Monday, July 11, 2016

The untold story behind one of the most iconic moto-photos

I can think of only two motorcycle photos that are permanently etched in the imaginations of non-motorcyclists: Rollie Free, setting a land-speed record in a borrowed bathing suit; and 'Wild Bill' Gelbke, astride 'Roadog' -- his home-made 17'-long, 3,280 pound motorcycle.

The photo of Bill Gelbke was taken in 1970, by a small-town newspaperman named Ralph Goldsmith. He was the editor and proprietor of the Bascobel (Wisconsin) Dial.

I'm currently writing a second edition of my Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia, and I decided to include a little section of four of five days'-worth of trivia about Gelbke and Roadog. On the spur of the moment I wondered what ever happened to the photographer, and whether he'd ever been compensated for the countless times his image was reproduced on posters, bar mirrors, in books and magazines, on t-shirts and God-knows-where-else. 

I did a web search for 'Ralph Goldsmith'. And while I was a few years too late to reach him, I did reach his son and namesake, who is himself already 60.

Ralph Jr. told me quite a story about the image, which is definitely a part of Goldsmith family lore.

"My dad got a call from a bartender, who worked on the edge of town," he told me. "He said, 'You've gotta' come and see this bike'."

Presumably Gelbke was on one of his many relatively aimless rides. (According to legend, he rode 20,000 miles in the first year after building Roadog. He'd grown up in Green Bay and had a shop on Cicero Avenue in Chicago, so I suppose Roadog was seen quite a bit on the roads of Wisconsin. And judging from what I've read about him, Wild Bill probably stopped at pretty much ever roadhouse.)

Anyway the newsman, Goldsmith Sr., hopped in his car, carrying his trusty 120 roll-film camera. Like all newspapermen of the period it was loaded with black and white film. Since the Bascobel Dial reproduced photos with an 85-line halftone screen, the 2 1/4 inch wide negative was already overkill; it was probably loaded with something like 400 ASA-rated Kodak Tri-X.

He got to the bar in time, and snapped a picture of Wild Bill Gelbke astride his monstrous bike. The photo ran in the next weekly edition of the 'Dial'.

Ralph Jr. told that some time later, his dad got a call about the photo. I didn't think to ask whether someone had seen it in the Dial, or whether (more likely) it went out on a wire service. Whatever the case might've been, Mr. Goldsmith thought that his image, having run in the Dial, had outlived any immediate utility. So without thinking anything of it, he put the only negative he had in an envelope and mailed it to the caller. He didn't ask for payment, specify one-time rights, or even bother to keep track of who he was sending to. 

His son told me that it was years before he realized that it had been reproduced and re-reproduced as a poster and in countless other ways. By then, it seemed impossible to track his negative back down. To make matters worse, the newspaper used a very impermanent printing process, so Goldsmith's print had faded and discolored.

Ralph Jr. told me that his dad had been an excellent photographer and that he remembered that the negative was pin-sharp; poster quality. I could tell from talking to him that the family had long realized that if only dad had kept that negative, they could have made a pretty penny from licensing fees.

Oh well. In everyone's life there has to be one great lost opportunity. Ralph Goldsmith's was the time he mailed off that useless negative to some faceless stranger.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Sometimes you wanna' go racing. Sometimes ya' gotta'

Back in 1969, the Honda CB750 was a sensational new model. Bob Hansen was one of the few Americans who was a real insider at Honda at that time; he'd run a 'backdoor' factory team, preparing Honda CB450 race bikes for several years.

Bob Hansen (standing) was the guy who convinced Honda to enter a factory team in the 1970 Daytona 200. Dick Mann won, although three of the four factory Hondas failed to finish -- so Hansen and Honda were both right.
Hansen told Honda that they needed to enter a 750 in the 1970 Daytona 200. Honda refused; they did not feel that the CB750 had a proper racing pedigree. For example, they felt its chain-driven cam was fine for road use, but unsuited for racing.

"What if we race, and don't win?" someone asked. The question didn't bear answering, for Honda.

Hansen told the Board, I've sold [however many] thousand of these in my region alone. I guarantee you that someone's going to race it, and that person won't win.

