Single Track Mind: Summer Thoughts

July 26, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Playtime at Spa
After playing with his G.50 at the Bikers Classics event in Belgium, our correspondent caught a glimpse of the general motorcycling public in his travels through central and sourthern Europe.

The beginning of July is a good time for us. The Bikers Classics nostalgia event is held at the fabulous Spa circuit in Belgium and this means that it’s serious play time with our beloved G.50.
The penultimate corner at Spa is a compound left hander which must be over a mile long. On a good day, in perfect weather conditions, I can just about manage it flat out in top gear on the G.50 – and that’s a shade over 125 mph. With the magnificent 90mm piston thumping away beneath me, my head buried in the fuel tank and the rear wheel scrabbling for grip in the merest hint of a power slide, the experience is a powerful reminder of why I am still so much in love with bikes, and motorcycling, after a life-time of involvement.
The evenings were just as good – although Carol and I both had our French language skills operating right at the red line. The first night was gourmet paddock dining with Normandy oysters and smoked Ardennaise ham, in the company of French classic racing star Alain Marie and his lovely wife Francoise. Saturday night found us at a fondue party with Swiss GP icon Jean-Claude Castella, his wife Juliette, and his extended family.
In fact, a perfect weekend of motorcycling nostalgia.
Spa is 600 miles south of our home in northern England – and 600 miles in Europe is a lot further than the effortless travel of U.S. interstate highways. So we decided to make the best of being in the “deep south” by leaving the bike and trailer with a friend in Luxembourg and going a really long way down toward the equator to take a vacation in Croatia.
This lovely country is a further 800 miles south of Luxembourg and to get there we had to pass through Germany, Austria, a little bit of Italy plus a good chunk of Slovenia. In fact, it was a really good opportunity to gain a micro snapshot of motorcycling in central and southern Europe.

Tourers and Adventure bikes rule the roost in Europe
There are few sport bikes to be seen in the heart of Europe. Instead, adventure models like BMW’s GS lineup are the norm for carving highways.

The first thing which struck me is that the legendary, speed limit-free German autobahns are just about that – legends from the past. Travelling half the length of Germany, we never saw an autobahn without a posted limit. At best, these were 130 kph – around 75 mph – but increasingly the limit was 110 kph – a bit over 68 mph.
Any hint of road maintenance and even this modest target was reduced to 50 kph or even 30 kph – 20 mph in real money.
And lest you think that these limits are purely for show, the lines of car drivers waiting at the hidden police check points for their instant fines was impressive both for its length and regularity throughout the autobahn system.
There was a marked absence of miscreant motorcyclists awaiting their punishment for one very simple reason: we drove for hours and never saw a single bike. In fact, the absence of motorcycles was terrifyingly eerie – as if every two-wheeler in Europe had been abducted by aliens.
When we got to the 5-star significant motorcycling areas, like Carinthia and East Tyrol in Austria, there were plenty of bikes and riders were well-equipped with all the latest riding gear. What attracted my attention here was the absence of sport bikes.
Big Adventure bikes were the weapon of choice, with BMW’s GS range the overwhelming favorite. Following the Super Trailies came a plethora of Honda VFRs, big Triumphs, more BMWs and a good representation of Japanese hyper tourers. And last but not least, a sprinkling of Suzuki Bandits – cheap, bullet proof and well capable of anything you could ask of them.
There were sadly, from my point of view, a tiny number of sport bikes. These tended to be in clusters of four or five riding together like some persecuted religious sect. The bikes were immaculate; their riders displaying state of the art clothing from Alpinestars, Dainese and Arai – but goodness me they were rare.
Maybe this ties in with the rigid enforcement of speed restrictions because it doesn’t take a genius to work out that with a 75 mph speed limit, a near 200 mph bike isn’t perhaps the best option in the world. However, there is another factor which in some ways is more worrying: it’s the age of riders.
Bikers Classics is a nostalgia event so it’s reasonable to expect that the participants and spectators would be over, rather than under, 50 years of age. The scary thing is when you see the grey hair and wrinkles which are revealed when touring riders remove their helmets. Where are all the 25-year-olds – the ones with no kids, plenty of money and a thirst for adventure?

Tourers and Adventure bikes rule the roost in Europe
In addition to big touring bikes, our correspondent was also shocked by the average riding age in central Europe, which appeared much higher compared with riders in the United States.

