Dec 30, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, we were looking for quotes on windows for our new house and one of the salesmen turned out to be that kid's brother. It wasn't the experience you might have expected. Apparently, he helped pick out her Kawasaki 250R, hoping the superior brakes and mild engine might help keep her alive. She, of course, wanted a R6 or a 650, but he managed to damp that insanity at the dealership. He, however, absolutely disagreed with his mother that his sister had any business on a motorcycle. She was a train wreak in a car, on a bicycle, and on foot and was convinced that the laws of physics did not apply to her superior being. He, on the other hand, was on his way to Iraq and didn't have a lot of leverage.
It was a really uncomfortable conversation for me. My feeling for her family and for her created a sad mix of Darwinism and sympathy. Motorcycles, regardless of the stupid crap the MSF/MIC wildly hope, are not for everyone. It's one thing to buy one and a whole different thing to ride one well enough to survive traffic.
Dec 29, 2014
Late in the summer of 2008, I rode to Nova Scotia. It was my first trip, on any vehicle, east. In 60 years as an American, other than some business flights to New York in the 70's that only allowed a view inside a factory, the only "east" I'd seen was Florida and Ohio; and the points in-between here and Ohio. On this trip, I looped the Great Lakes, out on the Canadian side and back on the US.
Altogether, I put on about 5900 miles in 20 days, including a 4 day semi-stationary interlude in Nova Scotia with my wife. I also hung out with friends in New York and friends in Cleveland for two days each. It wasn't a mile-pounding trip, like the previous year's trip to Alaska. Counting the days off, I averaged about 295 miles a day.
However, the days off were the days that meant the most in many of my memories of the trip. As time dillutes the memories of back-roads in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and the grand views of Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail, the stationary moments take on even more meaning. This is probably just me, your mileage differs, I expect.
It is the people I met, the places I savored, and the things I learned about the places I traveled that stick with me. The pure mile-covering fact that I rode somewhere, met some people, and burned their fuel will wither away into faint recollections. At one that summer, I almost canned the whole idea of riding across the northeastern portion of our continent on my 650 and replaced it with a North Dakota tour on my my 250. I hadn't yet worked out the 250's fuel capacity problems or the more "pressing" seat design, so that option never really gained traction. However, carrying minimal gear and really exploring a place foreign to me has an even stronger appeal after my second long tour. A year earlier, I did a bit more than 10,000 miles in 26 days. in 2008, 5900 in 20.
Before that, my longest motorcycle trips were 4,000 miles in ten days and a collection of 1,000-2,500 mile trips in five to ten days. It's a luxury to have 30 days to play around with. I'm lucky to have stumbled into this point in my life when I can gamble with security and time and still have some sort of employment to come home to at the end of the trip. I gave up a lot of money for this flexibility, but it was worth the tradeoff. In fact, I wouldn't consider returning to the corporate life for any amount of money.
Ok, that's sort of a lie. If I were offered the kind of cash that would require a short commitment to provide security for the rest of my life, I'd probably sell out, again. I am an American, after all.
All my life, I've known that "money is time," not the reverse. Before committing to my current life, it was only a theory that I desperately wanted to believe. Now I know that people who believe that "time is money" are boring types who desperately need a hobby or three. Anyone who thinks money has value outside of the time it can buy for adventures, time with friends and family, and time to relax and enjoy life is someone I don't want to waste my time on. A pile of money is a poor exchange for life. I have way too many hobbies and way too little time. Most likely I will never have much money, but I can always remember what I did with the time my money bought me. I have no good memories of actually earning that money.
Traveling at even the modest pace of 300 miles a day doesn't leave much time to meet people, learn about local history, see the important attractions, and absorb a little of the culture. If you're on the gas, averaging 50mph, you're barely slowing down to see the landmarks if you're on the road 6-8 hours a day. You aren't spending enough time anywhere to have a decent conversation, let alone get to know anyone. The difference between traveling by cage vs. a motorcycle is as dramatic as covering miles vs. taking time to get to know a place. I think there is a place for both. Before I'd taken my first trip west, I didn't have any idea what I might like out there. Once I'd made my first tour of the western states, I began to get an idea of what I wanted to see more of. The same went for traveling east. None of the eastern cities have any draw for me, but that's mostly true for cities as a group. Having traveled through a fair bit of the east, I found a lot to like about parts of New York and most of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Quebec, and all of Nova Scotia. So, I want to go back and see more of those places someday soon.
In 2009, I made my first trip "back" after the original exploration trip. To and from Alaska, I blasted through a good bit of North Dakota. I liked a lot of what I saw there and decided to do it again a lot slower. Friends told me, "You're gonna hate North Dakota." But they were wrong.
North Dakota is not Kansas, although a big chunk of the northeast section of the state is at least as boring and industrial. Industrial farming has not made a total conquest of North Dakota, owing to the rugged topology of the west and general lack of water resources to violate for the God of Corn. The southeastern corner of the state has its share of corporate farming, but it also has the Sheyenne River Valley. The collection of state roads that make up the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway are among the coolest, most interesting roads I've ever traveled. Due to technical problems with my intended ride on this trip, my 250 Kawasaki Super Sherpa, I didn't spend as much time on the Sheyenne trail as I'd intended. That gives me a wonderful excuse to go back and do it all again. I didn't cover nearly as much of the southwestern corner of North Dakota as I'd planned, which leaves me another opportunity. I can't imagine spending too much time in Teddy Roosevelt's namesake national park. I hit most of the historical sites in Bismarck, but that city has a music scene that I didn't slow down long enough to experience. I chose exploring the Canadian boarder over the North Dakota/Minnesota boarder, so I'm still a stranger to Grand Forks and I've barely skirted Fargo.
The parts of Alaska and Canada that I skipped over the first time, California and Oregon's northeastern mountain towns, and all of the southeastern portion of the United States are still on my list of places-to-go, but it's nice to have a collection of targets within easy reach. If you can't travel far, travel slow and near and poke a hole in your comfort zone the easy way. If I'd have listened to advice about North Dakota, I'd might never be able to say I have ridden a Vincent, enjoyed a three-hour pre-Columbian-to-Custer history lesson from Mandan historian, cruised a motorcycle through a herd of buffalo, or spent a night in the over-grown town park of a completely abandoned town. All stories that hold as much meaning to me as remembering the rides to Alaska and Nova Scotia.
Dec 22, 2014
“Everyday is the first day of the rest of your life,” right? I’ve heard that phrase for so long I’m not sure when it first popped into popular culture. Being the glass-half-empty kind of guy I am, I’ve had more of an “everyday gets you one step closer to the end” perspective for most of my 66 years. But this could be the start of something really new and different.
For the first time in my life, I have an actual office with a door and a bit of acoustic isolation and enough privacy to think about writing a lot. In other words, all of my excuses for not writing are gone. It’s not a perfect world, because my wife is about 60% hearing impaired. So, unless I’m up and writing at 5AM I am cursed to need background music to mask the blaring sound of television coming through the floor and HVAC vents. That’s not much of a hardship, though. I have a large music collection and Pandora fills in the blank spaces. The office also houses the remainder of my recording studio gear, so the sound quality is excellent although the room acoustics aren’t up to my old studio’s standards. Still, I’m not complaining.
This morning, I knocked out two Geezer column submissions (for MMM and the new Rider’s Digest) and added 1500 words to a book I’ve been putting off for years. Today is the first day this new office was fully furnished, organized, cleaned up, and property lit. Could be the start of something brand new for me?
[When I was still looking for a "career," I made a couple of my Geezer rants into video productions. This was one of them and my brilliant grandson, Wolfgang, animated a short section of the video. It might still be out there in YouTube land.]
The weekend before this year's Ride to Work Day, I enjoyed lunch with Andy Goldfine on a beautiful spring day in Duluth. As usual, we got wrapped up in a discussion about motorcycles. In particular, motorcycle parking, inspired by stuffing three motorcycles into a single parking space near the restaurant. In most cities, putting more than one scrawny motorcycle in a metered space is a serious crime, regardless of the fact that a half-dozen bikes might reasonably fit in that space.
The parking meter turned 70 in 2005. As you might have guessed, it was invented by an evil Oklahoma "genius" named Carl Magee. (I would have guessed his name would be "Magoo," but I was wrong.) The constitutionality of parking meters has been challenged several times with several conflicting conclusions. The economic effect of meters has been successfully challenged by surburban malls all over the country and it is depressing that this evidence has been ignored for more than 50 years. A simple modification of the rules to reflect modern vehicles and to encourage downtown activity is long overdue.
For example, San Francisco and much of California have no bridge tolls for motorcycles during rush hour. Motorcycle parking is permitted on sidewalks in many areas. Multiple bikes in a metered space is permitted. At municipal ramps, motorcycles pay a lower rate than cars. Of course, the state allows filtering and lane-splitting. San Francisco is a famous motorcycle destination and the city enjoys substantial income from motorcycle tourism.
The U.K.'s most congested city, London, is even more liberally inclined toward cycles and scooters. Two-wheeled vehicles are granted free parking city-wide, free access to bus lanes, and receive a pass on the access fee cagers pay to get into the city's center. When public transportation is on strike or downed by terrorists or power grid failures, cyclists of all sorts are the only people still able to freely move about to get the city's business done. In fact, cycles are a critical part of traffic planning in practically every major European and Asian city.
