2010 has been a huge year for Hell For Leather. In July, Grant and I quit our day jobs in preparation for the subscription model, which is promising to give independent, quality motorcycle journalism a new life. Of course, we published a story or two as well; below you’ll find our ten favorites, ranging from controversial motorcycle reviews to uncovering industry corruption that could affect the safety of our children to epic two-wheeled adventures. Is there any other motorcycle publication that publishes this much, this good or this breadth of material?
I’m not going to put these into any particular order. They represent the ten stories that we’re most proud of, not the ones that necessarily got the most traffic, most reaction or most angry emails.
Shortly after I got home from the Skip Barber Superbike School, at which he’s the head instructor and at which we met for the first time, Michael Czysz called me up and said he had big plans for Isle of Man’s TT Zero. The thing was, he was convinced that the bike he was creating didn’t deserve to languish on the pages of poorly-read motorcycle magazines, instead, he wanted to see his efforts and innovation rewarded in mainstream media. I agreed and wanted to help Michael out, so I took on the project of placing an exclusive story somewhere big. Chuck and Joe at Wired loved the idea, but said Chris didn’t want to clog his pages with motorcycles. The guys at Popular Mechanics weren’t even interested. The story was the same elsewhere; motorcycles don’t sell magazines. Eventually, I was able to convince John at PopSci that he owed me enough favors to promise me big exposure on their website and a page or two in print if that story played well enough. Of course, we’d be doing the story for HFL too.
If anything, this is a great indication of the poor esteem in which mainstream America holds motorcycles. I mean, Have you seen the 2010 MotoCzysz E1PC?! It’s ep1c (har).
PopSci secured, Grant and I figured we’d drive up to Portland to shoot the bike after the inaugural TTXGP race at Infineon. For some reason, I thought that Portland was like three or four hours north of San Francisco and didn’t bother consulting a map. A day later, we got there to find the bike barely assembled and a panicked Michael telling us we couldn’t shoot anything we could see as it was all fresh inventions and he hadn’t patented any of them yet. We were especially not supposed to see the extra 1.25kWh hidden under the tank...
So, onto Plan B. Unable to shoot the bike, we shot Michael’s ridiculously cool shop instead and did, what I think, is the best interview ever done with him. Then, we started making arrangements to have the bike shot for us after it arrived on the Isle of Man. Frank Schuengel of Amadeus Photos agreed to do it for us and we eventually cajoled Michael into giving him a few minutes during precious set up and test time. Photos in the can, I wrote PopSci one of their most popular stories of the year, HFL published the first photos of the bike and followed up quickly with that interview, Shop: MotoCzysz and, to cap it all off, the story of Mark Miller winning the race. I was seriously gutted that they didn’t get the first 100mph lap though.
The most significant bike of the year, if not the century, and we utterly owned the story. That David Folch was able to ride it for us a few months later and deliver even more great photos of it was just icing on the cake.
Grant and I aren’t really the kind of guys that belong in New York City. All the things we like to do — ride motorcycles, do stuff in the outdoors, work with our hands, risk our lives — are essentially inaccessible here. We both moved here for our careers in 2006 and, since then, we’ve just gotten totally fed up. In July we quit our day jobs and in August we took off for Labrador. The Canadian border guard asked if we had any liquor, explosives or firearms. We told him no, which he seemed to be satisfied with. That was good, because we had all three. Labrador is roughly the size of Texas, yet has only 26,000 people living there, perfect.
The story ended up being centered around a little crash I had, but honestly, that wasn’t a huge deal. Instead, it’s the stuff we didn’t write about that really counted. We spent two whole weeks free of speed limits and just about every other law. Words can’t really convey the experience of flying along a dirt road at 100mph+ on giant adventure bikes, hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization, but the story turned out pretty good anyways.
This one really tied in with what we’re trying to do with Hell For Leather. The American motorcycle industry is this ridiculously corrupt, nepotistic world run by rednecks from Orange County who all raced motocross together in the ‘80s. If you didn’t, they don’t care about you. That apparently includes children who, according to Dexter Ford’s research, were being equipped with less safe helmets in America than in the rest of the world due to something that begins to sound more and more like a helmet maker monopoly the more you look into it. Did you know that Snell wouldn’t acknowledge that children have lighter heads than adults until the new M2010 safety standards went into effect? Dexter did and he was trying to air the truth when he was fired from Motorcyclist which, according to leaked emails, apparently did so due to advertiser pressure from companies that didn’t want the truth getting out.
