Backmarker: Stories I’ll Never Write

March 5, 2015
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS 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.'
You’d think that as a Canadian, I could easily handle the winters in Kansas City. But lately, I’ve had a touch of cabin fever. The general lack of motorcycling in my life lately has, I also must admit, left me groping for stories.I laughed the other day when former AMA Superbike-class regular Johnny Rock Page showed up on TMZ—the gossip web site—after Paris Hilton got some kind of restraining order against him. Apparently he’s an obsessed fan (read: stalker). What was funny was, TMZ claimed Page made a ton of money racing motorcycles.

I guess there aren’t any fact checkers at TMZ.

If I recall correctly, he made his money with a business that installed Automated Teller Machines in the kinds of temporary and/or sketchy locations where the machines charge outrageous fees. Having made a fortune, he did what any of us would’ve done, and spent it on racing.

He’s also done a few things most of us probably wouldn’t have done. Amongst serious race fans, he’s better known for videotaping an argument with an AMA Pro official, announcing a self-imposed hiatus from racing due to marijuana use, his self-proclaimed run for the presidency of the United States, and renting an airplane towing a banner on which he essentially proposed marriage to Paris Hilton. In fact, he’s engineered so much news coverage for himself that people in the racing community abbreviated his name to ‘JRP’ to save time.

Strangely, if you go to the TMZ web site and watch the interview with JRP, he comes across as this charming naïf. But, when you match that persona with a few years’ worth of JRP’s rambling, egomaniacal press releases, you know why even a media addict like Paris Hilton would seek a restraining order.

In the dude’s limited defense, he’s a lot faster than most 40-something wannabes. (Trust me, reader, you’d be lapped more than once in any AMA Superbike race—even in the diluted AMA talent pool of recent years.) But I wonder if MotoAmerica is going to issue him a license, or will they write a “Johnny Rock Page Rule” that bans anyone who has a restraining order against them or is otherwise demonstrably nuts.

Over the last couple of years, there’ve been a few occasions when I’ve thought that I should write about JRP, but I always shelved the project on the grounds that it’s tough to write seriously about him, and almost impossible to write comedy about a real-life character who beggars the imagination. (I’m not kidding. Google the phrase ‘Johnny Rock Page Press Release’ and you’ll realize that the things he says about himself are wilder than anything I could dream up.)

Anyway, with this latest bit of publicity, I thought, I should just let him tell his side of the story. His inner life sure can’t be boring. I put out a call on my Facebook page, on the theory that someone I know must have his phone number or email addy, but no one took me seriously.

Oh well, that’s another story I’ll never write.

Every journalist has a mental list of stories that got away. One of the big ones, for me, was the story of Elena Filatova.

Elena Filatova’s story was too good to be true. And, she wouldn’t
return my emails or letter anyway. I’m sure Johnny Rock Page
knows what that kind of rejection feels like.

Filatova was an internet phenomenon before the heyday of YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. In 2004 her website generated millions of hits. It told the story of a gorgeous, thirty-something woman who lived in the Ukraine and who rode her Kawasaki ZX-11 around on the deserted roads of the “dead zone” around Chernobyl.

At the time, I was working for Motorcyclist. Every time we had a story meeting, I pitched a feature on her, mainly because I wanted to go for a ride (preferably, off into the sunset) with her. Those were the days when a big motorcycle magazine might, conceivably, have had the budget to send a writer halfway around the world.

The nuclear power station in Chernobyl blew up very early in the morning of April 26, 1986. A massive radioactive cloud drifted over the western part of the USSR and much of Europe. Several hundred thousand people were evacuated from parts of the Ukraine and Belarus. The official Soviet death toll was only 31 people–mostly firefighters and helicopter crews who heroically attempted to limit the release of radiation in the days after the explosion. Later estimates, however, suggest that about ten thousand people have died (or will die) of cancers caused by their exposure to Chernobyl’s fallout.

Officially, the zone where the fallout was worst, about 20 miles in all directions from the reactor, was permanently evacuated and remains largely empty. According to her blog, Elana Filatova first visited the zone in the early ‘90s. She was drawn to return by the area’s air of mystery and by the deserted roads, where she could ride her motorcycle as fast as she wanted. She wrote that regardless of the official statements, there are thousands of abandoned towns, as far as 150 miles from the reactor site.

Call me an incurable romantic, but the idea of this dark beauty riding a fast bike through those ghostly, deserted forests and empty towns totally fascinated me. She wrote of wolves and wild boar crossing the roads, paying no attention to her at all as they’d lived their whole lives without humans to fear. And of visiting the abandoned motorcycle shop in Pripyat, the city nearest the reactor. No wonder millions of people visited her website.

I tried to reach her for an interview, at the very least. But I never got a reply to my emails. Like others, I started to wonder whether she was real. Why would a Ukrainian write in English—and conspicuously good English at that? The story was almost too good to be true.

On the other hand, why go to all that trouble? There were no ads on the site, no requests for money; if it was a piece of antinuclear activism, it was probably too subtle to be effective. The site wasn’t even copyrighted; the author openly invited anyone to reproduce the content. No one seemed to be making any money on it. Somehow the loving, detailed description of her motorcycle and the way she modded it made me think she was for real.

So what was her story? After my emails went unanswered, I wrote to the snail mail address on her site and never got a reply. If you trust Wikipedia, her myth’s essentially been busted; the consensus seems to be that Elena is a real person, but that the lone, high-speed motorcycle rides through the Chernobyl death zone were fictional. According to a Chernobyl tour guide (the fact that ‘Chernobyl tour guide’ is a real job description is, in itself, quite a thought) she took a bus tour through the zone, and posed for pictures.

Getting the real story behind Bob Dylan’s famous motorcycle crash
might be my ultimate “bucket list” column.

I’m gradually abandoning any hope that I’ll ever score my other fantasy scoop, which would be to ride back along Striebel Road, with Bob Dylan, to revisit the site of his motorcycle crash—a crash that at the very least demarcated Dylan’s career and may nearly have ended it.

Dylan loved motorcycles, and bought a new Triumph T100 Tiger when he moved into New York City in his early 20s. Back then, Joan Baez was a frequently terrified passenger.

Luckily, he didn’t have any passengers on July 29, 1966, when he crashed on the outskirts of Woodstock, NY. What’s known is that Dylan left his manager’s house in the nearby community of West Saugherties, trailed by his new wife, who was driving a car. Dylan himself gave different accounts of the crash; he hit oil, he was blinded by the sun. He later said that he broke vertebrae.

Whatever the extent of those injuries, he canceled upcoming performances. Dylan toured and performed constantly in the five years before the crash, but he performed in public only a handful of times in the eight years that followed the incident. Not that the post-crash period wasn’t creative; he recorded over 100 songs in 1967 alone.

This story, too, is shrouded in a bit of mystery. There were even rumors that the entire crash story was just a cover, and that Dylan was really out of the public eye because he was doing a stretch in rehab.

If that’s true, I suppose it’s one of the few things Dylan’s got in common with Johnny Rock Page and his fantasy lover, Paris Hilton. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go downstairs and change the oil in one of my bikes, or something. Cabin fever’s getting to me.