No big deal: a knee and an elbow to the ground are run-of-the-mill moves for the best MotoGP riders.
(Photo : Jeff Jablansky)
I do not ride motorcycles. Not for lack of trying, though. I tried once. At a daylong seminar for greenhorns nearly two years ago in Los Angeles, I managed to stay upright for the majority of the program. I learned how to steer, apply throttle, and brake, and even gained enough momentum to shift the Ducati Monster 696 into second and third gears. Pride came before my eventual fall, blame my inability to balance, and ever since, I've been curiously fascinated by these two-wheeled powerhouses.
The adage is true: After your first time on a motorcycle, you begin to notice them. Suddenly, the motorcycles of varying sizes, power, and prestige are not all the same, collectively referred to as "bikes." And I want to get back on one. Badly. It's been rumored that the day I procure a bike of my own will also be accompanied by bachelorhood and familial shunning—but how bad could that be?
There's something wild about life on two wheels, and there is also a vicarious quench for the rider's thirst in the arena of motorsports. If you like the intensity and brevity of full-contact boxing, but take pleasure in the excitement of a Formula 1 race, the answer might just be MotoGP.
MotoGP is a Grand Prix racing tradition known around the world that has taken its time to gain notoriety in the United States. Teams using the world's most sophisticated and powerful motorcycles from Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha compete on the world's best circuits throughout the year. Fans of road racing, competitive cycling, football, and soccer, among other sports, will find something to enjoy about watching MotoGP, its subsequent race classes, Moto2 and Moto3, and the uniquely patriotic MotoAmerica super-bike series.
It wasn't until two years ago that MotoGP reached the newly constructed Circuit of the Americas, outside Austin, Texas, that I really caught on. That's why I joined Ducati at this year's race, to see what all the commotion was about. Could devotees of four wheels be converted to a laymen motorcycle enthusiasts? If it wasn't enough that the Austinites I encountered, from baristas to barristers, were all aware of the race and were eager to chat about it, the number of local and out-of-towner fans that converged on the city proved the point.
A tour of the Ducati factory team's garage at the track's glistening but well-worn paddock is the first hint why the sport is so interesting to watch. The motorcycles are as powerful as cars are. A team mechanic estimated conservatively that each of his team's motorcycles makes around 240 horsepower. That's tantamount to sitting atop the engine of a Volkswagen GTI stuffed neatly under your thighs.
And then there are the riders. As in automotive motorsport, there is a direct correlation between the skill and agility of the operator and his or her machine. In MotoGP, however, it's taken to an extreme level, where human and motorcycle are essentially one: centaurs of the modern era.
Watching the qualifying laps the day before the race was a sobering preview of what we could expect on the day of competition. Entering a corner on the track, riders show their prowess by touching a padded knee to the apex. (The most adroit riders can also touch an elbow to the ground.) As they prepare for the next corner, they change direction by entirely shifting their body weight to the other side of the motorcycle, pushing full throttle until the electronic stability control—a necessary but modern evil—cuts power with a satisfying pop-pop-pop-pop. The riders repeated the process throughout the 20 turns that COTA affords. The track managed to stay dry from Texas deluges until the Moto2 races, and when it started to rain, the riders failed to relent.
For an adrenaline junkie, attending a MotoGP event is like bearing witness to a dream.
The MotoGP race itself, which was threatened by the chance of a second day of rain, was full of climactic moments. A late start allowed fans the chance to watch rider-superstars like Yamaha's Valentino Rossi and Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso field questions from international media and swim among the "umbrella girls" who swarm the track prior to the race start. When the flag dropped, the pole seeding set the day earlier came undone, and the most proficient riders quickly emerged. Honda Repsol's Marc Marquez—who stole the show during the qualifying laps by abandoning his motorcycle, switching to a spare, and then proceeding to set a track lap record—was ultimately victorious.
The race concluded rather subtly, without the whooping and raucousness of a Formula 1 race, or even a college basketball tournament. The day is barely over for fans, who attend a number of evening parties thrown by the race teams. At a MotoGP bacchanal, it's not unlikely to see the racers themselves mingling among team owners, celebrities of all stripes, media, and fans—all while surrounded in a cloud of some of the world's most done-up spectators and loyalists. A night earlier, the same crowd descended upon a local gallery on their own bikes to see a collection of historics at the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show, and witness something called the "Wall of Death." Don't ask me what that's about; I was asleep before the midnight shenanigans began.
The whole experience of a MotoGP weekend is an act of proselytization for non-riders, making motorcycles seem while introducing a totally new way to approach racing. Even for enthusiast non-riders, the race is just that—a competition to see which team builds the best product and has saddled up the most skilled riders to take home the title—and a reminder of the day-to-day joy motorcycles can bring. Suddenly, the urge to ride has come back.
I think I'd make a pretty cool bachelor in full leathers.
In short: MotoGP
What is it?
Competitive motorcycle racing at the international level, performed at the world's best racetracks.
Why should I care?
Forget that the competition involves motorcycles. Fans of high-energy motorsport and its associated personalities will enjoy watching MotoGP.
When can I see it?
Click here for the full 2015 race calendar and locations. The next race is this weekend in Argentina; better get your tickets now.
Should I visit a race myself?
Absolutely. There's no feeling quite like watching a professional daredevil careen by at 200 mph, either from a grandstand bench or behind a chain-link fence.