Saturday, November 18, 2017

From 2012: Motorcycles saved my life

The other day was unseasonably warm here in Kansas City in spite of the mist. I thought, This might be one of the last nice days in a while for a training ride, so I lifted the trusty old SR from its hook in the rafters. My route was a variation on a common theme, 'Tour de Bottoms'; around KC's old stockyards and warehouses in the West Bottoms; over into the industrial East Bottoms; then a long climb against the wind into downtown, over Hospital Hill, and home to Hyde Park.

As I rode, it occurred to me that I've probably logged as many saddle hours on bicycles as motorcycles. In a slightly different world, I suppose I'd've been a bicycle writer with a serious motorcycle hobby, instead of the other way 'round.

With Thanksgiving on the way, I was also reminded of this column, which appeared on the old MotorcycleUSA website as a Thanksgiving column five years ago. 

It's all still true.

From 2012: Motorcycles saved my life

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the many perfect fall days we've had this year in Kansas City, I went out on my usual bicycle training ride. The ride wasn't a huge deal; on my single-speed, out of my loft and over into the West Bottoms then up the 12th Street viaduct, through downtown, past River Market and down into the East Bottoms, and back. Basically, it was up and over the biggest hills I could find around my house; an hour and a bit in which I try to make up with quality what I lack in quantity.

Most of the route passed through largely un-, or at least under-used warehouse districts, and the roads, as usual, were pretty empty. The Kansas and Missouri rivers meet here, hence the 'Bottoms' in those neighborhood names, but I only occasionally caught a glimpse of the water. The American Royal, a huge rodeo and stock fair, was on and there were horses hobbled in parking lots, and pastured along the levee.

It was late afternoon. The sun raked in. The sky was a deep, deep blue. Black shadows. Backlit trees in fall colors; as if the the world was created for  cinematographers. I rocked it; if my quads got any more pumped, I'd've been at risk for compartment syndrome. As I approached my turn around point, down in the East Bottoms I came to the long straightaway where I sprinted into a headwind.

The East Bottoms is, well, sort of a weird area. It's mostly industrial, with some run-down residential and a great honky-tonk bar – Knucklehead's – hidden away there, too. I passed a trailer park, and heard the sound of a compressor and a nail gun. The place was was mostly filled with actual trailers like the ones you'd pull on a vacation, as opposed to mobile homes. The nail gun was being used to skirt one of the trailers to keep winter drafts out from beneath it. I thought, The guy should've taken care of that last winter – which was KC's hardest winter in decades. Or, had he just been foreclosed out of some warm home and moved into those new digs?

I turned around, caught the tailwind, and cranked up my cadence, as fast as I could spin. Ripping back down the straight with my head down, for the nth time I felt intense gratitude for such simple pleasures, and for having managed to stay in shape. I spent a few weekends last summer watching Kevin Atherton limp around the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Ducati at flat track races. While he's resolutely cheerful, it's clear his racing career took a huge toll on him. I've had friends pay far higher prices than that, too, enduring injuries I know I couldn't bear. 

Our sport is dangerous; that's not news. I wasn't one of those riders who thought, It won't happen to me. I thought about danger often. It was never dying that scared me, it was not dying that scared me. I've got some expensive Ti components (and I'm missing some cognitive functions; if you tell me your phone number, I have to write it down one digit at a time) but so far, I've come off lightly.

In fact, I'm able to enjoy simple physical pleasures not in spite of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, but because of it. It's not just that motorcycles haven't killed me (yes, I'm touching wood as I type this.) Motorcycles actually kept me alive.

I've never really told this story in much detail, but 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a club racer up in Canada, I got sick. I had some kind of autoimmune disorder, which depending on which doctor I asked was either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You know the expression, 'off the charts'? My white counts were literally off the charts. I got a graphic output after one lab test and the bar graph went off the edge of the page. When I finally got in to see a specialist, after a long wait, he looked up from that lab result and said, “I wouldn't have been surprised to see you come in in a wheelchair.” 

I was lucky that when it came on, I was in outstanding physical condition; I'd been training hard since university. I had a lot to lose before I'd ever be incapacitated. And, typical of people with lupus, I found that while it was painful and utterly exhausting to keep working out, the harder I trained the less I felt the symptoms. Still, I could only slow – not reverse – the course of the disease.

