Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nike creates a sneaker for Baltimore’s infamous “12 O’Clock Boys”

So, this happened: A few days ago, Nike announced plans to release a special sneaker glorifying Baltimore’s infamous “12 O’Clock Boys”.

According to SneakerNews.com (an ‘Asphalt & Rubber’ for the running shoe industry)
The SFAF1 Mid, designed by Ben Kirschner of Nike, features bold can’t-miss NIKE AIR branding on the upper, “RAISE IT UP” on the ankle straps, and miniature Swoosh logos at the fore-foot, but the true prize is behind the durable materials that can withstand the blazing heat given off by the dirt-bike motors and the shifting of the toes.

Why this caught my eye was not the concrete poetry of the phrase, “…and the shifting of the toes” but rather the fact that Nike’s basically endorsing the 12 O’Clock Boys – a crew (some would say a gang) that exists only to break the law.

Lofty Nathan’s award-winning documentary 12 O’Clock Boys follows Pug, at left, as seeks acceptance in the crew.
“So what’s next, Nike?” I wondered. “A Michael Vick-signature shoe for dog-walkers? Special sneakers for shoplifters?”

There are renegade dirt bike gangs in other cities, including mine, but Baltimore’s famous for the phenomenon, which dates back over a decade to a fateful decision by the Baltimore Police Department, to stop chasing fleeing dirt bikers, after one early chase resulted in the rider’s death. Pretty much everyone in Baltimore’s familiar with the 12 O’Clock Boys, but the group became nationally famous in 2013, with the release of an eponymous documentary film.

The 12 O’Clock Boys movie was made by a young guy named Lofty Nathan who wasn’t really a motorcyclist, or even a filmmaker. He was taking a ‘documentary’ course in art school. He chose the subject on a whim, after seeing the crew popping wheelies with apparent impunity around Baltimore.

Nathan’s inexperience belied his skills as both a filmmaker and storyteller. To be clear: ‘12 O’Clock Boys’ is the best documentary film ever made about motorcycling. Better than ‘Why We Ride’, ‘Dust To Glory’, yes better than ‘On Any Sunday’. Feel free to jump straight down to the Comments section and flame me now without even finishing this essay; I’ll still be right. And that’s not just my opinion. It was selected by the SXSW committee; Toronto’s prestigious Hot Docs film festival gave Nathan its ‘Emerging Artist’ award. The American Film Institute released a short film about Nathan’s film; AFI, FFS!

All of which put the motorcycle industry and media in an awkward position. My friend Courtney Olive scored an interview with Lofty Nathan, and pitched it to Cycle World, which turned him down because, “…it’s not an image of motorcycling we want to promote.”

I admit, the 12 O’Clock Boys’ behavior is prima facie illegal, dangerous, and places innocent bystanders at risk. And I don’t doubt that many of those bikes are stolen property. (Although when I asked the Baltimore PD if it would be safe to assume most are stolen, T.J. Smith, an official spokesman, surprised me by writing, “No. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. The 12 O’Clock Boys don’t necessarily represent all dirtbikes in Baltimore.”)

Whenever I watch urban ‘stunting’ videos I think, first, being really good at wheelying is a lame talent; they’re basically using about 1% of their motorcycles’ potential. And, they’re not really good, anyway. (Cue Toni Bou: “Do you even wheelie, bro’?”) 

But for me to criticize them for sucking, for not being worthy of the bikes they’re riding, would be an extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black. I suck, too. But I still have fun. I think one of the reasons the movie about them left the moto industry shuffling its feet and looking at the ground was, those guys in the movie obviously get all the same things out of riding that we do: a sense of camaraderie, freedom, a break from mundane and constricted lives, adventure & thrills, and an endless opportunity to improve skills.

The 12 O’Clock Boys just add openly taunting the police to that list of satisfactions. And to be fair some of the satisfaction they take in that is understandable.

