Part 2: The joy of motorcycle magazines

The growth in popularity of motorcycling in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s brought with it an explosion in the number of new titles and the availability of a wider range of international magazines. Two that figured large in my life were the BMF magazine Motorcycle Rider and Hondaway, a Honda-sponsored bi-monthly. I had the pleasure to edit the former for three years and the latter for two. Motorcycle Rider was – and probably still is – the only British bike mag to focus on political issues affecting motorcycling. Most of the monthlies ignored the subject, and the weeklies depended on the enthusiasm of individual columnists like Dave Richmond for any coverage at all.

Hondaway cover 001

Motorcycle Rider has had its impact on British biking. Back in the late ‘70s, the Government was proposing a ban on motorcycles producing more than 100 bhp. MCR carried an editorial that pointed out the total lack of logic in such a ban (in those days, almost all the accidents were happening to 17-year-olds on bikes of 250cc or less, travelling at 30 mph or less in built-up areas). The industry body, the Motor Cycle Association, took copies of the article to a meeting with Department of Transport civil servants, and the idea was dropped. The future of powerful bikes was safeguarded for the next 20 years at least – ah, the power of the press.

MCR cover 001

It was through Motorcycle Rider and the BMF that I discovered a range of other motorcycle magazines that would otherwise have escaped my notice. There was American Motorcyclist, the official publication of the American Motorcycle Association; the then rather thin South African magazine Bike SA, now fatter and still going strong; the very readable Bike Australia, which seemed an agreeable mixture of our own Bike, Cycle and Superbike. Perhaps the best of the lot was Road Rider, an independent venture edited by the late Roger Hull and which had a Cycle-like influence on my two-wheeled existence.

RR cover 001

Road Rider oozed class. It was almost entirely focused on touring, but with a strong political content and a great column called “File under B for Bureaucrap” that kept us up to date on the latest madcap attempts to restrict motorcycling at the hands of state and Federal legislators in the US.  You could tell that Road Rider was written by people who not only were talented wordsmiths but for whom motorcycling was a way of life. The road-tests were not a quick blast up the motorway and an hour at the drag strip but were often coast-to-coast-to-coast 6,000-mile odysseys. If that saddle hurt after three hours, you got to hear about it. If that winter jacket leaked, you heard about that too. The whole ensemble was illustrated with stunning panoramic photos showing the bikes in the middle of some drop-dead-gorgeous spot of American highway.

The magazine’s easy-going philosophy was summed up by something Roger Hull wrote: “For me, it’s the going. I mingle with the macrocosm, mosey across the miles, a wandering minstrel I, but mostly I exist within my head.” Any solo rider travelling long distances will identify with that.

If photography set Road Rider and Cycle apart, it was partly because so many of the others lacked the money, the photographers or the design skill to keep up. The weeklies were doubtless limited by printing on newsprint, and MCI was similarly constrained for most of its life. Motorcycle Sport didn’t have the budgets to compete graphically – for years it was purely black-and-white, then moved to a colour cover photo but retained a very staid internal layout until it was revamped years later. Today, renamed Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, it’s one of the best on the news-stands, with colour leaping out from every nook and cranny. The fact that it has survived and prospered is an enormous testimony to the quality of its writing.

MCS cover 001

Design has been the bugbear for many motorcycle magazine editors. How do you capture the excitement of motorcycling without losing the magazine’s freshness each month? Cycle always seemed to get it right, and its fellow American titles like Cycle World and Motorcyclist were close on its heels. Great photographs printed large, with creative use of white space and a seemingly endless supply of awesome American vistas.

Rider US cover 001

Unfortunately, many designers experimented with the snazzy idea of over-printing the text on some evocative photograph. When it works, it looks stunning; when it doesn’t, it fails spectacularly because in the process the designer has made the type illegible. And while design and photography matter a great deal, what matters more to me is what the writer has to say. Lose that, and design has defeated its whole purpose.

Superbike was often well-written and became the first in a series of laddish magazines that tried to spice up the world of two wheels with the added excitement of bare breasts. The effect was invariably spoilt by photographs that were too fuzzy or reproduction that failed to do justice to the concept. The nudity thing never really took off. I can’t imagine that the success of Easyriders had more to do with the appeal of the outlaw biking thing than to a few gratuitous shots of topless women at Daytona or Sturgis.

Cycle once tried to move with the times by publishing a cover photo of a pretty woman in a fairly chaste white bikini standing in front of an RD400. From the reaction, you’d think they’d featured Madonna spread-eagled starkers across a chopper. Subscribers were not amused, and I don’t recall the exercise being repeated.

Laddishness brought us the likes of Fast Bikes and Performance Bike, both of which cracked the whole photography/layout/design thing but filled the gaps in between with the sort of puerile nonsense that fitted the dumbed-down Nineties perfectly. Both seem to have improved notably over the years.

It’s a sad reflection on readers’ tastes that magazines of the calibre of Cycle, Biker, Motorcyclist Illustrated, Motor Cycling Monthly and Motorcycle International fell by the wayside in the circulation wars, while semi-literate drivel thrived. But then, look at the success of the British national tabloids…

MC Monthly cover 001

The ability to access your favourite bike mag online these days is a game-changer, especially for those of us living in places where delivery of hard-copy versions is patchy at best. The convenience is superb, even if the tactile pleasure of turning real pages is missing.

Motorcycle magazines may come and go, but as long as there are real writers out there with motorcycling in their blood and the talent to express their views, my annual magazine expenditure , both online and at the newsagent, will continue to exceed my insurance premiums.

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