The motivation for parking space law is financial, since parking meters provide an obvious income source for the city. The more spaces they can meter, the more work they generate for themselves, the more "jobs" they create, and the more buildings they need to build to house themselves. With that limited worldview, parking meters make sense. A drive through downtown St. Paul (and most major city downtown areas) after 5PM or on any weekend will demonstrate the flaw in that argument. If you can find any sign of life in the city during those time periods, avoid it. It could be a zombie, vampire, panhandler, or a a lonely, pissed-off metermaid. The only "safe distance" is a long distance.
An alternative parking plan could be one that encourages social and economic activity in the city. All of those empty municipal parking lots and spaces could be used to park vehicles which could be used to transport people and their money near downtown businesses. The more vehicles, the more people and money. Crazy, right? Why would a city try to mimic the tactic that suburban businesses used to draw customers away from cities?
With motorcycles, if more than one vehicle is in a metered space the administrative problem is who gets the ticket when the parking meter expires? If this is the toughest decision a mayor and city manager have to deal with, why are these full-time positions?
The solution is simple. There are two alternatives:
- When several motorcycles are occupying a space with an expired meter, ticket them all. Any moron cheap and lazy enough to depend on "the kindness of strangers" to pay for his parking deserves a $25 parking ticket.
- Ticket the vehicle closest to the meter, equating proximity with responsibility. This would create opportunities for strategic parking tactics adding to the downtown adventure. Sort of like a mini-low-speed theme park attraction, with the participants trying to find ways to legally park within the boundaries of the space and furthest from the meter.
The other problem is limiting the number of vehicles in a space to allow for safe and uncomplicated access and exit of the space. I offer the following suggestions:
- A maximum of four (4) motorcycles, parked with the rear tire against the curb, in a parallel parking space.
- Two (2) motorcycles backed into the space and staggered with sufficient space from the parking lines to allow unrestricted clearance for adjacent vehicle doors and space for movement around the motorcycles for both riders.
While we're at it, I can't think of a good reason why a pair of Smart cars, Suzuki Altos, or Kia Souls can't share a parallel parking space with the same rules that might apply to motorcycles. If they can provide each other with enough room to exit the space, why not? Encouraging efficient small cars would be a benefit to the city and the world. Obviously, a smarter option is to absolve cycles of parking meter obligations altogether. Encouraging the low energy, low real estate usage, high mobility characteristics of two-wheel vehicles is the smart, modern tactic for any city trying to solve congestion and economic problems.
Dec 15, 2014
About 30 years ago, I worked for a small "acquire and mangle" company in Omaha (Sort of a mini-Bain Capital run by three min-Mitt Romneys.). The business plan was to buy companies that made decent products, "turn them around" so that the acquisition company's managers could milk the maximum profit in the minimum time, and sell what was left to the next set of suckers before the cooked books could no longer hide the damage done. One of the companies we bought was owned by a semi-retired engineer who told me "the secret of a successful retirement." He said the trick is to find a product or business that had past its prime, but still had customers with money to spend. For an engineer, the perfect market would be some sort of technology that was approaching obsolescence but still had a core of affluent customers. In that market, a business will have a predictable cash flow and minimal competition and a reasonable business lifetime.
For example, the business my employer bought from this engineer made high voltage coil testing equipment. That product was, and probably still is, in steady demand from transformer and electric motor and generator manufacturers and high-end users, like power plants and heavy machinery. However, building and testing that kind of equipment required manufacturing exposure to extremely dangerous voltage and current. Larger companies tend to shy away from products that occasionally fry assembly workers and customers. So, those constraints resulted in no competition and an exorbitant profit margin. His product was so consistently profitable that even the characters I worked for couldn't screw up the business--and these were some seriously talented MBA-types who normally had no problem busting bowling balls in padded rooms. Two years after I left, they sold that one division to a much larger company for a reasonable profit.
Since that career moment, I've kept my eye open for that kind of product or business. The older I get, the more interested I become in self-employment (especially if I can ever figure out how to avoid doctors and hospitals). I've identified a few of this sort of business opportunity in thirty years since I met that insightful engineer.
One of the first examples that I spotted was practically anything related to high-end bicycles. On a trip to the old Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle Week, I stumbled on a custom bike builder brazing together a titanium frame road bike for a wealthy, overweight (saw his picture), middle-aged wanna-imagine-myself-a-bicycle-racer. This custom bike was going to cost the rich customer $10,000! Yeah, it had top-of-the-line components. True, the paint job was really cool. More importantly, the builder got to spend two months working on one bike and he made a good living doing it.
I picked up a bicycling magazine in that shop and read a three page article about how to blow snot while bicycling; how to use a "farmer's Kleenex" without getting it on your expensive Lycra. I realized that any customer-base dumb enough to need that kind of assistance with what ought to be an animal response is my kind of customers. I've kept bicycle crap in mind, ever since.
If you don't believe me, check out a high end bicycle shop. Look at the $2,000-10,000 bicycles and explain to me how a 22 pound bicycle can cost as much as a liter sportsbike. Better yet, look at bicycle helmets. Those things are as low-tech as a motorcycle faceshield and, yet, a "decent" bicycle helmet can easily set you back $100-250. There is no way a bicycle helmet has even a fraction of the manufacturing/liability costs of a motorcycle helmet, but even with a much larger customer base bicycle helmets' retail price is in the same ballpark. Bicyclists are clearly a total sucker market, but that is so obvious that everybody wants a piece of it and bicycles are unlikely to "approach obsolescence."
More directly in my line of sight has been audiophile products. A company like Mapleshade will give you an idea of how many crazy, over-priced products are possible in that realm. This guy sells a 15" x12" block of maple for $300 and it is intended to be a stand for a power amplifier! Now we're talking about a business aimed at complete whackos. Whackos with $300 to spend on $30 worth of wood. There are so many crazy products in the Mapleshade catalog that I wouldn't know where to begin creating competition for this dude. That's not a bad problem to be stuck with.
Two years ago, at least a couple of sections of the motorcycling market were ripe for this kind of marketeering. The guys who sold $100 billet aluminum foot pegs for cheese-burners, for example. Why do you need a lighter foot peg on an underpowered 800+ pound motorcycle? How many things are wrong with a foot peg shaped like a spike? How about the characters peddling stick-on faux $350 "works" carbon fiber tank covers? Sure, the real "works" riders glue crap to their steel tanks to make them lighter. For the yuppie "adventurer tourist," at least a couple of companies sell spray-on dirt products, one of which is "a bottle of real Shropshire mud" for the owners of dual-purpose bikes that see the same adventurous use as 99.99% of the world's SUVs. You can spray this crap on your $80,000 Range Rover or $125,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, too. Obviously, no sane person would ever take one of those finicky rattletraps off-road. Whether a sane person would buy a Range Rover is another question.
In today's wreaked economy, I'm questioning the viability of some of those products. When 15% of us are out of work and 360,000 of our homes are in foreclosure and 20% of the properties listed for sale are bank-listed, I suspect that hippo-lightening and fake mud is not at the forefront of many consumer's minds. Fluffy, pointless products don't sell in times of depression. So, I'm back to scanning the mid-tech business world for something practical with limited competition, moderate setup-costs, and wealthy customers.
It's just as well, though. I've always suspected that I needed a cool Italian last name or upper-crust British accent to sell audiophile gear. Not many rich guys are silly enough to buy a racing bicycle from a fat guy who clearly couldn't out-petal a Hoveround. There is still the motorcycle market, but I wonder if I could sell that stuff without laughing? It takes a lot of self-control to take advantage of P.T. Barnum's marketing advice, "There's a sucker born every minute" or H.L. Menken's observation, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Just ask any banker. There's a reason that bankers live with a perpetual scowl, though. You have to make an effort to keep from laughing in the faces of your intended victims.
Dec 12, 2014
I recently stumbled into and out of a classic senile geezer situation, a high pressure, in-my-home sales pitch that, eventually, overwhelmed my resistance and stuck me, temporarily, with a lousy deal. Lucky for me, Minnesota has a 3-day cooling off period that allows consumers to bail out of bad deals after they’ve had a chance to review it. The thing that tripped my investigation trigger was something the salesman said about his company late in his pitch. He mentioned that his employer had been “was the 74th largest remodeling company in the nation and had been selected as one of the top 500 by Qualified Remodeler Magazine.” Having written for a variety of magazines in a variety of industries for 50 years, early the next morning I decided to check out that recommendation. As you might expect, Qualified Remodeler Magazine is an ad-rag containing no actual useful information, no critical reviews, and that magazine’s “recommendations” are purely for hire.
