Thursday, April 13, 2017

I got that all wrong

My beef with the way marijuana's treated as a banned substance in sports doesn't mean I think racing while stoned is OK. I don't. 

The problem is that almost all available tests for the presence of cannabinoids return positive results long after the effect of using marijuana has passed. In America in 2017, as far as rules-makers are concerned, pot should be treated like alcohol. The goal should be to ensure riders aren't under the influence. 

A test that bans a rider for using pot days before racing doesn't improve safety, it's just out of date moralizing.

I apologize for the error-riddled (but stimulating) opinion piece I wrote and posted earlier today, inspired by Dalton Gauthier's ban, which came after he tested positive for marijuana use after the Charlotte half-mile.

I wrote the original version of this post as if AMA Pro Racing/American Flat Track used the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA's) banned substance list. That would be the case if Gauthier'd been a Supercross rider, but AFT rules are, as Al Ludington graciously pointed out, based on Nascar's substance abuse rules.

I’ve written before about the flaws in borrowing, wholesale, a banned-substances list designed for sports like track and field or weightlifting. Some day I'll peruse the AFT banned list in detail, but the larger point of my initial post still stands: While tests for alcohol measure blood alcohol and correlate with impairment, most marijuana tests currently look for metabolites and can yield a positive result long after the effects of using the drug have passed.

More and more Americans in all sports are being tripped up by the inclusion of pot on banned substance lists. After all, recreational marijuana is legal in several states, and most states offer some kind of legal dispensation for pot use with (ahem) a doctor’s prescription. Even solidly conservative states like Missouri, where I live, are softening their stances on pot use; Kansas City recently voted to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot for personal use.

I don’t know whether Dalton Gauthier was actually racing under the influence at Charlotte (in which case a ban’s justified) or whether a random test merely detected use in the recent past, or during post-event celebrations.

Regardless, AMA Pro/AFT, MotoAmerica and other sanctioning bodies would be well advised to acknowledge the relatively harmless reality of marijuana use and to  specify that cannabinoid drugs are banned in competition. AFT rules specify that alcohol must not be consumed for at least 12 hours before competition. A similar rule would be fair where pot's concerned. Merely using marijuana in the days or weeks leading to a competition, which probably would yield a positive test and result in a ban, puts us behind the times.

PS... For what it's worth, when I make a big mistake like that, I dock my entire salary for the day.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Indian files 'Harley-killing' patent

Polaris Industries, maker of Indian motorcycles, has patented an ingenious means of circumventing DOT and EPA sound regulations, effectively legalizing exhausts that produce an ear-splitting 129 dB sound volume. Backmarker learned of this new exhaust technology when one of our contributors discovered Polaris’ patent application.

At first, Polaris refused to comment. But when we said we’d break the story anyway, Polaris’ spokesman admitted that Indian’s ‘Loophole™’ mufflers will be available this fall on 2018 model motorcycles.

Although Polaris wouldn’t tell us how the Loophole™ muffler works, the company’s patent application shows a system of in-muffler microphones, amplifiers, and speakers that will allow the rider to switch on the electronic amplification of the exhaust sound.

Polaris’ patent means its motorcycles can be vastly louder than competitors’ bikes, without violating the letter of federal regulations.

While federal regulations mandate a maximum noise level of 84 dB, that’s for total vehicle noise at 35 mph. Polaris designers realized, however, that those rules do not apply to stereo sound systems. Obviously, DOT’s sound tests take place with stereos off.

“We expect our Loophole™ optional muffler package to be the most profitable accessory in the Indian catalog, come 2018,” Polaris’ spokesman Luke Solicitano told me. “Our customer surveys have shown, over and over, that the one area where we’ve had trouble competing with Harley-Davidson is exhaust volume. People tell us, ‘Harley’s are just louder’. Well, that ends now.”

Off the record, one Polaris engineer told us that the increase is in sound volume only, not power—which is critical, because increasing power would impact the specification of everything from clutch to brakes.

A spokesman for ABATE North Dakota said, “If it’s true that the Loophole™ system produces nearly 130 decibels, this is the most important safety development since wrap-around sunglasses.”

