Friday, April 24, 2015

It turns out that boredom is an interesting topic. And, American fans are mostly bi.

Well, with about a week to go, it's a foregone conclusion that this month will be in the top-four all-time months on this blog. The only question remaining is, will be #3, #2, or even #1?

Ironically, most of this traffic comes as a result of the big debate (read the posts just below) about the dearth of interesting content online. I guess there are a few thousand people at least who find an argument about boredom to be, itself, quite interesting.

Nowadays, there are more people who wonder whether Rossi's still alive than there are who wonder if he's gay. But I still get a measurable spike in traffic after a Rossi victory. The question is, why does it come from the U.K., and not the U.S.?

The other traffic driver is Valentino Rossi's surge into the lead of the 2015 MotoGP standings. With his novice-class-style mistake in Argentina, Marc Marquez has dug a hole for himself that threatens to make the rest of the season quite interesting. The thing is, I hardly ever write about MotoGP. My blog gets a surge in traffic whenever Rossi wins, because of posts I put up years ago, when I sacrificed any chance of ever getting a Dorna media accreditation by writing about the persistent rumors surrounding his sexual orientation.

The first of those posts, which is my all-time highest-traffic post, is here. About a year ago, I wrote an April Fool's post, admitting that as far as I could tell, the verdict was in on Rossi: straight.

Most people agree with me. Because back in 2008, if you opened a Google search window and typed, "Is Valentino Rossi..." Google filled in 'gay', and 'homosexual' as suggestions. But if you do it now, it offers 'married' as a suggestion.

The thing is, if you do ask Google if he's gay, one of the first places Google sends you is to this blog. (As if I'd know. I actually never thought he was, I was only interested in the reaction the question itself drew.)

Anyway, there's an interesting wrinkle to this. Or at least, a boring one. It's that the surge in traffic when Rossi wins doesn't come from the U.S. It comes from the UK, Australia, and South Africa. So why is that? I have a theory... or maybe two.

Theory #1 is that the U.S. (Indiana notwithstanding) is less homophobic than the U.K. and, as such people here just don't care.

Theory #2, which probably gets closer to the truth, is that homophobia tracks inversely with education and social status. In the U.S., MotoGP fans are mostly bi… coastal. They live in big cities, concentrated on the coasts, and have good educations; they're less homophobic, as a group, than the country as a whole. I suspect that in the U.K., MotoGP fans are drawn more or less evenly from the population as a whole, or even skew working class. While those people aren't all homophobes, there's enough of 'em in there to kick up my traffic with every Rossi win.

The bummer for me is, those little spikes in traffic don't really correlate with little spikes in book sales. It's to the point where I sometimes think I should pull the posts down, since they're skewing my traffic figures. (Between the people who still wonder whether Rossi is gay, and the Russian spiders monitoring my blog, it's possible that my traffic's not really even trending upward in any meaningful sense.)

Anyway, I haven't and probably won't pull the posts down, even though they generate bogus traffic—because the second one is genuinely funny and the first still opens a worthwhile discussion.

Friday, April 17, 2015

"There's no good motorcycle content anymore": Conclusion




A couple of weeks ago, ex-Hell for Leather motorcycle blogger Wes Siler wrote, "there's no good motorcycle content anymore", before laying out a fairly detailed set of instructions to hack a motorcycle blog that would pull in half a million 'uniques' a month and, he said, earn the blogger a low six-figure income in Amazon Affiliate commissions.

I called bullshit. 

Ironically, the first three posts in this series drew a lot of traffic, by the standards of this blog. Nowhere remotely close to half a million, but enough that April 2015 will probably end up one of the top five months ever, for bikewriter.com.

That, and a coupl'a bucks'll buy me a coffee.


If the comments under the Facebook updates I made, announcing each new blog post, are any indication, it was a topic that my FB friends (at least) have strong opinions on. I was not shying away from controversy myself, either. When I wrote "If you want half a million uniques, put up a ton of crap" it was bound to piss off the few people operating motorcycle blogs or web sites that really do pull in that many visitors. "[A] ton of crap" isn't a flattering way to describe anyone’s site.

The operators of sites like BikeEXIF slammed me on FB, and then people siding with me leapt to my defense. The Gawker media guys jumped on me, accusing me of first saying that you couldn't easily get half a million views, and then "moving the goal posts" when they showed me web sites that easily did just that.