Month by month and year by year, I lost strength and range of motion in virtually every part of my body. It was frustrating because I was club racing and learning to ride better, but I couldn't really capitalize on it. I had to be super-careful not to crash; the drugs I was taking made the risks of injury much higher and besides, just getting out of bed in the morning already hurt like hell. By the time I raced in the TT, in 2002, I was careful not to let my friends see how hard I had to struggle just to get into my leathers or let them know that I'd almost bleed out from a shaving nick. And after that... It was as if my body had been holding out just to let me live out that dream, because in the next year, symptoms took a turn for the worse.

During that year of precipitous physical decline, I found myself wondering, At what point would in not be worth living? My life had, for decades, been defined more by physicality than intellectuality or spirituality. I decided that at the point where I couldn't wipe my own butt, I didn't want to live. Let me tell you, it was seriously depressing and I frequently rehearsed, in my mind, that hunting accident.

Through that period, I really wanted to finish my memoir, Riding Man, and I was grateful that I could at least type. But the thing that kept me going was that I could still ride motorcycles. Maybe not well, or nearly at the level I once had ridden; getting a leg over the saddle was a real trick. You really don't need Too Much Information on this so I won't go into detail, but even though there days when I wasn't flexible enough to reach my butt, I still put in 1,000 kilometers in the alps, unearthing the story of Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi, the hero of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire.

So I put off the hunting accident.

Before I reached that point, I found a doctor who changed my drug regimen to one that worked way better, at least in the short-to-medium term. The drugs I was taking were literally toxic – one of them is used to kill cancer cells in chemotherapy – but they radically improved my life. Once they really kicked in, I could ride OK. I could cycle and swim and, as before, the harder I trained the better I felt. For the first time in over a decade, I started to feel better and better, not worse and worse.

After a year and half in France, I moved back to North America, to San Diego. I started working at Motorcyclist, had health coverage for a while, and found a new specialist. By that point, I was an expert on lupus and rheumatoid arthritis myself, and we had a long discussion about which of those two diseases affected me. It didn't really matter, since I had a treatment that worked for the time being, and in any case, neither disease is curable. At that point, when I looked at friends my age who weren't sick, they were mostly in such crappy shape that I wouldn't have traded places with them.

Then my cool job fell apart, I got divorced and remarried – poor but happy – and I started to feel... good. My doctor and I developed a plan to wean me off drugs and, for the first time in well over a decade, my blood tests started to look... normal. I don't use the phrase 'miracle,' that would be too strong. But about two years ago, my doctor – a very experienced rheumatologist – got a little teary when he said, “Don't call me again unless you get sick.” That's not something those guys get to say. Their patients don't get better, the job is just to mitigate the symptoms as long as possible.

I know that the thing that got me through to that point, was, there was a part of me that was determined to stay healthy enough to ride motorcycles. The weights, the cycling, swimming, yoga; the glucosamine sulfate, the 30,000 aspirin, the prednisone, the methotrexate... all that stuff wasn't to ward off pain and depression and slow the progress of the disease, it was, This is what you have to do to ride. You know those idiots in the German-inspired half-helmets who wear those “Live to ride, ride to live” patches? Well, for me that was literal truth.

I climbed up out of the East Bottoms through downtown KC, and right up at the top of that hill in the financial district, I was distracted by something I saw on the sidewalk. Two private security guards were sort of wrestling an unconscious street person upright on bus stop bench, and he ended up slumping heavily to the sidewalk. It only took a few seconds for me to process the situation. It wasn't violent and as far as I could tell, they were just getting ready to call the cops or an ambulance which would be doing the guy a favor. He wasn't very warmly dressed, and when the sun went down the temperature would quickly drop into the thirties. One of the guards noticed me noticing them and as I rode past called out, “Good afternoon sir, how are you?” They'd said similar things to me when I'd passed before under normal circumstances, but his question was incongruous when there was someone lying right there at his feet who was clearly not having a good afternoon .

The light turned green and I pedalled away. At the next light I stopped beside a limousine. The passenger window rolled smoothly down. I looked in at the driver, who called out, “Want to trade?” It crossed my mind that his job paid better than motorcycle journalism, but then I remembered that my job allowed me to the freedom to hop on my bicycle and train, or go for a motorcycle ride, on any unseasonably fine day.

I laughed and said, “No.”

“I'd rather be where you are,” he said. “This is the wrong kind of saddle-sore!”

