For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since.
If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.
I can fairly be accused of occasionally wandering off-topic with my columns, and this one was certainly near the edge. However it was all true and was the product of a much-needed holiday after four exhausting years starting up my own company, re-launching WhichBike? as MotorCycle International, acquiring Motorcycle Enthusiast and preparing to publish Used & Classic Bike Guide edited by the estimable Frank Westworth, mentioned herein and, extraordinarily, still a good friend.
The recent burst of activity in the upper echelons of the whacky world of motorbicycle organs might deceive a bored and lethargic public into thinking that the leisure hours of biking’s men of letters are spent in exotic climes aboard equally exotic motorcycles (or in MotorBicycle Preview‘s case exotic motorcars).
True, some of us are regularly eased into our skin-tight, freebie Kushitani leathers by simpering bimbos and the liberal application of Baby Oil, all in readiness for a quick thrash down to Juan Les Pins for a little foie de gras and a crate of Bollinger. And equally commonplace is the preponderance of ‘plane tickets that arrive on senior magazine editors’ desks in an effort to persuade them to hop off to Bali for a quick look at the Micronesian motorcycle industry and to be fascinatingly photographed on the beach in their shorts and smiles for the benefit of grateful readers back home.
Even a humble soul like Mr Editor Isitt spends three or four months a year working on his tan on a Greek Island or the East African Coast, but for a distressed mogul such as myself, time and the purse strings are tight, which is why the sum total of my exotic motorcycling activities this year looks like being a long weekend on a moped in the Balearics.
I tell you, there’s nothing more relaxing after a year piloting the leaky craft of destiny through the treacherous seas of high interest rates, disconsolate staff and uppity printers than wheezing along at 20mph on a freezing night aboard a 50cc Derbi enduro. Especially if your riding companion is a spotty 16-year-old who’s just taken great delight in leaving you miles behind on a bona fide moped, and so you’re now lost as well as cold and mildly stoned.
There’s not much streetlighting in Formentera and the only road of any substance on the island, although virtually straight as a die on the map, is in fact bedeviiled by sudden, vicious turns that are usually unsignposted. Which might not have been too bad if the Derbi’s headlamp had been anything more than pathetic and I’d been able to recognise the turning to San Francisco. (Honest. And to think that Big Frank was singing the praises of a dusty, two donkey hamlet on a Mediterranean island all these years).
The previous evening mine hostess had lurched us all off to the island’s only happening-acid-house-bullfight-disco bar in her topsy-turvey Tonka Toy (which for some reason bore stickers that read ‘Suzuki SJ410′), but as I was well shit-faced at that point I couldn’t remember the exact turning and all Spanish dirt roads look the same to me. So I took what I thought was the correct turning and, sure enough, there were a few houses either side of the track. Trouble was that the candlepower of the Derbi’s headlamp was roughly equivalent to its horsepower, i.e. next to damn-all, and the same goes for its suspension. So if you were a nocturnally grazing Balearic goat on December 30th last, the fool falling off the Derbi was me.
The previous morning we’d had a little trouble with the throttle which, I later surmised, probably had a knock-on effect on the engine’s unwillingness to pull in the gears and thus spin the dynamo (surely those things don’t have magnetos, and they certainly don’t have batteries?). The appalling bandit who’d hired out the moped and this grim apology for an enduro bike had neglected to secure the throttle cable with anything firmer than a small twig (I kid you not), which meant that the first time a red-blooded tarmac stripper such as myself grabbed a handful of go-gas, the twistgrip made like a yo-yo and the cable went AWOL.
After trucking the thing back to the shop in the ‘jeep’, a new(ish) cable was fitted which was clearly too long and, thanks to advanced Derbi engineering there was no means of adjusting the slack. I also suspected that the crankcase seals were also as sloppy as Joan Collins’, er, syntax due to the lack of air filter and the quality of Spanish petrol, a combination of maladies which resulted in the Derbi’s extreme reluctance to move in a forward direction unless propelled by foot.
Yet somehow when it was daylight and, unhindered by the blunt edge of alcohol, I was just pottering around the boondocks near our villa, this didn’t seem to matter too much. Whilst wheelies weren’t exactly a snap, I was able to regain at least a glimpse of my glorious youth and the thrilling exploits of the all-conquering WhichBike? Enduro Team… providing my spotty friend didn’t zip by on his single speed moped with a humiliating smirk on his dial.
In fact it was on one of these relaxed sorties that I discovered the true reason for the continued existence, if not buoyancy, of the Spanish motorcycle industry. No, this is not because the absence of mandatory helmet legislation and the most rudimentary of licensing requirements encourage all and sundry to take to two wheels, nor is it because the climate favours wind in hair, bugs in teeth etc., etc. The real reason is that Spanish ‘bikes are bloody awful, but bloody cheap. Which is why I found sundry dead Bultacos, Montessas and Ossas littered along the bay behind our holiday retreat.
Experienced, talented mechanics such as you and I would have been able to restore many of these 50-250cc ‘strokers to their vibrant, adrenalin-pumping glory with the mere application of a crowbar and 15 gallons of WD40 (salt spray is a ready hangman), but the laid-back Spanish obviously just leave their dead bikes under a bush or on the beach when they break down and walk back to town to buy another. I honestly can’t understand why else there would be so many of the things lying around the place… unless they’d all been hired from the same dealer who’d supplied the Derbi.
And if for any strange reason you should be reading this, Pedro, it wasn’t me that left it propping up a wail with the front wheel and a cunningly re-shaped set of forks; someone must’ve stolen it just as we were running for the ferry back to !biza, taxi drivers and civilisation. All I need now is a proper holiday so’s I can recover from this grim automotive experience: I reckon a couple of weeks spent camping around the picturesque Durham slag heaps on a CX500 should just about restore the bloom to my cheeks and the fire to my veins. Sounds like something I could blag through the Used & Classic Bike Guide... now where’s Frank Westworth’s phone number?
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Written over three decades ago (when RooR had become Lore inMotorCycle International) much here still applies today, which is why I decided to post it here. The only thing that’s really changed is that China has somewhat by default taken up the baton as far as entry-level bikes are concerned which is a bad or a good thing depending where your morals, politics and hopes for motorcycling’s future are concerned.
IN 1976, THE AVERAGE WAGE OF A 17-21 year-old man was £68 per week. That same year, the price of a state-of-the-art Japanese sport bike like Honda’s CB750 F1, was £1145. Something less exotic, the sort of 250cc machine a first-timer could slap a pair of L-plates on, say a Kawasaki KH250 or Suzuki GT250A, cost a mere £540 and £549 respectively. Ten years on, the apogee of hotsy-totsy motorcycling, Honda’s VFR750, will put you back £3649; that’s a rise of 218% in the retail price of Honda’s top 750.
For the poor beleagured learner, nervously assessing the cost, personal discomfort and legislative barriers that face him should he take up the unfashionable pursuit of motorbiking, a Kawasaki AR125LC will add £1389 to his parents’ overdraft, or a Suzuki RG125 Gamma, £1219. These rises in the retail price of decent learner tackle work out at 110% and 122% respectively.
And yet in what seems like a remarkably short decade, the average wage for our 17-21 year old has risen to £115, an increase of 69%.
So there, in a nutshell, is the reason why motorcycle sales have declined so horrendously | in the last few years. Well perhaps not all motorcycle sales. The modest, some would say comparitively agricultural, machines of the Eastern Bloc, have not suffered such grossly inflated price hikes. In 1976 a MZ TS150 Sports | would make you the laughing stock of your KH and GT mounted mates for a paltry £245. Today, the remarkably similar TS150 Eagle costs £407, a rise of just 66%. Even the prices of more prestigious machines from just this side of the Iron Curtain haven’t risen by anything like as much as the best that Japan is now peddling: BMW’s £4285 K100 costs ‘only’ 61% more than its 1976 superbike, the £2659 R1008.
And thus the fortunes of Britain’s MZ and BMW importers have prospered whilst almost all those around them have watched the dust settle on gaudy rocket-ships that remain rooted to their dealers floors. I find it extraordinary | that the Jap importers make no mention of this, either in the public prints or, as far as I know, to their masters back in Japan. The only serious discussion I ever managed on the subject was with Steve Hackett, then head PR honcho at Mitsui, who was espousing a fearful inevitability that the recently launched XJ900 would breach the psychologically critical £3000 threshold. That was in 1983, and he was bemoaning the irony that as Jap bikes had now overcome their reputation for being cheap and tinny, the punters were becoming less inclined to pay prices for them that approached those of the BMs and Laverdas that hitherto represented ‘quality’ engineering.
