A big part of it’s probably the fault of all the movies, especially the rags-to-riches ones, so Americanly popular, where the underdog comes from nowhere to lead the pack here at Augusta, a real Cinderella story. If you only watched people play golf on TV, you’d think it would be a simple matter to go out there and break 80. Sometimes Cinderella works hard and gets a little training, but usually natural talent, a little persistence and a lucky break are the only requirements to make it to the top in the movies. Seldom is there any actual study or much practice involved. (Of course, if you’d read the book instead of just watching the movie, you’d know better.)
Nearly every sport you’ve never played looks easy when you’re watching professionals do it, and most spectators are never going to stand six inches from a 100 mph fastball or have a 6’10-dude whack a tennis ball right at them at 140 to find out otherwise. How could that fuzzy little ball OUCH! I’ve never driven an F1 car or anything like it, but I have driven Mustang GTs and things around race tracks, and based upon how easy that is (you can’t fall off), I’m convinced I could give Sebastian Vettel and that F1 crowd a run for their money.
The only thing, really, that keeps me from actually believing that last statement is that I’ve been on racetracks on motorcycles at the same time that professionals were out there – not riding with them, just watching them go quickly past when I was already pushing the envelope of two-wheeled physics. Those experiences are enough for me to understand the vast difference between being amateur and professional at any endeavor. And what separates professionals from top professionals is even harder to grasp – though lately I’m convinced most of that takes place between the ears. It’s all a big confidence game.
The great players want to get the ball when the chips are down and time’s running out. They live for being down five points going into the last race of the season. I got the chance to speak to Josh Hayes at a Yamaha event a couple months ago, who’s coaching and mentoring the other Yamaha racers this year for the first time instead of racing, and who just had his first child a few months ago. Hey Josh, it must be nice to finally be able to come to the track without all that pressure for a change, I suggested?
He gave me that look he used to reserve for Mat Mladin. No. I loved that pressure, it’s what I lived for. I’m going to miss it.
I suppose a really good plumber or appliance repair person must feel that same thrill when they come across a truly heinous compound leak under the sink or an ice crusher in 37 pieces like mine recently was; give me the tools I’m going in! Personally, I can count on myself to cave under that kind of pressure most of the time (though I was super proud I got the ice crusher back together and working a couple weekends ago, just in time for gin and tonic season).
It starts early in the socialization process, and by high school we’ve all been pretty well classified along the competence spectrum. Tommy the student council president will go on to be a congressperson who’s later involved in a yogurt-doctoring scandal, Bill the quarterback becomes CEO of the accounting firm while prom queen Susie makes a killing in real estate. Everybody who didn’t go to college gets a job at the Ford, later the Harley-Davidson plant (neither is any longer an option where I grew up), or becomes a web designer or yoga instructor. Meanwhile, little Johnny enlists in the military where it turns out he’s even lower on the competence spectrum than first thought, and goes on to become a motorcycle journalist.
What’s surprising is what a helluva lot of work it’s taken over the years to rise this low. For some perverse reason I always enjoyed reading books and that took up a lot of hours; I’m closer to some authors I never met who’ve been dead for decades than I am to most human beings, and it’s fun to try to work some of their ideas and turns of phrase into writing about motorcycles. Some of those people made war sound exciting and interesting, which was what caused me to think enlisting wasn’t such a bad idea. Looking back, it wasn’t a bad idea at all – but there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears. (I worked in hospital blood banks mostly the last couple of years!)
Then there was that whole learning to ride a motorcycle phase. I could ride when I got my first bike magazine job 30 years ago, but I couldn’t ride. Some would say I still can’t. To them I say, meh, you’re partially right. Those learning years were dangerous, though. In the ’90s there was no traction control, lean-sensitive ABS or mercy. The key thing, and something Phil Schilling stressed, is to know what you don’t know – and have the sense to ask people who do. When in doubt, consult a professional. Seems so obvious.
The work itself doesn’t get any easier. Back in the day at the Big Magazine, it was easy to get all the contestants together for a 6-bike shootout or whatever, but in today’s shrunken-budget time-sensitive media world it’s a lot tougher – not to mention renting a track for a day is exponentially more expensive now that the Ferrari/Porsche crowd has all the money. Out on the road, traffic hasn’t gotten any lighter, and Mother Nature hasn’t gotten any kinder – but being out there in it is one of the best parts of what we do, eight days out of ten.
It’s not easy flying all over the place to these press junkets, either. After you make it through three or four airports over a 15-hour flight, riding on unfamiliar roads in exotic locales is fraught with peril, and all these rich meals and fine wine could give a man with a lesser liver the gout.
And now we’re doing videos, really the opposite of what I signed up for back when Jane Fonda workout tapes were about the only ones. Matter of fact, MO’s Youtube channel just shot through 100 million views, congratulations to us. Hey, I do what I can do but the Youtube is a tough room; 20 million of those people have strong suggestions about how I could do better. After all these years, I have slid back down nearly to the bottom of the competence scale, dammit!
And yet I shall remain undaunted! Through hard work, determination, and returning Leaves of Grass to the library, I shall overcome, and will strive to someday lead the league in motovideo production! That, or I’ll just start listening to only the critics who are on my side, impugning the character of those who disagree, and running around doing whatever the hell I want until they catch me in the big net. The only possible way not to know how hard things are, like being a top athlete, running the free world or being a humble motorcycle journalist, is if you’ve just never competed at or tried to do anything the least bit difficult at all, ever. Here’s to blissful ignorance, and wishing life was more like the movies (or videos), but being thankful it’s not.