Monday, October 24, 2011

A writer's notebook, Simoncelli, and a meditation on risk

The last week or so, there's been several moments when I've found myself thinking, 'That would make a great topic for a blog post,' but I just haven't had the time to jot down more than a reminder to myself.

The hip Hell for Leather site's been paying a little attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement; first covering the NYC cops' apparent use of their scooters as juggernauts, bowling over protesters. Then, they ran this story about Greek rioters using motorcycle gear for protection from police batons, etc. Are they taking a side? It's not yet clear.

Another disgruntled ex-motorcycle journalist, Mark Williams -- the long-time editor of the great UK magazine BIKE -- has taken to blogging about wider topics, and his blog's definitely worth reading.

I've been meaning to weigh in on the (hopefully final, for a while) sale of Cycle World magazine. Then I decided that, instead, I'd conduct a lengthy interview with America's greatest bike mag editor, Cook Neilson.

Cook, who studied Lit at Princeton, was the editor of Cycle from the late '60s through the late '70s. Picture this: When Cycle moved from New York to L.A., they moved into a space that was 25% office and 75% shop. Cook and Phil Schilling developed and built a motorcycle, in their own shop, that Cook used to win the 1977 Superbike race at Daytona.

That interview's epic, and I'll probably finish writing it up and post it in a month or two on the Motorcycle-USA web site. I wish Cycle World well I guess, but it's no Cycle.

I was going to write about two 'Love Ride' motorcyclists being killed in L.A., and point out for the nth time that rides for breast cancer, autism, toys for tots or whatever the hell else you want to benefit are misguided. The only thing we, as motorcyclists, should ride to benefit is spinal cord research. Breast cancer, autism, and toyless tots are all worthy causes, but we should be collecting money for the thing that most affects us, as riders. The only reason we don't is that we're all too scared to even raise the subject.

Oh, and my friend John Stein's amazing history of motorcycle drag racing is about to come out, and that's newsworthy too. All that was stuff I was hoping to write up when I finally got a couple of days off early this week.

Then Marco Simoncelli was killed in Malaysia. That changed everything.

I haven't seen the crash. Since I don't have a television, I wasn't watching it and I won't see it on the internet because my personal policy is not to purposely watch a crash that ends a career. It's just a thing with me; a place I draw the line.

Simoncelli's death, though, underlines the inherent risk in motorsport. The best gear, the safest tracks, the best corner workers and the Clinica Mobile will never take all those risks out of racing. In fact, if racing ever was made completely safe, it would also become boring to me.

Risk, as a philosopher might say, informs motorcycle racing. We don't race in order to take risks, but risk gives the decision to go racing meaning. About 15 years ago, when I was working my way up through the amateur ranks as a club racer, I realized that I wanted to explain that to a public that took a very simplistic view of risk sports. I knew that in order to come to terms with the topic, I would have to go and race in the place where that risk was most obvious. To fully understand that topic, I had to race on the Isle of Man, in the TT.

Although what Marco Simoncelli did for a living was very dangerous compared to, say, soccer, MotoGP is very safe compared to racing in the TT. Simoncelli was the first MotoGP rider to die in a race since Daijiro Kato in 2003. TT riders are killed every single year.

My book about the TT, Riding Man, is largely a meditation on risk and today and Thursday, I'll post a couple of the most relevant excerpts. Here's the first one, a chapter of the book called...


The TT course is lined with memorials to riders. Some of them are big, permanent features of the TT course. The Guthrie Memorial on the climb up the mountain, which is really just a cairn; the Graham Memorial which is anA-framed chapel that looks west down the Laxey Valley; and now the Dunlop Memorial, a bronze statue up at the Bungalow. They’re the exceptions to the general rule, since Guthrie and Dunlop died on other circuits (Guthrie at the German Grand Prix in ’39, and Dunlop in Estonia in 2000.) Even Graham’s chapel was built far from the bottom of Bray Hill where he crashed and died. Officially, little is done to remember the fallen.

The vast majority of TT memorials are much smaller and unofficial; they’re placed by friends and families at the very spot their loved one died. At first, you don’t see them. Then you notice one because it’s relatively prominent, or because it’s new or freshly cleaned. As you get sensitized, you start to see more and more of them, notice ever subtler and older ones, see the ones that are set further back in the weeds. Eventually, you realize that no matter where you choose to stop along the course if you know what to look for, you can see something that commemorates a fallen rider.
They are permanent plaques in stone or metal, screwed to fences or set in the ground. They are personal mementos, stuffed animals or flags or photos, tacked to trees or jammed between rocks. They are flowers, long dried, brown, wilted and molding, or gone altogether leaving a faded bit of ribbon gradually fraying in the constant wind.

Alpine Cottage is a fast but normally innocuous right -hander between Kirk Michael and Ballaugh. The turn-in marker for this bend is the nearby bus shelter. When I stop to study the corner’s line I notice that the bus stop has a ceramic plaque set into its wall, low down in one corner almost at ground level.


