Four-and-half years later: Livewire? I told you so.

It took about 3 1/2 years longer than I thought it would, but now that the production Harley-Davidson ‘Livewire’ has broken cover at CES, I finally get to say, “I told you so.” Here’s what I wrote about the first Livewire prototype.

Originally published June 26, 2014: Harley-Davidson's EV announcement shocked the faithful. Here's why the company's announcement strategy is actually brilliant

Earlier this week, I was flown in to see and (however briefly) ride the Harley-Davidson LiveWire. It was shown to the public for the first time at Harley-Davidson of New York's trendy new TriBeCa flagship store.  

Harley-Davidson president Matt Levatich, and the company's CMO, Mark-Hans Richter were in New York for the event. Both of them, along with the other execs I spoke with, cleaved to the official story: there are no official plans to produce or market the LiveWire. 

If Harley-Davidson is to be believed, the upcoming 30-city 'Project LiveWire'—10,000 public test rides on hand-made prototypes costing well over $250,000 each—is all an elaborate market research project. The Motor Company is only conducting the tour to get a general sense of the interest in electric motorcycles. 

None of the experienced motojournalists at the 'reveal' believes that. The bikes we saw—Harley built a total of 39—are far too well finished, and too resolved in their design. Andy Downes, the editor of MCN, bets there will be a production announcement within 18 months. 

When really pressed, Harley execs' fallback position is, "Maybe when battery technology makes the next jump." Say, when energy densities are 50% better than they are now. But no one in the battery business expects an increase like that in the next year or two, so that's not it.


I still have those yellow jeans. If only I still had those writing chops!

I still have those yellow jeans. If only I still had those writing chops!

Before I saw the bike in the metal, and rode it, I thought the whole "market test" story had been concocted to avoid comparison with existing e-bikes of generally comparable specification, say the Zero S and SR, or Brammo Enertia or Empulse. But even after my ten-minutes-in-Manhattan-traffic first ride, I realized that Harley has nothing to fear from bikes like those. The LiveWire (its limited, 53-mile range notwithstanding) is fucking cool.

So, what gives? Why would Harley spend tens of millions to build a fleet of LiveWires, then deny plans to put an EV into production?

The short answer is, because Harley's existing customer base, the Live-to-Ride-Ride-to-Live-Helmet-laws-suck-Support-the-troops-Drill-baby-drill-If-you-can-read-this-the-bitch-fell-off-Show-me-the-birth-certificate-No-new-taxes-Theres-no-replacement-for-displacement, dyed-in-the-leather Harley purists hate the idea.

I buttonholed one Harley exec and made him admit that, out on the interwebs—on Harley forums—Duck Dynasty-reject Harley riders don't just not want an e-bike, they actively resent the whole idea. The exec angrily told me, "Those guys hate us [Harley management] anyway! They already say that the panhead was the last real Harley. And besides, they don't buy new motorcycles."

I've gotta' give him that; they don't. But what about the 35 year old welder, who's making good money in North Dakota thanks to the fracking boom? Or the 45 year old dentist in the Chicago suburbs, or the 55 year old grocery store manager in Albuquerque?

True story: After the launch, I rode my corroded Triumph Bonneville home from the Kansas City airport. As I trundled along, I was slowly passed by a guy riding a new-ish Harley-Davidson 'bagger'. He was in his sixties, portly, with a neatly trimmed white beard. An absolutely typical suburban grandpa, of the type you'd find at the Rotary, or Elks Lodge, or maybe in a small-town Chamber of Commerce. Except, he was wearing a shiny black leather jacket, with an elaborate, embroidered grim reaper across the back. And there was a little chrome skull on his rear fender.

My point in telling you this is, the guys who do buy new Harleys aren't buying them because they love the engineering; they're buying them because the Harley brand is wrapped up in the rebellious, badass 'authenticity' of those grizzled panhead riders. That is what allows the welder, the dentist, the store manager, and grandpa to tell themselves, if it ain't Harley, it ain't shit.

Then it hit me: the grandmaster-level-chess-player strategic genius of Harley's 'LiveWire tour' story—the genius of claiming that they have no specific plans to produce it.

