Dec 3, 2018

One Too Many Minds

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

too-many_minds 2In my early twenties, I decided that horseback riding and me were a bad fit. For most of you, that wouldn’t be a big decision. For me, it was an end to a fairly significant part of my personal history. I’d ridden horses since I was a little kid, since one of my uncles owned a large eastern Kansas ranch and always had a couple dozen working horses on his property. That uncle was enough of a role model that I still like digging post holes to this day, because he taught me how to use that tool. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas loving western movies and real rodeos (and I still do), at one time I assumed I’d be riding off into the sunset on a horse. For at least 30 years, I had a horseback trip from Kansas to Alaska on my bucket list. Sometime between moving to California in the 80's and 2007 when I rode my V-Strom to Alaska, the horse and pack-mule plan disappeared from the list.
too-many_minds 3 
I didn’t quit liking horses. Horses and mules are terrific animals: dependable, brave, funny, loyal, and a smarter than a lot of humans. I just don’t like them well enough to maintain one and I’m not smart enough to cope with equine psychology. The phrase “eats like a horse” is no joke. A full grown horse eats about 20 pounds of food a day (or about $6/day and $2,000/year). A vet bill averages about $1,500/year and you can spend way more than that in a blink of a blink of a pink eye. Horses are intelligent enough to unlatch gates and disassemble fences and they definitely know how to get back to the barn where there is food and a roof over their heads, regardless of where I want them to go. Getting a horse to agree on a destination is not much different from preventing a corporate executive from destroying a business; it's practically impossible. It's also not worth the effort. You have to really love the relationship between a horse and a human to make that commitment and I'm not that guy. I like horses the same way I like giraffes, zebras, gazelles, and buffalo. I'm glad to share the planet with them, but I don't need a personal relationship.

I took a couple of trips this summer with friends. Mostly, I had a good time hanging out and nothing bad happened on either trip. However, both excursions left me wondering why people travel in packs of motorcycles. Not to beat a horse post-termination, but economically it makes no sense for 2-20 people to ride to the same destinations at the same speed on 2-20 vehicles that burn 25-50 gallons per mile each. Do the math. You'd always be better off renting a bus or driving your own vehicle with all seats stuffed. Motorcycles are awesome solo vehicles, especially small, versatile motorcycles that can go places cages can't and do it more efficiently. My Yamaha WR250X, even with it's mediocre 50-60mpg fuel consumption, is an amazing touring bike. It's hard to imagine a road that would be too difficult for even an old man like me to explore.

Riding in a group is way too much like riding a horse. Too many minds to keep track of at a point in my life (a point that has lasted for most of my life) when I can barely remember what I’m doing, let alone what someone else is about to do that will complicate my situation. Almost a decade ago, I started my Alaska trip with a friend who is a very competent rider and a spectacularly nice guy. At the time, riding more than 50 miles with someone else was a rare event for me. I had more than a half-million two-wheeled miles under my belt and I suspect less than 5,000 of that came in any sort of group riding situation. (For most purposes, I consider two people in any sort of closed space to be a "crowd" and any more than that to be a rampaging hoard of mindless savages. My tolerance for my fellow human expands considerably outdoors where I can deal with a half-dozen people before I want to slink into the woods.) While he was constantly trying to get me to "pair up," I was a lot more comfortable with about a mile between us. He almost never used his brakes to slow down and when he did it was because he'd overshot his intended turn and that often resulted in a full-panic stop for me. My reason for the trip was to sightsee and take my sweet time for thirty days in the first extended vacation of my 61 years of life. He had two weeks to get to Alaska, tick off a list of destinations, and get back to work. For about a week, we knocked off 800-1,000 mile days and I was having almost as much fun as being at work. After the Yukon's Dempster Highway bit me in the ass, we parted ways so he could get back to ticking off his targets and I could take a day off for a bush plane trip over Alaska's permafrost swamps with my son-in-law's cousin. Over the next two weeks, I put in a few 1,000 mile days because I was riding in 23 hours of daylight. But I stopped when I wanted, took pictures of all sorts of silly crap, ate when I was hungry, and camped when and where I felt like spending a night. The first week of the trip was closer to frustrating than fun and the last three weeks were life-changing. 

Any time I see a pack of pirates or squids cruising on US61 or WI35, it’s pretty obvious that many of the members of those groups are hanging on for dear life without any hope of being able to make an evasive maneuver if one is required. Working to preserve their "formation," they wander all over the road, come to wobbly and unstable stops, and transform curves into random motion demonstrations. The whole “safety in numbers” delusion gets proven grossly wrong multiple times every summer. Group rides are always a significant contributor to motorcycle crashes, injuries, and deaths. Not that many years ago, one of Minnesota's safety instructors was killed when she fell down in an intersection and the rest of the pack ran over her! I've seen one rider wander off of the road into a ditch, followed by three other riders who apparently figured the ditch was part of the route. It's very difficult-to-impossible to decouple your ride from the rest of the group and as dangerous as motorcycling is adding group psychology to the task adds a whole new dimension to the risk. Personally, I don't see the attraction, let alone find anything in a group ride that repays the return-on-risk-investment. Group riding proves David Roth's theory of crowd intelligence: divide the smartest person in the crowd's IQ by the number of people in the crowd for the group IQ. I don't know anyone smart enough to correct for my contribution to that equation.

Nov 29, 2018

Change Is Constant and Accelerating

Whacky Donnie is having a temper tantrum about GM’s decision to close a half-dozen plants and layoff 14,000 GM assembly, admin, and engineering employees, but GM is just trying to stay in the game. And the game is changing faster than practically anyone anticipated. A Star Tribune article, "Trump's threats won't change valid reasons for GM's decision to revamp" reads “GM needs to invest in its future, and that means focusing on electric and self-driving vehicles. Both are coming to a driveway near you — quicker than you think.”

Everytime there is some kind of change or crisis, someone stupid has to babble “nobody saw this coming.” The only way you can ever make that claim is to not know what “nobody” means and to be so unread you are practically illiterate. I saw it coming years ago, along with electric-vehicle conversion, and I’m not unhappy about being right.

Nov 19, 2018

Real World Training

All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day

real_world_trainingWhen I invited him to hang out at last year’s ZARS customer appreciation event at the Dakota County Technical School's driver training range, a friend replied, “I think I need a class on how to go slower and stay out of the way more effectively. That's my thing; ride on empty roads. You won't find me in any ‘single vehicle accidents.'” That’s not an uncommon theory on safe riding. However, statistics in Minnesota don’t support that philosophy of accident prevention. Motorcyclists, on average, get killed in the least intuitive ways and places. I'm unclear on how "going slower" can be a tactic for "staying out of the way," but it doesn't seem to be working for the people who are generating motorcycle mortality and morbidity statistics. Of course, if you're riding on "empty roads" and crash, the only possible statistic you are going to contribute to will be "single vehicle" crashes. 