The foregoing masterpiece of equivocation, however, doesn’t change the fact that I can hardly friggin’ believe that Nike’s admiringly created a shoe for them.

I emailed the one Nike employee, Ben Kirschner, who was mentioned in the news story about the shoe, and got no response. For good measure I emailed Nike’s PR department and they too seemed to have better things to do than justify their decision to legitimize a flagrantly criminal activity.

If you’re a motocrosser who lives in the Northeast and you’ve had your dirt bike stolen, you’d have to wonder, how is creating a running shoe for these guys different than creating one for purse-snatchers, or a special glove to wear when playing the ‘knock-out game’?

I get it; there’s a lot of criminals in the NFL, the NBA, etc., and no shortage of athletes with sneaker deals have gone on to appear in mug shots. Sneaker makers have also sponsored rappers who glamorize drug and sexual abuse. But football, basketball, and hip hop are not inherently illegal. This is.

As a marketing decision, tying Nike to the 12 O’Clock Boys is a step into a grey area. But what really surprised me about the choice was, Nike’s legal team should’ve seen this as a black-and-white issue. Not in the Black Lives Matter sense, but in the black print on white paper, legal liability sense.

To be clear, the shoe is not an all-new design, it’s just a styling job on the existing SF-AF1 platform; Kirschner, who SneakerNews called the shoe’s ‘designer’, is a marketing guy at Nike, not a product guy.

But do this mental experiment with me: Imagine some Nike marketing guy pitching a new Antifa-branded riot vest, that is just one of the company’s existing fleece vests, but restyled to look like a tactical bullet-proof vest, with a screenprinted outline of a Glock on it. The legal department would go ape-shit.

I can hear some lawyer doing a spit take with his coffee. “What happens when someone wearing it gets shot?”

By describing the 12 O’Clock Boys shoe as heat-resistant, in order to withstand engine heat, and with toe material that’s resistant to shifter abrasion – to say nothing of printing an image of a wheelying dirt biker and the words ‘Raise it up’ on the shoe – Nike is implying that this shoe is appropriate moto-wear. I don’t care that the star of the movie only wore a backwards ball cap as head protection.

There are a bunch of serious moto people at Nike’s HQ in Portland. So the company could have designed a proper moto boot – it chose not to. Instead, Nike’s opening itself up to a lawsuit from the first guy who breaks an ankle or rips off his toes between his chain and sprocket.

Look… If Nike ever seriously got into moto, it would suck for Dainese, Alpinestars, Sidi, Icon, Fox and the rest of ’em. (Actually it would be great for one of those companies, because Nike would acquire one of ’em as a way to enter the market – MG) But it would be the best thing to happen to motorcycling since Honda’s ‘Nicest People’ campaign.

If Nike really got into moto, it would bring mega sponsorship and technical resources to the table, but mostly it would bring the kind of marketing clout that shapes and influences our whole culture.

Instead we got, “Raise it up.” Oh well. It makes it awkward for me to admit that I think the shoes are kind’a cool.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Getting real: MOGMOTT

My Facebook feed is a selective filter for ‘expert level’ riders; motojournalists, racers, and ex-racers predominate, along with many others who work in the motorcycle industry, from manufacturers’ press liaisons through retailers and on into aftermarket sales and service.

Among those pros, ATTGATT is a frequent refrain. These guys and gals heap scorn on hipster bike videos in which riders cavort in vintage open faced Jet-style helmets, $800 selvedge jeans, and t-shirts. To listen to them (or read their Facebook posts) they themselves would never venture out in anything less than All The Gear, All The Time.

I was thinking about that the other day, as I traversed Kansas City’s ‘Midtown’ district by motorcycle – an exercise that’s fraught with peril at the best of times, and this was rush hour.

