Monday, 4 May 2015

Editorial - Evolution

Aprilia Tuono Big Sky


In the course of working on this site I glean over a lot of road tests, previews, reviews, and rider feedback for whatever weird bike I happen to be in the process of profiling. It gives me an opportunity to get period insight into the machines, and the context surrounding their introduction, which plays an important role in telling the story. For me context is just as important as hindsight when talking about some long-dead company or motorcycle; we have a tendency to view the past through our own lens, which isn't fair or a good way to preserve history. The fact that we motorcyclists are some of the most fickle, prissy and critical assholes out there doesn't help when you are trying to do justice to a design. We will sooner remember it as a worthless piece of shit than the forward-looking product of a starry-eyed designer who must have thought he/she was going to change the world. Or vice-versa.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I've noticed an even more interesting undercurrent in the numerous articles and comments I constantly sift through, and that's a noticeable change in the quality of motojournalism. When you read reviews from the past four or five decades and compare them to the work being published today, you notice some peculiar trends. You can trace the evolution of motorcycle journalism. And it's not good. I'd like to address it, and in so doing lay out a new model for what I'm doing here on OddBike.


Aprilia Tuono Alberta

Road tests and profiles of vehicles are, with few exceptions, a mere shadow of what they once were. I've read some spectacularly well done reviews, and nearly without fail they were written before 1990. Somewhere along the way we began dumbing down and fluffing up the content to do… what exactly? That much isn't clear. You can pick up an issue of Cycle magazine from the 1970s and get immersed in a long-form article that gives superb technical detail mixed with wit and engaging storytelling, all the while giving an excellent impression of the machine on review. Nowadays you can expect a formulaic, cliché-littered scrap of prose that is so inoffensive and dull that it gives no true indication of what a machine is like to ride, particularly in the North American rags. You can easily substitute the name of any other machine in the category and the format would be the same, as would the conclusions. If you do luck into finding any technical info, it's invariably regurgitated straight from the press material and the presentation often lacks any semblance of understanding on the part of the writer, if they manage to avoid egregious errors in the process. It's as if the reviewers are either A. too dumb to come up with anything interesting to write, or B. prevented from doing so by heavy-handed editors and advertisers, or C. some combination of the two.

Aprilia Tuono Alberta

I had a discussion with one of my coworkers about this issue several weeks ago. He had just picked up a wrecked Aprilia that he was putting back together and worried if it would be any good to ride; poring over reviews had revealed nothing about the real character of the bike, and he has been debating if he will fix it to keep it or flip it for a profit. Barring some horrifying defect I can't imagine it would be truly terrible to ride, but like him I had no real impression of what the damned thing was supposed to be like despite reading numerous reviews over the years. And it's like that for most modern machines. The ones I have been fortunate enough to ride myself almost never jive with the impressions I've read in print. Why the disconnect? I’m not a professional rider but I am capable of forming an opinion and noting the essential characteristics of a motorcycle. I can convey those qualities to another person and make them understand what it's like to ride that bike. Why are these so-called "professionals" incapable of doing the same? They get paid to do exactly that.

My coworker, an industry veteran, made an important note: there are very few opinions in print he would actually trust. He told the story of the launch of a new 450 dirt bike from a certain major brand that was held in the area. One of the shop's technicians, who happened to be a seasoned dirt racer, was asked to lead a group of journalists on an off-road ride nearby. He took them to a popular trail, which included a moderately difficult hill to climb. He rode up the hill, and then turned around to discover that most of the "professionals" present couldn't manage and were refusing to follow him.

Aprilia Tuono Banff

These are the people who are writing reviews of machines that you read to determine what you are going to buy. These are the writers whose words you take as gospel. Their writing can make or break the success of a model. Talented riders around the world will be reading their impressions and deciding if that 450 is right for them. And you can be sure as shit they would have been fluffing up their abilities in those reviews, when in fact they couldn't ride up that goddamned hill outside Calgary.

Aprilia Tuono Nanton Air Museum

I recall reading, and I apologize that my gnat-like attention span precludes me from remembering where, one of the leading writers who worked through the glory days into the modern era talking about how the exponential increase in the performance and handling of sports motorcycles in the early- to mid-Eighties inspired him to encourage his fellow journalists to become more proficient riders to suit. They needed to do track days, to become professional riders with advanced skills, because the bikes were progressing so far beyond their capabilities that they needed to learn how to be better riders just to keep up and properly evaluate this new breed of machine. There was a meaningful attempt to inspire a better breed of tester.