Honda realized Hansen was right. They had to race the 750. In the end, they hand-built four 'CB750 Racing Type' bikes for Daytona '70, and three of them did fail -- at least one as a result of cam-chain tensioner failures, so Honda was right, too. But what history remembers is that the one bike that didn't fail won the race.

I was reminded of that conversation with Hansen a few weeks ago, when I chatted with Matt Hines about developing the XG750R flat track race motor, out of Harley-Davidson's Street 750 twin.

Harley-Davidson has reasons to develop a new flat track motor. Because while the XR750 is still evidently capable of winning races...

  • It's less and less capable of winning on the big Mile tracks
  • It's too expensive to buy, prepare, and maintain
  • Let's face it, it's obvious H-D doesn't really want to be in the XR750 business any more

Harley-Davidson's in a similar position now, with the high cost of XR750 motors and parts forcing private teams to consider other motors. If Harley doesn't build a racing version of the XR750 motor, someone else will -- and they probably won't do it as well as Vance & Hines.
The Street 750 isn't exactly flying off dealer floors in the U.S. but there's still a bunch of those motors in circulation. At least a few private teams are messing with them. And that leaves Harley-Davidson in the same position Honda was in, in 1969.

H-D basically has to build a racing version of the motor, because if they don't, someone else will. And when that privateer effort fails, it'll still be seen as a Harley-Davidson failure.

Luckily, Vance & Hines actually has a better motor to work with than I thought.

It turns out that while the Street 750 is pretty mild in stock trim, the motor's basic architecture was conceived with a future race version in mind. It's not a motor that Soichiro Honda would ever have dreamed of racing, but it's not bad as a starting point.

It will be interesting to watch the battle next year between the new Harley motor and the new Indian motor. I hear that Indian has until 2020 to switch over to a production-based motor -- although three competition seasons is enough time for AMA Pro Racing to change its mind (to say nothing of the rules) several times...

Friday, June 24, 2016

UPDATED: What Brexit means for the motorcycle business

The results of the 'Brexit' vote are in, and the UK will now soon begin the process of leaving the European Union. I'm surprised -- not because of pre-referendum polls, which were too close to call but because the bookmaker Ladbrokes was offering terrific odds for 'Leave' bets just a day before the vote. It was a rare example of a vote that defied the bookmaker's odds.

The vote has huge implications for Britain and the future of Europe -- the thing is, at this moment, it's hard to know what the implications are. But there will be short term ramifications, and they'll influence the motorcycle industry in a few ways.

The British Pound immediately fell relative to the Euro (-5%) the Dollar (-9%) and the Yen (-11%). It will rebound but it is likely that the pound will remain depressed for some time. That should be good for British exports and bad for British imports.

Triumph bosses were probably conflicted as they watched a historic drop in the British Pound overnight. Triumphs assembled in Hinckley will become more affordable in export markets. But triples like this one are assembled in Thailand. The Pound fell 8% against the Baht making the decision to offshore that production a lot less attractive.
A lot of Triumph bikes are now made in Thailand, and overnight the Pound fell nearly 8% relative to the Thai Baht, making the decision to assemble bikes there a lot less attractive.

In spite of that, Triumph motorcycles should probably increase market share in the UK, because British importers will be paying a lot more for Hondas and Harleys, for example.

Moving in the opposite direction, the price of new Triumphs could fall here in the U.S.

British motorcyclists ride in Europe a lot. In the short term, that just got more expensive. Over the long term, if Brexit means a return to travel carnets for vehicles, insurance hassles, and the need for visas... well, British riders will have a little less incentive to seek out those sunny Spanish roads or attend a cacophonous Italian MotoGP round.

The Isle of Man, which didn't even have a say in Brexit, pegs its currency to the Pound; it just got a little more affordable for travelers to attend the TT, although it may get a lot more complicated for the many racers who currently travel to the Isle of Man from the Continent.

I noticed that David Emmett, the Brit who operates the excellent Motomatters blog from a home in Holland said on Facebook that he'll apply for Dutch citizenship. Last but not least, I just got a pay cut for my Classic Bike column, because I'm paid for that one in Pounds.