The whole world of media reviews is equally screwed up and, as a result, has about as much credibility as 1950’s used car salesmen. My daughter recently discovered that a book review magazine/website, Kirkus Reviews, charges over $400 to “review” a book. The book reviewing “process” is pretty disgusting and about as cynical as a current Supreme Court decision, “Standard (7-9 weeks) $425.00, Express (4-6 weeks) $575.00.” Once you have the review in hand, “If you choose to publish your review on our website, we will distribute it to our licensees, including Google, BN.com, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.” That’s how book reviews work in the Brave New World of “opinions for hire.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise. At least five members of the highest court in the land made it clear they don’t believe that money and power corrupt. Of course, their personal levels of corruption makes a pretty good argument against that opinion. The Sticky-Fingered Five never met a conflict of interest they couldn’t profit from. Judge Kennedy summed up that level of crazy with his statement,”We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Not only is justice blind, she’s become pretty stupid and really corrupt.
If everything you read is a paid political/commercial announcement, where do you get information you can trust? That’s a tough call, but word-of-mouth is gaining a whole new level of clout. The Better Business Bureau was the first real information I got on my home improvement characters. Since they weren’t BBB “accredited,” there were limits to the information available by that route, but what was there was bad. Organizations like Angie’s List are where lots of consumers go for opinions from their neighbors. So far, the low fee ($10/year) for Angie’s List membership seems like a deal. There are pseudo-sites, like HomeAdvisor, that pretend to be a free version of Angie’s List but they are just paid referral services. In fact, HomeAdvisor.com is how I got hooked up with my latest snake oil salesmen. I’m not sure how much research goes into ensuring that their rules are obeyed, but when you submit a review you do have to pledge, “I confirm that the information contained in this Service Evaluation Form (i) is true and accurate and (ii) represents my actual first-hand experience, or experience which I am authorized to discuss. I acknowledge and understand my responsibilities under the Angie's List Membership Agreement, and that Angie's List is relying upon the accuracy of the information in order to serve other members. I confirm that I do not work for, am not in competition with, and am not in any way related to the service provider in this review.” That, of course, wouldn’t keep a “reviewer for hire” from writing a glowing review of a lousy service, but it would be expensive to try to overwhelm real reviews with that tactic. Likewise, a lot of products are well-covered in Amazon.com’s customer reviews. In fact, a lot of manufacturers, publishers, record labels, and importers use Amazon.com’s reviews as the bulk of their marketing. This pair of customer reviews for the WR250X skid plate from Moose Pro is pretty typical: short, sweet, and informative.
In short, consumers are all in this together, since the forces of media, power, money, and influence are against us. However, we have the numbers, the information outlets, and they won’t be rich if we don’t buy their shit.
Dec 11, 2014
Once again my MMM editor, Guido Ebert, picked an article from my slush pile, “The Trouble with Being the Solution to A Big Problem” for the 2014-2015 Winter issue that I never expected to see in print. If you haven’t seen it, it’s on the stands at your local motorcycle dealer or parts house in the Cities and elsewhere this week. The article explores the answer to the question, "Why would highway planners make any accommodations for a vehicle that contributes less than 0.001% to commuter traffic but 15% of fatalities?" The answer is, even to motorcycle manufacturers, obvious but painful and beyond the average MBA’s ability to find an easy, non-functional, answer. (So far in my meager 66 years I’ve yet to see an MBA provide a useful answer to question. The only people I put lower on my totem pole of respect are politicians and marketing morons.) My editor is a pretty serious motorcycling true believer, so selecting this article from a collection of considerably less agitating essays was a statement. Before one of the guys who subscribes to this list, Paul Young, sent me this article about the catastrophic hit the MSF took in California this month (Is A Sea Change Coming to New-Rider Motorcycle Training?), I was a little confused about Guido’s motivation.
The breaking news is “Total Control Training will take over the CSMP from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) starting January 1, 2015. The class is administered by the California Highway Patrol, and is a major gateway for new riders in the Golden State — roughly 65,000 new motorcyclists take the CSMP each year, at 120 sites.” As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation?
On the closer-to-home front, Wisconsin is diving head-first into the new MSF BRC program and the unintended (I suspect) consequences has been a fair amount of instructor dropout (8 of 12 “passed” the instructor training in a recent class and “several” opted to quit teaching after looking at the course preparation material). A surprising (to me) number of instructors decided the hassle and lack of value-added to learning and teaching the new curriculum was not worth their time and effort. The CHP, apparently, agreed that the MSF program was not providing the impact on motorcycle fatalities expected for the money being spent and has decided to try Lee Park’s Total Control version of the BRC. The world is watching.
Dec 9, 2014
In Road and Track on-line, Chris Cantle wrote about his California experiences splitting lanes, “Lane splitting will change your life, not end it.” He writes, “It's good for everyone: For those comfortable in their cars, the lane splitting motorcycle cruising past is one less vehicle between the front bumper and their destination. You can fit two motorcycles in the footprint of one small car. It's easy math. For the rider, the reward is being nearly impervious to congestion. My fellow lane-splitting riders in Los Angeles and San Francisco will back this up, as they regularly and safely trim hours off of long distance commutes.”
I agree. I miss lane splitting a lot and constantly have to squash the inclination to filter to the front of a line of cars while we’re all waiting for a light to change. It is, in fact, almost the only thing I miss about California. The article uses a UC Berkeley study to remind us “We've long suspected that riding between cars was safer than rolling along in a column at the mercy of the fickle attention span of commuting traffic—that's inherently unsafe, from the perspective of a rider boxed in by heavy, potentially deadly cars and trucks. I'd take my chances clipping a rearview mirror because of my lack of skill over being rear-ended because of someone else's lack of caffeine any day.” If anyone really represented regular motorcyclists, like ABATE or the AMA or RTWD, the big issue would be lane splitting not bullshitting NHTSA about helmet laws or pampering hillbilly sheet metal workers by claiming that loud pipes are anything but noise makers loved by unloved overage brats whose mommies didn’t breast feed.
Dec 8, 2014
In late 1998, I wrote a letter to MMM titled "What are We Riding For?," which morphed into this column. In 1999. I wrote a column titled "What Are We RiI had a lot to say ten years ago, a lot of pent up vitriol that I'd only expressed to riding friends. Since then, practically every foolish motorcycle-related thought that has popped into my head has appeared in this column. Still, the motivation to write the Geezer rants comes from the same place; the reason I still ride to work, take extended trips on two wheels, and spend time in my garage playing with my two bikes pretending to be a mechanic. I write about motorcycles and motorcycling because it's an activity that inspires some passion in my old, creaking bones. Some days, fooling with a motorcycle is the only thing I do that I really look forward to doing.
On mornings when I dread all of the things I have to get done before I can fall back into bed, I always anticipate the ride to work, the awareness that I'm doing something slightly dicey, something that requires more-than-typical concentration. Of course, there is also the opportunity for adventure that every moment on a motorcycle provides. Even the little duels that unaware cagers provide as they wander into my traffic lane or attempt to compete for my space on the road intensifies my attentiveness to what might, otherwise, be a boring day in the life. Anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger? Maybe, but if those moments don't kill or maim they will definitely wake you up.
The majority of motorcyclists would be insanely bored or appalled by the bike I usually ride to work; a 250cc dual purpose Kawasaki. It's not fast, it's certainly not powerful, it's not pretty, it is quiet, and it gets stupid mileage; never less than 60mpg. I bought it used and spent a fair amount of energy and time bringing it up to ride-able condition. I have almost as much fun working on the little air-cooled single as I have riding it. This past winter I planned on spending a lot of cold weekends in the garage turning it into a mini-adventure tourer. The seat needs a total redesign and the 1.7 gallon tank is about half the capacity that I want for this summer's adventure. This winter, I disappointed myself. I came down with a flu on Xmas eve and hadn't recovered from that bout with mortality coming into spring. Every time I ventured into the sub-freezing garage, I ended up a little sicker and, finally, I gave up on getting the bike work done until summer.
The cool thing about a bike like my little 250 is that it fits between my two cages in the garage, so getting it out for a late fall or winter ride isn't a major hassle. When the cages come inside for the winter, the V-Strom is too damn big to keep at the front of the garage. So it goes into the back parking area and the only way to put the big bike on the road is to get my wife's Taurus out of the way, wrestle the bike out from between her scooter and the bike a friend stores in my garage through the winter, and over the woodworking crap that always builds up during the winter months. The 250 is always ready for a ride to work or an errand run or a quick trip down the backyard hill and a few laps around the frozen lake in our backyard. I only managed a half-dozen ice laps this winter, but it was worth the effort.
There is something satisfying about parking an ugly little bike between layers of garage jewelry at motorcycle events. It's the same kind of smug satisfaction I get when I tail some rich guy's zillion dollar sports car through mountain roads, knowing that he's pushing his ego investment as hard as his skill allows while I've got a pass lined up on practically every wide spot in the road and my beat-up $3,000 "dispose-a-bike" is barely working to keep up. Passing the rich dude would take all of the fun out of watching him squirm to stay ahead. Being cheap has all sorts of rewards and being cheap and reasonably quick has even more. I can't afford to be cool, but I keep myself entertained and that's all I really care about.
One of my favorite jokes is about a guy who hires a hooker and when he drops his pants is asked, "Who are you going to satisfy with that little thing?"
He says, "Me."