Aprilia Tuono Crowsnest Pass

Where and when did that mandate get lost? Nowadays most reviewers are more likely to inflate their riding abilities and pretend to be capable of thoroughly evaluating a 200 HP Superbike because they didn't crash it on their way to the office (or in some cases, because they did). There are still a few publications I trust more than others for their ability to properly evaluate a motorcycle. Any article written by a current or former racer, amateur or professional, is worth a read. Road Racing World and Sport Rider generally seem to get it right, though the latter has a propensity for the kind of stupid nit-picking "shootouts" that I thoroughly despise. Motorcycle.com and Motorcycle-USA are not bad (also free), and might even include a real opinion on occasion. But in general it seems a lot to expect a thorough and interesting profile that lives up to those glorious old articles from the good old days.

I can say, without hesitation, that my opinion is NOT the product of rosy nostalgia – I'm young and I grew up reading the fluffy crap. I didn't discover those old articles until recently. I instantly recognized their quality, and how superficial and boring more recent work has become.

Aprilia Tuono Fernie BC

Of course there is the other extreme espoused by the cockney British sportbike mags. The ones who play up the trope of being staffed by a bunch of hooligan nutbar menaces to society. The ones who somehow manage to continue securing expensive test bikes despite crashing them with alarming frequency. Their honesty is brutal, and completely free of class. They can be entertaining for a bit but after a while their antisocial blue-collar squid shtick tends to wear thin, as does their crudity and sexism. Telling me a bike "is shit" because it spit you off and committed suicide in the nearest ditch rather than continue to be subject to your reckless technique isn't a meaningful review. It's the sort of crap you read in the GSXR forums.    

Aprilia Tuono Crowsnest Lake

Aside from a few good articles written by the old timers who were around to learn their trade in the glory days, and the odd freelancer who isn't afraid to express an opinion, the current motorcycle writing landscape is bleak and bland. It's probably not a coincidence that Cycle World has started pushing their digital back catalogue as much as their current content. And I for one am happy to read those issues from 20-30-40 years ago, because damned if they aren't far better than the drivel they are publishing today.

Every time I go to the newsstand and peruse the latest issues of the popular mags, I think to myself "if there is some good stuff in here I'll buy a copy". I never do. I'm able to glean everything I need to know by speed reading through the copy; I might take the time to look at the sidebars and editorials for some meaningful opinions. But I'm almost never surprised, delighted or interested. So they get put back on the shelf. The only magazine I find halfway decent and that I actively seek out is Britain's RIDE - a publication that is sadly underappreciated and poorly circulated here in North America.

Aprilia Tuono Lake Louise

Even the good content you come across nowadays is usually published in painfully abridged format. When was the last time you slogged through a proper Kevin Cameron technical article, one that left you scratching your head and seeking to learn more just so you could understand what he was going on about? When was Peter Egan's last great personal tale of charming, befuddled derring-do? If you've read all three volumes of Leanings you'd know it wasn't anytime recently. Those recent stories are too short, too impersonal, too much like what everyone else is writing.

The online stuff I usually peruse isn't necessarily better, but it's free, so at least I don't feel like I've been swindled out of my 5.95$ when I read a bunch of hackneyed crap crowded on all sides by obnoxious advertising. Plus I'll get word of the latest news and releases in real time, not two or three months after the fact.

I personally uphold Hot Rod Magazine as a fantastic example of how to do things properly while still maintaining a wide readership and keeping the sponsors happy. I don't even like American cars, but I recognize the good work they are doing. A lot of the classic car magazines manage to pull this off. The content and writing is good, the technical detail is great and easy to understand, the tests and projects are fun and interesting, and in Hot Rod's case they've managed to develop strong online content (i.e. Roadkill) that blows the motorcycle media into the weeds. The subjects can sometimes be fluffy but it has still got a genuine, honest quality that most of the motorcycle magazines lack.

Aprilia Tuono Lake Louise

Why can't we have that in the motorcycle world? Where's our Hot Rod? Where's our Roadkill? I think there are two major hurdles: 1. we are a tiny, insular and isolated market compared to anything related to car culture and 2. nobody has developed a model in our realm that could support that kind of content. Hot Rod has major corporate sponsors and advertisers, but they stay honest and fun without pissing them off - and that honesty lends them immense credibility. Years ago the bike mags were supported by subscribers, and content was driven by the readership. They had enough money kicking around to do cool things, side projects and builds that kept readers engaged, and advertisers had less control over the content. In this (idealized) model the writers and editors answered to the readers, not the sponsors. Today we have the opposite situation, where the readers are merely traffic being directed towards advertisers. Content takes a backseat to advertorial clickbait. Woe be to the ones who dare spout off in a way that contradicts what the advertisers like to hear.