Of course, a lot of the state’s stats can be interpreted a lot of ways, for instance the chart at right. In 2013, Minnesota had 60 motorcycle fatalities (about half of the state’s worst year, 1980). Along with the 2013 fatalities, the state’s motorcyclists suffered 166 severe injuries, 533 moderate injuries, and 398 minor injuries. As a side note, 14% of Minnesota’s motorcycle fatalities were wearing helmets and 4.7 of every 100 reported crashes resulted in a fatality as opposed to 0.5% of all reported crashes resulting in fatalities. 55% of Minnesota’s fatal crashes were “single vehicle crashes” and 20% of the fatalities weren’t even real motorcyclists, since they did not possess the minimum motorcycle rider credential: a legal license. 
real_world_training_2The chart that is most applicable to this discussion, however, is this one (at left).  The overwhelming majority of fatalities happened where the population of a city or township was “under 1,000.” The big cities accounted for damn few fatalities, crashes, or injuries, in fact. So much for being terrified of the big, bad freeway. The state used to track and report the sort of roadway that crashes occurred on, but the 2013 report didn’t seem to contain that information. Like city populations, the relationship between getting killed and being on a low traffic road was direct. For a variety of reasons (see the chart below), most of what gets motorcyclists killed is counter-intuitive. The hope that being on a lonely road out in the country or cruising through small towns is a crash preventative is wrong-headed. It just doesn’t work that way. It's possible that the reason for crash over-representation on these roads is because so many uncertain and unskilled riders choose to ride in these places for "practice."  
So, with that in mind, what kind of training do motorcyclists need to stay alive and intact? Contrary to popular paranoia, training programs like the Zalusky Advanced Riding School, Keith Code’s Superbike School, Lee Park's Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic, and the rest of the long list of excellent riding schools are not all about going fast, sliding a knee or elbow, or putting your life and bike at risk. When you watch one of these courses from the sidelines, it probably looks like that is exactly what’s going on. The riders are going faster than your average street racer and doing it with a lot more style (present company excluded), but all of these schools encourage students to ride at roughly 70% of their capabilities where the maximum educational value is derived. Not all of us are smart enough to resist the urge to compete.  Still, we’re all adults and if peer pressure is enough to make us do stupid stuff on a closed course, it will do the same on public roads where the hazards are dramatically greater. 
real_world_training_3When I attended the ZARS program in September, I did not one time receive any encouragement to “go faster” from any of my ZARS coaches. When I did something well, I was complemented, but not once did Joe, Brent, Debby, Karen, or Jessica say anything about how I might increase my speed. In fact, Brent consistently gave me exercises I could use at lower speeds to work on control, precision, and getting smoother in my cornering transitions. All of my coaches were way faster than me, but making me fast was never one of my goals and, therefore, it wasn’t one of theirs. For the last several years, "smoother" has been the thing I've been concentrating on and if faster ever results from that it will be a happy accident. If you look at the “contributing factors” in the chart at right, I hope you’ll see a whole lot of situations where better general handling skills would have saved a few dozen lives. In fact, some of the "contributing factors" attributed to the motorcyclists are downright embarrassing. 
I would be willing to bet my own money that if a group of older riders on large, slow, poorly handling motorcycles signed up for a ZARS class and were intelligent enough to accept their limitations and work hard at being good students that group would learn more in one afternoon with Jessica's great group of coaches than they have in a lifetime of riding. I have seen Goldwings and Harley Super Glides whip through this course as fast as most sportbike riders can travel, proving that technique is everything. There are damn few riders who are able to push their motorcycle anywhere near it’s maximum capabilities. I’ve seen that demonstrated at DCTC, too. The real point in obtaining advance training is to stay out of charts like those in this article. 
real_world_training_4If what you want to learn how to do is “go slower and stay out of the way more effectively,” learning how to manipulate the space between the lines in curves is a huge part of that skill. We work on all of that, some, in the MSF “Seasoned Rider” course, but the difference between low speed exercises on a parking lot and road speed exercises on a closed course is massive. I’m not putting the MSF course down. fat_man_scubaOne of the regular ZARS riders reminded me that there is a whole different set of skills exercised in the MSF course and said he tries to do one of the experienced rider courses every year or two. I need to do a closed course corning seminar, like the ZARS program, every year for the same reason. You probably do, too. Real world motorcycle training involves speed, exposure to risk, and pushing your skills near the limits. The best place to do all of that is on a closed course under the direction of a skilled instructor, not on public roads--rural or urban.

Nov 12, 2018

Paradigm Shifts

Mini_0508Two years ago, my grandson got a job, moved into his own place, and bought a Rad Power e-bike for commuting to work; a daily 14 miles round trip. Tough kid. When he started this adventure, he bought the Rad Power Radrover; a fat tire full sized bike that is about as robust looking and riding as a small dirt bike. Two years in and a few dozen crashes on the ice and snow, he turned the Radrover over to me to repair and replaced it with the Radmini.

We spent the day hanging out with our grandson and just before we left the Cities for home, I took a test ride on his new e-bike. I am hooked. Everything about riding this not-even-a-little-bit-small-feeling electric bicycle was like the things I love the most about motorcycles. The fat tires are incredibly stable, resilient, and sticky even on a 28oF day with a little ice and snow on the ground. The power is instant, quiet, and predictable; although e-bikes are almost universally limited to 20mph getting there was as fast as it needed to be to get me moving in rush hour residential street traffic.

RadMini_FoldedWhen I lived in the Cities and commuted from Little Canada to downtown St. Paul (for 13 years) I probably would have rarely, if ever, rode a motorcycle or car to work if I’d owned a bicycle like this. I had a 5.5 mile one-way commute via freeway and a mile or so added to that by city streets and the Radmini has a 20 mile range at 20mph over the toughest terrain at 20mph. If you pedal or have a fair amount of relative flat and wind-free territory to travel over, that range approaches 40 miles. There were a few moments when I made it up to 30mph on the city street routes, either on the bike or in the cage, but the 20mph limit would have been more than offset by traveling on the rarely-used bicycle trail routes that were available to me. Downtown parking would have never been an issue and I could have taking my employer’s parking allowance and used that money somewhere else. Anywhere else.

RadMini_Black_AngleThe disc brakes are terrific, although the damn levers are bicycle-traditionally on the wrong side. The electronic controls are ergonomically laid-out and easy to see and use. The bike isn’t light, at about 64 pounds, and is almost exactly the same total length as my WR250X (67”) The “standover height is 28”, the max I can cope with without getting gelded on a quick getoff. The riding position is very dirtbike-like; comfortable, upright, relaxed, and well-balanced. The performance is just amazing. 0-20mph is about as quick as the tires can handle and you have to be slightly forward on the bars to keep from popping a wheelie on a full-throttle take-off. That surprised me, more than once. The frame geometry is excellent, at least as far as I could tell in a 2-3 mile test ride. U-turns are easily executed inside a single lane and high speed (remember, that means 20mph) handling is solid, predictable, and very stable feeling (probably thanks to the long wheelbase).

As far as security is concerned, I could have rolled the bike into my office, folded it up and stuffed it under my cube’s desk, charging the battery while I worked (5 hours from depleted to fully charged), and never once worried about theft or vandalism like I had to with both the cage and the motorcycle in the parking garage where both occurred fairly regularly.

Cost of operation is fairly well documented (with some noticeable miscalculations) on Rad Power’s website blog in the article EBike vs. Car: by the Numbers. I disagree with the exponential rise in cost the author applied to car maintenance expenses, but the bottom line is still going to be close to the same. I regularly encourage my grandson’s bike replacement expenses by showing him the spreadsheet I keep on my pickup; which is freakin’ terrifying and/’or depressing. I did a similar comparison with my cage vs. motorcycle costs a few years back, the numbers were a little surprising but nothing like EBike vs. cages; at least a factor of 10. You can get a bike, ride it, fix it, and beat it up for less than the cost of a year’s car insurance. The times are changing fast.

Nov 8, 2018

Marketing 101

This is how you promote an off-road recreational vehicle. I have NEVER seen a motorcycle ad that was 1/2 this inspiring or creative.

