Aug 28, 2013

Be Cool

Another Incredible Weekend in Duluth - 2004 World Championship Trials, Wagner Cup, Duluth, Minnesota

All Rights Reserved © 2004 Thomas W. Day

duluth_2004-2[Due to a website snafu of entirely my own making, this beautifully written, totally professional article (Geeze, I'm joking.) didn't see the light of day until nearly a year after it was written.  However, I still like it and proudly present it here, in its original glory for your consideration.]

Last year, Takahisa Fujinami told us that he likes the United States “very much.” He says it’s because he likes American food, especially breakfast (“ham, eggs, and toast”), but I think it’s because he can beat World Trials Champion Doug Lampkin here and has done it three out of four times in the last two events in Duluth. Victory adds a positive aftertaste to just about any meal, even, or specially, breakfast in Duluth.

Due to the success of the 2002 and 2004 events, the Duluth trials organizers were awarded with a third FIM World Trials event, that will be held early this June. The Spirit Mountain course went through dozens of tweaks during the weeks before last year’s event. Steve Alhers and his team combined natural terrain and two “stadium sections” to reduce the hiking spectators would have to suffer. Friday, the FIM inspectors made a lap around the course and did some tweaking of their own. I was amazed that anyone would think this course needed to be more difficult, but they did. Later in the day, the riders made the same lap and there were comments on how the course was “too easy.”

The Iron Range accommodated the riders by providduluth_2004-3ing ten hours of hard rain from early Saturday morning until a little before the last rider struggled through section fifteen late Saturday afternoon. Lampkin’s press release called it a “torrential rain,” but it just seemed like a normal Minnesota drizzle to me. One section was so hard core (submerged in 4’ of fast moving water) that the FIM closed it after the first rider practically drowned. By the second loop, all of the top riders were “taking fives” on at least one other section because it was impassable, even for the world’s best.

One section that they did ride, section three, was so complicated that Doug Lampkin, the world champ, crashed into a wall, broke his forks, and injured his right leg. That crash cost him a dozen points as he recovered, five’ing the next section and following it up with a five on ten and a pair of threes on six and eight. When the day was finished, Lampkin was still only eight points back of Fujinami (45 points to 53), but he was off the podium and the championship race tie was broken with a Fujinami lead of seven points. England’s Graham Jarvis (49 points) finished in second and Spanish “rock star” Adam Raga (52 points) finished third. The only North American competitor, Chris Florin, finished with 158 points). duluth_2004-1

The wet weather was especially hard on spectators slogging through intermittently marked trails, sliding and stumbling from section to section, often arriving at the section in time to see the last champ rider vanish into the mist. However, Martin Lampkin, the ex-champ and father of the current champ, said this was “real trials” weather and commented that spectators were privileged to see the world’s top riders struggling with the weather and terrain. He wasn’t being politically correct or condescending to the even. I heard the same sentiment repeated by Spanish, Japanese, and other international trials experts.

Lampkin was still limping as he walked the early Sunday sections. But he was back into his game quickly and Sunday was a totally different day, weather-wise. Sunday’s fog and rain were replaced with bright sunshine and considerably more heat than I’d expected for early June in Duluth. That did a lot to reduce the problems for the riders, too. Fujinami’s 45 Saturday score earned Marc Freixa a seventh place finish on Sunday. A little change in surface conditions goes a long ways in world class trials.

Saturday’s section-by-section battle between Fujinami, Lampkin, and Raga was unbelievable from the first section to the end. The lead changed several times and spectators were running from section to section to see the action. Scores of the top three riders, through two laps around fifteen sections, were 15 and 17 points. Lampkin misread a section and crossed the tape, thinking the section was the same as the previous day. In the press conference, Fujinami admitted he would have made the same mistake if Lampkin hadn’t gone first through the section. That mistake cost Lampkin 5 points, which more than gave Fujinami the points he needed to win the day and the Wagner Cup for the total event win. Saturday ended with Fujinami in first (15 points), Lampkin in second (with 17 points and 23 clean rides), and Raga in third (with 17 points and 21 cleans). Fourth place was Albert Cabestani with 33 points, to give you an idea of how tight the top three positions throughout the day. Chris Florin, again the only North American rider, finished 16th of 16 champ riders with 133 points. duluth_2004-5

I was told, repeatedly, that US riders don’t participate in world events because they don’t want to be embarrassed or jeopardize their endorsements. Florin is the #4 US Champ rider and if his finish was an embarrassment, you’d think those who didn’t find the time/motivation/guts to take a shot at competing with the world’s best would be even more embarrassed by their absence. Last year’s standing US champ, Geoff Aaron, was in Duluth, putting on a stunt demo at Grandma’s Sports Bar and trying to obtain a press pass to the event. If the other top US riders were in town, I missed seeing them, but they were missed in more ways than they know. Chris was cheered every time he rode, regardless of how he finished the sections. He wrestled with duluth_2004-6terrain that was impossibly more difficult than typical US champ sections and never gave up. By the end of Sunday, he was more angry than defeated when he failed to complete a section and was riding with more confidence and purpose at the end of Sunday than at the beginning of Saturday. The only way to be the best is to compete with the best.

For the spectators who braved Saturday’s rain and fog and Sunday’s mud and heat, this was the most incredible Spirit Mountain trials event yet. When I got home, I shagged out in front of the idiot box and saw an ad for a new Jackie Chan movie; and was bored. After a moment, I realized I’d seen all those moves, live and on a motorcycle, dozens of times through the weekend. Real life tops Hollywood special effects every time the world’s best trials riders are in Duluth.

Aug 27, 2013

VBR3 Lurker Report

We went, we saw, we enjoyed the hell out of the 2013 Aerostich Very Boring Rally III, but we barely rode. I felt like a "lurker" all weekend because I trailered my WR250 to the event, stayed in the RV both nights, and didn't once show up at the rally on two wheels; we always walked across the lot from the campground.
grudgegeezer's VBR3 2013 album on Photobucket

My wife has been complaining about my solo "adventures" for four decades, but she's about as adventurous as Jerry Lewis or Dean Martin (Anyone remember them?). So we bought an RV and a trailer (Yeah, I know. Rub it in.) and off we went to Duluth to pretend to be motorcyclists at the third Very Boring Rally. I felt about as comfortable as I would have at Sturgis on my WR250. Between the air conditioning, the super-convenient bathroom, the go-along dog (at least she isn't a miniature poodle), and my general lack of motorcycle-ness, I don't know if I ever felt older than this past weekend. But my wife had fun and I had some.

We did test the WR250X as a two-up rider for a trip into Duluth Friday night. It did fine, keeping up with traffic at 70mph+ and handling pretty much as expected with about 75 pounds over the recommended gross weight load. So far so good with the plan to use the 250 as our convenience vehicle on the RV road trip we're planning for this winter.

The weather was nearly perfect for the first two days of the rally. Sunday was hot and most everyone hit the road early. Breakfast "brunch" started serving at 7AM and was pretty depleted by 9AM. The trials guys could have fooled themselves into believing spectator interest turned around on Saturday, but Sunday was back to normal after the Aerostich crowd left.

Aug 26, 2013

#17 When Chickens Come Home to Roost
All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

The last time a member of my family owned a Harley Davidson was in 1966. It wasn't even a real Harley. It was a 250 Harley Sprint. which was made by an Italian company with an unpronounceable name and as much chance of surviving international competition as my last three employers. My brother bought the Sprint for $75, after the original owner decided it didn't make much of a farm maintenance vehicle. The Sprint was a two-year-old disaster, but it was a lot cooler than the Cushman scooter that we'd been riding before the Harley came into our lives. After my brother cleaned off the farm mud, the bike sat in my parent's garage for most of a year, suffering teenage mechanical inabilities and general neglect, before my he managed to get it running well enough to ride it to my place. My father wanted that corner of his garage for something useful. My brother mistook me for someone who would be willing to donate yard space without expecting something in return. Man, did he mess up!

In almost no time, we got the Sprint together and running and I put it on the local scrambles track. The Spanish two strokes arrived near the end of the Sprint's last summer of life and it didn't take very long for me to get tired of the taste of dirt. A year and a dozen races after the bike's rebirth, you never saw a more wiped out motorcycle. During the following 30-some years, other than my occasional run-in (usually, run-away) with real Harley bikers, that was my family's last experience with Harleys.

