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.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dan "Grizzly Adams" Haggerty dies. For real, this time

Actor Dan Haggerty is dead, of cancer. This time. He's got quite a few connections to the motorcycle world, most notably that he coordinated the building of the Harley-Davidson panhead choppers used in Easy Rider.

After Easy Rider, he appeared in a string of low-budget bikesploitation films. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch was 'Bury Me an Angel', directed by Barbara Peeters ― who was one of the very few women directing trashy B-movies.
Haggerty (on bike) claimed that he'd restored the only surviving original Captain America bike from Easy Rider. Michael Eisenberg (the guy standing behind Haggerty) must've believed him, because he paid $1.35 million for the machine at an auction in 2014.
Haggerty was, it seems, pretty much a genuine biker, although his public persona was reshaped by his starring role in the feature film, "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams" in 1974. A few years later, he reprised that role in the TV series.

His career was nearly derailed when he was busted for cocaine possession ― though a criminal record made those earlier biker roles seem even more authentic in hindsight.

In the early '90s, Haggerty was in a very serious motorcycle accident. A post-operative infection nearly cost him his left leg, and may have put the kibosh on a plan to resurrect the "Grizzly Adams" TV series. After the crash, his wife got a letter of condolences from the  Screen Actors Guild and, so the story goes, Haggerty got a 'get well' letter from the Pope.

To make this even more of a cautionary tale, Haggerty's wife Samantha was killed in another motorcycle accident in 2008. Riding home from a dinner date, without a helmet, she hit a deer.

The last time Haggerty was in the news, it was because the 'Captain America' bike from Easy Rider was back in the news. As the story goes, Haggerty supervised the build of four bikes for the film ― two copies of the Peter Fonda bike, and two of the one ridden by Dennis Hopper. Three of the four were apparently stolen, although a couple of years ago, Haggerty claimed he'd rebuilt the one surviving Captain America bike, which had been wrecked in filming. The catch was, he'd done the very same thing in 1996. I've personally seen the letter he wrote that time, attesting that it was the real McCoy.

In 2014, a collector paid over a million bucks for the second "authenticated" Captain America bike. Which, if any of them, is the real thing is a secret that now seems to have gone to the grave with Grizzly Adams.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Harley-Davidson and the GOP have the same problem

In the last few months, Harley-Davidson’s stock has fallen about 20%. Most of that drop occurred in one day last October, when Matt Levatich told an investment call the company was cutting guidance for overall 2015 results based on a lackluster Q3.

Harley’s problems are not, however, of a quarter-to-quarter (or year-to-year) nature. Harley shares the same big, structural issues with another brand that is very much in the news: the Republican Party. In particular, where the 2016 Presidential election is concerned.

My fellow Canadian ― the economist David Foot, author of ‘Boom, Bust, and Echo; How to Profit From the Coming Demographic Shift’ ― once said, “Demographics explains two-thirds of everything.” And both Harley and the GOP face the same demographic challenge. That is to say, both brands are favored by angry old white guys; a market that is literally dying off, while the U.S. gets younger and more diverse every year.

There are guys back in the smoke-filled rooms at the Republican National Committee who cringe every time Donald Trump says he wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico, because they know that he’s alienating Latino voters in states like Nevada and Colorado that are in play in 2016. Even reliably-Republican Texas will become a swing state before long, as Hispanic Texans will outnumber white ones by 2020 and be an outright majority in about 30 years.

When Mitt Romney ran against Obama, he barely pulled 20% of the Latino vote. It’s now accepted wisdom amongst political strategists that it is not possible to win that office with less than about 40% of the Latino vote.
"I don't actually ride a motorcycle, but if I did, I'd ride this douchebag's motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson needs a far more diverse market too. Although the company has long owned the angry old white guy demographic ― and those guys seem, if anything, angrier than ever ― as they age, they will inevitably stop buying new motorcycles. And the scale of Harley’s problem is, to say the least, challenging. Put it this way: about half of all the ‘heavyweight’ motorcycles (over 600cc) sold in the U.S. are still Harleys. 2008 was the last year that Harley released its data on customer ages. But back then, it admitted that the average age of new-Harley buyers had already climbed to nearly 50.

