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Tales from The Road – Week 6 of Cafe Racer – Dragon Slayers

There’s a familiar term in TV production known as B-roll; no, this doesn’t refer to the white reels of stuff found in pub bathrooms, but those shots you see on the tube of people riding motorcycles down sunny lanes, or traffic on the L.A. freeways, or just about anything a camera operator finds interesting enough to film and then use to patch together narratives. During the shooting of Café Racer, impending B-roll shoots were often cause for much mood improvement among the troops as it meant taking a few of the shop ton-up toys on the road, finding a beautiful, deserted piece of blacktop and riding like people determined to surrender their motorcycle operator’s licenses by the end of the day.

And where better to clock many hours of quality corner-carving café style than along U.S. Route 129 in North Carolina, better known as Deal’s Gap. The gap first came to this rider’s attention some 15 years back when some of the faster, more talented members of the Pittsburgh sportbike community told fantastic, butt-clenching tales of this incredible, faraway mountain road in the Deep South. They claimed the road had more and better curves than a pickup truck full of Beyonces and riding it once was enough to make true believers out of the most stubborn straightline fanatic. I managed to head there for the first time back in 2002 with a group of pals and the place was about as full-on nuts as the Homicidal Maniac ward at Bellevue just before meds were doled out. I remember entering Smoky Mountain National Park from nearby Gatlinburg, Tenn., a weird place where locals sat along the curbside in lawn chairs most days, waving Confederate flags and drinking beer. Not bad as hobbies go, but the riding throughout this neck of the woods was simply incredible, with endless long, fast sweepers, second (and first- gear switchbacks and long, empty stretches of road where cars and Winnebagos were scarce.

Tales from The Road - Week 6 of Cafe Racer

The Dragon? Well, it was pure mayhem, an incomprehensibly twisty ribbon of 318 S-turns wedged into just 11 miles of North Cacka-Lacka mountainside. The road is dizzying enough and treacherous enough that crashes here are more common than people who shouldn’t be wearing things at Daytona Bike Week. The problem is an odd mix of overzealous throttle freaks- us included – who fool ourselves into forgetting that, despite the road’s attraction to bikers, it’s still a very public two-lane thru-way, filled with commercial vehicles, folks towing (very slow) fishing boats, and packs of Harleys and cruisers going slower than molasses traveling uphill. In January there were full-race R-1s and CBRs doing twice the speed of anyone around them, only to nearly collide when the two very different closing speeds converged on a single corner. There were fast trains of a half-dozen supermoto bikes cranking at incredible lean angles and convertibles full of pretty girls causing nearly everyone to lose focus. Add surprise police patrols and weather into the mix and damned if this isn’t one crazy ride!

Tales from The Road - Week 6 of Cafe Racer

Darryl Cannon, aka Killboy (www.killboy.com) is a local fast rider and ace photographer who’s been shooting regularly at the Dragon for years and his archive of images of riders mis-judging these corners is a must-see experience. Like much in life, when nailed just perfectly, the Dragon is one of motorcycling’s unforgettable thrills, as the curves and apexes just flow into each other with a wild, vertigo-inducing rhythm. Get it wrong, and, well, let’s just be grateful there’s several professional, well-stocked medivac teams in the area.

Tales from The Road - Week 6 of Cafe Racer

During our recent B-roll shoot at Deal’s Gap, we were fortunate enough to arrive at a time of the week when both tourist and motorcycle traffic was scarce, thanks in part to a recent rockslide that closed the road for weeks. Rain had washed the tarmac clean and we were able to play like parentless kids at Legoland. There was one police car patrolling the area, but the occupant seemed more interested in chatting on his mobile than clocking our bikes, so off we went. We’d brought along a wide assortment of café racers and modern, naked performance bikes, including a Moto Guzzi 1200 Sport, a new Triumph 1050 Speed Triple, our project Wreck to Winner Bonneville and a new, 2010 Triumph Bonneville Thruxton. Funny thing about this mean old stretch of road is how it will quickly reveal any design flaw or soft spot in a given motorcycle and by days end, our crew were practically scrapping over who got to ride the Speed triple while the poor Bonneville was sitting unloved thanks to some too-low handlebars and lousy ground clearance. The Guzzi? Great thudding torque, but spongy suspension while the Thrux showed why so many café racers dig the Brit twin, as it handled the road like a much more agile machine. Still, we came out of those 318 turns with all four bikes – and our licenses -intact and a promise to return with some stickier tires, for another go. Any takers?