We’re extremely proud that we were able to serve as the venue through which Dexter’s story and this story of motorcycle industry corruption — corruption so rife that it potentially endangers the lives of our children — could come to light.
The moral of the story? The traditional American motorcycle publications aren’t acting in your best interests and buy a helmet with ECE 22.05 certification.
New York’s Fastest
A friend of ours used to ride with a gang that he described as the most ridiculously fast street riders anywhere. He’d been trying to set us up with them for over a year, but for one reason or another, we hadn’t gotten around to it. Then, one Monday night in July, we met Skank, One Armed Bandit and Supermoto Retard in a Greenpoint bar.
The motorcycle scene in New York is this fractured, secretive mess. North Brooklyn hipsters don’t talk to North Brooklyn vintage guys and fancy Manhattan Ducati riders ignore everyone. The hoards of sportbike riders from the outer boroughs are reviled and don’t like outsiders. Then there’s these guys. Everything they do is reprehensible, yet it’s also relatable and more than a little impressive. They aren’t squids, they’re Isle of Man TT racers that happen, instead, to be career criminals from Queens.
Grant and I probably got more drunk than they did, but they sure told us some good stories. Judging by the videos they post on YouTube, they’re not exaggerating either. They give all of us riding motorcycles a terrible reputation and are a big part of the reason the cops hate us here, but you can’t help but admire their skill. Just try not to think about the consequences.
The reaction was predictably controversial. Motorcycle Daily, an online press release clearing house, even took the trouble to write some original words, calling us a “sign of the apocalypse.” That’s exactly the reaction we wanted. Motorcycles are dangerous. Don’t like it? Buy a car.
A PR guy from another manufactured called this whole mess “an unqualified disaster.” Cycle World, whether intentionally or accidently, published its issue with the new ZX-10R on the cover a week early. The same friend that hooked us up with New York’s Fastest saw it on a newsstand in LA the very morning it hit and immediately sent us pictures. We were subject to embargo and had all the same information and images CW had, but given the scale of the leak, we’d have been within our contractual rights to publish everything we had. Instead we called Kawasaki...
An epic day and night-long, good cop, bad cop scenario followed in which they alternately threatened us, told us we didn’t have the chops to make it in the motorcycle industry, begged and pleaded. All we did was publish cell phone shots of what was already on newsstands. At one point, we were even accused of breaking and entering to obtain the shots. As I told the accusers, while we’re more than capable of such feats of ninja skill, we’d have taken a lot better pictures had we gone through the trouble.
We ended up totally owning the ZX-10R story, with continual updates and new material, and virtually every motorcycle forum and online publication in the world directed its readers to us. Whether it was a deliberate attempt to boost flagging sales or just incompetence, we owe Cycle World a huge thank you. Of course, a bigger thank you goes out to our readers, who ventured out at 1am to photograph the issue on store shelves, proving that we hadn't committed any crimes in obtaining the photos.
Motorcycling’s Missing Link
Believe it or not, but we get kind of fed up only hearing our own voices on Hell For Leather. We don’t make it because we want to personally be some kind of pundits, but instead to give you, the reader, the kind of motorcycle publication you deserve.
Unfortunately not many other people can apply the kind of perspective, professionalism and just plain-old good-writin’ that we need, at least not for little to no money. Luckily, Michael Uhlarik can.
Michael’s an extremely talented motorcycle designer who’s penned GP bikes, secret liter bike-powered, two-wheel drive adventure touring world beaters that I’m really not supposed to tell you about and even the motorcyle industry’s unicorn — a bike that could successfully appeal to young riders, the Yamaha MT-03. Now, he’s writing for us.
Missing Link took on that inability to convert young people into riders, applying Michael’s years of industry experience into identifying the gap in western markets that could revive sales and bring a whole new generation into riding. As young people, it resonated with us. For christ’s sake, build us some affordable, appealing, small and mid-capacity motorcycles, please.
I flew all the way to East Germany to get this one. Why did I have to go to Europe to talk with an American motorcycle genius? Well, it’s a long story, but the gist of it is that, in Europe, a lot of people really like Buells. Some of those people, who happen to be HFL fans, put together the biggest Buell race team in the world and were holding an entire track event dedicated to the brand. I was hoping to become the first journalist to take a spin on the 1190RR, but winning its championship seemed to have been enough for that particular bike’s engine. Instead, I spent a couple of days hanging out with Erik, getting what, to my knowledge, is the first interview he’s granted post-Harley. Even if it’s not, it’s the most insightful.
