Backmarker: Rambling, Philosophically

November 21, 2013
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

1.) Thankfully, an off-season

When I lived in Canada, back in the days before ‘global warming’ was common phrase, there was nearly half the year when riding was difficult-to-impossible. (Ice racing lunatics were really only the exceptions that proved the rule.) Every fall, we carefully prepped machines for a long winter hiatus in unheated garages, or wrestled them down the stairs into our basements if we planned to work on them.

Us Canucks looked way south to guys in California, Texas, and Florida and were jealous that they could ride year-round. I’ll skip a long story here, and just say that I ended up moving to San Diego, where I realized that those mild winters didn’t make motorcyclists appreciate their bikes all the more. Rather, Californians took riding weather for granted and appreciated them rather less.

For people who live in the snow belt, winter’s a time to remember the rides and races of previous seasons, to dwell on successes and failures, dote on machines, and dream of rides to come. When there’s a part of each year you can’t ride, you’re thankful for the part that you can.

Nowadays, I live in Kansas City. It’s cold enough that there’s a few months of bad riding, for sure, but there’s always a day or two every couple of weeks, even in January and February, when you can ride enough to keep your battery charged. I think my Triumph would be a far better bike if I had to take it off the road for a few months; it definitely needs some TLC.

My bike’s a first-generation ‘new’ Triumph Bonneville. I bought it from a guy who rode it for a year, and then parked it uncovered, about a mile from the ocean in California, without touching it for the next six or seven years. It’s so corroded that some pretty experienced motorcyclists confuse it for a genuine vintage bike.

I was going to say, “Strangely, in the time that I’ve owned it, these Hinckley Bonnevilles have become somewhat cool” but it’s not that strange. As hipsters have café-d out almost all the Meriden Twins, why wouldn’t you finally decide to spend less for a more reliable base machine, and start your customization job with a post-2001 Triumph?

My challenge, though, is that I don’t want to make my bike look cool, I want to make it be cool. I want it to be a fast, good-handling bike; something that can hold its own at a track day, or even in a club-level Twins race; something I can take to Arkansas on rides with my friends who own modern sport-touring bikes.

I realize how vainglorious that notion is; no amount of time, money, or ingenuity can possibly make my Bonneville as fast as a 15 year-old Gixxer or CBR.

I used to wonder what it was (besides my inner Don Quixote) that prompted that urge. I got a real insight last year when David Kushner wrote a New Yorker magazine profile of computer hacker George Hotz.

For a 21 year-old, Hotz showed some impressive self-awareness when he told Kushner, “It’s a testosterone thing. It’s co¬mpetitiveness, but it isn’t necessarily competitiveness with other people. It’s you versus the system. And I don’t mean the system like the government thing, I mean the system like the computer. ‘I’m going to stick it to the computer. I’m going to make it do this!’ And the computer throws up an error like ‘No, I’m not going to do this.’ It’s really a male thing to say, ‘I’m going to make you do this!’ ”

So there’s my problem: I’m a man. Every now and then, I have this vision of me, ripping around some corner again with my knee on the deck, on my Triumph. And when I get remotely close to it, the bike says, “I’m not going to do this” – lately, it’s been with huge front-end pushes that leave me with a zero-gravity feeling in my gut. But there’s a part of me saying, “I’m going to make you do this.”

If I set out to make it do that, I’ll write it up in some future Backmarkers.

Even though I don’t know Jeremy Burgess, I can guarantee you
that he too is very competitive, and I’m 100% sure that when
Marquez stepped up from Moto2, Burgess didn’t quietly
approach him and say, “If you’re looking for a crew chief, I’m
looking for a faster rider.”

2. Rossi’s confidence, and The Burgess Affair

Maybe it’s the changing seasons, but as you can tell I find myself in a philosophical mood. In the last couple of weeks, we watched Rossi upstage Marc Marquez’ rookie championship season with an incredibly awkward announcement that he’d fired Jeremy Burgess and then heard that Kurt Caselli had been killed while leading the Baja 1000.

I would say that the vast majority of observers have instinctively sided with Burgess in the MotoGP affair. Few people believe that Rossi’s problems originate in the bike’s setup, or that Jorge Lorenzo’s crew chief Ramòn Forcada knows tricks that Burgess doesn’t. Most people simply feel that Rossi, while he’s still one of the fastest half-dozen-or-so motorcyclists on the planet, is no longer an alien.

It remains to be seen whether there’s any long-term PR fallout from the way Rossi handled the Burgess Affair. His apologists, and he still has a few, have simply said, “There’s nothing left for him to try. It’s either sack Burgess or quit.”