“By the way,” one Gawker blogger wrote, “me and a partner started on Jalopnik's car buying sub blog almost a year ago, and we have 1.2 million unique visitors per month, from nothing, doing exactly what I mentioned above. It can be done, especially with something as ubiquitous as motorcycles.”

I was, like, Motorcycles are ubiquitous? Compared to cars? And is anyone spending an hour doing a deep dive into your web site, for their literary gratification? Me and a friend.

But I didn't move the goal posts. Way back in the post that started it all, Wes described opening a beer and his computer and spending an hour reading serious, quality motorcycle journalism; he wanted unique stories that he couldn't find elsewhere. And the truth is that none of the sites people presented as counterexamples were sites you'd spend an hour on.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mind BikeEXIF. I drop by there every now and then, usually after someone's posted a link somewhere. And sometimes I see bikes I think are cool. Usually I see bikes that look good but don't look like they work good. Still, I certainly don't begrudge BikeEXIF its business success. 

People reminded me of sites like ADVrider and RevZilla that link to, or put up, good content. Those two (each in different ways) come close to filling the bill that Wes said couldn't be filled on the Web, these days.

I'll add, for those of you who might go back into FB and review all the comments, that quite a few people contacted me privately with long, well thought-out comments. They were writers who maybe didn't want their editors to read those comments in a public forum, or editors who didn't want their publishers to read them. There are people in the motorcycle industry who read my blog but don't want their employers to know they follow and even occasionally agree with a bomb-throwing Canadian (read: socialist).

Many of those people bemoaned exactly what I said, that there's simply not a half million strong audience for serious, in-depth, long-form journalism. They shared stories of carefully crafted and insightful stories that drew a few thousand views, while shitty listicles drew a hundred times as many. 

Jim McDermott, who commented publicly, said a mouthful when he said, "What do you mean there's no good motorcycle content? There's no good content, period!"

As an example of how little I know, Wes sent a link to Lanesplitter's Quantcast ratings, which actually support my argument. Most of their half-million uniques per month visit once, and look at one page. How long do they spend on that page? Quantcast doesn't say, but you know it's less than a couple of minutes. That's not to belittle Lanesplitter. I guess if I owned it, I'd be a lot richer than I am now. But the vast majority of content on it—with some exceptions, granted—is simply not shit I'm interested in either writing or reading.
Much of the equivocation revolved around fine points of page views vs. unique visitors, and their implications for ad revenues vs. affiliate commissions. But the truth is, as a writer, neither of those metrics mean shit to me. What I want to know is, how sticky is my story? How many people read it to the end? Or forward it? And most of the high-traffic sites don't make those numbers public, if they even track them. What matters to me is changing people's minds or better yet, influencing their lives. And the only metric I have for that is the emails I get from people who've taken the trouble to track me down after reading one of my stories.

Wes was bitching about blogs. But I don't think it's fair to look at them in isolation. Blogs, online magazines, YouTube channels, podcasts; who cares what the exact format is? Shit, some of the most interesting efforts are going into print magazines again. Iron and Air here in the U.S., Esses and Sideburn in the U.K.; they're at least trying (though not in a position to meaningfully pay writers, sadly.)

He slammed the old guard print mags. Cycle World and Motorcyclist are easy targets, especially now that Bonnier owns them both. I confess that I hardly look at them any more. But he was lazy when he painted them as the manufacturers' lap dogs.

The truth, as usual, is more nuanced. For years, manufacturers supplied magazines with test bikes and (when it suited them) access; OEMs flew journalists to launches. The result was not so different than branded content in the sense that, while the OEMs didn't actually write checks for the stories, they dramatically reduced the costs of getting those stories. They influenced editorial mixes, for sure.

I won't lie; there were times that editors killed content that would've embarrassed manufacturers (who, of course, were also advertisers.) I attended a launch for Triumph's middleweight sport bike, at Barber a decade ago. The little fleet of bikes lunched two or three motors in a day. Now, they were admittedly "early production" bikes and I'm sure Triumph sent a WTF email to some bearing supplier and halted production until they could sort the problem. 

As a journalist, my attitude was that Motorcyclist readers were reading that 'First Ride' report for an impression of the bike, but also to learn what the whole experience was like. Bikes suddenly losing power, and coming into the pits making terrible noises from the bottom end were part of the story, no?

"No." That’s what Boehm said, too. By way of explanation, he ventured, "We're 'enthusiast publications' and it's our job to be enthusiastic." (Which was actually pretty funny in the context of my experience at the magazine.)