Nov 5, 2018

What Will You Do Then?

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

The ultimate consumer electronics trade show, coincidentally called the Consumer Electronics Show, held early this past January is the place where all of the folks making cool toys show what they're up to with this year's products and products they hope to be bringing to market in the not-so-distant future. Ford, VW, GM, and Toyota all had a lot to talk about and what they talked about was how much smarter cars are going to be in coming years. Our favorite "unprecedented connectivity" will be coupled with driver-assist safety measures with an end goal of fully autonomous vehicles. They all talked about the "death of the internal combustion engine" with recent significant improvements in solar cells, fuel cells and electric vehicle charge loads, drive time, and improved charging cycles. Considering the fact that these speakers were corporate industry leaders, the number of times they used the words ""disruption" and "revolution" was a little unsettling. There is a lot of money available for investment in this technology, since 2015 was the most profitable year in American car manufacturing history. On top of that, new competitor brands in transportation like Tesla, Google, and Apple are driving changes outside of the usual culprits and their vested interests. Along with working towards the end of urban traffic problems, these new technologies could are expected to dramatically reduce private vehicle ownership. Motorcycle manufacturers have to be worried about one of the less marketed effects of smarter vehicles: an anticipated 90% reduction in automotive accidents and casualties.  
Let's face it, given motorcycling's conservative tendencies there isn't much chance that any of this good stuff will find its way into motorcycles. We can't even agree to wear minimal protective gear and fight every effort to improve motorcycling's dismal safety record as if we were a bunch of 2-year-olds being asked to drain a big spoonful of nasty tasting medicine. Simple mathematics should illustrate what's going to happen if the car guys pull off their revolution. Motorcyclists are around 15% of traffic fatalities in a typical year. About half of those deaths are the result of single-vehicle crashes. If that's true, it's pretty obvious that a significant number of the multiple vehicle crashes are the fault of motorcyclists to a large enough extent that nothing the car manufacturers can do will save us from ourselves. Let's say, for the sake of being hopeful, that really smart cars drops motorcycle deaths by 25% (Personally, I suspect this is ridiculously optimistic.). That means that the percentage of motorcycle contributions to traffic deaths will be more along the 50-60% territory. 
You would have to be seriously delusional to imagine that it is reasonable for a vehicle (and riders and passengers) that contributes less than 0.01% to the total miles travelled (and most of those miles are purely recreational and unnecessary) but causes 50% of total highway deaths. Somewhere between our currently insanely high injury and fatality rates and that future 50% mark, society is going to take a serious look at motorcycles. When that happens all of the big bad biker stares, gangbanger threats, and whimpering about "freedom" and "tradition" are going to have no effect whatsoever. Roads and doors are going to start closing on motorcycles and our favorite means of transportation will become just another not-legal-on-public-roads recreational vehicle.  
Humans, and Americans in particular, are not known for foresight or preventative action. We tend to react to events as they happen, even when they were predicted and could have been prevented with just a little work. In this case, there are actually some financially significant vested interests involved. Between Polaris and Harley Davidson and a few smaller manufacturers, there are a few billion dollars in revenue at stake. Add the Japanese Big Four and the rest of the importers and you'd think the Motorcycle Industry Council might have its let's-pretend-we're-safety-training organization, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and the industry's official mouthpiece, the AMA, begin to move motorcyclists toward anything that will reduce our crash contributions. Modern executives are so grossly overpaid that they have no real motivation to preserve the health of the company's they mismanage or the industries they "serve," but stockholders might be a little concerned. I, for example, wouldn't put a nickel of my investment portfolio into any aspect of the motorcycle industry. Since it's TARP-assisted post-Great Recession recovery, Harley Davidson's stock has taken a clobbering, as of this writing: from a $72.68 high in May of 2014 to today's (Feb 2016) $40 price. More than a few financial authors suspect that HD's future is shaky, at best. Polaris is in much better shape, but their bottom line isn't particularly dependent on motorcycle sales. The same goes for Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki. If motorcycles disappear from the industrialized world's highways, none of those companies will be seriously inconvenienced.  
Commuting by motorcycle, on the other hand, will be history. I think that's a bad thing, but if I'm the only one who thinks that, I suspect that means it doesn't matter. What do you think?

Oct 30, 2018

More Autonomous Problems to Solve

m.i.tsmartcarchoicescolo01"Should a self-driving car kill the baby or the grandma? Depends on where you’re from" poses a pretty funny question for the ethics department of autonomous car companies in this Technology Review article. Of course, if you are a half-decent motorcyclist there is at least one more option in their example picture; go off road and avoid them both. And what the hell is a baby doing crawling across a road in the first place. Maybe the best solution is to target that kid’s parents. They clearly should not be reproducing.

scenario1_0Another scenario from the article has the driver deciding whether to kill five jaywalkers or one. I say use the logic Fat Freddy’s cat’s cockroach general adversary used: “We got millions more where they came from.” It’s not like the world has a shortage of people or jaywalkers. If you want to march across the street against the light,e44e6fab0ed86e1eebe59fbb55e672e1 into traffic with a quartet of nitwits, I think you should enjoy the consequences.

Sarcasim, cynicism, and grumpy old man-ism aside, the above scenario is going to become far more common. We’re already living in a time when large numbers of nitwits walk into traffic concentrating on their cell phones, assuming the world is going to look out for them. Autonomous cars are going to bring a level of false security and confidence to that breed of non-sustainable human that will make the above scenario seem ordinary.

Likewise, when that ethics-challenged autonomous vehicle comes upon a parade of pirates or bicyclists(, go for the middle. nitwit paradeTake on the bigger issue—too many stupid people in the gene pool—and do the world a favor. Yeah, I know. It has been a long frustrating day and I need a whiskey to top it off and mellow me out.

Oct 26, 2018

Who says motorcyclists can't look funny?

Alvaro Bautista (front) and a pack of MotoGP riders on mini-electric bikes at some kind of weird event during the Japanese Grand Prix in Motegi, Japan. Who says motorcyclists can't look funny?

Oct 24, 2018

Biker Reality verses Reality Reality

Some of the words used in this PSA might indicate where the real cause of the crash highligted here came from. In the case of this crash, the car didn't even contact the bike before she went down. Proving that "every panic reaction you will ever have will be wrong." Both the bike and the car were moving to the same lane, parallel to each other, and the car was in no way, as Ms.Katte stated, coming from "out of nowhere." Neither vehicle owned the lane beside the truck and both were equally responsible for anticipating the move of the other.

In the PSA, Katte stated that she was “checking her mirrors, putting my head on a swivel, looking for the vehicles around me” and she missed the vehicle right beside her. Riders need a bigger "swivel" on their heads in that situation. In freeway situations, mirrors are worthless on 99% of the motorcycles we ride. Mine, for example, barely show me what is directly behind me and tell me nothing about a vehicle right beside me. I’ve ridden a CTX1300 and beside the fact that it is far more motorcycle (power, weight, and maneuverablity) than someone with beginner skills can manage, the damn things vibrate so much that the mirrors might as well be blacked out. They are worse than useless.

One point of the PSA was to encourage motorcycle gear use; especially helmets. She was lucky, smart or both to have been wearing a real helmet; even if it was a cheap Chinese brand. A typical Harley rider’s toilet bowl would have been useless in that crash. Her “$35 leather jacket” probably didn’t do much other than save her some skin. Actual armor isn’t cheap, but it works. I know, being the idiot I am I’ve “tested” my Aerostich armor way too many times; fortunately, always off-pavement. 

