Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Notes: Motorcycles saved my life

I wrote this three years ago. It's one of the essays featured in my new book, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker.

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the many perfect fall days we've had this year in Kansas City, I went out on my usual bicycle training ride. The ride wasn't a huge deal; on my single-speed, out of my loft and over into the West Bottoms then up the 12th Street viaduct, through downtown, past River Market and down into the East Bottoms, and back. Basically, it was up and over the biggest hills I could find around my house; an hour and a bit in which I try to make up with quality what I lack in quantity. 

Most of the route passed through largely un-, or at least under-used warehouse districts, and the roads, as usual, were pretty empty. The Kansas and Missouri rivers meet here, hence the 'Bottoms' in those neighborhood names, but I only occasionally caught a glimpse of the water. The American Royal, a huge rodeo and stock fair, was on and there were horses hobbled in parking lots, and pastured along the levee.

It was late afternoon. The sun raked in. The sky was a deep, deep blue. Black shadows. Backlit trees in fall colors; as if the the world was created for  cinematographers. I rocked it; if my quads got any more pumped, I'd've been at risk for compartment syndrome. As I approached my turn around point, down in the East Bottoms I came to the long straightaway where I sprinted into a headwind.

The East Bottoms is, well, sort of a weird area. It's mostly industrial, with some run-down residential and a great honky-tonk bar – Knucklehead's – hidden away there, too. I passed a trailer park, and heard the sound of a compressor and a nail gun. The place was was mostly filled with actual trailers like the ones you'd pull on a vacation, as opposed to mobile homes. The nail gun was being used to skirt one of the trailers to keep winter drafts out from beneath it. I thought, The guy should've taken care of that last winter – which was KC's hardest winter in decades. Or, had he just been foreclosed out of some warm home and moved into those new digs?

I turned around, caught the tailwind, and cranked up my cadence, as fast as I could spin. Ripping back down the straight with my head down, for the nth time I felt intense gratitude for such simple pleasures, and for having managed to stay in shape. I spent a few weekends last summer watching Kevin Atherton limp around the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Ducati at flat track races. While he's resolutely cheerful, it's clear his racing career took a huge toll on him. I've had friends pay far higher prices than that, too, enduring injuries I know I couldn't bear.  

Our sport is dangerous; that's not news. I wasn't one of those riders who thought, It won't happen to me. I thought about danger often. It was never dying that scared me, it was not dying that scared me. I've got some expensive Ti components (and I'm missing some cognitive functions; if you tell me your phone number, I have to write it down one digit at a time) but so far, I've come off lightly.

In fact, I'm able to enjoy simple physical pleasures not in spite of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, but because of it. It's not just that motorcycles haven't killed me (yes, I'm touching wood as I type this.) Motorcycles actually kept me alive.

I've never really told this story in much detail, but 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a club racer up in Canada, I got sick. I had some kind of autoimmune disorder, which depending on which doctor I asked was either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You know the expression, 'off the charts'? My white counts were literally off the charts. I got a graphic output after one lab test and the bar graph went off the edge of the page. When I finally got in to see a specialist, after a long wait, he looked up from that lab result and said, “I wouldn't have been surprised to see you come in in a wheelchair.”  

I was lucky that when it came on, I was in outstanding physical condition; I'd been training hard since university. I had a lot to lose before I'd ever be incapacitated. And, typical of people with lupus, I found that while it was painful and utterly exhausting to keep working out, the harder I trained the less I felt the symptoms. Still, I could only slow – not reverse – the course of the disease.

Month by month and year by year, I lost strength and range of motion in virtually every part of my body. It was frustrating because I was club racing and learning to ride better, but I couldn't really capitalize on it. I had to be super-careful not to crash; the drugs I was taking made the risks of injury much higher and besides, just getting out of bed in the morning already hurt like hell. By the time I raced in the TT, in 2002, I was careful not to let my friends see how hard I had to struggle just to get into my leathers or let them know that I'd almost bleed out from a shaving nick. And after that... It was as if my body had been holding out just to let me live out that dream, because in the next year, symptoms took a turn for the worse.

During that year of precipitous physical decline, I found myself wondering, At what point would in not be worth living? My life had, for decades, been defined more by physicality than intellectuality or spirituality. I decided that at the point where I couldn't wipe my own butt, I didn't want to live. Let me tell you, it was seriously depressing and I frequently rehearsed, in my mind, that hunting accident. 