Harley blithely says it is targeting younger riders and a more diverse crowd. But that really doesn’t address the scope of the problem.

They say “50 is the new thirty”, and “Seventy is the new 50” and shit like that. But the problem for Harley is, 85 is still eighty-five. If most of Harley’s buyers are over 50 and most of those guys, by definition, are going to stop buying new bikes sooner or later... simple math says that Harley doesn’t just have to do a better job of attracting the young, less-uniformly-white audience that currently favors other brands; it has to do a way, way better job.

Think about it: Harley still has almost half the market, but if the half it has is aging out and the company wants to preserve its sales, it has to capture virtually all of every competitor’s market share ― not to grow, just to maintain volumes.

The GOP has successfully gerrymandered Congress; it will have a majority in the House for decades. (Sorry, Democrats, but in all that ‘Change’ euphoria, GOP strategists completely outplayed you.) But when it comes to electing Presidents, the lily-white GOP is basically reduced to hoping that the Democratic candidate self-destructs and young, non-white Dem-leaning voters stay home.

Harley and the GOP don’t just have a problem in that their brands are favored by angry old white guys; it’s way worse than that. They’ve both styled their brands to appeal to the same base of (often Confederate-) flag-waving, ‘Murica-Fuck-yeah, open-carry conservative white guys. Neither brand is eager to alienate that base; in fact, they’re afraid to stop pandering to it. And that means they’re wrapping their brand in imagery that strikes younger and more-diverse consumers as out-of-date at best and coded racism at worst. But wait, it gets worse; the core supporters of both brands are angered when the brand even attempts to woo new fans with language and imagery that deviates from the arch-conservative.

(To be clear: There will be guys in the marketing dept. in Milwaukee who'll read this and think, "But what about our product placement in the Captain America movie?" That was an attempt at dog-whistle marketing; an effort to reach out to the young, liberal movie audience that Harley's conservative base despise, but that Harley's base would either not see at all or if they did see, would interpret it differently. It was a nice try, but you can not build a great brand on product placement.)
Harley-Davidson is smart enough to realize that it has to be on the right (read: 'left') side of some conservative image issues. For example, The Motor Company has officially said no dealerships can sell Confederate-flag clothing. That doesn't change the fact that its customer base is overwhelmingly made up of the very same angry white guys who support The Donald. If you don't believe me, set up a booth registering Democratic voters at next summer's Sturgis rally, and tell me how it works out for you.
Harley and the GOP’s dilemma is that they can either attempt the tricky challenge of crafting two entirely different messages; one for the base and one for new fans, in the hope that neither group is exposed to the others’ message. Or, they can suck it up and just make the brand-jump from the old image to a new, younger message that will resonate with a diverse audience.

Way back in the ‘90s, there was a business book called, If It Ain’t Broke, Break It. Back then, I remember thinking that it was total bullshit advice. As an ad guy, I knew that for every client who stuck with a good campaign too long, there were two or three clients who abandoned good campaigns too soon.

But Harley really should have broken the brand. What would that have looked like? Building a bike to compete with the more technically advanced, sportier brands favored by younger buyers. 

There’s an object lesson in an iconic American brand that was stuck with an obsolete product that appealed only to aging consumers, and worked its way out of the bind: Cadillac. Back in the ‘90s, If you had told me that some day I’d want a Cadillac, I would have laughed in your face. (And ironically, I wrote a ton of ads for them.) 

Remember when Cadillac said, “Fuck it, we’ll race at Le Mans”? That was the beginning of a beautiful thing. In the last decade or so, Cadillac relentlessly improved tech and performance, without fear that they were inevitably alienating their old customers. 

A couple of years ago, Cadillac briefly tried to recapture the brand's old, original, conservative white male market with this famous ad. To get a sense of how it went over, try entering the phrase "Cadillac ad d..." in Google and watch it fill in '...ouchebag'. 

