Single Track Mind: Interesting Times

April 29, 2014
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.

Sunshine Hots up the Bike Trade

For a motorcycle people watcher such as me, it has been an interesting month. The most important piece of news in the world, for the British motorcycle trade at least, has been the weather. Forget MotoGP regulations, the new Yamaha MTs (FZ-09 for you Americans) or mass produced, carbon fiber helmets – it’s the weather which dominates the minds of everyone involved in the British bike industry.

This time last year, there was a couple of feet of snow on the ground in large swaths of Britain and motorcycling had ground to a halt.

It wasn’t only bike sales which quite literally stopped but all the peripherals which keep dealers in business. No one could imagine riding and so customers were very thin on the ground for new clothing and accessories.

If the clothing sections of the shops were deserted, then the workshops weren’t doing any better. Who was going to get their bike serviced when the roads were unrideable because of the snow and ice?

When the frozen stuff melted, things were no better because of the British paranoia regarding Health and Safety which requires every road to be knee deep in salt and sand. Again, no-one wanted to ride when it was a three-hour job getting your bike and clothing clean when you came home.

The converse has applied this year. After a winter of biblically wet proportions, we have had a very early, and extremely mild, spring. In fact last weekend we were warned by the government – Health and Safety again – of the dangers of strong sun. Incidentally, in Britain we never really have what anyone in the rest of the world would understand as severe weather so our “strong sun” was temperatures in the low 70s.

Regardless, the effect of all this warmth was dramatic on the two-wheeled community and motorcyclists’ meeting places were booming all over the country. Now, we could all see why riding was such a wonderful thing to do.

For the dealers, truly all their Christmas gifts had arrived nine months early. There was no chance of getting any work done on a bike this spring, the workshops were so full and clothing was actually selling out.

It wasn’t only the motorcycle trade which benefitted from the de-hibernation of thousands of motorcyclists. British riders are now largely middle-aged and affluent – and when they stop they buy meals and drinks freely.

For sure, the “No Motorcyclists” signs which peppered pubs and cafes when I was a young man are long since gone. When Mr and Mrs GS1200 arrive, complete with their Alpinestars clothing and Arai helmets, it’s very much a case of: “Let me show you to your table, Sir.” Bikers spend well.

Global warming may, or may not, be a disaster for some countries but it’s been a savior for the British bike trade.

An Interesting Conundrum. Is Better and More Better?

As MCUSA’s token fat, bald, old wrinkly I have to be careful not to keep looking back at the good old days and lose sight of the many great things we have today. For example, if Marc Marquez was riding against the greats like Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and Jim Redman he would have been fantastic – and that’s fact.

Modern tires are amazing too. You wouldn’t believe how little fun it was riding on tires which slid with only 30 horsepower going through them – and on bone dry roads!

British riders are now largely middle-aged and affluent - and when they stop they buy meals and drinks freely.
British riders are now largely middle-aged and affluent – and when they stop they buy meals and drinks freely.

Despite the current bikes being brilliant, and the tires up to race standards, many modern riders don’t use their bikes very much. Clearly there are outstanding examples to deny this sweeping statement, with round the world trips common. However, it is not these dedicated touring riders to whom I am referring but the general motorcycling population. Amongst these motorcycle users, the average mileage in Britain is 6000.

However, the situation is even more skewed than this. The 6000 miles includes those who commute daily on scooters and other utility vehicles, so recreational use is even less. In the US mileage is even lower probably because so few people commute on two wheel vehicles.

This seems really odd compared with when I was a young man and rode to work every day and for fun on weekends. Three weeks after my 18th birthday I set off to see the Dutch TT at Assen, in the Netherlands. I also wanted to visit the legendary Nurburgring circuit in Germany.

It wasn’t an epic trip but 600 miles each way seemed liked a long hike when I crossed four countries and my bike was an ancient, and very tatty, Velocette Venom – and what a complete dog of a thing it was too!

My navigation aids compromised the map of Western Europe – carefully removed from a stolen school atlas and duct taped to the gas tank of the Velocette. That was it.

Essential equipment included spare clutch plates, spare valve springs and valves, cylinder head and rocker box gaskets, four pints of SAE 40 oil and my Mum’s gas mask bag from the War containing a comprehensive set of tools because, clearly, there was no way on God’s earth that the Velo was going to do 1200 miles without a major mechanical trauma.

The Velo was as good as its reputation and I had to do a full clutch service on the docks at Rotterdam while waiting for the ferry home. No one offered to help and no one was surprised. That was motorcycling in 1967.

