Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Best of Backmarker: California Dreamin'

Mother Nature has dumped two late-season blizzards on Kansas City in the last week. Wintery conditions here have coincided with emails from Mary, who spent the week in Big Sur, where it was 70 degrees. That reminded me of a story I wrote for Hugo Wilson, then the editor of Classic Bike five or six years ago...

I blame Hugo.

“All we want you to do is go and ride a few classic Southern California roads on your BMW, and tell us about it,” he wrote. “The weather’s still crap here, but you’re out in the warm sun. I’m calling your story ‘California Beemin’, but I’m sure between the two of us we’ll come up with a better title before it goes to press.”

Thanks to Hugo, that Mamas and the Papas’ song is stuck in my head, so it had better be the title of this story–if only to provide me with a little closure–or I’ll be humming it until summer.

The truth is, the BMW (like just about everything I own) may well have to be sold as part of my divorce settlement. I’ve been a little out of sorts over it, and needed a kick in the ass to get out riding anyway. I can’t go too far without hitting snow in the mountains, or torrential rain up the coast, but I can think of three or four roadhouses the /5 and I can hit for old times’ sake.

First stop: Mother’s Kitchen, Mount Palomar, San Diego County

From where I live, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, I wind through orange and avocado groves, and past a couple of big Indian casinos. (We took their land and forced them onto reserves–almost always land white settlers imagined would never be of any use. Now, they’re ripping us off. Fair’s fair.)

There are two roads up to Palomar’s summit. The South Grade makes the 3,000-foot climb in seven miles of linked hairpins; the East Grade is longer, faster and bumpier. I used to road-test contemporary bikes up there on one of my old jobs; it was like having a target on my back. That’s one of the nice things about riding the BMW–I’m not compelled to have a death match with every 20 year-old on a ’blade.

All the leaves are brown gone/and the sky is grey trees are black

The recent wildfires burned right over the mountain, and subsequent heavy rains have left a few patches dirty. I roll slowly past two guys who are standing over a crashed Yamaha. They don’t need my help.

As I climb towards 5,000 feet, I feel the power soften, but I’m in the mood to flow anyway, not race between corners. I feel the limits of the old bike’s suspension, and wonder if I’ll ever get around to updating the shocks and revalving the fork. It sags and wallows, though there’s plenty of leverage in the wide handlebar to bring it back under control.

At the top, there’s a pretty good café, Mother’s Kitchen, though it’s vegetarian–how California is that? I park up beside a GSX-R1000 painted in U.S. flag colors. The rider’s about the size of a bantam rooster, but when he tells me he’s from Oceanside, I know he’s a Marine based down there at Camp Pendleton. It’s the home of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF), which has been doing most of the heavy lifting in Iraq. A second glance, and I can see that despite his size, he’s capable of pulling his weight.

Second stop: Cook’s Corners, Live Oak Canyon Road, Orange County

‘The OC’ used to be orchards and ranches, although since WWII it’s been malled, walled, and turned into Los Angeles’ sprawling bedroom. There are still a few good roads in the hills, though. Live Oak Canyon Road is one of them. When I get there, a squall has just passed over, and the overhanging trees and glistening pavement put me in the mind of Leyzare Parish, on the Isle of Man. That impression is reinforced when I find a roadside memorial to four or five bikers.

My next stop, the roadhouse at Cook’s Corners, puts me right back in the U.S. Thanks to the rain, there’s only one other bike in the parking lot when I pull in for lunch, but on a sunny Saturday, there’d be 200 or more Harleys out front.

Cook’s has been a roadhouse since the ’20s. Originally, the customers were local farmers, but it was gradually taken over by a pretty rough crowd. For a while, in fact, the air force squadron that leant its name to the Hells’ Angels was based an easy ride away, in Fontana. 