Certainly in terms of performance per pound, the Japanese sportsbikes are in fact a steal, but that argument only holds good when you’re talking vis a vis the automobile. It does indeed take in excess of £20,000 to buy the sort of 150mph-plus top whack that several sub £5000 motorcycles can deliver, but for your £20,000 you also get a roof, a heater, a stereo and, if you’re smart, an appreciating asset. Anyway this is entirely academic, as neither the megabike nor supercar owner is really able to exploit his machine’s bum-clenching performance to anywhere near its max on our crowded tarmacadam and, even more to the point, the few motorcar freaks who can afford a Maserati and also appreciate the primordial rush of high-edge motorcycling, probably already own a Ninja or a Bimota…
No, the real point here is whether or not motorcycle performance has increased in relative proportion to cost. Well let’s take what was arguably the swiftest machine of a decade ago, the Laverda Jota. Depending on gearing, here was a machine that could deliver a genuine 144mph and cost just £2100 in 1976. Today, the cheapest bike you can buy that’ll take you that fast on the Mistral Straight of your choice, is Honda’s VFR750, at £3649. A more sophisticated bike for sure, but does that make it worth an extra 74%, and would you be better off buying a used Jota for two grand and enjoying the pleasure of owning an appreciating classic that’s cheaper to maintain?
True, the GSX-Rs and FZs of today do actually handle a lot better and accelerate significantly quicker than the sportbikes of yore, but my contention is that by locking themselves into a ‘performance-is-all’ marketing battle, the Big Four are losing their grip on the fundamental realities of the marketplace. Realities which, again somewhat ironically, allowed them to trash the rest of the world’s manufacturers in the first place.
In 1970, when Honda shocked the world by launching an OHC, four cylinder 750, its obvious rival, the Triumph Trident, cost £614. The faster, more exotic CB750 cost just £690. Three years later, Kawasaki’s (admittedly evil handling) 500cc two-stroke triple rabbit-punched the opposition at just £725, by which time a Norton Commando was eking out its last at £824.
So all other considerations aside, was it any wonder that Japanese machines quickly outsold their European rivals on performance per pound alone? Of course not. And now we’re seeing (he Japanese pricing themselves out of a market they themselves created! Ten years ago the cost of buying a CB750 represented about 32% of a young man’s annual income, Today, the VFR750’s price tag represents a staggering 61% of that same punter’s hard earned dosh. And the cost of developing and marketing these high-profile projectiles is borne not just by the individual models themselves, but by the toy-boy 125cc versions first-time bikers are expected to pin their L-plates to. Plus, there’s the awesome and seemingly unstoppable ascent of the yen.
The differences between 1976 and 1986 are many, but none of them are good for the motorcycle trade. Unemployment amongst this prime 17-21 year-old motorcycle buying age group is higher, and if the Japs have got their marketing-driven manufacturing policies wrong (just like the Euro-manufacturers got it wrong 15 years ago), then there is no major motorcycle building nation waiting around the corner ready to exploit the situation.
Okay, the Italian industry totters on, primarily in the shape of Cagiva and Moto Guzzi, but these two companies are not interested in, or capable of profitably exporting anything but high-priced and largely uncompetitive machines which a few well-heeled folk buy purely for emotional reasons. And BMW, for their part, are just not interested in the sub-500cc, entry-level punter.
But if the Japanese have unwittingly gone upmarket at the expense of broader retail accessibility, then what the hell happens next? The spoiled brat/rich eccentric market is not bi – maybe 5000 units per year tops – and the cost of just reaching it, let alone expanding it by weaning fat wallets away from sailboats and microlights, is massive.
No, if the industry wants to win back a mass market for new motorcycles it should reduce the prices of entry-level bikes by a least 20%, sport-touring and all-round roadsters by 15-20%, and maybe push up the price of the exotic stuff by a similar amount.
And it’s no good the MCA big-wigs complaining that they are at the mercy of hard-nosed manufacturers far across the globe. Nor is there much sense in holding out the begging-bowl for a zillion pounds to mount a glitzy motorcyling PR campaign. You can make the bikes as attractive as hell, and imbue the business of riding them with all the add-on sex appeal and freedom fantasies that advertising bucks will buy (not that they’ve much of a track record in this department), but who’s going to be able to afford to buy these machines? Certainly not the financially strapped young men and women of Thatcher-land.
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This was one of my all-time favourite RooRs, although TBH it now seems particularly dated and obscure subject matter-wise. It follows the absolutely greatest ride of my life from LA up Highway 101 to Laguna Seca for the AMA Grand National with six fellow hacks, including some real pros not mentioned here to save their (and my) embarrassment. It’s actually a fairly accurate if not extensive account of what followed, even if it reads now like that of a (very) poor man’s Hunter S. Thompson who, of course, was my one of my journo heroes at the time and not averse to a little motorcycle madness himself.
NOW WHAT’S EXPECTED OF THIS columnist is the jug of pythons he leaves in the closet when at all possible, i.e., always. Recently, though, stern advice reached me that a by-line behoves me to stick unequivocally to the subject in hand, specifically delineated as nuts, bolts, pre-load ratings, gravel rash, DoT intransigence and the numerous pints of real ale that constitute the only fringe topic permitted by the serious motorbicycle journals. Not entirely unsympathetic to this concept of biking as an exclusive male enclave of locker-room hubris and techno talk… hey, it’s fun to revel in the camaraderie of shared Yamaha gearbox failures and late-night speed wobbles… I nevertheless find myself unable to reinforce and condone tunnel vision just ’cause the economy of Peterborough is founded on it. On the other hand, from my point of view as an embittered pauper, perhaps I should own up to H.G. Wells’s dictum, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
Humbled into a state of grovelling compliance by a combination of H.G’s cheap wisdom and an intolerant bank manager, I recently decided to return to some real grime-under-the-nails, straight-ahead motorcycle hackery. No longer would I stand accused of effete badinage comprehensive only to BMW owners and LJK Setright: it’s time to Get Real. And the mainline to the motorcycling artery that I now aspired to was Laguna Seca Raceway and Round 16 of the AMA Grand National Championship in all its pomp, circumstances and, above all, meticulous detail.
There was genuine inspiration at work here. In fact, the minutiae of lap times and grid positions are soaked up by the newsprint of gaudy, monosyllabic tabloids world-wide, and regurgitating yesterday’s papers for the benefit of monthly readers seems positively redundant. Yet few race reporters appear to have the time, or perhaps the creative inclination, to meld intuition and sensitive enquiry into the sort of post-event analysis that really explains why a man wins or loses a race. Anyone who has ever gotten a bike running balls-out along a fast deserted road and found instructions flowing effortlessly, even subconsciously from the brain to the hands, feet and torso in a giddy adrenalin crescendo that frequently leads you, and leads you happily, to the precipice of real danger, anyone who’s squandered fear on the edge of that reckless adventure must know something of the stuff of which road-racers are made.
And surely that sliver of shared experience whets the appetite for more? In such obviously physical spectator sports as football, boxing and even bar-room indulgences like snooker or darts, cause and effect are self-evident skills, whereas high-roller motor sport insulates its protagonists from their audience with fences and leather cocoons and confusing equations of speed and distance. It was my intention at Laguna Seca to add a vivid dimension to the fleeting spectacle of the tarmac chase by reporting what these stocky young gladiators actually felt about what they were doing … what goes on in a skilled professional’s mind when he’s sliding toward the Big Lunch at 170 per… whether the parameters of usable power and inertia bear even the remotest similarity to those by which we judge our humble efforts in the & commuter jungle or the Sunday afternoon show-off… what a seizure at 14,000rpm feels like… how they take their breakfast cereal? Such dumb idealism on my part.
Not one, not two, but four card-carrying roadrace reporters would accompany me. Well, actually two full-time pros girt in freebie leathers with their monikers plastered ostentatiously all over, and two somewhat tardier items: Hodenfield (Chris, loyal pal, early Bike co-conspirator and a truly great rock journalist – MW) on a scurvy GS1000 with a balding rear Metzeler and credentials furnished by a ‘family’ paper back east (on the lookout for a gore story, no doubt); and Gordon (Paul, laconic 2-stroke addict and another razor-sharp scribbler – MW), acting on 11th hour orders from, if you can grasp such a concept, ‘Canada’s leading motorcycle publication’, riding a Suzy 550 unwisely lent him by the aforementioned pros who thought he might ‘gently’ run it in before they set to work on it at the drag-strip. There was also Gordon’s wife, a mean pixie on his hot-rodded RD350, and someone called Belle Starr (My then girlfriend, and a real trouper – amazingly we’re still pals– MW), whose overtures to become our official photographer were cruelly exposed as a peculiar fraud when she produced an Instamatic as the tool of her trade!
