Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

19 September 2010

Imitation: Sincerest Form of Flattery

A fellow blogger who sometimes writes about flying is a motorcyclist as well. After a long hiatus he decided to buy a bike again. After much deliberation he is now the proud owner of an Italian job called a Moto Guzzi. I’m happy to see any rider get back “in the wind” as we say, even if it is on a quirky, un-mainstream bike like the Guzzi. If the bike is dependable and he takes good care of it, he’ll have tons of fun, which is what life is all about, right?

This blogger read the story I wrote about the trip my friend Jacob and I took to Key West. Knowing that Jacob’s Honda Shadow and my Harley Sportster are very similar bikes, he wrote:
“Did you ride the Shadow?
Compare and contrast with your Sportster if you have the time Bob.”

Happy to oblige! I started to write it as a response to my original post, but then decided it could use a post of its own.

Harley-Davidson has been making the Sportster model since 1957. Although much-improved (the new ones even have fuel-injection!), the 2010 version retains the same basic configuration and much of the styling as the original: two-cylinder, V-twin engine displacing 883cc’s. It’s an elemental, lightweight, no-frills motorcycle – just an engine, a small gas tank and two wheels. To my eye, it is what a motorcycle should look like (and be). When it was first introduced, it was a powerhouse! The Sportster is inarguably the first “superbike,” a term that has come to mean the ultimate in performance and handling. There was really nothing like it on the market. Triumph and BSA had their 650cc twins, but nothing could match the Sportster for raw performance. The Sporty was king!

With little competition, the Sportster held onto its reign throughout the 1960’s. Ah, but then came the Japanese. In 1969 Honda introduced the legendary four-cylinder CB750 model. It was amazingly fast, smooth and refined. The age of the Japanese superbike had begun. In 1973 Kawasaki rewrote the book on performance with their own superbike, the incredibly powerful 900cc Z-1. (I have two of these awesome bikes in my garage: an original 1973 Z-1 and a 1978 Z-1R.) By the late 1970’s, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki all produced scads of inexpensive, reliable, high-performance motorcycles that fed the craze occurring in the U.S. at the time.

The Sportster, which seemed so fast in the 1960’s was now bog-slow by comparison. Due to the old design of the engine, there was no way Harley could make it competitive (meaning: fast) with the new technology appearing in the bikes from Japan, Inc. Rather than change the design, Harley kept it the same, and ironically kept selling as many as they could build. See, not everyone needs to have the fastest or quickest or best-handling bike in existence. The Sportster…the bog-slow, old-technology, “boat anchor” of a motorcycle…still offered a certain riding experience that other motorcycles did not.

This fact did not go unnoticed by Japan, Inc. In 1983, Honda began introducing models targeted at Harley-Davidson, specifically the Sportster. First was the Shadow 750. It had the same basic design elements: teardrop gas tank and V-twin engine, but that engine was water-cooled and had overhead cams. Thus it was quieter and smoother and more reliable (because it didn’t shake itself to pieces like the Sportster engine did…and still does).

Then came a whole slew of models from various manufacturers, all trying to out-Sportster the Sportster with varying levels of success. The current Honda Shadow 750 is almost a dead-ringer for a Sportster – it’s that good…of a copy. But it lacks a certain…something…an indefinable quality that Harleys have always possessed. Some Harley owners call it “soul,” or “personality”…whatever. Harleys are merely different. It’s hard to describe or explain. You just have to ride one to understand. Trouble is, not everyone appreciates the Harley difference. Jacob, for one.

That's Jacob's Honda Shadow Spirit 750 on the left, and my 883 Sportster on the right on the beach in Apalachicola, Florida. You can clearly see where Honda got their, um, "inspiration" for the design of the Shadow.

Jacob’s is a 2003 Shadow 750, meaning that the engine displaces 750cc’s. Most full-size motorcycle engines these days displace anywhere between 1200 and 1500cc’s, so the Shadow and my 883cc Sportster are now considered “middle-weights.” These two bikes are about equally-matched in acceleration, and both turn in almost exactly the same gas mileage (55-60 mpg on the highway). Both have plenty of power, can carry a passenger without breaking a sweat, and both will easily run up to 100 mph or so.

Jacob does not like it when we trade bikes. He calls the Sportster “a truck,” which I suppose is fair. The clutch lever takes considerable effort to pull, despite Harley’s efforts over the years to reduce it. The front and rear brakes take deliberate energy to operate; these are not “two-finger” motorcycles like the newer designs. Although the engine is rubber-mounted, it pounds like a jackhammer and you can feel the vibration resonating through the frame, footpegs and handlebars. It occasionally backfires out the carburetor when blipping the throttle, especially if you didn’t let it warm up long enough. The transmission emits a loud CLANK! when shifting gears, both up and down. The shift lever looks like something you’d see in the cockpit of a steam locomotive. The suspension travel is small, and the ride is rough. Overall, the Sportster feels like something from the early Industrial Age.

