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The Ride So Far

An interview with moto-journalist Lance Oliver on his new introspective book

We first crossed paths with Lance Oliver when he visited the Sportbike Northwest Rally in 2005 to work up a piece that would later be published in the American Motorcyclists magazine. Since then, Oliver has been busy writing for a number of publications including MCN and Rider magazine. He recently published a new book - The Ride So Far (Whitehorse Press) - a look at his personal experiences while being a rider and moto-journalist.

SR! : Now that you no longer are on the staff at American Motorcyclist, which motorcycle publications have you "free-Lanced" for?

LO: Yeah, I guess I have the right name for the job, at least. Most regularly I write for Rider, which is my favorite among the national magazines, and for Backroads, which is a regional magazine in the East that might not be well known to Sound RIDER! readers. I've written for Motorcycle Consumer News and I also write for just about every issue of Accelerate, the magazine produced by the Riders of Kawasaki club. It used to be print only and now it's available online, free to everyone. I'm biased, of course, but I think it has some pretty good writing by people who have been writing about motorcycles for decades, definitely not just the sort of corporate press releases you might be afraid you'd find in such a publication.

I also like the riding skills and tips stories by Walt Fulton. Walt's this friendly, down-to-earth gray-haired fellow, and if you happen not to know that he stood on the podium at Daytona a few times, you'd never guess it. First time I rode with him, we were on some California roads he knew well and I didn't, so he offered to let me follow him. For the next two hours, I rode as hard as I could to keep him in sight, and then when we stopped for a break, he said, "I hope I wasn't holding you up. I don't like to push too hard on the street." And I said, "No problem, Walt" � pant, pant � "that pace was just fine."

I've followed him on the track, too, and I always like to say that I hope I'm as fast as him when I'm his age, because I'm sure not that fast now.

You meet lots of fun people in this business.

SR! : Compare and contrast the difference between being on staff and freelancing (we'll refrain from using the same play on words twice here).

LO: I can tell you what the contrast part is. If you're on staff, you get a paycheck every two weeks. If you're a freelancer, you get paid, well, sooner or later, at some unspecified date. Probably.

Seriously, freelancing is not for everyone, but it's definitely for me. This is actually my second go-around, because I was freelancing full-time before I went to work at the American Motorcyclist Association. I was doing a lot of news writing and translating work and living in Puerto Rico where, as I point out in the book, the riding weather is great 365 days a year except during hurricanes and the week after, when the roads are a mess. One great thing about freelancing is that you can take a day off and go riding if it's beautiful outside. The bad part is that none of those days off are paid days off.

As a magazine staff writer, you basically do what you're assigned to do, which is usually fun, but not necessarily always. As a freelancer, you have some flexibility to focus on the things you want to do, as long as you're not starving to death. And to be honest, if I had to rely on motorcycle writing alone, I would starve to death, but I also do plenty of non-motorcycle-related writing, editing and translating work.

SR! : Your new book, The Ride So Far, how did that come about?

LO: Except for some unusual interruptions, the only two things that have been constant in my adult life are riding and writing, or at least working with words somehow, to make my living. So putting the two together is just the most natural thing in the world, to me. I had all these stories in my head from a lifetime of riding that I wanted to tell in a personal way, not in a way that fits into the narrow niches and formats of a magazine, so I decided to put them in book form. Lucky for me, Whitehorse Press got enthusiastic about the idea and helped me turn my stories into a book I can be proud of.

To me, going back and writing about the trips and rides I've done is fun because it's almost like reliving them and enjoying them again. And as I wrote in the preface of the book, after all the hours and hours I've spent thinking about, talking about and writing about motorcycles, I almost had to write a book just to justify the time.

About two thirds of the book covers trips I've taken, from here in the Northwest to Big Bend National Park on the Texas-Mexico border to the peak of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Then there are some stories about some of the, uh, shall we say, unusual rides I've done, like taking part in the MotoGiro USA on a 1968 Motobi 125 and riding a Suzuki GN125 in a one-day non-stop full-throttle charity ride around Lake Erie. And then there are a few stories about the kind of things we talk about at the end of a good day of riding, like when you're sitting around after dark at the Sportbike Northwest Rally and you start remembering the first bike you ever owned, or trying to figure out why some bikes come and go and some become lifelong companions.

I haven't ridden around the world or qualified for a World Superbike grid, but I do think I have a knack for telling a good story. After nearly 30 years in the writing business, I darn well should, right? I hope, and I believe, that anyone who rides will identify with the experiences and feelings I describe.

SR! : Are you doing any onsite promoting of the new book (rallies, seminars etc�)?

LO: The book came out a little late this year for the rally season, and now that we're entering the slow part of the year, I'm focused on promoting the book through magazines and websites like this one, just trying to get the word out. Gratuitous plug warning. Makes a great holiday gift for your riding buddies! Just visit www.theridesofar.com. OK, end of gratuitous plug.

SR! : You share a lot of details about the various bikes you've ridden over the years. What are you currently riding?

LO: I haven't ridden as many bikes as the guys who test them full-time for some of the magazines or websites, but I've ridden every class of motorcycle out there except competition motocrossers, so I have enough knowledge to know what I like and what I don't like. For years, I've always said I was going to buy a bike with hard luggage, properly set up for touring, but I've always bought something less practical but otherwise enticing instead. The complicating factor is that I also decided long ago that I'd be a happier guy if I never owned another motorcycle that weighed over 500 pounds. I just like the way lighter bikes work.