I mean, the bike I saw was proof they do have plans to produce it. And if you need more evidence, Harley's openly recruiting engineers with EV experience on their web site. TheProject LiveWire bikes are finished; if there are no plans to put it into production, why recruit high-dollar EV specialists? Because, LiveWire, or LiveWire 2.0 is, definitely going to be mass produced. Which makes the whole "It's just a market test" story an elaborate subterfuge. Why lie to your best customers? Bear with me another minute while I set up the strategic context...

Given: Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle manufacturer that shows up on lists of the world's most valuable brands. The thing is, it's completely wrapped up in both small- and big-C conservative values. Take away the motorcycles, and Sturgis would be a Tea Party rally. These are people who resented having compact fluorescent light bulbs rammed down their throats.

Given: Harley's existing customers don't just not want an electric Harley; they view EVs as a tree-hugging liberal boondoggle. EVs, in their view, are actually unAmerican.

Given: As strong a brand as Harley-Davidson is, its customer base is very old. They say, Fifty is the new thirty; they say, 60's the new 40. Seventy may even be the new 50. But 85 is still 85. Harley needs a long-term strategy to attract younger customers 

Given: Harley's attempts a making smaller, lighter, sportier gas-powered motorcycles—bikes that could appeal to younger riders—have always failed. (And, by the way, Harley-Davidson's dealer network hated it the last time Harley tried to compete with those rice rockets. Harley created the Buell sport bike brand in an effort to compete with the Japanese manufacturers. Dealers felt that Buell was pushed on them by management; they never supported the brand, and it ultimately failed.) 

Someone at Harley-Davidson—and it had to be someone right at the top—came up with a daring plan to leapfrog right over more tech-savvy manufacturers like Honda and BMW, by going all the way to an EV. Honda doesn't have an e-bike yet, BMW doesn't (not a proper motorcycle, anyway). The only e-bikes on the market have been cobbled together by startups with no dealer networks and, frankly, not much style or marketing savvy.

There are some things that, when you hear an executive say them, you know  are not true. For example, if the CEO of your company calls you all into the auditorium and says, "Let me make one thing clear: There will not be layoffs," it's time to run out and print 1,000 copies of your resume. I was reminded of that when Mark-Hans Richter, Harley's Chief Marketing Officer, emphatically said, "This is authentic. This is on-brand."      It was the opposite of on-brand, and that was why Harley should have done it ASAP. But now’s better than never.

There are some things that, when you hear an executive say them, you know  are not true. For example, if the CEO of your company calls you all into the auditorium and says, "Let me make one thing clear: There will not be layoffs," it's time to run out and print 1,000 copies of your resume. I was reminded of that when Mark-Hans Richter, Harley's Chief Marketing Officer, emphatically said, "This is authentic. This is on-brand."

It was the opposite of on-brand, and that was why Harley should have done it ASAP. But now’s better than never.

By producing an EV, Harley-Davidson would attract a young, liberal, urban market that until now has been inaccessible to America's oldest and most conservative motorcycle company. Harley-Davidson executives in Milwaukee secretly contacted Mission Motors, in San Francisco, and contracted them to engineer an electric drivetrain. By tapping Mission—the most advanced motorcycle EV research & development company—Harley ensured that the LiveWire would be state-of-the-art.

But Harley still had one insurmountable problem: No one thinks EVs will be more than 10% of the market any time soon, and announcing an EV was bound to freak out its existing customer base.

That's why calling Project LiveWire a market test was a communications-strategy masterstroke.

Harley's going to take its LiveWire prototypes on a 30-city tour across the U.S. It's not even bringing the machines to Sturgis, or Daytona, or any of the places where old-school Harley riders gather. But you can be sure Portland will see the LiveWire. And because the bike is fucking cool—and it's just a twist-and-go (no clutch or gears) and very easy to ride—it's going to appeal to young hipsters, tech nerds, chicks... people who've never thought of themselves as 'the Harley type'—or even motorcycle riders. 

Mark my words: within a year or two, Matt Levatich will stand up in front of a crowd of Harley faithful and say, "We weren't even going to make the LiveWire, but the free market has spoken. Customers are demanding a LiveWire of their own."

Between the lines, Harley-Davidson will tell millions of Duck Dynasty rejects, "Hey, we're a for-profit company, and the market has spoken, bro'. That was democracy in action." 

Harley-Davidson's current customers resent EVs and the liberals who drive them (or soon, ride them.) But such petty resentments are trumped by a knee jerk belief in the sanctity of a free market. After all, there's nothin' more 'Murican than the profit motive. 

