Monday, February 29, 2016

Backmarker loses its foster home. Good-bye MotorcycleUSA.

Last Tuesday, this rather alarming tweet showed up in my feed. For a few minutes, I instinctively hoped I was misinterpreting it. I shot a message back seeking confirmation, and quickly learned that Motorcycle USA―which has been the home of my "Backmarker" column ever since went dark―had itself been given just a few days to live.

As of last Friday, all the web site's staff have been laid off.

Was it the oldest online motorcycle "magazine" site? I think that might be, but it was certainly one of the oldest. And for quite a while it was one of the very biggest.

I always thought that Don Becklin's brainchild had a relatively strong and easily understood business plan. Once he'd built up Motorcycle Superstore, he had one of the few vertically integrated moto sites; ad space that he couldn't sell was used by his retail operation. Although I've been writing for MCUSA for years now, I was never privy to the site's financials. All I knew was they were willing to pay quite a bit more than Road Racer X paid, and they never came back to me later and asked me to lower that rate. In the world of journalism―print disrupted by web―that constituted a win, for me.

I saw it coming. Maybe. A few of my friends complained that the last redesign of the site left it harder to navigate; I thought my own problems with it could be ascribed to the fact I hadn't updated my browser, or something. But the new site's Facebook comment system seemed to be an engagement killer. I sent in Backmarker columns that failed to generate a single comment, making me wonder how many people were reading me at all. (I did, quite often, get comments directly. So I knew there were some readers.)

What does the end of MotorcycleUSA mean?

It can't mean that Becklin's basic business plan is outmoded, because just a month or so back, Cycle Gear merged with Revzilla―an online retailer with a great blog; conceptually similar to Motorcycle Superstore/MCUSA―in a deal that suggested Revzilla was worth hundreds of millions of bucks.

I don't think it bodes ill for―which has historically been MCUSA's most direct competitor. MO's not tied to a retail/online partner; it's a subsidiary of Verticalscope, which runs a number of sites unrelated to motorcycles (including!) It seems to be going from strength to strength lately, and probably has been poaching eyeballs and independent advertisers from MCUSA.

That leaves three other kinds of "commercial" motorcycle blogs, as I see them: There's sites like Asphalt & Rubber, or Motomatters; they focus on niches within the moto niche (meta-analysis from A&R, top tier road racing insights from David Emmett.) There's the sites attached to print magazines like Cycle World. And there are sites like Lanesplitter that generate some content, aggregate a little more, and generate revenue with sponsored posts and affiliate marketing.

I presume that most of that group are turning enough profit to maintain their small (mostly sole proprietor?) staffs. So far, I think the sites still associated with print mags are plaintive efforts to convince advertisers that those magazines have entered the 21st century. I'm still waiting for a great print mag to emerge, with a companion web site that uses both mediums optimally and builds a great social community around the two. Because print's not going away―in fact, when I compare my own print sales to downloads, I see it making a bit of a comeback.

The world of motorcycling is diverse. We'll always support small-scale projects that provide deep, expert content. But the motorcycle industry in North America needs a true media outlet of record; a place that covers every major event and product, and does it authoritatively. Ideally, I'd like to see two such players compete to keep each other sharp, but Germany's been well served by a single such publication, das Motorrad, for a century.

Selfishly, I'm sad to see MCUSA go. For me, as a freelance journalist, they were great to deal with. They paid well (by modern standards; let's face it you can write for millions of people in Huffington Post and make fuck all.) My contact there, Bart Madson, was a total pro. But maybe there's a message in this: I should ride more, and gather some new stories.

Over the next few months, I think my own path will become quite a lot clearer. There's stuff going on in my life that will be motorcycle news, but I can't quite talk about it yet.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Guilty pleasures: The press releases of Johnny Rock Page

Is there anyone else who secretly admits to looking forward to the next-level craziness that is a Johnny Rock Page press release?

Ulrich, you kill me. 
Roadracing World actually posts these on their website with a bold “Warning―JRP Content” header. But I’m compelled to read them all, with a kind of morbid Oh-My-God-That-Train’s-Going-To-Hit-That-Car fascination. 

Or, like reading Donald Trump's poll results.

JRP was almost likable at the very beginning. A guy who made a small fortune in the admittedly skanky high-fee/high-risk-location ATM business, but then started to blow it in a way we can all relate to: competing as a perennial backmarker in AMA Pro roadracing. Who wouldn’t wanna’ do that, eh?

I even intuitively sided with him in 2009, after JRP “held his line” and possibly influenced the outcome of a battle between Josh Hayes and Aaron Yates at Mid-Ohio. 
Page may have been over the line when he left his mic on and had a camera rolling while Al Ludington (then road racing tech director) reamed him out afterward. That video went viral. Despite the fact that most AMA insiders felt that Page had it coming, Ludington was forced to apologize. Someone―presumably AMA Pro Racing―has since gone to a lot of trouble to steam clean it off the Interwebs.

