Blue Diamond, Black Diamond, what’s the difference?

In the mid-1980s, while at AT&T, I extended a trip in Colorado to go skiing. I chose a spot called Hidden Valley Resort. It wasn’t so much for tourists, but close to Denver, so ideal for one-day trips by the locals. I had no clue that bravado, stupidity, chauvinism and hubris could amass to cataclysmic intensity in one event on just one day.

black runs at the topHidden Valley Ski area opened in 1955 and closed in 1991. Ten miles outside of Estes Park, Colorado, it moved skiers to the top with ropes, Poma and T-Bars and eventually chair lifts. Most memorable were the olive green, canvas-covered army trucks (replaced with school buses by the time of my visit) transporting more adventure-oriented skiers to the upper valley, where tow ropes transported them to the top of the mountain, allowing a downhill rush through pine groves and powder. The resort featured an impressive 2000-foot vertical drop from 11,400 to 9,400 feet, with 30 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert and 10 percent insane (my opinion) trails. Patrons were mostly northern Colorado residents avoiding the long drive and high prices of larger resorts along I-70. In 1984, a season pass to Hidden Valley cost $100 and adult daily lift tickets were $10. The resort never competed successfully with the larger areas and after a lousy snow season it closed operation and removed its lifts in 1991.

Having not skied in several years, I began my day with a lesson. Sure enough, with a good instructor and attentive practice, I’d returned to being a “mid-to-pretty-good intermediate skier” of a few years earlier. So, I hit the slopes.

After my early sessions on the green slopes, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon perfecting my technique on blue (intermediate) slopes. My skills had returned and I felt confident. After a quick bowl of chili for lunch, I headed outside. Carrying my skis toward the chair lift, I spotted a school bus close to me with lettering on the side saying “Upper Valley” and decided to take it. I stowed my rented skis on the rack and got inside. Realizing I was one of the first on the bus and it wouldn’t leave for a few minutes, I hustled to the restroom to pee. When I returned, half a dozen guys were now on the bus and it was ready to roll. I sat down and the bus pulled out. I pulled my gaze from the attractive skiers walking past the bus to its interior. It was then I saw it: A large sign, right above the driver’s head, where you typically see the sign saying “Tips Appreciated,” was one saying: “This bus goes only to black diamond and double black diamond slopes – Expert skiers ONLY!”

Bus to upper trails

Oh boy, what to do? I had 15 minutes to think as the bus wound its way up the hill. First, I sure didn’t want to wimp out in front of all these guys and, at this point, everyone on the bus was male. I thought about ducking down in my seat and riding the bus back down, but realized it wouldn’t work. Second, my day so far had been going very well. My confidence level was high. I’d been on black diamond slopes before and while I wasn’t pretty, I always managed to get down. “Let’s see how this goes,” I thought.

At the top, everyone got off the bus and collected their skis. Thoughts of sneaking onto the bus disappeared as it left the second our skis were off the rack. Our small group of riders had sort of become a club, feeling a bit of comradery, never speaking to each other, but no dues, either. Latching up, I followed the group as they slowly traversed a ridge with a steep drop off to the right. OK, more accurately, a sheer cliff to the right. Every 15-25 feet or so, one of the group members would peel off and head down the slope. I kept following the guy in front of me, hoping he would lead us to a more gradual slope. It didn’t happen. As hard as it was to comprehend, the further we went along the ridge, the steeper the drop off to the right became.

This is the steepness I recall on the mountain.

With only 3 guys left, we finally reached the end. Hope of finding a gentler slope vanished. Instead, here was a T-Bar leading up and off to the left, into a deep white mist. Running out of options and terrified of having to ski off the cliff to my right, I followed my two remaining buddies as they hooked onto the T-Bar and we were pulled higher up the mountain. Examining the areas slopes sometime later, I realized I was heading to an area called “Tombstone Ridge.”

Arriving at the top, it felt as if I was close to the summit. It was colder. My two friends quickly disappeared into the thick fog covering the slope below, and the wind began to pick up. It was late afternoon and I was alone, at the top of a mountain, wearing skis. Everyone was gone. Thoughts of ski management people finding me in the spring alternated with my mumbling to myself “Don’t panic, take it one step at a time.”