My Facebook friend and ex-Bike magazine writer Simon Hargreaves had a more nuanced take on it. He posted this comment…

“It’s almost unheard of for racers to blame themselves; an unshakable inner belief they’re faster than the next guy goes with the territory, and the higher up the racing food chain they go the more true – and more important – it gets. There’s no room for self-doubt at the top.

“It’s why racers speak in the majestic plural; the royal ‘we’.

“You hear something like, “We haven’t had a good weekend; we weren’t fast enough.”

“It’s often followed by a first person singular; “I tried my best,” – meaning ‘I’ did everything I could. But then it’s followed by… “but this weekend we weren’t fast enough…”.

“Or, in short, if it wasn’t for ‘we’, I would have won.

“Failure is caused by something outside themselves; usually tires or settings – the tire manufacturer’s fault, or the team’s fault. If the failure goes on too long to be explained by a transient cause, it becomes a more serious problem: there’s something wrong with the bike.

“Slagging off your paymaster is a big risk, but more palatable than the introspective alternative. So the rider demands a new chassis, new engine parts or better electronics.

“But now he’s in danger of being called out, particularly if another rider is doing better than him on the same machinery.
“Which is why when Rossi’s failure in his first year on the Ducati was so spectacularly humbling, and even his titanic self-belief couldn’t deny what Stoner did on the bike was superhuman, it was a slow, grudging admission, tempered by the explanation of how much the other manufacturers had moved on, how Ducati were left behind and, tellingly, how the bike left him – or ‘we’ – baffled. The implication was the team couldn’t fix it, the manufacturer couldn’t fix it. But it was their problem. Rossi just rode the thing; wasn’t his fault.

“But now it’s a new situation: Rossi has been comprehensively beaten by his teammate for the first time in his career. He’d naturally be wondering why.

“Well, he’s got the same tires, same bike, same settings if he wants them, same everything.

“So it must be the ‘we’.

“Better change that then.”

It’s true that a supreme self-confidence is a trait of top racers, and that it is often accompanied by an inability to really accept blame for failure. One might go as far as to say that some of the personality traits that are an advantage at the sharp end of world championship-level racing would actually mark those guys as psychopaths in normal life.

Personally, I don’t excuse those attitudes, because there have been plenty of great racers and other athletes who were ruthless bastards in competition, and gentlemen the rest of the time.

The thing that interests me most about the confidence issue in motorcycle racing in particular, though, is that being that confident actually makes those guys faster.

Being that confident allows them to wait until the last split-second before braking, and to slam the bike right over to 99.5% of the guaranteed-to-crash lean angle. Being that confident allows them to carry elbow-dragging apex speeds without tensing their grip or body and imparting the tiny rider input that would cause them to lose traction once and for all. And it’s that confidence (and yes, trust in their traction control, as set up by the crew chief) that allows them to open the throttle so soon and so fast.

I doubt that with, a new crew chief, Rossi will be appreciably faster next year. But if he is, it won’t necessarily mean that Silvano Galbusera knows more about setup than Jeremy Burgess. It may only mean that Rossi had to do something, anything, to restore his confidence.

3.) Kurt Caselli, 1983-2013

When word came that Kurt Caselli was killed while leading the Baja 1000 last Friday, it was quickly followed by rumors that the incident involved one of the infamous ‘booby traps’ set by spectators down there.

That was the kind of rumor you’d expect to circulate online; the Internet is like turbocharging for rumors, and social media is like adding a nitrous injection system to rumors.

It’s an instinct for a lot of people close to racing to think, “Something had to have gone wrong.” For those people, the thought that a booby trap caused the crash might’ve been weirdly soothing.

It wasn’t, for me; I didn’t want to believe the booby trap rumor, and was relieved when it was debunked. Then, I found myself wondering why I was relieved.

What it comes down to — and this is just my own philosophical position — is that racing is all about risk. People used to say stuff like, “You must be an adrenalin junkie” to me all the time. I got tired of explaining that people who ride like idiots on the street are adrenalin junkies but that most of the motorcycle racers I knew were control freaks.

Racers choose to on closed courses, to eliminate the variables of traffic; they set up and safety wire their bikes to eliminate the variables of mechanical failure; they eliminate one variable after another until the last variable is… them. The only risk they really want to take is the risk that they themselves have overestimated their ability and self-knowledge.

Caselli’s death was tragic but, as a racing incident, it was the result of risks he fully understood and willingly took. It was sad, but his decision to race had meaning for him precisely because he understood the risks. Non-racers don’t get that, but it would have made sense to Kurt Caselli.

If he’d crashed because of a booby trap (and I cannot imagine what sort of person would set such a trap) he would simply have been murdered. That would have been senseless.

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