Monday, May 28, 2018

Renting a scooter in the Caribbean (Turks and Caicos)

In March, Mary and I spent a week in Turks and Caicos, on the island of Providenciales. Mary is the travel coordinator in our family, and she rented an AirBnB on Provo's comparatively undeveloped south shore, so we definitely needed a vehicle to get to the nearest restaurants and food stores.

Since we'd only be traveling a few miles at a time and the weather promised to be fine (and since I make my living riding motorcycles and writing about it) Mary set us up with a scooter rental, not a car.

We rented this Yamaha BWS125 Scooter from Scooter Bob's, on Providenciales. It cost us $39 a day, which was the same price we would have paid for a tiny Daihatsu Charade car, if such an auto had been available.

During her preliminary research online, Mary found Scooter Bob's – a car & scooter rental business run by one of the many ex-pat Canadians in T&C. Scooter Bob agreed to leave a small van for us at the airport, so we could move our luggage to the AirBnB. A plan was hatched for us to return the van the following day and swap it for a scooter, which would save us a little money (and lend an extra air of adventure to the vacation.)

The van plan went perfectly, except that thanks to Delta we were delayed 24 hours, so we had to pay $48 to get the van out of the Provo airport's short term parking lot. The island nation is a member of the British Commonwealth, but uses U.S. currency. So, we didn't have to convert currency.

The first thing we realized was that while our van had an 'American' driver-control layout (i.e., steering wheel on the left) traffic in the Turks and Caicos also drives on the left, as in Great Britain. So you don't have to convert your money, but you do have to convert your traffic brain.

Mary wanted to drive to the AirBnB. She told me, "I lived in Australia once. I can drive on the left." Then, she almost immediately pulled out into cross traffic, instinctively looking to the left first as she would in the U.S. I looked out my passenger window at an approaching car and shouted 'Oncoming!'

I suppose T&C natives are used to North American tourists looking the wrong way. In any case, that car managed to stop before hitting us, and we learned our lesson – "Drive left, look right".

No, I didn't flop this photo. In Turks and Caicos, people drive on the left, as in Great Britain. The cars and trucks in use there are a mix of U.S. market vehicles with the steering wheel on the left, and Japanese market compacts with the steering wheel on the right. 

The next day, we dropped the van off at Scooter Bob's and swapped it for one of their Yamaha BWS125 scooters. The truth is, you can normally rent a tiny, Japanese-market right-hand-drive car from Scooter Bob's for the same daily rate as a scooter, and since Mary was a bit spooked by her first near-accident, she would have preferred that. But, Bob didn't have any of those small cars available, so we stuck to the original plan.

That 'BWS' stands for 'big-wheel scooter' and is a reference to the Yamaha's somewhat-larger-than-normal tires. The BWS125 is an otherwise standard 125cc, four-stroke, twist-and-go scooter. There's no clutch or foot controls; both handlebar levers are brakes, as on a bicycle. So, I suppose, anyone who's comfortable riding a bicycle could ride one without further instruction. However, if you read on, you'll learn why I don't think it's a good idea for inexperienced scooterists or motorcyclists to start learning on the islands.

Scooter Bob's fleet seemed to be in OK shape, although it would be a good idea to check your scooter out before riding off. At the very least, squeeze both brake levers and make sure they provide firm resistance in less than an inch or so of travel. It would be reasonable to ask them to check tire pressures; most scooters will operate on essentially flat tires, but they don't handle well that way! And don't make the mistake I made, of not looking for the headlight switch until it was too dark for me to find it! Familiarize yourself with the controls, and learn how to open the underseat storage compartment, because you'll need it.

Mary was more than just a passenger, she was my co-pilot, reminding me to "Drive left, look right!"

Scooter Bob had a little rack of helmets, and Mary and I both found one to fit. All the helmets were fairly old open-faced jobs – far better than nothing, but additional eye protection was mandatory because there is a lot of grit thrown up on Island roads.

On the upside, riding a scooter can be fun. Gasoline is expensive in the Caribbean, so a vehicle that gets 75 miles to the gallon will save you a few bucks (although most of the very small cars in the local rental fleet probably got nearly as good fuel mileage.)

