Duke's Den: When I Became A Spy Photographer

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

Chasing undiscovered motorcycles in the wild!

One of the benefits of experience is the added perspective it brings. In my recent A Decade At The Helm editorial, I discussed many of the changes that have taken place in the publishing world since I joined Motorcycle.com and stretching back 10 years earlier.

Another thing that has changed is how motorcycles are marketed toward their audiences, in particular how the roll-out of upcoming new models is often accompanied by “spy shots” of prototypes that foreshadow bikes we’ll see unveiled months hence. Some manufacturers seem to have established deals with friendly photographers who are set up to capture images of prototype motorcycles undergoing testing and share them with a public that is eager for a chance to look into the future of motorcycles.

Spy shots, like this of a Tenere version of a Yamaha FZ-07, are nearly irresistible.

However, considering how many new models that are being photographed and seen around the world, we’re a little skeptical these photographers just happened to be sitting at the side of the road when an important new prototype is being ridden past a camera. Not saying they don’t; just saying…

Such a strategy actually makes sense in terms of marketing products to consumers, because it drives a discussion about the brand and an upcoming new model, which can have the benefit of supporting sales once that model has been delivered to showrooms.

Such coordination was rare or nonexistent in “the old days,” back when cameras used film that needed processing before the image captured could be seen. Snagging such spy shots were almost like finding the Holy Grail, so scarce were they.

A similar strategy may have been used in the old days, but as far as I know, these efforts were never coordinated between the manufacturers and the photographers. My personal story of spy shots takes place in May 2002 while undertaking a comparison test for the e-zine which had recently hired me, MotorcycleUSA.

Comparing ADV bikes long before ADV became the truncated term for adventure bikes. Triumph’s Tiger 955i was cool and competent, but it came up a bit short to the engineering prowess of BMW and its R1150GS.

We were just north of San Francisco riding along the Pacific Coast Highway, and my new cohort, Ken Hutchison, and I were enjoying a lovely day riding. We had pulled over to shoot some photos when we noticed a few corners up the road a pair of unrecognizable motorcycles seemingly in the process of their own photo shoot. We were too far away to see what kind of bikes they were, but they surely were nothing we had ever seen before.

Our inner James Bond called us into action. I quickly jumped on the back of Ken’s bike with my camera in hand. Wearing a helmet would impede my eye’s access to the viewfinder of my Canon 10S, so I’d be lidless on this chase for an unheard of machine.

“Things were about to get interesting,” recalled Ken about the event that took place almost exactly 15 years earlier. “You were hiding the camera off to the side while I tried to sneak up on them as quickly as possible.”

I snapped this frame as we approached and got our first decent look at one of the alien-looking creatures. It was a Boxer-powered BMW of some sort, but it looked massive and ungainly. Still, it was a motorcycle no one outside BMW had ever seen, and our hearts pounded in our chests as if we were discovering two-wheeled diamonds.
This is the moment when Ken and I became an apparent threat to the secrecy of BMW’s project.

“As we approached the group of Beemer dudes, they began to scatter like deer in every direction,” Ken relates. “I slowed down in an effort to give you an opportunity to get the shot, but those pesky Germans were well coordinated and quickly formed a human wall around the bike. The next thing we know the rider takes off down the highway, hauling ass away from us so…. the only logical thing to do was chase his ass down.”

Ken’s memory is about as reliable as mine, so clear details have been lost to a decade and a half of fresher experiences, but we can both vividly recall the sheer excitement of giving chase to prey that was almost unattainable.

“I took off as fast as I could ride two-up in an effort to track him down,” Ken explained, “but that damn Beemer was already a turn ahead of us. I was hell bent on getting us in position to take the shot whether you had a helmet on or not! Keep in mind, we had met for the first time just a day earlier, but we were on a mission.”

I tried to snap a few frames while we gave chase, but the BMW rider was very talented on those twisty roads, so I spent most of my time gripping on with one hand and gritting my teeth as our speeds approached the unreasonable.

Our high-speed pursuit of the BMW was ended after riding at supra-legal speeds without a helmet, gloves, jacket and one hand…

“We probably shouldn’t have tried to catch that guy, but the red mist must’ve overtook us and for a few moments we were working as a team for the first time.”

As for what it was that I shot, that would have to wait until after the antiquated system of developing film and printing pictures! Gawd, that seems so stone-age now.

As it turned out, our quarry was perhaps the least impressive BMW from the past few decades, the R1200CL. It was an offshoot of the oddball cruiser-styled R1200C but with a large, funky fairing and bulky luggage. Four months later BMW invited me to ride its new touring cruiser in Asheville, North Carolina. It was a fine cruiser on straight roads and in sweeping corners, but it was maladroit in tight corners and made me wonder how that guy on PCH was able to pull away from us.

In September 2002, I described the R1200CL thusly: “Take the CL to a tight, twisting road where the corner speeds are low, however, and it seems like a huge mutant penguin on land. Instead of graceful, the CL becomes ungainly.” MO’s review is here

At the end of it all, we had little more to show from our exploits other than a thrilling motorcycle chase experience and a few extra hits on the website. Oh, and this editorial, 15 years later.

Recent Duke’s Dens

Duke’s Den – A Decade At The Helm

Duke’s Den – 10 Cylinders Of (Stationary) Power

Duke’s Den – Motorcycle Bucket Lists

Duke’s Den – What Is The Yamaha Sport Heritage Line?

Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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Join the conversation
  • Starmag Starmag on May 31, 2017

    I liked the whole thing a lot better before the advent of the loathsome modern-day video teaser. I refuse to click on them anymore so as to hopefully discourage them.

    • Sayyed Bashir Sayyed Bashir on Jun 01, 2017

      Video teasers are released by the manufacturers themselves (not by the paparazzi mentioned in this article) and are irritating. The actual bike is sometimes a let down.

  • John B John B on Jun 01, 2017

    Great story Kevin!

    Even if spy photographers and OEM's conspire, it's a minor deception compared with the other ways corporations deceive and manipulate the public. Once we agreed to surrender our electronic data in exchange for free applications (Facebook, Google, Twitter, among others) we gave corporate advertisers what they needed to manipulate us. We consumers struck a bad bargain.

    • See 8 previous
    • Robert C. Barth Robert C. Barth on Jul 26, 2017

      None of that will stop your ISP from knowing what you're doing. You'll have to engage a proxy server that isn't on your ISP's network and be sure the connection between it and you is over TLS (https). The average person has no idea what I'm talking about, so basically, you can't do anything about it.