The thing is, those experiences were rare. And in the magazines' defense, they do often field very skilled riders, even if they're crap as writers. It was far more common for journos to gather at a launch and bemoan the way bikes had all gotten so good that we felt guilty for coming across as cheerleaders; there was just nothing to criticize. 

Cycle World and Motorcyclist have been on a bad trend for while, and it's simplistic to blame Bonnier. CW has lately made some interesting moves online(!) with the deal to essentially house the MotoAmerica website. And by bringing in Paul “The Vintagent” d’Orleans they may tap into his large online following. They've put an enormous archive up, too. Who knows, before this has all shaken out, Cycle World may be the place Wes can spend that hour.


As a motojournalist, I fantasize about the motorcycle equivalent of The Surfer's Journal. It's uncompromising and yet profitable, not because of the size of its audience but rather because a handful of advertisers feel they have to be in there, and enough readers are willing to pay a premium for meaningful content. Ironically, I heard that just before the wheels fell off the moto-biz in 2008, Surfer's Journal was considering a moto mag. Sigh.
But the larger point we've been debating comes back to that unique, in-depth, expert, well-written, long-form content we're missing. One FB commenter cited an old Cycle story by Phil Schilling (ironically, found on the CW web site!) called “Satisfied Mind”. I followed that link, and cut-and-pasted all the copy from that story into a Word file to do a quick word count. It ran over 5,000 words. There isn’t 5,000 words of body copy in the entire feature well of a Cycle World issue today. If a journalist delivered a 5,000 word story, it would be tossed back with instructions to bring it in at 1,500.

And, if you wanted to make a living as a writer, you couldn’t write “Satisfied Mind” today anyway, because even if they would publish it, you couldn’t earn even minimum wage for the hours spent crafting it. In the time I’ve been writing for motorcycle magazines, I’ve seen my top pay for a feature story cut by about 60%.

Another irony is that the one place you could run a 5,000 word story is online. But if you built a blog with that content, would you draw enough traffic to make it profitable?


Jeff Buchanan, one of the rare writers in the field of motorcycle journalism, so despaired of making a living as as a motojourno that he invented a whole new medium. (I guess the message here is that ex-motorcycle journos are not very employable. Which I knew.)
I still say no. I believe you could (and some publishers are doing this) build a site that generated enough traffic to occasionally pay something for good content, and put it up as a public service for the far smaller audience that wants that stuff. 

But that strategy relies on editors who feel that larger responsibility and publishers who'll tolerate it. So, thanks MO, for paying for John Burns. And thanks Motorcycle-USA for paying me; every time I send in a column, the thought crosses my mind that they'll call and tell me, "It's been great, but we've just realized that stories from Sturgis generate 15 times the 'likes' per dollar."

Some corollary of Gresham's Law seems to apply even in my own book sales, which sell in perfectly inverse order to quality. Which is frustrating, but I'm philosophical about it; the financial value of anything (including writing) is simply what people agree to pay for it. There's no connection (unless it's inverse) between that and literary value.

At the end of the day, I'm still convinced that what Wes originally complained about was the lack of literary-quality motorcycle journalism online. By stating that problem and laying out his profitable motorcycle blog hack as a solution, he was implying that a blog of that material would be viable as a self-sustaining professional writing venture.

Nope. Not true. And although I doubt this acrimonious debate will just fade away now, I'm moving on. There's nothing more to see here.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Is there really no more good motorcycle content? Part 3: Let's get serious.


The thing that I found most irksome about “How To Make The Next Great Motorcycle Blog” was a tone I associate with “The 4-Hour Work Week” and the countless life-hacking-for-Millennials blogs, books, etc., that Tim Ferriss spawned.

As far as I can tell, Wes has figured out a way to make a living as a blogger. (Full disclosure: I haven’t.) As an ad guy in day-to-day life, I’m as skeptical as anyone about the advertising model that he dismisses out of hand. 

Every week, Ad Age or Adweek breaks another story about how half the online ads advertisers pay to place don’t ever get seen. While motorcycle journalism is still adapting to the changes imposed by the rise of web-based media, so is the ad industry which is also in free fall. I don’t think that any journalist or ad exec—their fates are intertwined—knows where this ends.