The food’s pretty good, especially if you’re a cardiologist. Despite the lack of hogs in the parking lot, just about all the customers have ZZ Top beards and order beer by the pitcher. I can’t tell whether the guys grumpily leaning on the pool table are still waking up, or already passing out. Then Jeff ‘Meatball’ Tulinius, a semi-legendary mechanic wanders in. He, at least, gives me someone to talk to. He tells me that he’s just been the subject of a documentary film, Brittown, about L.A.’s britbike culture, and invites me to the premiere in a couple of weeks. Cool.

Third stop: The Rock Store, Mulholland Highway, Los Angeles County

I’d be safe, and warm/If I was in L.A

Or, maybe not. My third roadhouse, Newcomb’s Ranch, is up on the Angeles Crest Highway, which is one of the best roads out of the Los Angeles basin. Unfortunately, the 7,000-foot San Gabriel Mountains that overshadow Pasadena are deep in snow for the first time in years. 

So I cut over to Highway 101, along the coast. In Santa Monica, I meet up with Paul and Becca Livingston, of Falkner-Livingston Racing. They’re two-up on Ducati Hypermotard. I let them choose a route to the Rock Store on Mulholland Highway. Of the classic SoCal roadhouses, it’s the closest to Hollywood, and one of the places stars go, when their publicists tell them it’d boost their image to seem like bikers.

Since the Livingstons are on a Hypermo’, they choose a particularly winding back route into the hills, up Latigo Canyon.  Malibu was recently burned over, too, and winter rains have washed a lot of mud over the road, again. Downshifting to first for the countless hairpins reminds me that matching revs is not just a matter of blipping the throttle for this big old twin. I need to take an extra moment to really let the engine get up to speed and even then it’s still a BMW tranny. I’m sure they can hear the clunk back there on their Ducati.

It’s funny; L.A. riders think they have winter, too. So the crowd’s much sparser than it would be. Still, there are vintage café racers, modern crotch rockets and supermotards, as well as the usual cruisers and choppers. Rock Store’s a sort of demilitarized zone, where they all get along. The Livingstons and I go into the café for burgers, and they tell me about their plans to run Malcolm Smith in the vintage class at Pikes Peak this summer.

The bikes in the parking lot all made the beemer seem pretty dowdy. Since splitting with my wife, I’ve been staying with a friend a few blocks from the beach, where the salt’s taken a toll. The ally’s growing white fur, the beautiful wide handlebar is shedding its chrome, and the seat’s developed a deep crack. As I ride back south, I wonder if I’ll ever get around to fixing any of that stuff, or just sell it and split the money, since there’s no way I can buy out her half.

Stopped into a church/I passed along the way. 

Well, I parked in front of one anyhow. I just needed a coffee. There’s an old mission in San Juan Capistrano that dates from the time when this was all Mexico. It occurs to me that the bike’s running fine, despite showing its age. So maybe I could just keep going south, and cross the border into Baja. Her lawyer would never find me there.

If I didn’t tell her/I could leave today
Oh California dreamin’/On such a winter’s day

UPDATE: I did, in the end, have to give the BMW to my ex-wife. She left it parked outside, a mile from the ocean, for several years before telling me that if I wanted it, she guessed I could take it. By that time I'd married the correct wife, but didn't have the resources to resurrect the bike. I traded it to my friend Jim Carns, who drove out to California from Kansas City to collect it. He's since restored the machine and Mary and I have since moved to Kansas City, so I suppose I have visiting rights to it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Things Nascar doesn't want said out loud

Nascar got underway for real this weekend. Not coincidentally, it also released a new TV ad, created by the venerable Ogilvy ad agency in New York, which is a thinly-veiled attempt to convince new or casual viewers to think of it as more than a bunch of cars that circulate in a tight bunch between wrecks,  surrounded by grandstands full of drunken rednecks who pretend they're there for the racing part.