So after the LiveWire tour, Harley-Davidson will address its existing customers, and actually use their deeply held conservative values to justify the decision to put the LiveWire into production.

Genius.




Black (and blue) Friday: Buy a book, help pay for my operation

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware of just how useful an opposable thumb is.

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware of just how useful an opposable thumb is.

If you’ve noticed a slowdown on blog posts here on Bikewriter.com, it’s in part down to something I’ve been too embarrassed to admit until now: I was recently injured in a motorcycle crash. It was a shit crash (aren’t they all?) But now, I’m now asking for a little sympathy.

I suppose I could organize some sad Go Fund Me to pay for treatment that I’m going to need to keep working. But I’d rather organize a “Go Find Me a gift I can give my motorcycle buddies”. What I mean is, buy your pals a good motorcycle book (or DVD), and give it to them as a Christmas gift (or, buy something for you to read over the Christmas break, while the rest of your family talks politics). That’s how you can help me out.

“That’s all I need to know! Just give me the links and I’ll buy some books right now.”

“What? You, Mr. Caution, were injured?!? Tell me more...”

Like all crashes, it was the result of a rider error. Yes, I was going much to fast for public roads, with friends but also with an eye towards writing a tire test on the buns on the Multi. I locked the front tire over-braking in an unexpected cornering situation. It was not particularly violent; I rode the bike home 200 miles from Arkansas, thinking that I’d sprained my right thumb and that the worst damage had been done to my ego.

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Turns out that wasn’t the case. When the swelling and pain went on too long, I finally had it examined; it turns out it’s broken. And no, I’ve nothing like the kind of insurance you’d need to have it fixed in the U.S. (which, I suppose, influenced my post-crash wishful thinking that it was just some kind of sprain.)

Go ahead and berate me but don’t fucking kid yourself: No freelancer can afford meaningful health insurance. The only people who do what I do for a living, who also have good coverage are the handful of people who are still salaried employees, or journalists who happen to be married to someone with a corporate job.

Although I’ve been living with it for a month, in the last week I’ve had to face the fact that as piss-ant an injury as it is, it’s career-limiting for a motorcycle journalist. My typing and note-taking are messed up, and while I can technically ride, I won’t be able to ride well enough to take on most assignments until I get it fixed, whether in Mexico, Thailand, or wherever. Hence, this appeal.

If you’ve read this far AND YOU’RE A U.S. CUSTOMER congratulations, because this is where you get some great additional offers

If you live in the U.S. I will send you as many BMW Racing Motorcycles books or One Man’s Island DVDs as you want for $15 each, and I’ll pay postage. Email me for deets.

If you live in the U.S. I will send you as many BMW Racing Motorcycles books or One Man’s Island DVDs as you want for $15 each, and I’ll pay postage. Email me for deets.

I have a bunch of copies of One Man’s Island, Peter Riddihough’s great documentary film about my Isle of Man experiences. This is a DVD made in 2002, before the advent of high definition, but it’s still very watchable. I’ll sell you as many as you want for $15 each with free shipping. Shoot an email to Mark@MarkGardiner.com with your U.S. snail mail address. I will send you a Paypal invoice (and yes for you old-fashioned types I do still accept checks in the mail!)

I have a bunch of copies of Mastery of Speed: BMW Racing Motorcycles, co-authored with Laurel Allen. Although it was written before the S1000RR era, it’s full of terrific pics from BMW’s own archives and a great gift for BMW nerds! Again, $15 each with free shipping – less than half the Amazon price (so don’t tell them!) Shoot an email to Mark@MarkGardiner.com with your U.S. snail mail address. I will send you a Paypal invoice (and yes for you old-fashioned types I do still accept checks in the mail!)

Please note: Because I will be mailing these myself, and because the USPS has jacked up international rates and made the paperwork for international mailing incredibly onerous, I can only send these to U.S. addresses.

And now for the best part: Win an incredible art calendar of nude photos shot on the TT course!

My friend Rachael Clegg is a mad TT fan who is also both beautiful and talented. If you’ve never seen her ‘Milestones’ calendars you are in for a treat. Each month is illustrated with a funny or charming nude self-portrait, all shot on the TT course. NSFW, but SFYDOG (suitable for your den or garage.)