Me? Well as luck would have it, telexes chattered across oceans and a Honda 750F emerged rather astonishingly from the American importer. All I needed then were paddock passes, photography passes, entry permits, parking permits and a snappy nylon paddock jacket on which to pin all this garbage… Hell, if you’re going to mingle inconspicuously with these chumps and file a real authoritative story, might as well wear the uniform, right? Calls to race headquarters two days before the 350 mile trip there informed me that I should’ve made a written application three years earlier. The exigencies of fast-moving global journalism impressed my lady informant not one 1tota. More telexes rattled from Which Bike? Central. A last desperate cable flew off to the Monterey nerve centre, but no honey-toned press aide called to reassure me that I was persona grata. Winging it was the only option.
After a 300 mile ride and a night in what laughingly claimed to be “Hollister’s newest and finest motel’, I was rudely awoken by I5 Mexicans bump-starting an ageing Pontiac the size and colour of a Nissen hut… middle-aged leather-boys who’d sneered at our motley attire as we’d shivered in from the mountains the night before broke the grev dawn with their revving, barely silenced multis. It was time to Go Racing… But not before a 25 mile detour into Monterey where a woman with too much make-up and a face full of sandwich sullenly claimed she knew nothing about me, my editor’s telexes or the rudiments of civility. At Laguna itself, a man with a gun forbade me to enter the press office until I showed him a press card and Hodenfield, who was up early and smug as hell with more labels hanging off him than a Woolworth’s Christmas tree, somehow oozed sufficient authority to usher me into the office without suffering a merciless beating. Inside, things got worse. A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache and told me that (a) the telexes and cables were too late and to no avail, and (b) A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache curtly pointed out that my proffered press card was two months out of date. “I have come 7,000 miles to cover this race,” I lied, as calmly as possible, “‘and a lot of English people are going to be disappointed if they don’t read my report.”
I don’t know whether she saw through my preposterous act, or whether she hated men in general and English ones in particular. But when she shrugged her shoulders and told me I could pay my $30 and write my report in the public enclosure, I started yammering incoherently about professional facilities and international public relations and had to be restrained from violence by Gordon and Hodenfield.
We queued for Coors to cool us all down. Three straggle-haired beer-guts with mouths in their necks loudly out-grossed each other with claims about who had the most beers, blow-jobs and spliffs before getting out of bed in the morning. The race organisers congratulated each other on the PA system over what a wonderful job they were all doing, somehow expecting us to believe they’d ‘only just break even’ from the 40,000 tickets they’d sold. The only vantage point our little team could get in time for the first Superbike Heat was in a square yard of dust vaguely in sight of the infamous downhill chicane, which the riders hit at around 90 over the brow of a blind hill. Reaction to the first wave of gladiators spewing over the top on their street-based racers was mixed. A large woman with a bouffant continued knitting despite her husband’s admonishments. Our photographer decided to take snaps of the diverse headgear on display instead of Chuck Parme throwing away his big Kawa. Hodenfield snorted something about the superior line he would’ve taken through the chicane but I noticed the strange aroma of exotic cigarettes permeating from his direction. Personally, I felt tiny Wendy Epstein (One of America’s few really top class female road-racers who carried on racing, including at the IoM TT, until the mid-noughties – MW) was pushing her GS1100 harder through the turns than Hodenfield could ever manage, although the yawing of what was basically street suspension threatened to have her, and indeed many of the other riders, kissing tarmac. The fundamental difference between pro-stock and formula racing was just one of the burning questions I resolved to ask her when I could steal Hodenfield’s paddock pass.
Eddie Lawson, who looks like he belongs in the movies rather than in motorbike racing, dumped over everyone in both heats and the final of the Superbike and there were apparently mutterings in the Honda camp that his engine was rather more than race regulated when the stopwatch revealed he was lapping only four seconds slower than Freddie Spencer on the NR500. Belle, when not photographing millinery, was loudly rooting for second-place man Wes Cooley for reasons that only became apparent after I saw him surrounded by lissom blondes in the Suzuki/Yoshimura pit palace: another goddam pin-up. Just when I was mentally bemoaning the dearth of gnarled old stagers like Smart and Du Hamel, Dave Emde crashed on the last lap.
You cannot buy a writing implement at a race circuit, so as Gordon scrawled furiously on a notepad, I self-consciously muttered such details as I could ascertain from the PA system into a micro-cassette recorder… and cursed my professional predicament. While Hodentield ambled casually into the press office and interviewed Mamola and Freddie Spencer, I’m listening to some super-jock twerp extracting revealing gems from Wes Coolev: “Uh, yeah, well we ran a real good race ‘n’ I went fast as ah could, the bike wuz goin’ real well, but, uh, well, Lawson was faster.” Heavy stuff, Wes. But these, and infuriating gibberish about mum and dad’s help and how easy it was for the likes of Fred Merkel and Bob Cunnington, respectively first and second in Sunday’s novice race, to move from dirt to road-racing, were all the insights available. One jock told another jock what a great and experienced commentator he was. Opinions were aired as to whether Randy Mamola’’s motorhome was bigger than Kenny Roberts’. California Yamaha dealers were thanked a zillion times for selling tickets. No-one seemed to think we were very interested in the fact that Roberts was riding the 1980 Yam with the transverse, piston port motor, rather than the ’81 square four, or that the Suzuki RG500 Mamola eventually rode to victory in the Championship was also a year old and 30 pounds heavier than the factory’s latest models. Or why.
Fortunately, Belle produced a bottle of Jim Beam from her bag and I quickly numbed my irritation, just in time to receive Hodenfield’s paddock pass which allowed me to stumble round the rows of opulent caravans and suss this stuff out for myself. No economies in the Honda camp. Freddie’s NR had a shelf full of engines ready in case 20,000rpm proved too much (eat your heart out, Mick Grant, I thought), and the other Spencer, Mike, on the conventional four looked cocky. History, and your copy of MCN, will record that Roberts blew the first segment of the Grand National with a “wrong tyre command” and the second with a clutch. “It’s a little fragile,” he told the commentator with rare lucidity and candour. So what the hell is it doing on a hyper-performance racing bike when the World Championship’s at stake, then? Spencer was indecently quick and effortlessly stylish for a few laps, then lost power and dropped out. Randy Mamola and F. Spencer pulled like trains from much argued-over slots at the rear of the grid as did Roberts before he retired and provided the sharpest racing of the weekend, even though John Bettencourt pipped Spencer for fourth place on a neatly decked-out TZ750.
The second segment of the 33-lapper was clearly Mamola’s, with Cooley sitting in his third second position of the weekend, when I turned to watch Belle taking a snap of what looked like two junkies – an ashen-faced couple with suspicious bruises on their necks – sway towards the exit gate. I was thoroughly Beamed by this point on Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t stop irrationality from posing questions like, “Why do a pair of junkies turn up at this ultra-conservative celebration of all that is good, dangerous and American… and am I really here for any better reasons, however weird they might be?”
I decided that it was the right moment to filch a paddock pass again and confront Wendy Epstein with these matters… as one confused soul to another. I mean, precisely why was she out there being lapped by everyone and his brother on a streetbike in a Formula One heat? There might even be a profile for Honey or Spare Rib in it. “Hi Wendy. Exactly how much do you hate men?” That sort of approach would probably crack it.
Or not. At that point in my alcoholic line of reasoning, it occurred to me that reportage is probably best left to those who can deal with it; the weekly papers and their fast-fingered fact processors. I shall cease this dubious quest for insights and stick with what I’m most comfortable with – raging subjectivity – and to hell with conventional wisdom.
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By 1989 my monthly column had rather portentously become ‘Lore’, and this one appeared in the 50th issue of MotorCycle International, which I now published by very my own company and which I’d launched four year earlier from the ashes of WhichBike? It reads a little own-trumpet-blowingly, but may provide an insight to the state of the ‘bike magazine business at the time which in 2020 feels like a golden age!
It’s rather ironic that the masthead on our newly launched sister mag, Silver Machine, bears the Iegend ‘Lawyers. Guns and Money’ above my description as publisher. (SM was actually a re-worked version of the classic-oriented Motorcycle Enthusiast which I’d bought two years earlier – MW). Ironic, because although this was originally intended as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reflection on the life of an harassed magazine publisher, the last minute decision to pull Lore from the June issue had a great deal to do with all three.
I suppose I feel duty-bound to explain this abrupt display of blank paper to the thousands of bitterly disappointed readers who besieged their newsagents demanding refunds, but stem warnings from my lawyers, the precarious state of our overdraft and the threat of retaliatory action from the big guns of motorbike publishing sadly deter me from doing so. What I can offer by way of explanation does, however conveniently, dovetail with the primary thrust of this month’s epistle which, as you might expect, comes under the general reading of ‘Fifty Glorious Issues of MCi – An Old Man Remembers.‘
This ‘ageing hippy’ as Mr Editor (Tom) Isitt (And a great editor to boot – MW) wittily refers to me elsewhere in this issue is in fact a money-grubbing capitalist whose progress up the mountain of Mammon is unfortunately impeded by an irritating and apparently irreducibly idealistic streak. Unfortunately, and this is perhaps what lsitt was implying, my background in publishing was in something most of you are too young to recall, the ‘underground‘ or ‘alternative’ press. The advantages of this are mixed; a tendency to trust people and situations on face value but an equally strong tendency to react cynically, even angrily, when such people and situations betray that trust. In business terms this underground experience also leads to a rather wilful, ‘if it feels right, do it whatever the odds‘ attitude which needs to be tempered by a financial acumen if bankruptcy is to be avoided. Which is one of the reasons why those mags I worked on back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s courted closure on a monthly basis.