So this summer I finally put it all together and bought a leftover new 2009 Kawasaki Versys. I guess the only silver lining in the current economy is that there are some screaming deals out there for buyers with cash. Then I outfitted it with Givi bags and heated handgrips and there you have it, a light-handling, ergonomically friendly motorcycle that consistently gets 50 miles per gallon, unless I'm flogging it, and is cheap to insure. I set off on a trip about ten days after I bought it and I put over 3,000 miles on it the first three weeks I owned it.

Beside that in the garage I have a 2006 Triumph Daytona 675 that I use for track days and nice summer days on the street, and I still have my old faithful 1997 Triumph Speed Triple. Old Speedy has over 86,000 miles now and has had a hard life. I think the engine is going to last forever, but the peripherals are starting to get a little dodgy, which I'm sure says more about my maintenance skills than Triumph's quality.

Those three cover my personal riding spectrum pretty well these days. I've owned dual-sports and cruisers, but I keep coming back to sporty standards. Also, although I have owned six different brands, I think it's no coincidence that I'm really drawn toward Kawasakis and Triumphs these days. Both companies approached the worldwide recession aggressively while some other companies pulled back and cut production. Kawasaki and Triumph are still introducing new and interesting models in the teeth of the economic weakness. It's a risky strategy, but I give them credit for having the guts to do it, and it's already paying off in terms of increased market share.

SR! : Share a tale or two from rides you did this summer.

LO: Well, right after the break-in oil change on the Versys, I left my home in eastern Ohio for Maine, hitting some of my favorite riding in the Northeast along the way. These days, I never take a motorcycle trip without taking along my camera and notebook and I eventually wrote three different articles based on that trip through six states.

At the end of the summer, I headed south and rode some twisties in Kentucky and southern Indiana on my way to Indianapolis for the MotoGP round. The downtown motorcycle-only street party the night before the race was quite a show, and the speedway itself is first-class. I wrote a couple of stories based on that trip, too. So those two trips were the highlights of my summer.

SR! : What's 2011 shaping up like schedule-wise for you?

LO: I hope to hit some rallies and events to promote the book, as well as having a good time, but details have yet to be ironed out. That's what Ohio winters are for: riding ten shivering miles on the slightest pretense to keep the battery from going dead and the gas from turning to Jello, and using the remaining downtime to plan the spring, summer and fall rides.

SR! : You open the book right up with your adventure in the Northwest riding the Maryhill Loops road and experiencing all things Sam Hill. Any plans to come back to the area anytime soon?

LO: I'd come back about every other weekend except for these incredibly inconvenient obstacles called the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Even that I wouldn't mind so much, as far as the riding goes, but the time is precious. It's that old thing about freelancers not getting paid time off from work.

But I love the Columbia River Gorge area and there's a lot more of the Northwest I want to see. I've only been here twice and the first time was when I attended Sportbike Northwest five years ago. Inevitably, if I'm at a rally, I'm "working," in the sense that I'm shooting photos and taking notes so I can write about it later, if you want to call that working. But I have to say that I've never enjoyed a rally more than Sportbike Northwest. The riding was great and the people were a lot of fun, and that's what makes the scene for me, far more than how many vendors are selling mohawk helmet adornments or chrome fender flanges.

SR! : What's your next moto-journalist venture?

LO: I have a couple of ideas for my next book. Both of them are more practical, how-to kinds of books, rather than personal stories, like The Ride So Far. But both are still in the proposal stages at this point, so nothing for sure yet.

One thing that is for sure is that whenever I go on any motorcycle trip, I'll have a camera and notebook along and I'll end up writing about it, as long as I can find someone who wants to buy my stories. At this stage, I can't imagine not writing about it. If I went on a trip and didn't write about it, six months later I'd begin to doubt that it actually happened.

SR! : What's the most common question people ask you when they find out you wrote a book about motorcycling?

LO: I get a wide variety of intelligent questions from fellow riders, but the more predictable questions come from non-riders.

People who don't ride themselves, but find out that I've been on the track, usually ask me, "How fast have you gone?" The answer is somewhere in the 160 mph range, but at that point I'm always too busy watching braking markers to look carefully at a speedometer. Then I try to explain to them that any fool with enough nerve and a long straight can go 160 mph on a modern literbike. That's easy. Just tuck in and twist the throttle. The part that takes skill is getting through the 90-degree turn at the end of the straight at 70 mph. That's hard.

People who don't ride also ask me what kind of bike I have, but I can tell by the blank look on their faces that they often don't understand my answer, or they're surprised my Daytona 675 doesn't look like the '69 Bonneville their neighbor had back in the day.

And my least favorite question from non-riders is, "Don't you know those things are dangerous?" Imagine, I'm out there in four lanes of solid traffic flowing at 75 mph, not a decent space cushion anywhere around me, and it never occurred to me that I should be attentive, aware, prepared, trained and dressed protectively. How stupid do those people think I am? I have a whole chapter in my book about how I'm tempted to grab such people by the neck.


Lance Oliver's new book, The Ride So Far is available from the Sound RIDER! online store and at better book stores.


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