What the F&*%$?

1_The Ghost Rider

Meet the Badass, Costumed Motorbike Taxi Drivers of Nairobi

Oct 22, 2018

Save Me from Myself

I'm always entertained by the fact that so few of the "bikers" in these PSAs don't even make the minimum attempt to protect themselves. The idea that is the 99.999…%’s responsibility to look out for the 0.00001% is pretty hilarious. Good luck with that pipedream.

Oct 15, 2018

What's Wrong with Motorcycle Safety Training

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

I had a rare opportunity to talk with one of the big thinkers in national motorcycle training over the 2013 VBR3 weekend; David Hough. David has written about safe motorcycle riding tactics and skills for almost 25 years, both through his book collection (Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well, Street Strategies: A Survival Guide for Motorcyclists, More Proficient Motorcycling: Mastering the Ride, and The Good Rider) and his many magazine articles with the AMA's American Motorcyclist, Cycle World, Sound Rider, and Motorcycle Consumer News. He has also stepped out as a vocal critic of US motorcycle safety training in a series of articles almost a decade ago in Motorcycle Consumer News aggressively titled "The Fuss About Rider Training" and "Trouble in Rider Training." Oddly, he and I have been concerned about many of the same things: motorcycling's out-of-control fatality and injury rate, the lack of practical application for motorcycles, and the state of motorcycle safety training and licensing that contributes to our mortality and morbidity statistics. 
I've harped on the counter productivity of the AMA more than a few times, but David has an insider's view of that disorganization that is even more gloomy. Unlike me, David has a profound respect for Rod Dingman, the AMA chairman, and repeatedly called him "a brilliant man." From my distant outsider's view, I would have never guessed other than during that brief instance when Mr. Dingman was asked what issues most threaten motorcycling and he replied, "Noise, noise, and noise." Typically, the AMA promptly backed off of that moment of sanity and returned to the safer territory of representing the interests of motorcycle aftermarket vendors rather than motorcycle riders. Before that quick retreat, I almost joined the AMA for the first time since my racing years (30 years ago) when membership was required to be on the track. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a similar problem because the heart of the organization is barely more than a lobbying tool of the motorcycle manufacturers disguised as a motorcycle training business. With that as a core purpose, motorcycle safety takes a back seat in the long, long bus full of constituents that both organizations try to serve. 
One of the places Mr. Hough and I totally agree is that motorcycling is dangerous business. So dangerous that in the late 1970's, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki began to diversify their business models so that, when liability problems from motorcycling's terrible mortality records overran the profits derived, they could simply quit the business and go elsewhere. Honda and Suzuki build cars. Kawasaki and Yamaha build everything else. Motorcycles are just one division of a huge manufacturing business that will not be allowed to drag down the whole. Only the lame (economically and flexibility-wise) but politically-connected Harley-Davidson constituency has protected the rest of the industry from obsolescence . . .  for a while. Our time appears to be coming, though.

David's perspective on our share of highway mortality is considerably different than the already-awful numbers with which we're familiar. His take comes from the independent Motorcycle Safety Training Institute where the data is more directly related to what we care about; driver mortality, since motorcycles are primarily a single-passenger vehicle. That data says we are 20% of the driver vehicle deaths, nation-wide. The other place David and I agreed was that "registered vehicles" is useless information. While it may be a source of pride to industry promoters that motorcycles are 3% of registered vehicles, anyone who sets up a video camera on most any freeway, highway, or residential street will discover we are rarely 0.01% of total traffic. (Optimistic motorcycle promoters might claim we're as much as 1% of total traffic, but no reasonable observation over time would substantiate that.) With those numbers in mind, it becomes obvious that motorcycles are substantially more dangerous than any other vehicle on the road; several hundred, or thousand, times more dangerous. 
That last bit is at the core of what's wrong with motorcycle safety training. The first thing that needs to be admitted and recognized is that your mother was right, motorcycles can kill you. That old motorcyclist saying that "there are motorcyclists who have crashed and those who haven't crashed yet" is absolutely true and if you aren't bright enough to recognize that, you aren't aware enough to ride a motorcycle. This should be the thing we talk about most in the early stages of motorcycle training classes. The 1960's "Mechanized Death" videos ought to be revived and revitalized with even gorier crash pictures and up-to-date statistics. Students should be forced to look at the carnage and mayhem from motorcycle crashes and be made well aware that they are entering into an activity that can be lethal, crippling, or mindlessly saddening when we are responsible for the injury or death of a loved one who trusted us with their life on a motorcycle.

Contrary to the industry's advertisements, riding a motorcycle is not a gleefully liberating activity: motorcycling is a life-threatening, dangerous, high-risk activity that requires all of our concentration, ability, and constant practice just to minimize the risk to "really, really dangerous." Beyond  and because of all that, the casual motorcycle "bike-curious" should be discouraged. Anyone not actively and irreconcilably drawn to motorcycling because of the many great things about taking your life in your own hands and tempting fate on a balanced pair of wheels is pretending that motorcycles are a "lifestyle" and has no business on a bike of any sort; powered or otherwise.

In fact, anyone who hasn't already put a few thousand miles on a bicycle isn't interested enough in this kind of machinery to be a motorcyclist. If you are going to take your life in your own hands, you ought to at least care a little bit about staying alive. If you don't, buy a gun and take yourself out in America's Favorite Method. Don't make our dismal statistics even worse because your daddy didn't appreciate you or your mother liked your sister better. I am dead serious about this. Riding a motorcycle is a commitment in time and money that requires concentration, study, practice, and the kind of attitude you might expect from skydivers or rock climbers. We can lightly remind beginning riders that motorcycling is a "skill of your mind and eyes," but that's just a fraction of the reality.

It is also a physical skill of the sort that you need to practice until muscle memory overcomes natural reactions. You won't get that kind of result from an occasional weekend ride. Muscle memory requires practice. Martial arts experts say it requires 3,000-5,000 repetitions to ingrain a exercise.1 For example, just practicing the single skill of emergency stopping could take you twenty or thirty hours of continuous practice. If you want to get to 25-30mph for your practice run, you'll need at least a 100 foot range for that attempt. Add 50 feet for the return loop and you have a 250 foot total practice loop. Five-thousand attempts later and you have traveled about 240 miles. If we assume you are stopping and returning to your start point quickly, you're still going to have a hard time managing a 10mph average. That would be 24 hours of continuous practice for a single skill.  Do you have that kind of dedication to becoming a good rider? If not, you are probably the wrong person to take on motorcycling.

1 Motor Learning and Performance,  by Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Craig A. Wrisberg and Performance and Motor Control And Learning by Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Timothy D. Lee

Oct 8, 2018

Can You Hear Me Out There?

When I taught the MSF program for MMSC, I’d get several questions per class along the lines of “what kind of first bike should I buy?” As you might know from following this blog, I have some strong opinions about that. (“No, you’re kidding?”) Most of the time when I’m giving this sort of advice, I feel like the deaf bluegrass banjo player whacking on a microphone saying, “Can anyone out there hear this thing?” (All bluegrass banjo players are deaf, I know.) It’s almost like teaching when the midterm or final exams get graded and you wonder if you were even in the room when those nitwits came to class. 

Mostly, I’d recommend something small, lightweight, that handles well and my ”students” would act like I’d insulted their intelligence, skill, or something and move on to the other instructor for more “manly advice.” As a habit, I recommend a bike around 250cc and one that weighs close to 300 pounds for daily riding. I’ve said this before in “A Good Beginner’s Bike” and I’ll say it again. And again.