That's me and my motorcycles and a good bit of my life. I don't need to or have the resources to impress you with what I ride. I'm too old and too worn out to win races, beauty contests, or make fashion statements. I don't know style from ugly, or care. To me, describing a product that is supposed to have a function as "art" would seem like an insult. I think motorcycles should be vehicles that can go places faster, cheaper, and with more versatility than any other form of transportation. Violate any one of those attributes and I lose interest.
There is a liberation that comes from knowing that nothing but your resources and luck are between you and disaster. Commuting by motorcycle even gives a little of that sensation, as you are surrounded by cagers distracted by cell phones and boredom. Loading up a bike with gear for a few days on the road, flipping a coin to pick the direction I'll travel, and heading off toward unknown places at an unpredictable pace is the kind of experience that can't be imitated in the confines of a air-bagged, environmentally controlled, entertainment-centered cage. A trip on a motorcycle is a different kind of experience from any other form or transportation. Even when you are in a pack of motorcycles, you are alone. I figure I might as well go the whole way and be as alone as I can be, because that's a big part of the reason I ride. .
Dec 3, 2014
The mid-November Geezer history post of my 2008 review of the Hyosung Avitar 650 drug out some flashbacks. My poor impression of that mediocre motorcycle flared all sorts of tempers, from the local dealer (Garceau’s Hardware, now closed after 80 years in business) to a full-out temper tantrum from the Hyosung marketing bozo, not to mention a variety of pissed off cruiser riders and, even, friends who resented the fact that I was chosen to test ride a cruiser. Mostly, my skin is pretty thick from 17 years of doing the Geezer with a Grudge column for MMM. My whole raison d'être with the magazine has been to attract fire and generate reader letters. I think I’ve accomplished that mission.
However, it brought up a bigger question that really should have been asked during the bullshit storm that article started. I’ve written product reviews for everyone from pro audio, motorcycle, electronic control, electronic test, live sound, and music magazines, but other than a fluke record review Downbeat Magazine published when I was 13, my first product review customer was a music equipment distributor based in Kansas City and St. Louis. My old company, Wirebender Audio Systems, did out-of-box inspection and repairs for that distributor’s dealer shows. Back in the 70’s, many companies delivered a surprising number of dead-out-of-the-box products and while dealers were used to the hassle they weren’t particularly inspired to take on another crap brand of music equipment if the distributor couldn’t find a working example of a product. So, my partner and I toured with the distributor making sure everything worked when he fired up a demo. After a couple of seasons doing that, the distributor started sending us examples of prospective new supplier products for evaluation and review. The only “readers” for these reviews would be the distributor’s salespeople and I was more likely to lose the gig if I said something good about a bad product than the reverse. Since I was running a test engineering lab for a day job, this kind of review was second nature.
The magazine business is nothing like that. Magazines are not supported by your subscriptions (other than Motorcycle Consumer News). Magazine publishers and editors, by and large, not only kiss their advertisers’ asses they perform thoroughly disgusting ream jobs on a regular basis. This has become such an ingrained habit that when an advertiser says “jump” or “fire that writer,” publishers jump to firing that writer without a moment of thought. The result is that reviews are, mostly, advertising puff pieces. That means consumers are left without critical advice and have to trust word-of-mouth opinions from people who may not be technical enough to be useful. That is a poor state of affairs. I don’t see an end to it in my lifetime, though. As we dumb-down society in general, we’re becoming exactly what the ruling class and corporations want; consumers vs. citizens.
It doesn’t bother me that I won’t be writing any more reviews to be read by a mass audience. I’m old and tired and have things to do that are a lot more fun than riding motorcycles I don’t like and wouldn’t buy under any conditions. It does bother me that I don’t see anyone taking up the challenge to tell the truth to power in motorcycle safety training, motorcycle product reviews, or anything controversial in our sport. I don’t think that’s a healthy sign.
Dec 1, 2014
George Mallory, the British mountaineer, supposedly told a reporter that he was compelled to climb Mount Everest "because it is there." Later, he simply said his was the logical response to a reporter's stupid question (or a stupid reporter's question). For most of my life, when asked why I have taken on (or want to do) some of the nuttier adventures of my life, I've tried to avoid that simple "because it is there" response. For good reason, it seems like an exceptionally lame justification for risking life, limb, property, and security. And, honestly, I didn't get it. Alabama and New York are "there," but the existence of those places does not inspire me to experience them. Likewise, I have no particular desire to visit prisons, mental institutions, an IRS office, or Haiti.
Early in the summer of 2007, I took a 10,000 mile motorcycle "trip of a lifetime" through northwestern Canada and a little of Alaska. I've wanted to see Alaska since I was a grade school kid who escaped to the cold, harsh, exciting worlds of Jack London and Mark Twain. Alaska seemed as far from western Kansas as any place on earth and that was a good enough reason to want to go there. One of the few country songs that has stuck with me since childhood is Johnny Horton's "Way Up North." I'm pretty sure that I've watched every Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Public Television show on Alaska and the far North American northwest. If I've missed one, it wasn't because of disinterest.
Alaska and the Canadian northwest turned out to be everything I imagined it would be and more. A little too much more, in fact. About 20-40 miles south of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada, I lost a wrestling match with my heavily loaded V-Strom, a deep-gravel-coated Dempster Highway, and a strong crosswind. In the end, I was bruised, slightly broken, and so was my motorcycle. A few hours earlier, back at the Eagles Pass fuel stop, I'd heard that the road north of Fort McPherson was mostly paved. If that's true, I was less than a hour from something more identifiable as a "highway" when I crashed. Of course, a character in a Canadian Highway Patrol uniform told me that the road from Eagles Pass to Fort McPherson was in better condition than the 250 miles of the Dempster I'd just traveled. He couldn't have been more misinformed (or misinforming) if he were from an alternative universe.
After picking myself and my bike back up and assessing the damage to the two of us, I decided to turn back while the turning was still good. Knowing my old, busted up body as well as I do, I suspected I would be a physical wreak after the shock and adrenaline wore off. It's not like this is the first time I've mangled ribs, maimed a shoulder, or busted a finger. It might have been the first time I did all of those things at once, though. With my first northern target almost in sight, I reversed directions, heading for the relative safety of asphalt, approximately 350 miles south of the crash point. I chose the devil I knew vs. the one I had yet to meet. In turning back, I gave myself a target destination: a hot bathtub in Dawson City. Likewise, that provided me with a goal I had failed to reach and a reason to do it again; "because it is there."
While I was on the road to and from Alaska, my 90-year-old father was wringing his hands and asking anyone who would listen, "How did I manage to raise such a dumb kid?" He's always suspected that I was dropped on my head in the hospital, which would explain my motorcycle and bicycle racing, backpacking and canoeing the wilderness, and wildly erratic employment history. So far, this chronicle of irrational behavior has peaked with me crashing a motorcycle on an isolated Canadian highway and going on to ride another 6,500 miles before returning to the safety of home. The next year, I rode 10,000 miles in the opposite direction. The year after that I explored the back roads of North Dakota, going places that aren't even on Garmin's maps. I think my father is convinced that I have some sort of death wish; or am simply stupid. A few other family members agree with that assessment, as do several of my work associates and a few friends.
They are wrong about the death wish, but I might be stupid.
Stupid or not, I am enjoying the hell out of the tail-end of my life. After an adventure, I have a renewed appreciation for my "normal" life with my family and my work. I have no shortage of places I want to see and adventures I want to try out. I expect my father will be even more confused next year.
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 24, 2014
By the time this reaches publication, I will have completed my four-year term on the Minnesota Governor's Motorcycle Safety Advisory Committee (MMSAC). It was an interesting and educational opportunity: my first in government, my first attempt to labor under Robert's Rules since high school, and my first experience hanging out with a substantial group of motorcyclists for more than the few minutes it usually takes for me to fill up a gas tank. I'm not much of a social being. I'm well aware of the fact that people are the "most dangerous animal" and the older I get the less likely I am to put myself in harm's way. On top of that, I firmly believe in the proverb, "Meetings: all of us are dumber than any of us."
In the current segregated and polarized political climate, I didn't expect to get much done in this committee and I didn't disappoint myself. I hoped to represent the tiny minority of motorcyclists who don't wear patches, tattoo motorcycle brand names on their butts, belong to gangs or clubs or special interest groups, who regard motorcycles as a practical means of daily transportation, who care about the environment and our communities, and the even smaller group of bikers who try to teach motorcycle safety to new riders. I like math and science and I hoped to introduce a little of each into the suggestions that the committee made to the Governor and the Department of Public Safety. In the end, we managed some small accomplishments, chewed up a lot of time and energy, and I learned some things about motorcyclists as a "community."
The biggest thing I learned is that we aren't much of a community. Not many of us have similar opinions about motorcycles, transportation, safety, or government. In this small, hand-picked assembly of motorcyclists, I found fewer than three or four with whom I agreed; on practically any issue. For a change, I wasn't the only person in this boat. In conversations after meetings, it was common for each of us to feel that our viewpoints were under-represented in the committee.
Predictably, the ABATE crowd is well (or over) represented in this political arena and they are more uniform in their positions than were the rest of the members. There was a small contingent of motorcycle safety instructors (including me) who were mildly in agreement on a few issues. There is an even smaller sample of non-special-interested motorcyclists who were all over the place, depending on the issue at hand. I think everyone was well-intentioned and committed to promoting motorcycling and protecting motorcyclists. Politics is about compromise and motorcyclists may be less able to make compromises than most people. I suspect I am a particularly good example of that disability.