It turns out lack of visibility can be a good thing. Because of the fog, I was unable to see very far down the mountain. Looking across a steep, icy slope, I saw a mid-sized pine tree, the nice Christmas-y type, 25 feet tall with big, wide branches at the bottom. I decided to go across the slope, rather than down, and into the tree’s lower limbs to stop my momentum. Miraculously, it worked.   More important, from this vantage point, I saw another tree on the other side of the slope, only a little bit further down, and I proceeded to ski directly into it as before, using the branches to break my rapidly accelerating pace.

This seemed to work. I crashed from one tree to another, not dying. Sure, I was skinned up a bit, but thick gloves and goggles make for better protection than you might think. But this was exhausting.  While recovering and gathering my energy in the branches of a tree, out of the mist came the savior I’d secretly been praying for. A skier in the distinctive uniform of the Ski Patrol was headed in my direction. “Oh, thank God, I am saved.” I thought.

The patrol person expertly skied right up to me, finessed a quick little turn and stopped, lifted her goggles and shouted to me through the howling wind, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” OMG, it was a woman, a girl! Before thinking I said, “No, no, I’m fine, just catching a breather.” And with no time for me to reconsider my foolish response, she adjusted her gloves, smiled at me, pulled down her goggles and skied off down the hill. I thought to myself, “God, I am an idiot and a moron!”

The tree-to-tree skiing technique kept me from killing myself for the next few hours (well, okay, maybe 15 minutes) and I came to an ice-covered half-pipe-like formation. With no trees to slow my fall, I sat down, undid my skis and slid down through the bowl on my butt. Not the most dignified way to come down a mountain, but I did not die, either.

long straight slope through the treesEmerging at the bottom of the trough, I saw a sign showing a list of runs heading off in different directions. And then, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, right in the middle of the list, was a blue diamond indicator (intermediate slope) and an arrow pointing to my left. I headed in that direction immediately and 30 minutes later, reached the bottom of the hill, alive, and able to recount this story.

Those of us committed to equality in the workplace and in life, often forget how deeply ingrained our sexist outlook really is and how it affects us in daily life. When in the delivery room with Maggie, as my daughter Ginger was born, I recall looking around me: the obstetrician was a woman, the anesthesiologist was a woman and the nurse was a woman. As my daughter was born I thought to myself, God help anyone trying to stand in the way of my daughter’s being anything she’ll ever want to be, and thankful she’d grow up in a world where people were judged on their abilities and not their gender or skin color. Sadly, we have a long way to go on both counts.

The Most Expensive Golf Clubs Ever

John Woychick and Ron Herem – one of the holes we see from our deck in Phoenix.

Here in Arizona, our house overlooks a golf course, as do 84.4% of all homes in Phoenix (just kidding). But neither Maggie or I play. In fact, if you asked any of my golfing friends “Does Steve play golf?” the most likely response would be “Not so much.” This story is not about golfing, although I suspect both golfers and non-golfers will find something of interest.

First hole, 520 yards, Par 5

Living in the Twin Cities from 1997 – 2003, after joining the founding team of Net Perceptions, we purchased a nice home on Bent Creek Golf Course in Eden Prairie. I loved the unfolding deep green lawn stretching from my backyard seemingly to forever. Better was it never needed my non-existent gardening ambitions. Our deck overlooked the green of the first hole, a 520 yard, Par 5, providing hours of entertainment. Being the first of 18 holes, the final players of the day passed our home pretty early. This allowed me to take a bucket of balls after the concluding golfers had passed and chip them from my backyard onto the green. Then I would step up onto the green, and putt them all into the hole.

While never playing the course, I got along well with the club management, pro and groundskeepers. Once they’d needed to use our lawn for some sand trap repairs and I’d made it easy for them. I knew most of the groundskeepers and waved every morning as they made their rounds. One time I noticed an older guy operating one of the riding mowers. That seemed odd. All the rest of the crew appeared college age and in pretty good shape. This guy was neither. I never spoke with him, but asked about him one day at the club’s golf shop. After describing him, a look of acknowledgement came across the course manager. “Oh, he’s not a regular groundskeeper; he’s one of our members. Due to all his DWI arrests, he’s lost his driver’s license. But he misses driving. So, his wife brings him over here and we let him drive the mowers around.”