2006_Honda_Nighthawk_250There have been a couple of times, though, when I almost felt like I existed. The first time was in the first couple of years I taught the BRC. Two near-retirement-age physicians took the class, asked the question, and when I suggested they consider the Honda Nighthawk 250’s they were riding in the class. The Honda air-cooled twin is a tough, reliable, lightweight motorcycle that can more than do the job for the kind of around town riding they expected to be doing. A few years later, I was having lunch with a friend in Stillwater when the two doctors came over to our table, reintroduced themselves, and thanked me for the advice. Then, they told me about the trip they’d just returned from to Alaska and British Columbia on their 250s. It was a great story and I wish I remembed it well enough to accurately repeat it here, but I don’t.

Larry's BikeThe second time my advice didn’t die in a vacuum was when my brother asked for the same advice. I had been training on the Suzuki TU250X for a few years at the time and had the opportunity to “test” it on the police driving course at Dakota Technical College earlier that summer. The bike did everything a motorcycle needs to do, plus was fun to ride, gets great fuel economy, has a low seat height, and looks like a 1950’s British bike. Larry bought one and is driving it into the ground in Arizona as I write this. His one complaint was that it didn’t do all that well off-pavement, so I suggested a change in tires. As you can see in the picture above, he took that advice, too. He’s had it for a couple of years and 20,000 miles or so and will probably keep it until he rides it to death.

Likewise, I’m down to one motorcycle and taking my own advice it’s my Yamaha WR250X. Since I sold my V-Strom, I haven’t been riding much but I wasn’t riding much before I sold it. This fall or winter, I plan to rig up a relay so that I can run some electrical crap off of the WR’s battery without draining it when I forget to turn things off. I admit it, I’m addicted to my GPS, heated vest, heated gloves, and charging my computer while I ride on long trips. We’ll see if taking my own advice puts me back on the road and trail.

Oct 1, 2018

Why I Love Dawson City

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

dawson_cityI've written about this a couple of times, but on a vacation trip with my wife through Oregon during the winter of 2013 it struck me again how strong the good feelings I have about Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada have been for the last 8 years. Of course, what reminded me of that was the wonderful experience my wife and I had on the Oregon coast. Everywhere we went, everywhere we stopped, everyone we met on that trip was so friendly, so accommodating, so naturally nice that we were talking about moving to Oregon by the time we crossed the boarder into California. That doesn't happen much, since we've been pretty damn happy with Minnesota for the last 19 years.  
My benchmark for "nice" is not, however, Minnesota Nice. As friendly as many Minnesotans are, there isn't a consistent attitude that defines Minnesota residents. Especially on the freeway, Minnesotans are pretty much on par, niceness-wise, with most of the country north of the parallel that more-or-less defines the westward extension of the Mason-Dixon Line. My personal benchmark for nice was established when I rolled into Dawson City, Yukon in 2007 at 2AM in mid-June with a separated shoulder, three broken ribs, and a busted hand. I'd been riding almost non-stop for 22 hours and I was completely out of patience with life, humanity, western civilization, my riding partner, my motorcycle (from which dangled miscellaneous parts from a crash on the Dempster Highway), myself, and Planet Earth. 
dawson_city_2Three hundred miles earlier, I'd misjudged the power of a 70mph side-wind, deep gravel, and my own riding ability and ended up going backwards at 50mph (for a few fractions of a second) and landing on my butt. After taking inventory and deciding that I had no more business going on to Inuvik than I have putting on a suit and working for Bernie Madoff or Mitt Romney or Bank of America or Doctor Phil, I turned around and headed for a Dawson City hotel and a hot bath. I'd suffered all of those injuries before and I knew exactly how the crash, shock, busted bones, seized body sequence works and I knew where I needed to be when the last part happens. 
I rolled into Dawson in a foul mood. The shock was completely worn off and I hurt everywhere. Drunks were decorating the streets of Dawson at 2AM, getting ready for their epic summer solstice party or the Commissioner's Tea and Klondike Ball or whatever event it is that these party animals use to excuse staying awake for a solid week while the sun is out 24 hours a day. Some guy spotted my GPS as I was dismounting in agony and asked, "What's your max speed?" I had no idea what he was talking about and didn't have much patience with what seemed an irrelevant question and replied, "How the hell would I know?" He laughed and wandered off.  
Michael, the guy I'd been riding with to this point on the trip, and who had wanted to go on to Inuvik but couldn't convince himself that I was going to make it back to Dawson on my own, stayed outside to talk to the partiers. I plowed through the crowd to get to the hotel desk. The desk guy tried to tell me a bunch of stuff about the rooms available, but I kept saying "I need a room with a bathtub." After arguing about some hotel details that I wasn't interested in, he finally gave in and handed me the key to the only room in the hotel with a bathtub. Turned out the room had  a single bed and was right over the bar, where a band would be playing all night. I did not care, but Michael would be a little concerned. When I turned to go back to the bike to get my luggage, I discovered all of my stuff was by my feet at the desk. The drunks had noticed that I'd left my keys in the bike, so they pulled all of my stuff off for me and deposited it where I could find it when I quit being an asshole. The next morning, I'd discover they had put the bike up on the center stand and pushed some of the broken pieces back into place and piled the loose stuff on my seat. From the restaurant window I could see there was a lot of loose/broken stuff.  Our hotel served the best, most reasonably priced breakfast I can remember ever enjoying; and I've enjoyed a lot of great breakfasts in my six decades. 
Comfortably numbed by drugs and good food, I hobbled over to Dawson Home Hardware to shop for Gorilla Glue, duct tape, and JB Weld and from there to the General Store fdawson_city_3or a man-sized bucket of napoxen sodium, a couple rolls of ACE elastic bandages for my shoulder and ribs, and an assortment of pain-relieving/distracting sore-muscle ointments. When I got back, a couple of guys had rolled my bike away from the Hotel to a parking lot where they said, "It'll be easier to work on it here." I started to disassemble the fairing and spread the busted pieces on the ground, more-or-less in the vicinity of how they'd need to be reassembled. Mike gave me a hand, especially where my hand wasn't working well. Eventually, I was bandaged and drugged and the bike was reassembled with it's new polyurethane foam crust highlighting the cracks. Duct tape reinforced my busted GIVI cases where missing pieces weren't available for reassembly. 
I was, mostly, ready to go back to the hot bath and warm bed, but Mike talked me into heading for the Top of the World boarder crossing, the most northern international border crossing and one the most remote, least travelled but maintained boarders between the United States and Canada. Since 2014, that bit of adventure has been "fixed" and the US side is paved all the way to Chicken, AK and beyond. In 2007, both the Canadian and US sides of the "highway" were unpaved and the ride up from Canada and down into Alaska was wet, slick, unpredictable, and hazardous enough that we passed a fair number of bikes that had missed the road and ended up in the creeks, ditches, and worse. In fact, there was a wreaked Harley on a trailer at the boarder crossing whose owner had been rescued and flown to Anchorage a few hours before we arrived. I was in no condition to help anyone and stopping was a fairly complicated and painful process, so I didn't even slow down once after I negotiated the boarder crossing sans-passport: a whole different and strange story. 
When the ache of my separated shoulder began ease up a little, my busted ribs and cracked hand poked their warning notices through the fog of pain. When those two reminders backed off a little, or I got used to them, I regretted leaving Dawson City every morning and evening for the next week. Camping was out of the question, thanks to my complete inability to find a comfortable sleeping position on my thin insulated air mattress. So, for the next 3,000 miles I missed my Dawson City oasis. A few months after that great trip ended, I read a little about Dawson City and discovered I'd missed a lot: the Jack London Museum, the Goldbottom Mine tour, the Dawson City Museum, walking trails and tours, the Paddlewheel Graveyard, and at least a week of sightseeing stuff that I'm sorry I was too doped up and dazed to notice. We even missed White Stripes performing in the city's Winter Solstice party. So, I gotta go back. This time, the Dempster Highway will not be in my travel plans.