Maybe Hot Rod and similar publications get away with an extra helping of honesty because they cater to long-defunct products. Along those lines I've got a fondness for classic bike magazines, provided they don't start waxing lyrical about how superb the brakes are on a Scott Squirrel, or how a BSAJS-Nortriumphenfield is truly a reliable beast if you are blind to shipwright's disease and have thrown 15,000$ of modern parts at the engine and electrical system. They tend to be more honest than most, as long as they aren't nostalgizing out of their asses or trying to justify their irrational perversions toward some creaky piece of shit. They also tend to have a dearth of young writers on staff, perhaps for obvious reasons, and their content tends towards the "good but devastatingly boring" side of the continuum.

Aprilia Tuono Lake Louise

That's not to say it's ALL bad in the moto media, or that there isn't any good journalism out there. I suppose just like any other medium there is inevitably good and bad content; it just seems like the good stuff is much harder to find, and it's been watered down to the point of worthlessness, or its found well outside the mainstream and known only to a select group of readers. My big gripe is that nobody seems capable or willing to properly evaluate a machine in a memorable way. Sure, modern bikes are pretty much good across the board and there aren't many turkeys out there, but if you can't convey the dynamic qualities of a machine in print then you aren't a good reviewer.

And if you think that the results of the latest supersport or superbike or super-middle-heavyweight track day-shootout-extra-ordinaire is a reliable way to review machines, then you are an idiot. They have no value beyond satisfying the mouth-breathing masses who think 3 hp at the top of a dyno curve is what makes bike XYZ the BEST machine. Spec sheet racing is for squids and fools. I could hand you the keys to two bikes - each with the same wet weight, each with the same engine configuration, each with near-as-dammit the same power and torque figures at the rear wheel. They might even appear to have similar dyno curves. Ride them back to back and you'll realize that, despite matching on paper, these two machines are so vastly different to ride that they probably shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence, let alone compared and graded against each other on a formulaic spreadsheet.

That doesn't mean one is better than the other – I might prefer bike A, you might prefer bike B. One might be better suited to certain situations. They are probably both pretty damned good, which is the case with any supersport or superbike machine on the market today – they are all obscenely good, highly polished, ridiculously fast, great fun to ride, and trying to claim one is better than another based on scorecards is useless pedantic bullshit. Next time you see one of those dumb comparison shootouts, be sure to carefully read through the comments made by the testers outside of the main copy of the article. You'll notice that they often choose a completely different machine as their personal winner, rather than what "won" the shootout. Wonder why that is?

Kawasaki H2

I've gotten on bikes that exhibited NONE of the qualities shared in the reviews I had read, which always makes me wonder if handing out press ringers is still common practice or if these journalists are just incapable of accurately evaluating a machine. Look at the dull as shit reviews of the utterly bonkers Kawasaki H2 for a good example of how wrong things can go. I've seen dyno graphs that show the stock, street-legal H2 is knocking out 200 hp at the wheel, and enough torque to tow a Freightliner, and somehow no review has conveyed how that engine feels aside from some vague statements about it being pretty gosh-darned fast. This is the most technologically advanced and hyped bike of 2015, the most powerful production motorcycle ever sold with a warranty, the most ridiculous example of hyperbolic engineering we've seen in years, and the knobs who have been allowed to ride it are writing reviews that make it sound like riding it is about as exciting as droning down the Interstate on a NC700. One twist of the wrist aboard that bugfuck insane example of man's hubris should have you pissing yourself in fear as you forever alter your conception of power, and I want to hear about how it scarred your psyche and permanently warped your sense of time and space.

Kawasaki H2

But nevermind the H2, because we have lots of articles on the latest crop of Adventure Tourers and whole sidebars dedicated to explaining the function of whatever gimmicky bullshit technological doodad they slapped on their barge to one-up the competition in some worthless way. CORNERING LIGHTS?!

Recently Wes Siler came out of the woodwork to put out a call for "the next great motorcycle blog". It was an interesting piece, one that got forwarded to me immediately because Wes somehow managed to describe exactly what I was doing here on OddBike while being completely oblivious to the site. He even suggested someone should go to New Orleans and get drunk with JT Nesbitt to cover the Bienville Legacy. Ha.

Bienville Studios New Orleans

In any case Wes' ideas inspired some interesting conversations in the blogosphere and got the wheels turning in my mind. But not for the reasons most readers might think. I have zero interest in monetizing OddBike in any traditional manner, nor would I ever allow this site to devolve into a bunch of Gawker-esque clickbait in the relentless pursuit of traffic. What struck me as important was the fact that Wes so perfectly summarized what I was up to without knowing anything about OddBike – and that’s a problem.

Aprilia Tuono Crowsnest Lake

More people need to be aware of what we are up to here, and more people need to be visiting my site. Not for the money, but to keep a cool and fun project going strong. I've seen the traffic decline on my site because I'm unable to post updates frequently enough. Dumbing down the content and increasing the frequency of posts is not the answer. Quitting my day job and devoting myself to OddBike is the romantic and insane solution, one that I would love to do but cannot due to little things like "responsibilities" and "rent" and "crippling debts".