Melling got to see Hailwood and the Honda 6  so the epic journey was worth while.
Race fans wait at the docks to board the ferry.
(Above) Melling got to see Hailwood and the Honda 6, so the epic journey was worth while. (Below) Race fans wait at the docks to board the ferry.

Now, there is not a motorcycle made which can’t comfortably, easily and reliably manage LA to New York and back with no more attention than filling up for gas. A 600-mile jaunt will hardly get any bike over 50cc warm.

Yet now, many motorcyclists consider a 50-mile trip to be a real ride and anything longer needs planning and “support” – in all its manifold glory. There have to be hints and tips on riding while well-meaning experts offer advice on hydration and the need to eat slow-release carbohydrates.

On my trip to Assen, I lived entirely on strawberries for three days because a street vendor took pity on me and sold me seven pounds of only slightly soggy, overripe berries for $1.50. Dieting was not a problem and many a hedge got fertilized on the way to Germany.

Today, riders look at the recommendations regarding where to ride and how best to undertake a trip. It’s beyond obvious that if you do venture off your home patch it will be with the help of SatNav.

Perhaps worst of all, riders who do go exploring often do so with the help of guided tours which come with a support van, pre-booked hotels and designated roads. What’s happened to the pleasure of discovery – good or bad – and self-reliance?

Perhaps I am getting old – but I did see Hailwood on the Honda “6” at the Dutch TT and that makes sleeping on the floor of ferries and battling with an oil-leaking Velocette all worthwhile.

Trouble in MotoGP

This is not going to be either a serious analysis of MotoGP – or a satirical attack on the shambles in which the world’s premier motorcycle race finds itself. Rather, I want to comment as an event organizer.

Hosting a MotoGP round is not the gold-paved road to the land of plenty that you might think. The costs are horrendous and Dorna takes their franchise fee regardless of whether the promoter attracts 100 spectators or 100,000. The size of the gate, Sir, is down to you.

That’s all well and good except that promoters expect Dorna to keep their side of the deal in terms of delivering a product which customers want to pay to watch. And remember, a visit to MotoGP is not a cheap day out.

In Britain, the first big problem has been the shift from free-to-view national TV, aimed at a wide audience, to pay-to-view. The reason for this shift was simple and straightforward. The deal earned Dorna another $10 million.

In doing so, viewing figures have fallen from around 2 million to about 100,000. Worse still, the tone of the program shifted immensely. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who held the rights for MotoGP until this season, despite being an extremely left-leaning organization, did make motorcycle racing programs which were accessible to the whole population.

Of the 2 million viewers, a minority became customers for MotoGP at Silverstone.

Now the TV coverage is aimed purely at hard core MotoGP fans who are inevitably already coming to Silverstone. The extra 25,000 customers, who quite liked the idea of a day at MotoGP but who were not avid fans, will be missing. That 25,000 is the difference between merely breaking even and having a long term, financially viable event.

The other problem that Silverstone faces – along with a lot of the later MotoGP rounds – is in the form of Marc Marquez.

Last year, I predicted that Lorenzo would struggle with the new Bridgestone tires and restricted fuel allowance and I also tipped Marquez as the favorite for this year’s title. What I didn’t imagine was just how badly Lorenzo and the factory Yamahas would fare and how much Honda was on top of the new regulations.

As I have always said, Dani Pedrosa – brilliant rider though he is – will never win a World Championship, except if there are major injuries amongst the other riders to help him.

The only two true contenders are Marquez and Lorenzo – and Jorge is well and truly out of the game.

Currently, Boy Wonder has a 16-point lead after only two rounds. Mathematically, Marc could easily wrap up the championship by Indianapolis. Added to Marquez walking away with the title, Dani looks an equally good bet for second place.

So, by mid-season if we have the situation where the first two places in the championship are already decided then attendances at the later GPs will collapse. Is this just scare-mongering on the part of a paranoid journalist? No, on the contrary, it is fact.

At the 2012 round in Valencia you could have as many tickets as you wished and tour organizers were desperately trying to off-load the allocations they had bought at any money: discounting was epidemic. This year, with the title still undecided, Valencia was a sell out with a strong black market outside the circuit for those fans desperate to get a seat.

If all that customers will get this year is a demonstration of sublimely beautiful riding from the best rider in the world will they pay the exorbitant ticket prices which MotoGP promoters demand? I think not.

I would like to be a fly on the wall when Dorna start negotiating franchise fees for 2015 with those promoters who had the misfortune to host a MotoGP round in the latter half of the 2014 season.