– Mike Seate

I’ll have a “Cafe Americano” please…

Some would argue that it is impossible to replicate the iconic “Cafe Racer” culture found on the streets and in the cafe’s of London.  Certain integral elements of the lifestyle simply do not exist outside the tightly woven brick-laden streets of small English towns.  Fortunately, the defining characteristic of this unique culture subset is one of individuality.  The desire to twist the throttle and say goodbye to everything and anyone behind you has something to do with studded leather jackets, slicked back hair and pints of Boddington’s…Nevertheless, there’s more to it than that.

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

It is the innate thread of speed woven into the fabric of men which some are fortuitous enough to experience that really defines the “cafe racer.” The persona knows no bounds, cares not what type of engine he progresses forth on, or whether the road he travels is a dusty barren one without a coffee house in sight, or a congested highway where weaving between cars is an expected element. Moreover, in America, the personal independence of the “Cafe Racer” is symbolic of everything Americans choose to live for…and the idea that freedom is worth dying for.

You see, there is no argument to be had; that is the beauty of fast, loud, teeth-chattering machines of yesteryear being piloted by men pursuing the unknown. Sure, he may wear a leather jacket with patches and he may choose a Triumph Bonneville as his valiant steed, but in the end, the root of the term is “racer” and cafe or not, he will still be piloting his two wheeled ton-up machine closing in on the 100MPH mark no matter his surroundings.

And with that, I introduce you to Scott Toepfer and his dream to chase that illusive mark of speed and individuality through his project:

It’s Better In The Wind.

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

It was almost this time a year ago when I first came across Scott’s project.  I was up late one night late editing photos and in an effort to rest my eyes from the barrage of metal and paint before me I started surfing some of the regular BLOG sites I visit.  It was only when I came across a photo of a Triumph full speed-ahead into the wind that a certain inspiration filled my soul.  The composition of the shot and what it inspired, a lone rider on the road with nothing but blacktop and white lines ahead took a hold of me.  Saddle bags and a full ruck sack told the story of adventure and the image gripped me.  My mind told me they were out of place on the Triumph Bonneville setup in classic cafe racer trim, but my heart told me otherwise…

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

I had to know more, so I reached out to Scott about his project and after a few conversations had setup a time to meet with him in LA.  The meeting place would be a little diner just outside of town that serves steaks the size of Texas for breakfast and coffee with a different kind of kick than one would get at the Ace.  When Scott arrived he was not what I expected, yet somehow, everything I thought he would be.  Full of passion and obvious tenacity, we spent the first little while trading stories about what we grew up riding, where we’d been and the scars we acquired over the years.

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

As we began to talk about Its Better In The Wind, the speed and context of the conversation both evolved rapidly.  It was if Scott and I had been friends for years and we were just catching up.  Never-mind the fact that we were completely foreign to one another, this was a testament to the power of the project and the common thread that binds us all, no doubt.

The project outline was simple really.  Get together with your closest friends, load up your cafe bikes with what you could strap to the sides and on your back, and head out into the unknown.  No maps and no GPS, just intuition guiding you along the way.  Oh, and document every cold day and winding road of it.

