Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Roadcrafter Diaries

Becoming a staffer at Motorcyclist came with a great perk. Andy Goldfine, at Aerostich, comped me a one-piece Roadcrafter suit. 

If there’s one thing all professional motorcycle journalists have in common, it’s that when we’re not riding for cameras, our default outfit is an Aerostich Roadcrafter.

Mine even came with Velcro patches to attach knee pucks. I remember someone asking me, “Do you trust it enough to ride it on the track?” and I was, like, Dude, this suit is better protection than any leather suit. It felt bombproof and—15 years later—it’s proving Andy’s claim that the only flaw with the original Roadcrafter is, he only ever sells one suit per person, because they last forever.

My favorite Aerostich story happened soon after my suit arrived. I lived in San Diego and commuted up to the Motorcyclist offices in Hollywood two or three times a week. On the way up, I usually stopped for coffee at San Juan Capistrano, which was the last place for a break before entering the maelstrom of Orange County traffic.

One day I was sitting in the coffee shop there, going through some ride notes for an upcoming story, aware that two attractive women sat at an adjacent table. They looked like—and turned out to be—a mom-and-daughter.

The 20-something leaned over and interrupted me. “Excuse me but we were wondering,” she asked, “Are you some kind of fireman?”

“No,” I deadpanned. “I’m an astronaut. I was on a training mission and splashed down into the ocean just nearby. This is my survival suit. I’ve called for pickup and within a few minutes a NASA helicopter will arrive to collect me.”

She totally bought it, and I could’ve kept it going but I then told them the truth. The 20-something was nearly as interested in my real job, but I found myself thinking, I want you to shut up so I can steer the conversation to your mom, who’s closer to my age. Anyway, the mom didn’t seem to have any interest in motorcycle journalists. Too bad I wasn’t really a fireman, I guess.

Notwithstanding that one time it sparked a conversation with attractive women, it’s about as stylish as… well, I don’t know what. I have an ex-racer friend who also defaults to a Roadcrafter for around-town rides. One day I met him at a hip café. We both arrived in Aerostich.  I greeted him by saying, “You realize we’re wearing the only gear that makes it possible to ride up on a KTM 990 Adventure and a Bonneville and not be cool.”


Well, I can tell myself that functionality counts for something. It’s a bummer for Andy that like pretty much all motorcycle journalists, when the cameras come out I usually swap gear for something more photogenic. As a result, he doesn’t get anywhere near as much press as his Roadcrafter suit deserves.

One reason I half-expected Andy and his company to get some press during the last election cycle was that with all the talk of "bringing manufacturing jobs back" to the U.S., Aerostich is a company that never gave up on American manufacturing in the first place.

My Roadcrafter one-piece suit now sells for $1,200-something. I don't doubt that Andy could cut that amount dramatically by outsourcing his manufacturing. So why doesn't he do that? Having chatted with him about it, I'd say a big part of his decision to keep manufacturing right in his Duluth MN factory has to do with a belief that it's the right thing to do, even if the steep final price of his product costs him sales and in spite of the fact that outsourcing would likely make him personally wealthy. Since Roadcrafter suits are made-to-measure and extensively customizable, I'm sure it helps to be within a coupl'a time zones of most customers.

One thing I'm dead certain of is this: While it's definitely possible to make a great product in China (BMW assembles some vehicles there) the quality of my Roadcrafter is outstanding in large part because it was almost entirely made by one skilled American craftsperson who earned a living wage for doing so in a corporate environment where 'Made in the USA' reflects the pride of the person and values of the company.