Through that period, I really wanted to finish my memoir, Riding Man, and I was grateful that I could at least type. But the thing that kept me going was that I could still ride motorcycles. Maybe not well, or nearly at the level I once had ridden; getting a leg over the saddle was a real trick. You really don't need Too Much Information on this so I won't go into detail, but even though there days when I wasn't flexible enough to reach my butt, I still put in 1,000 kilometers in the alps, unearthing the story of Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi, the hero of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. 

So I put off the hunting accident.

Before I reached that point, I found a doctor who changed my drug regimen to one that worked way better, at least in the short-to-medium term. The drugs I was taking were literally toxic – one of them is used to kill cancer cells in chemotherapy – but they radically improved my life. Once they really kicked in, I could ride OK. I could cycle and swim and, as before, the harder I trained the better I felt. For the first time in over a decade, I started to feel better and better, not worse and worse.

After a year and half in France, I moved back to North America, to San Diego. I started working at Motorcyclist, had health coverage for a while, and found a new specialist. By that point, I was an expert on lupus and rheumatoid arthritis myself, and we had a long discussion about which of those two diseases affected me. It didn't really matter, since I had a treatment that worked for the time being, and in any case, neither disease is curable. At that point, when I looked at friends my age who weren't sick, they were mostly in such crappy shape that I wouldn't have traded places with them.

Then my cool job fell apart, I got divorced and remarried – poor but happy – and I started to feel... good. My doctor and I developed a plan to wean me off drugs and, for the first time in well over a decade, my blood tests started to look... normal. I don't use the phrase 'miracle,' that would be too strong. But about two years ago, my doctor – a very experienced rheumatologist – got a little teary when he said, “Don't call me again unless you get sick.” That's not something those guys get to say. Their patients don't get better, the job is just to mitigate the symptoms as long as possible.

I know that the thing that got me through to that point, was, there was a part of me that was determined to stay healthy enough to ride motorcycles. The weights, the cycling, swimming, yoga; the glucosamine sulfate, the 30,000 aspirin, the prednisone, the methotrexate... all that stuff wasn't to ward off pain and depression and slow the progress of the disease, it was, This is what you have to do to ride. You know those idiots in the German-inspired half-helmets who wear those “Live to ride, ride to live” patches? Well, for me that was literal truth.

I climbed up out of the East Bottoms through downtown KC, and right up at the top of that hill in the financial district, I was distracted by something I saw on the sidewalk. Two private security guards were sort of wrestling an unconscious street person upright on bus stop bench, and he ended up slumping heavily to the sidewalk. It only took a few seconds for me to process the situation. It wasn't violent and as far as I could tell, they were just getting ready to call the cops or an ambulance which would be doing the guy a favor. He wasn't very warmly dressed, and when the sun went down the temperature would quickly drop into the thirties. One of the guards noticed me noticing them and as I rode past called out, “Good afternoon sir, how are you?” They'd said similar things to me when I'd passed before under normal circumstances, but his question was incongruous when there was someone lying right there at his feet who was clearly not having a good afternoon .

The light turned green and I pedalled away. At the next light I stopped beside a limousine. The passenger window rolled smoothly down. I looked in at the driver, who called out, “Want to trade?” It crossed my mind that his job paid better than motorcycle journalism, but then I remembered that my job allowed me to the freedom to hop on my bicycle and train, or go for a motorcycle ride, on any unseasonably fine day.

I laughed and said, “No.”

“I'd rather be where you are,” he said. “This is the wrong kind of saddle-sore!”

Then, he rolled up the window and the light turned green. 

A few blocks later, one short final sprint, I was home. I locked up my bicycle downstairs, glanced at the Triumph and my '65 Dream, and thought, You deserve to take the elevator today. Before I'd even reached my door, I could smell chili simmering on the stove.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Monday Morning Quarterback, Wednesday edition: Rossi sacks Burgess

Well, Marquez did what he had to do, in order to win the Championship. Whether you should add your own “in spite of the MotoGP stewards throwing out his entire PI result” to that sentence is up to you.

But the story turned out to be Valentino Rossi firing Jeremy Burgess, who had been his crew chief through thick and thin, since his days on a Honda 500 two-stroke.

Rossi’s obviously had a hard, hard time riding the Ducati in 2011 and ‘12. He quickly had to face the fact that Casey Stoner could win on the Duc, but he couldn’t. I suppose he could tell himself that Stoner was a completely unique case -- the one person on earth for whom the Duc was actually a winning machine. It probably helped that Stoner was an odd duck himself and not particularly well understood or liked in paddock or by fans.

Then, Rossi returned to Yamaha, and notwithstanding a couple of flashes of brilliance (Qatar and Assen) he was showed up all season by Jorge Lorenzo. Honestly, there’s no dishonor in that... Marquez won the title this year, but 99, not 93, is the best rider of the current-gen MotoGP machines.