The reason that Page was mic’d and had a camera rolling was that he was one of the several AMA privateers who thought he might have what it took to be a reality TV star. Chris Fillmore tried it, too. So did Larry Pegram. In the defense of those other two guys, they were hardscrabble privateers leaving no stone unturned in the effort to fund a racing season.

Page was doing something different. He could just fund his season. He was driven by narcissism. And not your typical, here’s-another-selfie-on-Facebook narcissism. Nope, JRP deserves his own page in the DSM. He didn’t want to become famous as a motorcycle racer, he wanted to become famous for being famous. Like his romantic obsession Paris Hilton. 

He seems to have met her once, after which he hired a plane to tow a banner up and down the beach in Malibu professing his desire to marry her, and bought her a vintage Cadillac that he parked outside the locked gate of her house, which she probably spent a lot of time observing over a video feed from her panic room.

I can see his point though. They are made for each other.

Just when you thought the JRPsych Show couldn’t get weirder, he found God. Seemingly. And declared that he was running for President of the United States.

How great is that?

All of which causes me to wonder if he’s just crazy enough to have put is finger on America’s current national psyche―or at least the psyche of a good part of contemporary America.

Part of the frustration of choosing "reality TV star" as a career path hinges on the simple arithmetic of fame in 21st C. America. Reality TV basically unlinked talent and stardom, allowing anyone (or, at least, anyone with no sense of shame) to envision himself or herself as the next Survivor or Real Housewife. The problem is that there’s a lag time measured in years between the development of the reality TV phenomenon and the realization that, that-could-be-me. So that by the time millions of people have realized, like Johnny Rock, that they too could be famous, millions of other people are pitching themselves to producers, too.

So now, TV audiences are shrinking and fragmenting―fame isn’t what it used to be―and competition for spots is stiffer than ever. True story: back in the late Naughties, I used to ride up I-15 from San Diego on the way to Willow Springs every month or two. And I used to pass a huge billboard for a summer camp for kids. Not a horse-riding camp, or band camp, or Scouts... No, it was a camp to prepare your kids for roles on Reality TV.

Can you fucking imagine?

JRP has now cut all the video from his failed effort to become a reality TV star into a feature film. This trailer's been played less than 1,000 times though. So that's another project that's not looking too good.

I don’t think Page will be successful, but I think the whole “finding God” angle he’s been trying on for the last coupl’a years is clever. He understands that what matters in contemporary America isn’t religious devotion, but rather it's simply religiosity. Most Americans describe themselves as Christian, but they’d more accurately say they’re Christianistic―practicing something that has the trappings of Christian faith, with very few of the commitments. So Page knows there’s no risk he’ll ever be called on it.

But his sudden devotion could have helped to separate him from the reality TV herd a bit. It didn’t work, but I still think that Page is completely crazy in a way that might, some day fall into synch with America’s national end-of-empire delusions. (Idea for new reality TV show: "Real Narcissists of YouTube.)

Face it―before this election cycle is over, the Republican Party may nominate a candidate who makes no more sense than Johnny Rock Page. If anything, Trump's less of a self-made man (though far more of a reality TV star.) 

While I’m sure that MotoAmerica’s top brass performed synchronized eye-rolls when they read that Page will be back racing this year, there’s a part of me that can’t wait to read his next press release.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dear Monster: I've got a better idea

So, a few weeks ago I watched Boogie Nights on Netflix. It’s a great film, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, set in the porn industry in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Pre-AIDS, just as the business was making the transition from film to video.

Burt Reynolds killed it, in his role as porn director Jack Horner  ― a self-proclaimed auteur with who deeply resents the rise of video and, with it, the (now-ubiquitous) ‘amateur’ genre of porn.

Reynolds perfectly, seriously, deadpans his way through Anderson’s nuanced and profoundly ironic script. Burt’s completely believable as a guy who completely believes he’s a fucking artist. The fact that he’s producing complete schlock utterly escapes him.
My appreciation for this film was enhanced by the fact that, back in the late '70s and early '80s, I sat through hundreds of hours of grindingly boring, terribly-written “story” while watching that shot-on-film porn in dingy theaters and video arcades where, if you dropped your wallet on the floor, you'd just leave it there and report your credit cards as stolen.
That influenced my evaluation of a video that showed up in my Facebook feed last month, called Dirt Shark The Doonies, sponsored by Monster Energy. While the title’s a play on Goonies, the video isn’t a riff on the horror genre. The trite dialogue (thankfully limited) and self-indulgent direction ― not to mention the scantily-clad chicks ― are all just bad porn, made worse by the fact that there’s no sex.

There’s lots of sexism, don’t get me wrong. It’s easily as sexist, if not more so, than real porn. 

A minute or so into this film one rider looks up and sees the female talent, wearing little more than sunscreen, and says, "Look at those girls. They look really thirsty." At this point, if you were just making a bad movie, instead of a bad porn movie, they'd ride to rescue. Instead ― and this shows real creative genius ― They do this...