After two years of jingoistic political sloganeering along the lines of, "Bringing manufacturing jobs back" and "Making America Great Again" I find myself thinking, if you're gonna' try that, please consider Aerostich's example: Make "Made in the USA" synonymous with uncompromising quality, let the price fall where it will. The average rider's cost-per-year is cheaper, in Aerostich, than it is in some made-in-Thailand jacket that will need to be replaced before the end of its second season.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The real Nams Angels


In the course of researching my new triviabook, I stumbled across a bunch of stories that made me think, How has it taken me this long to learn about this? One was the story of NASA’s ‘space minibikes’. Another was related to the Hells Angels and Vietnam. Of course, I already knew that Sonny Barger had volunteered a biker force for duty behind the lines in Vietnam. But I did not realize there actually was a military unit known as Nams Angels. Here’s their story…

A little over fifty years ago, Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger – the president of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels – volunteered his gang for duty in Vietnam.

Barger at press conference (Bay Area Television Archive)
Barger reading his telegram to LBJ. (*Although it’s often suggested that he spelled ‘guerrilla’ as ‘gorilla’, I’ve never seen a printed copy of the text, so I transcribed it correctly. He meant guerrilla; he was not offering himself as a breeder and trainer of actual apes.)

The press conference, which was held on November 19, 1965, featured Barger and four of his ‘associates’. It was held in the storefront office of Dorothy Connors Bail Bonds. You can follow this link to watch KRON-TV’s report. The journalist who introduces the report can scarcely conceal his own disbelief. The segment opens with footage of an earlier, undated confrontation between Hells Angels and anti-war protesters.

In the fall of 1965, Americans were still not used to big, unruly war protests; those would come later. Until the marchers reached the Hells Angels, things seem to have been generally peaceful. TV footage portrays a fairly cooperative and respectful relationship between thousands of mostly draft-age protesters and an approachable police presence that is positively quaint, compared to what we’d see today.

In fedora: Oakland police chief Edward Toothman. Below: Barger screams at antiwar protesters.

That ended when Barger started screaming, “Why don’t you people go home, you pacifists!” A cop in standard uniform pushed an Angel back, ordering him to “Back off” and a moment later a 300-pound biker known as ‘Tiny’ was cracked on the skull with a nightstick. Ironically the only police injury occurred when that huge dude slumped to the pavement, breaking a cop’s leg on the way down.

Barger’s often described as a ‘veteran’, which is consistent with the ür-myth of soldiers returning from war and forming motorcycle gangs. The truth is a little more prosaic; Sonny did join the army, but was honorably discharged after a few months when they realized he was actually only 17.

Hunter S. Thompson noted that the march organizers – a loose group of student leftists led by Jerry Rubin – hoped to find kindred spirits in the bikers. But that was not to be; the Angels may have been disenfranchised too, but they were unquestioningly patriotic.

All of which led to the surreal press conference in which Barger announced that the Hells Angels would not attend the VDC march scheduled for November 21, because he was sure that those pacifists would provoke the bikers to violence, which would in turn encourage the public to place its misguided sympathies with the protesters.

 “We haven’t been told to do nothin’. This is our own decision. We think it’s best for the country,” said Barger. When asked what the Angels would do instead, Barger added, “We’ll do what we usually do on a Saturday; probably go to the bar and drink a few suds.”

A reporter, perhaps thinking that outlaw bikers – outcasts themselves – would make natural allies with student radicals, asked Barger whether, while he disagreed with the students’ position, he at least defended their right to free speech and assembly. But he literally waved off the question; he never took the bait. (Barger, still in his 20s at the time, comes across as alternately media savvy and, at other moments, hopelessly naïve.)

Barger then read a telegram that he claimed to have sent Lyndon Johnson…

Dear Mr. President,
On behalf of myself and my associates I volunteer a group of loyal Americans for behind-the-lines duty in Vietnam. We feel that a crack group of trained guerrillas* will demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of freedom. We are available for training and duty immediately.
Sincerely,
Ralph Barger
Hells Angels, Oakland CA

If LBJ ever saw the telegram, he certainly didn’t take Barger up on the offer. But ironically, within a few years, there actually was small group of biker-warriors taking the fight to the Viet Cong.