From my perspective, all of the fine ideas for promoting motorcycle safety are hampered by the microscopic contribution motorcycles make to traffic. It's hard to imagine a "Start Seeing Motorcycles" campaign having much effect when a motorcycle is spotted on our highways barely more often than unicorns or flying pigs. To me, the best thing that can be done to improve on motorcycle safety would be for more motorcycles to be on the road, generating attention, reducing congestion, and providing justification for our vehicle of choice. However, if we fill the roadways with unskilled riders, our crash statistics are going to go through the roof. To me, this makes a strong argument for tougher licensing standards and more training requirements. To the ABATE crowd, my conclusions sound like more "government interference." I'm probably more fond of the consequences of the Darwin Effect than most, but I'm convinced that most people don't tolerate high death rates as well as ZPG (Zero Population Growth) advocates like me.
I've heard rider complaints about my stance on helmets, motorcycle noise, and motorcyclists' testosterone-driven hooligan tendencies. Their argument is that we need to present a "unified front" in promoting motorcycling; that any negative statements about motorcycling from motorcyclists is motorcycling treason. I know where that tactical concept comes from, it has been a successful political strategy for at least one political party, but I don't think it will work with motorcyclists. There are as many of us who don't like parades as there are those who only ride in miles-long displays of garage candy. There are motorcyclists who believe that hooligan riding tactics, loud exhausts, and high death rates will damage the future (the near future) of motorcycling. There are riders who wouldn't ride if motorcycling meant that they had to be courteous, quiet, and prudent. Motorcyclists are a "community" that defies group-ness. Participation in the MMSAC made that clear to me.
I've said this before, but people who ask "why can't we all just get along" and demand that we "present a common front" are really asking everyone to line up behind them. I didn't run into any of that in the MMSAC group. No one demanded that the rest of us conform to their viewpoint or pretended that dire consequences would follow if we didn't step into line.
Among this small community of riders, there was an understanding that we are representing an insanely diverse population. What the garage candy crowd wants for motorcycling is almost diametrically opposed to what daily commuters want. The daily commuting crowd ranges from folks who oppose helmets and protective gear to folks who gear up, every morning, like they are heading off to the race track. Commuters ride bikes that vary from race-ready sport bikes to leather-and-chrome cruisers, from the latest and greatest bikes on the market to rat bikes that leak fluids that were never intended for use in internal combustion motors. Sport bikers don't see safety, licensing, and training issues in the same light as does the cruiser crowd. Touring bikers are a whole 'nother special motorcycling interest that has as many dissimilarities, among that narrow group, as similarities.
Our opinions on motorcycle noise sway from "loud pipes save lives" to "loud pipes cost rights." Our perspectives on the "value" of our vehicle spreads between vehicles that are economical, ecologically responsible, practical, and responsible (i.e. "tree-hugging") to bikes that are loud, emissions-spewing, recreational-use only, and more expensive than space travel (tree-hating?). Where is the middle ground between those opinions?
In the MMSAC, I met MSF instructors who believe that helmets do not contribute anything valuable to motorcycle safety and at least one fair-weather rider who wouldn't leave home without his lid. I worked with folks who are often derided as "safety pussies" because of their positions on helmets and riding gear and met a few of the folks who do the deriding. I continued and, hopefully, expanded my friendship with ABATE's mortal enemy, Pat Hahn, and the man who aids and abets Patrick as his boss, Bill Schaffer. My membership in the MMSAC presented opportunities for some spirited and interesting conversations with an ABATE officer who is always a source of insight and counter-opinions, who will remain unnamed to protect his good relationships inside his "crowd."
In all, I don't think I could find a wider collection of opinions, intellects, and skills in any portion of humanity than in the "motorcyclist community." However, I fail to recognize many symptoms of "community" or "group-think" in our group. Presenting a motorcycling unified front seems to me to be a pipedream. I think the best we can hope for is to do as little damage to our image with the majority of road users and trust that is enough to allow continued use of the highways.
Nov 23, 2014
Nov 17, 2014
I recently had the displeasure of test riding a Korean chopper clone. If you've read anything I've written in the past, you probably know that I have no idea why anyone would want a motorcycle that is designed and suited for riding short distances between bars. I can walk more comfortably than I can ride with my hands in the air and my feet sticking out like I'm sliding on my butt toward oblivion (or a gynecologist). It was an uncomfortable, boring, embarrassing experience (like every other time I've suffered that kind of motorcycle) and I said so in my review. In fact, I said I'd rather ride a mountain bike than put myself through the silliness of riding a cruiser.
That is, by the way, no exaggeration.
I like my bicycle. I usually put in at least five hundred miles a year on my mountain bike and when I was really pounding out the motorcycle miles I was also pedaling long distances almost every day. The Korean marketing rep thought he was banishing me to some terrible punishment by shrieking "Your tester states that he would rather ride a mountain bike than our GV or any other cruiser? I would just as soon see him do the same..permanently, it certainly would serve your readers better if he did." [The weird punctuation and grammar belongs to the genius marketeer. I just cut-and-pasted his more benign comments into this column.]
I'm not sure what being banned to a bicycle "permanently" would entail. It wouldn't be a terrible problem for me as long as I can fall back on the bus for Minnesota's really cold days and sneak a ride on my motorcycle when I cross the country. Bicycles are great transportation, wonderful exercise, and a little enforced motivation might generate the discipline I need to make me ride mine more often. Maybe Marketing Boy would like to sign on as my personal trainer?
Just like my choices in motorcycles, I have the same prejudices for the bicycles I ride. When I was a kid, all we had were Western Auto's Airline and our local bicycle shop's Schwinn coaster brake bikes. No 10-speeds, no BMX bikes, no stunt bikes, no mountain bikes, and nothing resembling observed trials bikes. From when I was 9 till age 12, I pedaled a 10 mile long paper route on a 40 pound, 26" steel-wheeled bike that today's bicycle dealers would call a "beach cruiser." Schwinn's Stingrays didn't appear in western Kansas until after I had graduated to motorcycles. When I was a teenager, a few cheap Schwinn 10-speed "racers" started appearing among the town's rich kids. I didn't own a multi-geared bicycle until I was almost 30 years old. My kids had bikes with gears before I did. When I moved to California, I commuted to work alternatively on my motorcycle and on the bicycle. I experimented with mountain bike racing along the coast, until I began to bang myself up as often on the bicycle as I had on my dirt bikes.
After bending up dozens of skinny 27" wheels, I saw an ad for a mountain bike in a sports magazine and I bought one. For the first two years I owned that bike, I wore out a pair of tires every few months. I hung on to my habit of hopping curbs and getting air on speed bumps, but mountain bike wheels and tires take that punishment without much damage. I'm on my 2nd mountain bike and my 4th bicycle odometer. I think this bike has collected almost 10,000 miles since it was new.
Contrary to cruiser and biker newbie fairy tales, bicycling and motorcycling require a lot of the same skills; especially off-road and high speed bicycling. Traction control and momentum shifts from simply twisting a throttle to pedal power and cornering speed judgment. If the concept of matching engine speed to the road speed is complicated on a motorcycle, that is magnified on a bicycle when the "engine" is you. Braking is exactly the same, without the advantage of large, sticky tires or a traction-smoothing suspension. I swap the traditional front/rear brake positions on my bicycles to the motorcycle configuration. Many of the best motocross, enduro, trials, and MotoGP competitors began racing on bicycles. Some of those world class motorcyclists still ride bicycles recreationally and competitively.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, riding a bicycle in urban traffic will reinforce your understanding of how incredibly incompetent and careless the majority of cagers really are. When you are whizzing along beside these fools at highway speeds, it's useful to know that many of them are unable to make a competent 2 mph turn from a standing start. They are so busy fooling with their makeup, cell phones, coffee cups, and other mentally-handicapping paraphernalia that the highway and other highway users are the furthest thing from their tiny minds. If you aren't constantly looking for escape routes, you are among the rolling dead.
When I'm teaching a Basic Rider Course (BRC) for the MSF, I always ask students if they ride a bicycle. If they don't, they will need special attention to even begin to grasp motorcycling concepts. Really good bicyclists catch on almost immediately and rip through the BRC program the way it was intended to be ripped. When folks fail the BRC, I recommend that they spend a week putting miles on a bicycle before they go back to testing their skills on a motorcycle. Often, I get a disgusted look and the suggestion is dismissed as if it were total insanity.
It wouldn't be the first time my ideas have been exposed to distain and disbelief. It won't be the last. I still think bicycling and motorcycling are similar skills. A motorcycle is a motorized bicycle, at the back (and safest to learn) end of two-wheeled technology and technique. If you aren't up to the demands of riding a bicycle, you probably aren't in good enough shape to be a skilled and safe motorcyclist. If none of that were true, I'd still miss my bicycle as much as my motorcycles, if I couldn't occasionally take to the road on petal power. Bicycles are fun, practical, efficient transportation and cops don't even give me a glance when I'm pretending to be a racer on my bicycle.