"For every good ole boy, there's a good ole girl?" I guess Ogilvy's copywriter failed math. There's one girl, and Nascar was probably glad Danica Patrick got the pole. Unlike Ogilvy's creative department, Nascar does have people who passed math on staff, and they know that roundy-round's audience of southern white males -- like the Republican voting base --  is shrinking with age. But will Danica actually bring a larger female audience?

It's way to early to say, "It's over for Nascar"but the sports juggernaut has certainly slowed. Billboards promoting the first race of the year here in Kansas City tout the facts that parking is free and coolers are welcome -- they're trying to reduce barriers to entry for less-than-hardcore fans.

All of which highlights the attention paid to Travis Pastrana in Nascar's Nationwide series. He got off to a decent start, and it's pretty obvious that Nascar has high hopes that he can attract a younger X-Games-style audience to stock car racing.

Honestly, I think the fact that Nascar cares about Travis Pastrana at all is evidence that it's running scared. Nascar's going after the X-Games crowd? Not so long ago, that would have been like the NFL encouraging some hapless team to hire an aging soccer player to kick field goals, in hopes of attracting more soccer fans.
Pastrana has pretty much openly admitted that he's taking heat from long-time fans who resent his left turn into the mainstream. Will his presence boost a future audience for Nascar's top series? Not measurably.
Now if you'll forgive a Machiavellian turn...

YouTube disabled the embed code for this fan video of Saturday's Nationwide race, last-lap clusterfuck. But for now, if you click the photo, you can watch the video
The story for this Nascar curtain-raiser is that, during Saturday's Nationwide race, a last-lap crash sent debris flying into the stands, injuring dozens, some seriously. The audio on this fan video clip betrays the delight in the crowd at the prospect of another crash. "Alright! Here we go..." one fan cries out delightedly, and surrounding fans shriek with glee as the crash develops down the track. And note, the Nationwide fans are the serious ones. I suppose that Nascar counts itself lucky the crash didn't happen on Sunday, when the stands would have been full and the casualties higher.

That said, if Nascar's seriously after Pastrana's old fan base, that crash was the best thing they could have hoped for. After all, the fans that are angry at Pastrana for selling out are selling out because they think of stock car racing as a pussy sport. Pastrana has had more orthopedic surgeries than the rest of the field put together. But now, maybe some of those disillusioned Pastrana fans will reconsider.

"Shit, are you kidding me? You can get killed just sitting in the stands? Maybe Nascar is an extreme sport after all."

UPDATE: I thought that was a last word on this, but then someone alerted my to the web site Jalopnik's link to this hilarious-at-one-level-deadly-serious-at-another animated editorial from Japan's Next Media Animation company...


Monday Morning Crew Chief: The next best thing to 'BeIn' there

So as we got to the last minute before the start of the 2013 World SBK season without a North American broadcast deal, it seemed as if there would be essentially no way for motorcycle racing fans to watch what has been -- at least arguably -- the most compelling road racing world championship.

Then, we were told that a subsidiary of Al Jazeera -- a network whose name previously only cropped up when some jihadi nutcase wanted to release cell-phone video of a terrorist beheading -- would carry carry it on 'BeIn', a cable sports channel available in approximately 17 households.
I'm not sure whose coverage BeIn picked up, but it was too good to be true. 
Then, we were told that BeIn's stream would be available only to the 49 people who were already customers of a cable company that carried BeIn.

With that in mind, I went out to a birthday party Saturday evening (Sunday morning at Philip Island). When I got in later, I checked my FB page and saw rather rapturous accounts of how great it had been watching the BeIn feed online. My friends noted, "A full hour of race coverage without a single commercial!" and one helpfully posted a URL, that appeared to be hosted on a Spanish server, where anyone could watch it.

I clicked the link and watched a few minutes of soccer news, and then it cut to SBK Race 2.

Indeed, the race coverage was brilliant, and even on my sketchy and bandwidth-challenged connection it was a hell of a lot better than anything Speed ever put up. The only thing that bothered me was, it was an hour of uninterrupted coverage without a single commercial.