Because the decibel system is based on a logarithmic scale, the Loophole™ exhaust’s 129 dB output is actually over 20 times as loud as DOT regulations specify, yet it’s perfectly legal because technically, it’s an unregulated stereo sound system.

“With the switch in the ‘off’ position,” Polaris’ Solicitano told Backmarker, “It’s not any louder than the stock exhaust, which we calibrate to be right on the DOT’s 84 dB limit. But when you hit the switch, it’s as loud as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during a catapult launch with full afterburners. We tested a prototype for a few seconds outside the Buffalo Chip last year and about ten guys jumped right out of the kuttes.”

Again, off the record, one Polaris engineer told us that Indians will get a slightly uprated generators with higher amp fuses to handle the electrical drain of the in-muffler amp. The speaker is believed to have been developed in concert with Bose.

Meanwhile Harley-Davidson executives, on learning of the Loophole™ patent have apparently scheduled another trip to the White House.

One Harley exec who wished to remain anonymous because the White House trip hasn’t been officially announced told me, “Polaris just wasted a bunch of money on patent lawyers. After our meeting, Trump’s going to eliminate the DOT anyway.”

Friday, March 17, 2017

The first TTwins race in ages

I watched the first AFT race of the season with extra interest, since it was also the first TT or short track race under the new 'all twins, all the time' rules for the Expert class.

I should say that I watched it on FansChoice, not from the 'stands. There were some signal dropouts, and resolution issues but on balance I don't feel the quality of the coverage detracted from my experience.
As much air as anyone got all night. The jump was just a few yards down the track from a gnarly little stop-n-go chicane. My guess is that track designers were told, "Don't turn the first TT race for twins into a tragedy". If so, they were successful, but it didn't look a real National, either. AMA Pro Racing photo.

Was that a Chris Carr track? Here's why I'm not going to hold it against him: I am pretty sure that the Speedway and AMA Pro ordered him to lay out a conservative TT track, in order to minimize the risk of a serious incident in the first 'return of the twins' race. (Memories of last year/California are still too fresh.) I understand that concern but maybe the erstwhile Prince of Peoria was a little too cautious. I read a few fan comments on Facebook to the effect of, "I thought there was supposed to be a jump". I don't think the racers were too keen it, either, although an Indian 1-2 finish in the Expert Main is an OK outcome from a marketing perspective.

I wondered whether, given the layout, the Experts were slower on twins than they would have been on singles. My first instinct was to think they would've gone faster on the old bikes, but since there's never been a previous race on this track, it was hard to quantify that feeling.

Still, I tried.

The top ten Expert finishers had fastest laps ranging from Mees' 29.7 to Shoemaker's 30.7. The average of the top ten finishers' fastest laps worked out to a hair under 30.3 seconds.

In the Pro class, the average of the top ten finishers' fastest laps worked out to a little under 30.7, for a difference of 0.4 seconds.

That does not sound like a big difference, but when you compare it to last years' singles-vs-singles Expert-vs-Pro times on short tracks and TTs, it suggests that the Experts were measurably but imperceptibly faster on twins.

I think it's pretty safe to say that we'll be able to see the difference in Peoria.

Shout out to Ferran Cardus, of Spain, for a hard-fought top ten result in the Pro final! One bright spot for Cardus' mentor, Brad Baker, who had an unlucky night for himself. Baker posted that he hoped he hadn't concussed himself -- I'm not sure if it's possible to be knocked out cold and wake up wondering how you got there and not be concussed too, but I believe AMA Pro Racing instituted baseline testing this year, for the purposes of determining when/if it's safe to put racers back on track after they've 'rung their bell'.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

An(n)als of Motorcycle Journalism

“Well, I guess that’s just the way it’s gonna’ be now,” I thought. “I’ve hit 60 and I suppose it was inevitable I’d begin to piss myself.”

Such are some of the perhaps-unexpected insights of what’s becoming a long career in motorcycle journalism. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Not too long ago, I got to fly to San Luis Obispo, courtesy of Kawasaki, so that I could ride the new Ninja 650 and report on it for Common Tread.