These are large format, art-quality printing. A £25 value.

These are large format, art-quality printing. A £25 value.

Six U.S. customers who buy books between now and December 1 will win one of these calendars. Here’s how to enter:

1.     Buy a book or books and screenshot your receipt or confirmation

2.     Email that proof of purchase to me, at Mark@MarkGardiner.com with ‘Calendar Contest’ in the subject line

3.     On December 2 I will sort through and give calendars to the three people who make the biggest purchases, and three other people chosen at random.

Please note that, again, because of USPS shipping hassles, this offer is for U.S. readers only. Sorry!

Last but not least… If you are a motorcyclist who happens to be an accomplished hand surgeon, we should talk.

No wait, there is one more thing: If you were expecting a maudlin Thanksgiving post, read this one…

Why ‘Servi-Car’? Because it was for servicing cars

Back in the 1930s, quite a few garages offered to pick up and drop off customers’ cars. (Imagine that, eh? Customer service!)

Back in the 1930s, quite a few garages offered to pick up and drop off customers’ cars. (Imagine that, eh? Customer service!)

Considering that it was offered in the Harley-Davidson lineup from 1932 to ’74, it’s hard to call the three-wheeled Servi-Car a dead end. But few Servi-Cars ever served their initial purpose. 

The idea was, garage operators would send a man out on the Harley to collect the customer’s car. The delivery driver would then attach the trike to the customer’s car’s bumper, and tow it back to the garage. After servicing the customer’s car, they’d return it to the customer with the Harley in tow. Then they’d unhitch the hog and return to the garage.

The initial concept didn’t catch on all that well, but the idea of a small, fuel-efficient vehicle with a large cargo capacity found a niche with police departments and all manner of delivery services and tradesmen.

The initial concept didn’t catch on all that well, but the idea of a small, fuel-efficient vehicle with a large cargo capacity found a niche with police departments and all manner of delivery services and tradesmen.


 
This text is excerpted from my  Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia . (The first  Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia  was an Amazon best-seller, but let's face it: we all know that when it comes to reading on the john, 'number two' is even more satisfying.)

This text is excerpted from my Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia. (The first Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia was an Amazon best-seller, but let's face it: we all know that when it comes to reading on the john, 'number two' is even more satisfying.)

Harley's dead ends, con't.: Was it a Blast? Not really

Decades after the Aermacchi debacle, Harley-Davidson tried to produce an entry-level bike again with the ill-fated Buell Blast, sold (read: almost given away) from 2000 to 2010.

Some day, even this will be collectible.

Some day, even this will be collectible.

The Blast was a small, light motorcycle with a relatively (for Harley) sporting stance. Basically, the motor was a 1,000cc Sportster missing the rear cylinder. The bodywork was made out of Surlyn plastic—a material normally used in golf balls. Presumably that was to make it crash resistant. 

It was a good idea. Really, it was. And according to Harley’s PR, the Blast was used to train over 175,000 riders in the Rider’s Edge program. But it was so unloved that after announcing that it would discontinue the model, Buell crushed remaining Blasts into cubes rather than sell them.

Harley-Davidson's dead ends: How do you say 'potato-potato' in Italian? (Hint: It's "ringa-dinga-dinga")

Since Villa was the only Harley-Davidson rider to carry the #1 plate in the World Championship, I assume this is he. Note the unique ‘hydro-conical’ front brake setup. Aermacchi-designed and manufactured H-D Sprint motors. Though totally different, they also did well in U.S. short-track racing. Neither the public nor, I suspect, Harley dealers really knew what to make of those smaller Harleys. Aermacchi was sold back to the Italians after a few years.

Since Villa was the only Harley-Davidson rider to carry the #1 plate in the World Championship, I assume this is he. Note the unique ‘hydro-conical’ front brake setup. Aermacchi-designed and manufactured H-D Sprint motors. Though totally different, they also did well in U.S. short-track racing. Neither the public nor, I suspect, Harley dealers really knew what to make of those smaller Harleys. Aermacchi was sold back to the Italians after a few years.

Considering that underwhelming Superbike history, you may be surprised to learn that Harley-Davidson actually won several Grand Prix World Championships in the mid-1970s. Americans hardly knew it was even happening; it was an all-Italian effort.