You see, if something seems to good to be true, it usually is.

I watched for an hour, without seeing so much as a banner ad. I wish there had been some advertising, so that I could at least hope BeIn has a business plan that will allow them to continue paying the bill at the server farm. I can, unfortunately, guarantee you that that great feed won't be available for too long if is to go completely unmonetized.

Still, as long as it's available, it's the next best thing to being there.

Keith Flint, of the band Prodigy, is a genuine motorcycle nut, and not just a  'celebrity' whose PR advisors have told should be seen associating with bad-boy sports like motorcycle racing. That said, he was a guest of Crescent Suzuki on the grid.

In an accidentally revealing moment, the grid-walk cam focused on Flint -- a guy who (me being me) I didn't recognize from Adam (Ant). All I saw, at a glance, was an idiot in a sideways flat-billed cap, with lots of chunky bling, who, when he realized that a camera was pointed at him, mugged for it and flashed pretend gang signs. (Note to all white guys, even motorcycle racers: The pretend gang thing is pathetic; especially so when you're dressed all ghetto to boot.)

What was noticeable, too, was that although the riders were less than two minutes from the sighting lap, Flint was NATTERING on to Leon Camier. Dude: unlike you, he's a professional motorcycle racer. Unlike being an idiot rock star, Camier's job requires concentration. SHUT THE FUCK UP.

While I'm on this rant, let me add that if I could wave a magic wand and make one thing disappear, it would be the way celebrity wannabes are invited onto the grid at all. For fuck's sake, you're on the starting grid at Philip Island. The celebrities here are on the bikes.

"Motorcycle racing must be cool, right? Because look at these cool people who want to be with us..." It just makes our sport look desperate. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Beware of geeks bearing gifts

Google's heavily touted 'augmented reality' glasses will augment the toll taken, on motorcyclists, by distracted drivers.

Drivers distracted by their cell phones already kill more people, every year, than died in 9/11. Yet instead of declaring war on distracted driving, most states pass softball 'hands-free' legislation in the face of overwhelming evidence that hands-free phones are no safer than the regular kind.

Of course, the vast majority of accidents caused by Google's glasses (like the accidents caused by cell phone use and texting) will be between car drivers. But it's a motorcycle issue because when car drivers hit motorcyclists, the bikers are 40 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than when car drivers hit other car drivers. So, although we represent a tiny percentage of all accidents, we represent a large percentage of all deaths.

Now, Google's promising to exponentially raise the level of distraction with augmented reality glasses that will present drivers with an even more problematic visual (as opposed to audio) stimulus.

Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean Google won't kill 100 motorcyclists or more in the first few years of this technological 'advance'.

Some Google apologists may equate these glasses to heads-up displays used, for example, in jet aircraft. In fact, I tested a prototype helmet-mounted heads-up display for motorcyclists a few years ago, while racing at Pikes Peak. I have no problem with such displays, but they are a totally different deal.

We're going to see more heads-up displays, for car drivers and motorcyclists, in the coming years. But those displays will present information that is currently presented on the dashboard. So drivers (and riders) will be able to see information like speed, revs, fuel level, etc, without glancing down. I'm fine with that because as it stands, that information is not particularly distracting. The reason it's not distracting is that drivers choose the moments to glance down, and they instinctively choose moments when they have the bandwidth and time to do so.

Augmented reality glasses are going to present information unpredictably, the way your text messages, emails, and posts to your Facebook timeline currently appear.

For years, I've told new motorcyclists to make eye contact with drivers. If you're approaching someone stopped at a cross street, don't assume they see you unless you can see their eyes. But soon, seeing their eyes will be no guarantee that their mental focus is, in fact, on that frame in their peripheral vision, where a friend has just sent them another hilarious video of a cat jumping into a cardboard box.