(Photo: US Army photo)
Helmet? Check. Sleeveless biker vest? Check. The only color image I’ve ever found of the Nams Angels.


(Photos: US Army photo)
Left to right: Dennis Verbrigghe (Rock City, MI), James Linder (Indianapolis), Scott Anderson (Balsin Lake, WI), James Tomusco (Lorain, OH). [Are any of these guys still riding? If any Backmarker readers have information about these men, please contact me – MG]

Maybe those CB175s lacked the intimidation factor of the Hells Angels' Harleys, but there's something about being backed up by Jeep with a belt-fed machine gun. Brady F. Rosemeyer (Bishop, CA) handles the belt while Ron Jones (Bath, ME) fires the M-60. These guys provided the backup for the Angels on patrol.



So who were the real Nams Angels? The Recon Patrol of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, U.S. Army.

In 1969, the 3-22nd’s area of operations was War Zone C, up on the Cambodian border. It was 1,000 square kilometers of marsh and jungle, crisscrossed by a maze of small trails, that served as a hideout and staging area for Viet Cong guerrillas.

The U.S. Army set up camps in there to interdict that activity, and those camps became targets themselves, of VC hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks.

The commander of 3rd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Carmichael, seized upon the idea of using motorcycles as a way for reconnaissance patrols to cover more ground – identifying VC mortar sites, for example.

Carmichael acquired at least four motorcycles, which appear to be pretty much bone-stock Honda CB175 street bikes. Patrols rode out at dawn. I imagine that Sonny Barger would’ve scoffed at those 175cc rice burners – they were hardly intimidating enough for Hells Angels. But the four bikes had a chase vehicle, which was a Jeep with a mounted M-60.

Further up the chain of command, they were skeptical – but not for long. "At first I was very leery of the whole idea, but now I am confident it was a good one," said Major Joseph Hacia.

I love the idea of four guys – some likely were draftees – who were probably a lot happier to ride those CB175s than they would’a been patrolling on foot. I don’t know how long the 3-22nd’s motorcycle patrols went on, but they were around long enough for those guys to get patched.

Which brings me back to the Hells Angels. I’ve always thought of Barger’s offer – which was almost certainly a publicity stunt, but one that reflected his own genuinely-held views – as one of the first instances of a phenomenon that’s now common: Disenfranchised groups that one might expect to be anti-establishment, but which instead adopt militant patriotism.

Ironically, at the same time as the real Nams Angels were patrolling War Zone C, a bikesploitation movie was being filmed in Thailand, called ‘Nams Angels’. It was obviously inspired by Barger’s offer to fight behind enemy lines. By the time it was released, they’d changed the name to ‘The Losers’.

I mean, really… The Hells Angels were persecuted by the cops, vilified in the media, and completely ostracized by conservative, mainstream America. And yet they were violently opposed to the student radicals that wanted to stick it to The Man. It seemed that the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” no longer held true.

There may be a lesson in reconciliation in all of this.

A few weeks after that press conference, the beat novelist Ken Kesey organized a meeting. A delegation of anti-war protesters came to Barger’s house, where they all dropped acid. Although Barger never really changed his rhetoric, the bikers and the protesters maintained an uneasy truce for the remainder of the Vietnam war.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Gardiner Machine experiment

There's been buzz about competitive lap times set by SBK bikes and riders, vs MotoGP bikes and riders, at the Jerez test. That reminds me of the famous Gardiner Machine experiments, in which I used a time machine to transport bone-stock production bikes back in time. My goal was to determine the fastest production bikes' Gardiner Factor. That is, how far back in time would they have to go, before they were as fast as the fastest prototype racing machines? Current answer: 20-30 years. That's way, way better than anything you can say about the car world. Bikes rule.