The truth hurts: When Yamaha needed Rossi to finish on the podium, to give his teammate any chance of the title, he was incapable of doing so.

Anyway, back to Burgess’ summary sacking.

My Facebook friend and ex-Bike magazine journalist Simon Hargreaves noted that in order to compete in MotoGP you simply must have a supreme degree of self-confidence. Si essentially excused Rossi’s undignified treatment of Burgess by saying, “Hey, an irrational self confidence is an essential trait of top riders, so it’s not Rossi’s fault that he can’t look in the mirror and spot the problem. Psychologically, he has to find someone else to blame and it can’t be Yamaha, because Lorenzo’s winning on the same machine. Burgess is the only logical target.”

I think Simon’s pretty much on the money there, although what he calls an essential character trait in MotoGP -- that selfishness and unwillingness accept blame or acknowledge the effect of your actions on others like faithful crew chiefs -- would make those guys psychopaths out in the world.

(As an aside, I can guarantee you that Jeremy Burgess is a ruthlessly competitive guy too, yet I am certain that he would never have dumped Rossi for some incoming hotshot rider. Nor do I think he would ever, ever have said, “Hey, the bike I give my rider is every bit as good as the bike Ramón Forcada hands off to Jorge Lorenzo; the only thing I can’t do is change the torque settings on the nut that connects the handlebars to the seat.” Burgess, I am certain, would have stuck by Rossi come what may, and would have been happy to retire when Rossi did, confident in the knowledge that Rossi had been the greatest rider of his era, as Burgess had been the most successful crew chief. Although Burgess was also the most successful chief of the preceding era, as well.)

What’s fascinating to me about the rider confidence that Simon noted is not the rather sad personality traits that come with it when those guys get off the bike. And I don’t excuse their sad personalities off the bike, because I’ve met real sporting gladiators -- guys who put their blood and bones on the line in scary, intense pursuits -- who are thoughtful, introspective, and even gentle people away from their particular arena.

What fascinates me about that confidence -- and makes me jealous of it -- is that it is not only  a trait you need to ride at the top level. It is a trait that actually makes it easier to ride at the top level.

Most people see a rider like Marc Marquez and note his incredible lean angle at mid corner. I see the nearly shocking speed at which he makes the transition from upright to max lean. For us as hack street riders, or track day riders, or club racers, mid-corner speed is the thing that is going to move us from the C group to the B group; it’s the thing that is going to impress your pals in the canyons. But at the top level, everyone’s got mid-corner speed; it’s the transitions that determine your finishing position.

To ride at that level, riders must have the self belief to totally commit to 99%+ of max lean and go there instantly. Mortals would feel their way there. And when they get to max lean they can’t have self doubt, because anything that causes them to tense up on the bike will mask the sensitivity and feel they need, slow their reactions, and prevent them from making the myriad but very, very micro corrections they’re making.

Most of that is happening in their bodies, not their minds. But doubt is the enemy of kinesthetic genius. This year, for the first time in his life Valentino Rossi was flat out dominated by his teammate. 2013 probably brought a few doubts to the surface that he’d been able to compartmentalize -- even at Ducati where he’d been relegated to running mid-pack.

We’ll know next year whether Rossi’s new crew chief brings a return to winning ways. Like Jeremy Burgess, I doubt that will be the case. But if it does, it may not be because Silvano Galbusera actually knows anything that Burgess doesn’t. It may just be because a change -- any change -- has allowed Rossi to pack up any tiny doubts and hide them away.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why I love Honda: Part 8,736

Anyone who's a regular Backmarker reader knows that while I love a lot of motorcycles, I've got a special place in my heart for Honda.

In spite of the fact that Marc Marquez seems poised to give Honda another MotoGP championship, and Honda did well at the TT this year, I suppose there are still more than a few people who feel that, for example, the CBR1000 lags far behind other bikes in its class. There are old farts (like me) who in their dark moments bemoan a company has not been the same since the death of Soichiro Honda.

Then, Honda does something like this, and restores our faith.


When I watched this, I got a little choked up at the thought of how much time, effort, expense -- and yes, love -- went into a beautiful tribute to a guy who who has been dead and gone for 20 years.

Sure, the Italians wear their hearts on their sleeves. But no other company has Honda's profound, soulful passion for racing. So when the company stumbles next, and you hear detractors saying it no longer has what it takes to win, remember this: In racing, come what may, passion will out.

Some of you may hardly remember Ayrton Senna. If you find yourself wondering what this is all about, take a couple of hours and watch this. Keep that box of Kleenex handy.