Thanks, Google.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What writers do when they're not doing anything

A note from Best of Backmarker: Time flies. Six years ago, I moved from Texas back to California. I wrote this column that February, and it appeared on the old Road Racer X web site. Since that's now down, and since I ran across this file while resurrecting an old hard drive and liked the essay, I'm reposting it here. Of course, I've since moved from California to Kansas City, and I'm a long way my old home surf break. That's about all I miss about SoCal, but I do admit that rereading this, I find myself wishing for a little getaway, as the forecast here is for an ice storm...

February, 2007

A while ago, I moved back to California from Texas.  So now I live in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, which is one of the beach towns strung out north of San Diego between Interstate 5 and the coast. The town’s unofficial logo is a yellow “pedestrian crossing” sign, but the pedestrian’s carrying a surfboard. Every second vehicle has a Surfrider Foundation window sticker or a Pray For Surf bumper sticker. There’s a popular local breakfast joint called Pipes, which takes its name from a nearby surf break. There’s a little office building next to the café, and its parking lot is posted with signs that read:

Until a few years ago, Cardiff was mostly little bungalows. But Southern California’s real estate boom has resulted in most of those being torn down and replaced by much bigger places that start at well over a million bucks. So there aren’t many rentals left that archetypal surfers can afford–guys whose work life is so sketchy that they can book off whenever the surf’s up. That doesn’t mean there are fewer surfers. When I walk from my house, straight down Dublin Drive towards the beach, I always pass a few open garage doors. I see a predictable mix of Porsche Cayennes and Lexuses (Lexi?) but there’s usually a quiver of longboards, too. So most of the current residents are rich, born-again surfers.

My street ends at a little bluff that overlooks the San Elijo lagoon. From there, a footpath leads down across the railroad tracks towards Highway 101. Once I’ve crossed the highway, I’m there, on the beach. And I am there, quite often. A writer’s life involves a lot of waiting. (Come to think of it, it often involves waiting on tables, but the terms of my visa won’t permit that.) So in my case it’s waiting for the phone to ring, or for the email that assigns a story, tells a story; as clichéd as it might sound, I do wait for the muse to strike. 

While I wait, surfing serves a purpose; paddling’s a great cardio and upper body workout, holding your head up in that posture closely mimics a sportbike workout on your upper back and neck. Sitting on the board waiting for waves is its own balance exercise, too; without realizing it, you constantly shift your c.g. to keep it above the board’s center of buoyancy. Learning to relax out there is like riding in the rain, and it attunes you to that split-second’s warning you get that before some highsides–where you instinctively transfer your weight from the seat to the pegs, letting the bike rise and break underneath you while you think, No big deal. 

There’s a bunch of overlapping sponsors and a general surf style that’s close to the vibe in a Supercross paddock. But the rhythm of surfing’s more in tune with road racing. Timing waves is analogous to initiating turns; wait, wait, wait for it, then commit totally.

So physically, it’s one of the best possible ways to cross train for motorcycling. All in all, it can’t hurt my riding (there are those who’ve seen me ride who are now thinking, Nothing could hurt it. But maybe some day I will finally teach myself to commit to the turn as fully as I do to the wave.) Anyway, the main benefits are mental. Something about those long waits at sea sharpens one’s powers of observation.  Ask Herman Melville.

The path to the beach skirts the outlet of the lagoon, which looks like a small river, except it changes the direction of its flow twice a day. On dropping tides, it releases sediment into the Pacific. That sediment is carried about 100 yards out to sea before settling. It creates the sandy reef that, in turn, makes for consistently good waves. Not great, but good. That’s my home break. From the time I put my coffee cup down in the kitchen sink to the time I was wading into the waves, it used to take me no more than 15 minutes on foot. So I didn’t even need a car, which was lucky because I don’t have one. 

I say “used to” because now I have to detour around a deep, concrete storm drainage ditch that runs parallel to the highway. For a while, there was a bridge across the ditch, despite the fact that the path follows the railroad right of way and everyone who walks there is technically trespassing.

