A man walks into a party. Some know him. Most don’t.The first question muttered sotto voce by partygoers? “Who’s that guy?” The second question? “What’s he doing here?” Since ADV Rider is your party and I’ve just arrived, I’ll give a thumbnail sketch of this new column The Lowdown. But first, let’s time travel.
Crouch down behind the hedge with me and keep your eyes open. I’ve been assured by the man at our side, who introduced himself as Clench, and who has a neck tattoo as misshapen as an oil spill on concrete, that what we’re about to do is “straight-up no problem.” We’re here because the engine for my first motorcycle, bought two days ago from Clench, is in the trunk of the car that sits on the driveway on the other side of the hedge. Clench—disappointingly—informed me of this detail after I’d handed over my $50.
“This doesn’t seem OK,” I say. “If it wasn’t all-good,” says Clench, “would I have the key to the car?” That I accept this implausible answer as plausible explanation comes down to a singular factor. I’m 14. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to make this happen. I’m about to own a motorcycle. All we have to do is crawl over to the car in the driveway—that’s owned by the father of Clench’s ex-girlfriend—and liberate the dirt bike engine in the trunk.
I never learned the how, or the why, or the what-in-God’s-name of-it-all about the engine in the trunk. I didn’t care. I just wanted my motorcycle. Three months and a dozen trips to the parts counter at Roy’s Cycle World later, my Hodaka Combat Wombat 125 lived. And that, in its quasi-legal glory, is my hardscrabble first motorcycle origin story.
It snowballed from there. I raced speedway and flat track with bone-snapping aggression and a club racer’s incomprehension of the laws of physics. I wept from rage when my Norton Commando died the last of its many deaths, gobbling a dozen pair of sparkplugs on a trip to the New England coastline. I rebuilt a ’47 Indian Chief with my father. And a Triumph Daytona, too. I rocketed over the handlebar of an RD 400 when the engine pinched tight at 75 mph. And there were the “case-of-beer” trail bikes. The XTs and TTs and XLs given to me because owners knew I’d haul them away and make them run. Some of them I gave back. You can’t keep everything.
My first published stories, back in the ’90s, were for the UK’s Bike magazine. Tales that rambled to the odd corners of motorcycling. From flat-tracking on pavement to nitro-burning hill climbers to a Tennessee road trip that ended up at fetish night in a Knoxville nightclub. (It’s a long story. And a good one.)
Then there was the time I tipped a Boss Hoss over at the entrance to Graceland, a story I’m reminded of every time I feel the lump on the back of my right knee where the small-block’s exhaust manifold seared the skin to a tidy ridge. I howled at the time, but over the years it’s become a talisman of good times, reminding me of Elvis, Graceland, Memphis, and a could-have-gone-horribly-wrong 120 mph blast across the Hernando de Soto bridge into the wilds of Arkansas at three in the morning.
Motorcycling—and I’ve only come to this realization of late—is one of the very few constants in my life. I’ve been married and un-married. I’ve been flush and flushed it all away. But, always, a bike in the shed or parked curbside. And when I was at a crossroads 20 years ago, with a pregnant partner and in dire need of something resembling stability, I landed at a motorcycle magazine in my native Canada, where, in time, I became editor.
A Canadian motorcycle magazine is as illogical a venture as a sub-Saharan-based snowmobile magazine. But the magazine, in spite of, or perhaps because of its small, cold, country-of-origin, was a free-spirited, free-wheeling romp. Why? Anyone who’s endured a sexless relationship will get it: if you’re deprived of something, it’s all you think about.
And, right now, I’m thinking about how the engine in my Ducati 888 vintage racer managed to pump two-thirds of the engine oil from the crankcase to the airbox, creating a black cloud at least as menacing as the smoke from western wildfires. And, soon, I’ll investigate it further, with my leakdown tester that arrived in the mail last week. But first, I have a problem.
As I write this, from The Blue Mountains, north of Toronto, the furnace is humming and the rain is so unrelenting that the sump pump in the basement howls like the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bilge pump on that cursed November night in 1975. My yard, and the walkway to my 10-by-10 shed, which doubles as workshop and wasp haven, is under water. I’m hopeful the weather will drive the wasps away, but looking out the window I watch them gayly flying amid the turmoil, while I cower indoors. Give this round to nature.
For the next six or seven months, motorcycling exists as an abstraction between my ears. And that will be the fodder for The Lowdown. What interests me about ADV Rider is how it fuses an editorial platform with a reader-run madhouse. I started visiting the site years ago, when I was contemplating the purchase of a KTM 950 Adventure, easily one of my favorite motorcycles. I didn’t want to read another press launch story. I’d read plenty of those. And written a dumpster load of them myself. I wanted to hear from people who rode them, crashed them, cursed them, and loved them. I wanted to find enthusiasts who had a relationship with the bike that interested me. Because that’s where most traditional magazines fail—they give you stats, lovely photos, and a rehashing of the manufacturer’s press kit. No wonder traditional magazines have mostly died—they didn’t deserve to live.
My hope for The Lowdown is that it’ll become your newest every-other-week tradition. A twice-monthly blast of compressed air into the cobwebs of the mind. I can’t wait to dig into it, and I’ve no doubt you’ll let me know exactly what you think. I wouldn’t have it any other way.