Whatever! – Falling Down, Getting Up: Motorcycle as Metaphor

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You read the byline correctly! Yes, it’s that John Burns, the illustrious scribe who has graced the top motorcycle publications in America, from the dearly departed Cycle magazine to Cycle World and Motorcyclist. But if you gave up reading about motorcycles printed on dead trees 12 or more years ago, you might remember Burnsie on the virtual pages of MO in the 2002-2003 timeframe.

JB could always be relied upon to deliver wit and cleverness beyond most any motojourno, and that’s why I’m proud to have his contributions back on the pages of MO. You’ll see his “Whatever!” column – the first of which you can read below – rotate on Wednesdays with our two other guest columnists, Thomas Kreutzer (“Observations From The Road”) and Chris Kalfelz (“Head-Shake”). Burns will also be contributing to MO in a variety of other subjects whenever possible. Burnsie is one of the all-time great motojournalists, so you’ll want to stay tuned to MO to see how he’ll be entertaining us next! –Kevin Duke, Editor-in-Chief


The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.

–Vince Lombardi, Confucius and Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the late 80s’ mid ’90s when the economy was booming, British magazines like Performance Bikes and Bike set the tone for me. Japanese sportbikes were so plentiful on the ground and the economy was so robust, the idea seemed to be something like the ad Doritos ran for awhile: Go ahead, eat as many as you want, we’ll make more.

Finding myself going to international motorcycle launches with those guys was like being dropped into a Guy Ritchie movie; the Brit journalists were tough, funny, working-class characters. One whose name escapes me, but who was a dead ringer for Russell Brand, showed up for the launch of a new Kawasaki ZX-9R at Paul Ricard in France wearing tattered leathers and a helmet with a clear plastic hemisphere on back with plastic goldfish in it. When he inevitably cartwheeled a shiny new ZX-9R down the front straight in a hail of plastic, sparks and goldfish, then made his way back to the pits, his first words were, “Can I get another one of those? That one looked well-fooked when it went flying over me head.” They gave him another one.

Anyway, when I landed, wait, landed is the wrong word. When Phil Schilling reached down like God from his cloud and miraculously gifted me with my first job at Cycle magazine, the only real motorcycle experience I’d had, apart from riding a couple of beaters to and from work and school, was watching my friends come home from the trails at the end of our subdivision on their dirtbikes. The main topic was always fresh wounds, new dents in gas tanks (then they invented plastic ones!) and the latest spectacular crashes. I associated motorcycles with carnage right from the beginning. So did my parents; that’s why I didn’t have one. There was no awareness of the possibility of riding motorcycles without falling off occasionally: Wasn’t the laughing in the face of danger a major component?

2002 Yamaha R1

I did not fall off the first Yamaha R1 in late 1997 in Cartagena, Spain. But I did fall off the 2002 R1 in Catalunya – which wound up being my first ever story for Motorcycle.com, come to think of it. Good times.

Read Burns’ review of the 2002 Yamaha R1

Motorcycle press launches were the world’s coolest, most exclusive parties. Kawasaki could’ve mailed us a press release and some photos and probably sold just as many ZX-9s, but it was understood that motorcycles are also about male bonding and let’s celebrate all our fabulous luck in being here: PR guys, journalists, engineers, corporate bighsots riding hard all day, partying hard all night. Seriously, little Johnny from Kansas City, riding around Paul Ricard.

On the bus that took us through the curvy pine forest to get to the circuit, David Aldana regaled us with the even wilder party the Bol d’Or used to be when he raced there in the ’70s. Prostitutes would set up tents right out there in the forest, David told us, and you’d see bikes parked along the road and wonder why? Amateur anthropologist Peter Jones identified this group as, “the C*#ksucking Bushwomen of Le Castellet.”

I did not crash a Kawasaki at that launch, but a few more guys did. Whadaya want; it’s a racetrack? But at a ZX-6R launch a few years later at Catalunya (pinch me again, mama), I did throw one of them down the road in the rain, and so did a few of my American colleagues. Yo, we’re from California. When it rains, we take the car. Your Europeans tend to be far better rain riders than the average American motojournalist, and we were feeling a little national embarrassment at having trashed three or four Kawasakis that day.

1998 Kawasaki ZX-9R Wheelie

Fat bikes need love too. By the end of its 1994-2003 production run, the ZX-9R had become the last of the Open-class Japanese sportbikes not to have been seriously downsized, and it was a fantastic streetbike because of it. Pretty sure this is the ’98 version, at Paul Ricard. (Photo by Tom Riles)

We were hangdogging it in our pits as the rain continued to fall, when the Brits from Bike decided right in front of our garage was the best place to shoot photos of Martin “Wild” Child doing one-handed stoppies, placing the bike perfectly in front of the wide-angle lens about ten times in a row while pointing at the camera with his left hand. In the rain, I reiterate. Man, some of those guys could ride a motorcycle.

Luckily, much of the pressure was released when our U.S. Kawasaki rep, Mel Moore, came sliding into our garage with a scooter on top of him. Mel had been giving us a hard time about how superior the American riders used to be, but he let it go after that and concentrated instead on hiding a fresh limp

If you’re having to pay for your crashes, of course, it’s way less amusing. But the point is we weren’t. Part of the appeal I admit was having a huge corporation under your thumb, or so the huge corporation seemed to think. What I always thought was, I never, ever intentionally crashed anything – I’m as big a coward as the next man – but when a crash happens, it nearly always makes the story easy to write.