There are quite a few places on the touristy north shore of the island where parking is tight; we snorkeled at Coral Gardens every morning, and it was great to be able to slip the scooter in between cars that filled the few available parking spaces near that popular stretch of beach.

The BWS125 had underseat storage for one helmet, so we always left one in there, but were stuck carrying the other. Between the underseat storage and the scooter's footwell, we could just manage to transport two people with snorkel gear & towels, or two people and a couple of bags of groceries. The BWS has a tiny luggage rack, but it's almost decorative, and utterly useless without bungee straps or a cargo net of some kind, which were not supplied.

Most of the traffic on most of the roads moves pretty slowly, so even two-up we had no trouble keeping out of people's way. There's a few four-lane 'highways' on Provo where traffic rolls faster than we could go on the Yamaha, but we never had any trouble sticking to the left-hand lane and letting people pass us on the right. Locals are used to slow traffic in the slow lane and I never felt that we were pissing anyone off.
Pretty much every trip we made involved crossing or traveling on Leeward Highway, which is the island's busiest road. Traffic circles are much more common than traffic lights on T&C. They work well but many North Americans are unused to them. Traffic was often quite heavy. Note the poor quality of the pavement in the lower photo.

That said, the riding was at times a pretty intense experience. I always had Mary as a passenger, and asked her to remind me to look right every time we entered an intersection, and to ride left every time we left a parking lot or turned a corner. By the end of the week, we were pretty instinctive about taking to the left side of the road, but we had a couple of experiences of our own with tourists who pulled out of side roads directly into our paths – new arrivals who made the same mistake Mary had made shortly after leaving the airport.

Between the unfamiliar traffic patterns, corners that can be rendered slippery by a skiff of sand, the fact that as a tourist I never knew exactly where I was going, and the unpredictable actions of other tourists, you can see why riding in the T&C is not really for novices.

If you are an experienced scooterist or motorcyclist with good machine-control skills and well-honed traffic survival instincts, you'll do fine if all you have to get used to is riding on the 'wrong' side of the road.

I suppose if you're a novice scooterist from the UK, and already used to traffic circles and riding on the left side of the road, you'll be as safe on Turks and Caicos as you are at home, but you'll probably have less clothing between your skin and the road, so slow down and pay more attention.

If you're a novice from the U.S., rent a car. Seriously. It's too many new experiences to process all at once.

Having a set of wheels at our disposal allowed us to see things that otherwise would have been out of reach, like the Thursday night 'fish fry', and the famous Bugaloo's beachside bar and restaurant, in the – ahem, let's call it 'working class' – Five Towns neighborhood. It worked for us, but I'm a very experienced motorcyclist. If you're a novice and you find yourself thinking, "I'll rent a scooter down there, it will be fun," you're probably better off renting a car. If you are staying on the more touristy north shore of Provo, you'll be able to get by with taxis, which seem plentiful.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that we usually rode in shorts and t-shirts, although the one concession I made to 'extra' safety gear was riding in sneakers instead of flip-flops (in case I ever had to put a foot down unexpectedly.) When we got wherever we were going, I often left my sneakers with one helmet under the seat and switched back to flip flops.

We never really had any close calls, but I would have felt better if we'd at least been wearing jeans and any kind of light jacket or gloves.

One person on a scooter could probably jam a helmet, light jeans & jacket, and gloves under the seat, but there would not be room for two people's gear. Mary is a pretty experienced scooterist, and she could have ridden her own instead of just being a passenger on mine. But, at that point we'd've been renting two scooters at $39/day each, which would have cost a lot more than one car.

If you go: I recommend Scooter Bob's on Turks and Caicos. The staff was friendly and helpful; they gave us a ride to the airport with all our luggage, for free. The bike we rented ran fine all week.

As a professional motorcycle journalist, I pretty much have to recommend ATTGATT – "all the gear, all the time". But the reality is, you're not going to wear your Aerostich Roadcrafter on your Caribbean vacation.

I would recommend, at a minimum, that you borrow a helmet from the rental agency. If you have some weird fit issues, bring a helmet with you. You'd be fucking crazy to ride without one, in a place where some other tourist might pull out of a side road directly into your path, because he's looking for traffic coming from the wrong direction.

