Thursday, February 28, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: Tune up Your iPod/PMP

I tried listening to music, just once, while riding. We have an Autocom rider-pillion intercom installed on the beemer which Teri and I use to simplify those short, necessary on-bike conversions about which of the last four gas stations we've passed might have the cleanest restrooms. Or whether "bear right after fruit stand" means taking the dirt lane up the hill between the cottonwoods, or that long cambered sweeper that branches off 50 yards further down the road.

The Autocom on-bike communications system, by the way, is superb. Ours is almost 10-years old, lacks Bluetooth capability, but delivers remarkable sound. In addition to the things you'd expect like (fast) voice-activated microphones and expandability to integrate multiple audio devices, the sound quality of the volume-compensating, noise cancellation is remarkable. We have clear communications with visors cracked open at 85mph, and when you slow to a stop, the volume is adjusted automatically. The firmware was, after all, designed for battlefield use by helicopter crews. BTW Autocom now has plenty of Bluetooth-capable systems, but for some things I prefer wires anyway.

The one time I tried in-helmet music, using one of the open ports on the Autocom it was distracting as hell. Whether touring, commuting or riding on the track, a large component of the riding experience for me is total engagement with the bike. I read somewhere (okay, so this is HIGHLY anecdotal) that the complexity of environmental assessments, multiple control inputs and fast-cycle feedback loops, makes riding next in line to flying combat aircraft in demands on operator engagement. The music accompaniment experiment lasted about two hours, during which I drove too fast, too slow, daydreamed or was otherwise out-of-synch. Do fighter pilots listen to music in the air? Maybe I'm just easily distracted.

But during our Michigan season of little or no riding, the car audio system gets a full workout. Some tunes about biking would be fun. Unfortunately, music about motorcycling is just as scarce as are good books about riding. To the rescue come Cecilie Hoffman and Carolyn Bierman. Cecilie (Cecilie's MotoJournal) has published an updated list of motorcycle-inspired music, a list that was first begun by Carolyn Bierman (BluepoofBikes Motorcycle Adventures) in 2006. They even have compiled lyrics for the 34 songs listed. Cecilie's site is organized in frames, so I can't give you a direct link to the song list, but as of this post (February 28, 2008) the list is accessed on the current-entry page. In the future you should be able to navigate to it by going to Cecilie's site and under 2008, click through the February listings to the entry on February 16th.

Thanks Cecilie and Carolyn.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: What's on your wall?

Part I - My back wall
Somewhere -- in the garage, your den, living room, home office, basement workshop -- is where you wear your motorcycling heart on your shirtsleeve.

During the university's winter break, I took a week off work to, among other things, get in some motorcycling "head" time. I'd been off the bike for six weeks by then. I went with Dave and Tim to the International Motorcycle Show near Detroit, read "Top Dead Center" and "Riding with Rilke," and updated my home office with some new images.

If you're like me, and many of my riding friends, you collect posters, books and photos on a regular basis -- and store them on a shelf till they turn yellow and brittle. Living in a riding locale where winter means snow on the ground and salt on the streets, this is a great time to see the riding on the wall.

This past fall I discovered an eBay store (Classic Motorcycle Ads) that sells vintage motoring ads. These are ad pages cut from original magazines, not photocopies. In high school, I had two bikes, a 1966 Moto Guzzi 125 Sport and a 1967 BSA 441 Shooting Star that I had never taken pictures of. So, for old-times sake, and for less than $10 apiece I found a mint-condition ad for each and put them under glass on the left side of the wall behind my desk.

If you've never seen the work of motorcycle artist Kendge Shibata (Seevert Works Gallery), you have to visit his site. Although my interests favor European singles and twins, his paintings of landmark Japanese GP bikes parallel the precision of the machinery he paints. When you visit his site observe his process in creating a single image. One of Shibata's newest and most remarkable works is a large-format poster of 21 Honda GP bikes from 1959-1967 titled ""The Legendary Attempt to Dominate the Road Racing World Championship: The Glorious Years of Honda Screaming Multis." You can see an image of the poster on Shibata's site, but he does not sell them to the U.S. I purchased mine from the "Soup Army" store (a.k.a. Hardscrabble Media), who have them available from time-to-time. This became the center-piece of the back wall.

