I’m a motorcycle test rider—that’s all I have been for the last 40 years. I must admit that testing motorcy- cles for a living is a pretty cool way to put tiramisu
on Lovely Louella’s plate. It may sound like the ultimate
job, but it really entails spending long days in hot, dry
and dusty places that are far from civilization and even
farther from an ambulance. But, the sensation of throwing
a leg over an exotic, one-off, yet-to-be-sold-to-the-public
race bike before anyone else in the world is a powerful
drug. My job is to criticize the bad and praise the good.
I must admit that I’m much better at complaining about
the bikes I test than praising them. The corporations
who build the bikes I test are very much like the chefs at
fancy restaurants when the New York Times food critic
drops in unannounced. They are nervous. I fully understand that the hopes of corporations’ sales departments
rest on the test rider’s shoulders—and I can feel the
anxious eyes of the engineers staring at me every time I
come into the pits, looking for the slightest smile, twitch
or grimace on my face. The marketing men are very
adept at reading body language, and even the slightest
shrug of your shoulders will send them scurrying into a
huddle to ask each other, “Is that a yay or a nay?” For
this one instant, a good test rider remains stone-faced,
stoic and emotionless. You ask for whatever change
you want without whining, whimpering or being giddy.
Sometimes that’s very hard. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not
a sales Svengali. I’m only one source of information—and
a minor one at that. Unlike with Nero, the life or death of
that particular machine does not lie on the direction
of my thumb.
I’m a very polite test rider. I never throw a bike down
on the ground and stomp off. I don’t swear, mutter or
complain. At the worst, I will shake my head in a way
that could mean either good or bad. At the best of times,
I get a slight smile on my face that telegraphs my opinion of a good bike. My greatest strength is that if I don’t
have an opinion, I will gladly say, “I don’t know.” There
are lots of things that I don’t know and way too many
opportunities to prove it. Too many test riders succumb
to the pressure of the moment and spout off about
“not enough rebound and the pilot is too lean,” only to
discover later in the day that the bike has too much
rebound and is way too fat.
Not every bike is a gem of the sea. There are more
flounders out there than most people care to admit. If
I don’t like a bike, there is no guilt on my part. “I don’t
make ’em; I just break ’em!” is my motto. Although, there
is always a sense of sadness knowing that a product will
go on sale whether I point my opposable digit towards
China or not. But, I like what I do, and I can’t let
disgruntled executives or unhappy engineers dissuade
me from my appointed rounds.
So, I was somewhat surprised when I got a call from
an old friend who worked for a Japanese motorcycle
manufacturer. “Jody,” he said, “we have a totally revolutionary rear suspension system that we want you to test.
It isn’t ready for production. It’s still in prototype form, so
you can’t tell anybody about it. But, since you have been
our harshest critic over the years, we’d like to set up a
test session at your convenience. I’ve convinced manage-
ment that before we continue with this project we need
to get some objective feedback. What do you say?”
By Jody Weisel
Of course I agreed, if only out of curiosity. They
rented Glen Helen Raceway, positioned guards at the
gate and unloaded the bike from the factory box van. It
had “contraption factor” written all over it. There were
links, bell cranks and widgets sprouting out of it like eyes
on a potato (other than that, I can’t tell you any more). I
tried to ask the two Japanese engineers about the theory
behind the Rube Goldberg-looking device, but neither of
them spoke English. I got dressed while they adjusted
the dials and punched numbers into a laptop.
On the track the bike felt pretty comfortable. I cruised
for two laps and then steadily began to pick up the pace.
Everything felt good. Through the sand whoops, the bike
tracked straight. There was no twitching in the corners.
I cased the big double to test the suspension (although
I case the big double even when I’m not testing suspension). It absorbed everything without a whimper. My
confidence in the system began to grow, and I began to
let it hang out. I could see the two Japanese engineers
standing nervously by the side of the track, so I dug a
little deeper than I normally do on a test day. My lap
times were good, and no matter how hard I landed
or short I came up, the experimental rear suspension
worked like a charm.
When I finally pulled up to the box van after 30
minutes, I had a noticeable smile on my face. That was
nothing compared to the two
Japanese engineers. They were
other and jumping up and down.
Each one ran over
and pumped my
hand and bowed.
They were enthusiastically shouting
the phrase. “Sore
were so enthusiastic that I
“Sore wa kono-jikan o kowashite
imasen,” back to
them. For five minutes we chanted,
“Sore wa kono-jikan o kowashite
imasen,” and high-fived each other.
It wasn’t until
later that I learned
that “sore wa
kono-jikan o kowashite imasen”
English as “it
didn’t break this