Sunday, June 29, 2008

God bless NASCAR

Here we sit in that uncomfortable purgatory between basketball and football seasons. I bet more than a few of you will turn your attention to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Tools 301 today and the Coke Zero(not regular) 400 next week in Daytona.

More than 75 million U.S. adults, or 1 in 3, are NASCAR fans. The sport has had steady growth since Bill France, Sr. held the first meeting of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in December of 1947. The first sanctioned race was held on Daytona's beach on the second of February, 1948. NASCAR incorporated five days later. It's now viewed in more than 100 countries in at least 21 languages each weekend.

R. J. Reynolds changed the face of racing and indeed all of sports by providing corporate sponsorship via the Winston Cup Series in 1971. Cars and uniforms became plastered with logos. Winners made sure that the biggest patch(biggest sponsor) was visible to the camera during post race interviews, paving the way for the likes of World Cup skiers to hold both skis up to the camera right after going across the finish line.

NASCAR fans are considered the most coveted in the marketing world because they have fierce brand loyalty, with 85% saying the NASCAR endorsement adds value to products and 66% saying that they will pay more for a NASCAR endorsed product.

That's why I think NASCAR can save America. There are fifty drivers on the circuit with 40 races a year. They use 450-700 tires each weekend or six-teen to 28 thousand tires a year. That's a lot of  burnt rubber.

America burns an estimated 366 million gallons of gasoline everyday. NASCAR racers use average 4.5 miles to the gallon and burn about 200,000 gallons for the races. In the grand scheme of things, a couple hundred thousand gallons isn't even one strawful from the milkshake.

But NASCAR still uses leaded fuels in its races. Indy cars use biofuels exclusively. Wouldn't it be great if NASCAR stepped up to be the force of change in the energy race? Minimum mileage standards would improve technologies that would trickle down(apologies to Adam Smith whose economic theories have been bastardized. The folks always spouting about "trickle down" forget that Mr. Smith also said, "No honest man could make a million dollars.") to consumer models.

Imagine the folks in the doublewide saving up for a Prius instead of roll-bars and straight pipes.  Maybe Billy Ray Redneck would encourage his son go to MIT after winning the seventh-grade science fair instead of calling him queer. Perhaps someday infields will be powered by methane burning plants fueled by the Flatulence Forager 5000. Race fans can use the cheese-filled sausages in the fridge to run the generators after they run their course through the large instestine. 

Saturday, June 21, 2008

City of the Future

"We don't have any bears, but watch out for the trolleys. They kill tourists every year."First morning in Amsterdam. Two-stroke scooters buzz outside the window along with trucks and all sorts of traffic. This city is more cosmopolitian than I remember. Part of the difference is how different I am. Twenty-year-old males get lost in the tolerance of the city and miss out on what else it has to offer.

The first thing one notices are the bikes. Bikes against fences, trees, lampposts, street signs, bikes against bikes. Stacks and stacks of bikes. And of course bikes moving through the city. Men with raincoats billowing behind pedal with traffic. Old women with paniers and baskets and big brimmed hats mingle with teen scooter drivers. Women with knee high leather boots and vinyl jackets criss cross past pedalers with denim mini skirts. Parents hold small children(never with training wheels or helmets) as they pedal side by side through higher traffic intersections. Mothers have babies or small children sitting on seats mounted to the handlebars, often with a wind screen that can be flipped down when riding solo.Friends converse as they ride side by side until saying in motion goodbyes before their routes diverge.

One million bikes, 750,000 residents, more than a bike for everyone. A constant stream of bikes, a few scooters, the rare automobile, and the trolleys flow constantly through the city.The city is quiet and the air is clear, due to the bikes and an ocean breeze. People are stylishly dressed. Men in Italian suits zip past on scooters. Women tuck crisp jeans into green leather boots and carry oversized bags slung across the shouder if biking.The scooter drivers wear fashionable helmets, usually half-face with the google cut visor up.

The sinks are deep welled and motion activated. Paper towels do not exist and the hand driers blow unheated air. Light is fluerescent or candle. Stairways are lit enough to be safe but still quite dim. Ditto with hotel rooms, restrooms, hallways. Parking is expensive and foot/bike power is encouraged, in fact, bikes have the right of way over autos or peds. It feels like the way all cities should/will have to be. The population appears healthy and in shape. Huge parks provide green space amidst the brick. Asphalt is not common in the city centre and is a reddish tone where it does occur to blend with the clay of the bricks. The most crowded country on the planet (473 people/kilometer squared) doesn't feel crowded at all.