Sep 17, 2018

Killing Money

There is a little revenue to be made on a blog when readers click on an ad, but the last couple of times I observed my own blog I was harassed with political ads. So, no ads until after November. If you were forced to look at the product of the Koch brothers' money on my blog, I apologize.

Things I Wish I Knew

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

A few years ago, I had picked up my wife at the Halifax, Nova Scotia airport. As we headed off toward our four day home base, about 90 miles east along the coast, the sun went down. 10 miles later, the sky fell and we rode into a waterfall. I haven't experienced such darkness since I was a kid in rural western Kansas. Joseph Lucas and his heirs would have been proud to see such an illumination void. Every village we passed was pitch dark; no street lights or signs, no open businesses, no lights in homes, no sign that anyone still lived in those places. To make things worse, about fifty miles of the road had been recently resurfaced and there were no centerline or shoulder markings. It was barely possible to see the edge of the road with my V-Strom's excellent headlights. There was a festival in Halifax and the Eagles were playing a reunion concert that night (seriously), so turning back to find closer accommodations was pointless and we were committed to making it to our destination. This was a test ride of almost everything I know about motorcycling. 
When I first started riding street bikes, I thought I was a good rider. I'd raced, off-road, for almost 15 years. I even taught a regional motocross program for a year or two. In the spring of 1983, I loaded up my 1979 CX500 Honda for the move from Nebraska to California and I was convinced I knew everything I needed to know to make that ride safely. I was a clueless moron. 
Leaving Omaha in late March that spring, I encountered strong winds that tossed my heavily-loaded Honda about like a small sailboat in high seas. Most of that instability was due to my lack of knowledge of how motorcycle steering actually works. From years of riding small bikes off-road and from a lifetime of misunderstanding two-wheel bicycle physics, I was used to applying a lot of body English to my steering corrections. By the time I made it to my parents' home in western Kansas, I'd wrestled my bike for 300-some miles and stressed my upper back muscles so badly that they are still a source of occasional pain. Today, I know that applying counter-steering pressure on the handlebars will achieve what fought to accomplish with all that wasted effort. Today, high winds bother me less on a heavily loaded 250cc dirt bike than I suffered on a road bike in 1983.

Less than predictable paved road surfaces used to baffle me; which might seem weird since I came from a riding background of completely unpredictable road surfaces. However, since traction was always in short supply off-road, I had never given predictable traction much thought. Dirt from hard-packed to freshly plowed, gravel lubricating the surface of a packed clay track or knee-deep desert sand, wet and slippery clay or slushy muck that sucks rider and motorcycle into the earth's sticky maw, my solution was always "go like hell until you crash." My cornering style was pretty much "throw the bike into a slide, bounce off of a berm, and hammer the throttle out of the corner." That is a pretty violent tactic on pavement, so I used a wimpy variation of brake-and-pivot for more than ten years before slowly including some reliance on good traction in my cornering style. When I began my MSF coach career in 2002, I began to look more seriously at my outlook on traction and adopted a more optimistic tactic for turning on pavement. That has given me more control of how I use the space available on the road and allows me to adapt to the more consistent surface variations provided by regular highway maintenance. The first step to being smooth is in having a plan for entering and exiting each and every corner you approach. Counting on luck and youthful reactions is not a practical or reliable long-term strategy.

Even after having broken a few bones and ripping apart muscles and tendons that were designed to remain attached, it took me most of my life to realize I am mortal and a lousy patient. I do not tolerate extended pain well. Staying shiny side up has become a bigger deal to me in old age. I take longer to heal; physically and mentally. That knowledge inspires me to work on basic riding skills, wear the best protective gear I can afford, to avoid hazardous situations, and to limit my risk-taking tendencies. In other words, I slow down, as a riding tactic, at least as often as I pin the throttle. For twenty years, my solution to almost every emergency situation was "drop the hammer and get one or two wheels into the air." That's plan is not as universally useful as I once thought it was.

The more luck I have experienced, the less I trust my fortunes to remain constant. As I look back on the bad things that didn't happen to me, I realize how close to the margin I have been. I have avoided close encounters with deer and other varmints, cagers and truckers, falling rocks and collapsing highways, and disaster caused by my own inattention. I do not trust good fortune any more than I trust good intentions. That is a lesson it has taken a lifetime to appreciate.

I have been a fan of preventative maintenance for most of my life, but I'm even more precautious in my geezerhood. I walk around my motorcycle, looking for loose hardware and worn out bits, habitually. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a saying that doesn't make a lick of sense to me. "If it ain't broke, it's about to be" seems to be a lot more realistic. I carry tools, spare parts, and double my fuel stop time with inspection habits. I have never liked surprises, even surprise birthday parties, and I like them even less the older I get. (Consider my opinion of cell phones for reference.) Maintenance prevents surprises.

With those lessons and more behind me, after 40-some years of riding my brave and long-suffering wife and I slogged through those 90 dark miles of torrential rain without incident. Because the road and conditions were so severe, I was running totally on habits and experience, concentrating on the edges of the road for deer and anything that might require even more attention than I was already using staying on pavement. It wasn't a quick trip, but we made it to the resort wet, exhausted, and safe. The next four days were warm, sunny, and we had one of the best vacations in our 44 years together exploring the highlights surrounding our temporary home.

Looking back, I can think of a thousand things I wish I knew when I started motorcycling. Some of those lessons required a smidgen of common sense, so they would have been unavailable to me until I turned fifty. The stuff that I could have figured out with a less limited attention span and minimal ability to listen to advice, could have come faster and easier. The fact is, I really did love jumping on my bike and flinging it around a race track without the slightest clue how I could get better. Maybe it all worked out for the best, but there were some hard lessons that could have been less painful.

Sep 10, 2018

Merge It or Park It

All Rights Reserved © 2017 Thomas W. Day

MotorcycleMergeA big cruiser (a full bagger with a reasonably geared-up rider) and a semi loaded with turf approach a T-intersection from opposite directions. The cruiser is making an easy right into the T while the semi has a turn lane and will be crossing lanes after coming to a near stop. The cruiser should reach the turn at least one-hundred feet before the semi begins to make his turn. How do you think this plays out?

Other than me following the semi through the intersection, there is no other traffic in sight. The semi approaches the turn and comes to a complete stop. The cruiser slows to a walking pace before entering the exit lane and, eying the semi, comes to a complete stop at the end of his merge lane. If he got off his hippobike and walked into the road he'd have beaten the semi through the intersection. He waits for the semi driver to signal that it's safe for him to leave the merge lane. This, of course, forced the semi to come to a complete, totally unnecessary, stop partially sticking into the incoming lane while the cruiser doofus waddles away. What should have been a mindlessly simple traffic situation turned into something not only ridiculously complicated but was one more demonstration why Minnesota (and the rest of the country) needs tiered licensing and a dramatically more difficult motorcycle license test for any two-wheel vehicle over 50cc. The motorcyclist in this situation was obviously incapable of handling his oversized toy and should have been ticketed for blocking traffic. If there had been actual traffic in the scenario he would have constituted a road hazard.