There must’ve been a group in Milwaukee that thought that way, too, when Harley briefly attempted to build the VR1000 superbike and compete with Ducati on the race track. Some day I’d love to write an in-depth assessment of what went wrong with that project. I have a little more insight into the Buell debacle; I think that a big part of the problem, for Buell, was that there were people in H-D head office (and far more at the dealer level) who actively resented the Buell brand. There were plenty of people in orange and black who had grown to hate the jeering sport bike riders, and those H-D employees resented Erik Buell for trying to make a competitive sport bike and, worse, failing.
In 1994, Harley-Davidson attempted to take on European (and possibly to a lesser extent) Japanese competitors with the VR1000 Superbike. That project limped along until about 2000. That was when the Cadillac LMP ('Le Mans Project') broke cover. Neither of these race machines was very successful. But Cadillac sent a signal with the LMP that it was willing to reinvent itself, and build cars to compete, technically and performance-wise, with the European and Japanese luxury brands. Sadly, Harley concluded, "Let's never do that again."

I thought that Harley had played a strategic master-stroke about a year and half ago, when I rode the Livewire. As I wrote at the time, Harley could leapfrog right over those high-performance ICE sport bikes and bring out the first truly mainstream EV motorcycle. I was sure that the Livewire was not a 'market test' but a real prototype. Now, I'm not so sure; if there are any plans to commercialize the Livewire, I’ve not heard about it. And in the meantime, Polaris has purchased Brammo. (And Polaris’ Indian brand seems to be doing a better job of taking an iconic American motorcycle brand, and upgrading its technology and performance.)

Right now, the GOP is desperately hoping that, somehow, more than half the American electorate will forget the appalling rhetoric of the Republican primaries, and that the GOP nominee ― whoever he or Carly Fiorina is ― will be able to wrap himself in less overtly racist imagery for the general election. The Republicans may succeed in convincing a few younger, less white voters to come over. But really all they’re hoping for is that he Democratic nominee will self destruct and, as a result, Democratic leaning voters won’t show up on November 2. The only long-term strategy for the Republicans is to field a candidate that a more diverse U.S. actually finds palatable, and the party cannot do that unless it’s willing to alienate its base. 

That definitely isn’t a strategy for Harley. They can't wait for competitors to self-destruct; not by a long shot. So Harley can either age out of relevance with its current customers, while perhaps succeeding in selling its current bikes in, say, half the volume at best to a younger and more diverse audience. 

Or, Harley can learn from the painful failures of the VR1000 and Buell ― and perhaps pay attention to some of the things Polaris is doing right with Indian ― and develop a strategy to grab market share from a younger and more diverse demographic with a revitalized 21st-century brand.

So, here's my executive summary for Matt Levatich: In the long run, winning does not look like convincing younger and more diverse consumers that they are wrong about the Harley brand. Winning looks like building bikes those people actually want.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Skull Masks, a rant

A few days ago, a post from Cycle World publisher Andy Leisner showed up in my Facebook news feed.

His message was directed at motorcycle industry marketing types, "Don't advertise on Facebook. Advertise in Cycle World, where your ad won't be lumped in with this tasteless shit that shows up in my Facebook feed just because I love motorcycles."

I'm not going to dwell on the fact that the small ads in motorcycle magazines are full of equally tasteless shit. Though I can't help but recall the first time Motorcyclist ran a full page ad for penis enlargement. I remember going into Boehm's office and telling him that he had to tell the publisher to stop running it.

"If you think business is shitty now," I told him, "wait until Motorcyclist's readers come upon that ad and conclude that they're holding a magazine for guys with tiny dicks. Yeah, lots of guys want to subscribe to that magazine, for sure."

Leisner's post was self-serving (or at least CW-serving) but it reminded me how much I fucking hate those skull masks.

Honestly, what fucking asshole would ever choose that as an accessory? Thank God they are only worn by idiots who also wear useless helmets, when they wear helmets at all. Do you have a skull mask? Please fall off,  so you can die as soon as possible.

Would it be legal to just shoot people wearing these masks? At least in stand-your-ground states I think you could get away with saying you thought the mask-wearer was a zombie. It's legal to shoot zombies, right? If not, it will be soon in Kansas.