Aermacchi was an Italian company that started out in the airplane business, but shifted into motorcycles after WWII. In 1960, Harley-Davidson acquired a 50% interest in the Italian company, because Harley dealers needed smaller entry-level bikes for customers who weren’t ready (or couldn’t afford) a big v-twin. Aermacchi designed and built the 250cc ‘Sprint’ for U.S. sales. Meanwhile, its racing team developed some fast two-stroke twins, like Yamaha’s Grand Prix racers.

In 1974, AMF acquired the rest of the shares in Aermacchi. Those Grand Prix racers were rebadged as Harley-Davidsons, and Walter Villa won The Motor Company its only World Championships from 1974-’76.

Although Aermacchi was obviously capable of hand-building a few top quality race bikes, the company’s mass-production fell further and further behind Japanese imports in terms of both performance and build quality. AMF sold Aermacchi to the Cagiva Group in 1978.

Harley-Davidson's dead ends: They were into VR before ‘VR’ meant VR

The Harley-Davidson VR 1000 had a frustrating history in AMA Superbike racing. The idea of building a competitive superbike first occurred to a small, renegade group in Milwaukee, in 1988.

Pascal Picotte rode the wheels off the VR1000 for a couple of years. And occasionally rode the valves, piston crowns, and other engine internals a little too hard. Early in the bike’s race history, H-D mechanics actually ran a 1% premix to improve top-end lubrication.

Pascal Picotte rode the wheels off the VR1000 for a couple of years. And occasionally rode the valves, piston crowns, and other engine internals a little too hard. Early in the bike’s race history, H-D mechanics actually ran a 1% premix to improve top-end lubrication.

It may have been a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Harley farmed out most of the v-twin motor’s design to Roush Racing. Steve Scheibe, an engineer at Roush ended up moving to Harley to manage the project. Scheibe brought in a friend, Pete Mohar, who ran an engineering consultancy called Gemini Technology Systems to work on other aspects of the bike, while the chassis was the responsibility of Mike Eatough.

They were all smart guys but the VR 1000 took a long time to get off the drawing board. It was conceived in 1988, but wasn’t raced until ’96. In that interval, competitors’ bikes improved by leaps and bounds. Harley hired Miguel Duhamel, who’d spent the previous season racing in the 500GP World Championship, but even he wasn’t really competitive on it.

Harley stuck with the VR 1000 for five racing seasons. The bike showed flashes of brilliance, such as the time Chris Carr put it on the pole for a Superbike race in Pomona, or the time Tom Wilson crossed the finish line first at Mid-Ohio, only to have the results put back a lap due to a red flag. Harley finally killed the project in 2001.

 
This text is excerpted from my  Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia . (The first  Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia  was an Amazon best-seller, but let's face it: we all know that when it comes to reading on the john, 'number two' is even more satisfying.)

This text is excerpted from my Second Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia. (The first Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia was an Amazon best-seller, but let's face it: we all know that when it comes to reading on the john, 'number two' is even more satisfying.)

Ant West again!?! Here's what I wrote in 2012...

I have no way of knowing what banned substance turned up in Ant West’s pee this time, but last time the Aussie’s urine was contaminated by bullshit. In 2012, I wrote the following column under the title, “In the Ant West case, it's the FIM and MotoGP who are acting like dopes”.

I’ll update this post when and if I get information on West’s specific infraction but until then it’s useful to realize that motorcycle racing is a little different than putting the shot.

This image courtesy of the incomparable David Emmett’s Twitter feed. If you don’t follow @Motomatters, you should.

This image courtesy of the incomparable David Emmett’s Twitter feed. If you don’t follow @Motomatters, you should.

Herewith my column from 2012. (Shameless plug: If you appreciate this kind of long-form writing, you’ll like reading my book, ‘On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker’. Buying a copy would be a great way to tip your hat… and me.)

An Australian guy, named Anthony, tests positive in a random drug test. 

That sounds like the beginning of an old joke, where the punch-line is 'Anthony Gobert'. 

But Ant West's retroactive disqualification from the French Moto2 event (where the sample was taken, in May) and 30-day ban (beginning October 30, in the wake of the recent ruling by the FIM's International Disciplinary Court) are not the same thing as the "Go-Show's" repeated recreational drug transgressions. Here's why...