Sure, during the 80s I knew guys who had a Harley backed against a wall in their garage, leaking oil and waiting for a custom paint job that might never happen. In the 90s, just about every middle-aged, recently-divorced guy bought a shiny new bag of Harley garage candy, hoping that expensive American iron really was a babe magnet. But members of my family either hated motorcycles or rode rice, fish-and-chips, or pasta-burners. Bean-burners, more accurately, two-strokes, the three of us who rode loved off-road bean-burners. Later, we burned synthetic beans.

I was the first of my brothers to buy a street bike, and actually ride it on the street. Before that, the closest we'd come to being street legal was the moment before we stripped off the street hardware and "converted" what we'd bought to something closer to what we'd wanted. My first motorcycle with a legal and current registration was a 1979 Honda CX500 Deluxe. A twin, I grant you, but a pretty weird, Motoguzzi-clone twin. From that purchase until this summer, the three of us chugged along as untrendy and un-babe-magnetic as middle-aged men can be.

Belatedly, after the fact, with a combination of embarrassment and arrogance, one of my brothers informed me that this past summer he'd spent an incredible wad on a 2001 Dyna Wide Glide. He was recovering from--you guessed it--a high dollar divorce-inspired cash-ectomy and felt a burning need to do something rash and adventurous. I guess. To me, a V-Max or an R1 or a Hyabussa is rash and adventurous. It's tough to beat ten second quarter-miles or cranking it to near-200mph for rash and adventurous. But that's just my uninformed opinion.

My Harley-owning brother raved about the raw power of his new acquisition. Unless I'm misreading the spec sheet, the fuel-injected Twin-Cam 88 (1450cc) turns out a fairly benign 62 hp with a max torque of 72 ft/lbs., while his porker weighs in at about 650lbs (dry). That's a lot of pork per unit of torque. As a rash and adventurous comparison, the V-Max cranks out about 115hp with an 80 ft/lb. torque peak, while still weighing in at about 600 lbs. I still say there is nothing meaner looking than a V-Max. Harley's quote on the Dyna Wide Glide is "Going nowhere never made more sense."


I can't help myself. How about rephrasing that to "Going nowhere quickly never seemed more impossible?" Or something equally sarcastic and appropriate.

"Power" isn't the reason my kid brother bought his new Harley. He bought a new Jeep, too. I never thought of a Jeep as a babe magnet, but anything's possible. I guess. The thing these two toys have in common is expense. That's the thing that most babe magnets have in common, come to think of it. Maybe I'm looking at this all wrong, but it seems to me that the last thing a guy who's recently received a divorce-court-reaming should be looking for is a woman who's attracted to his money.

I think somebody ought to be making a killing selling babe repellent to guys in this situation. But there's no accounting for human nature. Especially to me, since I haven't even figured out what people hear in country music, after 45 years of studying that phenomena.

There's a connection between Harley buying and country music, too. Country songs are all about a guy crying in his empty beer glass because some babe ran off with his guitar, pickup truck, hunting dog, and all his hard-earned money. Buying a new Harley seems to be about getting all that stuff back, plus some new stuff, so that some babe will want to do it to him all over again. Go figure.

MMM March 2002

Aug 22, 2013

Trials in the World Court - 2002 World Championship Trials, Wagner Cup, Duluth, Minnesota

[Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, July 2002 about the FIM Observed Trials World Championship rounds held in Duluth, MN. ]

Right here in Duluth, Minnesotans hosted a World Championship Observed Trials. Twice in the last five years, I've written up my experiences at national trials championships in Duluth. This event was my fourth professional trials event in the last eight years. After twenty years of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it's been more than a bonus to have these events practically in my backyard. If this year's world round hadn't messed up my perspective on what I'd seen in the previous three trials, I'd be happy as a politician in a pork barrel.

The fact is there's not much comparison to be made between the world-class riders and the US-class guys. As good as our riders are, they don't come close to riding at the level that 6500 of us witnessed in Duluth, June 1st and 2nd. If you missed it, don't worry, we'll probably have another one in 10 or 20 years. Maybe. The last time a world round came near Minnesota was in 1979, when the event was held in Michigan. Around that same time, the United States' only world champion, Bernie Schrieber, was finishing up his career. I hope there isn't a connection between having a world champ rider in the country and having a world round in the Midwest. It doesn't look like there are any US champions on the near horizon for some time to come.

USA World Round Committee Chair Steve Ahlers designed the course and sections, with help from a lot of folks from the Upper Midwest Trials Association and the Wisconsin Observed Trials Association. Last summer, Steve visited the FIM technical people in California and attended world rounds in Washington and Europe for his training in world class trials course layout. He must have got it right because the FIM crowd visited the Spirit Mountain site a week before the event and approved nearly every section as Steve planned them.

Two days before the event, the riders began arriving for practice. On Friday they were give02duluth6n an opportunity to suggest course modifications. At the riders’ request, section 3, which was considered to be impossible for anyone except, possibly Adam Raga, was slightly modified. The FIM officials added some crash-protection hay bales to the bottom of section 12's monster jump. That modification was tested by some of the earlier riders and they found it to be useful. The riders were also allowed to position some "kickers," rock launch-ramps at the base of specially difficult steps.

4500 people attended the first US round, a pretty good turnout considering the couple hundred who usually spectate at US national events here. I heard several people comment on how few "locals" were at the event, Twin Citizens are not considered local. But even with non-Duluth Minnesotans counted, I think locals were pretty significantly outnumbered by visitors from as far away as our right and left coasts, Europe, Japan, South America, and, of course, Canada. I met reporters from Great Britain, El Salvador, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany in the pressroom and on the course. Thanks to MMM, Martin Belair, Steve and Sarah Ahlers, I got to hang out with those folks and step inside the tape for pictures and interviews.

One big difference between national and world events is the manufacturer participation. Every bike manufacturer was not only there; but there in force. Instead of a rider and his minder/mechanic and a U-Haul trailer, the manufacturers brought a significant portion of their engineering staff, a fully equipped 40' trailer, extra bikes, marketing and sales people, and one team brought their own chef. Honda-Montesa had a larger staff in Duluth than all of the 2000 US national teams, put together.

02duluth10Saturday was a hot, dusty day in Duluth. The sky was slightly overcast, the sun bore down on the ski trails as if there was no ozone layer or atmosphere to protect bare skin, of which there was more than usual for this part of the frozen north. Even with the ski lifts running (taking passengers uphill only), walking a trials course is a workout. It was pretty easy to tell experienced trials fans from first-timers; the people hustling from section to section were the ones who knew how much there was to miss if you didn't get to see the leaders at each section on the first lap. The riders carefully walk the sections, the first time around, inspecting their routes and rearranging pebbles and dirt to hone their planned path. The second time around, they cook. You have to pick one or two sections to watch to see the best riders even once.

My favorite day one sections, on day one, were the wet and rocky sections, 4 through 8 (Winterer's Wonderland) and 9, 10, & 11 (Deck's Landing). I didn't make it to 12 or 13 before the leaders had past those sections, so I saved them for Sunday. I specially liked the wet sections when the temperature sailed past 90 Saturday afternoon. The bugs liked those areas, too, and I lost a bottle of Gatorade that two mosquitoes mistook for a full vein. No kidding, Duluth blood suckers are that big. Really!

Watching the world champs climb, leap, bounce, fly, and slide over and through water, rocks, and boulders the size of a living room is my idea of a perfect way to spend a spring weekend. The most common phrase heard on section 8 was "no way!" or "impossible!" After watching the first ten riders (the lower ranked riders go first), fumble, fall, and end up drenched to the neck, the first guy to clean the section left the crowd speechless. He was checked, scored, and heading to the next section before we all snapped-to and started cheering. From then on, the section seemed as tame as a highway. The top ten riders barely slowed from start to finish in a section that was impossible, even for them, to walk.