Since the Central Coast of California’s been having an epic winter, I definitely kept an eye on the weather leading up to the launch. I brought rain gear, which I didn’t really need except for warmth.

But, the morning of the ride dawned at 28°. So I needed all my little cold-weather gear tricks.

For example, I have this fleece neck tube that protects my neck from wind blast. And as a base layer, I wore this great one-piece winter cycling overall that I first bought back in 2002, to wear on (bicycle) training rides on the Isle of Man ‘Mountain’ course. It’s basically an insulated leotard that covers me from chest to ankles. The entire front of it is wind- and waterproof, while the back is breathable. It’s got a front zipper for ease of entry but the only real flaw is that the zipper doesn’t go quite far enough down, so it’s almost impossible to pee without stripping it off the top of your body. I guess serious cyclists don’t want zippers anywhere near their junk.

I was grateful for the fairly large soft armor pads in the Spidi jeans I’d been given for the photo shoot. The armor also functioned as insulation for my knees, which often get cold under such conditions. But to further protect my legs from wind-chill, I layered rain pants over the jeans.
Last but not least, I fit those charcoal ‘hand-warmer’ packets under my gloves in the wrist area, and dropped one oversized ‘pocket-warmer’ down the front of that cycling overall, which produced a warm glow right at my center of mass.

Thus ensconced, I embarked on a group ride with nine other motorcycle journalists and a handful of Kawasaki employees. Kawi’s Jeff Herzog led us towards the first photo stop, where Brian J. Nelson was waiting with a Big Lens. I’d say I was one of the few writers who wasn’t cold.

By lunch time, the sun had warmed us up enough that the ride was downright pleasant.

A catered lunch was served in some kind of rec building at Fort Hunter Liggett, an active military base at the top of the mountains above Big Sur. That entailed stopping to register all the riders with the Military Police at the main gate.

There was a line of people seeking admission, so I took the opportunity presented by a convenient porta-potty. Rather than strip off my bulky jacket, I just unzipped it, unzipped the cycling ’tard and, with some difficulty pulled it down far enough that, if I stretched my dick as far as practical upwards, I could just direct a stream of pee into the grey plastic rotomolded urinal. Target acquired. Open fire.

I thought I was done. I was sure I was done, but as I walked into the MP post, I felt that tell-tale warmth in the crotch area that always means… yes, you’ve pissed yourself.

I looked down to check whether there was an incriminating wet spot, and was relieved (no pun intended) to see there was not. I assumed that the wind- and waterproof cycling base layer was sealing it against my body.

And, as I waited to present my ID, I pondered and then came to accept that this was the new reality of life as a (nearly) senior citizen, surrounded by a cadre of motorcycle journos who, collectively, averaged about half my age.

“You punks don’t know what ignominies await,” I thought. Or some such thing.

Once we were all approved—no terrorists among us—we rode a mile to the lunch stop. Throughout lunch I kept glancing down at my crotch to confirm that what felt like a good sized puddle hadn’t penetrated my base layer to betray my incontinence on my jeans. I imagined a future when, even on nice days, I’d have to begin dressing by pulling on Depends.
It's a little harder to concentrate on looking cool (which is actually part of the assignment) when you're sure you've just pissed your pants.
It was well into the afternoon before I realized, “Wait a minute, it’s still warm. If it was pee, it would be cold and wet by now.”

That’s when it dawned on me that the warmth was from the charcoal pocket warmer I’d dropped down into those bib overalls. I’d forgotten all about it as I peed, and it must’ve just slipped down from my belly to my crotch when I opened the zipper.

Those things are great, by the way. Totally recommend them for winter rides. Just remember where you’ve stuffed ‘em.

Friday, February 3, 2017

UPDATED: You know the "Harley-Davidson canceled Trump visit" story? Here's moron that.

Over the last few days, we've heard competing narratives (surprise!) about a canceled visit, by Donald Trump, to Harley-Davidson in Wisconsin.