West tested positive for methylhexaneamine. This 'drug', which is extracted from geranium plants, is a mild stimulant that wears off in hours. It's similar to caffeine. No expert believes it's a meaningful performance aid even in sports like running or rugby. Methylhexaneamine certainly didn't influence the results of the French Moto2 race, in which West finished 7th, almost one second behind Pol Espargo and six seconds ahead of Max Neukirchner.

Methylhexaneamine confers only a trivial advantage, but it's actually a pretty frequent drug 'catch' in doping controls. Want to know why? 

It's a common ingredient in body-building and training supplements. Putting it in training supplements isn't any different than chugging a Muscle Milk shake followed by an espresso shot before hitting the gym. (That, in fact, is my formula.) The makers of those supplements are under no real pressure to even list all their ingredients, nor is there a standardized nomenclature for ingredients. An athlete that wanted to avoid methylhexaneamine would have to look for...

Geranium -oil, -extract, -flower, -stems, -leaves, Methylhexaneamine; Methylhexanamine; DMAA (dimethylamylamine); Geranamine; Forthane; Forthan; Floradrene; 2-hexanamine, 4-methyl-; 2-hexanamine, 4-methyl- (9CI); 4-methyl-2-hexanamine; 1,3-dimethylamylamine; 4-Methylhexan-2-amine; 1,3-dimethylpentylamine; 2-amino-4-methylhexane; Pentylamine, 1, 3-dimethyl-.

...and that's not even an exhaustive list.

West's 30-day ban (which he has until Sunday to appeal) has the effect of denying him a start in the season finale in Valencia. I'm not sure if, according to FIM rules, he can partake in early post-season tests or whether the ban applies to competition only. Either way, though, it's bullshit.

The irony of West's ban, in a sport in which riders routinely expose themselves to deadly risk, and where there is a traveling doctor in the paddock at all times whose main duty is to provide pain-killing drugs to riders who want to compete with injuries, should not be lost here. That irony is doubled by the fact that West's ban is for a mild stimulant. Presumably he'd've been fine if he'd glugged down a Monster Energy or Red Bull, since those companies are major sponsors.

The FIM and MotoGP have voluntarily acquiesced to WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Thus, the unique drug control 'needs' of motorcycle racing have been replaced by WADA's one-list-suits-all approach. A big part of the FIM's embrace of WADA actually goes back to the chip motorsport has on its shoulder about whether racers are athletes. ("Look, our guys have to pee in a cup just like Lance Armstrong.") 

WADA itself warrants some skepticism. What began as a legitimate and generally-agreed-as-necessary quasi-independent organization supervising doping control at the Olympics quickly became an IOC-style old-boys club of its own. 

To grow, WADA convinced non-Olympic sports governing bodies to sign up; the FIM pays WADA dues and relies on its testing and protocols. (Half WADA's funding comes from sports governing bodies, and half comes from national governments.) Now WADA, an organization that justifies its existence by catching athletes who have an 'adverse analytical finding', has an incentive to create the longest-possible list of banned substances -- and in effect to ban substances on the flimsiest evidence that they could confer an advantage in any of hundreds of sports. 

The range of sports that have now agreed to turn over their doping controls to WADA is so diverse that athletes face the risk of being banned for the accidental use of drugs that put them at a disadvantage. Stimulants are banned across the board, so they're banned in shooting sports. Jockeys are tested for all manner of steroids.

It would be great if common sense could prevail, and the FIM and MotoGP could consult a few experts  and -- once they'd determined that West didn't gain an advantage or even knowingly cheat -- void WADA's finding. It would be great if the FIM told WADA, "Hey, you give us all the drug reports, and let us decide who's cheating." Instead, WADA and the FIM spent five months smelling and tasting West's piss, holding the test tube up to the light, and then announced West's 30-day ban.

The Lance Armstrong debacle (and BALCO before that) proves that in sports where doping can and does influence results, WADA in particular and doping control, generally, is still playing catch up to the cheaters. Motorcycle racing needs to police the use of recreational drugs for safety's sake, and to keep an eye on performance-enhancing drug technology. But WADA's exhaustive list of banned substances and the FIM "court's" decision in West's case is bullshit

Why I don't give a shit about Romano Fenati's career

Unless you’ve been living in the Tora Bora cave complex, you’ve already heard all about Romano Fenati’s famous ‘brake grab’ in the Misano Moto2 race.