Although not a true golfer, I’d become familiar with the game during my five year stint at AT&T, where golf is part of the culture. Not only were deals done on the course, AT&T sponsored golf events (Pebble Beach Pro-am for one) and invites high-value clients and arranges for them to play a round with a genuine professional and AT&T executives. Like it or not, I was expected to attend and play. While no need for me to be a stellar golfer, embarrassing the company by shooting a poor game was also not acceptable. After several lessons and lots of practice, my game settled into one where although never hitting the ball very far, I always seemed to hit it straight. It turns out this often resulted in a half-decent score, especially when playing with those who tended to plaster the ball a great distances but in all the wrong directions.

My golf clubs were purchased used for $15 at a garage sale in the early 90s, and I never really thought much about them. When going to an event, I threw them into my trunk, and then onto a cart. Perhaps someone looked a bit askance at my clubs now and then, but after seeing Rodney Dangerfield’s bag of clubs in Caddyshack, I was glad the size of my bag was at the other end of the spectrum. For at least 10 years of playing and a good number of prestige events, those were my only clubs.

As it turned out, Net Perceptions was a success, and went public in 1999, just before the Internet bubble burst in 2001-2002. Before the crash, it appeared I had a great deal of money, although most of it was on paper and in lock-up agreements. One downside of suddenly acquiring a big chunk of money is the mistaken belief you’ve also acquired extra brains in the process. This leads to thinking you must have the magic touch when it comes to picking investments. Of course, those opportunities are being thrown at you right and left by people whose business it is to follow newly-rich people around with the goal of snapping up some of that loot. This is how I was exposed to and made a $25,000 investment in a company that manufactured custom golf clubs.   Here is how the scam, oops, I mean “business model” worked.

It begins with a desperate-to-improve golfer in a golf shop talking to the local pro on ways to improve his game. Everyone knows buying something, like special long-range balls, or the “super driver of the decade” or the “magic putter” which makes all putts roll accurate and true, is much simpler than taking lessons and actually practicing. And so, sales are made. It reminds me of the story of the couple passing a talented piano player at a bar, leaving a tip as they depart and saying, “Wow! You were just great. I’d do anything to play like that. Well, except take lessons and practice, of course.”

Back to our story: At some point, the pro suggests the stock off-the-shelf clubs the player is using may be holding him back. What might help is a special set of custom-made clubs, where grips are tailored specifically to the hands of the player, the shaft lengths cut to fit the player’s exact height and the heads all angled for his particular sweet spot. “Expensive?” he asks. “Oh my, not really, and think about consistently shaving half a dozen strokes from each game,” the pro replies.

A full set of top brand irons typically ran about a thousand dollars then, and the fully-customized set with a fitted set of shafts and grips was about $2,000. So, the pro arranges for a “fitting,” using the computer software, camera and other goodies provided by the company in which I’d invested. Once the company got the specifics for the golfer, they tweaked their stock shafts, clubs and grips to match the order sheet, applied the logo of whomever’s brand was specified (Callaway, Ping, Wilson, etc.) and then, finally, the most important and perhaps costly step, packing them up to look like high-value works of art.

Part of my $25k investment was a set of custom clubs. They would arrange for me to go to the factory—which was local—and be personally fitted for a set of clubs and receive those clubs for free. Of course, at this point, I already knew the cost from the business model was around $200 bucks, but still, I couldn’t resist “free” and was on time for my appointment the following week. Arriving on Saturday morning at the company’s warehouse-like facility, I removed my clubs from the trunk of my car. They’d asked me to bring the set I currently played with, perhaps as some sort of baseline—I wasn’t sure. But I hefted them onto my shoulder and strolled through the wide open double garages of the warehouse space where I was welcomed by the investment guy and one of the measuring pros. The pro grabbed my bag, looked at it and said, “Oh, Mr. Larsen, you must have grabbed the wrong bag, these are lady’s clubs. Did you pick up your wife’s clubs by mistake?” When I looked at him quizzically, he said, “I’m serious, these are Mickey Wright signature clubs.” Apparently this Mickey Wright logo I’d been seeing for the past decade wasn’t some famous male golf pro, but a famous woman golfer. Oh god. Do you recall the scene at the end of the “The Six Sense” when Bruce Willis’s character flashes back on all those scenes, realizing he actually wasn’t in them and redefines the entire film, giving it a whole new meaning? My mind flashed over years of looks from other golfers and caddies as they saw my clubs, then shot a look at me, then again at my clubs.

