the big issue would be lane splitting not bullshitting NHTSA about helmet laws or pampering hillbilly sheet metal workers by claiming that loud pipes are anything but noise makers loved by unloved overage brats whose mommies didn’t breast feed.
Dec 8, 2014
In late 1998, I wrote a letter to MMM titled "What are We Riding For?," which morphed into this column. In 1999. I wrote a column titled "What Are We RiI had a lot to say ten years ago, a lot of pent up vitriol that I'd only expressed to riding friends. Since then, practically every foolish motorcycle-related thought that has popped into my head has appeared in this column. Still, the motivation to write the Geezer rants comes from the same place; the reason I still ride to work, take extended trips on two wheels, and spend time in my garage playing with my two bikes pretending to be a mechanic. I write about motorcycles and motorcycling because it's an activity that inspires some passion in my old, creaking bones. Some days, fooling with a motorcycle is the only thing I do that I really look forward to doing.
On mornings when I dread all of the things I have to get done before I can fall back into bed, I always anticipate the ride to work, the awareness that I'm doing something slightly dicey, something that requires more-than-typical concentration. Of course, there is also the opportunity for adventure that every moment on a motorcycle provides. Even the little duels that unaware cagers provide as they wander into my traffic lane or attempt to compete for my space on the road intensifies my attentiveness to what might, otherwise, be a boring day in the life. Anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger? Maybe, but if those moments don't kill or maim they will definitely wake you up.
The majority of motorcyclists would be insanely bored or appalled by the bike I usually ride to work; a 250cc dual purpose Kawasaki. It's not fast, it's certainly not powerful, it's not pretty, it is quiet, and it gets stupid mileage; never less than 60mpg. I bought it used and spent a fair amount of energy and time bringing it up to ride-able condition. I have almost as much fun working on the little air-cooled single as I have riding it. This past winter I planned on spending a lot of cold weekends in the garage turning it into a mini-adventure tourer. The seat needs a total redesign and the 1.7 gallon tank is about half the capacity that I want for this summer's adventure. This winter, I disappointed myself. I came down with a flu on Xmas eve and hadn't recovered from that bout with mortality coming into spring. Every time I ventured into the sub-freezing garage, I ended up a little sicker and, finally, I gave up on getting the bike work done until summer.
The cool thing about a bike like my little 250 is that it fits between my two cages in the garage, so getting it out for a late fall or winter ride isn't a major hassle. When the cages come inside for the winter, the V-Strom is too damn big to keep at the front of the garage. So it goes into the back parking area and the only way to put the big bike on the road is to get my wife's Taurus out of the way, wrestle the bike out from between her scooter and the bike a friend stores in my garage through the winter, and over the woodworking crap that always builds up during the winter months. The 250 is always ready for a ride to work or an errand run or a quick trip down the backyard hill and a few laps around the frozen lake in our backyard. I only managed a half-dozen ice laps this winter, but it was worth the effort.
There is something satisfying about parking an ugly little bike between layers of garage jewelry at motorcycle events. It's the same kind of smug satisfaction I get when I tail some rich guy's zillion dollar sports car through mountain roads, knowing that he's pushing his ego investment as hard as his skill allows while I've got a pass lined up on practically every wide spot in the road and my beat-up $3,000 "dispose-a-bike" is barely working to keep up. Passing the rich dude would take all of the fun out of watching him squirm to stay ahead. Being cheap has all sorts of rewards and being cheap and reasonably quick has even more. I can't afford to be cool, but I keep myself entertained and that's all I really care about.
One of my favorite jokes is about a guy who hires a hooker and when he drops his pants is asked, "Who are you going to satisfy with that little thing?"
He says, "Me."
That's me and my motorcycles and a good bit of my life. I don't need to or have the resources to impress you with what I ride. I'm too old and too worn out to win races, beauty contests, or make fashion statements. I don't know style from ugly, or care. To me, describing a product that is supposed to have a function as "art" would seem like an insult. I think motorcycles should be vehicles that can go places faster, cheaper, and with more versatility than any other form of transportation. Violate any one of those attributes and I lose interest.
There is a liberation that comes from knowing that nothing but your resources and luck are between you and disaster. Commuting by motorcycle even gives a little of that sensation, as you are surrounded by cagers distracted by cell phones and boredom. Loading up a bike with gear for a few days on the road, flipping a coin to pick the direction I'll travel, and heading off toward unknown places at an unpredictable pace is the kind of experience that can't be imitated in the confines of a air-bagged, environmentally controlled, entertainment-centered cage. A trip on a motorcycle is a different kind of experience from any other form or transportation. Even when you are in a pack of motorcycles, you are alone. I figure I might as well go the whole way and be as alone as I can be, because that's a big part of the reason I ride. .
Dec 3, 2014
The mid-November Geezer history post of my 2008 review of the Hyosung Avitar 650 drug out some flashbacks. My poor impression of that mediocre motorcycle flared all sorts of tempers, from the local dealer (Garceau’s Hardware, now closed after 80 years in business) to a full-out temper tantrum from the Hyosung marketing bozo, not to mention a variety of pissed off cruiser riders and, even, friends who resented the fact that I was chosen to test ride a cruiser. Mostly, my skin is pretty thick from 17 years of doing the Geezer with a Grudge column for MMM. My whole raison d'être with the magazine has been to attract fire and generate reader letters. I think I’ve accomplished that mission.