The whole afternoon went that way, the lower ranked riders made sections look as impossible as they were and the top ranked guys rode over them like they were paved. Since the top ranked US guy is Chris Florin, at #40, that didn't give the home crowd much to cheer. Most of the uncomfortable-with-prime-time US riders didn't even show up. The general feeling was that they're getting old and intolerant of losing badly. Geoff Aaron had a conflicting Team Extreme event, but no one I talked to said they believed Geoff wished he was here, instead of hopping minivans and portapotties at a mall. The 2001 US champ, Fred Crossett of Belgium, is a privateer and, being unsponsored, he's ineligible for FIM competition. The US riders who were in Duluth represented the youngest, hungriest riders who were willing to risk their reputations to be schooled by the world's best. And schooled they were. Our best showing, for the two day event was Chris Florin, who finished 25th of 26 on Saturday and 21st of 25 on day two. As a quick reference of the level of riding we saw in Duluth, Chris collected 120 points on Sunday while Takahisa Fujinami and Dougie Lampkin touched rock for 11 and 15 points. Fujinami put a stabilizing foot to the ground 11 times in two rounds of 15 sections, including 5'ing section 4 in the first round! In-freakin'-human!

feature50dAt the end of day one, the winners were Dougie Lampkin, Takahisa Fujinami and Adam Raga. Points-wise, Lampkin and Fujinami tied, with 21 points. They tied on the number of cleans. Lampkin had six "ones" vs. Fuhinami’s four, so Lampkin won the day's trophy with a technical knockout. It took a little while to be decided, too. There were rumors that political games were being played, that the Lampkin family were haranguing the judges. The issue was less vicious and messier. A section was contested and the original scoring stuck. Since both of these guys ride for Montesa, I‘d guess that serious protests are reserved for the competition.

Riders, dealers, observers, and organizers do this sport for love, in the US. There is practically no money in it. In Europe, it's another story. This is a real pro sport, there, with millions of Euros at stake on the outcome of every event. So the level of gamesmanship is increased proportionally. Riders, minders, and mechanics whine and moan about every lost point. They'll do anything to get an inch on the competition. You know that people this involved know the rules of the game, but if they think there's a chance of intimidating an observer into giving pack a point or five, they pretend they're completely unfamiliar with how points are scored.

In years past, I've been a little discouraged with and disappointed in at the consistency of our observers in national rounds. In my opinion, they've been a lot too Minnesota Nice. Not this trip. Every observer I observed was downright testy when their opinions were contested. They called points quickly and, apparently, knew the rules better than the minders or some of the corporate guys who were trying to squeeze a few points out for their riders. Still, the mushy quality of some of the rules trips up the casual fan. When is a stop a stop? A stop gets either a point or five points, depending on the . . . stoppiness? (Jim Winterer says: "Actually, a very, very brief stop gets zero points, but a total, undeniable stop gets just one point. Going backwards is a five, but it has to be a pretty clear backwards.") Ok, the horse is dead. It was fairly clear that most observers ruled rolling backwards as "cessation of forward motion." Newton and, maybe, Einstein would be happy to see that. I was happy to see the cranky Europeans didn't take advantage of the nice Minnesotans.

While it's always true that trialers are the most meditative of motorcyclists, it's less true at the world level. These guys take their time walking and surveying the sections, but they flat out cook on the second lap. Riding the press truck, we couldn't catch the leaders simply driving from the end of one section to the end of the next group of sections. We rolled in about the time the last riders rolled out.feature50a

The Duluth organization could have changed up to five sections for Sunday. They picked two for slight modification. They made the top of section 12 a little more difficult and the top of section 15 a little easier.

The second day was completely different from the first. Sunday was cold and sunny, but quickly turned colder and overcast. It must have been a die-hard day, because about half of the Saturday-sized crowd turned up. It was a perfect day to be hiking Spirit Mountain, though. About 1/2 way to my first section and I was unzipping my jacket. I, mostly, hung out at sections 12-15 for the first lap. Twelve was nicknamed "up, up, and away (to the hospital)" for its 15' first step, terminating in another wall about 20' from the first step with another 10' step. Again, the US riders appeared, looked at the section, and moved on without making an attempt. The first few world riders took at shot at it, all made the big jump, but most failed to clear the 2nd ledge. The first rider to clean 12 was Spain's Marc Colomer. He ripped up the mountain like he was riding a rail. After Colomer, we saw 12 cleans in a row from the world's best.

feature50bBeing the predictable sort I am, I headed back to my favorite sections at the bottom of Spirit Mountain and watched the water rides. I still consider section seven to be impossible, even though I saw it cleaned a dozen times and, on Sunday alone, riders took 22 zeroes on the section. I don't care; it's still impossible. After wandering around in the rocks and water, I hustled back to the last four sections to watch the leaders roll through to the finish. In the end, #2 plate Takahisa Fujinami beat World Champ Dougie Lampkin by 4 points for the day's win and for the Wagner Cup. His expression as he cleaned and cleared the top of section 15 will be stuck in my mind for a long time. I have probably never seen a happier person.

feature50cI stayed for the trophy girl kissing and the Champagne-squirting, took some more pictures of beautiful motorcycles, and came home. For those of you who made it to Duluth, I know you're still trying to comprehend what you saw there. For those of you who didn't, I think I heard this quote almost as often as "no way," "(insert friend's name here) is going to be so pissed that he didn't come." And so he should be.

Aug 20, 2013

The sad fact is, I despise conservative anything. The kind of mental midgetry that bans a motorcycle from a race because it is too good just makes me want to ignore everything racing organizations sponsor. One of my childhood heroes, Parnelli Jones, experienced this bullshit at the Indianapolis 500 with his STP-Paxton Turbocar. I haven't watched an Indi 500 since. There was a back-story about Honda's EXP-2 that I can not find a link to, but as I remember it the bike was banned from the Paris to Dakar series because no one else could replicate the technology without breaking Honda's patents. Bore me to death with your old technology and timid bullshit and I take my money and time somewhere else. It is despicable that electric motorcycle racing is already turning into a bunch of little old ladies worried that someone might knit something interesting.

Aug 18, 2013

Gangbangers with Badges

From Biker News out of Colorado comes this hilarious piece: "Cop Biker Clubs Draw Unwanted Attention."  My favorite line in the article was, from Michael Koepke, vice president of the Yavapai County Hells Angels chapter, "They give a bad name to motorcycle clubs." I wonder if Koepke knows the meaning of the word "ironic?"

The gang in question, the Iron Brotherhood, is being investigated for a few reasons, the most recent being a Prescott, Arizona bar brawl that resulted in at least one brawler being hospitalized. The gangbangers being prosecuted are "Tarzan, Mongo, Guido and Top Gun." These knife-wielding, brass knuckled, Harley Davidson riding, patched and tatted bangers had day-jobs as a police chief, a county sheriff's sergeant, a police officer and a paramedic.

The intro to the Brotherhood's website claims, "The Iron Brotherhood MC was founded in January 2006 by Law Enforcement Officers and former members of another LEMC. The purpose of this club is to promote brotherhood among like minded brothers who enjoy riding hard, working together, and sharing in a tight knit brotherhood. We are bikers who happen to be cops who share a common bond. We are dedicated to our profession and our brotherhood . . . "

As you can see from their very friendly looking logo, these are upstanding members of society who make a valuable tax-collection contribution, most likely scaring the shit out of every citizen they stick with traffic taxes (the accurate description of what "serve and protect" too often means in the real world). 

A big part of my general dislike for police of any sort is based on a lot of past history. Too often, small time bullies get badges and become professional bullies. That is the talent and psychological pool most police departments are all too happy to draw from. Having had about two dozen local police in my experience riders' courses over the years, the fact that the overwhelming majority are proud to be sporting grossly illegal pipes on their grossly mal-designed hippobikes and are every bit as vested in the badass biker image as the characters the FBI has labeled a "terrorist threat" and are listed in the NCIC Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF). In my wife's words, this is just another group of "excess males" behaving as if they are rogue cats in an over-crowded barn.