In spite of the fact that there are fat middle-aged dudes wearing Harley-Davidson T-shirts in every airport waiting lounge, if you walk into a U.S. airport newsstand and look at those racks offering hundreds of magazine titles, you'll find one motorcycle magazine. Two, tops. The reason I'm pointing this out is, out there in the larger culture, motorcycles aren't important. And, I believe this is especially true in the U.S., even the people who own and ride them really aren't interested in them, or at least not interested enough to read about them.
Wes may be right when he implies that the ad sales model isn’t the way, in the long run. I suppose he is making OK money from the Amazon affiliate model. (That’s actually my model in a way too, because I justify the effort I put into this blog in part by the money I make selling my own books; those links to the right take you to Amazon.) 

But it’s not the only model. Although no one’s sharing their financials with me, I’m pretty sure that MO’s advertising revenue is enough to make that site profitable. I think that Asphalt & Rubber is generating a decent income for  Jensen Beeler. Personally, I think the motorcycle web site with the best business plan right now is Motorcycle-USA.com. It’s selling ad space, but it can use unsold ad inventory to promote other motorcycle businesses owned by the same group. I guess that’s what Revzilla’s up to, too.

When I talk about the article’s “life hacker” tone, what I mean is blithe advice like, “...develop a comprehensive, multi-language RSS feed of all the editorial motorcycle sites out there. Do the same for the bigger forums, again making sure to include markets like Thailand, Germany, Italy, and the UK...” and, just fly down to New Orleans and get drunk with J.T. Nesbitt, or “Call up the engineers designing the stuff and ask them questions. Get access to their sketches and ideas and diagrams...”

The purpose of acquiring that great content, Wes says, is to get your blog up half a million unique visitors per month, at which point you can make a decent living off those Amazon affiliate revenues. 

To me, this sounds like great advice for someone who actually doesn’t need an income, but terrible advice for someone who is trying to create self-employment. (Which is basically what he promised in HTMTNGMB.) 

You’ll spend a long time—years—building that kind of audience. And, while you’ve got that 0$ a month coming in, it’s not like you’re gonna’ have a day job. Because monitoring all the motorcycle news from all around the world is, already, a full-time job. And, while you’ve got that 0$ a month coming in, flying to New Orleans for one story’s gonna’ be hard on the old Visa balance. To say nothing of the fact that building that network of contacts among secretive engineers and race-team insiders—getting to that critical point where you can call someone for an off the record chat, and have them trust you—is not the work of a few months, either.

But Wes’ hack-the-next-great-blog strategy really breaks down if you’re trying to create what he (I think)—and I (I know)—want to read. Because great stories are not a formula for the eyeballage you need, if you’re to earn $10k/month from affiliate revenues. 

That content’s expensive to produce. There’s out-of-pocket travel and equipment costs, because (as he notes) the manufacturers aren’t going to start loaning you bikes, or flying you to launches and factory visits any time soon. 

That kind of writing takes time, too. You can’t “hack” literature. It takes days to craft a really good 2,500 word story and weeks to write a 7,500 word treatise—and that’s after you’ve finished the ride, or completed the last interview, or turned the last wrench.

In fact, great, long-form, original content will actually hamper—not help—you to reach Wes’ suggested target of 500,000 unique visitors a month. Because you know what? There aren’t half a million people who want to read great, insightful, in depth, original, thought-provoking motorcycle journalism. Not in the English language, anyway.

And before you conclude that I’m just another angry Baby Boomer, longing for the glory days of Cycle, read just a little further.

Maybe when you think of great motorcycle journalism, you remember Cook and Phil and Old Blue; or you think of an idealistic young David Edwards(there’s a thought!) convincing Hunter S. Thompson to write for Cycle World; or Dan Walsh going all Heart of Darkness in Bike Magazine. 

If you bemoan those days and say, “There’s no good motorcycle content anymore”, I sympathize. But none of those stories was read by half a million people, even though they were published when media was far more concentrated, and before Twitter, etc., shattered attention spans. Bike Magazine—the best motorcycle magazine published in English in this century—has never had a circulation over 100,000. 

So there’s no reason to think that if that’s what you mean by “good motorcycle content”, you could use it to attract half a million regular readers now. Aye, there’s the rub. Those magazines were places advertisers had to be, not because the pubs attracted hundreds of thousands of readers but because they attracted the right readers—key influencers, in advertising parlance. And so far, that’s not anyone’s online model.