Brexit also has larger implications for Europe. The EU is weaker without the UK; it's too early to tell what that means for companies like Ducati, KTM, and BMW which rely heavily on export sales. In the short term the Euro's also fallen against the dollar, which should be good for Americans who like to ride new European bikes, but it will be bad for Harley-Davidson which has been counting on increasing foreign sales to offset aging American buyers. (H-D doesn't break out International sales by country in its annual report, but I think it's safe to say the UK is one of, if not the biggest, foreign markets for The Motor Co. Harleys are popular in the UK, and Harley's had a strong dealer presence there for a century.)

In an increasingly interconnected global economy, it's harder and harder to say where anything's made any more. But at least in the UK, Brexit was a vote for borders. (Well, it was really a vote against foreigners.) It's also harder to predict exactly how it will shake out for any business.

I'm certain of this, though: it will impact the motorcycle business, and motorcyclists who live in the the UK and the rest of Europe...


Roger Willis, a long time observer of the UK motorcycle industry notes: Two-thirds of Triumph's production is now in Thailand including all the Bonnevilles for sale worldwide. The ones coming back to the UK are, I believe, dollar-denominated imports. The prime reason for a Thai manufacturing location, besides cheaper labour, is to take advantage of ASEAN group FTAs with the US and Antipodes. PS Harley's UK market is much smaller than France or Germany

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Every year on this day, I still don't like Cal Ripken

Today’s the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s death. He played for the New York Yankees from 1923-’39. So there are few people, anymore, who remember him though of course we all know something of him.

The one-sentence summary of Gehrig’s career is, He was the guy whose record for consecutive-game appearances seemed unassailable for decades; his streak was ended by a rare disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – that is now better known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. (Forgive me the semicolon.)

It’s bad enough that a post appears in Backmarker, and has nothing whatsoever to do with motorcycles or motorcycle racing, so I will only provide the most cursory overview of Gehrig’s achievements in the sport of baseball. His Yankees won the World Series six times, he was league MVP twice, he had a career .340 batting average and, almost 70 years after his career came to an end, he still appears numerous times in the record books. In 1969, the Baseball Writers’ Association voted him the best first baseman of all time.

Even without ‘the streak’, he’d have been an automatic first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But, the streak.

To put Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive appearances in the Yankees’ lineup into perspective, the previous record had been held by Everett Scott – 1,307 games. Both Scott and Gehrig, of course, played in an era before effective batting helmets (or, usually, any helmets at all). Gehrig was knocked unconscious at least once by pitchers.

They played before modern sports trainers. I can only wonder what Gehrig’d’ve thought of massage therapists or cryotherapy. But for a long time even players who had those advantages never came close. Steve Garvey’s modern-era streak ended over 900 games shy of Gehrig’s.

To be sure, Yankee managers did from time to time conspire to put Lou Gehrig into games as a pinch hitter for example, to keep his streak alive. X-rays, taken later in his life, showed evidence of several fractures sustained – and played through – during the streak.

Although not yet diagnosed with ALS (which at the time was known as ‘infantile paralysis’) Gehrig’s play deteriorated in the 1938 season. Early in the ’39 season, he approached Yankees manager Joe McCarthy and said, “I’m benching myself, Joe, for the good of the team.”

Gehrig’s condition was diagnosed by Charles Mayo, of Mayo Clinic fame. He was told that he’d feel no particular pain, but that he would gradually lose all motor function. His mind would remain alert to the end. He chose not to keep any of that a secret.

A few months later, the Yankees held ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’, in the break between a double-header. There is no surviving complete film, but he stood on the field and delivered this speech to the sold-out crowd...

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.  
When you look around, wouldn't you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.  
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift—that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies—that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that's the finest I know.  
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

Even the cynical bastards in the press box fought back tears.

After retiring from baseball, Gehrig could’ve made a fortune as a public speaker. Instead, he took a position on the New York State parole board, because he felt strongly that the criminal justice system needed to be balanced by some sense of forgiveness.

He died on June 2, 1941.

When the baseball world returned to something like normal after WWII, people looked at the steady march of league records and realized that all things must pass, although one record seemed unassailable: Gehrig’s 2,130-game streak.