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

Scott told me that initially he wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would people dismiss the project as just another group of young radical punks searching for existentialism and recognition through motorcycles, leather jackets and dirt roads? Or would the intrinsic beauty of the project transcend boundaries and culture subsets, somehow reaching the masses and inspiring a generation?  I am confident the latter was the result…

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

In a recent conversation with Scott after the completion of Its Better In the Wind: Part 1 (that’s right, there’s more to come) He shared this with me:

I think it has been a challenge to describe the greater impacts of this project to people.  On occasion I receive an email from someone in Michigan, or Italy, telling me that they feel like the project spoke to them in a unique way. And at some point I realized that in this project, I wasn’t just telling people a story, and they were listening…they were sharing in it with us.  There is something special about feeling connected to a group of people you’ve never met, and the project has done that for some people.  It has brought motorcycle culture to a broader audience of worldly travelers.  Cafe culture, at its roots has been portrayed largely through urban culture, while big comfortable cruisers are for the open road.  But, I guess to me, and to us…whatever you have is whatever you have be it a Cafe’d Triumph or Honda, or anything else for that matter.  The roads of America aren’t exactly the same roads in Bristol, England but we have wide open spaces, and although we might live in the city, we love taking off.

It’s Better In The Wind exposes a vantage point that some may never have experienced otherwise.  While paying homage to the iconic heritage that is cafe racer- worn leathers, air cooled twins and speed, Scott has somehow managed to simultaneously blend that of the American dream to explore open spaces with the roots of two wheeled ton-up splendor straight from England.

Keep your eyes open, the second half of the project is right around the corner and I am confident it will put a smile on your face.

WWW.ITSBETTERINTHEWIND.COM

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Photos provided by Scott Toepfer

– Paul Henry Harrington

Café Racer TV Week Four – Travel Tales

It’s been a couple of weeks off from our near-constant road duties producing Café Racer for HD Theater, and already, the memories of a year spent riding, wandering and working on a TV crew are starting to flood back. We were on the road for part of 2008 and 2009 and most of the 2010 calendar year, so it’s easy to forget some of the funny, weird and downright memorable events that occurred but, alas, did not make the final edit.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

One of the memories that causes me to laugh out loud involves our visit to East Sussex, England to the bucolic compound of Dave Degens, a man considered the godfather of the Triton special. Dave is known as a somewhat difficult man to get to know, and as one of my heroes- he did build a café racer in his garage that defeated the factory roadracing teams at the Barcelona 24-Hour Endurance Championships back in the day- expectations and apprehensions were high.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

Well, Dave turned out to be both accessible, warm and funny, traits that emerged even more fully when the shoot was over and we embarked to a tiny little 18th Century pub nearby. Dave regaled us with stories from 60 years of motorcycle riding and café building and his mates Eric and Steve kept our glasses filled and our eyes watering with various tales of life on two wheels. Dave explained that one day while serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in the late 1950s, he often challenged himself and his Triton to make the 40-odd mile trek from his military base to his London home in ever-quicker times. “One day, I roared through Trafalgar Square and there were all these people cheering and waving at me. I thought they were cheering for me and it turns out I’d written into the middle of a Ban The Bomb march, and they were all chanting slogans!

Even weirder was the crowd gathered in the pub that day- one fellow kept stumbling amongst the trio of parked motorcycles outside, stopping by occasionally asking questions to Degen’s crew whom he obviously knew. After watching the man down several high-alcohol pints in the span of just a few minutes, I asked who he was. “He’s the local taxi driver. You’d be smart to only ride with him before mid-day,” Degens said.

Ah, the British, they certainly know how to live!