I've done well here by refusing to participate in the existing system, carving out my own strange little niche. But OddBike is limited by my own time and energy. I've been mulling over some ideas, and the development of new model to help this site grow:

Aprilia Tuono Crowsnest Lake

We need to address the failures of the traditional media. Let's bring the readers back into the process. Eliminate the corporate sponsors and advertisers entirely, unless they are willing to support the content as readers who happen to be business owners rather than as corporate entities. For example: Michael Walshaw from Kriega USA approached me prior to the first OddBike USA Tour in 2013. He wanted to supply me with luggage for the trip. I was leery of accepting contributions from a company and politely declined. I met Michael while in was in Alabama, and it turned out that he was the real deal and a good friend of a friend. He genuinely wanted to help out and do his bit to sponsor a fellow rider; the corporate side of his contribution was irrelevant. I felt guilty for turning him down, and so I got in touch with him this year about supplying some kit for the second USA Tour that will be happening this fall. He graciously obliged. I will use his product and review it in the USA Tour Part II travelogue not because Kriega USA sponsored OddBike but because Michael deserves the exposure for helping out this site and believing in what I'm doing. That's the kind of genuine no-strings-attached sponsorship I want to cultivate for this site. It has no bearing on the content, it won't annoy my readers, and it won't prevent me from remaining honest.

Let's continue to have content drive the traffic, and use reader support and sponsorship to support the site and generate new stuff. Right now OddBike is all me, all the time. That's hard to maintain when you work a gruelling full-time job that leaves you completely braindead most evenings, limiting your productive writing time to your days off (which encroaches upon your other hobbies, like actually riding motorcycles rather than wistfully and passionately writing about them). To help supplement my own writing, I'd like to bring in outside contributors. Editorials and offbeat reviews would be welcome, with an eye towards anything unusual and interesting (and well-written) that would fit the weird little niche I've carved out here over the past 2-ish years.

Aprilia Tuono Alberta

Crowdfunding from readers is, in my mind, the most appealing method of generating some modest revenue to cover site-related expenses. Then I answer to the readers alone and the only expectation is that I'll continue to provide good content. I also like the idea of getting funded without putting any restrictions on the content. By which I mean you don't have to pay to continue getting OddBike, and I won't start any of that bullshit "VIP content" for paying sponsors. OddBike is and always will be 100% free and available to anyone.

The problem with that idea is that crowdfunding is limited in scope and timeframe. I've used Indiegogo in the past and the maximum amount of time I can run a campaign is 60 days. And throwing out a big fat number that covers some vague annual budget seems unlikely to succeed. I like the idea of funding individual projects and trips, where the money can be put to a use that has a clear result – you can see how your funding has benefited the site, and a specific goal is achieved within a specific timeframe. To this end I'll be running another Indiegogo campaign starting in June to help fund the second OddBike USA Tour. I'll see how that goes and determine what I'll be doing with future campaigns.

Rather than running a bunch of small campaigns, there are now longer term options like Patreon that allow me to set up continual funding. I've been mulling over the idea, but I dislike their model that pushes monthly debits rather than lump sum contributions. I'm not sure it's a great fit for OddBike. Personally I'd be happy to drop a few bucks on a campaign I like, but I sure as shit wouldn't want them snatching repeated payments off my credit card. I like to think of myself as the model OddBike follower – if I don't like it, I doubt y'all would either.

Aprilia Tuono Banff

There is always the problem of overcomplicating something that has purity in its simplicity. I don't want to make OddBike a job, nor do I dare expose it to the corruptions that have felled once great sites like Hell for Leather. Making OddBike better and bigger without making it complicated and unwieldy for me to manage is a balancing act that I'm just beginning to become aware of. I don't want to repeat the mistakes of other site owners. I don't want to corrupt what is currently an elegantly simple system – me sharing my passion for bikes. I hope that remaining lucid and aware of that is enough to keep things in check.

Aprilia Tuono Black Diamond

Long term funding requires more thought. I don't need money to continue this site, and I hate the complication it brings. But getting funding for travel would be useful – it would be a great way to expand the scope of the site by performing interviews and obtaining photographs, and I adore writing travelogues. In a selfish sense, I enjoy traveling, period. I could snag some seat time aboard some of the bikes I write about and do some legitimate road tests in my own inimitable style. I've already had offers to test some of the machines I've profiled IF I can get my ass down to meet the builders, something I've so far been unable to do due to my perpetual lack of funds and extremely limited vacation time.

All of this is to say I'm thinking about ways I can expand OddBike without selling out. The model is a work in progress - and I welcome feedback and ideas. I'd also like to see if anyone is interested in publishing their work here. In the meantime, it's business as usual.

Aprilia Tuono Alberta Sky

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