Amsterdam is full of parks and museums. We had a look at most of the parks when we rented bikes. What better way to wind down from motorbikes than to pedal awhile in the city of bikes? Bike traffic was intimidating at first but we figured it out quickly because as the Dutch say, "It's just common sense."

The only museum we hit was the Rijksmuseum. We went on Father's day and were given free passes for being male. Most of the Rijks was closed for rennovations, we were only allowed in about 35 of the more than 500 rooms.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is the most famous artist whose works are housed in the Rijks. His most well-known painting is "The Dutch Masters," you know, from the cigar box. He differs from most artists in that he had success as a young man. Rembrandt became well-known for his portraits and as a result, ended up teaching nearly every Dutch artist of any import that lived in his time.

The works of Rembrandt and his students are considered, "The Dutch Golden Age." Because Rembrandt was a realist, walking through the exhibit one felt like the pieces on the wall were photos not paintings. People with eyes that followed me around the room, flys on the counter I wanted to swat, a man praying over bread and a bowl of soup that I swore I could smell.

It was great to come back to Amsterdam. The city has done a lot of work on its image with great results. The city is much cleaner than it was fourteen years ago. They seem to have toned down the blantantcy of their tolerance image. There are still coffeeshops where one can buy marijuana or hash on every street, but they no longer hang Rasta flags outside the shops for all to see.

The Netherlands has zero tolerance on hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but taxes and tolerates others. What I find most interesting about their tolerance policies is that they decriminalized cannibids and some hallucigens the same year that Nixon declared a "War on drugs" in the USA, 1971.

It seems to me that honesty is the way we should approach drug use. Aspirin is the gateway drug, "Take this, you'll feel better," and it habituates Americans to a lifetime of drug use, from children's chewables to the blue ones that give the old men boners and everything inbetween. We like drugs so much that we put up with listed side-affects like, "oily discharge." Rather than outlaw all but three(alcohol, caffiene, tobacco), why not educate honestly? Kids try coke because nothing bad happens to them when they smoke pot and they figure people have lied to them about coke, too.

Don't get me started on the way the Dutch teach sex-ed, give away condoms and oral contraceptives, have the highest average virginity age in Europe, and teen pregnancy is virtually non-existent. Honesty.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Winding down

We're in Marlborough, England. About two more hours of saddle time and we'll be right back where we started twenty-odd days ago in Bournemouth. This is always the hard part of travel for me. I don't want to ride the last little bit even though I could easily do it if it were a thousand miles away. It reminds me of hauling moose hindquarters.

You groan and twist to get the thing up and onto your back. It takes a bit to get the load situated and the thought of lugging that hunk of bear bait two miles over uneven terrain is almost unbearable. But you take the first step and it isn't so bad and pretty soon you're in a zone, whistling or maybe singing, Sugar Magnolia(shutup hippie) and you could go on forever. Then you pop over a little hill and see the plane a coupla hundred yards away.

Your shoulders and hips ache, you're out of breath, and sooo tired. Only five loads to go. Pretty soon you only carry the rifle the first hundred yards or so, if the bear munches you anywhere in the remaining mile and seven-eighths, so be it.

Holy tangent batman. Where was I? Hell if I know. After a coupla thousand miles, several pints, and a near-miss each, I can say the following: This trip was much better than I anticipated. The rolling hills and mile upon mile of tarmac make it a biker's paradise, the people are outstanding and except for Scotland the language barrier is easy to deal with.

Awards: The best riding was in Scotland. The best scenery goes to Wales. Worst food England, everyone else tied for second, we're talking shit-tee everywhere(You chat with folks and they love to put down the other country's food. We were damn proud of ourselves that we never laughed out loud.) Most obnoxious Americans-golfers in Ireland. Best street signs-England("Disabled must pay" was the overall favorite.) Best whiskey-Wales. Best beer-tie. Biggest disappointment-Ireland(some pretty scenery, sure but not the overall biking experience we were looking for. People blame the influx of money from the EU and the fact that an additional 12 million passports have been issued in recent years for the building spur.) Best city-Dublin.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rob to the rescue

Phil and I were finally able to touch base via text messaging. He spent the afternoon asking people at gas stations and emergency rooms if they heard, saw, knew anything about a down motorcycle while I spent the afternoon trying to get in touch with Phil, AKRider, or anybody.