Aug 17, 2013

Not News, but Media Noise

This is a wonderful example of how fuckin' stupid the "media" (air, for example, is a media for sound, thermal energy, light, etc.) has become. The morons at the incredibly dumbed-down Rapid City Journal published an attempt to describe a series of crashes at the Sturgis Potato-Potato Rally called, "One dead in bike wreck, multiple vehicles seized for drugs." This brilliant piece of kindergarten writing contains irrational statements like:
  • "William L. Ziegelbein, 44, of Lincoln, Neb., was traveling north on a 2008 Triumph Rocket motorcycle, when his bike left the road on a curve and entered the west ditch . . . "
  • "A motorcycle driven by Mark Steever, 47, of Lennox, went out of control while traveling south on Nemo Road . . ."
  • "A motorcycle driven by Ellen Lloyd, 60, from Lavista, Neb., failed to handle a curve while traveling east on Nemo Road . . . "
  • "A motorcycle driven by Sherwin Coleman, 58, from West Bountiful, Utah, lost control while traveling north . . . "
  • "A motorcycle driven by Clarence Carlson, 40, from Warroad, Minn., drifted off the road while traveling west on U.S. Highway 16A . . ."
  • "A motorcycle driven by William Perry, 45, from Hawthorne, Calif., failed to negotiate a curve while traveling west on state Highway 44 . . . "
One after another (for a total of 12 pitiful victims of runaway motorcycles), these vicious motorcycles dragged their hapless passengers off of the road and into ditches, cars and other motorcycles, and into various stationary obstacles while their completely innocent and unaware "riders" were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oddly, the bikes did not get the blame for all of the illegal drugs and weapons South Dakota police confiscated.

Aug 16, 2013

Why I Don't Ride Cruisers (or When Seat Height Is All That Matters)

Originally, this was an article requested by my old MMM editor, Sev Pearman. His idea was for me to identify motorcycles with low seat heights (the apparent prime technical specification for the over-50 crowd) that were still competent motorcycles. Going into to this, I thought it was a hopeless task but I was slightly surprised that there are a few options. Maybe this isn’t apparent, but the fact is that a low seat height is an engineering sacrifice on several levels. The only race bikes that even make an attempt to keep the seat low are dragsters and they are the ultimate in single-purpose vehicles. To be sure I wasn’t missing something obvious, I ran the article past Kevin Cameron and he said, in his usual efficient manner, “Everything you’ve said is true.” So, with my apparent appeal to a higher authority in hand, I went with what I had.
Apparently, there is no interest in this kind of article in the new MMM editorial regime and it appears to be an unsellable idea to the rest of moto-journalism, so I will “publish” it here for my favorite readers.

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

As an MSF instructor, I hear this every week, "I bought a Harley/V-Star/Polaris/etc. because I could touch the ground flat-footed." A lot of the rest of that discussion goes over my head. I don't own a bike I can flat-foot and haven't since the early-1980's, so that selection criteria has rarely connected with me. However, with a 29" inseam (and that measure usually means my pants' cuffs are ragged) and arthritis in every joint, getting a leg over a tall seat is not an insignificant consideration. The problem is physics and physical.

Last summer, a Geezer blog reader, John Kettlewell, sent me a note (titled "Cruisers!") that contained an article from New York state's "The Saratogian" about one more old Harley rider failing to negotiate a curve and meeting a tractor-trailer head-on. John summed up his analysis of this fatal crash with, "[This] is why cruisers are a problem--no matter how much you plan on just puttering down the road to the next rally or bar, there comes a time on a motorcycle when you need to maneuver and/or brake fast in order to avoid some problem. They just aren't safe." Forwarding that note to a few friends started an email conversation that resulted in Sev Pearman challenging me to write a "non-ranty" article that would prove that "If you value low seat height you don't have to settle for all the limitations inherent to a compromised cruiser form." 

John's reasoning is why I avoid the cruiser style of motorcycles. They aren't safe. Now, I have to figure out if there is a way to get a low seat height and still have a competent motorcycle. First, I am going to try to define "low seat height."

While there are motorcycles that go overboard in the pursuit of stumpy seat heights, like the 24" seats from the late-odd Ridley Motorcycle's vehicles, it appears that anything under 30" is an engineering decision to go low as a primary design feature. Engineering anything involves design compromises and the design concessions made to keep motorcycle seat heights low result in long wheel bases, low ground clearance, poor cornering capability, suspension travel limits, and the resulting handling constraints. There are few performance-enhancing options for an engineer who is told "keep the seat under 30 inches." BMW's boxer engine is one way to lower the height of the engine, although that option creates a wide profile that has other issues. For good reasons, BMW doesn't abuse the vertical space saved by their engine design to dramatically lower seat heights. BMW's lowest seat height (using the "comfort seat" and suspension lowering options ) is found on the R1200R and K1600 GTL models at 29.5 inches; 33-35" is more in-line with their design specifications. BMW does offer custom seats on six models with the explanation, "Let's face it - not every one is six feet tall with long inseams. And besides, some folks just want a more easy-handling riding position." Still, what BMW calls "low" compared to Harley Davidson's typical 26" seat heights is a world apart for many riders.

Once a designer has opted to drop the seat height to an arbitrary value very near the height of the rear tire, several things have to give way to make room for the seat base. The obvious, and often used, solution is to stretch the frame to create the necessary real estate. When you couple this requirement with the style-related requirement of a large, padded tractor seat, the frame can get quite long. By necessity, a longer wheelbase means more "stability," which is marketing-speak for "ponderous steering."

Going for a sub-30" seat height, including 3-4" of padding and seat frame, the next thing effected is ground clearance. With 22-24" from the bottom of the seat base to the ground, typical cruiser ground clearance specifications are in the 4-5" territory. That limited clearance not only effects the motorcycle's ability to get over common obstacles, like speed bumps and driveway gutters, but low clearance dramatically reduces the motorcycle's maximum lean angle. If the designer chooses to find some of the necessary real estate for the engine and transmission by increasing engine/transmission width, even more lean angle is lost. Maximum lean is directly related to a motorcycle's ability to turn quickly and perform basic maneuvers.

Ground clearance means more than just the space between the frame and the ground. Ground clearance sets a maximum limit to suspension travel. If the ground clearance is 4", the absolute maximum suspension travel is also 4" and the practical limit is more like 2 1/2" to 3". The first time I rode a modern Harley was in 1993, in Colorado. I was on a Sportster of some sort and as I swung the bike from the dealer's driveway to the street, I ground the pipe when the front tire dropped into the gutter. It was a normal maneuver, I wasn't turning sharply or going fast. When I brought the bike back, I watched other riders leave the dealership and discovered that they all turned right from the drive into the far edge of the four-lane street's center lane, to increase the radius of their turn and reduce the lean angle. Not only is that an illegal maneuver, it's unsafe and a terrible demonstration of one more way cruisers are unsafe vehicles. It did, however, prevent the pipe-grinding problem I experienced when I turned into the near lane. The lack of lean capability is a big part of the "I had to lay 'er down" mythology. Those riders did "have to" lay the bike down, since attempting to do any serious steering maneuver would lever the bike up on to metal parts and throw the vehicle into an uncontrolled slide.

It's important to keep in mind that a low seat height might mean an unacceptably wide seat, too. To cover the hot engine components that have been made wide to avoid making them tall, manufacturers put tractor seats on many motorcycles and shift the footpegs far forward to accommodate broad transmission and engine cases. In many cases, the advantage of the low seat is lost as the feet-forward riding position gives up steering leverage, the rider's ability to stand when the vehicle crosses obstacles, and a well-balanced position of strength when the motorcycle is stopped.

Many women complain that motorcycle manufacturers don't consider their physiology in bike designs. The complaint should more accurately be that physics and nature have conspired against motorcyclists with short legs and limited strength: sex is inconsequential (you don't see that statement often). So far, even electric motorcycles haven't overcome this requirement, since batteries take that same territory in the center of the motorcycle. Allowing for reasonable room for a power plant and transmission necessarily raises the seat height, center of gravity (COG), and usually creates a motorcycle that requires more strength to handle at low speeds and when the bike is stopped. Once the motorcycle is in motion, the advantage moves to the shorter wheelbase, higher ground clearance, quicker steering designs. The scooter and cruiser solution of moving the motor and/or rider over the rear wheel produces compromises in weight distribution and handling.