According to numerous reports  dare I say, "I'm hearing, from numerous sources; people are saying..."? Harley-Davidson canceled a Presidential visit scheduled for earlier this week

Those reports stated that a Presidential advance team visited H-D's assembly plant in Menomonee Falls, because Trump wanted to sign some executive actions there. The timing  right after Trump's draconian 'Muslim ban'  made for a realistic fear of anti-Trump (and by virtue of the context, anti-Harley) demonstrations. 
"Mmph, mmph, mmph." It's hard to articulate your case, pro-international trade, while you're kissing ass.
But I imagine Harley execs tried to do just that.

I asked Harley-Davidson for clarification and I quickly got a response from Katie Whitmore, a company spokesperson.  

She wrote... 
Earlier this week we stated that we did not have a meeting scheduled with President Trump at any of our facilities. And the White House clarified some of the details that were being reported by announcing that Harley-Davidson executives were invited to D.C. because it was the best approach given the President’s schedule.  Today we had seven execs including our CEO and two union leaders at the White House to meet with President Trump.
They may not have firmly scheduled a visit, but the FAA did schedule temporary flight restrictions in the area's airspace, and the Washington Post reports that the Milwaukee Hilton hotel briefly put a hold on rooms for 100 Secret Service agents. 

I imagine that the Secret Service vets a number of locations that never, ultimately, get visited. Katie also appended this official statement from The Motor Co.:
This visit is a testament to our American heritage and the great work our employees do every day to build Harley-Davidson motorcycles.  As a proud U.S. manufacturer for more than 114 years – and as a company that values freedom and unity – we look forward to talking with the president about Harley-Davidson and the future of U.S. manufacturing.
Harley's customers, of course, lean heavily Republican. Being a Harley owner is probably the single most powerful selective filter for being a Trumpist*. So if Harley wanted to take a page from Trump's own playbook, the company'd embrace the new President, knowing that the people they infuriated by kissing his orange posterior were never going to buy Harleys anyway. And that the more Harley infuriates libtard snowflake Vespa riders, the more Harley's real customers love The Motor Co. But, Harley still harbors wild fantasies of replacing aging white guy customers with more women and minorities. That could explain their desire to avoid conflict.

Wisconsin's state government has been a laboratory for extreme right-wing politics. In spite of that, it was one of the states predicted to go for Clinton. In November, it swung to Trump instead, so it would be in character for The Donald to want to go and gloat. All of which suggests there might've been discussions, at least, about an appearance at H-D.

One thing that I wondered about (and that I'm still wondering about) is whether there's something about H-D's plant that would make it particularly susceptible to protests. Although Waukesha County went for Trump, it's sandwiched between downtown Milwaukee (where Harley's headquarters is located, and which voted 2:1 for Clinton) and Madison, which was even more of a Democratic stronghold. So there'd be a ready pool of disaffected voters.

A lot of Muslim immigrants live around the southern part of Lake Michigan. It's not just that those people are potential protesters, it's that ordinary Americans who live in that region probably have routine encounters with immigrants from Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc. and are far more likely to be sympathetic to them as a result.

So was Trump's visit canceled? If so, I doubt it was Harley's call. 

But it would still have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in Harley's audience with Steve Bannon the President. In 2016, Harley-Davidson sold almost as many hogs outside the U.S. as inside. The single largest market area outside the U.S. is the Asia-Pacific region. You can be sure that from Harley-Davidson's perspective, the TPP trade deal was a good thing. And while the few Street models sold in the U.S. are made in my home town of Kansas City, most Street sold outside the U.S. are manufactured in Bawal, India. The usually well-informed Roger Willis contacted me on Facebook to add... 
"My understanding is that the US-market Streets bolted together in KC Missouri, if not exactly CKD kits, nevertheless use a component stream originating in India. And I have an unconfirmed report that alloy powertrain castings for big twins "manufactured" up North are now sourced from Zongshen in China, a long-established H-D parts contractor." ['CKD'=Complete Knock-Down, i.e., a complete set of parts sourced in one country, shipped for assembly somewhere else.--MG note]

You can be fucking sure that  – "Bikers for Trump" notwithstanding – The Motor Company is not happy about a new President who wants to burn trade agreements. Last but not least, there was CEO Matt Levatich's thinly veiled jab at Trump during the GOP primary season; something I bet wishes he'd kept to himself.