From my backseat perspective, the whole incident reminded me of a constant irritant that I do not miss from years of commuting in the Cities. Minnesotans do not know how to merge. Personally, I think stopping in an intersection or, worse, on a freeway entrance/exit ramp should be grounds for loss of license. I wouldn't even object to the police firing a couple of rounds into the driver/rider's head to get their attention. As my father used to say, "There is obviously no vital organ located in that skull." The idea that drivers need to have the "zipper merge" explained to them in remedial terms amazes and depresses me. How is that not obvious?

It clearly isn't, though. There are a couple of exercises in the old, 2007 MSF program that require simple merging skills and about one out of one-hundred classes actually manage to get through these exercises without one or seven or eleven backed-up traffic jams caused by merge-inability. The so-called "seasoned rider" courses are no exception to that statistic. People who have called themselves "riders" for decades simply come to a dead stop when faced with 5mph oncoming traffic (even when that traffic is another motorcycle in a parking lot exercise) and the resulting confusion is comical in a parking lot and suicidal on public roads. As I have asked thousands of times, if you can't merge competently what makes you think you are capable of safely drafting/tailgating?

A few years ago, a rider and fellow MMSC/MSF coach remarked that he'd seen me "aggressively" getting into northbound downtown I35E traffic, as if merging at the end of the entrance lane at traffic speed was impolite. The implication was that I had somehow committed a faux pas in "jumping the line" of traffic some distance above his stuck-in-traffic position. Talk about Minnesota passive-aggressive. Guilty as charged. When I merge, I want to be moving at the prevailing speed and as near to the end of the merge lane as I can get. Commuting is not about standing in line politely waiting for some moron to hang up his damn cell phone. It's about getting to work or home as quickly as possible. If you can't figure that out, you have no hope of comprehending filtering and lane sharing. The day a semi beats me into a T-intersection from the cross-traffic side, even on my 250 dual purpose bike, will be the day I hang up my helmet and buy a convertible. If you are not going to use your motorcycle's superior acceleration, braking, and maneuverability in a simple merge, what would make you think you can use those qualities in an actual emergency? Trust me, you can't and you won't. I've seen that kind of incompetence demonstrated on a regular basis and it amazes me that anyone that impaired would want to risk their life and limbs on a motorcycle.

Back in the 1970's, I visited Chicago from my home in Omaha, for a trade show. My business partner and I were driving a rented panel van, loaded with audio equipment, and we were both small town guys blown away with the Big City. At the first stop light we encountered in the city, when the light changed I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the vehicles started moving together. A couple of lights later, a distracted driver didn't hit the gas when the light changed and the vehicle behind him simply pushed the semi-conscious vehicle into the intersection until the driver assumed marginal control and caught up with traffic. Like most of the US, Chicago is dumbed-down and distracted, today. Vehicles leave intersections connected by invisible 100' ropes, as one of my readers described driver awareness, in every city I've visited. Autonomous vehicles are going to solve this problem for cagers, but motorcyclists are forever going to be on their own. It is hard to imagine how this is going to play out in some way that provides public road access for motorcycles. At least until we are forced into recreational vehicle status, we ought to be merging competently. If nothing else, out of wanting to exit the scene gracefully.

Sep 1, 2018

Drinking the MSF Kool-Aid

Every two years, the Minnesota MSF program requires instructors to attend a “Professional Development Workshop.” Yes, it is as painful as it sounds. Like a lot of the corporate educational fools in the US, the MSF is a big proponent of “scientific teaching” and that is demonstrated sadly and badly in their instructor “training.” So, in August of 2013, I slogged my way through another of these silly exercises in turning energy into random motion. Every time I go through this experience, I think “Maybe I’m too old for this shit.”

After a momentary period of educational creativity in the early BRC years, the MSF has settled back into its over-bearing, drill sergeant tactics. Instead of talking to students like an instructor, the MSF now tells us just to read the corporate material to our “students”: I suppose that is because we’re too dumb to be teachers and the students are too illiterate to read this crap by themselves? The justification for the “read the cards” harping pretends that the MSF has “scientifically audience tested” the pigeon English in their illiterate 1970’s-era technical writing and that those poorly-written phrases magically turn rookies into Valentino Rossi just by their pure scientific magical-ness. “Keep knees against tank,” “keep feet on ground, not on footrests,” and “at double cones, downshift to 2nd gear, easing out clutch while in straight path” are examples of that genius literature. If I could manage a half-decent Pakistani taxi driver accent, I could deliver their script more authentically. The best I can do is a lousy 1950’s-era Charlie Chan hack-job and that is more offensive than funny. Reading this drivel with a straight face is just embarrassing, so I’m working on the taxi driver bit. So far, I’m more inclined toward the “You talkin’ to me?” sort of taxi driver, though. Reading the cards, without editing on the fly, is awkward and embarrassing. Once you’re involved in trying to fill in the missing pronouns and articles, you might as well paraphrase the whole performance.

Even though we often have a dozen riders with a dozen different skills, temperaments, listening abilities, and mental impairments, the MSF pretends that it’s possible to keep all riders in sight at all times while providing individual instruction to anyone who needs it. “”Never have running motorcycles behind you,” is one of the MSF mantras spoken by those who have never taught a class, paid a lick of attention to struggling students, and possesses an infinite supply of energy. A collection of insane and useless coaching positions are pitched to us as having magical powers in that regard. The fact that most of us see with the eyes in front of our heads rather than our backs appears to be new information to the academic geeks who run the MSF. It is possible that those pencil necks can’t swivel far enough to increase their visual horizon more than a couple of degrees, but most of us can cover a lot of ground from one location just by turning our heads and staying mobile. Go figure.

The chief instructor/trainer-trainer’s catch-all rebuttal is “It’s safer.” Like the conservative’s “think of the children” chickenshit come-back, this is a tough-to-beat argument in a typical classroom situation. It’s not like you can effectively argue against safety. However, like several other sorts of irrational debate tactics, no evidence of that safety improvement is offered or proven. In fact, claiming a tactic is safer without proving that point with statistics is just noise intended to stop discussion. The safety of an instructor’s style, range position, and technique is directly related to how that instructor conducts the class. A “universally perfect position” is an impossibility imagined by someone trying to create a defensible position liability-wise.

Likewise, the argument “If the chief instructor does/says it, it must be right” is about as worthless. The basis for “selecting” chief instructors has turned into accepting anyone who is silly enough to pay to haul his ass to one of the MSF’s training locations and obtain that certification. With that as a basis for selection, it’s a credential no more credible than an inheritance. At one time, our chief instructor was one of the best riders and instructors in our system. Now, the three chief instructors are just three guys who paid more money than the rest of us to do this thing. This is just one more example of failing leadership in all things American. Contrary to popular belief, there is some value in having excellence at the top of an organization

Pulling back from the early days of allowing instructors to find their own style and methods is a mistake, but it’s a popular mistake in the US. Everything known about teachers and teaching has found that instructor autonomy is crucial. All positive education outcomes are derived from creative, inspired, empowered instructors who give a shit about their students. The “read the cards” mantra is a No Child’s Behind Left Untouched holdover that came from the Reagan years’ public education sabotage and it drives good instructors from the system while reinforcing mediocrity. If the reason for recitation instead of teaching is because the MSF is requiring conformity, I’d say that would be a powerful reason for abandoning the MSF program for a state-managed system like Oregon’s. If the reason is liability, I’d say the state needs better lawyers. Reading the cards is something the best instructors do when they are being monitored by our “newspeak chief instructors,” but hardly anyone who knows what they are doing has that habit in an actual course. The upside is that reading the damn things is easy enough to do when we’re pretending to believe in the MSF magic. The downside is that doing that reminds us that we’re supposed to be marionettes, not instructors.