Going for the lowest seat height possible has produced some odd results; one example would be those 24" seat heights and other non-rider accommodations (auto-transmission, parking brake, etc.) that were found on the late Ridley Motorcycle's vehicles. The company's 2009 (last year of production) 750cc Auto-Glide cost $14,500, has a 24.5" seat height, 5.25" of ground clearance, 3.5" of suspension travel, weighed 482 pounds (wet), and a 77.5" wheelbase. The CV transmission eliminated a lot of real estate demands, which gave Ridley a couple of extra inches to work with between the ground and the seat height. Ridley aggressively aimed their products at Boomer Generation women, a marketing plan that may have backfired as loudly as their barely-muffled motorcycles.
Looking for more traditional and better performing motorcycles in the major manufacturer lines didn't do much to counteract the argument that the low seat height target coexists with performance motorcycles:

Yamaha's "new for 2012" XT250 Dual Purpose all-around commuter/play-bike has a stock 31.9" seat height and a really narrow profile, which makes it a lot more friendly than the specs read to riders like me. Still, 32" is a fair obstacle for many overweight and un-athletic Americans and for those with altitude-challenged inseams. The rest of Yamaha's lineup presents exactly the rider complaint that forces them to the company's V-Star products. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you shouldn't consider the Super Ténéré (33.26" or 34.25" with an optional "low seat" that takes another 35mm ( 1.38") away from the stock seat's measurements) or the FZ1/FZ8 (32.1"), FZ6 (30.9") or the FJR1300A (31.69" or 32.48"). We both know those kinds of numbers are exactly what put you in the V-Star Roadliner's 27.8" seat, aren't they?

Honda has always known who the Goldwing market is and that bike's stock 29.1" seat height reflects that awareness. The new NTV700V seems to be less well-positioned with a 31.7" seat and the Adventure Touring NC700X's 32.7" riding height puts that bike in the "questionable" category for those afraid of heights or with limited mobility. The CBR250R is well-designed for its target market, new riders and urban commuters, with a 30.5" seat. The rest of Honda's sportbike line seat heights run very near 32" for the whole product line and their cruisers are predictably around 26".

Kawasaki has, probably, the most commonly modified motorcycle in the history of motorized two-wheel vehicles in the KLR650 (No, loud pipes and cheap chrome don't qualify as "modifications." At best, those bits are no more personal or creative than the Xmas decorations you bought at Wal-Mart.) The KLR's 35" seat height is a prime reason this go-everywhere motorcycle attracts aftermarket vendors. Kawasaki's "little" dual purpose bike, the KLX250S also sports a 35" seat. The Kawai sport bikes are in the 31.7-33.3" territory, except for the 250R and the 2009 500R at 30.5". That company's sporty tourer, the Concours, sits at 32.1", ignoring the lesson Honda demonstrates with the Goldwing. The Vulcan Vaquero, Voyager, and Nomad cruiser-tourers offer a 28.7" platform. Kawasaki drops that to 27" on the Vulcan cruisers.

Suzuki's sportbikes all sit about 32" high and the cruisers drop that to about 27.5". One of the best urban commuting bikes imported to the US, the TU250X standard, has a 30.3" seat. The 650 and liter V-Stroms start at 33". As expected, Suzuki's dual sport bikes aren't playing the low seat game. Only the DRZ125 has a reachable 30.5" seat, while their "serious" dirt bike, the RM-Z450 sits at 37.6".

rahierMost popular motorcycles will attract aftermarket products for lowering the suspension or seat. Lowering the seat doesn't involved a lot of risk, other than a possible sore butt. Dropping the suspension can introduce engineering flaws that can be hazardous. For example, if you lower the suspension 2" on a KLR, you have a math problem. The stock KLR650 has 8.3" of ground clearance and 7.3" rear and 7.9" front suspension travel. Two inches off of the rear suspension means the bike's frame will hit ground while the suspension continues to collapse. There is a solid reason Kawasaki put some margin between ground clearance and suspension travel. Lowering the suspension at one or both ends changes the frame and steering geometry, too. That can have serious handling and stability consequences. Just because some shade tree "mechanic" offers a lowering kit does not mean installing that kit is a good idea.

Where does that leave those of us who walk less-than-tall? The choices are obvious. We can either suffer performance-compromised cruisers that "just aren't safe" or we can learn to ride real motorcycles.

Gaston Rahier Paris DakarThe posterboy for the second choice was Gaston Rahier, the Belgian Suzuki-rider's three-time FIM 125cc Motocross World Champion (he still holds the record with 29 Grand Prix victories), four-time Motocross de Nations winning team member, and three-time Paris-Dakar winner on the highly-modified 1000cc BMW Rally GS motorcycle that he made famous. "The little man with the giant reputation" was 5'4" tall and you can see how tall the BMW in comparison. The GS weighed 507 pounds and with 60 liters of fuel being a substantial portion of that mass. If being able to touch the ground wasn't a big deal when Rahier was crossing the Sahara Desert, not being able to put both feet flat on the ground can't been a critical criteria for selecting your bike.
There are tactics for riding a tall bike that relieve some of the problems associated with that long reach:
  • Assuming you're not sitting on a wide saddle, shift your body to the left side when stopping and plan ahead to stop with only your left foot on the ground. Using this approach, I can often flat-foot my 34" WR250X's at stoplights; it's just one foot, though.
  • Watch for crowned roads and sloped parking spaces. Even if you're shifted off to the side, going for the longer distance could be enough to throw you off balance.
  • Although you'll lose style points, it's often worth getting off of the bike where the ground is flat and the sidestand can help hold the bike up. When you are off of the bike, back it into the parking space and wrestle with positioning the motorcycle without the added problem of dismounting.
  • Mount the bike like you're riding a horse. I can, currently, swing a leg over the WR but I don't usually bother. The sidestand and bracket are pretty stout on that bike and I take advantage of that fact by getting on the bike using the left footpeg as a stepladder. In open terrain, I often mount up "Pony Express-style"; I put my left foot on the peg, slip the clutch to get the bike rolling, and swing up on to the bike as it gets moving. On muddy ground, this can be the only way I can get back on two wheels.
  • Ride wearing real motorcycle boots. Decent motorcycle boots add at least an inch to your leg length and their grip they provide will keep your feet from sliding out from under you when the road surfaces are imperfect.
  • Learn to balance your motorcycle. Regardless of law enforcement mythology, no state law requires a motorcyclist to put a foot down at a stop light or sign. If you can balance the bike, you are more ready to move away from stopped in an emergency and you'll be more likely to have your eyes up and looking for hazards than if you're comfortably relaxing waiting for a light change. Bicyclists do it all the time and it's much harder to balance a bicycle. 
Wrapping this up, I see that I failed to accomplish Sev's assignment. Outside of the Goldwing, I did not find a single competent, new motorcycle with a seat lower than 30". There are, however, several choices for reasonably modern used (especially pre-1990) motorcycles. Even with 30" as an acceptable measure, the choices are all under-500cc motorcycles.  That's not a bad thing because a competent two-fifty is more vehicle than 90% of the height-challenged motorcycling public can ride to the limits of that machine's capabilities. If you're set on that two-liter hippomobile and "value low seat height" above other riding and engineering concerns, you will "have to settle for all the limitations inherent to a compromised cruiser form." Currently, there is no magic bullet that solves the handling problems created by a sub-30" seat height. Outside of scooters and cruisers, there aren't many options out there for riders who insist on looking for a motorcycle that accommodates their physical inabilities. Getting into shape, limbering up, becoming stronger and more flexible is probably out of the question. Right?

eddie-lawson-alligator POSTSCRIPT: Thanks for a few readers, I have been officially turned on to the Gurney Alligator; an attempt to remedy the problems of low seat height and handling. To my eyes, most of the objections still stand with this vehicle. I can see how it might have some improved characteristics on nearly perfect roads/racetracks, but I think I’d rather have a convertible than something this restrictive, uncomfortable, and limited.

Aug 15, 2013

Minnesota Montesa

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day martin2

[This was a wonderful (from my perspective) interview with one of my old heroes, Martin Belair.  Martin was a national level California trials in the 1970s.  Since then, he's moved to Minnesota and is the national distributor for Montesa motorcycles.  He was a great interview and I'm only sorry that I didn't publish all of what he said to me. 

This article appeared in the June issue of Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly.  Check out the pictures, they're even better than the interview.]