Some time in the 1980s, my dad and I declared a truce, and I started coming over on Sundays to watch baseball with him on TV. When Cal Ripken Jr. – on a streak of his own – passed Everett Scott to assume second place in the record books, I’m sure it was noted.

I don't remember the first time I heard a color man speculate that Ripken might, in fact, top Gehrig's record. But by 1993 or '94, the topic of Ripken’s streak came up every time the Orioles played.

As the 1995 season wound down (the Orioles finished third in their division) I obsessed a little over Ripken’s streak, but I was hoping for a different ending. I knew he could surpass Gehrig’s record. But I wished that he would choose not to. 

The Orioles hosted the California Angels September 4th – 6th. Those games were to be Ripken’s 2,129th – 2,131st consecutive appearances. (The league schedulers made sure they’d be home games.)

How fucking great would it have been, if on September 5th, Ripken had walked over to Phil Regan and said, “I’m taking myself out of the lineup, coach. I’ve got an ache in my stomach.”

Ripken would have secured #2 on the consecutive-games list. Even if he’d taken himself out of the lineup on September 6thth – leaving him tied with Lou – his action would have secured a place, alongside Gehrig’s ‘luckiest man’ speech, as one of the moments when an athlete transcends his sport.

I suppose he was under a lot of pressure not to do that. President Clinton and VP Al Gore were both at the game. But how fucking great would it have been for Ripken, in civvies, to sit down beside Bill, look over and say, “Great day to watch a game, huh?”

Ripken went on to play another 500+ consecutive games. His streak after his streak would have been one of the top 30, in a sport with a long memory and an obsession with statistics.

I’m not taking anything away from Ripken, but I’ll never really forgive him, either. Because he could have left Lou Gehrig at the top of that list for all time – 2,130* forever.

With the biggest, most beautiful asterisk in history of record-keeping right beside it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

“I had to lay it down.” Not.

This isn't just one of the most common motorcycle myths, it's one of the most dangerous ones. The things you say to soothe your bruised ego contribute to other riders' "can't do" attitudes and actually encourage future crashes. So just stop telling us that you "had to lay it down".

The other day, I wrote about a viral crash video. In researching that essay, I found an interview with one of the crashers, who repeated one of the most persistent lies in motorcycling: “I had to lay it down.”

He crashed as an immediate result of locking his front brake. So he laid it down alright. But he didn’t “have” to. That’s the case at least 99% of the time riders make that ex post facto rationalization.

Even this guy, who survived because he laid it down, probably just locked up his brakes and crashed without consciously thinking, "I see a gap under that truck." This is a very, very tough accident to avoid; most riders in that lane would see the truck start to move and assume it was going to enter the slow lane in their direction of travel. I'd say 90+ % of all riders are going to be taken out in this situation. That said, you can see the rider apply the brakes a fraction of a second late, and there was an open escape lane, using the break in the median to escape to the (empty) oncoming lane. Even this one was avoidable, although I suppose I'll grant this guy immunity if he says, "I had to lay it down." Which he'd say in Portugese, presumably, because this happened in Brazil. 

I guess when riders tell this lie, it makes them feel better about themselves; it allows them to think that they actually had some measure of control over their situations—situations in which they obviously didn’t actually have control. If they had control, they wouldn’t’ve crashed. It’s easier on their egos, too, when they tell their friends they “had to lay it down”. It turns the embarrassment of a crash into almost the opposite—a tough guy’s fatalism.

Before I tell you why I hate the persistent and pernicious “I had to lay it down” lie, let me tell you that I’ve laid it down more than a few times.

I started riding motorbikes in 1968. I’ve ridden countless thousands of road miles. Between 1999 and 2015 I did not own a four-wheeled vehicle at all; that included a year in which I commuted from San Diego to work in Hollywood. I don’t know how many motorcycle races I’ve competed in, but it’s certainly more than 100. I’ve tested motorcycles for Motorcyclist Magazine, Road Racer X magazine, Bike magazine (UK), and Motorcycle USA, among many others.

I won't even try to count the relatively harmless tip-overs. I’m sure the number of full-on crashes is in the dozens. When I was a kid, I called my mom from the ER so many times that I developed the practice of opening the conversations with, “I’m going to be OK, but…” so she wouldn’t panic.