All's well that ends well, but holy hell what a stress ball each of us had become. Me, cuz I got knocked down by a semi-tractor and thought I was gonna get run over. And Phil cuz he couldn't find his wing man and went from hospital to E.R. looking and thinking that he might have to call my wife and tell her something that no one wants to tell anyone.

I guess the hotel has a bunk payphone cuz I called Phil a bazillion times and it just rang and rang. I emailed cuz that was to be the back up to the back up. Then I tried to text message from a computer to a cell phone, which you can do if you know the cell provider. Guess what I didn't know. Then perhaps the adrenaline left my bloodstream cuz it occurred to me that I could approach someone about using their phone to send a text to Phil. It took him two shakes of a lamb's tail to get back to me, and there was much rejoicing.

Meanwhile I sent an email to ace motorcycle mechanic Rob and he was able to troubleshoot from AK. And lookee there, the clutch whatchmajigger's messed up. Plug that in, cross your fingers and kapow, we're back in business. Now we're chilling in a hotel and planning tomorrow. Crazy.

Off to Dublin, off the Isle

With all we'd seen on the northern half of Ireland, we decided to try to make a southern half only itinerary. There were a couple of problems but mostly that the ferries simply don't work well or often enough from the Isle of Man and that there is too much traffic and poor riding inbetween the good stuff. So Phil decided that we would take Ireland out of the equation.

We beelined to Dublin to book a ferry to Holyhead, Wales the next morning. It sure was fun to be driving in an unfamiliar city of 2 million people at quitting time. I can't fathom doing that commute daily.

After booking a ferry, we secured lodging for the night and went off to have a pint. Our guesthouse was in the city center which is one huge pedestrian mall. The streets are still the narrow cobblestone of the city's founding.

It was suprisingly clean, few homeless, no beggars, and no litter. It was also packed. I'm sure it would be easy for a half-way decent pickpocket to make a respectable living cuz you couldn't help but get bumped once in awhile.

We stopped off in the Temple to enjoy a pint while Dublin walked by the window. The pub is just under 200 years old and the dingy sort of place one imagines the likes of Joyce writing in/about. And man, was it hopping.

We spent the rest of the night walking around and ducking in here or there to soak up local color. By local I mean international. People from all over obviously call Dublin home. We heard many different languages and it was easy to tell the locals from the tourists.

An early ferry put us in Holyhead, Wales by 1100 hours. Our plan was to get to the Liverpool ferry dock and start a GPS route from there(because that's where the ferry would arrive from Isle of Man in the new itinerary.)

We ran into lots of road construction on the way. They often had one lane closed for several miles with no visible sign of work occuring. It is legal to split lanes with motorcycles here and that is what we were doing in the stop and go traffic.

Things were going swimmingly until a semi-tractor hit me at slow speed but hard enough to knock my panier off and my bike to the ground. I was unhurt. I picked the bike up and parked it in the closed lane so I could grab the panier. The trucker didn't bother to stop and lots of people yelled really sweet things to me.

Once I had the panier reattached via webbing, I learned that the bike wouldn't start. That's how I came to be in this hotel lobby waiting for Phil to come and rescue me.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Pot of Pyrite

We took the ferry from Cairnryn, Scotland to Larne, Northern Ireland. Irish ferries are immaculate and spacious. I tried to find a way to the upper deck but every access was locked, blocked or roped. Phil explained to a Latvian crew member that we needed to get to the top to do some filming(kiting on top of a ferry) but that we had lost our paperwork. Would she go check with the captain for us? Of course, I'll be right back. And she did come right back and said no way jose. So we napped.

The northern coast was breath-taking; cliffs, oceans of blues and greens, stone fences, ruins, quaint sea-side towns. We stayed in Portrush with Phil's dad, who happened to be in Ireland for a golf tourney. Golf is huge here as one may imagine. One American that joined us for dinner told me that, "God is a genius, this land is made for golf." I left that one alone, it seemed pointless.

We left Portrush early the next morning and are now in Galway, a little over halfway down the west coast. It suprises me, but this is the most disappointing area of the whole trip.