One of Minnesota's better-kept motorcycling secrets is that we are the home of an exotic bike distributor (the motorcycle is very exotic, and the distributor is somewhat exotic). Martin Belair's US Montesa is the importer/distributor of Montesa trials bikes and he's based in Minnetonka. Martin is a Southern California transplant who came here for the clean air and tall mountains. He's also a Master trials rider from America's golden age of motorcycling and an admitted "trials geek."

This is a special year for observed trials in the Midwest. Martin's company is one of the sponsors for a two-day World Outdoor Trials event at Duluth's Spirit Mountain this June. Martin is also responsible for training the Minnesota observers to world trials standards and he has planned many of the event's sections. If you know anything about trials, you know this is an incredible opportunity for Minnesota motorcycling enthusiasts. When I first met Martin, at the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in January, he was watching the Extreme Trials demonstration. Or rather, he was watching people watching the demo. He told me that what he liked best about these demos was the expressions on spectators' faces when they first saw what a trials rider could do. It was easy to see what he meant.

The demonstration, by 1992 World Champion Tommi Ahvala, drew large crowds. The things he did on his stunt rig are barely warm-up exercises compared to what Ahvala does on a trials section, so those spectators haven't seen anything. Yet. In June, they'll have a chance to be completely astounded.

Martin, graciously, gave me nearly an hour of his time and attempted to update my knowledge of modern trials jargon and philosophy. He was, probably, only partially successful because old habits die hard.

MMM: When did you get started in trials?
I started riding trials in 1969. I rode my first trials event . . . I think I was nine years old, on a Hodaka Ace 90. I finished 17th out of 19 guys. We were desert racers. We had no idea what we were doing. We realized that right away, so we didn't ride another trials for 8 months. fbelair_1946

In the meantime we got trials books and reconfigured our Hodakas. Put the mufflers back on, geared them down. In those days, people took bikes like Hodakas or DT-1s and modified them. We put obstacles in the back yard and we practiced. When I say "we," I mean my brother and I. When we went back, we were ready. We were competitive and we knew what we were doing. But we always laugh about that first event. What a sight we must have been! We were riding the sections with our goggles on. We had expansion chambers. I'm sure the trials guys must have thought . . . I just remember tearing miles of ribbon out, you know? Just wreaking every section. I'm sure they were just going, "what are these guys doing?"

It was the best time to be there. It was a golden era. I spent a lot of time riding at Saddleback Park. There were so many areas to ride and the terrain was so good. The economy was there and everybody was riding dirt bikes. And trials was . . . that era produced the best riders America has ever produced. We had riders that were competitive in the world Championship. We produced the world champion from Southern California, Bernie Schreiber in 1979. We had eight out of the top ten riders in the nation, were from Southern California. It was such a hot bed. We had the terrain. We had sponsorships. We had healthy clubs, because we had 200 people show up at every local event. It was everything. All those things that go into making a sport successful.

Bernie Schreiber was champion. Marland Whaley was champion. Lane Leavitt, Don Sweet, Joe Guggliemeli, there were so many good riders, competition was so intense. I go back and look at those results and it blows me away. A national in Michigan, I finished 7th place and I was four points off of the leader. It was very, very competitive. It was a great era.

MMM: Could you compare those riders to today's riders?
It's difficult. The machines now are so much better. The tires. The brakes. The machines help these guys look spectacular. The machines back then . . . were tanks. You bring out one of those vintage bikes and put Tommi [Ahvala] on it and, yeah, he can do some stuff but nowhere near what he's doing now. . . Back then, to go over every little rock or log, was all this commitment and effort to work the bike through the section. And now, I could stand on the thing and point it and it does all the work.

The riders, then, were great. Especially considering the machinery they used. I think the riders were incredible. I mean, we had tires that were rock hard. Today, tires are incredible. The riders now, obviously, are spectacular. They're amazing. I think the riders, now, are definitely better. In any sport, they're going to be better. But it's hard to compare eras. We were awfully good, back then.

The other thing was that we rode a lot more low traction. Lot more slippery. Trials was a winter sport, initially. And now it's become a summer sport. So they're riding in much more high traction areas. It allows them to do much more. We were riding slippery, slimy, mossy creek beds with rock-hard tires. It's a different ballgame.

MMM: There was a strange mental glitch for me, when I first came back to paying attention to trials a few years ago. I saw Lampkin was back up there. I thought he has to be 100, practically.
I've had a number of people say that, "that guy's still alive?" No, no, no. It's the kid [Dougie]. That is a great story. You know he was just awarded the MBE by the Queen, made a member of the British Empire? It was in all the British press. That's quite an honor. That's a big deal. That whole family, what a motorcycling family!

MMM: I've watched a few of the world rounds on the tube and videos. Dad sure looks like he's tough on Dougie.
They're no-nonsense . . . they're very good about getting the job done.

Dougie . . . having his dad there was everything. Now when you see them, his dad is much quieter. . . It doesn't look like a sport you have to be tough in, but it is. At that level, it's a knife fight. . . . It's serious. Maybe knife fight's a little exaggerating, but . . .

MMM: A mental knife fight?
Yeah, that's what it is.

I never had that, in my career. I was happy to be out there, I was competitive, I was riding, I did my best, I went home. I just never entered that strata of the Wayleys and the Schreibers. Schreiber, I traveled with him a little bit. He told me. We went to a world round in Pennsylvania in '78. The guy would take, the morning of the trial, a cold shower. He told me, "In Europe, the morning of the trial I take a cold shower, I drink two espressos, I don't eat breakfast, and, by the time I get to that first section, I'm pissed off."

MMM: I'll bet.
That's what makes a champion. That drive. They're freaks.

MMM: Trials has never really did "hit" in the US, right?
Not to the point that people expected, but it did get very, very popular. I remember big events in Southern California where there would be 200-300 riders in the novice class. And we realized then that there's a saturation point. You can have too many riders in an event and everybody's waiting in line to ride a section and nobody's having any fun.

Trials is a sport that makes sense on paper. It really does. But it's a humbling sport. And a lot of people don't like to be humbled. There's no faking it in trials. You can't put on all the gear and learn to do a triple and be a hero. If you can't ride trials . . . you fall down in front of people. It takes a certain sort of, I call it, knuckle-head. It takes a knuckle-head to ride trials.

I remember a friend of mine said, "Why would you want to go over those rocks? Isn't there a road?

Trials is pretty healthy right now. I think it's in as good a shape as it's been in a long time in America. I don't know if it will ever been big, big mainstream. I don't know if it has to be. It's a great sport. The people who are involved in it are great. I don't think there's any more passionate, die-hard people than trials riders. To keep this sport alive . . . the amount of volunteer hours that go into it. It's a passion. It's growing. There's a lot of people riding trials for fun, now. Not necessarily competing, just buying them for trail bikes to play on, to cross-train. I see a lot of guys our age buying trials bikes.

MMM: The first national I went to in Duluth, four years ago, I was really impressed with the fact that there were nine year old kids and sixty year old competitors. I don't know of any other motorcycle sport like that.
Not off road. That's one great thing about it. We've got several national competitors in their sixties. You can do trials your whole life. It makes sense on paper. It's beautiful on paper. You can ride in your backyard. You can do it with your kids. Your expenses are low. Your risk of injury is low. It's a very acceptable form of motorsports for a lot of people because it's not offensive. You're not ripping up the ground. You're not making a lot of noise.

MMM: One of the things I used to like about 70s-era trials bikes was that, for less than a gallon of gas, you could ride all day. Is that still the case with modern bikes?
It's got to be the least expensive motorsport you can compete in. Your bike is going to last forever. A gallon of gas is what it costs you to go ride all day. You need a small piece of terrain. Like I said, it makes sense on paper. It's such a logical sport, it makes sense in so many ways. I just don't know if it has what appeals to the masses. It appeals to a special mind. A special personality, that's intrigued by the challenge of learning a set of skills.

MMM: Which apply to every area of riding.
They absolutely do. That's what we see is a lot of people trying to improve their off-road riding by buying trials bikes. There's a list of pro motocrossers that are buying trials bikes. I've sold, to two private motocross teams, five bikes to each team. Not national level teams, but regional teams. Five bikes to have his riders cross-train and improve their skills.

It's kind of funny, going back to what you were saying about low cost, one dad asked me, "How many hours am I going to get out of this engine?" I said, "Years." He said, "How often do I have to do a top end?" I said, "maybe a set of rings in three years." You know? The guy didn't believe me.

