The Most Astonishing Motorcycle Show on TV
Motorcycles have a not so fabulous history on network TV. A few years ago you could watch national level road racing, dirt oval racing, motocross, plus world Superbike and MotoGP racing – all on major networks. Alas, the motorcycle demographic is so small that all have retreated to special access channels available at extra cost. About the only racing on TV today are a few Supercross events plus the annual Dakar Rally, if even that survives.
Motorcycles as a major plot element of fictional shows is a history even more troubled. What do we have today? “Sons of Anarchy”? Please.
Remember “Then Came Bronson”? This debuted in 1969 and was must see TV for me. Then in my first year of teaching, I had two colleagues (also first year teachers) who shared an apartment and went out and spent their new found wealth ($7200 a year with coaching stipends!) on a pair of Honda 350 street scramblers. In their shared apartment they would turn two dining room chairs around backwards and sit on them to watch the show, with their helmets on! As an “experienced” rider of two years, I was too sophisticated for such nonsense. Of course.
And who can forget “CHiPs”? I can still hum the theme song.
Over the ensuing years a motorcycle would occasionally roll across the screen, usually a lone title role character on a Harley with virtually no luggage who roamed the country doing good deeds. Sigh.
But now – oh my. I’ve just discovered the most remarkable show, and it is now going into its 5th season. Ironically, I almost did not watch it at all after an initial visceral reaction to the image of the star. My error.
The show is called “American Ride,” and it runs on the BYU channel. A motorcycle show sponsored by the Mormons? Curious. The main character at first glance is a cartoon caricature of the “biker” image. A very large man with a jeans vest minus sleeves, the fingerless gloves I have never understood, sufficiently torn jeans, black engineer boots, an open face helmet, dark glasses, and the obligatory Harley. And of course long hair and a beard and a very impressive mustache. Probably just another poser! What can this show possibly have to offer? As it turns out, a great deal.
First of all, I need to be more careful about poser assumptions. After all, almost every motorcyclist is a poser to one degree or another. Including me. Back when I rode sport bikes, I would venture out with my full leathers, including sliders on the knees, full face expensive helmet, racing gloves and road race boots. I looked like I was ready for the road race to begin. At one point I owned a Muzzy Raptor, one of 53 super rare custom sport bikes that were essentially race bikes with license plates.
I have never raced. I have attended a couple of cornering schools held at race tracks where I could ride as fast as I wanted to, but riding as fast as I wish or as fast as I think the motorcycle wants to go is a very long way from racing against other people, and I know it. I decided long ago that I did not want to race, for several reasons, but I did not mind looking the part. The sliders on my knee have never scraped the asphalt, and probably won’t unless I suffer a crash.
A lot of dual sport or adventure bike riders get all dressed up so they are ready to tackle the far reaches of China or perhaps the Sahara desert, and yet rarely venture off the pavement. These are occasionally referred to as “Starbuck’s Adventure Riders,” a phrase I did not invent but wish I had.
I spent several years riding with a HOG group, and many of the members looked exactly like the star of this show. At the same time, most of them were fine people, and some were excellent riders.
Not to put them down, please understand. One of the lessons learned in 15 years of leading customer rides is that some people are riding a motorcycle, and some are sitting on a motorcycle that is moving. The latter have little idea of what to do when something untoward occurs, and disaster may ensue. Sport bike posers have a higher rate of disaster than others because they are usually traveling at a higher rate of speed, and things go from bad to disaster much more quickly.
With all that in mind, I watched the first show, and my jaw dropped. Often. The star is Stan Ellsworth, whose background includes stints as a major college football coach, and years as a teacher. And a lot more. Each show hones in on a region or era of America with a lot of important history, and Mr. Ellsworth is a fantastic teacher. He has a mesmerizing voice, and each show features an obviously high level of research into the theme of the show. It might be the history of the Pacific Coast Highway, how Nashville became “Music City,” political corruption in the 19th century, the history of race relations, the flood of immigration in the latter half of the 19th century – the topics are all over the place. You will learn an enormous amount, even if you think you are a history buff, as Susan and I both claim to be.
I treasure the interviews. Mr. Ellsworth is usually seeking depth of background from a historian, the curator of an art gallery, the director of a historically significant choir from an African American university, or some such. These people are scholars, usually dressed very conservatively, and are obviously used to spending time in quiet and scholarly environments. At the beginning of each interview, their faces betray traces of a fight or flight response – leaning heavily on the latter. Here they sit across from a mountain of a man in full biker gear, and you can tell they are pretty sure they’ve agreed to something that will turn out to be a very bad idea.
As the interview progresses and they come to understand Mr. Ellsworth’s passion for the subject and his obvious depth of knowledge, they begin to notice that he is extremely polite and respectful of both his interviewee and the topic, and his vocabulary stuns them. It is amazing to watch.
About the vocabulary. As a career English teacher, I tend to pay attention to that. In this case there is a fascinating mix of good ‘ol boy lingo, biker talk, and academic terms that flow together. In one sentence he will offer “Let’s hike a leg over and take a ride.” In the next paragraph he will be explaining corruption in the Presidential elections from 1872-1890, or why Tesla and Edison had such disagreements. When was the last time you heard a biker use the term “acumen,” for only one example.
Some aspects are left out due to time constraints, but I guarantee you will learn a great deal, even about topics where you thought you were well-versed.
And sponsored by BYU? Obviously, I have to alter my perceptions of the Mormon infrastructure as well.
Imagine a “motorcycle show” that Susan wants to watch with me.
I highly recommend “American Ride.” Whether or not you ride a motorcycle is not important.
Copyright 2017 David Preston