To reiterate: Great content will not attract 500,000 readers. It will, in fact, guarantee an audience about a tenth that size. 

You want half a million readers? Put up a ton of crap. Even though the motorcycle audience is not that big in absolute terms, there’s a still a decent-sized audience for crap. And—in the defense of a the editors who are trying their best, especially in the online world—the revenues you generate by posting those OEM press releases and swallowing your pride when the publisher insists on a listicle-a-day… those compromises might buy you the freedom to invest in a great story once in a while.

Now, I’ve wasted a few days pondering this shit, and I’ve got to drop this topic for while and make some money. But I’m going to come back in a week or so with one final post addressing the state of the old media stalwarts, and the relationship between manufacturers and the enthusiast media.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Is there really no more good motorcycle content? Part 2: Racing is boring.

“Racing: Don’t bother, no one cares. And modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world.”
                                                                         —Wes Siler

That’s just a throwaway line in “How To Make The Next Great Motorcycle Blog”, and it shouldn’t, by rights, be the first point I dig into in this series, but I thought I’d try to post it while MotoGP is making a rare U.S. stop in Austin.

RE: “...modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world.” If he means top level GP and Superbike racers, I agree. It’s not an accident that I’m writing this from Kansas City, on a weekend when MotoGP and MotoAmerica are in Austin (“close by” at 750 miles away.)

There are a bunch of reasons for that. Top-tier racers have become sponsor-thanking robots; they’re starting much younger and reaching the top level at an age when they have no life experience or perspective to share; few MotoGP riders speak English as a first language, which is a problem for American journalists who generally speak only English. And if a journalist gets too curious, there’s the problem of controlled access. MotoAmerica lost one of the handful of racers who had a real personality before the season even started, when Dane Westby was killed in a streetbike crash in Tulsa. Bummer.

So I get it, and I agree that I’d rather spend a weekend in KC—wondering if my grass seed’s ever going to sprout and finding the leak that leaves a tiny spot under my Vino every time I park it—than sitting in a MotoGP press conference, watching the race on TV in the media center, and trying to interpret Rossi’s mindset based on the glimpse I got of him scurrying out of his garage. The probability of me writing a good story with a unique angle is about the same in both locations, and staying home saves me a thousand bucks, all in.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that you shouldn’t bother or that no one cares.

CoTA, 2013: This guy cared enough to keep this T-shirt white for 20 years.
I did go to Austin for the first MotoGP race in 2013. I wanted to see whether fans were going to rise up in Kevin Schwantz’ defense; I was curious whether fans got good value for the price of their tickets; and frankly I was curious what it was like to attend a race as a punter, instead of a participant (at whatever level). I hadn’t bought a ticket and sat in the ‘stands for decades. 

CoTA drew a pretty impressive crowd and, unlike most journalists, I spent the whole weekend amongst that crowd. The racing itself was intense and impressive as shit, with lots of decent viewing even for those on lowly General Admission passes. The fans were happy and many were knowledgeable. There were lots of T-shirts from old GP/SBK/AMA weekends that I could tell were taken out and worn only on special occasions. And there was a really cool custom bike show downtown, along with a little bit of a sense that, for a few days at least, we were the cool kids.

So while it’s true that most American motorcyclists are ambivalent about racing, it’s not true that no one cares. And even working within the strictures of the MotoGP paddock, David Emmett, for example, manages to make a living putting up informative content.

All of that, though, was a preamble to get to this point: It’s true that top level racers are usually boring and uncooperative, and it’s true that most American motorcyclists think of top-level racing as, “A bunch of guys I’ve never heard of, doing a kind of riding that I don’t do.” 

But.

That doesn’t mean all racing is boring, or that you can’t write racing stories that resonate with ordinary riders. Here’s how: Go race yourself; participating in even the shittiest, low-level club race is a more intense experience than watching MotoGP. You might tell a story of accessible racing that actually lures a street rider into a “new racer” school and by doing so, save someone’s life. Take up trials, or ice racing; those disciplines are accessible and will help you hone skills that transfer to the riding “real motorcyclists” do, however they choose to define it.

Go to Pikes Peak. You don’t even need a racing license to compete there. Or, go cover any "real roads" race in Ireland or on the Isle of Man; I admit they’ve tightened entry requirements at the TT so you can’t just show up and actually race there, the way I did, but you can still get great access to a cast of characters who all have the gift of craic. The best racing story I've ever personally written, was written about a race open to rank amateurs.