A mile or so down the road, just over the bridge at the entrance to the town of Ballaugh, there’s a fine bronze bas-relief set in a white stucco gate. It is a portrait of a man and since he’s wearing a pudding bowl crash helmet, I’m pretty sure it’s a memorial. I make a note of the name Karl Gall and the date1939, with an eye to checking on them next time I’m in the library.

Later on, I do go to the library and pull the 1939 volume of the local paper. Gall had been one of the leading German riders of the 1930s. In the ’38 TT, Gall had crashed hard at Waterworks and been badly hurt. He’d announced his retirement after that. But as war clouds gathered, the Nazis were determined to wring as much propaganda value as possible from international motorsport. The BMW, DKW and NSU teams all got Nazi support, but it came with heavy pressure to deliver results, especially at prestigious events like the TT. Gall was persuaded to take one more shot at the Senior, on BMW’s all-powerful, supercharged ‘kompressor’ twin. In practice, he lost control going over Ballaugh Bridge, and was flung headfirst into that gatepost. His team-mate, Georg Meier, ended up winning the last prewar Senior on an identical machine.

One time, Steve accompanies me on a bicycle lap. It’s nearly the death of him. I collect him at Ballacraine, which is already a pretty long ride from his house, considering that he doesn’t cycle or get much of any other kind of exercise. We set off up Ballaspur and haven’t gone too far – we’re near Laurel Bank – when he calls out for me to stop. At first I think he just needs a rest, but he leans his bike against a low stone wall and starts to climb over it. “Come here,” he says “I want to show you something.”

It drops away so the wall is only a couple of feet high from the road, but it’s a five-foot jump to the damp and musky forest floor. The Neb, a little stream, gurgles a few yards away. Hidden here behind the wall amongst fiddleheads are three little plaques devoted to Mark Farmer, a popular rider who died in 1994 while riding a Britten.

“I came here once and noticed that one of these plaques had been removed,” said Steve. “I thought ‘Bloody hell, someone’s stolen one of them,’ but the next time I looked it was back and all polished. They’d just removed it for cleaning.”

We clambered back over the wall. As we got on our bikes, Steve said, “I’ll tell you what my friend… I don’t want to be polishing your memorial around here.”

After a while, I start to get a little paranoid about the memorials, about the danger. Then one day I stop to study Kate’s Cottage. There never was a “Kate”, ironically. The cottage belonged to the Tates, but at one TT years back, an excited commentator got tongue-tied and blurted out something about “Kate’s Cottage” and the name stuck. It’s a hairy-looking spot; a narrow, fast, blind, downhill kink with – on top of everything else – a constant trickle of water that flows from a crack in the pavement right on the natural racing line, leaving it damp on all but the hottest days.

Dodging cars, I walk down through the corner to look for (more) hazards on the exit. There, I notice a commercial florist’s bouquet that’s been tied to a concrete fencepost with ribbon. It’s been there a long time, I can tell. There’s a tiny white envelope attached to it; the kind that comes with any basic commercial bouquet, which would normally contain a card with a message from the sender. I slip a finger into the envelope, which has been softened by the elements. It’s empty. No card. No clue who it might have been for, or from. I realize that there is some faded writing on the envelope itself. It says “34th milestone (Kate’s)”.

Something about this one, in particular, sticks in my mind. Sometime later, I walk down the Strand in Douglas and look in on a florist, when it hits me: It wasn’t that someone put the bouquet there, they phoned it in. That was why there was no message in the envelope: there was no recipient, at least no one who needed to read anything. The florist had just written the delivery address down on the envelope, and gone out and tied it to the fence.

The people, friends and family who gather in small groups to place the more permanent memorials are – at least in part – doing something for themselves. Getting ‘closure’, to put a pop pscyh label on it. But whoever phoned in that florist’s order was doing something very different. He or she was never going to see the flowers; they were going to be placed by someone with no connection to anything. And really, except for me, they were destined to go almost unnoticed. It was less a public thing than a private message to an anonymous rider, as if he was still out there somewhere, lapping the course.

Something about that flips a neuron in me, and I suddenly realize that, read as a collective, the hundreds of memorials are not sad. Although they often express loss, “You’ll be missed,” not one of them condemns the TT. If anything, they celebrate it as the high point, which it was, of every life thus recalled.

I don’t want Steve polishing my memorial here either. But I can not think of any place I’d rather have one.

Thanks for reading. Check back next Thursday for a second excerpt from Riding Man -- one that will explain why Marco Simoncelli almost certainly didn't think it could happen to him.


  1. Just noticed there's an autographed copy of "Riding Man" on Amazon. Someone should pick that up - helluva good read.

  2. Thanks. Those TT stories are heartbreaking yet uplifting.

  3. That was a great blog post, thank you. Racing looks like a spectator sport but is actually intensely personal. From the riders point of view the risk is simply part of it and is processed as a long slow dose rather than as a sudden tragic end.