As soon as I got back to New York, I began hearing stories of Erik’s old brand being bought by Bombardier Recreational Products. It seems that this fall, BRP made another serious, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy the brand. Harley, in its infinite wisdom, nixed the deal, likely to save face. Looks like Erik’s going to keep running a small shop in Wisconsin building the fastest American race bikes in the world. I get the impression he’s totally happy with that. The 1190RS will debut this winter.
Racer: Don Emde
Motorcycling in the United States is so focussed on the past that it’s risking its shot at having a future. All we ever hear about is how big motorcycles were in the ‘60s and ‘70s and how great some old guy’s POS Triumph was. We don’t think like that, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a place within HFL for the past. This is how we’re going to do put more past in HFL’s future.
I didn’t grow up in the US and didn’t grow up giving a hoot about motorcycle racing. I had never heard of Don Emde until I had to edit Grant’s dyslexia out of his interview with the racer. Having said that, I now think Don’s fucking awesome. We’ll be doing more like this.
One of the things we don’t really want to do with HFL is concentrate too terribly much on reviews. We don’t have the access, of course, but they also bore us to death. Reviews just don’t tend to make good stories. Having said that, there is occasionally a good story in a review, especially if it turns out a bike that’s been receiving good reviews elsewhere is actually a dog. Or, in this case, a whale.
So we finally got a chance to ride Shamu back in July. Turns out Honda’s new flagship is utterly, inarguably terrible. I mean just fucking awful. After riding it on the track, we said so. Then after putting a few hundred road miles on it, half of it two-up, we said so again. Doing so was...somewhat controversial.
Our comment section was graced with the presence of two of moto-journalism’s brightest stars, Cycle World’s John Burns and Motorcyclist’s Aaron Frank who both preceded to — anonymously I might add — question both our ethics as journalists and our abilities as riders. The article made no mention of their publications’ glowing reviews of the land whale. Quickly, motorcycle forums across the internet filled with reactions to our review. A few people who had bought it were pissed, everyone else seemed relieved that a publication was finally telling the truth about a bike that attempts to combine the comfort of a sportsbike with the performance of a big tourer.
I’ll always regret not getting better pictures of me riding the damn thing as the rather pathetic pictures we did publish played into the Wes-can’t-ride thing. I can, but I only did a partial session on the bike at Beaver Run and the track’s photographer only caught me on the first two laps of the day, following the rest of the group as we were slowly led on our sighting laps. Everyone got their panties all wadded up because I didn’t do a full track day on the bike, but there was just no way I could have without either going pathetically slow and having no fun or wadding the thing up. I’d reached the absolute limits of its performance during what I thought were just warm up laps. Sorry, but I’m not prepared to write Honda a check for $15,999 just to prove a point.
Who knew that simply calling a spade a spade would prove so controversial? I guess that’s the state of affairs in an industry that demands nothing less than cheerleading from the publications it financially supports. If you want an all-round Honda, the three letters you should look for are CBR, not VFR. Or just buy an R1200GS, it’s substantially better at going round race tracks than the VFR1200, cheaper, more comfortable and can actually go more than 160 miles on a tank of fuel.
While I was racing at The Thunderdrome, a journalist from Cycle Canada came over, shook my hand and sincerely thanked me for telling the truth about Shamu.
The trick to doing an interview isn’t simply in meticulously copying down what the other person says, but instead creating a good story out of the material they give you. That’s something I think we do uniquely well.
So far as I know, this was the first English-language interview MV’s new CEO gave after convincing Harley to pay him €20 million to take the company back just two years after they paid his dad $108 million to sell it to them.
Not only did the 30-year-old Giovanni give us an insightful interview with many exclusive details of the then un-revealed MV Agusta F3, but he also sounds like he actually has a handle on running a motorcycle business in 2010. You wouldn’t believe how novel and refreshing that is. It shouldn’t be rare that a journalist can just pick up the phone and get someone who knows what they’re talking about, talking sense on the other end, but it is, extremely.
Talking to Giovanni a month or two after enjoying a few track days on the honestly amazing 2010 MV Agusta F4 gave me new respect for a company I’d previously dismissed. Finally, MV has it together.
It’s been one hell of a year. Just wait till 2011.