Fucking skull masks. There's basically no overlap whatsoever between the kind of bikes or the kind of riding I do, and the kind of riding those fucking skull-mask-wearing twats do. But when I see one of those pathetic fucks on the road the thought occurs to me that I could walk away from motorcycling and never look back.

The next time some cager purposely narrows the gap as you're lane-splitting up behind him, or the next time someone strings a wire across trail, remember that to us, there are all kinds of motorcyclists but to non-riders, there's just "guys who ride motorcycles".

Those skull masks and all the other violent, sexist, racist, xenophobic shit worn and spewed by assholes who want to look like badass bikers... that shit sticks to all of us.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A note from the Dept. of "We'll always have Paris"

I initially wrote this essay about about “Le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry” a decade ago. It first appeared on the old Road Racer X web site. In the intervening decade, the circuit has been saved (again) refitted with some new safety equipment. After a hiatus of several years in which the “Coupes Moto Légende,” was held in the Dijon region, it is again taking place on the outskirts of Paris. The event is highly recommended. 

À la recherche de motos perdues (in two parts)

A couple of months ago, I did something every journalist should do every few years: I (re)read A.J. Liebling. He was a brilliant essayist and war correspondent, a funny guy, and an insightful observer of subjects as diverse as the sport of boxing and French cuisine. He’s best remembered for his long stint at the New Yorker, a magazine so respected by writers that it is called the[ital] New Yorker, not “New Yorker.”

Liebling wrote eloquently about returning to Paris when the city was liberated in ‘44, and described spending the last night before liberation in Linas-Montlhéry. He was bemused by the town’s gigantic racetrack, but didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, he climbed to the top of hill and looked, through a spotting scope, at Paris. That was on his mind. But reading Liebling’s reminiscence of Montlhéry took me back to my own visits there, about 60 years later... 

The first time I went there, it was to write a story about an event. Afterwards, I realized the real story was about the track itself. So I went back to see the track again a few weeks later. 

That first time, I got a ride with Patrick Bodden; going back alone was more involved. I had to decode French train schedules, walk for hours after miscalculating the distance from the nearest station; a whole day was shot. When I finally got there, I innocently asked permission take some pictures of the empty circuit. I was told, “Fous-moi le camp! No one’s allowed in, and even if you were allowed in, photography is strictly forbidden.” To that, the jobsworth added, “And it’s never going to be open to the public again!” 

[A brief musical interlude goes here. I suggest Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien—MG]

For the previous 11 years, “Coupes Moto Légende,” Europe’s biggest vintage motorcycle meet had been held at “Le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry” on the southern outskirts of Paris. That spring, I went because I’d heard that the 2003 version of the “Coupes” was to be the final motorcycle event ever held at “Montlhéry”. The event always drew an amazing array of rare bikes. I wanted to see them, and especially hear them, in their natural habitat. 

The Montlhéry circuit had remained virtually unchanged since its construction in 1924, making it a perfect setting for a vintage event. When the circuit was built it was in the countryside, but inevitably Parisian suburbs spread south and population density increased around it. More and more, locals opposed the roar of open megaphone exhausts and the traffic snarls caused by legions of fans. By the time of the 2003 event they’d gotten their wish—the locals were promised, “No more.” 

But oh, what a track it was. Although the layout allowed for road courses of up to 12 kilometers in length, Montlhéry was famous for its 2-1/2 kilometer parabolic oval. Way up at the top, the banking was a real old “wall of death.” If you had the guts and suspension for it, you could ride any motorcycle ever made all the way ‘round absolutely wide open. You think I’m exaggerating? 

Raymond Jamin, who engineered the track, calculated the rising slope so that up at the guardrail, a motorcycle could run through the turns at 220 k.p.h. with completely neutral steering. To build the banking up high enough, and make it strong enough to absorb the g-forces generated by the massive speed-record automobiles of the day, Jamin used 8000 cubic meters of concrete, reinforced with 1000 tons of steel.

