Updated: Mar 13
After 2020 and the after effects still fermenting from that fecal pile of a year, I needed to escape. I needed to escape the city of Pittsburg and the frequent sideshows happening directly in front of my house. On a side note, If any of the participants are literate enough to be reading this, your clapped out cars and talentless burnouts should be flushed with the end result of my post-coffee visit to the bathroom. I needed to escape the perpetually on fire state of California. Thank you firefighters for all you do, every year.
I needed to escape the name-calling, lies, and fearmongering that passes for politics at the highest level in America. No, your chosen political party is not better than the other.
I needed to go for a ride. Lucky for me I had a fellow motorcycle person with a solution to all that ailed me. A solution that would find me on a tour through four European countries and give me three days of rest and relaxation muscling a Yamaha R1 around the Brno Circuit.
How did I pull that off, you ask?
Three years ago I went for a ride in Spain with Cat MacLeod of Leod Escapes as the hired photographer. What Cat didn't know at the time was that I could manage to tell stories not just via 10,000 word photos, but also the old fashioned way... with 10,000 words, or more in this case.
For those that have not read about that trip (I thought we were friends, it's ok though, I linked to it above), it took me a while to embrace my role as an embedded journalist on the Spain tour, a mistake that I was determined not to make a second time.
Like the Spain tour I was the hired photographer, but that was not to be my only function this time around. Cat liked my write up about Spain enough that this time I was pulling double duty and writing an article for Road Racing World's Trackday Issue, in addition to snapping my own pics to accompany the piece. I (obviously) planned on writing a bit more for this site (duh) as I knew I would have much more to say than the space in RRW would allow for.
To get in the right frame of mind for this trip and not repeat the gaff of waiting for permission to have fun, I watched the Cameron Crowe classic "Almost Famous" on the flight over. If you are not familiar, it is the story of a high school kid that gets a gig writing for Rolling Stone at the ripe old age of 15. His job was to follow a band on tour and report on the inner workings of the group. The highs, the lows...the stuff that defines people as they grow both at their chosen profession, as well as human beings. I could not have chosen a better movie to (re)watch to get me fired up about a writing job. Next to motorcycles, music is my passion and you might be surprised just how similar those that live their lives in either industry have in common. That and my official writing assignment for this trip was diving deep into how Cat runs his tours. The good, the bad, the ugly.
"You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful."
— Lester Bangs, Almost Famous.
I told Cat long before I landed in Munich that I would pull zero punches, and I remain true to my word. When I reminded him that I was "the enemy" and that as such I would be brutally honest, he responded with "I would hope so, that's why I asked you to come along".
Cat isn’t a small dude, his tall stature is accented by flowing blonde hair that extends past his shoulders. Think Viking, but instead of setting sail on a longboat into the ocean, he pillages apexes on an R1. His personality is equally large, and like most of us that ride the track on a regular basis, it takes a few interactions to fully “get” him. I have heard the words “weird”, “arrogant”, and “intimidating” associated with his name over the years, often from those that admit to never talking to him before - what with him being so intimidating and all.
Those that take the time to walk over and chat about what he does for a living eventually change those adjectives to “eccentric”, “meticulous”, and “confident”, three words that you must embody in order to do what he has chosen as his profession.
I have found that most motorcycle people, track people especially, are considered eccentric by those outside the sport. We are all a bit “weird” to those that don’t participate in our track shenanigans, and in order to run a company that caters to such people (us) you need to be a bit unconventional. But, like everything else in life, it is next to impossible to please everybody as proven by the less than ideal news that Cat delivered when he picked me up from the airport. It seems that one of the people on the tour prior to mine was supposed to stick around and drive the van in exchange for track time at Brno. Without telling Cat, the van driver instead booked a flight home.
This left Cat in a bit of a pickle and left my tour without a dedicated van driver. Why? We may never know exactly why the guy bailed, but there is a theory that may tie directly to the amount of time it takes to "get" Cat.
In Cat's own words: "I am a better Tour Operator than I am a Tour Guide". Cat said that he admittedly was a little short with the prior tour when they were maybe letting their dilly's dally in the morning. It seems that the person who agreed to drive the van in exchange for three days on a MotoGP track was not happy with Cat's brevity, perhaps reading it as something other than his intended encouragement to get kickstands up and the show on the road. One can only guess that taking his ball and going home (without filling the tank on his rental bike before returning it, BTW) was an attempt of one person who rides motorcycles to ruin the fun of 11 motorcycle people. Spoiler alert: He failed.
Here's the thing. Cat is a tour operator, not a tour guide, and there is a massive difference.
The job of a Tour Operator is to book hotels, book bikes, plan lunch stops, dinners, and all the other stuff people sometimes take for granted. Behind the scenes shit. In the case of a motorcycle tour operator, they also look for the squiggliest lines on the map connecting each of the stops, however they may not be familiar with recent road closures, construction, or the detours caused by such modifications to the local infrastructure. They see the big picture of the forest, and may not realize that some of the flora within might not be as strong as the surrounding trees. The mindset of a Tour Operator is similar to someone that works on spreadsheets all day, and as such their communication is often blunt and factual with little room for pleasantries.
Tour Guides on the flip-side are the hand-holding, feline-herding, smiling faces that are paid to manage the variety of personalities that emerge on a tour such as this. After a day or so they can read when people are going to take extra time to gear up in the morning or at a lunch stop and adjust the timing accordingly. They are familiar with the local roads and have alternate routes ready just in case the squiggly line on the map washed away in a recent storm. The mindset of a Tour Guide has to at times be similar to a kindergarten teacher, and as such communication is mostly the verbal equivalent of kittens and rainbows.