Or, go cover a Grand National flat track race; that paddock’s full of unguarded characters; it’s easy to get a press credential and once you’re in, you’re in. I’ve had racers invite me into their campers and offer to share their lunch with me. I’ve never met a GNC racer who didn’t volunteer his (or her) email address and phone number when I asked for it, and they all answer and speak freely. It doesn’t matter that the grandstands are full of Duck Dynasty reject, Murica-love-it-or-leave-it Neanderthals*, because the pits are full of the best kind of Americans. It’s no accident that motorcycle racers around the world hold their manhoods cheap, whilst any speaks who's made a GNC Main.

So, Wes, “Racing: Don’t bother, no one cares. And modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world"? I know what you mean, and you're right.

But you're also wrong.

*And yes, I realize that's an insult to Neanderthals.

UPDATE After I posted this, Jim McDermott (who is one of the part time motorcycle journalists who definitely does post content worth reading, by the way) noted, "Don't blame the riders, it's the sponsors' fault they're boring."

Now, I wasn't going to digress this far, but since Jim's opened that door… Years ago, when the Red Bull Rookies Cup had just started in the U.S., Red Bull invited Road Racer X Magazine to attend a session and try one of the bikes, with the first crop of young rookies. Chris Jonnum sent me to Barber, where I spent a day watching the young rookies practice and, incidentally, get trained in "media relations" by some guy that Red Bull had brought in for that exact purpose.

The first irony of this was, Red Bull had invited journalists to come and watch them train young racers to be the kind of interviewees that journalists hate. The second irony was that the main coach/figurehead of the U.S. 'Rookies' program was Kevin Schwantz, who became one of the most-loved American racers precisely because he wasn't that guy.

So, yes Jim, you're right to point out that much of the responsibility for this lies with sponsors. And I won't argue that money's the root of this particular evil. I can't, because all the "good" racing that I cite is, essentially, amateur stuff.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Is there really no more good motorcycle content? Part 1...


Last week a friend of mine forwarded a link to a story on Gizmodo entitled, "How To Make The Next Great Motorcycle Blog". That story’s been read by quite a few people, I surmise, because a.) my friend doesn’t even ride motorcycles, and b.) the story contains a link to a story that, in turn, contains a link to a story here on Bikewriter.com. And that third-order link has led to a measurable uptick in my traffic in the last week.

Phew. Pretty complicated thought there. Hope you’re still with me. Anyway, the story that started all this, which I’ll call HTMTNGMB was written by Wes Siler. 

Siler’s credentials are, he created a blog called Hell for Leather, which was almost as good as its name. H4L sadly morphed into one called RideApart, which is almost as crappy as that name.

He launched into his piece with a provocative statement, "There's no good motorcycle content anymore." That was bound to rile a few of the people who make a living (or, as in my case, part of a living) putting up motorcycle content. And, when he followed it up with a somewhat self-aggrandizing "That's partly my fault", it was a cue for some eye-rolls amongst motorcycle journalists. 

At least he didn't say, "It's all my fault." 

Before I agree with some of what Wes has to say, I am going to disabuse you of something he wrote in order to establish his bona fides. In HTMTNGMB, he claims that he "...grew [H4L/RA] into the most widely read motorcycle website in just a few years." 

Maybe he's basing his claim that H4L was the most widely read blog on his estimate that "the biggest scoop of the year" on other sites is lucky to pull in 10,000 viewers. 

I've written for both MO and (recently and regularly) Motorcycle-USA.com. I think both those sites always drew a lot more readers than Hell for Leather. While I informally track 'likes' on my own posts and, otherwise, kind'a want to stay out of their business, I’d say that for either MO or MC-USA, a post seen by 10,000 viewers a day is solid but not record-breaking. 
To put Siler’s audience estimates in perspective, Motorcycle USA’s video review of the new YZF-R1 has been watched over 200,000 times in the last six weeks, according to YouTube. Asphalt & Rubber claims to have built it’s audience up to 650,000 unique viewers a month.
That said, Hell for Leather was—in its heyday—one of the sites that I checked daily. Wes put up some decent content, and I'd be very interested to read a follow-on post from him about how H4L, which started out as a bit of a prodigy, ended up as RideApart, a purveyor of shitty clickbait listicles. In the meantime, if I'm going to be upset by a little hubris, or a post that plays fast and loose with facts, I need to get off the Interweb.