It’s only 8 1/2 minutes long, but when I went back through it to pick out a couple of frame caps and gifs, watching it was enduring a rerun of Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’.

It’s so fucking terrible, as a video, that I don’t know whether I’m writing this to achieve some kind of catharsis, or to call out Monster Energy for producing (yet another) piece of trite sexist shit. 

I can totally hear someone at Monster whining, "But it wasn't sexist. There were chicks on bikes, too." Hey, AMA and MIC, check it out; women are riding more.

The motorcycle industry is desperate to trumpet any good news, when it comes to increasing the number of women riders. And the racing industry is hardly in a position to turn down sponsors, no matter how fucking tasteless they (or their products) are.

But I honestly wish they’d just go away. In fact, to encourage them I’ve got a suggestion for a cost-effective sponsorship opportunity that will reach a far larger audience than “Doonies” ever will...

Dear Monster: Has it occurred to you to sponsor actual porn? It’s way, way better than this, and the female talent is probably treated more respectfully.

I suppose I don’t blame the riders in this video. Most of them are not, probably, philosophy majors or noted ethicists. It was probably a pretty good day for them, and after all, Monster writes their checks. And this isn’t a diss on motorcycle racing per se, although I roll my eyes every time I see the Monster Energy “girls” at races, too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pikes Peak: Will it be 100 and out?

I’m surprised that more people aren’t talking about the restricted number of motorcycle entries being allowed in this years (centenary edition) of the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb.

Am I wrong about this? I’ve heard from a couple of sources that there will only be 33 bikes accepted this year.

I raced PPIHC twice in the naughties, and remember a field of well over 100 bikes (including quads, yuck) when I was there. But, as more and more of the course was paved and average speeds increased, it seemed that the organizers were increasingly skittish about motorcycles in general.

A quick check of entry lists for the last couple of years shows 60-some bikes and quads. In spite of the fact that few competitors were racing, a rider was killed in 2014 (ironically after crossing the finish line) and then another was killed last year.

At least once in the past, organizers discontinued all bike classes after such fatalities. But it seems that this year, they’re taking a page from the TT organizers' book. After David Jeffries died in the 2003 TT, they reduced the number of entries and then discontinued morning practice, thus reducing the total risk exposure.

Some people have said that by reducing the number of competitors, PPIHC will increase the number of practice runs available to each rider. That may be true but it doesn’t follow that increased practice will make the race safer. If anything more runs might encourage riders to seek the limit, raise average speeds, and make the race even more dangerous.

In any case, if the stories I’ve been hearing are true, and there’s only going to be 33 slots available for motorcycles this year, I have to wonder whether the race will survive the next fatality at all. I always thought that the Isle of Man might finally kill off the TT once it had reached its centenary. They didn’t, and in fact it’s gone from strength to strength since then. But Pikes Peak doesn’t have nearly the TT’s profound sense of its own history.

One more high-profile incident and the organizers may well say, “We got to 100. That’s a good time to call it quits.”

Careful up there, eh?

UPDATE... Shortly after posting this, a little bird told me that a few months ago, the number of motorcycles was destined to be zero. But, the bikers negotiated one third of the 100 scheduled race slots. Watch for an improved new-rider program (perhaps modeled on the Isle of Man's program) to be announced in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Hit me again: On the one charity motorcyclists should support

A few months ago, I wrote an admittedly provocative post criticizing the Distinguished Gentlemen's Ride, in support of prostate cancer.

I made a point I've made over and over: there are all kinds of worthy causes out there... that other people should support. But that we, motorcyclists, should focus our charitable efforts in one narrow area, spinal injury research.

No column I've ever written has triggered so many comments or personal attacks. Many motorcyclists would rather stick a camera up their butt than admit that that their next motorcycle ride might result in spending the rest of their lives on another set of wheels.

The motorcycle industry will, by and large, ignore me because it's made up of motorcyclists who are so afraid (with good reason) of paralyzing injury that they can't bear to think about this problem. And they last thing that an industry desperate for first-time rider wants to confront is this fact: riding motorcycles is dangerous.

But here's the thing: There are still many in the medical establishment who feel that spinal lesions are and always will be incurable ― that's an entrenched belief that, itself, discourages research. The truth is a different. There is some very promising research being done.

Last month, there was a great story in New Yorker magazine about an operation performed in Poland, based on research conducted in the U.K. You can read it here.

The key thing to take away from it is this: these research projects are happening at a very small scale. The guy in that photo seems to have benefitted from an experimental procedure that nearly wasn't performed, for the lack of $10,000.

A million bucks, or $10 million. That's money the people behind the DGR or the Susan G. Komen Foundation waste on business-class upgrades and planning retreats in the Caribbean. But that kind of funding could literally speed the development of an effective treatment for spinal-cord injuries and paralysis by decades.