Finally, two pictures, among several black and whites from the pages of the British publication "Bike" went up on the right. This was a series run in 1999 of "Bike" editors and their rides. A lot of character is expressed in these images. Top: one of the editors and his crew with their race bike -- race faces on. Gritty looking guys, these. Bottom: An image we can identify with - one of the editors, lying on his back on what we presume to be a cold damp shed floor, tearing into the vitals of his bike, by the eye-straining illumination of a single, old fashioned drop-light. No heated garage, no fluorescent lighting, no epoxy-finish floor (no space either from what I've seen of the typical UK bike shed). Just desire to be back on the road.

I wish I could dig up the names of these guys. Come to think of it, I bet I still have those back issues on the book shelves in here...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "Top Dead Center" by Kevin Cameron

This is the book that made my winter, January 2008.

In retrospect, Kevin Cameron's adult motorcycling life, at least the glimpses recounted in "Top Dead Center," is the life I would have liked to have fallen into. I just had no idea that such a life was there to fall into. I grew up in Michigan, bought a used Moto Guzzi 125 in high school and when it wasn't snowing, rode around with a pal who owned a Honda 305 Scrambler. We daydreamed about racing motorcycles. That there were actually amateur roadracers on real roadrace circuits in these United States was as unimaginable to us in the late '60s as was getting a date with Joan Baez.

The book jacket describes "Top Dead Center" as a collection of Kevin Cameron's columns and feature writing beginning with a 1973 article he contributed to Cycle Magazine. His writings as technical editor for Cycle became the column "TDC", and continued when Cycle was absorbed (... or "was disappeared") in 1991 by then sister publication Cycle World. "Top Dead Center" the book is much more than a collection of Cameron's articles and columns. It's a core sample through 30 years of motorcycle technology exposing an ecosystem in which racing is the drive that surfaces what biologists call "evolutionary fitness."

Cameron's account of this ecosystem is personal and anecdotal - but he has been in the places, lived alsongside the people, tested the technology and ridden the machines that qualify his observations as candid and authentic, if not comprehensive. This is an entertaining and insightful read. About everything from what racers eat, to what they think and do when they crash.

What is a "day-in-the-life" of young privateers challenging multiple factory racing teams? Describe Erv Kanemoto in the day before his teams won 7 world championships. What gumption does it take for a New Zealand glass artist and his small team to think they can push the edge of motorcycle engine and chassis technology out by almost 20 years (John Britten)? How does one man and his economic vision transform a post-war American market from a tiny, nearly homogeneous two-wheel culture to a diverse competitive global marketplace where more than one-million new motorcycles are purchased every year (Soichiro Honda). What's it like "Being Ben Bostrom" and just how smart is Kenny Roberts Sr?

It's all in there. Inside Kevin Cameron. In his head, in his heart, in his hide. 30 years in the telling. We are all lucky he'll put this much between two covers for less than the cost of an oil-change.

In closing, a bit of serendipity. I was Googling for more Kevin Cameron bio, when this turned up. I don't know whether it is more remarkable that it was prescient of Dean Adams (founder and head mole at to ask this question, or that he interviewed Kevin Cameron at the 1994 USGP and published this interview, in what we used to call a webzine, in 1994. Here with Dean Adams' gracious permission:
"Q. Do you see a time when you might publish a book of TDCs?

A. I think it would be an interesting thing to do. I’d like to run it up the pole once to see what response I was given. It’s probably better to self-publish something like that and I just don’t have the money nor can I see myself fumbling off to the post office each morning with twenty-eight little packages or loading my computer memory with address or cutting my tongue with uncountable stamps. But if I could turn everything over to a publisher - sure. Nice thing about books is they stay written whereas magazine articles have to be written every month."

copyright 1997 by Hardscrabble Media

For the complete interview: "The Interview: Kevin Cameron"

Friday, February 08, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "The Perfect Vehicle" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

If "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop is the latest personal riding journal I've enjoyed, then "The Perfect Vehicle (What it is About Motorcycles)" was the first. In 1999 "The Perfect Vehicle" was the first motorcycle enthusiast book I'd read since recounting the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse in "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" to our children at the dinner table.