That's most of my Wes-bashing, done. His post raises some interesting points. Over the next week or two, I hope to find time to address some of them in two or three follow-on posts.
  • Is there really no interesting content?
  • Is that the fault of "old media" brands like Motorcyclist and Cycle World?
  • Would it really be easy to make $10k/mo as a motorcycle blogger?
Check back in, why don’t you?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Monday Morning Crew Chief, Friday edition: All about arm pump

UPDATE: After I posted this, my FB friend Mick Fialkowski informed me that Julián Simón had the same surgery by the same doctor, back in 2009, and that he's "as good as new" today. He warned me not to write Pedrosa off.  Simón won the last 125cc GP title in '09, and came close to winning the first Moto2 title in '10. He may indeed be as good as new, although he's now a 10th-place runner in Moto2, happy with a few points per race. He never showed his dominant 2009 form again, perhaps because he was physically incapable of running right at the front on the heavier Moto2 machines.

The MotoGP opener had more than one race's worth of drama; it's a shame no one saw it live, eh?

Post-race, it emerged that Pedrosa's arm-pump issues remain rate-limiting. Since all the usual surgical solutions have been tried, he's now in the same "let's-just-try-throwing-out-this-one-small-part-maybe-we-don't-need-it" club that Nicky Hayden's in. In Nicky's case it was a few small bones in his wrist; there are so many in there, could they all have a purpose? Surely those are just vestigial/disposable, like your tonsils or appendix. In Pedrosa's case, it was "dissecting and removing" the fascia (a tough, fibrous wrapping) around the muscles of his forearm.

Fascia are made of collagen and engineered to stretch primarily in one direction. They allow for some expansion of muscles as blood flows in when the muscle's exercising. But, once they're stretched to the limit, they can restrict additional blood flow. Hence, 'arm pump', which sports physiologists more accurately label, Chronic Compartment Syndrome.

Viz, Wikipedia:

Chronic compartment syndrome[edit]

When compartment syndrome is caused by repetitive use of the muscles, as in a cyclist, it is known as chronic compartment syndrome (CCS).
When compartment syndrome is caused by repetitive use of the muscles, as in a cyclist, it is known as chronic compartment syndrome (CCS).[10][11] This is usually not an emergency, but the loss of circulation can cause temporary or permanent damage to nearby nerves and muscles. The cause of compartment syndrome is due to excess pressure on or within the muscle compartments. This pressure can occur for many different reasons, many are due to injuries. Injuries cause the swelling of tissue. The swelling of the tissue forces pressure upon the muscle compartments, which has a limited volume. Due to this pressure, the venules and lymphatic vessels that drain the muscle compartments are compressed, and are prevented from draining. As arterial inflow continues while outflow is decreased, the pressure builds up in the muscle compartments. This pressure will eventually decrease the amount of blood flow over the capillary bed, causing the tissue to become ischaemic. The tissues will release factors and will lead to the formation of edema.
'Ischaemic' means, oxygen-starved.

The normal treatment for this, which Pedrosa's already undergone, is a fasciotomy. You can look that up on Wikipedia, too, but I don't recommend looking at the pictures before lunch. The more radical approach that Pedrosa and his Spanish physician just tried, was essentially removing the fascia.

Yuck.

So, what remains to be learned is, essentially, was Pedrosa's fascia actually doing anything useful, before arm pump set in? 

Because motorcycle racing is very, very hard on your right forearm, which is tightly packed with the muscles required to flex/extend/stabilize your wrist under acceleration and braking, clench your fingers as while gripping the throttle and braking. If that fascia is an essential piece of that biological machine; if that part of your body's not working, that's your career as a MotoGP rider, done.

The upside to this is that there's increasingly talk of getting rid of brolly dollies in MotoGP. Pedrosa, tiny, perfect, and often pouting, will make a perfect umbrella boy.

But seriously, folks… I'm sure that Honda's done everything they can, to the motorcycle, to minimize stress on Pedrosa's arm. But the consensus among sports physiologists is that while different athletes have a different tolerance for the kinds of stresses that lead to arm pump, each person's response is consistent. That's why Pedrosa chose that dramatic, last-ditch surgical solution: because he knew that if his arm pump came back once, it would keep coming back.