The landscape is littered with new tract housing, straightened roads, tour buses, and blah scenery. The place has been Californicated.

We haven't given up yet. Today we are going to beeline to Dublin and make a southern loop. I know we will find good stuff on the ring of Kerry cuz I been there. But that is only one day's ride. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sidenote on the health of the Isles. We spoke with folks in England and Scotland about the changing waistlines in their country. They are quite concerned, but just on the cusp from what I saw. Maybe fifteen or so years behind us according to my untrained but fairly observant eyes. But Northern Ireland is a different story. Obesity has more than a foothold there.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thicker accents, better food

Had a look at Hadrian's Wall. The Romans built it between 122 and 128 a.d. with a combination of turf and stone and big stretches of it survive today. These Brits really need to get it together, don't they see the potential of Hadrian subdivisions, shopping malls, action figures and dessert toppings? It was three meters high and more than four meters high across the narrowest part of the island(73 miles.) They had a small fort every mile and two observation posts in between forts.

The Scots tell the story that the Romans sent troops up and they were never heard from again so the Romans built the wall. There appears to be a bit of myth in that version. What seems closer to the truth(though more boring) is that because they were able to control the flow of traffic, the Romans were able to collect taxes. Either way it looks like a big waste of public funds to me.

On to Scotland complete with man in a kilt blowing bagpipes at the border. The riding is better. There are less people, more hills, more flowers, more bugs, and more sheep. All the sheep are in need of a haircut. The price of wool is only 30p(60 cents) a sheep so most farmers won't bother to shear this year.

Are those peas on your mashers?

We had to catch the 8 o'clock ferry so it was an early morning. We had one last run across the mountain road. What a great way to say goodbye to the Isle of Man. The road was all ours. Same story everywhere, the early bird gets to rip around 37 and 3/4 miles of sweet tarmac.

The ferry back had quite a different feel. Instead of a lounge full of leathers and sliders(replaceable kneepads that you see scraping the asphalt as they corner-most were scratch free which suggests they are posers) spouting off about John McGuiness on the gooseneck this, and Guy Martin around the hairpin that, it was families with kids fighting over their etch-a-sketches. Kids still have to shake theirs here which probably helps them from turning into the tubs of shit like American kids. It certainly isn't the food cuz they give you fries on top of your mashed potatoes here.

We had to rein it in once we got off the ferry. The grey circle with the black line through means 60 mph again instead of as fast as you like. The riding continued to be abfab as we headed north.

The countryside has become more varied. Rolling hills gave way to mountains. We crossed over the highest pass in England and the temps were in the high thirties at the top.

We stopped for the night in Haydon Bridge. It lies in a lush valley surrounded by pasture land with a trout stream running through the middle of it. We saw lots of them hitting the mayflies and asked a local why no one was fishing. "Cuz it's Friday night, mate. It's for drinking. Saturday's for fishing."

We figured we had better have a look at the drinking scene for scientific purposes or research and development or what have you. They really go for it. Both pubs were full of folks that have been slurring and spraying spittle with arms around shoulders every Friday night since time out of mind.

Last of the racing

The weather broke on the 29th. Beautiful sunshine and five more ferries full of bikes have created palpable excitement. The mountain road is just zoom, zoom, zoom. We had a lot of fun watching the public zip around. Locals set up on most of the corners to watch the action all day long. The police hung out on every corner through the town bits to keep people honest.

The course road was too crowded for our liking so we set about trying to line up accomadations for next year. Everywhere we went said, "Thanks, but no thanks." The TT is so popular that they only accept reservations if you're willing to book the whole two weeks. We'll find a place but no luck yet.

After a nap, we bought picnic supplies and headed up to the top part of the course for the night's action. Phil and I hiked up to the highest bit of land on the island and found a spot where we could see about 3 miles worth of road.

The bikes hit over 200 mph on that stretch. There are a few curves but it's mostly straight and ideal for passing. They use the draft and slingshot method. Even though the bikes are started every 10 seconds, they were stacked up nicely for our viewing pleasure.

Watching the sidecars pass was good as well, but we were too far away to see the monkeys so we moved down the hill to one of the corners. They didn't disappoint. Willie was wrong, cowboys are fine, don't let your kids grow up to be sidecar monkeys.