It's essential to bring eye protection for both daylight and night-time. There's a lot of grit flying around, even on paved roads. Lace up, closed-toe shoes are the next priority. A pair of loose jeans that are easy to pull on right over shorts, light gloves, and some kind of jacket will all protect you from abrasion a lot better than sunscreen! I didn't have those things, but do as I say, not as I do.

We traveled to T&C with a suitcase, but a backpack would have been convenient on the scooter. If you're a real Boy Scout, you'll come prepared with a couple of bungee cords and/or a little cargo net, which will make it easier to move around the island with towels and snorkel gear.

We loved the Harbour Club Villas and Marina on Provo's quiet south shore, which allowed us to get away from other tourists and kayak to completely private beaches, but it would have been impossible to stay there without a vehicle.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Flat track just says 'maybe' to dope

A few days ago, American Flat Track/AMA Pro Racing dropped quite a press release, announcing that Jared Mees had been retroactively disqualified from the Atlanta short track race after lab results confirmed he'd used a 'chemically altered' rear tire.

Mees is the reigning GNC champion, the current points leader, and Atlanta winner. So, it was not surprising that AFT's release was picked up by every web site and moto-media outlet. That's not how I learned about it, though. I learned about it when my phone and computer started pinging, with messages from flat track racers, crew chiefs, and team owners all saying things like, "They're up to it again."

By 'again', they were referring to a story I broke on this blog back in 2015, when Jared Mees and his tuner Kenny Tolbert were accused of–but not punished for–tire doping. I'm not saying that AMA Pro Racing held a grudge about that story, but I went from having an AMA Pro season-long media hard card to not getting my calls or emails returned when I enquired about getting a media pass for specific events.

When last Friday's story broke, Common Tread, knowing that I'd written about the 2015 scandal, asked me to provide an analysis of the recent doping charge. I spoke to a few paddock insiders, traded texts and emails with others; left messages and got at least one official statement although most people insisted on talking 'on background' only. I understand their concerns, but I had a job to do.

That story ran yesterday. Over the course of the day, current & former pro racers, tuners, and team owners; employees at OEMs; other journalists including one heavy hitter from the mainstream press; even current & former AFT employees texted, emailed, or called to say, basically, 'Attaboy'. Most of the comments I've seen on the story and social media are supportive but you can't write a story like that without ruffling feathers.

So, I'll respond to criticism once, here, right now.

Maybe I'm wrong about that 2015 story getting me blackballed; maybe I just fell through the cracks. Regardless, I learned a long time ago that being nice to people, and being their friend–operating under the rule "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything"... All that seemed to help other people get ahead but that approach didn't work for me.

So in the interests of living an efficient life, I just try to do a good job instead, and let the chips fall where they may.

Go ahead, then; feel free to piss and moan about what I wrote in Common Tread. I plan to follow this drama, and hope to interview more of the principal players on or off the record, in order to write a major follow up.

I'm ready to amend my position on this story. However until such time as I'm presented with evidence that changes my opinion, I stand by what I wrote last weekend. I think it is fair-minded, as accurate as it could have been given the limitations of access and deadline, and reasonably entertaining to boot.

Monday, February 19, 2018

#HimToo: Revisiting the Steve McQueen legend

I’ve been thinking about McQueen a lot lately, in this #MeToo moment.

Per Wikipedia, this McQueen mug shot came after a DWI incident in Alaska.
I never knew him, but over the years I’ve interviewed a bunch of people who did. The last round of interviews took place three or four years ago, when I was researching the American team (including McQueen) that competed in the 1964 ISDT; that year, it was held in Communist East Germany.

Although a number of American riders had competed in the ISDT, that was the very first U.S. ‘Vase’ team. Besides Steve McQueen, the riders were Bud Ekins, the man who basically introduced McQueen to motorcycles and went on to stunt double him in some famous movie scenes; Cliff Coleman, another movie-industry guy who was another one of McQueen’s small circle of friends; and Dave Ekins, who was Bud’s brother.