I think that everyone in the MCUSA biking family should now make a summer ’11 pledge of honor. It should be this: that we all find one new motorcyclist to join our family. The two caveats would be that he, or she, should be under 30 years of age and have never ridden a bike before.
If you have been following the debate regarding the future of MotoGP in Steve Atlas’ excellent series of articles, you will see the problem we have. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic readers have become seriously agitated about the potential efficacy of Claiming Rule Teams, engine capacity changes and ECU controls.
This is rather like having a huge argument in front of someone who has just been rescued from a major plane crash about whether two sugar cubes, or one, in their coffee will most help their first degree burns and multiple fractures.

The truth is that CRTs, ECUs and every other acronym on God’s earth do not matter one iota unless MotoGP becomes either:
a) Attractive to a mass audience
b) An esoteric sport akin to worm charming or speed doughnut eating.
Look at the figures for attendance at MotoGP and then make a second pledge: persuade a non-motorcyclist to watch a MotoGP race with you on TV or, better still, take them to Indianapolis or Laguna Seca. Come on, let’s be missionaries!
Moving on to another MotoGP topic, vitriol has been heaped on the heads of Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner for refusing to ride at Motegi.
Guambra2001 sums up one prevailing view:
“You (Stoner and Lorenzo) fricking pansies!!! This is the dummest thing I have heard in a while, to be scared of “possible” radiation, even though test shows that it will be safe for them to ride. Wow, drama queens.”
Let’s try to sort out some sense from this situation. First, radiation is not like a mud slide, hurricane or a river flooding. All of these natural disasters are horrendous but they are fixed in scale and magnitude – and comprehensible.
Radiation is different altogether. I once worked with a company which re-processed spent fuel rods from nuclear power stations and so I have been near to things whose radiation could have killed me.

Jorge Lorenzo celebrates his second win of the season and closing the gap in the points to Stoner. - Mugello 2011Casey Stoner - Repsol Honda MotoGP
Jorge Lorenzo (left) and Casey Stoner (right) have faced tremendous criticism for boycotting the upcoming Japanese Grand Prix. Are their concerns valid or just plain silly?

It was a truly strange experience. We walked along a metal gantry and beneath us, sitting silently and peacefully in an enormous swimming pool, were harmless looking metal containers. The contrast was stark: completely innocuous metal cylinders which seemed to be as dangerous as well maintained garbage cans and yet could have instantly killed me, or damaged my unborn children, had I come into contact with them.
Motorcycle racing is extremely dangerous and therefore it is fatuous to suggest that Stoner et al do not have the courage of heroes. Equally, they control their own destinies with their skill.
Radiation kills and maims, silently and indefensibly. Worse still, the damage it does may not be seen for years. This is what makes it terrifying.
In MotoGP, much of the difference between first and last place lies in the rider’s head. Every rider at this level is supremely talented in a way which is incomprehensible to us mere mortals. To have riders uneasy both mentally and emotionally – even if their feelings could be perceived as misplaced – is unacceptable. This is why they should be allowed to boycott the Japanese round at Motegi.
Equally, there is a pressing need to support the Japanese people and, critically, the Japanese bike industry. So here is a fix which might satisfy everyone. Much further to the south than Motegi – some 500 miles distant in fact – is the Okayama International Circuit. This has already hosted a round of the World Touring Car championship and it was the venue for the F1 Pacific Grand Prix in 1994 and 1995, so it is clearly not some airfield circuit with one hot dog stand and a hole in the ground for a restroom.
In fact, despite being slightly short for a GP circuit at a shade over 2.3 miles in length, it was by all accounts very popular with the car men. The problem is that the track is located in the middle of nowhere and there are infrastructure challenges.
The good news is that there are absolutely zero reports of radiation in the Okayama Prefecture where the track is located. This means that the riders can participate with complete confidence and the MotoGP circus can support Japan.
There would have to be some tolerance from the Motegi circuit which currently holds the franchise for the Japanese round of MotoGP, but surely this can’t be an insuperable problem if the alternative is either a vastly depleted grid – or no GP at all.
In fact, the move could be a good one all around. Being further south, the weather is warmer – always a factor at Motegi – and a completely unknown track would give a huge boost in interest for the Japanese round of the world Championship.
Dorna, come to MCUSA if you want MotoGP’s problems solved!