Motorcycle News - Skidmarks: RIP CityBike
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
It was 1992, I think. I had just purchased a second-hand BMW R100/7 and didn’t know much about motorcycles. One day, I was backing my bike into a space in a section of curb designated “motorcycle only” (even in those days, San Francisco was enlightened about the need for dedicated motorcycle parking) when I saw a shabby-looking red metal newsrack. A sticker on the scratched, dirty plexiglass read “It’s About Motorcycles! It’s Free! Take One!” So I did. Of course, I did.
Because in 1992, there was no Internet. No Motorcycle.com (not for another couple of years, anyway, and you had to be a nerd with a computer and a modem to access that), no discussion fora, no Facebook, no Instagram. The national and U.K. rags – which I inhaled religiously, of course – were great, but didn’t have a lot of info about riders who looked like me and rode where I rode.
That’s what a guy named Brian Halton thought as well. One day in 1983, the 40-year-old Vietnam vet, photographer, Norton owner and tile-setter was laying linoleum at a print shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. As he was cutting and gluing down the green floor covering, he chatted with the typesetters and printers, mentioning that he was the editor of his local Norton owner’s club newsletter. “Why don’t you just print it as a full-size motorcycle newspaper?” said one of the guys. “I hear you can make some money selling ads in local publications.” Ding! That’s all Halton, with wife and four kids in a tiny, rent-controlled two-bedroom North Beach apartment, needed to hear.
Brian was a U.S. Army photojournalist, and knew how to write, edit, and lay out a newspaper. Also, he already knew a lot of folks in the local motorcycle industry. The business model was, as far as I can tell, the first of its kind and a simple one at that. The magazine, printed on newspaper pulp in a tabloid format, was printed up and distributed by Brian and his friends in local shops. As word of mouth spread, the papers would quickly be snatched up by content-starved Bay Area motorcyclists, getting the attention of the shops’ management.
When Brian stopped by with the next month’s supply, the shop owner or manager would ask for more copies, as he knew it brought customers in the door. Brian would point out that maybe he should run an ad, as the other shops were running ads, and did you know you can use your co-op money (funds OEMs pay out after a certain number of units are sold to help pay for ads) to pay for the ads?
By the late ’80s, CityBike was a thing, and it was getting a reputation. Although much of what was in early (and late) CityBike was crude, amateurish, and unprofessional, the magazine gained a huge following. Unfettered by things like journalistic standards or fact-checkers, the writing was honest, direct, frequently offensive, and very entertaining, at a time when magazines like Cycle and Motorcyclist were still playing up their gentlemanly, cultured image as a way to combat the public-at-large’s view of motorcycles being black-clad, smelly ruffians.
CityBike was not about making friends or moving product. It was about celebrating the San Francisco Bay Area motorcycle culture’s unique identity. Here, riding is more about how you ride than what you ride, and CityBike’s cast of columnists and contributors – recruited from the ranks of readers, not professional journalists or even people who could spell – would routinely diss Harleys, Ducatis and Brit bikes for their foibles. Legendary columnist Joe Glydon, himself a Ferrari mechanic (for real!), hated Italian motorcycles with a tangible passion.
“I could never get too excited about Ducatis because I like to ride motorcycles too much. Some of them are okay when they’re running, but that is like saying some politicians are okay when they’re telling the truth. To be a prospective Ducati owner, you should enjoy pestering parts personnel on a daily basis for parts they have no idea how to obtain. You should have friends who sport Vernier calipers in their shirt pockets and own pickup trucks. You should consider the shoulder of the freeway to be a kind of recreational sanctuary. You shouldn’t make appointments.
“A Ducati is sort of like a British bike that can’t be fixed by normal human beings with just hands, tools, and intelligence going for them. Triumphs, Nortons, and BSAs break all the time, but they get fixed. Ducatis break and they vanish into the Twilight Zone of motorcycle repair. Some never return. It takes half a van full of indecipherable crippled-looking chunks of metal to work on a Ducati. These are called Special Tools; God doesn’t stock them or know where they come from. They exist in motorcycle purgatory, maybe.”