It's a different level of spending and it's hard for people who come from motocross to realize how reasonable trials is. You buy the bike. What do you put on it? Maybe tires once a year, chain, and brake pads.

MMM: Is trials a small market, just in the US, or all over the world?
All over the world. Total production for all the brands . . . you're talking probably 10-12,000 units. Five brands, world-wide production. That's small. So, Europe, obviously is the biggest market. Markets like France, Spain, Italy and England. Those are your top four. The US is the sixth largest trials market in the world . . . But 10,000 units, that's small. You talk to any of these big guys here, that's a minimum. For one brand. For one model. So it's a small specialty sport. I hear good comparisons to . . . people say it's like fly fishing or archery.martin1

MMM: I'm thinking golf.
It's very comparable to golf. And I say to myself, "Why is golf so popular?" Because golf is a humbling sport. It's a humiliating sport. And that's what, I think, holds trials back. But for some reason golf has the money, it has the TV.

MMM: It took a long time.
It did, but now it's mainstream and it's cool and everybody does it.

Golf's a buddy sport, I think that's one thing that really helps it. You go out there and you're all bad.

MMM: Trials has that too.
Trials is definitely a buddy sport.

MMM: You have the #3 rider on Montesa?
Ryon Bell. He was #2 last year, #3 this year.

Also Chris Florin finished 8th in the nation. He's a kid who's just progressing at an unbelievable rate. He's an expert level rider. He was #3 in the expert class, nationally. He's been on our team for several years, but, really, in the last year-and-a-half he's gone from an expert level to a rider who will probably finish in the top five in the nation. Chris is from Florida. A weird place for a trials rider to come from. His dad built him a backyard trials jungle, logs and rocks, and that's what he learned on.

It's funny, where Ryon Bell's from, it's absolute trials nirvana. You could hold a world round every ten feet, where he lives. British Columbia. And Chris comes from a pancake. How do you figure that?

MMM: How will Montesa's riders do this year?
It's going to be tough. Very competitive. Geoff's going to be there. Fred Crosset is obviously the favorite. After winning last year, he's the favorite. Ryon [Bell] is very competitive. I think Chris is going to break the top five.

Aug 14, 2013

Herding Chickens

All Rights Reserved © 2002 Thomas W. Day

chick06a[I wrote this for the national MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) Newsletter, it appeared in the August, 2002 issue.]

Years ago, a friend who owned and managed a small manufacturing company described his management tasks as being something like "herding a flock of chickens." Since, at the time, I was pulling similar duty as a manufacturing engineering manager, the analogy has stuck in my memory. It all came back, painfully, during my 2002 Minnesota IPC student teaching extravaganza.

The morning class had a group of students who could make spaghetti out of pool cues. As an example, let's imagine that I led each of them by the arm to a point on the ground marked with a big X and said, "You, stay here until I tell you to move to the next spot." Then, I would walk to another large X and pointed to that marker. When I turned around to tell the group to move to that marker, you could bet your month’s paycheck that most of those folks would be wandering around in circles somewhere near the freeway. They were mystical in the manner that they interpreted simple instructions. They could turn any maneuver into a practical demonstration of modern Chaos Theory. But I learned more lessons in crowd control from that class than I’d learned in 25 years of industrial training experience.

I learned a lot about how to pick a group leader, for instance. From what I learned in that class, any faith I once had in the future of democracy dissolved. There are two polar-opposite leaders who will create equally disastrous results in completely different ways. First, I selected the most timid, slowest rider in the group, partially because she was so far behind her group that I had time to completely describe the maneuver I wanted her to perform before the rest of the group formed a line behind her. Little did I realize that "angle across the oval to the opposite side and ride around the course in the opposite direction" could be interpreted as "start making irrational maneuvers all over the range until you run over one of your instructors." By the time I remembered I had a whistle and blew it to stop the motorcycling spasms, I had students scattered all over White Bear Lake. Not the range, but the city.

So, learning something from my mistake, I figured I’d try a completely different tactic the next time around. There was a good reason why I’d decided not to do this the first time, but I discarded that logic since my first plan was so obviously flawed. I picked a guy who was taking the class to provide comfort and support to his wife. He was obviously a cruiser-kind-of-guy, who was growing increasingly bored with our exercises and was practically chewing up his helmet strap waiting for a chance to show us what he could do with a motorcycle. I knew that, way earlier. Accordingly, I had decided to keep him in the middle of the pack to put a leash on his enthusiasm, but I didn’t stick with those guns. No, I handed them over to him, with the instruction to "ride as slowly as you can, across the oval to the opposite side and ride around the course in the opposite direction." Twenty-one milliseconds later, he gunned his bike, dashed across the oval, smack into the middle of the slower half of riders still going the original direction. Then, he got confused and began to make random figure-eight’s all over the range until I blew the whistle, signaled all-stop, and started pounding my head into the asphalt as a subtle indication of mild frustration.

Herding chickens, that’s what we’re doing in the Basic ("beginning") Rider Course. Not always, but enough of the time that it’s important to remember how chickens think. I think the only well known chicken quote is "the sky is falling, the sky is falling . . .." and so on. Our job is to keep the chickens busy enough that they don’t have time to look up or worry about the condition of the sky. If you identify a student who takes direction, pays attention, and can lead the group through reversals and into the staging area, don’t press your luck. Keep using that student until someone complains. If someone complains, listen politely, nod your head, respect their opinion, and stick with your lead student until the Skills Tests are finished, the RXs are signed and distributed, and all of the bikes are back in the trailer. Then, assign the guy who complained to lead the group back to their cars.

That’s my opinion, but I could be wrong.

Aug 13, 2013

Power Your Way Down the Bike Trail

Thanks to Mr. Subjective, I was turned on to this great project bike:

'nough said. I want one of these for Xmas.

Aug 12, 2013

#15 Helmet Logic
All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day

A while back, some logic-inhibited wacko wrote MMM about how dangerous helmets are because he/she had a friend whose helmet got so smashed up in a wreak that the docs had to pick pieces of fiberglass out of his skull. Think about that. The helmet, which has about a zillion times the impact resistance of a bandana-protected skull, was shattered while still protecting the rider. It protected him well enough that there was a medical argument for surgically picking out the chunks. That sounds like an endorsement for helmets, not an argument against. That's the kind of "logic" I'm used to hearing from helmet-phobes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that there are large numbers of riders who don't wear helmets. There are too damn many people on this planet and the more who want to volunteer to leave, the more empty highway space there is for the rest of us. Thanks for asking.

On the other hand, I hate losing friends to stupidity (or anything), so I don't use this argument on anyone I care about. Not wanting to add to the depletion of the world’s resources, I'm not one of those do-gooders who loves humanity and hates individual people. I'm the reverse, couldn't care less about humanity but hate the idea of my life without certain people in it. The rest of you can do what you want: helmet/no-helmet, seatbelt/no-seatbelt, do-drugs/don't-do-'em, drink, smoke, get fat, chew gum and try to walk, whatever. As long as you have the whole story, you can do what ever you want and I'm on your side.

The first time I spiked a pointy rock with the top of a brand new Bell -- and walked away with nothing more than a ruined $120 investment and a fat lip -- I made up my own mind for life. That was thirty years ago. Since then, I've learned that I'm not man enough to ride helmetless. I've splatted thousands of wasps and bees with my faceshield, slid along dirt trails with my head leading the way through the shrubbery, and tumbled ass over teakettle through barbwire fences and cactus and I'm still here to write about it. That’s me and you are you. I'm still riding, after almost 40 years of falling off of motorcycles, and my protective gear gets a good bit of the credit for that. Jujitsu training and learning how to fall gets the rest of the credit.

This isn't a matter of me wanting to make your lives safer. I don't care about the "cost" of a helmet-less society. Even the medical insurance argument is a wash, in my mind. Sure, you'll cost me a few bucks on the front end, in emergency services and when the ER docs chew up time and resources trying to paste your busted head together, but you won't be there to suck up the Social Security account reserves. Except for those of us who die of boredom in our cubicles, everybody's going to be a drain on society at some time in their life. It ought to be a free country and you should be able to write yourself off anytime you feel the need. The problem with the "story," told to newbies by the “a helmet restricts my freedom” crowd, is that most of that story is a fantasy.