Nov 14, 2014
While I was waiting for Garceau's to finish prepping the bike, I walked around the shop and looked at the Hyosung (pronounced "Yo-sung" or "Why-oh-sung") models on their showroom floor. I knew I'd be reviewing the 650, but the bike that really attracted my attention was the GT250 Comet. The Hyosung models use a lot of common parts and the 250 models are not "little bikes," they just have small motors. However, when Jim Debilzan rolled out the 650 Avitar, my heart sunk. Unknown to me, Hyosung makes a cruiser and I would be testing it.
Years ago, a friend was visiting our home and my wife was trying to feed him. She'd made some guacamole dip and salsa and she was shoving it at him, assuming that everyone loved guacamole. He took a scoop and tasted it. Then he said, "I hate avocado, but this is pretty good for what it is." The Hyosung GV650/Avitar is my guacamole. No matter how well this bike was designed and assembled, there was no chance I would like it. I've ridden a bunch of cruisers. The best I can say about any of them is that they were equally unpleasant, "I don't like cruisers, but it's pretty good for a cruiser." I would, honestly, rather ride a mountain bike. With that in mind, off we go.
The electronic console contains a lot of information: speedo, odometer, two trip odometers, fuel and temperature bar gauges, and idiot lights. The "Select" and "Reset" buttons are small and hard to engage with gloves. The right-and-left turn indicators could be easy to ignore. The ignition key is on the right side of the tank and is almost guaranteed to be sheared off in a parking incident.
From the rear of the bike, the brake light (ten high intensity LEDs) is insanely visible. The small, close-in turn signals (front and rear) may be too subtle to be noticed. The single round headlamp provides old fashioned illumination with hot spots near the bike and diffuse light a couple dozen feet out.
For maintenance, the tank props up on an included stay, so air filter servicing can be done with the tank in place. The toolkit and owner’s manual are stored under the seat. The seat only requires the removal of a single screw at the back of the seat. The battery is under the seat along with the tank prop and owners' manual. Idle adjustment is easily accessible from the rider’s seated position. The oil change interval is 6,000km (about 3,700 miles) and Hyosung recommends the valve clearances be inspected at that same interval. The bike has an oil filter (on the right side case) and an oil strainer (near the drain plug).
The steel tube frame is rigid enough to provide a stable, confident ride on pavement. The seat and feet-forward position puts a lot of responsibility on the suspension, though. The 43mm upside-down forks have “H-to-S” damping adjustment, but the old-fashioned dual shock rear suspension only allows for spring loading adjustment. Both ends are short travel, which accounts for the low seat height and harsh ride. Vibration is moderate, especially considering the cruiser short-travel suspension. The fact that the mirrors provide a stable rearview image at all speeds proves that the bike is relatively vibration-free. The stock tires are Bridgestone Battleax BT54 radials. The double disk front, single disk rear brakes work, but you don't have to worry about using too much pressure because the brakes are far from aggressive. I couldn't apply enough front brake to approach breaking the front wheel loose.
Hyosung claims 71hp at the rear wheel and my ride gave me no reason to doubt it. The Avitar does not have a tach, so I don't really know where "bottom" is, but the motor pulls strongly from low-midband up. The dual 39mm Mikuni carbs provide enough fuel to the 81.5 x 62mm 647cc V-
2 to give the bike a solid 50mph 5th gear roll-on and plenty of passing power. The Avitar's mild but macho exhaust note, turns into a snarl when you get on the gas. People who appreciate that kind of thing commented that it "sounds cool." At 55, with a constant throttle, I noticed a bit of hesitation that almost felt like fuel starvation. That reappeared any time I was in that RPM range with steady throttle. In my 135 mile test ride, I averaged 40mpg; not great but not bad.
Ten miles from home my hands were tingling, my butt was sore, and I still can’t figure out why my feet are sticking out in front of the rest of me. Usually, I'm good for 100-150 miles between rest stops. Today, 20 miles and I'm ready to look at scenery, on foot. Those aren’t Hyosung complaints, those are cruiser complaints. At 70mph, the wind is trying to blow my feet from the pegs and me from the seat. I'm dangling from the bars. In this seating position, 55mph feels fast and 70 feels out of control. My friend on the Yamaha TDM thinks this is a great road. Every bump, crack, and ripple in the highway drives my tailbone into the middle of my spine. The historic twin-shock rear suspension, long wheelbase and sluggish steering turns some of my favorite letter-roads into work. At about 250 miles, the clutch began making a squawking noise on cold starts and it would grab and lunge forward. That reappeared once in slow moving traffic, when the bike was a little hot. The 5-speed transmission is predictable and well-spaced and shifting is as smooth as you'd expect from a long linkage mechanism. The “poly chain belt” drive, as usual for the genre, sucks up some transmission shock but it isn't elastic enough to disguise some transmission lash.
The GV650 has lots of chrome: engine cases, monster pipe, fork bits, and all of the places cruiser owner's like chrome. The engine case chrome is a little heavy looking, like plastic model plating. The welds, paint, chrome, fit and finish all look up to modern standards, although the finish on the top side of the swingarm was a little crude. Generally, the Avitar looks well built for the price ($6,299 MSRP).
Competition in this style and engine size is fierce. The Avitar is priced $100 above Yamaha's V-Star Classic and $200 over the Custom and Suzuki's Boulevard. The Honda Shadow VLX is $400-800 less expensive than the GV650 and Kawasaki's Vulcan 500 LTD is $1100 cheaper. The Harley Sportster 883 is $400 above the asking price for the Hyosung. It will be hard to make a dent in this market without a substantial cost advantage over the more established competition.
Postscript: This review generated more flame-mail than anything I've done in the last decade. I must have been right, because some of the mail came from owners who claimed I'd devalued their "investment" by describing its faults and failures. In retrospect, I only wish I had been more blunt in my dislike for the Avitar. Even more, the overreaction by the manufacturer and dealer to my exposing the bike's terrible reliability and incompetent design demonstrates exactly how a consumer will be treated with similar complaints. It is, without question, a POS motorcycle that is overpriced, poorly designed and more miserably executed, and belongs in the "cheap Chinese shit" category of motorcycles.
Nov 12, 2014
In a classic case of misinterpreting data or dumbing it down to the point even Communications majors imagine they understand it, this idiot article completely misses the most important point about the boneheads who play with their cell phones while driving, “Survey finds people text and drive knowing dangers.” There are two major contradictory statements in this article:
I disagree with the claim that those delusional drivers that surveyed first statement are “aware” of anything. I watch those morons tailgate, wander across lane markers, panic at the slightest variation in road or traffic conditions, fail miserably at the most remedial attempts to merge in traffic, and generally display driving skills that would embarrass a dog. I do not, under any circumstances believe 98% of cell phone addicts are skilled enough to recognize any sort of danger until their vehicle is sliding over a precipice.
On the other hand, I totally agree with the second statement. I do believe these skidding down the highway of life morons absolutely believe “they can do several things at once, even while driving. The problem is that they do not do anything well. Ever. So their standards are sub-human.
Almost ironically, AT&T conducted this poll with the half-hearted side-goal of promoting their “free app that silences text message alerts and activates automatically when a person is moving 15 miles per hour or faster. (Passengers can turn it off.)” True to form, this too-big-to-fail corporation is masking their responsibility in this plague of distracted, deadly drivers with an easily bypassed app that requires the user to be sentient. We all know the solution is to force the telcoms to use existing technology to shut down all mobile communications when the phone is in motion. Fuck a lot off passengers. They can’t drink in a moving vehicle, why should they be calling anyone and distracting the driver with their inane chatter? Personally, I think the real solution is to make the telcoms partially responsible (as deep pockets) for any crash, injury, or fatality in which their service is involved. A few multi-million dollar lawsuits and they’ll suddenly do the right thing.
Nov 10, 2014
Earlier this year, the United States Census and the Department of Transportation released stats on urban commuting traffic. Motorcycles are an embarrassingly insignificant minority. Apparently, there are 80 million cars, trucks, SUVs; and minivans on the road every day while only 200,000 motorcycles and scooters occupy those same public roads. For the math-impaired, that amounts to a paltry 0.25% of the total commuting vehicles on the road being two-wheeled. I would be amazed if motorcycles are more than half of that. As I've often suspected, we're barely more than a pitiful two-tenths-of-a-percentage point.
"Ride free, but ride rarely," must be the US motorcycle crowd's motto.
Today was a beautiful, 80oF, cloudless June weekday with a mild breeze and the kind of clean, crisp summer feel that ought to irresistibly force motorcycles on to the highways. When I wake up to this kind of day, I gotta find some place to visit. Due to a management screw up, I ended up on the far west end of the Cities at the peak afternoon rush hour. I never travel these roads when other people are on them, but today I was out there in the human cattle drive. Man! Why are there so many people crammed into cages and wheeled coffins on days like this?