The point of this moisty-eyed nostalgia is that ironically enough, MotorCycle International wouldn’t exist were it not for traces of the ‘ageing hippy‘ ethic still curdling in my brain, but whether or not someone else would‘ve started up such a mag in the past five years is entirely debatable. A secondary consideration is that I have, for better or worse thrice broken the mould of ‘bike publishing in this country only to see other, more powerful and, it must be said, professional organisations plagiarise or adapt the new concepts flung gauntlet-style at them and make a great deal more money out of it than I have. Bitter? Damn right I‘m bitter and that bitterness lay behind my decision to become a publisher myself and turn Which Bike? into MCi.
If you need justification for this conceit, look back at Bike which championed choppers and a thinly veiled druggy lifestyle when the existing rags were still promulgating the cosy platitudes of the Barbour jacket generation. A few years later when ‘bike sales were actually booming and Bike had had its quite obvious effects on the rest of the motorbiking media (and Back Street Heroes was a twinkle in Steve Myatt’s eye), I launched Which Bike?, the antithesis of Bike (thus engendering much ridicule) but an honest attempt to reflect the fact that in a then bouyant market no-one was offering comprehensive, objective tests and information about the ironware on offer. The initially quarterly What Bike? emerged in its wake, as did buyers guides in various existing monthlies.
Launching MCi eventually gave one or two other people the idea that a motorcycle magazine that didn‘t pander to the then all-persuasive yob-ethic could actually work, so now we have MotorCycle Review and MotorCycle (& Workshop)… (Both satisfyingly shortlived, ho-ho-ho – MW)
No, I’m not going to pound my well worn soap-box on the subject of too many mags diluting the market and in turn weakening the motorcycle lobby, but I will say that it’s a bitch doing what you believe is something different and being emulated or even ripped off by those who have the resources to do it (or at least promote it) better. This observation was in part triggered by Mr lsitt’s request that I leaf back through Lore’s back pages for major gaffes that he might add to his own litany of dumb predictions catalogued elsewhere in this issue. Surprisingly – alright, smugly – I couldn’t find any of my grim portents that had ultimately proven to be nonsense. True some of them may yet prove to be so (that’s the beauty of sticking largely to long-term soothsaying), but most of my fears for the state of the market, the lot of the motorcyclist and anything else I’ve arrogantly chosen to pontificate upon, have been vindicated.
Indeed since much of this doom-mongering has turned into fact, I’ve spent numerous dark nights searching my soul as to the point of continuing the wearying, inevitably thankless task of publishing magazines that rely on a dwindling and seemingly ultimately extinct readership, especially when it’s so hard to make it pay.
And this is where we get to last month’s conspicuous lack of printing ink on page 88. June’s Lore was to’ve catalogued our experiences trying to promote and sell advertising space in Silver Machine. It you haven’t yet seen a copy, Silver Machine is another attempt at something new, namely to use the rocker ethic that I grew up with to unite those classic bike fans not obsessed by the ‘Originality is God’ syndrome together with a younger generation who aren’t buying the race– or Paris Dakar–replica schtick being parlayed to them by the bulk of the trade.
Perhaps because it’s finally dawned on a certain Big Publishing Company (EMAP, who owned Bike, MCN etc, in fact – MW) that M. Williams has started things they’ve later had to buy or transmute from existing organs, a sequence of events took place which made it impossible for Silver Machine to compete on equal terms not only with their own magazines, but with other independent titles. Conveniently orchestrated largely through third parties (E.g. magazine distributors and advertisers – MW), after we’d had enough internal problems getting the bugger to press anyway, my indignation at the behaviour of those concerned augured a particularly vitriolic diary of events which horrified our lawyers. Turning the whole thing into a satire amused them heartily (they said), but wasn’t sufficiently fictional at heart to pass the libel yardstick.
Where does that leave me, MCi and the collective ‘us’ who read the thing? Well after fifty issues, we’re still up against a government seemingly determined to eliminate motorcycling as we know and love it, a trade largely frightened and confused in how it should respond, and a publishing empire who by their very might dominate the bulk of the few remaining in advertisers how it should it respond, and a publishing empire who by their very might dominate the budgets of the few remaining big advertisers who invariably see numbers rather than quality of readership as their primary raison d’etre but do very little to champion or protect the longer term interests of their customers. As long as I remain as its owner however, MCi will continue to offer a more rounded, committed and hopefully intelligent overview and the opportunity to advertise to the readers that actually buy their motorcycles that the trade admits are its salvation. That was the original aim of the magazine, which at the time was cautiously approved (if not always supported) by the trade and almost universally derided by our competitors.
Like any haIf-way decent mag, MCi has grown and changed organically: the design has matured without losing both its concision and that aIl-important ability to excite the imagination, sections like Despatches and Beyond the Orient have come and gone due both to reader response (or lack of it!) and editorial subjectivity, and most significantly perhaps, our gamble to go ‘perfect bound’ and drop the Used Bike Buyers Guide in order to free-up more pages to features (and give our other sister rag, Used & Classic Bike Guide, a reason for being!) actually paid off circulation-wise. And the changes will doubtless continue…
‘It’ll last no more than two months,’ sneered the editor of Bike when MCi first appeared. Since then our circulation has risen, Bike‘s has fallen dramatically. and he’s no longer editing any magazine.
Yup, whilst I can afford to be proud, I can’t deny that I’m ‘ageing’, but in the increasingly tough and nasty times we live in, I think I may have to get that ‘hippy’ streak surgically removed…
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In late 1980 I returned to California where I ended up living for a year or so, working for a small, punky record label and writing for Motorcyclist magazine, the latter a real eye-opener about how a big bucks, ultra-professional bike magazine operated and one of the best times of my life. I also began stepping out with Carlo Olsen, a brilliant singer-songwriter who inadvertently was the agent of my near misfortune mentioned below. And after launching, editing then leaving but still scribbling for WhichBike?, I changed my allegiances back to Bike after a little unpleasantness in the legal department.All part of life’s rich tapestry…
I DON’T KNOW WHERE IT CAME from, but sometime between July and November there must’ve been a moment of eloquent perception amid all the blurred, mordant bumbling . . . (you’ve heard of the Prisoner of Zenda, well I was the Prisoner of Smirnoff) . . . ’cause writ biggish 0n the backside of a Woolworth’s jotter was the following:
“When the reality of the limelight exposes itself for the harsh glare of egotism that it is, then we are all out of business. Until then, temper your svelte commercialism with some naked, no-nonsense WRITING.”
And I’d underlined the last word three times for good measure. Quite why this stirring homily should be sitting on the back of the pad in the first place defies any logical explanation. It’s the kind of smart-arse, cornflake-packet prose that a couple of friends of mine sometimes commit to a postcard study of the Statue of Liberty dressed up in suspenders and bra that they buy by the gross on 42nd Street and send out, apparently as an example of their great wit, to commemorate public holidays. I collect these cards just so’s I can humiliate them when next we collide over canapes, but a quick check of the back catalogue failed to unearth the culprit. So if I hadn’t copied it from a slightly greater intellect than mine, it must’ve been an original.
Immediately I took it as A Sign. And what do you do when fate throws a wobbler at you? You ring Mr Calderwood (David, then Bike’s editor – MW) and brown nose your way back onto the pay-roll, that’s what.
Bloody cosmic experience, pal.
(None of this cosy preamble explains how I plummeted from a glittering career with Another Motorcycle Magazine (WhichBike?, obviously – MW) which the more indiscriminate of you might occasionally be embarrassed into buying when the newsagent catches you spending quarter-of-an-hour leafing through Fiesta. If slavering at other’s misfortunes is your particular bent, I’ll reward further enquiries with no more detail than the fact that I foolishly and suddenly found myself in a dilemma from which any escape route was paved with shit.
Some time between then and now it seemed prudent to once again consider starting out afresh in the colonies, where a man with a shady past can hold his head up high and bullshit like crazy about his reasons for emigrating. Since this inevitably meant Los Angeles where, for a brief and glorious moment a small business interest of mine (Record production – MW) looked like accomplishing the impossible and making some money, it with equal inevitability meant I had to buy a motorcycle.