It’s not that KC’s traffic is bad overall; it isn’t. Nor is traffic particularly dense in Midtown (although the drivers are.) It’s just a nexus for crazy. See that car trailing a cloud of white smoke? It could be a blown head gasket. Or just pot. Midtown pedestrians walk, facing away from traffic, right in the middle of travel lanes. That aging Grand Marquis will invade your personal space leaving the dialysis center; a Blazer dragging a tailpipe will veer in to sell plasma; turn signals? Don’t make me laugh. Look! There’s Gomer’s liquor store, the only place around here that reliably stocks Everclear.

I wondered what my Facebook cohort would think about me riding that gantlet in sneakers.

“Sneakers?!? No ATTGATT?”

Look the truth is, if I’m just riding from my house to the gym – a couple of miles through Midtown – I throw a helmet, gloves, and my aging Roadcrafter onesie over workout gear and call it protection.

Seriously though, it’s time for me to admit that while I recommend ATTGATT, the reality is that what I actually wear is MOGMOTT: Most Of The Gear, Most Of The Time.

There, I said it.

Case in point: Last year, the editor at one of my UK magazine clients, Bike, asked me if I’d go to Los Angeles and write a ‘Ride With…’ story. The subject of the story was an ex-pat Brit, who lives in Malibu where he builds expensive choppers. Bike had arranged for me to borrow a Harley-Davidson from Eagle Rider and booked ace motorcycle photographer Kevin Wing.

That put me in a tricky situation, wardrobe-wise. Bike expected photos of me, on some rented bagger riding in close formation with the builder on one of his expensive customs, through the canyons.

What helmet would I wear? I had several race-style full-face lids at my disposal; any of them would’ve provided good protection and be the obvious choice for a crotch-rocket story, but would not match the rest of the proposed assignment’s aesthetic. I had a few open-faced lids that I’ve used over the years for photo shoots with vintage or custom bikes, but they didn’t seem to offer enough protection for a spirited ride on an ill-suited bike and unfamiliar roads. I looked through the Bell catalog and thought that the Bullitt was a good compromise, combining a vintage/custom look with a chin bar and ECE-approved protection.

For modelling purposes, the Bullitt filled that bill pretty much perfectly. Not that it’s a perfect helmet; it generates a lot of wind noise – earplugs are a must even at legal/urban speeds – and it definitely generates lift, too. But, the wide-open face port makes it feel like an open-faced lid, while it still gives me most of the confidence of a race helmet. (And as an eyeglass wearer, I’ll note that it’s easy to get glasses on, and the liner doesn’t press the arms of the glasses into the sides of my head.)

I’ve come to dig the Bullitt’s custom/vintage vibe, and it’s become my go-to lid for short rides, so I was momentarily taken aback by my friend Greg Williams’ reaction when I rode down to his shop, CafĂ© Racer.

“You’re wearing a hipster helmet!” Greg blurted, with genuine dismay.

From his tone, you’d think the Bell was some novelty helmet with a spike on top. Which it isn’t, but everything’s relative. What does “all the gear” even mean? If you’re pulling away from the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, you probably figger that engineer boots, jeans and assless chaps, fingerless gloves, and a shorty helmet constitutes ATTGATT.

If you’re an ex-roadracer like Greg (or me) your standards are (sometimes) higher.

Some of my most-read stories over the years have been on the topic of road safety. So I’m fully aware that if I do ever suffer serious road rash because I’m just in jeans instead of full leathers, I will suffer the scorn of my readers, as well as the pain of skin grafts! But, for all that I know better, it feels weird to ride a 10-horsepower scooter to the coffee shop or take a spin around the neighborhood on a 35-year-old 200cc dual sport, while dressed for the Bol d’Or or Alaska Highway. Even if ATTGATT obviously makes sense, I imagine people looking at me and thinking, “There goes Walter Mitty…”

Earlier this year, I was tapped to ride the new KawasakiNinja 650 out in Paso Robles. Part of the deal when it comes to such an assignment is, you don’t just come back with a rational review of the bike, you come back with suitable photos. It was a ‘street launch’ and Revzilla sent me street wardrobe: a pair of SPIDI jeans and XPD X-Zero ankle boots.  