I rode forty-five rush hour miles, from the southwest end of the Cities, up 212 to 62 to I35W to I94 to I35E to home. You'd need a few hundred people assigned to counting particular colored cars or trucks or SUVs or minivans to be able to count the number of cars I passed on that trip. You barely need the fingers of two hands to count the motorcycles and scooters: seven motorcycles and two scooters. Forty-five miles and a zillion cages and seven freaking motorcycles. There is absolutely no chance that Minnesota holds up its end of that puny 0.25%. Just making a wild guess, I'd guess that every freeway mile I traveled held at least 600 cages and I did about 25 multi-lane miles: 15000 cages. The other twenty miles probably averaged about 175 cars per mile: 3500 cages. That makes us a grossly conservative estimated 0.038% of commuting traffic. I would buy someone a steak dinner for a thirty minute video of the trip I took this Monday, it would be a terrific documentary of how few Minnesotans actually use their motorcycles for anything practical.
We gotta fix this.
While we barely exist on the highway, we make a big mark in the morgues. A recent NPR report stated that Minnesota motorcyclists account for "10% of traffic accident deaths" and 1% of the vehicles on the road. Using the DOT's statistics, that means a two-wheeled motorized traveler is forty times as likely to get killed on the road as a cager, bare minimum. Using MnDOT's numbers, Minnesota motorcyclists mortality improves to ten times the cage rate. My seat-of-the-pants numbers make me suspect that we're about 10X more likely to get killed than MnDOT estimates.
We gotta fix this.
On the other hand, I have a chunk of the freeway in my backyard and a stretch of relatively popular residential road practically in my front yard. I can sit on my porch and listen to the whine of cage tires, semis-rumbling, and the beeping of construction equipment backing up and it all blends into an irritating background noise that is the reason I could afford this house in the first place. The only noises that stand out amid this cacophony of mechanical noises is the occasionally window-rattling "potato-potato" farm implement sound produced by a "big twin" or the shriek of a over-rev'd squid-piloted crotch rocket. So, while we don't contribute anything significant or worthwhile to traffic flow, we stand right out there as noise polluters.
Obviously, that has to be fixed.
So on June 15th this year, Ride to Work Day will be celebrated by the few, the valiant, the dedicated, the skilled, and the rest of you will drive your cage-lumps to work like all the other sheep on the highway. Or, you could join us. Put on a demonstration of how much we could contribute to traffic flow and safety, fuel economy, and how much better the world would be if more of us rode motorcycles to work everyday possible.
Nov 5, 2014
by David L. Hough, 2012
All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day
David Hough and, through his writing for Motorcycle Consumer News, Sound RIDER!, and BMW Owners News has been a strong advocate for motorcycle training and safety for most of his 75 years. Hough was inducted into the AMA's Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 2009. As a motorcycle safety advocate, Hough has won the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Excellence in Motorcycle Journalism award twice, but he isn't one of the MSF's fans. In fact, in this 220 page book, the MSF is mentioned exactly three times and mostly in an unfavorable light. In 2004, through a short series of MCN articles ("Trouble in Rider Training 1 & 2") Hough championed the argument that the MSF is more committed to selling motorcycles than promoting motorcycle safety and crash and fatality reduction. In 2013, he obviously holds the same positions to be true. There are numerous references to rider training programs that Hough considers to be worthwhile, but the MSF is not among them. With that as a background, the newest edition of Mastering the Ride takes on many of the issues Hough believes are driving motorcycle fatality statistics into public discussion.
Hough has some excellent arguments regarding how we ride and how that relates to the frequency that we end up in hospitals and cemeteries. Marketing gurus say "perception is everything" and that goes for motorcycling, too. Several sections of Mastering the Ride are dedicated to discussions of safe following distance, scanning for hazards and escape routes, visibility, and evasive maneuvers. In many piloting, automotive, and motorcycle training programs, this translates to SIPDE (search, identify, predict, decide, and execute). This takes the MSF's SEE (search, evaluate, and execute) to a more functional and detailed level by forcing riders and drivers to think about all of the steps necessary in avoiding catastrophe on the road.
All of this stuff is about learning how to accurate gauge and react to typical situations with exceptional skill. Since Hough managed to overshoot his own limits at a ride in August 2012 and crashed Lee Park's Triumph in an emergency stopping maneuver, some people might take his advice with a small block of salt. However, most experienced riders know that there are only two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have crashed and those who haven't crashed yet. Hough isn't shy about illustrating this book with pictures of his own off-pavement misadventures and self-deprecating examples of moments when his mental state resulted in (or could have) his sliding down the road shiny-side-down. Crashing is just one possible result from riding a vehicle that doesn't balance itself. During Aerostich's VBR3, I had the pleasure of talking to David for an extended period about his post-crash take on "motorcycle safety" (a phrase he believes is an oxymoron) and his position on motorcycle training is even more controversial now than ever.
There are a lot of valuable, but subtle, riding tips that could be missed by a first pass through Mastering the Ride. As an example, in MSF classes, instructors always challenge riders to "look where you want to go," but Hough extends that further by saying "point your nose . . . in the direction you want to go." Using the fighter pilots' tactic of both looking in the intended target direction and keeping your eyes level to force a commitment to a direction change, this hint goes a long ways toward minimizing "target fixation." Just for this tip, I'm glad to have read the book.
Hough's take on preoccupied drivers is accurate and usually far more politically correct than my own. When he describes the reckless homicide rear end crash that took Anita Zaffke's life in 2009, he doesn't provide more than the first name of the victim or much of a condemnation of the homicidal fingernail-painting driver. In a similar fashion, he refrains from seriously criticizing modern driving skills or in-vehicle distractions. Hough is less politically correct when he describes most US highway law enforcement tactics as being "revenue generating" rather than safety-oriented. Having been hooked by speed traps in some pretty silly locations and even sillier law enforcement legal interpretations, I'm totally on board with Hough in this regard.
Hough mistakes bicycle habits or newbie fear for skill when he describes using two or three finger-braking as an advanced riding skill. If you watch the extras on the Faster DVD, you'll see that Valentino Rossi often uses all four fingers and I suspect Hough is rethinking his own braking skills after flipping Park's Triumph this past summer. There are times when two finger braking is more than enough, but making that a regular habit is a formula for reduced braking when you really need it and a busted finger or two when the bars slam to the ground in a right turn low-side. His take on advanced braking systems (ABS and linked) seems to be pretty "old guy biased," too.
Where this book shines is in the street riding strategies. Hough describes a roadway that is in constant flux and a high state of hazard; just like the roads we all ride. His tips for evaluating traffic, turn radii and camber, road surfaces, and other road risks are valuable and expert. There are two appendix entries that the majority of American riders should read: "The Aging Rider" and "Travel." Since the average age of American motorcyclists is moving right along with the Boomer generation, we're all heading toward that moment when we have to consider being too old to ride. Goofy "solutions" like trikes and sidecars aside, it is simply a matter of time for all of us. Hough is close to that point himself and discusses aging and declining skills honestly and factually. His admonition that we all need to ride somewhere on our motorcycles is just good sense. Ride someplace you've always dreamed of visiting.
The one and only problem I’ve had, so far, with my new-to-me Nissan Frontier pickup is the aftermarket (Viper) “security system.” From the start, the damn thing has been a glitch-factory. Why anyone would fuck up perfectly good remote control doors and a factory alarm system with some goofy crap that might or might not provide the basic functions totally loses me. Of course, I have the same mental block with aftermarket crap on motorcycles. Because only one of the Viper’s remote controls appeared to be sync’d with the system, I crawled around under the dash until I found the “valet” button and turned the system off. Once that was accomplished, the pickup seemed to be pretty normal.
After going over the pickup, cleaning, inspecting, and sorting out what a maintenance process might be, I noticed the Viper’s “siren” had been left dangling in the engine compartment. Not being a fan of loose ends, I found a place to ground the thing and bolt it solidly to the chassis and discovered the system re-initialized itself once the siren was grounded. I had errands to do, so I didn’t worry about it for the moment. On the highway, I discovered the door locks now randomly cycled with the vehicle’s speed. As I found when I first got the pickup, if I stalled the truck (still getting used to the manual transmission), I had to do a routine with the key to get the truck to restart. Back under the dash and once again with the “valet” bullshit. With the Viper crap out of the system, the pickup is back to normal.
I mentioned this to a friend who worked for a company that specialized in hotrodding electronics for diesel trucks and he said, “One of the techs for [his old employer] told me the first thing he always asks his customers when they complain about electronic problems is ‘Did you install a security system?’” If they did, his first suggestion was that they remove the damn security system, then try troubleshooting the truck if there was still a problem. Usually, he claimed that solved the electrical/electronic problems; everything from hard starting to fuel mapping to malfunctioning automatic transmission programming and the usual immobilizer and door lock problems.
Supposedly, it should be easy to pull this damn Viper system, but I’m between houses, garages, and test equipment and tools. I might have to live with no electronic door keys for a winter. It’s too cold to crawl around under the dash reconnecting wires and testing the results and my new garage will even be colder for a season. Once again, it proves my rule for everything from noisy exhaust systems to air-box modifications to Power Commanders: for every dollar spent on aftermarket crap I take two dollars off of my resale offer over what the stock motorcycle might be worth. You’re buying that crap on your own dime because I’m going to be pulling it off and tossing it or selling it. Shade tree mechanics are not nearly as often catastrophic as shade tree “engineers.” When some math-impaired fruitcake with a set of cheap wrenches thinks he can re-engineer a Yamaha, Husky, Honda, KTM, BMW, Suzuki, or Kawasaki to perform better than those companies’ engineers, I’m skeptical, at best. Harley, Polaris, Ducati, or Indian might be a different matter.