By the time I researched that ’64 ISDT, Bud and Steve–the protagonists in the story–were both dead. But I spoke to Dave Ekins and Cliff Coleman at some length, as well others who knew him in the '60s.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave high in the Himalayas for the last few months, you’ve read enough about Harvey Weinstein to know that the movie business has, historically, tolerated some very bad behavior by powerful men. Usually, those who knew him joked about McQueen’s behavior and I admit that, in writing about that ’64 American ISDT team’s wild sexual romp from London to Ehrfurt in the GDR and back to Paris that summer, I glamorized some caddish behavior.

Some of the people I spoke to are McQueen fanboys to this day. But I remember having second thoughts early in one of those (several, long) conversations. One of his friends chuckled as he described the way that even as a young mechanic/shop-hanger-on, if he was out riding with the film star, McQueen never offered to pay for road food and gas. In fact, the star had a remarkable knack for “forgetting his wallet”. When pressed, McQueen had a lifelong habit of weaseling restaurant and gas station owners out of payment–he’d feign not having any money with him, and usually merchants who were besotted with his fame would agree to let it slide. If they didn’t, McQueen would eventually pull a checkbook from his sock and, grudgingly, write them a check.

Although McQueen was always generous towards the orphanage/reform school where he spent some of his teens, he was a cheapskate even at the height of his fame, as the world’s highest paid actor. Variations on that I-forgot-my-wallet story were told over and over by everyone who knew him. Which, even when I was writing a story that traded on the McQueen myth left me thinking... Yeah, but he sounds like a douchebag.

And it wasn’t just that he was cheap. He was basically semi-literate, and by turns sullen, paranoid, obsessively jealous of other actors, prone to fits of rage, and had (to say the least!) poor impulse control.

Even in an industry that rarely punishes bad behavior, McQueen was such a petulant prick that it hurt his career. And the Dunning-Kruger effect really kicked in when he set out to produce his own vanity project, LeMans, without a real script. The movie was an expensive dud; both a commercial and critical flop. To add insult to injury, James Garner starred in Grand Prix which was pretty good, and a commercial success. McQueen hated Garner.

Of course, being an obnoxious cheapskate with a chip on his shoulder, and famously hard to deal with, wouldn’t actually get him on the #MeToo hit parade. But his shitty behavior definitely extended to women too. He was a serial philanderer–although I suppose he never cheated on his last wife, Barbara Minty McQueen, because they only got married right before he died.

McQueen’s friends told stories of going out with him, where he’d pick up broads who were willing (often eager, of course) to fuck the world’s biggest movie star, but who were then pressured to fuck his friends too. He pressured women to partake in group and/or anal sex and if they wouldn’t comply sometimes just stopped his car in the middle of the road somewhere and kicked them out.

But, par for the course, he was enraged by the thought that his wives might ever have cheated on him. There were persistent stories of him assaulting them, and threatening them. And at least one account of McQueen physically assaulting a coat-check girl, when he was on the town with a reporter. There’s that bad judgment again; the star actually handed the reporter $500 a few minutes later and asked him to go and buy the girl’s silence.

A few months after the #MeToo thing took off, I bought an old copy of Penina Spiegel’s biography McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood. Spiegel conducted hundreds of interviews in a comprehensively researched account of McQueen’s entire family history. What I got from reading it was– and this is not a surprise, considering the kid’s childhood was closed out in the California Junior Boys’ Republic reform school in Chino–that he was pretty much bound to become an emotionally stunted adult.

McQueen didn’t have a lot of genuine friends, but the guys who were his friends, even speaking after his death when you’d expect them to buff his myth, don’t really describe a ‘bad boy’; they describe an asshole whose flaws they tolerated or more likely celebrated, particularly where his abusive behavior towards women was concerned.

As an actor, he had a limited range. But at the end of the day, McQueen still starred in The Great Escape, which included what is at least arguably the most famous motorcycle scene in movies. He genuinely dug bikes, and did the sport of motorcycling a favor when Solar Productions (his company) produced On Any Sunday. And, Bullitt. Et cetera. So, you get to decide how you feel about him.

But, #HimToo. Definitely, him too.