*The eleven Harley-Davidson riders who voted for Hillary Clinton are now free to write scathing comments.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Roadcrafter Diaries

Becoming a staffer at Motorcyclist came with a great perk. Andy Goldfine, at Aerostich, comped me a one-piece Roadcrafter suit. 

If there’s one thing all professional motorcycle journalists have in common, it’s that when we’re not riding for cameras, our default outfit is an Aerostich Roadcrafter.

Mine even came with Velcro patches to attach knee pucks. I remember someone asking me, “Do you trust it enough to ride it on the track?” and I was, like, Dude, this suit is better protection than any leather suit. It felt bombproof and—15 years later—it’s proving Andy’s claim that the only flaw with the original Roadcrafter is, he only ever sells one suit per person, because they last forever.

My favorite Aerostich story happened soon after my suit arrived. I lived in San Diego and commuted up to the Motorcyclist offices in Hollywood two or three times a week. On the way up, I usually stopped for coffee at San Juan Capistrano, which was the last place for a break before entering the maelstrom of Orange County traffic.

One day I was sitting in the coffee shop there, going through some ride notes for an upcoming story, aware that two attractive women sat at an adjacent table. They looked like—and turned out to be—a mom-and-daughter.

The 20-something leaned over and interrupted me. “Excuse me but we were wondering,” she asked, “Are you some kind of fireman?”

“No,” I deadpanned. “I’m an astronaut. I was on a training mission and splashed down into the ocean just nearby. This is my survival suit. I’ve called for pickup and within a few minutes a NASA helicopter will arrive to collect me.”

She totally bought it, and I could’ve kept it going but I then told them the truth. The 20-something was nearly as interested in my real job, but I found myself thinking, I want you to shut up so I can steer the conversation to your mom, who’s closer to my age. Anyway, the mom didn’t seem to have any interest in motorcycle journalists. Too bad I wasn’t really a fireman, I guess.

Notwithstanding that one time it sparked a conversation with attractive women, it’s about as stylish as… well, I don’t know what. I have an ex-racer friend who also defaults to a Roadcrafter for around-town rides. One day I met him at a hip cafĂ©. We both arrived in Aerostich.  I greeted him by saying, “You realize we’re wearing the only gear that makes it possible to ride up on a KTM 990 Adventure and a Bonneville and not be cool.”

Well, I can tell myself that functionality counts for something. It’s a bummer for Andy that like pretty much all motorcycle journalists, when the cameras come out I usually swap gear for something more photogenic. As a result, he doesn’t get anywhere near as much press as his Roadcrafter suit deserves.

One reason I half-expected Andy and his company to get some press during the last election cycle was that with all the talk of "bringing manufacturing jobs back" to the U.S., Aerostich is a company that never gave up on American manufacturing in the first place.

My Roadcrafter one-piece suit now sells for $1,200-something. I don't doubt that Andy could cut that amount dramatically by outsourcing his manufacturing. So why doesn't he do that? Having chatted with him about it, I'd say a big part of his decision to keep manufacturing right in his Duluth MN factory has to do with a belief that it's the right thing to do, even if the steep final price of his product costs him sales and in spite of the fact that outsourcing would likely make him personally wealthy. Since Roadcrafter suits are extensively customizable, I'm sure it helps to be within a coupl'a time zones of most customers.

One thing I'm dead certain of is this: While it's definitely possible to make a great product in China (BMW assembles some vehicles there) the quality of my Roadcrafter is outstanding in large part because it was almost entirely made by one skilled American craftsperson who earned a living wage for doing so in a corporate environment where 'Made in the USA' reflects the pride of the person and values of the company.

After two years of jingoistic political sloganeering along the lines of, "Bringing manufacturing jobs back" and "Making America Great Again" I find myself thinking, if you're gonna' try that, please consider Aerostich's example: Make "Made in the USA" synonymous with uncompromising quality, let the price fall where it will. The average rider's cost-per-year is cheaper, in Aerostich, than it is in some made-in-Thailand jacket that will need to be replaced before the end of its second season.