Then, he rolled up the window and the light turned green.

A few blocks later, one short final sprint, I was home. I locked up my bicycle downstairs, glanced at the Triumph and my '65 Dream, and thought, You deserve to take the elevator today. Before I'd even reached my door, I could smell chili simmering on the stove.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Things a little bird told me... Cycle World drops to six issues/year

I hear that advertisers have been told that Cycle World will follow the example of Bonnier stable-mate Motorcyclist, and print only six issues per year. Rumors are that the aging but eminently qualified Don Canet's been cut from the staff, and that from now on, only one writer will attend launches, to provide coverage for both CW and Motorcyclist.

Hmm... I suppose the other shoe had to fall, after Bonnier's recent decision to fold Sport Rider – probably the most respected of the three titles, anyway.

It's not clear how sending one writer to launches actually saves Bonnier money, since those expenses are picked up by OEMs anyway*. As one editor I spoke to noted, that is the kind of decision that will allow them to cut overall staff count.

I imagine that CW and Motorcyclist will publish in alternating months, giving Bonnier a new moto-mag every month.

I can't say this comes as much of a surprise. The CW web site seems, to me, to be tilting increasingly towards branded content presented as independent editorial.

Balance that with the fact that I just noticed Iron & Air was invited to a recent Harley-Davidson launch, and I suppose reasonable observers might call it a changing of the guard. Meanwhile ex-Motorcyclist editor Mitch Boehm's been hired as head of communications for American Flat Track. I wasn't exactly on their Christmas card list this year. I suppose I don't need to even apply for a credential next year. Oh well.

*Bonnier has been pitching OEMs on its ability to actually manage launches. I'm not sure if the company's done any motorcycle launches, but I know it has done some product launches. I suppose if it's vertically integrating in that way, cutting staff = increased profit.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Imitation is the sincerest form of...

I suppose that although it's a sad story, I’m proud that my original post on Common Tread seemed to generate a lot more engagement than any of the unauthorized posts it spun off on rival websites. I suppose that if those other stories had opened with something more like, “Over on Common Tread, Mark Gardiner’s put up a detailed report on the Nicky Hayden accident situation. In summary, Gardiner’s found… blah, blah, blah” and written a 300-word Executive Summary of my story, I’d be fine with it. As it is, I don't know how to feel.

A funny thing happened a few weeks back. A link appeared in my Facebook feed – and I should say right now, I don’t know who posted it – that caused me to visit a site I’d never seen before, where I read this post. I have no idea who puts up ‘Motorbike Fans’. It’s all in English but it doesn’t read as if it’s written by native speakers of English. Maybe it’s Italian.

The 300-word post I read said that the Italian prosecutor investigating Nicky Hayden’s fatal accident was about to press charges against the driver who hit him. That sounded about right to me, based on my limited recollection of Italian accident law. (A subject that came to my attention way back when Patrick Head was formally charged with manslaughter after the racing death of Ayrton Senna.)

The first thing I did was to quickly check all the largest U.S.-based motorcycle websites to make sure I wasn’t the last guy to know the case was going forward. When I saw no mention of it on sites like Cycle World, Roadracing World, Cycle News, Asphalt & Rubber, or MO, I wrote a short email to Lance, at Common Tread, asking him whether he’d like me to look into it further, and he immediately responded that I should.

That set in motion an entire day of research. I set my Google language preference to Italian, and began searching through dozens of news reports, mostly stuff that originated in daily newspapers in Rimini, but some from Italian sports newspapers, and Italian motorcycle racing sites.

My passive comprehension of Italian is pretty good; I can read an ordinary newspaper story. Still if I’m working in Italian what I usually do is run stuff through Google Translate, and then go back and check anything that sounds whacky in the original.

I tried to cross-check or confirm anything that appeared to come from a single source, following and reading 20 or more stories and posts. I researched Italian traffic laws and signage, and refreshed my obviously cursory knowledge of Italian accident law.

I called and/or emailed the prosecutor, the forensic investigator, and the lawyers representing both the Hayden family and the driver – although I’ve since received some follow up info from those sources, they contributed very little to my story at the time though they did confirm a few details that had been reported in Italy.

Using Google Streetview, I captured images similar to both Nicky’s and the driver’s perspectives of the crash scene. And I examined dozens of still and video images of crash investigation.