Don't get me wrong. Cat can guide a tour, but maybe not with the same grace as a local who has the dedicated role of doing so. Think of Cat as one of your track day pit-mates that has been waiting for you to figure out what you did with your gloves while his tires grow cold. Eventually that buddy will tell you to get your shit together without mincing words.
Now that the semantics lesson is done, we now go back to Germany to join the scheduled write-up, already in progress.
Without a dedicated van driver, Cat asked if I would step up and take turns behind the wheel of the support vehicle. While hitting the Autobahn in a van wasn't exactly what I signed up for, please re-read my opening paragraph and tell me what sounds better: Driving a van in Europe so I can ride motorcycles on some epic roads and a MotoGP track, also in Europe, or go back to Pittsburg and wait for some talentless assholes in stolen cars to clip curbs and fill my house with tire smoke. Where are the keys to the van, again?
Ahh, the van. It was a Ford Transit, the tall, long one that is always dong 59mph in the fast lane on "The Five", oblivious to your need to get by. Only this one was a six-speed diesel that belonged to a German police officer, and as such it kinda looked a little like a German police van. In comparison to the motorcycles that I got to ride over there, it was fairly gutless, although none of the bikes could carry the luggage of 11 people and a spare motorcycle.
I first drove the van back to the airport to grab some of the other people participating on the tour. The riders that I would be spending time with were from all over the US and Canada, and due to the variety of flights taken the rest of the afternoon was basically trips to and from the airport.
I had met a couple of riders on my last tour, Brad who was on his fifth tour with Cat, and Paul taking his fourth trip. We had seen each other a couple of times since the Spain tour when they came to trackdays at Thunderhill Raceway, but I had not ridden with them since Aragon. Ted and Aaron were taking their first trip with Cat, and were both from Michigan. They had both made comments about selecting this trip because it was billed as being more of a scouting tour, one that might not be as refined as others on Cat's calendar.
Sean and Larry were both from Vancouver. Larry was on his third tour with Cat, and Sean had heard enough from Larry that he knew he needed to finally go on his first real long distance trip.
Rage (yes, that is his legal first name) and Edward came from Chicago. This would be Rage's second trip with Cat, and while Edward had not traveled with Leod Escapes before, he had his fair share of moto-travel under his belt. *EDIT* Edward reached out to me after this was published and corrected me that he HAD traveled to Italy with Cat once before. Sorry Edward, I had a case of the dumb when I read my notes!
The only guy without a travel buddy was Steve from California who was on his third tour with Cat.
The five trips from the airport completed we all checked into our digs for the first two nights, a place called Hotel Konigstein. The hotel was less than a block away from the Munich D-Store, as well as another motorcycle gear shop, and was almost directly across the street from where we would be renting our motorcycles. Location, location, location. Once everyone was checked into the hotel, we went to a local doner spot and had dinner and beers in preparation for a free day in Munich to do some site-seeing the next morning. Hey Max, WTF is Doner? Thanks for asking, probably nobody.
Doner is the German (although I think it has its roots in Turkey) equivalent of Shawarma, Al Pastor, or Gyros. It was almost everywhere, inexpensive, portable for consumption on the go, and fucking delicious. I could seriously eat this stuff three meals a day for a month with no complaints. After dinner we settled in back at the hotel and rested for the next day.
Day Two, Munich Still:
Back when I was in Junior High, I went to a private school full of children that were the spawn of lawyers, doctors, and other occupations that drove BMW's rather unironically. Therefore I was surrounded by children that drooled over the cars mommy and daddy were destined to buy them, and as I grew up being teased by these horrific excuses for "friends" I developed a distaste for the brand at an early age. As an "adult" I no longer hold any grudges, partially because I am older and wiser, but doing a quick facebook check-up of the biggest bullies and discovering what can only be described as a miserable existence riddled with crippling debt and boring jobs didn't hurt either.
Karma is a motherfucker, David.
Even if I still held a grudge, when in Munich, home to the BMW museum, one must attend and what better way than by a quick taxi ride...in a Mercedes. It felt like Mercedes was the brand of choice when it came to taxis in Munich. They were everywhere as if to remind the city that there was more than one German car brand.
The BMW Museum itself was a work of art, and took visitors through the history of the brand, as well as delving into the process of turning a clay model into a production machine. One could spend an entire day there, but given that I only really had one day in Munich, it would have been silly not to go to a beer garden, drink three liters of beer, and then get on one of those electric scooters with absolutely no idea how to get back to the hotel.
So we did that.
Munich as a city reminded me a lot of Milwaukee, with its industrial overtones, flat landscape, and seemingly endless places to buy shaved meat and copious amounts of beer. Munich has something that Milwaukee lacks, however, (besides better beer) and that is a sense of situational awareness that I largely attribute to the bike lanes that are built into the sidewalks. I remember walking around Milwaukee when I lived there and remarking that if the pedestrians drove how they walked 90% of them wouldn't be able to find their way out of their own driveways. There was no sense of purpose or urgency, just a zombie pace, and by that I mean original Dawn of the Dead Zombies, not this 28 Days Later bullshit.
Those people wouldn't last more than 10 seconds on a German sidewalk.
All it takes is one time of walking where people are riding (or scootering) in Munich and you never forget to stay the hell out of the bike lane. As such, three dudes from North America on three liters of beer riding electric scooters had no issues getting slightly misplaced in the big city without running over any pedestrians. Granted I did loop a wheelie or two, but managed to remount with no incident.
Pro tip: If you happen to be on a little electric scooter and are using google maps to navigate, switch it to pedestrian mode so as to not be routed to the Autobahn to get back to the hotel. We eventually figured this out, showered, and met up with the rest of the group for an official welcome dinner that featured, wait for it... More beer. If you are sensing a theme, you would be correct.
After dinner it was back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep for our early morning departure to Austria.