Not long ago, the buzz among nerdy MotoGP and SBK fans was that, on a rare shared test day, at least one Superbike lapped faster than any of the attending premier-class bikes and riders. The nerdiest nerds then pointed out that it wasn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison, because the SBK teams’ Pirelli tires worked much better on the cold track that day. (Maybe it was more like an apples-to-quinces.)

But, it’s pretty clear: The mere fact we were all fascinated with the comparison pretty much proves that a.) MotoGP engineers aren’t getting that much marginal speed despite an exponentially larger spend; and, b.) the top SBK riders don’t give much away to their snottier peers in MotoGP.

Would a top Superbike rider on a top bike actually be competitive in a MotoGP race? I doubt it.

Whenever I think of radically different machines on track at the same time, I am reminded of the glory days of Formula USA, where anything-goes rules pitted bikes as different as 1,100cc superbikes against 250GP bikes (with nitrous oxide push-to-pass capability).

I don’t have to go back that far though. I’m traveling and away from my records. But if memory serves it was around the mid-‘90s when the top 250GP qualifying times were nearly competitive with 500GP times. That realization prompted Aprilia to build a radically overbore (was it also stroked?) 400cc version of their 250, which they entered in the 500 class. It went nowhere. The speed of the fastest 250s was also probably a factor in Honda’s decision to build some 500cc twins, which they offered as a customer motor to teams in the class. (It’s hard to imagine that, not so long ago, there were than many teams in the premier class, but there were.) Anyway, the Honda twin also underwhelmed.

The experience of 250GP riders in F-USA in the ‘80s, and twins riders mixing it with four-cylinder riders in the 500GP class in the ‘90s proved that bikes that are capable of putting in similar qualifying times on a clear track are not necessarily inherently competitive in the cut-and-thrust of racing, where the way your bike makes power dictates cornering lines. To say nothing of the braking advantage MotoGP bikes would have in a real race.

My guess—and that’s all it is, but it’s informed by historical knowledge of natural experiments in the world of racing—is that even the most dominant SBK rider/machine combination would finish quite far back (close to last) in any dry MotoGP race. That’s not to take anything away from the top riders over there; I am sure that if you gave any of the top six SBK riders a few test days and a competitive MotoGP machine, they could ‘pull a Bayliss’ and embarrass the prima donnas. I just don’t think they’d be able to use an SBK bike to full advantage in a MotoGP race.

All that said and as noted above, it’s clear that MotoGP bikes are not much faster than production-based bikes. That brings me to a mental experiment I love to imagine, which is not comparing production-based race bikes to the fastest premier-class racing prototypes; rather, it’s comparing actual production motorcycles to premier-class bikes.

So… Imagine a time machine, big enough to take a current production bike back in time. The question is, How far back do you think you’d have to take the fastest current production motorcycle, before it would be competitive in the top World Championship class?

About 15 years ago, I asked Freddie Spencer if he thought that he could have put a then-current CBR1000 on the grid in a 500GP race, during his racing heyday. He told me, “Not at the fastest tracks, like Hockenheim, because we were already going over 300kph. But I think it would have been competitive at the most technical tracks.”

At that time, Freddie was about 20 years past his 500GP prime. So, you’d have to set the Gardiner Machine at about 20 years to achieve machine parity.

Maybe some time this winter, I’ll parse the lap times at open-class sport-bike launches—to look for a launch with some fast ex-racer testers, held on a track that’s been in use in the World Championship for decades—and make an informed guess about the fastest current production motorcycles. How far back I’d have to take one in the Gardiner Machine, before it would be competitive with premier class bikes of that day. I’m not sure it would be more than 20 years.

And that’s incredible, really. I mean it’s just a mental experiment of course, but it clearly illustrates the fact that we’re living in a Golden Age of production bikes, especially when compared to production cars. Any guy with a regular job can go buy an open class sport bike that is as fast as the fastest prototype motorcycles were a few decades back.

The fastest production cars are an order of magnitude more expensive, and more like 40 or 50 years behind F-1 car lap times.