However, it brought up a bigger question that really should have been asked during the bullshit storm that article started. I’ve written product reviews for everyone from pro audio, motorcycle, electronic control, electronic test, live sound, and music magazines, but other than a fluke record review Downbeat Magazine published when I was 13, my first product review customer was a music equipment distributor based in Kansas City and St. Louis. My old company, Wirebender Audio Systems, did out-of-box inspection and repairs for that distributor’s dealer shows. Back in the 70’s, many companies delivered a surprising number of dead-out-of-the-box products and while dealers were used to the hassle they weren’t particularly inspired to take on another crap brand of music equipment if the distributor couldn’t find a working example of a product. So, my partner and I toured with the distributor making sure everything worked when he fired up a demo. After a couple of seasons doing that, the distributor started sending us examples of prospective new supplier products for evaluation and review. The only “readers” for these reviews would be the distributor’s salespeople and I was more likely to lose the gig if I said something good about a bad product than the reverse. Since I was running a test engineering lab for a day job, this kind of review was second nature.
The magazine business is nothing like that. Magazines are not supported by your subscriptions (other than Motorcycle Consumer News). Magazine publishers and editors, by and large, not only kiss their advertisers’ asses they perform thoroughly disgusting ream jobs on a regular basis. This has become such an ingrained habit that when an advertiser says “jump” or “fire that writer,” publishers jump to firing that writer without a moment of thought. The result is that reviews are, mostly, advertising puff pieces. That means consumers are left without critical advice and have to trust word-of-mouth opinions from people who may not be technical enough to be useful. That is a poor state of affairs. I don’t see an end to it in my lifetime, though. As we dumb-down society in general, we’re becoming exactly what the ruling class and corporations want; consumers vs. citizens.
It doesn’t bother me that I won’t be writing any more reviews to be read by a mass audience. I’m old and tired and have things to do that are a lot more fun than riding motorcycles I don’t like and wouldn’t buy under any conditions. It does bother me that I don’t see anyone taking up the challenge to tell the truth to power in motorcycle safety training, motorcycle product reviews, or anything controversial in our sport. I don’t think that’s a healthy sign.
Dec 1, 2014
George Mallory, the British mountaineer, supposedly told a reporter that he was compelled to climb Mount Everest "because it is there." Later, he simply said his was the logical response to a reporter's stupid question (or a stupid reporter's question). For most of my life, when asked why I have taken on (or want to do) some of the nuttier adventures of my life, I've tried to avoid that simple "because it is there" response. For good reason, it seems like an exceptionally lame justification for risking life, limb, property, and security. And, honestly, I didn't get it. Alabama and New York are "there," but the existence of those places does not inspire me to experience them. Likewise, I have no particular desire to visit prisons, mental institutions, an IRS office, or Haiti.
Early in the summer of 2007, I took a 10,000 mile motorcycle "trip of a lifetime" through northwestern Canada and a little of Alaska. I've wanted to see Alaska since I was a grade school kid who escaped to the cold, harsh, exciting worlds of Jack London and Mark Twain. Alaska seemed as far from western Kansas as any place on earth and that was a good enough reason to want to go there. One of the few country songs that has stuck with me since childhood is Johnny Horton's "Way Up North." I'm pretty sure that I've watched every Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Public Television show on Alaska and the far North American northwest. If I've missed one, it wasn't because of disinterest.
Alaska and the Canadian northwest turned out to be everything I imagined it would be and more. A little too much more, in fact. About 20-40 miles south of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada, I lost a wrestling match with my heavily loaded V-Strom, a deep-gravel-coated Dempster Highway, and a strong crosswind. In the end, I was bruised, slightly broken, and so was my motorcycle. A few hours earlier, back at the Eagles Pass fuel stop, I'd heard that the road north of Fort McPherson was mostly paved. If that's true, I was less than a hour from something more identifiable as a "highway" when I crashed. Of course, a character in a Canadian Highway Patrol uniform told me that the road from Eagles Pass to Fort McPherson was in better condition than the 250 miles of the Dempster I'd just traveled. He couldn't have been more misinformed (or misinforming) if he were from an alternative universe.
After picking myself and my bike back up and assessing the damage to the two of us, I decided to turn back while the turning was still good. Knowing my old, busted up body as well as I do, I suspected I would be a physical wreak after the shock and adrenaline wore off. It's not like this is the first time I've mangled ribs, maimed a shoulder, or busted a finger. It might have been the first time I did all of those things at once, though. With my first northern target almost in sight, I reversed directions, heading for the relative safety of asphalt, approximately 350 miles south of the crash point. I chose the devil I knew vs. the one I had yet to meet. In turning back, I gave myself a target destination: a hot bathtub in Dawson City. Likewise, that provided me with a goal I had failed to reach and a reason to do it again; "because it is there."
While I was on the road to and from Alaska, my 90-year-old father was wringing his hands and asking anyone who would listen, "How did I manage to raise such a dumb kid?" He's always suspected that I was dropped on my head in the hospital, which would explain my motorcycle and bicycle racing, backpacking and canoeing the wilderness, and wildly erratic employment history. So far, this chronicle of irrational behavior has peaked with me crashing a motorcycle on an isolated Canadian highway and going on to ride another 6,500 miles before returning to the safety of home. The next year, I rode 10,000 miles in the opposite direction. The year after that I explored the back roads of North Dakota, going places that aren't even on Garmin's maps. I think my father is convinced that I have some sort of death wish; or am simply stupid. A few other family members agree with that assessment, as do several of my work associates and a few friends.
They are wrong about the death wish, but I might be stupid.
Stupid or not, I am enjoying the hell out of the tail-end of my life. After an adventure, I have a renewed appreciation for my "normal" life with my family and my work. I have no shortage of places I want to see and adventures I want to try out. I expect my father will be even more confused next year.