Fame eluded Jamin, but his race track is a monument to the modernist style that appropriately became known as “brutalism.” Now, it’s listed in the official register of French historic sites and monuments.
The bowl was an ideal place to set speed and endurance records, and they were set here, by the handwritten, leather-bound book-full. Five years after the track was built, Herb Le Vack rode a Brough Superior to the world’s first closed-course lap of over 200 k.p.h. That bike, a 1927 model SS100 Pendine had been tweaked by Freddie Dixon. Before Le Vack rode, it was raced by George Brough himself. It’s currently owned by Peter Lancaster, a collector—like everyone here at the Coupes—who understands that even precious bikes need to run to live.

In 1952, Norton’s race engineer Joe Craig was staggered by the speed of the Gilera four-cylinder Grand Prix bikes. He responded by building the Norton ‘kneeler’, trying to make up with streamlining what the single-cylinder Manx engine gave up in horsepower. English GP ace Ray Amm, aided by Eric Oliver, set a total of 41 records on that Norton when they brought it here in the fall of 1953. 

The noise they made! 

Norton, blaat. 

Brough, MV, roaring (the twin pitched flat, the four on song.) 

Honda six, Guzzi eight. I winced when they were revved. Partly due to the earsplitting sound, and partly because I couldn’t ignore the potential for mechanical mayhem within those irreplaceable crankcases. 

At a certain moment, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was getting an echo off the banking, but the parabolic shape was directing the bulk of the sound straight up into the heavens. High flying birds, at least, must’ve wondered “What the?..”

By Sunday, we had bounced too many shock waves into the clouds, and it started to rain. Thousands of people; most of the riders, exhibitors, and swap meet traders had been bivouacked under the infield trees. Handwritten signs dissolved into papier maché. “For Sale”, “Wanted”, “I’ll sell you this rolling chassis, or buy a motor if you have one to fit it”. (Either way at least someone could leave with a whole motorcycle.) One sign taped to a frame desperately asked, “Does anyone know what this is?” 
In the rain, anything being sold under an awning suddenly got a lot more interesting. I lined up for some ‘frites’, behind a couple in their late fifties or early sixties. She was wearing a tweed suit, white blouse; a brooch, little gloves. As though she’d just come back from mass. He was holding something made of black plastic: the air filter housing for a Suzuki GT750. “You see, here’s where the filter goes,” he said, pointing inside. “And is that something,” she asked, “which will have to be cleaned?”

They had both been faking this conversation since Suzuki introduced the GT. She was pretending that she cared, and he was pretending to believe her. Both were visibly relieved when I leaned in to ask, “Did they call GT750s ‘kettles’ here in France?” That way he could start talking to me instead.

That year as always, the actual “coupes”—the cups—were awarded by a jury. There were classes for absolutely everything, from utilitarian mopeds to bona-fide works GP bikes. Such bikes are often ridden by the men who originally raced them. Kenny Roberts made the pilgrimage in 2002; Agostini came to Montlhéry almost every year. In total, about a thousand machines took their laps during each event. 

Although the promoter sternly warned, “This is not a race!” putting riders like this on vintage race iron could only lead to one thing: racing! Even Sammy Miller—otherwise seemingly immune to the effects of time—lowsided, earning a ride back in the pace car, looking as close to embarrassed as a member of the Pantheon can look. 

Finally, it poured. In the infield, people folded wet tents, stuffed damp sleeping bags into sacks. “That’s the part that I would hate,” my friend said, as we slogged past a vendor loading his inventory of cycle parts—now wet, and even rustier—back onto a trailer. Vehicles inched out on muddy tracks. 
I hope you don’t mind if I leave you here, in the rain, for a week. It’ll do you good. Build character. Me? I’m heading over to a large tent, where I can hear an accordion and tinkling champagne glasses, but I’ll be back here next Thursday to conclude this essay.

Au revoir, Marc

Last week I left you in the rain, as the horde of fans and swap meet treasure hunters abandoned the Circuit Linas-Montlhéry in the face of an advancing rainstorm. 

I retreated to Eric Saul’s huge tent. Saul, who won a couple of Grands Prix back in the day, occasionally promotes classic races based mostly on the rugged Yamaha 250 and 350 twins that filled GP grids in the 1970s. The day before, Eric had highsided his Bimota 250 and broken his collarbone, for the nth time. I learned that the French word for “highside” is pronounced, “eye-side”. 