As a young rider in high school and college I don't recall books on motorcycling adventure. The exception was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which I borrowed from a friend my last year in college when it was first published. I discovered too many parallels between Robert Pirsig's first life (as Phaedrus) and my own, and gave it up to return to my own manic scholarship. I did read the 25th anniversary edition - 30 years after the first attempt.

I came across Melissa Holbrook Pierson's "The Perfect Vehicle" browsing in the original Borders Book Shop (Tom and Louis Borders started with a small used bookstore, here in Ann Arbor, in the early '70s). I had just ordered my first bike in more than 20 years, with the generous encouragement of my wife, Teri, and was feeling self-conscious of this classic mid-life behavior. Maybe it was pre-delivery buyer's remorse.

I had lots of questions. Would I enjoy riding? Was this a smart idea? Could I do this? Could I ride again - would it come back to me? I was registered for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation "refresher" course, so I had the right plan, just not the refresher.

I admit that the deciding factor in buying the little paperback was the cover. A finely detailed rendering of the Moto Guzzi 500cc V8 GP bike of 1954. Maybe the most exotic motorcycle to that time. Only two were built. My first bike had been a 1966 Moto Guzzi - a 125cc single, with only a little more engineering sophistication than a lawn mower, but Italian styling - which is why I bought that as well.

In many ways this was an ideal starter "first-person" account by a beginning enthusiast. Enthusiasm in all caps. Melissa Holbrook Pierson recounts her personal journey through passions for bikes she hungers for, bike she owns, failures mechanical, spiritual and romantic. Her first encounters with track days and motorcycle racing, and stories of a legion of fellow riders that even literati can admire, women motorcycle racers, sensitive and silent mechanics, and friends who ride skillfully and joyfully with prosthetic limbs.

The telling of these tales, and the many anecdotes, historical perspectives and statistics outside the frame of the author's voice, could be interpreted as urgent, almost frenetic in pace and amplitude. On further reflection, it mirrors much of my early days of motorcycling. The self-doubt before mastering a new skill (the slow mid-parking lot U-turn at 5 mph - riders know what I mean), the calming endorphin rush after a long ride "in-the-flow" or a fast, safe day at the track. And the regular reminder that most things that break on a motorcycle are the simple things - the ones we look for last.

If you are new to riding, or contemplating owning a motorcycle, Pierson's book is one enthusiast's (all caps, again) personal journey into a life of new priorities, new friends and cautionary realities. Pierson's insistent voice is sometimes a distraction in the diary-like recounting of her journey's astride "The Perfect Vehicle." All the same, in 1997 it was something of a landmark in the compact history of motorcycle literature. Read it like you learn to ride: a chapter at a time. A new lesson learned. More surprises ahead.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop

Last week a group of riders on the "oilheads" list
("") -- owners of boxer-engine BMWs from 1994-on -- discussed salted and sanded roadways, and cold tires and pavement as possible causes of a minor spill by a fellow rider out on a 40 F degree day. It became clear, after looking over the origins of the posts, that these opinions reflected one group whose local climate requires a more or less clear end of the riding season for 2 - 5 months, and another who ride year-round. The latter able to ride, not out of bravery or lack of sense - but by choice or luck in geographic location. This was reflected in the sentiments of a Florida member who opined that he has no time to clean his bike at the end of the season because the last riding season ends on December 31, and the new one begins on January 1.

The hidden tragedy of mono-seasonal riding will be lost on this fellow rider. Having no time even to clean and polish his steed also means he lacks an appropriate season for reading and reflection on the experiences of others. I do, aplenty. Here are a few of my favorite books on the experience of riding. Maybe another time I'll share favorite books on the technical side of tuning bikes and riding technique; racer biographies; coffee table books...

"Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop
For fans of the German romanticist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose compassionate poems of angels inspired Wim Wenders' haunting film "Wings of Desire" (US release 1988), you may be disappointed to find Rilke gets just a page in the Epilogue. But Bishop, by trade a professor of English at the University Alberta, Edmonton, cites one stanza of Rilke to capture what I think all of us ride for. That moment in a ride when the bike disappears beneath us and we cease to ride but to fly like the shaft of light from our headlights, "...when I seemed to be riding that beam, to be that beam, streaming down the open highway. Pure motion. Pure space."

Although Ted Bishop is a scholar of modernist writers Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, his writing is evidence again that when PhD's or pipefitters get on our bikes, we all meet in a parallel universe of shared experiences. The desire to get to the byways of the heartland. To sense the change when the road dips low into a pool cool moist air at the edge of a marsh. To smell the air we cut through - a damp forest, a barn of ripe manure by the road, the scent of fabric softener streaming from a dryer vent somewhere - all insensible to the occupants of a passing car. Planning for a trip, aren't we all overtaken with that irrational justification of needful purchases to make the trip safer and more comfortable: accessories for the bike, a new helmet, boots, gear and maybe... a new bike.

Bishop's scholarly interests coincide with the unique physicality of riding the open road as it transform the journey into the most revealing component of the destination. He's an archive junkie. Diving into the physical archives collected from a writer's daily world and those close to him or her, are to him, like a weeks-long ride rich with the unexpected: tangible, physical delights and disappointments.

So convincingly does Bishop illustrate the parallels with archival scholarship and the road trip, that he received an arts grant to describe the experience he acquired riding his Ducati Monster from Edmonton to Austin, Texas on a research trip. To make the telling of the trip even more meaningful, Ted Bishop wrote his book while convalescing from a massive highway crash that left him in a body cast for several months. The book begins and ends with this experience. The road trip is the memory recounted from inside that suit of
plastic armor.

I met Ted Bishop a week ago at an author reading in an independent bookstore here in Ann Arbor. A wet heavy snow was falling hard and the audience was small. His animated reading, personal anecdotes and long friendly chat with others after the reading were evidence of how much he cares about riding, his profession and sharing both with anyone in range of voice or pen. I have several friends who are distinguished scholars and who have been enthusiastic riders. I enjoyed Ted Bishop's literary insights as much as the ones from behind his windscreen. I'm not a person of letters, but this was one of the best road-trips I've read since Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley." "Riding with Rilke" is a best-seller in Canada. Read it and tell a friend about it.

I meant to write more. Coming next:

"The Perfect Vehicle" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson (1997);
...which I selected because of the cover illustration - the 1954, 500cc Moto Guzzi V8 GP bike

"Top Dead Center" by Kevin Cameron (2007)
... because I've always wanted to be a curmudgeon with a racing pedigree and an engineering degree from MIT who writes for Cycle World.

"She's a Bad Motorcycle" edited by Geno Zanetti (2002)
... because this is a compilation of classic motorcycle lore culled from the writings of 25 different gifted rider-authors.

The First Post

Ulrich ("Uli"), a fellow biker, born and educated in Germany, and who now does learning technology research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, recently expressed my own sentiments about blogging (paraphrased): "I don't understand you Americans. What on earth could you have so much to say about that any of us could have the time or interest to read?" Exactly.

So what hypocrisy is this?

Ostensibly, I'm writing this for me. During a recent stressful season at work, a friend suggested that I write something, anything, every day. The topic didn't matter, the length of prose didn't matter. Just express something. So I am. We'll see if there's benefit.
I picked my favorite topic: motorcycling. The two-wheeled adventure, at whatever pace, is solitary with a bit of thrill factor - like doing timed crosswords.

On standardized personality profiles, I'm always a borderline introvert/extrovert. As an introvert, I am re-energized by solitary pursuits like riding and writing. Many extroverts need an audience just to think clearly - thinking and expression happen at the same time.

So there needs to be a "you" out there - imagined or real - for this expression to emerge. You are another vehicle on which my rational thinking rides - perhaps even some thread of my sanity. I make no apologies - like the riding, I'm doing this for me.
You are welcome to ride along.

John Merlin Williams