I had a moment of thinking, is that really protection? But late in the summer riding season, those two items have entered my daily rotation, even though they would not be approved by ATTGATT Nazis.

The jeans have a too-prominent-for-my-taste logo on the thigh, but other than that they look like regular (albeit baggy) trousers. That loose fit conceals ECE-approved armor in the hips and knees. The fabric looks like cotton denim, but it’s woven with abrasion resistant nylon.

Do they offer race-quality protection? Of course not, but they’re obviously a lot better than Levi’s (or those $800 selvedge jeans). They’re not too hot for Missouri summers. As a bonus, they’re easier to move in – something I’m reminded of every time I throw a leg over a high seat.

The boots look like proper race boots, they just end right above the ankle. I suppose if I’m ever in crash that tears off one of my feet, I’ll wonder whether full-height boots would have protected me better. I certainly own lots of boots that offer better lower-leg protection – most of which offer all-day comfort on the bike. But if I have to walk anywhere in them, I clomp around like Lon Chaney’s Frankenstein.

Until I tried the XPDs, if I needed a compromise for riding-plus-pedestrian duty, I wore Doc Martens lace-up engineer-style boots which are certainly comfortable and offer a classic look. But I still remember that time in 1994, when I slammed an ankle so hard you could actually read part of the word ‘Yamaha’ in the resulting bruise, so every time I laced up those Docs, I was acutely aware they lacked ankle-bone impact protection. They’re stout enough for normal wear, but Doc Marten, whoever he was, didn’t plan for shift levers. I’ve worn right through the top of the left toe of a couple of pairs.

The XPD X-Zeroes seem to be engineered for moto-durability with shift patches and toe sliders, while remaining fairly functional as street shoes (albeit with a pretty technical look.)

I admit that my MOGMOTT, not ATTGATT, rule is largely ego-driven — I balance the nature of the ride and anticipated risks factoring in the speed, distance, and traffic I’ll encounter, and yes… style.  

That doesn’t prevent me from judging others.

I roll my eyes whenever I spot some stuntah wearing a full-face crash helmet like a cap, perched on the top of his head, chin strap flapping so that it will bounce away the moment his head hits the ground. And those guys who wear hard plastic back protectors with t-shirts? Puh-leeze. And yet I see them pulling shit I wouldn’t practice unless I was dressed for a space walk.

Different strokes, eh?

Groups like the MSF generally teach that a helmet, jacket, gloves, jeans, and over-ankle boots equals “full gear”. That’s as much as I wear for a trip to the farmer’s market. But I wouldn’t ride the Tail of the Dragon, or lane-split across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, with just a layer of denim between my ass and the asphalt. And as companies research, develop, and release ever better protection, the ATTGATT bar goes up (as does the cost to consumers.)

Have the ATTGATT fanatics on my Facebook feed now upgraded to air-bag-equipped riding gear? Do they wear Leatt braces? (One of the same friends who’s mocked my hipster helmet admitted, in the next breath, “Some of those ATTGATT people need to go do a track day every now and then, and improve their bike control skills.”)

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t even ride a bicycle without a helmet and gloves, so I’m definitely also in the SOTGATT camp (Some Of The Gear, All The Time). And of course I’m 100% ATTGATTATT – All The Gear, All The Time, At The Track.

I’m writing this because it often seems there’s really only two positions on gear: ABATE’s view that even helmets are really just another choice – perhaps less effective than loud pipes – and the ATTGATT absolutists’ equally obnoxious view that you shouldn’t even go to Starbucks unless you’re willing to gird yourself for the Dakar rally.

In between those two positions, there’s real life riding, where you balance risks with comfort, convenience and, yes, style. And I think that if guys like me promote ATTGATT or nothing, people may choose nothing. And that’s a bad thing.