I’ve crashed by myself. I’ve hit cars. Cars’ve hit me. I’ve hit bikes, and bikes’ve hit me. In all those times, there was precisely one crash in which I "laid it down" on purpose. [Or is that 'layed' it down? Neither looks right. MG]

Here’s where it happened:

In the late ‘90s, I was racing in the LRRS club series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The road course there leaves the Nascar oval and climbs something the locals call “The Mountain”. Just before you descend back down into the oval, there’s a sweeping right followed by a tight left (Turn 9) at the top of a hill.

At that time, I was a threat to win races in my class. No one on the track was capable of entering any corner at a speed 20mph greater than mine. At least, not while keeping their bike on its wheels.

But in one race, as I turned into that left at the crest, some moron t-boned me at a speed high enough to send me and my bike spearing off the track at at least 50mph.

I had time to think, “What the fuck?!?” and realize that I was still on my wheels, but riding down a steep dirt slope. On slicks. I was rapidly covering the yards of groomed runoff. Ahead of me, I saw long grass that, for all I knew, concealed rusting farm implements. Beyond that, there was a pond with bulrushes growing out of it.

All in all, a Very. Bad. Situation.

At that moment, I made the conscious choice to lock up my rear brake and low-side. The guy who hit me crashed, too. He said something like, “You turned in too early.”

I don’t remember what, if anything, I replied. But what I thought was, “Dude, if you think there’s any chance you were going to make that corner, you’re delirious.” He didn’t even make it after using me as a berm. My bike was more or less intact. I hoped his wasn’t.

So sure, technically there are times when you have to “lay it down”. But they’re vanishingly rare. Especially on the street, because the moment you lay it down, you’re giving up control and turning yourself into a projectile. You might hit an immovable object; you might be hit by another vehicle.

90% of all accident avoidance comes down to situational awareness. When I’m out there on the street, I see cars that I know are going to change lanes into my lane before that driver even knows that’s what he’s gonna’ do.

But the last 10% of accident avoidance hinges on your ability to brake, find an escape lane, and steer into it. It is almost never, ever acceptable to think, “Well, this is it—nothing I can do about it.” In fact, having that idea living anywhere in your subconscious is fucking dangerous.

I can guarantee you that the guys on the Secret Service Presidential detail never think, “Oh well, I guess the President is just gonna’ die.” You shouldn’t accept it, either.

Some day, you’ll be riding on some nice twisty road, and having a fun time, and you’ll come around a corner and find that a camper truck has broken down in your lane. Or some idiot tourist will exit a scenic overview directly into your path. Or you’ll round a bend and realize, too late, that last night’s rains have left a slick of dried clay over an otherwise clean stretch of asphalt. Or, sure, you’ll momentarily be distracted by a pretty girl at a sidewalk cafĂ© and when you look up you’ll realize that all the cars ahead of you are stopped for a red light.

In moments such as those, the last fucking thing you should ever accept is that crashing’s inevitable. You might be already leaned way over and need to simultaneously brake and tighten your line. You may need to pick up the weight of your bike on your knee as you do a three-point slide for a few yards. You may need to slam on the brakes while choosing the widest gap between two stopped cars. And a split-second after you try any of those things you may indeed crash.

But you know what? You probably won’t. Because if you keep your wits about you and have reasonable machine control, 90% of the time you’ll just need a change of underwear and you’ll be as good as new. Better, actually, because as any racer knows, almost every time you learn some new machine-control skill, that knowledge came a split-second after you just thought, “Oh fuck…”

As you go through this ride we call life, you’re gonna’ lay ‘er down from time to time. But you will almost certainly not “have” to lay it down. Your default setting should be, “I’m not going to crash; I won’t fucking let it happen.”

I once heard a very skilled and experienced rider say, matter-of-factly, “I hate crashing, so I really try not to do it.”

That attitude will keep you out of a lot of crashes, and most of the time if you do crash, it will be after you’ve at least partially mitigated the situation and your crash will be less severe.

And if (I suppose I should say ‘when’) you do crash, be man enough to not say, “I had to lay ‘er down.” Far better to learn from your mistake than pretend it was unavoidable.