Now buying a motorcycle in California is not like going down to Alf’s Bike Shop in Hackney and having your ear bent by some smart-alec in a kipper tie who thinks he can strap you up with three years HP on a one owner XS750 just ’cause you’re impressed by the fact that it don’t leak oil. No, you go by Marina Del Rey Harley-Davidson where a midget could get lost in the shag-pile and these glistening pig-iron sculptures gracefully rotate on floodlit plinths in a calculated attempt to make you come in your pants if you haven’t already given the ‘enquiry agent’ who looks like a tall Robert Redford in $500-worth of Gucci leathers your credit card.
Except that I was in the market for a secondhand item, and respectable Yank motorcyclists treat used machinery with a disdain you and I normally reserve for the Nazi who presides in 10 Downing Street. It’s almost impossible to even find a dealer who sells secondhand bikes, especially when new ones are so ludicrously cheap, e.g. a CX500 for less than £850. So what you do if you’re the poorest kid on the block and can’t stick the sneers of your peers is run through the classifieds and hope for salvation.
What I actually had 1n mind was a well preserved Triumph, one of those rebuilt every year jobs ridden only on alternate Sundays by an ageing meat-packing executive from Laurel Canyon: $800 and an excrutiating half hour of moisty-eyed reminiscences with the reluctant donor. No way was I going to get that lucky, but then a funny thing happened to me on the way back from Santa Barbara one night.
Muggins here offers to drive the girlfriend’s motor back from Santa B, 150 miles up the coast, after her band (the Textones, a precursor of the Go-Go’s – MW) finished a gig there. Like it’ s 3a.m. and her Mustang is weaving all over the freeway thanks to an excess of sleeping passengers, a total lack of shock absorbers and the dozy condition of yours truly. So I pull into some isolated truck stop and it’s full of all the nastiest caricatures of fat, double-knit clad middle America that you could imagine. These people are gross, very drunk and so right wing that they make Ronald Reagan seem like a flower child.
Anyway, I decide that a glimpse of the bleary-eyed lady guitarist who is still in her rather risque stage clothes is all they’ re going to get, especially after hearing beery mutterings about faggots and weirdos as I leave the men’s room. So we take our coffee and blueberry pie outside to eat, and I start nosing around the gas station in an effort to stir the brain cells. Which is where I see this . . . thing.
Now only in America would you find a CBX with street plates and a damn great Goodyear slick on the back. Only in America would some pump jockey put himself in hock for a supercharger, a racing tank, seat and S&W suspension kit for a bike that’s potentially lethal even in bog-stock form. But here it was, garish in red and oil-smudged yellow with a Krober tacho, 5-inch headlamp and enough metal scraped off the footrests and crash-bar (no sense in tempting providence) to convince even the most casual observer that this machine was for Serious Behaviour only.
The old man in the kiosk eyed me with a caution born of years of serving gas to acid crazed hot-rodders and potential child molesters – you see that look a lot in all-night America – but he eventually revealed that the day mechanic was selling it and for a figure I couldn’t believe: $2,000. I didn’t have $2,000 to friitter away on a certain death-trap but I absolutely had to have that bike. I said I’d be back in the morning to do business, and my girl said she now realised that my craziness was no longer a rumour tactlessly leaked by mutual friends.
After a few hours of sleepless argument, I truculently returned With a few hundred dollar’s by way of a deposit and a shameful promlse of my (ex-?) ladyfriend’s mint Rlckenbecker 12-string (just like the one Lennon used on ‘Ticket To Ride’, a preposterous rarity) as surety until I got the rest of the loot.
“The boy’s out on a breakdown,” said the matron who’d replaced the old chap at the till. “He said you could start it up while he was away. That’s if you have a mind to. ”
Do bears shit in the wood?
After much connecting of wires and heaving and cursing with the thing, a pall of viscous black smoke accompanied by the loudest, most unhealthy noise you’ve ever heard coming from any engine, rent the parking lot. I was visibly shaking. With fear. Fortunately the engine’s state of tune was so evil that it almost immediately cut out and I saw my friend mouthing the word ‘NO’ and locking her guitar in the trunk. This seemed a sad and demoralising gesture. Didn’t she appreciate that I was an experienced and highly qualified pilot of mega performance. I was about to use the back of my hand to reason with her when a breakdown truck tooled into the station.
“Here’s your boy,” muttered the old lady, who had the slight smirk of a know-all on her face. Well what a surprise when the old boy from the previous night got out from behind the Wheel: a closet boy-racer, eh?
And then from the other door another figure appeared, a figure with a plaster cast on his left arm, stitches all over his bruised face and some nasty plastic device encasing the lower half of his right leg . . .
Which has a lot to do with the reason I didn’t buy a bike in America and am stuck here behind a typewriter hoping I can earn enough money to buy a new set of chrome for the Jota before next spring. (There wasn’t much chrome on a Jota, but what there was soon turned to rust – MW)
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Paraphrasing the Beatles’ song title, this was a fairly coruscating if tongue-in-cheek tilt at the Motorcycle Action Group some of whose members had taken pops at me over the years for what they saw as my mealy-mouthed equivocation in supporting their efforts to champion our collective cause. Truth was that because of behaviours recalled in this column, I felt that the Forces of Darkness could never take MAG entirely seriously and therefore neither could I. Decades later I will however say that whilst MAG became a much cuddlier outfit – all Xmas Toy Runs and summer barbies – motorcycling now needs a really effective, rider-led organisation to represent our constantly threatened interests, and that we sorely lack.
Since their early days when we used get hysterical manifestos advocating protests that only just stopped short of bombing the Houses of Parliament, the Motorcycle Action Group have always aroused my suspicion. The concept of politicised biker organisation working at grassroots level is, of course, an admirable one, but their antics so frequent border on the comic that I find it hard to take MAG seriously.
On more than one occasion I’ve dragged myself out of a hangover and stumbled down the street to Whitehall to one of their demos, (I used to live in nearby Pimlico – MW) nobly intending to offer my support but soon changing my involvement to that of a mere observer when I saw what was going on. Cowering on the pavement with a gaggle of confused and rather frightened tourists, I witnessed a spectacle which could well have been the St. Albans Amateur Dramatic Society‘s production of ‘The Wild Angels’ (A Peter Fonda-led biker gang B-movie that pre-dated Easy Rider – MW)
A motley horde of lashed-up British twins, decrepit old Japanese ‘strokers and a smattering of big, open-mega fours, cruised down towards Trafalgar Square, their riders and passengers whooping with delight and wearing shit-eating grins: anyone would think that they were a bunch of schoolkids who‘d just got away scot-free after raiding the local sweet shop. Such displays of sniggering hubris were occasioned, as you can probably guess, from the fact that they were riding through the nation‘s capital without helmets.
From the loud exhortations of the ruddy-faced, Dennis Howard (who looked like he‘d just rode in bearing despatches from Ypres on a military BSA M20), you could have been forgiven for thinking that this small act of laddish defiance was a mighty blow for freedom and that any minute now the walls of the temple were going to fall and God himself was going to ride out in a Palma sidecar, towed by an immaculate 600cc Panther, with the body of a dead transport minister lying prostrate in his arms.
Since those early demos I’ve steered clear of MAG’s activities, preferring more subtle forms of protest like putting LSD in reservoirs and blowing up post boxes. My prejudices are of course reinforced whenever I read a report like that of MAG’s Croydon demo of August 2nd. Participants in this valiant enterprise were evidently surprised and outraged that the local Old Bill moved in and started booking helmetless riders almost as soon as they hit the road. Keen supporters of individual liberty like Paul Harvey of the Prowlers M/cycle Club even wrote to the ‘papers expressing indignation that after being issued a ticket they had to “stand there and watch the rest of those ‘bikers ride by with their lids on” which apparently “made them sick”. The italics are mine, the warped grip on reality Mr. Harvey‘s. And he was doubtless echoing the sentiments of a lot of other MAG members when he went on to write: “And to the MAG National Committee I say let’s organise a demo through the reps and don’t tell the law. Let them find out when we turn up on the roads.”
A wicked little gremlin inside me prompts me to suggest that Harvey & Co are only scraping the surface: Why not go the whole hog? Arm everybody to the teeth with sawn-off shotguns and military sabres, dose them all up with a lethal mixture of pure speed and shark tranquiliser and ride through Brent Cross Shopping Centre on a Saturday morning, murdering bank clerks and drinking their blood. That would show the buggers you meant business.
But I digress. Much of the legislation suffered by bikers during the past decade may certainly be specious, but blaming the police for enforcing it is a waste of energy: MAG’s efforts should be aimed wholeheartedly at Parliament. Organising a continuous barrage of petitions and letter-writing campaigns to MP’s would eventually have an attritional effect on our elected representatives far greater than any bunch of yobbos riding around lidless. But if the idea of such activities sends a shudder of dismay through the ranks of MAG members who consider letter-writing boring (if not congenitally impossible), then I have the antidote: re-constitute the more aggressive arm of MAG in the guise of Motorcyclists Against Gravel.