The bridge was obviously made from construction scraps. It was about ten feet long and thirty inches wide. There were no handrails; it was definitely not up to code. Some of the timbers were painted and others are untreated and rough sawn. But it was solid; I knew right away that it was made by someone who used tools for a living.  

Spray-painted on one of the beams that supported it were the words:


There was a more helpful (though no more welcoming) message on the bridge deck itself:


I was not surprised to see those warnings. (Although logically, they made no sense; the bridge was not visible from any public thoroughfare and connected a small, residential neighborhood with a relatively anonymous beach. Only locals could possibly have used it.) 

Surfers call this territoriality “localism.” It is, to say the least, inconsistent with the laid back surf style that is packaged and marketed all over the world–including places hundreds of miles from the nearest waves. Ironically, the successful marketing of surf culture had the unintended effect of encouraging millions of people to take up the sport. 

Natural forces create surf breaks. There are a finite number of good ones, especially near major population centers. What was once a solitary communion between man and nature now often looks more like a bobbing, floating crowd. Collisions between surfers are rare, but friction is not. Professional surf journalists and photographers have had their cars burned or even been beaten up by local surfers who don’t want “their” still-undiscovered spots popularized. And even people who surf at well-known beaches resent web-based surf forecasters who can spread the word–surf’s up–too far, too fast.

All this proves only that surf culture has invaded the larger popular culture at the expense of popular culture invading surfing. It’s part pure cool, part environmental awareness, part sport, art, and business. It must have been nice, back in the old days in Hawaii, when it was just a religious experience. 

In any case, the bridge wasn’t there for long. Someone tore it out. Not an angry non-local surfer; probably someone from the railroad, or the town council, who didn’t want to tacitly encourage people to cross the railroad tracks far from the nearest level crossing.

Having been spoiled by the short cut, once it was denied to me I bought an old Motobecane “mixte”-framed bicycle and fitted it with a rack that holds a surfboard. That enabled me to get down to the beach along the roads, even faster than I used to get there via the guerrilla bridge. My surf bike also gives me access to a wider range of surf spots, maybe a mile up and down the coast from Swami’s to the rocky headland at the north end of Solana Beach.

The success of the bicycle gave me another idea, which was to build a surf motorcycle. Faithful readers (hi mom) will remember that I once accidentally bought a 1972 Suzuki TS125 scrambler on eBay. It ran–barely–but had a sticking throttle and questionable electrics. (Since it was missing its battery, the question was, did it have anything like roadworthy lights and horn?) The tires, chain and sprockets were pretty knackered too, but it was basically all there and pretty stylin’. 

Until now though, it’s been a bit of an albatross around my neck. I’ve moved it from California to Texas and back again without ever riding it. Since I don’t have a garage, it’s been stored outside; a cozy nest for spiders, a perch for sparrows, sprinkled with fallen pine needles. So it’s definitely time I did something with it. Lately, I’ve imagined buzzing up and down the 101 on it, with my ’board slung alongside. Hmm… I wonder how far I can go before I stop being local?

Somewhere, I have a Clymer manual for it. Maybe in the next few days I’ll roll it onto my little patio, clean it off and see if I can get it to the point where one could imagine licensing and insuring it. I’ll let you know how that goes. Unless the phone rings. Or the surf’s up.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: Naming Honda's MotoGP production racer

I just read a post to the effect that Honda's million-euro production-racer MotoGP bike will not break cover until the end of the 2013 season. Someone (was it David Emmett?) suggested that we need a name for this machine, since "the production-racer version of the RC213V" is presumably too much of a mouthful.

I suggest calling it the Honda PVT.

Officially, it could stand for 'Prototype with conventional Valve Train'.

A bonus is that 'PVT' evokes the word 'privateer', which in turn brings to mind the glorious 'Continental Circus' days when private racers could make their bones (and a living, of sorts) on production machinery.

There you go: Honda PVT