And if you’re going to push your limits and the bike’s (way higher), there’s no better place to do it than Circuito de Catalunya, with its massive run-off areas, medical crews and mountains of spare parts standing by. Just before sliding off the low side of the ZX-6R in the slowest left, I was thinking about Kenny Roberts’ book, in which he says you can go really fast in the rain if you’re super smooth, which I was trying to be. He neglected to mention on rain tires.

I haven’t seen a Performance Bikes in quite a while, unfortunately, since my local Borders went belly up a few years ago, leaving me no nearby place to read $50 worth of magazines while sipping one small coffee. But I do still have PB’s VHS tape circa 1997, Video Nasties 2, whose cover art is somebody cartwheeling a Triumph Speed Triple down the road, which I’d be willing to bet is neither Photoshopped nor faked. Inside, as I recall, is a lot of amateur footage of guys being dragged around on inner tubes behind motorcycles, people stunting, people failing at stunting, heart-stopping onboard lane-splitting around Paris’ ring road, naked people riding up and down Douglas Promenade at the Isle of Man – basically 50 minutes of light-hearted motorcycle mayhem.

Performance Bikes Video Nasty 2

Part of the disclaimer on Performance Bike’s Video Nasty 2 (1997) reads “We’d like to say all the riders are professionals who know what they’re doing, but it’d be a lie.”

Rupert Paul can still be found in Bike, though he seems to have toned it down a bit in recent years. I remember shooting coffee out my nose when I read his granddad had been one of the first to volunteer for the Great War, as he thought the recruiter had said we’re off to lick the nun. No telling how old that joke is in England, but I’d never heard it. Anyway…

Anyway, the economy crumbled, bike sales plummeted, and everybody grew way more serious: Crashing a bike is now not to be taken lightly, drunken debauchery is no longer amusing, donuts in golf carts on the 18th green are in no way humorous… I heard that at a recent international launch, all the participants were actually Breathalyzed before setting out for the day’s ride.

Well, many of us have cleaned up our acts in the ensuing years and are better people for it. But it’s hard not to look back at that era and not believe those were the best of times, before motorcycles became, like sports cars before them, toys of the wealthy. Before economic hard times made risk avoidance job one for practically everybody.

Josh Burns Icon Jacket

Dirt: the final frontier. Off-road motorcycles are far easier to fall off of. Be sure to wear plenty of protection, go with a strong friend, and avoid big rocks. Handguards are a very good idea.

I had a point when I started out 1200 words ago, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was. Something to do with non carborundum illigitimus est. Call me a crasher, I’m fine with that, proud even. Me and the crazed generation I came up with, who rode that fat wave till it crashed upon the shore.

Guess what, there’ll be another wave behind it, and I’m still here, mostly intact though a bit sore of rib from a recent dirtbike outing to Glamis. Some part of me still seems to think that if you’re not falling off now and then, you’re really not trying hard enough. Another, bigger part of me just isn’t very coordinated, a thing I keep thinking practice will cure lo these many years later. Please do not read this as encouragement to go fall off your motorcycle.

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  • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

    Welcome home Mr. Burns. I am optimistic that MO’s recent successes will blossom into full-blown AIDS. Wait, I apologize, I meant to type: “Full-Blown World Domination”

    • Oslo Norway

      Best move evah!

      • john burns

        Let us join forces, Oslo, and move upon fhe Forces of Oppression.

        • Oslo Norway

          Well? By golly, there’s a lot of Forces of Oppression out there these days, John…We’re surrounded, we got ‘em just where we want ‘em. Attack in all directions! I’ll buy ya one of those teenie euro-coffees you like when the dust settles…

          • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

            I’ll get the churches, you guys get Limbaugh and O’Reiley!

  • http://www.hatchillustrations.com/ Jim Hatch

    Welcome JB! Now lets hear some wild stories.

  • Neale

    Mr. Burns….thanks for crashing the Buell in front of me in Wisconsin….good times.

  • Peter Jones

    Johnny, Love, that Brit’s name was (is?) Jimmy. I don’t remember the name of his fish, though. I do remember the wine on each table during lunch… that the America’s were forbidden to touch. Why? Because of the Pilgrims, I guess. Also, thanks for making me sound smarter and wittier than I am. Ahh, the stories we could tell. Ha… The stories that we will tell.

    • john burns

      unfortunately I don’t remember most of them. Just the good parts!

  • Gabe Ets-Hokin

    How far have fallen the mighty!

    • john burns

      it’s more the frequency of the falls than the distance really.

  • jeffzx9r

    There are PLENTY of us who still feel the love for the old ZX9′s……AND know how to ride them.

    • john burns

      I had a naked purple one for awhile with Spiegler handlebar on it, don’t know why I got rid of it?

  • Capo

    Great to have Mr. Burns here, and MO is now my homepage. Those of us who learned how to fall and get up in the dirt bike era of the ’70′s seem to have a different, and healthier perspective on crashing. Well, maybe healthier isn’t the right word…

  • Old MOron

    Goddamn, JB. You’ve still got it. I haven’t frequented MO for many years. Glad I checked in.