Nov 4, 2014
You tell me. I've done a few of these spill tactics in my younger years and pulled off a couple of them last winter on the WR in deep sand. This summer, I had a thirty-something guy in one of my ERC's explain how he'd quit off-roading a few years back because of his kids. I thought he meant the usual "now that I'm a dad I have to be responsible and play it safe" thing, but he explained his decision came from watching his kids. He described his toddlers as being "made of rubber and magic" and realized that if he took any one of the sorts of falls they experienced dozens of times a day he'd be in crutches and casts for months. Once he assessed his own deteriorating "rubber and magic" quotient, he decided going fast off-road was for younger guys.
Survival after some of the spills on this video can only be explained by "rubber and magic." At 66, my rubber components have oxidized into brittle cheap plastic and the magic has gone away. Regardless, I miss having the confidence, durability, and gumption to go fast off-road and envy these guys; even the ones who got hurt going balls out where smarter people would fear to fire up the bike.
Nov 3, 2014
Way back at the beginning of the information age, in about 1992, a biking, IS'ing friend of mine told me that he was beginning to hate the World Wide Web. Since we'd been working together to assemble a corporate website for our employer for the previous couple of months, I was a little surprised. His argument was that when the web really hit, "everyone" would be on the internet. When that happened, the Net would cease to be a resource for geeks and technoids and it would become as saturated with unskilled people and pointless crap as radio airwaves have been in the last fifty years. At that time, about the only way to even use e-mail was to be a moderately competent UNIX programmer and be able to assemble enough code to modify a text editor to suit your ISP's requirements. It was a pretty exclusive club. You had to be a geek, or be really nice to one, to accomplish anything on the Net.
He was right. Now, everybody is using the WWW and it's commercial, crass, packed full of time-wasting, resource hogging advertisements, porno and politics, and, in a few seconds of search engine manipulation, you can find the wrong answer to almost any question. The web is more fun and more useful, too, but if you didn't know how to use the old tools you probably don't get as much out of the newer, more powerful tools. Looking at national and Minnesota accident statistics, I'm beginning to think that my real gripe against hippo-cruisers is that they make motorcycling too damned easy for "everyone" to become motorcyclists. In particular, they make it easy for average, poorly trained, unskilled, "physically (and, sometimes, mentally) challenged" folks to ride a motorcycle. At least, they can ride it badly.
An Art Friedman Motorcyclist column noted that there has been a steady and significant increase in engine displacement that appears to be closely linked to a steady and significant increase in motorcycle crashes and motorcycle deaths. The writer cautioned that relationship could be related "to rider-training availability, to older riders, to faster sportbikes, to fewer helmet laws, to a reduction in recent rider experience, to the displacement march among popular cruisers. . . " And so on. How about a possible relationship between all these crashes and the fact that most of these older, untrained riders are buying butt-heavy big cruisers that any damn fool can get out of the driveway but nobody can actually safely maneuver on the road?
Look at the characteristics of the typical hippo-bike:
- Minimal horsepower, but lots of low rpm torque. So grandma or grandpa can let that nasty clutch lever fly, like a pinball machine flipper, without stalling the bike or wheeling down the driveway.
- A center of gravity so low that the bike stands by itself, requiring hardly any concentration from the rider in balancing the bike and putting it in motion.
- Fat and flat tires for more of that balance-free start-up action. 22" to 28" seat height so obese and inflexible American couch potatoes can wedge a knee over and mount up, even if they are so disabled that they are no more agile than a marble statue.
- Short seat heights and a low center of gravity forces designers to accept impractically low ground clearances. Yet another way to sacrifice one of motorcycles' safety advantages. If you can't even think about clearing a curb in a tight situation, you've trapped yourself to the asphalt where all the violence is going to be.
- To make up for years of cubicle paralysis, blimp owners want lots of sound and vibration to compensate for all that wasted time making the boss rich. I think Shakespeare called this "sound and fury signifying nothing," It's not nothing. It's a sensory generator for the the tactilely disabled. If you can't tell how fast a well tuned four is spinning by the buzz in the bars, ride a big-ass twin and your ribs bang together for a much more obvious sensation. Of course, you can't hear a 747 about to fly up your butt, but you can imagine all that noise moves people out of your unstable path of travel.
- Hippo-bikes are exercises in long-framed, super-stable geometry. So, once you get your hippo rolling, it doesn't do anything surprising, like turning. Some of these bikes won't change direction unless you really put your mind (and lots of body and handlebar pressure) to it. Trains are more maneuverable.
The list could go on for pages. Every aspect of these bikes is intended to make it easy for "anyone" to saddle up and roll forward. Unfortunately, rolling forward isn't all there is to motorcycling. You have to stop, sometimes you have to stop quickly; something that is made much more difficult when all that extra mass gets plugged into the momentum equation. Turning is a good thing, too. Sometimes being able to turn quickly is the difference between an exciting moment and a final moment. Turning these massive and infinitely-stable motorcycles feels like something you do after submitting a flight plan and requesting a stay on the laws of physics.
Here's a discouraging quote from Motorcyclist's 2003 review of BMW's F650CS, "to put the entry-level rider in the crosshairs, BMW has kept the engine full of torque and the injection purposely tuned to make the bike as docile as can be. With generous flywheel effect and a smooth clutch, edging out into traffic couldn't be easier." That's a positive spin on exactly what I'm talking about. I don't want to pick on the F650CS much, though, because I happen to think it is an ideal bike for riders of all skill levels (assuming those riders have at least a 36" inseam). This is a pretty good, general purpose bike, but it's obvious that BMW's designers are joining the mindless marketing rush to attract unskilled crowds to their motorcycles.
Don't get me wrong. I want lots of folks on motorcycles. I'd like to have dozens of models at my local dealership that tempt me to part with my money, if I had any. I'd like to have the highways, freeways, and side roads buzzing with motorcycles so that we have enough political and social clout to take advantage of motorcycles' advantages. I just want those riders to be competent enough that they don't all kill themselves in a lemming dive across the median.
Even further back in ancient history, my ancient history, I was taking a cross-country bus tour and ended up sitting next to a comedian heading back to L.A. after making an unsuccessful run at New York. We started sharing jokes and stories and he hit me with "why is there handicapped parking at tennis courts?" Thirty years later, I still can't explain handicapped parking at tennis courts, but I've been watching ever since and I never see those spaces filled.
Motorcycling is somewhere between a physical activity and a sport. I don't think people who might park their cars in handicapped spaces belong on motorcycles. There have been a few times in my own riding history when I began to think that I either needed to become more fit or quit. The thought of leaving two-wheeled transportation is always an exercise motivator for me. If you don't have the coordination to deal with the controls, you don't belong on two wheels. If you can't turn your head far enough to check blind spots, you shouldn't be at the wheel of a car or riding a motorcycle. If your judgment is impaired, temporarily or permanently, two wheels are less safe (for you) than four and you should avoid self-piloting altogether. There are folks that some MSF instructors classify as TDTR (too dumb to ride). It may not be a full-fledged sport, but motorcycling is a lot more physically and mentally demanding than driving a car or riding the bus. A clue to your motorcycling future might be "if you suck on a bicycle, you will most likely suck on a motorcycle."
I don't think motorcycling is well served by the "universal vehicle tactic." Building bikes that allow new riders on the road with next-to-no-skills or capacity for riding is the easy, dangerous way to attract customers. It's easy because it avoids the responsibility of getting across the critical point that motorcycling is a high risk activity, unless you have the skills to reduce the risk. Without bodywork to act as armor, motorcyclists don't do well in multi-vehicle collisions. It's dangerous because, when these baby-rider-sitting-bikes put a large quantity of riders on the road whose lack of skills and physical incapacity gets them killed or injured in ways that attracts the insurance industry's attention, we could be in for some nasty regulation from Big Momma Government.
We'll be seeing even more regulations like road and traffic access restrictions, helmet laws, health and life insurance penalties for motorcyclists, equipment inspections, and even more limitations on motorcycles that can be imported and receive EPA and DOT approvals. That, particularly, bothers me because the bikes I like the best are the bikes that provide the lowest profit margins for manufacturers. Those bikes will be the first to go when the boom falls. High tech, leading edge, small caliber bikes are only profitable if they sell in big numbers. Without those profits, even the big companies will try to imitate the boutique bike manufacturers to attract the discretionary dollars of the idle rich, because that's where the big bucks for minimal engineering and manufacturing investment lies.
I can clearly remember a lot of great bikes rotting on the showroom floors in the early and mid-80s. Depressing times and the bikes that followed were almost as depressing. Today's big bikes are the residue of that economic lesson. A lesson not well learned by the motorcycling business. Motorcycling is not the kind of activity that survives well in a vacuum. We have to stick together, as a sport and a mode of transportation, or we all vanish. I don't think the World Wide Web model will work for motorcycling. If we put enough incompetent people on the road, insurance companies and government will start to take notice. That won't be a good thing.