Fenati got into it with Stefano Manzi after Manzi pushed him wide a corner or two earlier. Manzi was not completely innocent; race direction imposed a penalty on him, too. But Fenati’s retaliation was pretty spectacular. He caught up to Manzi on the straight, reached over with his left hand and grabbed Manzi’s front brake. Manzi didn’t crash, though he might have done.

The incident was captured on Misano’s CCTV system. Fenati was black flagged, and soon after we got word that he’d received a two-race ban.

That sparked its own outrage, by riders and racing insiders who argued – especially in light of Fenati’s history of, shall we say, anger-management issues – that he should have received a much harsher penalty. Cal Crutchlow vehemently declared he should be banned for life. Frantic motorcycle journalists further degraded the signal-to-noise ratio by saying Fenati should be charged with attempted murder.

In the end, the two-race ban was moot; Fenati was dropped by his current team and, for good measure, MV Agusta reneged on his 2019 contract. But wait, there’s more: the Italian motorcycle federation took away his racing license, effectively putting his entire career on hold. Then, the FIM called him onto the carpet. Fenati, overwhelmed, announced he was quitting racing altogether and going back to school.

Screen Shot 2018-09-13 at 5.57.01 PM.png

Predictably, while those dominoes were falling, I read a few comments to the effect of, “Well, maybe a lifetime ban is excessive”; “Could he get counseling?”, and; “You know, other racers have done some daft and dangerous things without such draconian punishment…” Finally, even Stefano Manzi released a statement suggesting that a lifetime ban was certainly too strong a reaction to Fenati’s intemperate grab.

I say, “So what?” I don’t give a shit whether that two seconds of bad judgement permanently derail Romano Fenati’s career, and it’s not because I think the offense was so egregious as to make a lifetime ban the only appropriate punishment, or because I think Fenati lacked the talent to be in a World Championship in the first place. (I do not think either of those things, BTW.)

The reason I don’t give a shit is, up-and-coming careers are derailed all the time. A young rider’s climb from youth racing, to national and then international racing, up the pyramid towards MotoGP – that climb is inherently incredibly precarious.

Young riders’ careers are derailed when they have an ordinary fall but an unlucky bounce, ending their career before it starts by injury. Or because by sheer fluke they’re paired on a team with an even greater prodigy who makes them look slow only in comparison, but that impression taints them when teams are recruiting for the next level. Or when a team manager makes the wrong frame choice. Or, more likely, when their dad simply can’t afford the massive, six-figure investment that has to be made to get a young rider the experience they need to even seek sponsorship.

Before Misano, no one looked at Fenati and thought, “He shouldn’t be here.” He already had a reputation as a hothead, but he was a fast hothead. So what? On his rise through the ranks to Moto2, he managed to swim while other riders – who were every bit as talented and probably slightly more worthy human beings – sank.

Fenati’s dream, I’m sure, was to make it to MotoGP, win races, get a factory ride, and win the Championship. That is not something that talent alone can possibly guarantee. Along the way, careers get derailed all the time, often for random reasons utterly beyond a rider’s control. Only a handful of the dozens of Moto2 riders in that Misano race are destined to get a call-up to MotoGP and of those, most will only linger at the back of the grid and bottom of the points table for a season or two and then they’ll be forgotten.

So who cares whether the initial ban was too lenient, or the Italian Federation went too far pulling his license altogether, or MV Agusta went too far tearing up an entire year’s contract? All around the world, in classes from Metrakits and underbones to World Superbikes and MotoGP, riders’ careers have been – and will continue to be – derailed for less.

Fenati, at least, was the architect of his own misfortune. We’re only talking about him because the moment his career came to a premature end was captured on video. Did he deserve a de facto lifetime ban? That’s irrelevant; young racers’ careers are derailed for random reasons, deserved or not, all the time.

If you can’t handle that, you need to take a cue from Romano Fenati; quit and go back to school.

 
If you dig this kind of philosophical rambling about motorcycle racing, you’ll love my book ‘On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker’. Buy it on Amazon right now by clicking on the cover, or read it tonight on Kindle for less than ten bucks  here ..

If you dig this kind of philosophical rambling about motorcycle racing, you’ll love my book ‘On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker’. Buy it on Amazon right now by clicking on the cover, or read it tonight on Kindle for less than ten bucks here..