“I think,” said Saul with a one-sided shrug, “that there might have been oil on the track. Have a glass of champagne.” Hundreds of people were packed in with us, the hard core that didn’t want to leave, even though the Coupes Moto-Légende was over. Eric’s girlfriend, also a racer, was playing the accordion. Some song that was so French it hurt. She was tall enough, pretty enough (and fast enough by the way) that it looked and sounded good on her. I thought about pushing through the crowd to say hello to Giacomo Agostini, but I stayed on the fringes.

It’s not an accident that the expression “joie de vivre” is French. Eventually though, all things must end. The party fell quiet and the last of us filtered out, leaving the great track silent once and for all–if by “all” you mean, the public.

What does the future hold for Montlhéry? The land belongs to the government. Decades ago, the track and associated buildings were handed over to UTAC, a company which provides testing and consulting services to the car industry. UTAC, in turn, is controlled by Renault and Peugot/Citroen. This tangled ownership always made it easy to duck responsibility. When Montlhéry locals complained about noise and traffic, the administration said, “What can we do? The land belongs to the government; they’re the ones who made it a national monument; we’re sort of obliged to open it to the citizens every now and then.” 

At the same time, when 40,000 Coupes fans got up in arms over the impending closure of their favorite track the administration said, “Well, it’s not us that want to close the circuit.” 

But it was them. UTAC never wanted the public on the site. They do almost all their physical testing in modern buildings built outside the track, and their business is increasingly done with computer simulations. The company’s web site doesn’t even mention the legendary oval. 

The road course was occasionally rented out to car clubs, but the owners said the use they got from it, and the revenue it generated, didn’t justify the cost of basic annual upkeep. 

A few years ago, they got the perfect excuse to close it: the French government being, well, French has a committee that exists for the sole purpose of homologating the country’s race tracks. Every track needs a valid certificate to stage events. For Montlhéry’s certificate to be renewed in 2004, someone would have had to spend $15 million repairing cracks in the concrete and repaving the whole thing. 

“15 million!” UTAC’s spokesmen acted suitably taken aback, and sputtered, “Who’s got that kind of money? We’ll have to stop holding public events.” 

Without a showcase event like Coupes Moto Légende, le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry faces continued neglect, and slow decay. Eventually, it will be unusable, and the owners will be glad to padlock it once and for all. Weeds will push up through the cracked asphalt and vines will slowly overtake the concrete banking.

Motorcycling itself only goes back a hundred years; and Grand Prix racing barely goes back 50. So until now, as motorcyclists, the most interesting parts of our past have been held in our collective living memory. As a historian of our sport, I have always liked the idea that I could talk directly to the people who made our history—that I could see their motorcycles run, and hear them. 

No one would have thought—riding like we did, half the time without helmets—that we’d even last long enough to reach this point. But as time marches on, motorcycling’s history is starting to reach back past living memory. Into history history. That would be what? Dead memory? 

It’s funny. I went to the Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry for the bikes. Because it might’ve been my last chance to see and hear a bike like that Norton kneeler in its original context. I thought that hearing it would somehow make that memory my own; real, not just a historical note beside a static display. 
Then I went back a second time for the empty track. I was prevented from seeing it, not because there was any secret testing going on there that I might photograph, just because a typical, emasculated French petty functionary relished the opportunity to say “no.” 

I never expected to be so interested in the track. There was a certain, melancholy poetry to being denied a final visit, not that there’s any great philosophical conclusion to draw from it. Except that while it’s worth it to keep our history alive, it’s also important to remember the things we’ve lost.

This story is included in my book, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker. If you enjoyed it, buy a book now and give it to a friend for Christmas. Then, you can borrow it back and read dozens more tales like this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dead horse, beaten. Pt. 2: Rossi vs. Marquez

Since I wasn't there, don't have access to Rossi's and Marquez' data (or the ability to mind-meld with them and actually know what they were thinking) I can't meaningfully contribute to the debate that has been raging for the last ten days, as to whether Marquez was purposely slowing Rossi and/or whether Rossi intentionally made Marquez crash. Of course, that hasn’t prevented millions of other punters from weighing in with their uninformed opinions. 