The predictable end result of the MSF’s style of instruction was summed up by this report from someone who took the ERC on a military base, “I also passed the ERC this summer.  The card was good for an insurance discount, and some of the slow speed instruction was valuable.  Other than that, the way this course was taught by the instructors I had was very thin...they did what was in the MSF Rider Card booklets, and that's it.  Mediocre instructors teaching minimal curriculum.  Most of the attendees at my course were military active duty, military retirees, or contractors on military bases all needing the card for two-wheel base access.  It is too bad the military is drinking the MSF Kool-Aid.

All of this is just another example of the same mismanagement that has driven real work underground in the US. The only talent American management has consistently shown is an ability to make any kind of work as miserable as possible. The average teaching career in the US is eleven years, but even more important is the 25% of beginning teachers who leave the field after four years and the 50% of urban teachers who abandon their careers after five years. The kids aren’t the problem. Management is. About ten years ago (2003), Pat Hahn produced a list of Minnesota MSF instructors with their “length of service” information. I did some Excel sorting on that data and found that the average (mean) instructor career was about three years. There were some significant outliers (15-24 years) in the group, but the overwhelming majority were short-timers. I know more than a few ex-Minnesota MSF instructors and none of them regret quitting. At the time, I wondered how it was possible to make riding the state’s motorcycles for money unpleasant. Now I know.

I know in a couple of ways. For a dozen years, I taught recording engineering and applied acoustics at a lot private music college. For about eight years, that job was so much fun I would have done it for free. (In fact, I did do a lot of work for nothing other than the pleasure of working with the kids and the school’s great musicians and instructors.) Eventually, the school was overrun by academics and “professional school administrators” and the fun, creativity, and energy was thoroughly sucked from the program. At one time, I thought I would teach at that school until they tossed me out or I died. Now, I’d rather take a bullet than teach another semester. Flipping that kind of commitment takes talent and the one thing American mismanagement has is an incredible ability to make any job as miserable as possible.

I’m writing this in early August 2013 under the assumption that by the time it hits the blog, I’ll either be dead or long out of motorcycle safety training. If not, I’m sure the MSF and the MMSC will make sure that decision is made for me once they read this criticism. It’s hard to imagine that being a big loss. The real problem in motorcycle “safety training” and licensing is that it isn’t serious enough. It’s one thing that 25% of motorcycle fatalities were unlicensed, it’s another that licensing is so easy that people with no ability can fumble through it fairly easily. A real approach to reducing the completely-out-of-line motorcycle fatality and injury numbers would require much tougher motorcycle licensing and a hard-assed approach to unlicensed motorcyclists (confiscate the motorcycle and put the asshole on foot where he/she was stopped along with a big fine). Until that happens, all of this “safety training” malarkey is just part of the sales pitch that is the real MSF objective (after all, the MSF is owned by the Motorcycle Industry Council, a “national trade association representing manufacturers and distributors of motorcycles, scooters, motorcycle/ATV parts and accessories and members of allied trades.” When was the last time you remember a trade organization being restrained in its desire to sell stuff over the safety of its customers? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If it were up to the MIC, motorcycle fatalities would be 90% of total traffic deaths and they’d just suppress the news so that a whole new batch of victims/customers would dive into traffic unaware of the hazards. The MSF is just an attempt to pretend to civic-mindedness while cranking out as many licensed customers as possible. The fact that this organization has forced the states to accept its monopoly on motorcycle safety training is all the evidence anyone should need to know this is a fact.

Aug 24, 2018

Ancient History, Current Situation

Guido Ebert (ex-MMM editor, current freelance writer) wrote an article for Give A Shift titled, “Motorcycle Sales in the Slow Lane.”  That November, 2017 analysis concluded with “Ultimately, the way it looks right now, the U.S. Motorcycle market could – in a best-case scenario – remain largely flat in coming years. But, despite core enthusiast riders continuing to make desired purchases, a great percentage of the potential motorcycle-buying public will continue to feel impacted by economic stressors, the market will continue to experience an aging owner demographic, and no prominent influencer for major growth appears readily apparent.”

Damn, and Guido is an optimist.

New MC SalesI am inclined to suspect he is right, though. This chart, to be really useful, should include another decade back. In the early 80’s, motorcycle hit a collection of snags that made it seem like motorcycles were about to go the way of the dodo. In 1980, there were 112 fatal motorcycle crashes in Minnesota. That was the peak year for both fatalities and injuries (2,728). By 1982, dealers were folding, manufacturers were stuck with a couple of year’s production sitting on showroom floors, and the national economy was sluggish. All of that happened again in 1988 (Remember “It’s about the economy, stupid?”).

MC by NationMotorcycle sales aren’t just going down in the USA, though. Brazil was a little late to the runoff, but for the rest of the countries documented in this chart 2007 was the beginning of a fairly substantial downturn in motorcycle sales. Australia and the UK seem to be the only countries that have shown any sort of serious uptick in sales since the Great Recession. The US sales have continued to decline since the 2016 end of this chart and nobody seems to be predicting a comeback any time soon. The 90’s downturn was about a decade long, so this moment could also turn out to be temporary.

fotw915The reasons, or excuses, for motorcycle purchases are thinning out, though. In the 80’s and 90’s, for all but the most radical sportbikes and a few gas spewing cruiser models, we could always pretend we rode motorcycles to save money on fuel. When gas was $1.25/gallon in the 80’s that was a close argument. When gas was $3.50 in the 2000’s, it would have been a more winning argument but car economy really took major leaps about then keeping the operational costs close. Likewise, for most of the time I’ve been riding a new motorcycle was dramatically cheaper than a new car. In 1973, I paid $500 for a brand new 125ISDT Rickman, for example, but my new Mazda station wagon cost $3,000. Today, you have to look deep into manufacturer’s lineup to find anything that is even a little cheaper than a car. A not-legal-in-California Suzuki TU250X costs $4600 and a Nissan Versa S costs $12,000. The low-ball Versa S gets 39mpg (highway), comes with A/C, an entertainment center, decent storage and reasonable comfort, front wheel drive and manual transmission, and a 3-year warranty. Some dealers give you a Versa S just for buying a more upscale Nissan SUV or Titan pickup. If you are looking at a motorcycle with comparable road-worthiness, you’ll discover your purchase price and fuel economy is neck-and-neck with the Versa. So much for an economics argument.

If an economy argument won’t be a seller for potential future motorcyclists, what will? While “adventure” or “freedom” is something that most motorcyclists list as their motivation for riding, most riders are anything but adventurous and pirate parades are more likely demonstrations of human herding instinct than some kind of weird take on individual liberty. Sales of “adventure touring” bikes have been disappointing, with inventory of 2016-2018 Honda Africa Twins, Yamaha Super Teneres, and assorted KTM and BMW bikes stuck on the showroom floors. Cruisers are still selling, but not at all briskly. Small bikes that should be iintroducing a generation of kids to motorcycling are failing to attract any serious attention, regardless of vintage or modern styling. I’m not seeing a bump in interest from Millenials or whatever the next generation of kids is called at the moment. I think that is a problem.