The renewed formation of MAG would give bikers a chance to do something really practical for the cause of our freedom and safety, especially in the late summer and autumn. This is the season when county councils in many of Britain‘s rural areas start re-gritting their roads. From recent experience wrestling with a flying dustbin of a full-dress BMW R80 RT, I can assure those of you who are confined to motorways and city streets that loose gravel is a major problem of our time… even more so than the grim portent of a right-hand Sidecar ban (Yes, that actually was a government proposal – MW).
There is nothing more unsettling than tooling gaily along a twisty country lane, even one you thought you knew quite well and finding a wall-to-wall patch of loose gravel appearing without warning. Actually I lie there is something more unsettling than that, and that‘s finding twelve yards of freshly deposited faeces courtesy of the local pony trekkers. And even worse than that is a positively murderous combination of loose gravel and horseshit.
I‘m sitting watching the rain drown any hope of an Indian summer here in the Welsh mountains, and still shaking from my trip back from the Dog & Cess-Pit last night. If I hadn‘t braced myself with seven pints of Ferkins’ Olde Thunderer (a brew so obscure that not even the redoubtable alcoholics on Berk magazine have written it up), I don’t think I could’ve controlled the snarling German beast as it grappled unsuccessfully with the gravel and horse manure. With another two days of serious socialising ahead of me, I fear that there’s little chance of getting the BM back to its importers without a severe case of gravel rash.
So what I’m suggesting is that the born-again MAG should stop frigging about with urban police forces and come on down to the country. Armed with buckets and spades, they could usefully spend their time in healthy surroundings shovelling shit (instead of talking it) and gathering gravel (instead of metaphorically throwing it at the establishment). If they disdain the use of helmets so much, they could pretend that they were at the seaside (although an absence of mods to beat up might disappoint them), and use them to mould sandcastles. Better still, they could sneak up to the local pony-trekking stables and tie their Kangols and Stadiums (Ancient brands of open-face helmets – MW) halfway up the ponytails, thereby providing onboard equestrian potties.
lf Motorcyclists Against Gravel felt that such tasks were demeaning to them, they could still provide a useful service by picketing the local gravel pits, or lobbying for legislation that required all horse-riders to he followed down the road by a man with a bucket and spade… or if they wanted to get really cute, force horses to wear crash helmets
Anything to keep the crap off the streets.
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It’s perversely gratifying that since I started posting my old columns here back in June, several hundred of you have been reading them each week. It’s also become clear to me as I delved into my extremely varied – and in qualitative terms, variable – back catalogue that many of the topics are as relevant now as they were when I originally scribbled them. Such matters as the failure of our parliamentary servant/masters to recognise the needs of bikers and conversely, our trade associations ability or willingness to challenge them are but two examples, and my constant carping about importers and manufacturers – not that we really have any British bike builders left – who fail to fully understand or cater to the real needs of the markets they’re supposed to serve have been familiar themes over the decades and they are still hand-wringingly pertinent even as, indeed especially as our numbers and new recruits to the fold are dwindling.
However what many of you who’ve signed up to these blogs – and if you haven’t, why the hell not? – may not know, is that although due to the wisdom of their editors (and company lawyers) my columns in mainstream bikey mags have long since disappeared, I managed to persuade the odd classic bike or off-road mag editor to publish my rants in the early and mid-noughties, albeit tailored to suit their particular constituencies. But even they stemmed my streams of consciousness after a while when they realised that the space they accorded me could be better filled by features or, better still, advertisers (whose numbers were also dwindling), but at least one, even more specialist title has bravely continued to put up with me this past couple of decades, namely Motorcycle Trader.
As you’d expect, this is a mag aimed exclusively at those retailers, importers and suppliers who make up the once again declining biking business and so most of my columns, under the guise of ‘End User’, which nominally I still am, are designed or at least supposed to have relevance to those at the sharp end but as often as not they are thinly disguised tirades reflecting the same concerns I’ve always had, albeit often tinged with what I try and pass off as humour.
However with the advent of the Corona virus back in March, Trader stopped publishing its controlled circulation print edition and now exists solely as a website with daily bulletins spewed out to its subscribers, with no budget for, and arguably no point in publishing the random ramblings of a cantankerous old hack like yrs. trly. I’m told by the dear friends, and they are dear friends, who run Trader that this may change if, as and when Covid-19 allows them to resume operations accordingly, but for the past half year or so really I’ve missed using my poisoned quill to address truly topical matters so I’ve decided to intersperse the re-publication of ancient outbursts here with brand new ones, and what you’ve just read – assuming you didn’t fall asleep first – is by way of a preface to this…
It has of course been a summer of discontent biking-wise, with lockdown preventing us law-abiding bikers (ho-ho-ho) from doing much serious two-wheeled traveling until July, just when the weather turned nasty after a pretty clement spring and early summer, but since we were released from bumbling Boris’ grip, I’ve tried to get out and about quite a bit on both my K75S Beemer and my custom Honda VT500 street-tracker.
Where I currently live in mid-Wales we’re blessed with some of the least trafficked and most scenic roads in the UK, but these are in too many cases bedevilled by shockingly inadequate maintenance which becomes downright dangerous for those of us who hurtle round corners to be confronted by large, deep potholes, crumbling grooves and other surface degradations. I’ve written about this in Trader and indeed in non-motorcycle media locally and taken it up with local councils, needless to say to no avail that’s best characterised by buck-passing, e.g. well Westminster’s council budget cuts mean there’s no money for road maintenance, and in any case maintenance is farmed out to contractors whose profit motives incline them to ignore pot-holes in favour of occasionally and more lucratively re-surfacing a few hundred yards of main road that really don’t need it.
That said, and with no little irony, those of us – including me – who’ve had damage caused to our vehicles due to third world road conditions, can and do sue for consequent repair costs which councils are legally bound to cough up, and it’s always worth registering complaints about potholes etc. on such websites as www.fixmystreet.com or whacking off an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and your local council’s website will have a link to the relevant department even if they’ll take no notice of your complaints unless and until you and your mates get really vociferous about them.
I mention this because during recent longer excursions on the Queens’ Highway I’ve noticed a change in biker behaviour which, if I’m being generous about it, might be a consequence of prudent caution concerning road surfaces. Take, for example, a recent blast along the A44 to Aberystwyth and thence down the coast towards Fishguard. This is a v. popular route for weekend warriors from the Midlands, hence me going on a Tuesday during which I was somewhat dismayed to find clumps of bikers on far more modern and flasher machinery than my 29 year-old flying brick dutifully sitting at 45–50mph behind trucks or slow-coach pensioners when a determined twist of the wrist would have them, as indeed it had me, hurtling past onto open road.
Given that the A44 is a well-surfaced main trunk road, I realised that my charitable pothole-avoidance excuse was irrelevant so can I can assume that the younger generation – if such those bikers were – are becoming far more risk averse than mine was, or am I still unwisely chancing it even at my ripe old age?
Ooops, but I already covered this in Bike way back in October 1975 under the title The Right To Ride… Dangerously, and reproduced here back in June this year. So everything old is new again, eh?
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I originally titled this ‘In Defence of Trousers’ but that was deemed a bit too obscure for WB? readers… and maybe the then staff themselves. So naturally essence of sour grapes influence this column – freelancers, as I then was, being rather low of the pecking order when it comes to testing state-of-the-art megabikes. The slightly tart editorial disclaimer at the end of my otherwise restrained and carefully considered prose was, however, rather uncalled for!And testing-wise, IMHO things haven’t changed that much since 1982
THE ABSURD BATTLE CURRENTLY being waged by motorcycle magazines for the title of Most Respected/Authoritative/Pompous Organ is probably as baffling to you as it is irksome to me. In the interests of mental health, I will therefore try and put it into perspective.
Let us first of all go back to the Olden Days, when editors were merely content to try and make theirs the “best” magazine – a task they soon tired of – and for not entirely implausible reasons: What is the “best”? How do you establish the quintessential qualities of a journal that panders to crude sexism, loud behaviour and the worship of mobile ironmongery?
Well, Superbike (a long and arguably well-dead mag – MW) for example, figured that tits-a-go-go were a recipe for success. Motorcycle & (let’s not forget) Scooter Mechanics (ditto – MW) rightly assumed that a lot of oily oiks would rather see pix of stripped Dominator gearboxes than those of naked female flesh. Bike, for which I must shamefully bear a measure of guilt, encouraged lawlessness and beer-guts from the cosy confines of a Peterborough prefab. And Motorcycle Sport (see above – MW) rode blissfully along in a time-warp and made frequent editorial allusions to the imprisonment and subsequent torture of anyone who owned a Japanese bike and/or had not yet reached the age of 72, etc, etc, etc.