Based only on the video coverage, I feel the evidence supports but doesn't prove the charge that Marquez intentionally held up Rossi. Point: Rossi. I would characterize Rossi's move as hard racing, not a move worthy of a penalty. Point: Rossi.

So although I'm not a rabid Rossi fan, I understand his fans' anger and dismay.

My take on it, however, is that if Marquez was intentionally slowing Rossi, then Rossi reaped what he sowed by complaining about him at Philip Island.

One of my Facebook friends is a racer of long experience. He summed it up succinctly when he said that Marquez had finally succeeded in doing something no other racer has ever managed: to get into Rossi's head.

If I'm not a Rossi fan, it's mainly because he's the one with a long history of playing unseemly (and in his case, unnecessary) head games with rivals from Biaggi to Gibernau. But really, what was Rossi thinking with that diatribe in PI? Was he goading Lorenzo by implying that the only way the Spaniard could catch up to him was with help from his homeboy? Or telling Marquez, “I see what you’re doing.” Why? To make him just move over and let him through in the remaining races?

Even if Rossi believed his own story, that was bound to piss Marquez off. 

In that sense, Rossi got what he deserved when he tried to pass and get clear of Marquez at Sepang. Given his long experience (and the fact that he's an intelligent guy) Rossi should have known he risked a penalty for his role in Marquez' crash. He was lucky not have been black flagged, which really would've hurt his title chances.

His reaction to the penalty, which included a petulant, "Well maybe I won't race at Valencia at all" was exactly the kind of reaction he usually provokes in his rivals. I mean, what the fuck dude? You're still leading the championship.

So maybe Marquez really is in his head.
I couldn't help but noticing that my social media feeds were full of these "gay" memes, linking Marquez and Lorenzo. Ironically Rossi was dogged by gender-preference rumors for years. When I became the only motorcycle journalist to actually write about those rumors, Rossi's fans fucking attacked me—even though I took pains to point out that I didn't personally give a shit whether he was attracted to men, or women, both or neither. Those same fans obviously don't mind tossing a few gay slurs in the direction of Lorenzo or Marquez.
Meanwhile, MotoGP—having long ago decided to build its entire brand on Rossi—is reaping what it has sowed, too. 

Last week the FIM issued a letter, in which it argued that, “Riders, team, manufacturers and sponsors should not only respect the rules but they should accept the decisions of the officials, whatever they may be. Otherwise, they are contributing to anarchy and undermining the future development of our sport.”

I don’t think any stakeholder has an obligation to remain silent and take a punishment that he genuinely feels is inappropriate. The whole letter, with it's whingebag, "Can't we all play nice?" message is pathetic.

Rossi may really feel aggrieved at this point, or he may just be fucking with MotoGP. He’s appealed the punishment to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The Court only meets a few times a year; the last time it heard a case related to the FIM was the Ant West doping case. I’d pay good money to be a fly on the wall in a court session that has been promised soon, so it can rule before the race this Sunday. 

You can find a list of recent decisions handed down by the court here: The cases make for eye-glazing reading. Most involve procedural matters, such as an athlete’s amateur status, or doping sanctions. There aren’t many analogous cases, although I did find one case that involved a decision made by the judges at a taekwando match. The arbitrators are lawyers, not technical experts in the sport they’re ruling on. Perhaps that’s why Wikipedia says that CAS is reluctant to overturn decisions “on the field”. 

Based on that, I’d say it’s unlikely CAS will reverse Rossi’s penalty, although I think that MotoGP is basically obliged to stand by whatever the Court decides (because the FIM has agreed to CAS jurisdiction.) 

What’s a certainty? Only this: Valencia’s TV ratings will go through the roof and MotoGP will earn extra millions in video streaming fees. This whole thing has turned into a shit-show worthy of the Republican Presidential primary process.

I hope that when it’s all over, MotoGP doesn’t think, “Hey, it was a shit-show but it attracted lots of viewers, let’s just keep the controversies coming.”