By the way, it's happened to me. Not only does it hurt like hell and result in a dramatic decrease in fine motor control, I found myself wondering, Will the next braking zone be the one where I attempt to squeeze the brake and nothing happens? Or will I get to the turn-in point, wrench on the bars, and have my hand just fall off the grip? It was fucking scary, and I raced at half-speed, compared to Pedrosa.

Pedrosa's not the only high-level racer whose results and career have been limited by the problem, but I don't remember anyone else going to such surgical extremes to resolve it. For the record, I admit that  last year, when Nicky had his wrist surgery, I predicted it would be the end of his career. I was wrong; Nicky's letting his heart rule over his head again.

That won't prevent me telling you that this will be the last year for Pedrosa. Mainly because I don't think that he'll be willing to circulate at the back of the grid, clawing for a point here and there. Although years on shit bikes beat him down, Nicky fundamentally loves the riding. That's not something Pedrosa ever really projects; I don't think he's a guy who will ride for the sake of riding. (Marquez would, though.)

What I wish I knew was, has Honda tried to datalog Pedrosa vs. Marquez, specifically looking at the rider inputs, not their bikes' responses? David Emmett, any insight here? Obviously, they're capturing brake pressures and turn-in rates, but what about other factors, such as grip pressure?

I am sure that Pedrosa's sure he's tried everything in terms of adjusting his riding style, but in the absence of data, even he's just speculating. It's entirely possible his problem's physiological, not behavioral; I suppose he may have to work his tiny, Tyrannosaurus arms extra hard because he's too small for his body inputs to have much influence. (Yes, Keith Code, I am aware that body inputs have no influence. Whatever.)

Logging total rider effort/input in a scientific way would be a great project for someone like Dainese.

By the way… There was a little bit of "draft Nicky" chatter when it emerged that Pedrosa wouldn't race Austin. With the Aspar team sponsorship in shambles, and as a contracted Honda rider, the idea of putting an American on the factory bike in Austin seems like a no-brainer. I don't know exactly why it didn't happen, but I wonder whether Nicky himself even wanted it. Why submit yourself to an apples-to-apples comparison with Marquez? It's a recipe for embarrassment. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Local TV, for once, gets a motorcycle fatality right

In the days after Dane Westby's untimely death, local Tulsa television showed conspicuous care and judgement in the way they covered the story. That included balanced, sensitive, and non-sensational coverage of his funeral.

NewsOn6.com - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - KOTV.com |
I don't know whether credit for this should go to News on 6 news director (I believe that's Scott Thompson, a much awarded, very experienced journalist) or whether it reflects the fact that the Westby family is long-established and respected in the community—there's a 'Westby Hall' at University of Tulsa.

Whatever the reason, though, I was pleased to see such respectful coverage of an event that would usually have been reported with a macabre, schadenfreude-laden "another motorcycle death" spin.

So thanks, News on 6.

Although I didn't know him, I'd say his death is a large loss to the nascent MotoAmerica series. Not only was he fast and destined for on-track stardom, but he was real person—not a characterless sponsor-thanking robot, raised from birth to be a racer with no other life experience. As such, he was the kind of guy who could appeal to a new generation of fans, who take an ironic view of sponsorship and value authenticity.

There's still no explanation for Westby's street bike crash. It happened on a commercial strip, and there would surely have been witnesses, if he'd been riding like an asshole. So, I think it's safe to assume he was riding responsibly. But something happened, he ended up running up on a curb and hitting a pole.

If there's a lesson in this, it's a lesson for the most skilled street riders who feel that the rest of the motorcycling public desperately need better machine control skills.

The skilled guys, rightly, point out that almost every motorcycle crash—especially single-vehicle crashes, as Westby's may have been—could be avoided if only the (usually) newb/drunk/reckless rider had been able to brake harder or change direction faster. The skilled guys, who are racers and track-day riders, who train on dirt bikes, etc., often derive a sense of security from the knowledge that they're in the skilled minority.

The lesson is: Even Dane Westby—a national-caliber racer at the height of his powers—got into a situation that he couldn't ride out of. If it can happen to him, it can happen to you.

It's spring. In the midwest and across the northern tier, car drivers who don't see us at the best of times are now unused to seeing us at all. And the sides of the road are still covered with gravel, salt dust, and a winter's worth of detritus. You're almost certainly a little rusty, too. If you have to take evasive action out of the main travel lane, there's a good chance you will not be able to make that second change of direction that will keep you on the road.

So pay extra attention and increase your following distance. Because if you kill yourself, your local TV station won't pay you the same respect.