A friend emptied out his magazine rack on me and I, like the addict I am, read them all. From cover to cover, magazines published from sometime in 2002 to December 2003, I read all about what the motorcycle publishing industry thinks I want to read about. Mostly, they are incredibly wrong about me. Maybe they’re right about the average motorcycling 25-39 year old male, but I’m not him. I don’t think I’ve ever been him, especially when I was 25-39.
Cycle World, Rider, the AMA’s rag (American Motorcyclist), Motor Cyclist, and Cycle USA, and several magazines I’ve never heard of before this weekend, all tried to sell me hippo-bikes and lots of chrome crap to pile on the hippo-bikes. I know you’re tired of hearing old guys complain that today’s bikes cost more than we used to pay for a house, but some of these bikes cost as much as I once could have paid for a small town city block! And they weigh almost as much.
In the midst of all this big iron silliness, there are some signs of light. There’s Honda’s 599, Yamaha’s FZ6, and Suzuki has me on a pike with the DL650 V-Strom. Suzuki brought back one of the all time best commuter bikes, the GS500F, with a full fairing. On the other hand, Suzuki’s Bandit 600 died.
Mostly, the showroom inventory of every manufacturer is strongly tilted toward old, fat guys. Honda, for example, is importing exactly two under-600cc street bikes and twenty blimp-mobiles. No, Virginia, we don’t buy huge motorcycles because we travel such long distances. Based on the mileage listed on 90% of the used bikes listed in the local papers, we barely ride ‘em at all. We just need big motors because big motors mean big seats to fit big asses. Hell, most of the “big bikes” sold have little bitty, super low seat heights, so they’re obviously not aimed at tall folks, just “big” folks who can’t get a leg up.
Honda and Kawasaki dumped a couple of ugly big bikes, the Valkyrie being the ugliest ever built by anyone on any planet. Honda wasn’t suffering a burst of cosmetic good taste, though. The VTX and the Rune still live and are crushing showroom floors all over the world. Victory and Harley are still altering the earth’s magnetic center with the mass of their inventories. As are several boutique Harley clone builders and lots of their fluffy stuff decorated (or polluted, depending on your perspective) the pages of bike magazines. When I stumbled onto these pages, like Al Bundy accidentally spotting his chicken-legged neighbor naked, I came close to screaming “My eyes! I’m blind!” For someone whose concept of art begins with “form follows function,” hippo bikes piled high and randomly with chrome bits look . . . stupid.
Art is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. Engineering, however, is in the function. The bike magazine tests are so consistently mild-mannered that I never once came away from a “shoot out” thinking anyone had been shot. Someone has to be a winner and someone has to be a loser when you put four to six bikes against each other on a closed course with a half-dozen riders, don’t they? In one wimpy-ass smackdown, a bike that wasn’t even submitted for the test (a Buell) even did pretty well. Unless you are really good at reading between the lines and have an active imagination and came to the article with a strongly formed opinion, that particular article was a wonderful example of a “win-win” situation for all the manufacturers.
I suppose the magazines are scared silly that one big advertiser will pull an ad series after a writer says something denigrating about a mediocre bike and the dominoes will fall. Who would notice? Do people actually read this drivel? Even more amazing is the price paid for these magazines, somewhere between $4 and $7.50 a rag. For that kind of cash, I’d expect the reader to be somewhere at the high end of the magazine’s obligations. After all, the reason advertisers pay to get into these magazines is that they have readers/customers to advertise to. Isn’t it? Or is this one connected, self-serving exercise with no real purpose?
The media, in general, is becoming one long infomercial. I quit taking the local papers when they dove so deeply into the welfare sports stadium promotion that it appeared to me that the loop was closed between advertising and “news” reporting. One hand is gripping the other and I’m doing my best to stay out from between the grip. Let’s face it, we don’t want to know where those fingers have been, do we? If, 30 years ago, I could have bought a house for the price of today’s bikes, I could have done something pretty cool with the price of the magazines. In fact, I can do something pretty cool today, buy a tank of gas for the bike. Hell, I could fill up my car for the price of two of them. I’d much rather be riding that reading, if I’m not going to be exposed to something different and interesting for the money.
Which brings me to Kevin Cameron. Without Cameron, Cycle (and most of what passes for motorcycle journalism) would be wall to wall, uninterrupted ads punctuating infomercials. I read one of Cameron’s articles, cut it out, study it, and, sometimes, figure out what it is he’s explaining to me. For almost six years, Kevin’s Sport Bike Performance Handbook has been comforting winter reading. I almost have a few bits of it figured out, too. I suspect that I’m not alone. Looking over a dozen issues of Cycle is a lot like watching television news for a particular report. If it’s interesting and worthwhile, it will be hidden deep into the program, placed so that you have to suffer the whole damn program for 30 seconds of (rarely) useful information. Cycle does that with Cameron’s work. His column is, usually, easy to find, but they’ve added random small Cameron articles, cleverly hidden in the infomercials; which means that I’m stuck paging from cover to cover to find these gems. Now that’s clever editing.
I’ve had my bike rag fix satisfied for several years after this experience. I’ve reconfirmed that can get what I want from dozens of magazines in a few minutes at the library and if someone would convinced Kevin Cameron to do more books, I’d be too busy struggling with those books to have time for infomercials.
Now, it’s riding season again and I’m going to be out doing that until the snow flies. The more time I can spend away from infomercials, the happier I’ll be. The rest of you are doing more than enough to fill in the spaces I’m leaving in the country’s economic activity. And more power to you. What would this country be like without folks spending cash they don’t have to compensate themselves for time they’ve wasted paying for stuff they didn’t need?
MMM May 2004