Other memorable occasions came when Test rider Blake Kelly and I rode from London to Liverpool for a visit to this year’s Isle of man TT Festival. Blake had never visited this veritable motorcycling heaven, and after four TT’s, I figured it was time to share the magic with another dedicated enthusiast. The experience was, as always, amazing, with beautiful scenery, incredible, speed-limit-free mountain roads, friendly locals – many of whom drink like our friend the taxi driver- and more sportbikes than you can shake a radar gun at. Naturally, it pissed down rain for the entire 200-mile ride from London to the ferry port in Lioverpool, stopping only when we slung out wet exhausted butts into our seats on the boat.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

The days at the Isle of Man are an incredible mix of doing laps along the 38-mile, 225-turn TT course, stopping for fish and chips at a quaint pub, a few more laps and then riding like mad to find the best vantage point for viewing the day’s races. Standing a couple of feet from a superbike roaring past at 170-plus MPH is one of life’s must-do experiences and even after five TT’s it still caused a chill down the spine. Blake was gobsmacked to say the least, and I was surprised to hear this former stunt rider and AMA racer proclaim, “you’d have to be crazy to race here. I’d never do it!” We saw a 3-D film crew making a film about the TT that’s said to be headed to Imax theaters sometime soon and it was a blast to meet competitors who all seem friendly and eager to mix with spectators- try that at a Moto GP round! On the way back, the skies cleared and we found a toll road going South back to London- we pegged the two Triumph triples at a steady 110 and after a few miles of getting into a comfortably fast rhythm, we were having the time of our lives as we diced with blacked-out turbo Bentleys who hogged the fast lane and whizzed past our motorcycles like we were in reverse. As we rode on, I noticed the distinct smell of burning plastic. Looking ahead at Blake’s Street Triple R, I saw that the bag he’d slung over his tail section had been cushioned by a hotel hand-towel which caught fire, roasting his luggage, and, if I hadn’t frantically signaled him to stop, his rear end as well!

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

As we beat the burning towel and luggage out on the roadside, a British police car slid to a halt beside us- and the officer informed us, in typically polite understated tones, that we were in violation of British law, having stopped on a dual-carrigeaway. “You should have made it to roadside services before stopping,” he said flatly. Maybe his squad car had never been on fire at 110 MPH before…

– Mike Seate

Jokers In The Pack from Week Three of Cafe Racer TV

It’s funny, but people who see and recognize us crew members from Café Racer often remark that we must have the best jobs in the world. I’ll insist that title belongs, inarguably, to the guy who gets to measure Beyonce for her mini-dresses, but sure, testing and building fast motorbikes for a living can be a blast.

But as a career, it can also have unforeseen dangers.

During the shooting of the series, we had a few mishaps that placed riders squarely on their butts, and as a veteran of a few crashes- some bad, some just plain embarrassing- I can tell you that getting horizontal on two wheels is never fun. Viewers will see one bust-up during the series, while a few others I witnessed were, mercifully, not captured on video. The odd thing about the crashes I witnessed this year was that nearly all of them could have been avoided. Statistics show that a great many motorcycle accidents were caused by rider error and that surely seems to be the case in my experience.

After concluding one shoot involving a group of café racer riders, we decided to head off en masse for lunch. The riders represented all different ages, makes of motorcycle and riding styles. I generally ride alone, because years of road riding in groups has taught me that you’re only as safe as the least skilled member of any riding group. All it takes is a novice or someone who hasn’t ridden in years with rusty skills to put everyone else at risk.

Jokers In The Pack from Week Three of Cafe Racer TV

That was the case during our group lunch ride- a biker who seemed in perfect control of his Triumph managed to panic brake in a tight, decreasing-radius turn, launching man and machine into a guardrail. Leading the group, I had the sickeningly familiar experience of looking into my rear-views to see no one following behind me. Returning to the scene, I was relieved to see the rider wasn’t seriously hurt, though that’s more than I could say for his poor Bonneville which had twisted forks, a dented gas tank and exhaust pipes that looked like they lost a battle with a  transformer robot.

In the aftermath, I resigned myself to start riding alone again, and to stick to my rules about recreational riding. Though it may seem a bit of a buzz-kill, I’ll insist on making it a point to chat a little before heading out on the road, with everyone involved. It’s better to ascertain their individual riding skills, whether they’ve had a few beers or even if their motorcycle is properly maintained before finding out the facts in the middle of a fast corner. And knowing what’s up can only make the ride safer and more fun for everybody.

– Mike Seate