On the other hand, the Shadow is like a Sportster with all the rough edges polished off. The liquid-cooled, dual-carburetor engine runs flawlessly: smoothly and unobtrusively. Punch the starter button and go. All the controls work fluidly, with minimal effort: a Honda trademark. The clutch requires a light pull, and the transmission snicks easily and silently from gear to gear. There is plenty of suspension travel, and the bike rides softly over bumps that launch the Sportster rider off the seat. The Shadow is a very nice motorcycle which anyone would be happy to own – and Jacob is.

So why would anybody buy a cantankerous new/old Sportster? I mean, there are so many better bikes out there. And yet I’ve owned two Sportsters so far and am actually looking for another (an older one) to buy as a “project bike.” But why? That, I cannot answer. Sportsters have some magical quality that transcends the act of riding. For all their “faults” they have a certain attraction that I cannot explain. All I know is that when I fire the thing up I am in touch with a machine which is a direct descendant of the one introduced in 1957 by a company founded in 1903. It’s weird, but I like that.

To each his own. And that's the beauty of motorcycling: There is something for everybody.

09 September 2010

The Most Interesting Man In The World

The most interesting man in the world... on Rollerblading:


Oh man, you know me and TV commercials.

The ad agency representing Dos Equis beer has created an ad campaign that is friggin' hilarious: "The Most Interesting Man In The World." He's an older, very sophisticated, worldly gent, always in the company of young, beautiful women. With gentle flamenco music playing in the background, he is described somberly by the same guy who narrates all those PBS "Frontline" programs.

"He lives vicariously...through himself."

"His blood...smells like cologne."

"The police often question him...just because they find him interesting."

"He has been known to cure narcolepsy...just by walking into a room."

I've always found the commercials funny. They're filmed darkly, with only the subject lit up. They often use flashback footage of TMIMITW when he was younger and darker-haired.

HERE is the Wikipedia story about the campaign. I can't believe it's been running since 2006!

Then at 8:15 PDT this morning my friend Hal Johnson facebooked: "Got my wife and son out the door this morning, and for once, I didn't feel like I was herding cats. It's time for a breakfast burrito and a Dos Equis." And I thought to myself, "Beer, so early in the morning? How interesting!" (I don't think he was kidding, either.)

08 September 2010

24 Hours Of Crap Crammed Down Our Throats

I’m always amused when small stories from across the country get blown up way out of proportion by the national media. As a culture, we seem to revel in the trivial; every little thing captures our interest for a few moments.

When I was growing up, there were only three national television news networks, and they focused on pretty big issues. Tons of stuff happening in the country went unnoticed. But in the late 1970’s, with the proliferation of satellites, any two-bit TV station in any podunk town could get “on the bird” and have their little local reporter hit the Big Time. Accordingly, in 1980 some guy named Ted Turner got the bright idea to put up an all-news cable TV channel. Nothing but news, 24/7. Oh boy.

And then came the rest.

Now, with 24 hours of time to fill, small stories gain national importance whether they actually are important or not. Most are not. And so we’ve learned about automobile accidents, fires, killings, robberies, sinkholes and millions of mundane, everyday things going on in places that nobody cares about except the people who live there – and maybe not even them. No story is too insignificant, especially if there is aerial footage from a helicopter, which makes any story all that much more dramatic.

I remember watching CNN one day and seeing a story about a FedEx 18-wheeler burning on the side of some Interstate highway in Missouri (complete with the requisite aerial footage from the helicopter!). For some reason they spent an inordinate amount of time covering this story. I thought to myself, “A burning truck on a highway. And I should care about this…why?” Because honestly, I did not. In fact, I could not have cared less if I tried. Obviously, people thought it was an act of TERRORISM! because we have become such a nervous, paranoid society that everything bad that happens now is suspected to be a TERRORIST! act. Turns out, the driver was drowsy and just ran out of his lane and hit something that caused his external gas tank to catch fire, . Oops! (I went back and researched it for this blog reference.) No terrorism. Sorry! But by God, it could have been!


Everybody gets…heck, everybody deserves that “15 minutes of fame” Andy Warhol promised them, right? Everybody is a star, just waiting to be discovered and put on national TV.

And so now some pinhead in Gainesville, Florida is getting WORLDWIDE attention because he’s promised to do something very controversial and distasteful on September 11th. Making it worse, this idiot is pretending to be a pastor in a church.

It seems that everybody on the planet including those yet to be born have condemned what this lunatic plans to do. Every TV news reporter, every print reporter, every columnist, every pundit, and every politician has had to weigh-in because, you know, I care about what the actress Angelina Jolie has to say about this (not!). Ed McMahon was even brought back from the dead and asked for his thoughts. ABC News immediately flew a reporter down to Gainesville to interview the jackass and ask him inane questions like, “Pastor, what would JESUS do?”

