Rick’s Gentleman’s Express Blog

Motorcycle news and opinion

Archive for December, 2009

KTM (Know The Market?)

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I guess this goes under the heading of “What were they thinking?”

KTM was humming along nicely, producing off-road and hooligan street bikes. Then they go and blow their brains out on a “street-legal” race car called the X-Bow. According to industry news, KTM has written off all the research and tooling for the X-Bow, leading to a huge 80 million Euro loss. When I last checked, the X-Bow website was still up and running, extolling its virtues as a vehicle for an “urban showdown”.

I suppose it could be argued that it followed somewhat in the tradition of earlier vehicles such as the Lotus Super 7, but really…you can’t blame every bone-headed marketing blunder on a bad economy. Who was going to buy these things anyway? The recent Plymouth Prowler and Chevrolet SSR street rods were not exactly big sellers. Harley has bailed out of its Trihawk experiment, which may have tapped a similar type of buyer. Maybe buyers of the BRP Spyder… I just can’t think of a vehicle that screams “ticket me” louder than the X-Bow. Perhaps KTM was thinking “lottery winner” or “suicidal mid-life crisis” or “millionaire twenty-something” when they decided who was going to buy this thing.

The X-Bow would have made a killer Gymkhana weapon or maybe a dedicated racer class for the up and coming to replace the old Formula Vee, but an urban assault vehicle? History has a long list of failed products that were ahead of their time or misunderstood. The X-Bow was just a bad idea, plain and simple. I hope it doesn’t end up bringing down KTM.

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December 27th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

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Book Review: Zen and Now, On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson

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Most long motorcycle journeys mark a turning point in one’s life, even if they don’t start out that way.

In the summer of 1968, Robert Pirsig set out from Minneapolis, Minnesota bound for San Francisco via Montana. With him on his Honda 305 Super Hawk was his eleven-year-old son. Pirsig had worked as a college professor in Bozeman, Montana years before. A troubled genius with an IQ of 170, Pirsig had suffered a mental breakdown and undergone shock treatments since he last was in Bozeman. The former professor of creative writing and rhetoric and earnest student of Greek philosophy had settled into a mundane job as a technical writer. On that trip taken during the Summer of Love, with hours alone with his thoughts in his helmet, reliving old memories and visiting old friends, his long-buried pre-shock treatment personality began a frightening return.

In 1974, Pirsig’s semi-autobiographical account of that trip “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” was released and went on to sell over 4 million copies in 27 languages. I bought the book back then and have managed to struggle through it three times since. It turned out to be more about philosophy than motorcycles and the author would go off on tangents as long, straight and seemingly endless as some of the roads he travelled. Nevertheless, the descriptions of those roads and the people he met along the way more than made up for all the plumbing of sometimes dark philosophical and psychological depths.

In 2004, journalist and motorcyclist Mark Richardson became one of “Pirsig’s Pilgrims” and retraced Pirsig’s trip on his trusty 600 Suzuki. Richardson’s account of his own trip, the book “Zen and Now, On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was released in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of Pirsig’s 1968 journey. In researching and writing the book, Richardson doggedly tracked down and interviewed everyone still alive from the original book with a thoroughness and attention to detail and fact-checking that could only have been carried off by a professional journalist. He even managed to exchange a half dozen letters with the reclusive Pirsig himself. He travelled with a GPS programmed with waypoints of all the significant stopovers and milestones in the original book.

Where Pirsig chronicled his trip along with some flashbacks and philosophical breaks in the original book,
Richardson manages to deftly juggle many more threads — his own trip, flashbacks to his youth, excerpts from Pirsig’s book, facts about Pirsig’s early life and Pirsig’s life after his sudden success as a writer — in his own book. Richardson’s account is not a simple travelogue or documentary. The long hours of solitude on the road and the pressure of his timetable, combined with an upcoming 42nd birthday and perhaps a touch of midlife crisis had their own effect – a couple of near misses on the road, doubts about his marriage, an almost infidelity and some breakdowns (of the mechanical variety).

Reading Zen and Now has rekindled my interest in the original book, which I will re-read from a new perspective. Zen and Now can also serve as a primer for those who have never read Pirsig, or as a good story on its own, despite its odd “book about a book” premise. I could even imagine becoming a Pirsig Pilgrim myself at the next turning point in my life.

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December 26th, 2009 at 10:45 am

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Has Racing Become Irrelevant?

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The other day I was looking at an old poster that I picked up at Daytona in 1991. The poster –sponsored by a “friendly” beer company and saluting 50 years of Bike Week at Daytona– depicts two racers astride their nearly identical bikes on the old beach course in the early to mid-1940’s.

I was struck by what would today be considered the totally “unprofessional” approach to racing by these two guys. One of them is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt with his work boots. His gloves are that grey leather variety favoured by guys handling steel and welding torches. His buddy has proper motorcycle boots and leather pants topped by only a long-sleeved knit jersey. Both their helmets look pretty beat up. The number plates on the front of the bikes look suspiciously hand-painted. The hot tech on both bikes –flat-head Harleys stripped of street-going equipment—seems to be the hockey tape carefully wound around the handlebars for their entire length. There is not a single logo to be seen anywhere apart from those on the sides of the tanks.

Fast forward 60 years. I am working on a motorcycle training course at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga. There are some kart races going on over in the main parking lot and I ride over on my lunch break to check things out. These are kids—maybe ten years of age on average—and I am expecting to see mom and dad unloading junior’s machine from a homemade trailer using a ramp made of old 2×10’s. I am shocked to find giant trailers pulled by monster diesel pickups. Under the full pull-out awnings are hydraulic lifts and rolling toolboxes and lines of hi-tech karts ministered to by mechanics in uniform. The spoiled brat racers are strutting around between heats in their flameproof suits and wrap-around shades looking ready to sign autographs. All the equipment carries sponsors’ logos. I half expected to see umbrella girls in skimpy outfits.

Fast forward again to the present. Big names are bailing from racing at an alarming rate as corporate profits plunge. The machines being raced bear little resemblance to something the average Joe could buy except maybe in something like motocross. A racer with no sponsorship logos festooning his vehicle and gear is considered a loser. Miles Baldwin, that iconoclastic homeboy racer of years gone by was probably the last “non-corporate” holdout.

Is it time for a return to simpler times, like the two buddies in the old Daytona poster? Maybe grassroots events like drag-strip bracket racing, track days and vintage club events are the future of racing as well as its past.

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December 15th, 2009 at 5:21 pm

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