Did that make any one of them the ‘best”? Of course not. But staffs and publishers acted as though they were all sitting comfortably on the pinnacle of excellence until, that is, a few years ago when certain unimaginative media corporations, suffering from a lamentable lemming mentality, found it de rigueur to launch a bike mag. It was then that lofty practices like “market research” and “readership profiling” began usurping a publishing psychology that had hitherto relied largely on the slurred bigotry bandied about in lounge bars on the Isle Of Man.
Something called New Motorcycling Monthly really threw a spanner in the woodpile by publishing a page of test data illustrated by an extraordinary melange of coloured hieroglyphics, comprehensible only to those with a BSc in Maths. This was supposed to outsmart the opposition at a stroke, as it had for some reason dawned on their publishers that Hard Facts were what gave a magazine credibility, and credibility got you readers. Because it came from one of the two stables that were then enjoying a virtual duopoly in motorcycle mag publishing, NMM’s fancy test read-outs were achieved at the Motor Industry Research Association’s facilities in Warwickshire, to which the two
large publishing combines had access. This was supposed to lend even more kudos to the whole scam.
What everyone was losing sight of at this point was that, although an accurate list of mechanical and performance detail is all very nice, these are only relative to the abilities of the hack in charge. Rule One of Reading Motorcycle Magazines is that you should never overestimate the intelligence or sobriety of biking journalists. Any idiot can copy out a factory specification or ring up a chap in the importer’s service department to find out how many links there are on a Hy-vo chain.
Likewise, there is no embargo on electronic timing gear, and the punctilious despot in the green eye-shade – that’s an editor to you and me, sunshine – who trumpets membership of MIRA as if he were Moses holding up the Ten Commandments, is only kidding himself.
A quick bash round MIRA’s test track will certainly yield a set of figures that are indisputably accurate. But it also stands to reason that a light, experienced and quick-witted rider is going to coax higher speeds out of a fully run-in machine than some tubby novice plucked from the Wisbech Weekly Globe and planted on a brand new 1100cc Turbo-Macho a month earlier. All that’s happened since the quest for accuracy and detail became fashionable is that the various rags are trying to better each other’s figures, all of which result from the same equipment and the same circuit.
“Yeah, well we got three more mph and seven more mpg out of the bugger than Maniacs, which should get us some more advertising,” is roughly how these types think. But it seems rather bizarre to me that readers will swap from one magazine to another just because of more outrageous performance figures. The smart-Alec approach never won me over (possibly because I’m not very smart), and most of these so-called competitors are owned by one of two publishing companies anyway, so what the heck?
From a certain amount of experience in the field, I firmly believe that the average reader doesn’t give a tuppenny toss for the outright accuracy of test figures. What he likes to see are claims at least as unlikely as those he’ll make to his pals at the Pig & Trough (“Course my XS250 does an ’undred’n’five”), plus racy accounts of how various machines recreate Randy Mamola’s last win the moment you open the throttle. Any titbits concerning the pulling power and superior status the damn things offers are a useful bonus.
On a (slightly) more serious note, the pressures on magazine staff to fill an issue every week or month clearly affect the veracity of the test reports you read. Importers with test fleets limited by the size of the UK market are under intense pressure to get as much publicity for a new machine as possible, whilst also trying to satisfy the demands of editors who want the bike before, and for longer than, the others. In America, where there’s a larger overall market and fewer magazines, I’ve been offered brand new bikes for five times as long as I have here, with the opportunity of a full engine strip down by factory personnel for photographic and information purposes. Is it any wonder that the Yank mags appear more knowledge able and better-looking than most of their British peers?
What with the weather, the frequent executive meetings in the pub, reduced staffing levels due to the editor being flown to the Rio De Janeiro Playboy Club for the launch of an important new inner tube, and the fact that the receptionist from WhichBike? just trashed the XL500, it’s even less surprising that half the “exhaustive evaluations” you think you’re reading were in fact done on the basis of a two-hour schlep between Chiswick and Cambridgeshire in the driving rain.
The importers know this, of course, but since they’re the main perpetrators of this ludicrous merry-go-round they rarely complain about inaccuracy or padding. They only react when a writer slams a particular bike in a display of negative bias, but even then the tendency is for subtle punitive measures in the guise of cancelled advertising or demotion in the test-bike pecking order. The only man who ever gave me a hard time about technical or performance inaccuracies was the irascible ex-Laverda importer, Roger Slater, and quite rightly, too, under the circumstances. But now he’s long gone, and most of the concessionaires are too busy selling lawnmowers, chain saws and an ever expanding range of bikes to be overly concerned about what’s written… unless it’s outright offensive.
Which is why I’ll knock it on the head right now, before a tiny Scottish advertising person has a heart attack. (An obvious reference to WB?’s excellent if feisty then ad. man – MW).
The fact that WhichBike? is now a fully paid-up member of MIRA in order to allow its staffers (other than Mark Williams) total freedom to blast around on fast bikes without forever being bothered by the law is, of course completely immaterial to the foregoing – Ed.
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This is probably the latest column you’ll find here, coming as it does from the 200th Anniversary Issue of TrailBike Magazine, but my involvement with mud-pluggery goes back to 1963 and a 197cc Greeves Scottish trials bike. Once I got the magazine bug, I started an ‘Off-Road Rambles’ section in Bike and then ‘On The Rough’ and ‘Dirt Bike Buyers Guide’ in WhichBike? and even the wildly unsuccessful WB? Enduro Team with then ad. manager and real star rider, Charlie Harris and old pal, Peter Furlong. Recreational off-road riding has changed enormously since then and become more restrictive and much maligned by non-motorcyclists so whilst I look back on my days on the dirt with fondness and pride, I’m slightly relieved that they’re over.
I wasn’t one of the original suspects when Si Melber started TBM, but our links extend even further back than that. He’d worked on MotorCycle International, a magazine I’d initially wrenched out of the ruins of WhichBike?, which I’d launched back in 1976, and which of course makes me very old indeed.
So old, in fact that I can remember when you could, and I did, ride legally almost anywhere off-road using an 8000-odd mile (yes, EIGHT THOUSAND ! – MW) network of ‘greenlanes’, or Roads Used as Public Paths (RuPPs), some two-thirds of which became the now verboten Restricted Byways. And when I first went mud-plugging yes, that’s how the ‘bike media routinely referred to it back in the early ‘70s, you could still do it on a brand new British bike, albeit with a very old British engine, for BSA, Triumph and smaller outfits like Greeves and AJS were still building trailies back then, of which I had a troublesome few.
So when Si invited me to contribute a column to his small but perfectly formed off-road rag in 2004, I assumed that he wanted a moisty-eyed took in trailriding’s rearview mirror, rather than the sort of sardonic commentary on contemporary motorcycling matters that I’d parlayed over the decades in columns for MCI, WhichBike? and the grand-daddy of ‘em all, Bike magazine. But once again I was wrong, which was probably my own damn fault. Having just returned to trailriding because I had time on my hands (a/k/a being unemployed) and living slap-bang in the middle one of Britain’s least populated rural landscapes (a/k/a Powys), I’d begun re-building a clapped-out Yamaha XT350 on which I eventually entered in my first enduro in 25 years, only to discover it wasn’t remotely competitive… although that might have possibly been due to my lack of fitness and ability.
But what I also learnt and soon reflected in my wittily named Totally Rutted column was that trailriding had changed considerably since I’d abandoned it in 1981 to go and live in America. And not necessarily in a good way.
Access to rideable rights of way had considerably diminished (a bad thing), driven mainly, if ironically, by the huge increase in recreational trailriding (a good thing, hence TBM); and the reaction against it of po-faced bobble-hats and arrogant landowners who jointly had a lock on the ears of legislators both local and national. Worse was to come of course when the infamous 2006 National Environment and Communities Act (NERC) hit the statute book, instantly decimating the network of RuPPs, and this despite determined lobbying from the Trail Riders Federation which I’d re-joined in 2004.
Other bad things in my book, or rather as chronicled in my column, included the increasing tendency of the younger trailriders to belt along in large, noisy packs and often on illegal tracks, as if they were competing in enduros, which tended to quite literally frighten the horses and left little time to enjoy the views. But this was probably just sour grapes ‘cause I couldn’t always keep up with ‘em. More seriously, over-use of softly surfaced tracks angered councils responsible for their (expensive) maintenance which thus degraded, were now cryptically referred to as being ‘technical’, making them much more taxing for old farts like me.
So a couple of years after returning to the dirt, I was enjoying it less and less. My response was to instigate a regular Right to Ride featurette in TBM which alerted readers to the Forces of Darkness and their efforts to curtail things even further and, in particular, the brave but tiny TRF’s rearguard resistance. By 2006 I’d actually helped form a TRF group here in Mid-Wales where, again ironically, trailriders and 4×4 drivers who’d been forced off lanes in their own counties were increasingly weekending in droves, wearing out some of the more spectacular and lengthy tracks such as Monks Trod and Water Break Its Neck which the local council in turn began closing down, often by stealth.