The uproar is quite amusing – at least to me. Because we’ve created this guy. We give people like him a national stage. And then we act horrified at all the attention he’s getting. Well, duh.

In the old days, a guy like this would have been just another crazy hick in some tiny hick town in Florida. He would live his life in well-deserved obscurity, with his little 30-member congregation of like-minded, brain-dead boobs. And nobody ever would have heard of him. But in this age of instant-fame and gotta-have-it-now information, he’s become a worldwide celebrity beyond all reason or expectation. Paris Hilton reportedly contacted the man and asked if he would help with her career.

It’s our own damn fault. We’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill!

Coincidentally, the ever-sarcastic but always-funny website The Onion has an equally fake Onion News Network and in a recent report it addressed this very subject. Watch the following hilarious video at your peril – the language is kind of strong.

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

05 September 2010

Harley Davidson 2010: The Giant Awakens!

The 2011 Harley Davidson Sportster

The Harley Davidson Motor Company has always had a problem attracting young riders to its product. Especially lately, the demographic of the typical Harley rider has been...well...me (a 55 y/o boomer). This is a problem. If you don't have young riders coming in the front door, the old riders will eventually die off.

Part of Harley's bigger problem lies in the fact that the company really hasn't made bikes that young people want. Young guys want to go fast. They want sportbikes, like those loud, annoying, psuedo-racers you see terrorizing the highways and byways. With few exceptions, these are mainly from Japanese manufacturers, who have dominated that market segment since the 1980s.

Typically, young people don't go for slow, American "cruisers," which have always been considered "old man bikes." They think sportbikes (so-called "crotch-rockets") are more fun. But there are many reasons we ride motorcycles. "Going fast" is part of the fun, yes, but only a part. It's also about what we do with our bikes.

Harleys have always had a certain undeniable charisma and attraction, and H-D has always had the lion's share of the "cruiser" market, which has been their main source of revenue. In numerous attempts to compete head-to-head with Harley, the Japanese manufacturers have produced many blatant copies of the Harley design, with varying degrees of success. Today there are models from Star-Yamaha and Kawasaki that can even fool me at first glance - they are that much of a ripoff of certain unique Harley design cues (for instance, the two-cylinder V-twin engine with the air filter and exhaust system both on the right side of the bike, the big, flared fenders, etc.).

In 1995, Honda even went so far as to produce a Harley-clone (ironically called the "American Classic Edition" or A.C.E.) in which they actually designed-in some "extra" vibration because they felt the bike was "too smooth," a Honda trademark. But see, many bikers prefer to know they're on a piece of machinery and not a sewing machine or electric motor.

Can you tell them apart? Top: Honda A.C.E., Middle: H-D Heritage Softail, Bottom: Kawasaki Vulcan

Nevertheless, "cruiser" bikes (e.g. Harleys) never really found wide appeal with the younger generation. It is true that the majority of Harleys are the big touring (e.g. "Electra Glide") and cruiser models, but they also have the smaller Sportster, which is what I own, which is more what we used to think of as just a regular ol' motorcycle. I've always felt that Harley was missing the boat by not marketing the Sportster to young people as a fun, all-around, general purpose streetbike.

It took Harley a long time to figure this out, but they finally did. More than that, they decided to do something about it. When I first saw the following commercial on television, I was blown away. I stared at the screen thinking, "This is HARLEY advertising??"

Apparently young, cool, good-looking people ride Sportsters now! Apparently these young, cool, good-looking people hot-rod their bikes around in the dirt. And have lots of other young, cool, good-looking friends. And apparently hot chicks who ride Sportsters often spontaneously go skinny-dipping! What the...?! What are you, kidding me? Harley?! I want to hang out with these people! I want to be like them! I mean, I'm not...and I already ride a Sportster! (Notice that there is not a beer-gut in sight in that spot, and the only gray beard belongs to the jealous-looking cop.)

Don't get me wrong, it's great! It's just such a different direction for what has always been such a staid, conservative, laid-back company. Talk about aggressive marketing! NOBODY is doing this anymore: showing how much fun motorcycles can be. Which they are, of course.

Harley is in trouble, as are all motorcycle manufacturers. Motorcycles are pretty much thought of as a hobby. They are bought with discretionary funds that as we all know are pretty scarce these days. Instead of just sitting back and waiting for bankruptcy, Harley Davidson has decided to do something pro-active and go after a market they have traditionally been ignoring. (By the way, I *love* how Harley brought back the classic red, white and blue "#1" logo they originally used in the 1970's. Nice touch.)

I say bravo! I hope it works.