“Helmets prevent you from hearing hazards.” Actually, just being on a moving motorcycle does that job almost perfectly. Between the wind and motor noise, you can't hear a 747 until it's a second away from your good ear. Unless you are stopped, and sitting on a Honda step-through-90, the only noises a helmet keeps you from hearing are too quiet to be dangerous. On the other hand, a good helmet (and earplugs) will protect you from premature hearing loss. Weirdly, many of us think we can better hear important things with both a helmet and earplugs. I can’t explain that, but I’m not the only one who is mystified by that psycho-acoustic phenomenon. “Helmets obstruct your peripheral vision.” Not wearing a helmet with a face shield often obstructs your vision in all directions. (There's the reason the chopper crowd plods along at 45mph, hanging up traffic for miles behind them and irritating little old ladies on their way home from church: they can't see if they go any faster.) Between the bugs, dust and pollution, birds, flying rocks and gravel, and your own flapping eyelashes, serious wind protection goes a long way toward maintaining visibility.

“Riders sometimes die (or worse) from neck injuries received in helmeted accidents.” Without the helmet the stuff from the first vertebrae up may be all that is left intact, the skull is goo. Using your brain as bubble packing to protect your neck is seriously weird. The first motorcycling death I witnessed happened when a kid hit a stopped car at less than 10mph, rolled over the hood, and cracked his skull on the curb. His neck was in perfect shape when they buried him. A lawn sprinkler washed a gob of his brains down the gutter before the EMTs arrived.

All this said, I don't want new laws passed. Helmet laws do exactly the wrong thing. The only result I've seen from helmet laws is that a lot of helmets get sold because a lot of helmets got stolen. Rider safety probably isn't impacted nearly as much as the lawmakers might have expected because half of the helmets on the road were stolen. The stolen helmets got lifted by cutting the buckle from the helmet lock. A great helmet without a strap and buckle is next-to-worthless. After getting a couple of $400 helmets stolen, even the guys who love helmets end up buying a cheap hat. The end result is pretty pointless.

I’m sure some of you will write MMM (hell, go direct and write me at and tell us how you believe we’re criticizing your "personal choice." I'm sure you know better than the AMA and four generations of motorcycle racers who wouldn't cross the street without a helmet securely strapped to their heads. I just want to be sure you know what you're risking. I want you to be as free as you can be. Free to live or die, because it's no skin off of my skull.

September 2001

Aug 11, 2013

What Is Training the Answer To?

On a recent MMSC Facebook post, the organization wrote, “Over 60 percent of riders killed to-date were 45 and older. Whether you’re returning to riding or have been on the road for years, continued training is essential to staying safe.” Having done a good bit of “45 and older” motorcyclist training in the last dozen years, I’m not convinced that training is as useful as my employer. For starters, the majority of over-45 riders are hooked on image and can’t see themselves on any motorcycle that isn’t a Harley or, at least, looks exactly like a Harley.

At the risk of reinforcing my “motorcycle bigot” image, this is a problem. Motorcycles that don’t turn, stop, or handle safely in any situation that isn’t a straight line on perfect pavement are a poor choice for old, weak, fat, slow-witted and reaction-time, former or current rummies. If the rider isn’t an athlete, the motorcycle needs to be. The right choice for most over-45 riders in the US would be a small (250-500cc), lightweight standard motorcycle. Something like the new Honda CB500F/X models or a Kawasaki Versys at the largest.

Yeah, I know. You want to ride two-up to the bar and you can’t get two of your Minnesota-sized butts on a smaller motorcycle seat. Read the first paragraph again. 60% of the riders killed this year are 45-and-older. Why do you think you are talented enough to be carrying a passenger? If you aren’t safe by yourself, you’ll be twice as unsafe with a passenger.

To be sure, training is a good thing. We can all learn something from other experienced riders and bad habits are more easily ingrained than good. Still, training is not a magic bullet. You can only train the trainable. Some/most people do not belong on a motorcycle and no amount of training will fix that.

Aug 10, 2013

Faster (than you can imagine)

A film by Mark Neale, narrated by Ewan McGregor

faster2I don't own a lot of movies and I only own two motorcycle films (outside of a small collection of World Observed Trials event videos). The trials videos were all gifts. One of the two motorcycle films, On Any Sunday, was also a gift. So, the only motorcycle movie I've purchased for myself is Faster: Two Wheels, 200 MPH, Every Man for Himself. As a general rule, I can't think of a reason to watch a movie more than once. So why own the damn things? Faster is an exception to that rule. I've watched Faster three times at the theater and at least a half-dozen times at home. Personally, I think I should be able to wrap up this review at this paragraph. Enough said. Go buy Faster. However, that's probably not enough for you, assuming you haven't already seen this movie at least twice. So here are some more reasons to rent or buy this movie.

If you're a gearhead, you're going to love Faster. Listening to motorcycle commentators like Julian Ryder, factory technical experts, past-World Champs, team managers, mechanics, and McCoy himself explain how Gary McCoy's radical riding technique worked is worth the price of a ticket. Davide Trolli, from Alpinestars, provides a detailed explanation of why kangaroo skin makes the best leathers and I'm sure all you fringy leather boys will run right out and buy a roo-suit afterwards. Ex-world champ Barry Sheene describes the invention, his own, of the back protector. Track design and safety mechanisms are explained until you half-believe that it's possible to survive this freakin’ insane sport.

If you're a CSI fan, listening to Dr. Claudio Costa and Claudia Cherici, the MotoGP riders' medics of choice, explain racing injuries and psychology/pathology. You'll see x-rays of mangled limbs that defy reconstruction, but they'll be reconstructed and the riders will ride to break new records, bones, and displace organs. The doctor’s description of racer/hero mentality is a psychological study in itself and his relationship with the riders is inexplicable outside of the context of this movie. 

If you're an extreme sport fan, nothing on earth is more extreme than 250hp, 200mph MotoGP racing. Nobody crashes more spectacularly than road racers and these are the most spectacular road racers ever. Neale’s camera team had an incredible feel for catching the bikes in motion and the on-board cameras are like being there.  Especially the camera mounted on Valentino Rossi’s bike, sucking up the competition from 14th place to a win. 

If you’re into film making, Faster is a trip, too.  The editing style is almost as hectic as the racing.  Scenes snap from press conferences to the race track to crowd scenes to close shots of riders, mechanics, and anyone interesting enough to find a place in a frame or two.  The metal sound track is perfectly matched to the 500cc two-strokes and liter fours, some of the best rock guitar sounds ever stuffed into a movie.  Sometimes, the music is a power drill pushing holes through the crowd and bike noise, cranking up the pressure when you think what’s on screen couldn’t be pushed any harder.  Neale uses elapsed-time shots with a purpose. He moves us through time and speed and faces so that it almost feels like subliminal advertising.  Snap cuts from the race track to crowd shots to quick interviews and back to the track keeps the film constantly in motion.

Maybe the best parts are the insight provided by the people around the racers, Rossi’s dad, everyone’s doctor, the roadie mechanics, the ex-champs, the riders’ families, and the riders themselves. These guys are incredibly complicated people and, as such, incredibly interesting. This, in the end, is a film about people with levels of human interest that gets past the usual sport documentary. Moments like the sequence between Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene, discussing when road racers began sliding as a steering tactic, are one of dozens of insights into ego, skill, history, and the stuff that makes these guys go . . . faster.  Way faster. Wayne Rainey’s description of the accident that left him in a wheelchair is the other side of this story.

But the racing is what really makes this movie.  Without the race scenes, Faster would be like Jet Lee without fighting.  The racing is beyond anything ever put on film before.  Hollywood special effects are tame compared to the real thing and Faster is all about the real thing.  These guys are faster than you can imagine, even after you see them on screen.  The Right Stuff, Top Guns, and magical superheroes all wrapped up in kangaroo skin and carbon fiber armor.  This is a great film.

PS: Watch the credits and listen to the world champs talk about motorcycle safety.  Maybe you'll learn something from people who know more about motorcycling than you'll ever know. The DVD extras include some great rider-perspective shots that demonstrate braking and throttle control of the masters.

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day