I soon found myself representing the TRF both Iocally and even nationally in what was becoming a battle, especially after NERC, to keep the lanes open, and eventually I became the TRF’s Press Officer, too. Without my much prized platform in TBM, this certainly wouldn’t have happened but within the small, fragmented and I’m afraid often rather blinkered community that rode off-road, I now had some influence. Failing to extend that by harnessing a rather impotent motorcycle trade association (which actually had real clout with legislators when Britain still – just – had an industry back in my Bike and WhichBike? days), or getting the TRF’s top brass to agree that the 4×4 brigade were not actually our allies, eventually convinced me that we and therefore I was fighting a losing battle and I resigned my TRF roles a year after I was, ahem, obliged to resign my TBM roles following disagreements with Mr Melber.
I sold my much-loved, if somewhat hot-rodded TT-R250 a few months later when the last of my local trailriding pals became a dad and like many before him, was subsumed by more important responsibilities, and so I haven’t plugged the mud since 2010. I now look back on my TBM days with affection, regret but also mild relief.
Si and James Barnicoat’s passion was considerable and contagious: I probably wouldn’t have taken up the game again if it hadn’t been for their enthusiasm or more accurately perhaps, coercion and they were always generous with their support, as well as clothing and kit… or at least when they no longer had any use for ‘em! Which was good for this marginally skint oldster.
As temporary keeper of the Doing The Rounds flame (A regular feature – MW), I also greatly enjoyed ride-outs as far afield as Northumberland and Cornwall, although some of them left me bruised, battered and panting with embarrassment. But the other regular feature that Si enthusiastically embraced whilst I was in situ was From The Archives which enabled me to revisit my early off-road days and the bikes we then rode. So I’d come full circle after all.
Which made an old fool very happy, and a bunch of new friends who still remain that way…
The spirit of TBM still lives on online in the vibrant form of Rust at http://www.rustsports.com And if you enjoyed my latest old rant, please sign up to get alerts each time I post a new one using the box on the RH panel… or add your own comment, as below.
Written whilst I was dividing my time fairly equally between London and Los Angeles (where I worked for Motorcyclist magazine – a publishing revelation to me), this was an only slightly tongue-in-cheek poke as the escalating cost of then learner legal sub-250cc bikes. The red revolution never happened of course, but there were some decent Commie machines, most notably from East Germany (MZ and Simpson), and some utter dogs, too, most notably from Russia (Voskhod and Ural anyone?).
WHILST FULLY APPRECIATING that some pretty strange doggerel has found its way past the sub-editing department of Bike magazine (the trick is to blithely assure the Editor that you sent your copy days before the deadline then, while he’s tearing his hair out wondering where the hell it’s got to, send it off on copy day with two Green Shield stamps and a childishly scrawled address on the envelope, so that it goes straight out of the In Tray to some incredulous typesetter), I must ask you to take the following very seriously.
I’m convinced that the Iron Curtain motorcycle manufacturers are going to take over the UK market within a matter of; well if not months, maybe within the next decade. Rubbish? (Or some stronger expletive?) Nah, figure it out for yourselves. Whilst our fledgling phoenix of an industry struggles to stuff a few more Bonnevilles and AJW Pointers (A dormant, pre-WW2 marque that resurfaced in the ‘70s with Italian-engined lightweights – MW) down the patriotic public’s neck, the eminently more sensible, decorous and reliable Japanese product which we have over the years drawn to our bosom like some sort of favourite orphan, has priced itself out of the market. Or almost.
The pound depreciates against the yen and suddenly we’re looking at massive retail hikes that put a fairly ordinary 250cc twin into the 800 quid bracket. (Happy days – MW). Why, four years ago a Honda CB250 went out the door with your wallet some 500 pounds the lighter. And it’s not just inflation, ’cause an MZ250 Sports has gone up just 25% in comparative retail cost during those same four years, but it’ll still hit you for less than half you’d pay to get a Honda 250 Dream proudly wearing a set of L–plates.
Which is almost where I came in. A magazine with which I am associated –and which the publishers of Bike, in their infinite wisdom, are somewhat coy about having mentioned in These Forthright Pages (WhichBike? – MW)– paced a CZ250 twin against a Yamaha RD250. Before you laugh your frocks off I will happily admit that the Yam was significantly faster than the CZ; it also dumped all over it in the braking department and scored tops in handling and roadholding. But then the CZ returned far more frugal fuel consumption, demanded less from your bank account when it comes to replacing worn or smashed parts and cost several hundred pounds less to buy in the first place. I can tell you’re still not impressed.
Well, when I was knee high to a gnat’s bollock, everyone and his kid brother ran BSA Bantams, or, if their parents owned chip shops in the suburbs, Francis-Barnett Plovers. Hire purchase was a dirty word in most households and, in any case, 25 notes would get you a damn fine example of British motorcycle engineering, albeit fifth–hand. But whilst these smokey little 2-strokes were as dull as Ex-Lax in their virgin form, we had Mr Reed’s Tuning For Speed as our bible.
Jeez, my first bike, a rigid frame Bantam if you please, was hardly in the garage before I had the files down its exhaust tract and a bigger carb stuck on the other side. Me and a pal, now sadly vegetating into his second marriage on a housing estate up north I hear, used to spend our evenings in preparation for the Saturday afternoon Grand Prix at the local slag heap, on his Greeves (his dad was a ‘motor trader’) and me on this snazzy gold-and-white Banti. With little money, less expertise and a lot of luck we wrought all sorts of nonsense on those bikes with, in my case, a massive seizure on turn two of our infamous dirt oval. One big bang and I was on my arse wondering where I could buy a decent used 250,
The notion of adding a few more BHP to your CB4OOF in the privacy of your own shed is fostered only by those with BSc (Eng) or a decent lathe. Which is perhaps just as well for the Piper Engineerings and Mochecks (Both then tuning parts suppliers – MW) of this world, but such specious reasoning bypasses the very real world of simple 2-strokes.
See, there is little to prevent you or me tinkering around with a CZ175 single, an electric drill fitted with a roto-file and a bunch of Jikov jets and coming up with four or five more horsepower. And of course it’s a low bucks operation. Don’t scoff, I’ve recently ridden just such a machine and nearly scared myself onto the verge of a particularly fast corner. Sure, this specific machine had some slightly more expensive alterations applied to the suspensions, but the basic engine tuning was no more adroit that6 your average backyard Bimbo could manage. Here in America you can get all sorts of hopped-up heads, barrels and gear clusters for literally dozens oft 2-stroke singles and twins, including‘ CZs… that’s of you’re too dumb or lazy to see ‘to your own sucking and breathing), and I see absolutely no reason why some smart UK outfit shouldn’t start Offering hot stuff for Commie ironware.
CZ have already cashed in on cosmetic avarice with their 250 Custom which, whilst it performs like the rather drab machine that it is, looks decidedly hotsie-totsie. So why don‘t they go the whole hog and offer a 13:1 head, twin carb version with matt black expansion chamber exhausts that‘ll have future Z250 owners falling over themselves at traffic lights? You don’t have to be dull to be different, after all.
We have witnessed the Russian, Polish and Czech car manufacturers slowly coming to grips with what the capitalist opposition are up to (there is even the threat of a Polski sports car on the horizon, believe it or not), to the point where at least two friends of mine whose wisdom in such matters I only question after several drinks, are actually driving around in Ladas, having recently forsook their Mazdas and Marinas (well, they weren’t that close friends). And with Jawa fielding works road racers, however embarrassingly, and MZ already producing a 5-speed 250 single that hits an honest 85mph, can we not speculate that the factories themselves might not already have their hammers and sickles wielded over some secret prototypes designed to hit the Japs where it hurts most – at the Sunday morning drag-offs and subsequently in the dealers’ showrooms?
Don’t laugh again, there is a plethora of irate Oriental bike owners who are incensed by the lack of parts available for their machines and the expensive strings attached to them. There are even more who are having to settle for a second or third-hand Suzuki or Yamaha (with all the attendant pitfalls) when they’d much rather go for new. An MZ with the right spec. and the right looks could tug their heart strings like nobody’s business.
Naturally the EEC fans amongst you will be screaming “Italian” at the tops of your voices by now, but take a look at what’s available in the under 500cc field, and take a look at the prices. Big Italian bikes might well score over the Jap stuff on both price and performance, but their 125 and 250cc machines are over-priced and/ or antiquated when objectively sized up alongside their oppos. I’ll tell you this much, riding a Suzuki PE175 around London was a whole lot more fun than you might think, and if CZ came up with a sharp-edged single in a slightly more sanitary mould, then even I’d think no more than twice about buying one.
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