About 36 hours after getting Lance’s “Go”, I delivered a 1,200 word recap of the situation, covering everything I'd learned about the accident and ongoing investigation. I was pretty confident that I'd parsed most of the relevant material in the public domain (for example, security camera footage of the accident has not been made public.) I tried to set it all in the context of the laws and regulations governing fatal accidents in Italy (which are very different than those governing similar accidents here in the U.S.)

Lance liked it, but being a proper journalist by training, he asked me to go back into it and cite a few key sources.

Now, an admission: I’d been racing to get it finished, and hadn’t left a very good trail of bread crumbs. So I had to get back onto Google and re-find sources for attribution. It’s possible that I picked up some details from one source, but later attributed them to someone else who also reported the same fact. The number of sources I cited was fewer than the number of sources I checked, and from which my original notes were compiled.

Meanwhile, throughout the writing, and rewrite/source insertion, and over the 24 hours or so that passed before my story was posted on Common Tread, I kept an eye on competing web sites. I would have been bummed if someone else had scooped me.

The whole Nicky Hayden accident thing is sad, of course, but I also have to admit that I was gratified by the big reaction my story got within hours of being posted on Common Tread. Hundreds of comments, including comments that generally supported my conclusions posted by people in Italy; star MotoGP photographer Andrew Wheeler posted a photo that he took of a memorial at the crash site and described traffic there. In the tiny world of motorcycle journalism, it was a hit. (Sorry for that turn of phrase.)

I was a little dismayed a couple of days later when Lance sent me a one-sentence email that read, “Why do I feel that [REDACTED] just rewrote your story?”

He included a link to another U.S. web site had basically put up a post that looked an awful lot like a straight summary of my account. It presented pretty much the same information in the same order, including several phrases that were reproduced verbatim. That post listed a few sources – a subset of the sources I cited – and then it listed me as a source.

Wow, I thought. If I’m listed as a source, does that mean it’s not plagiarism?

This is an excerpt of Penn State's plagiarism policy. But I admit that I'm not sure what rules (if any) prevail in online 'journalism'.

I don’t talk much shop with my wife, but I mentioned it over dinner that night and she immediately told me to file an outraged complaint, or better yet, send them an invoice.

I was, like, What if that’s just the way journalism works now? I wouldn’t do that, but maybe that just means I’m past my sell-by date.

About a day later, another web site posted a Nicky Hayden accident story, but the information presented was not just a reductive/in-order presentation of information from my story. Still, the only sources listed were, again, the same ones I’d gone back and inserted into my story. (It made me wish I’d put in one completely fictitious source.) And, again, it listed me as a source.

A day or so after that, Cycle World ran a short story on the accident investigation, but that one didn't particularly feel like a rewrite of mine. Why would it? It was written by ‘European Editor’ Bruno dePrato, who is based in Italy. I read his hoping only that I didn’t get anything way wrong. (I didn’t.) That said, I think the appearance of my story was what prompted CW to set dePrato on it.

To be clear: I follow up on leads I see in Facebook posts, or on obscure blogs or websites, all the time. But if I see what looks like a comprehensive, authoritative post on some topic, as far as I’m concerned it’s been done and I leave it at that. 

But maybe that’s just me. And as noted, I am not an authority on what does or doesn’t constitute plagiarism right now.

When I’m assigned to a launch, I read other guys’ tests of the previous generation of whatever bike it is. In between sessions, I talk to other motojournalists about the bike; sometimes I quote specific people but if there’s a consensus opinion I mention that without any particular attribution. If someone seems to have straight-up factual information (“They came with 320mm rotors last year,” or whatever) I might just include that as part of my writeup without quote marks or attribution.

I wrote Lance to ask him what, if anything, he thought I should do. He didn’t seem to feel it was any big deal, and I suppose I don’t either even though at least one guy and probably two guys just piggybacked on about 12 hours of pretty intense work on my part. Maybe in this disrupted era they genuinely felt that by mentioning me as a source, they were giving me valuable ‘exposure’.  

I dunno; we ride on asphalt; the whole surface is a grey area.

What do you think? Should I feel flattered, or ripped off? Feel free to add a comment.

Yann Martel was accused of lifting the entire plot of this award-winning novel from a Brazilian short story. Although he named the Brazilian author in the book's foreword (and claimed that he'd only read a review of the short story, and never read the story itself) he was not insulated from accusations of plagiarism.