Other notables, like John D’India and Maynard Hershon injected plenty of snark, but Brian himself, writing under pseudonyms, would spew politically incorrect invective far and wide, pissing off many but always masking his identity so he could go back to the Harley or BMW dealer to pick up the order for the next issue’s full-page ad.
By the mid 1990s, the publication was an institution, featuring great writers like Andy Saunders (an original MOron), Robert Hellman, Ed Hertfelder, Dr. Flash Gordon, Brian Catterson, John Garner (who launched what he intended as a national version of CityBike, the excellent but ill-fated Twistgrip) and Jackie Jouret, who went on to edit the much-loved BMW car magazine Bimmer. CityBike, despite having fewer than 30,000 readers (that’s my guess: there was never a credible survey of its circulation), was read by all the industry OEMs and big players in the moto-press.
It didn’t take long for other regional mags to pop up. Some you may have seen in your area: Roadrunner, Texas Rider, Sound Rider, Quick Throttle, US Rider News and others. Some, like Roadrunner, stayed successful and are still growing strong. In at least one instance, a guy with some solid business sense was able to take it a step further; Reg Kitrelle, a former flat-track racer and Harley/Buell enthusiast, thought the V-Twin world could benefit from Brian’s business model and launched Thunder Press. For the motorcycle journalism industry, its success was impressive, soon turning into a nationwide network of V-Twin-centric free publications that’s still in shops to this day.
The reason these publications were so popular (and profitable)? No Internet. If you wanted to advertise your bike for sale, your motorcycle event, race or swapmeet, or read about your friends instead of Alan frigging Cathcart, you had to turn to a local publication. So, you know what happens next, right? Al Gore invents the Internet, then comes MO, Craigslist, eBay, Instacrap, Farcebook, and all the rest of the noise that clutters our brains every waking hour.
The details of CityBike’s demise are as dull as describing death by cancer. By 2005, publisher Halton was weary and unhappy about working harder chasing shrinking ad dollars. In his desperation, he turned to yours truly, first hiring me as Editor-in-Chief and then just selling me and my business partner the whole thing, and when I say “the whole thing,” I mean we got some boxes of back issues, some address labels and a few CD cases of photos, along with a (short) list of current advertisers. We were able to bring it back from the brink, and we had a good thing for a while. When my partner, who sold ads, sensed he had hit a glass ceiling, we sold to the current owner.
He must have experienced the same thing, because I just saw he has printed CityBike‘s final issue, opting to make it yet another website. Brian is happily living his retirement – he always made clear to me he doesn’t look back, so he’s probably untroubled by his baby’s demise. But I am.
I spent my formative motorcycling years in San Francisco, and it made me who I am today. When I started at MO in 2005, I thought my stark-white Shoei lid and filthy, faded Aerostich suit gave me cred, but I was treated like a weirdo. Sportbike enthusiasts in other areas looked weird to me, with their immaculate, un-crashed, brand-new bikes and riding gear and slavish devotion to traffic laws. Don’t they know that if you just all ride together at high speeds the cops can’t give you all tickets?
But most importantly, I knew that riding technique was the important thing, and that I shouldn’t take anything too seriously. Emblazoned on the cover of many issues was the slogan “Ride fast! Take chances!” which was intended to offend those who didn’t “get” the message and purpose of CityBike. I loved Motorcycle.com because it kind of passed along the same tongue-in-cheek vibe that reminded us motorcycles are supposed to be fun.
Will there ever be another CityBike? The hope lies with the next generation of riders to create a place where we celebrate our creativity, passion, and talent rather than seek attention with expensive equipment or manufactured “authenticity.” It’ll happen. It’s probably happening now.
Gabe Ets-Hokin was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic originally from Greater Khorasan.
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August 8, 2018 at 02:21PM