Duh! It finally hit me—what all those funny looks were about. Upon reflection, it came home to me that acquiring money doesn’t make you any smarter than you were the month or year before. Unfortunately, the market crash and subsequent IRS issues wiped out any semblance of my “being rich,” which in the long run, was probably all for the good. I stopped looking for homeruns and returned to saving at least 20% of any money that came my way and while perhaps not the “smartest” play one can make financially, it’s consistent with my values of hard work, persistence and determination. In the end, they’ve always served me best. And I stopped playing golf and gave my $25,000 clubs to my cousin.

Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, Shoot


When Ginger was a baby, my stint as Vice President of Marketing at Open Systems came to a close. We needed insurance while I was between jobs, so Maggie went back to work and we agreed I would stay home with Ginny (which was what we called her then). How she went from Ginny to Ginger is a story for another day.

The movie, Mr. Mom, starring Michael Keaton, had recently come out. His character, Jack, is fired from his job and his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr) goes back to work and they switch roles. I thought, “Hell, why not? How hard could taking care of a single child be?” Maggie wasn’t fully on board initially, but then she warmed to the idea as she saw how enthusiastic I was to give it a shot. Soon, she was heading off to work at Control Data Corporation, while I remained at home and took care of Ginny. What an amazing opportunity for a Dad and daughter to bond. She was coming up on birthday number 1; she was perfect without exception and life was great.

Before relating the events that occurred, let’s get two facts clear from the start. The first is how long this lasted: In my mind, and whenever telling of this story, it always seemed to me it was about a year. Looking at the timeline more carefully, I found that no more than 3 months is more likely the right number. Well, it sure seemed a lot longer to me! Second, I was a very involved Dad before this point. We did the pre-natal birthing classes together, I was with Maggie during labor and delivery, and the first to hold baby Larsen after she was born. Once we got Ginny home, I was an equal partner in feeding, bathing, and changing diapers. Well, most of it — I didn’t do laundry or meal preparation. That was about to change.

How to start the process with Maggie gone and Ginny and me at home, alone together? Well, my primary objective was to get organized. This house needed a makeover and I threw myself into the task. The initial focus was Ginny’s closet and her clothes. As a first child, she’d been the recipient of a massive amount of clothes gifts from family members and friends. Add in a big gap in children for our family and we ended up with piles of hand-me-down baby clothes on top of all the new stuff. I emptied every clothes drawer. Her garments were washed and neatly folded and returned to the bureau for safekeeping. Once this was complete, I was loath to see any of her fresh, clean outfits get dirty, so most of the time, Ginny wore a diaper and T-shirt. I found, if I turned the t-shirt inside out before her mother got home, I could get an additional day with a shirt before it needed to be laundered. Thankfully, we were on the disposable diapers kick already.

The next step for this homemaker in creating and customizing his workspace was to organize the kitchen. In one day I removed each single item from each cupboard and drawer, laying out the pieces across the kitchen table, dining room table, and other flat surfaces. Then, after cleaning everything, including the cabinet interiors, all the stuff was put away. The kitchen now conformed to my new, well-studied, and optimized layout. Each plate, fork, bowl, pot, and frying pan was precisely where it should be, although not where Maggie thought they should be, but it was my kitchen now. Part of the problem with this turned out to be an exquisite design. It was simply so good, once everything was put away, I didn’t want dishes and glassware to ever come out again. I began serving meals on paper plates and using plastic ware. “Mess up my kitchen?” Not on your life!

In my defense, my career mirrored this behavior precisely. In my 40’s I finally figured out where in the business world I operated best, and it was as a builder. I loved early-stage companies, deciding on the direction, refining value propositions, constructing a profitable model, and then creating the plan and executing it. I was very good at that and loved doing it. It wasn’t work for me. I once said, “If you want a bridge built, you should hire me. But once it’s built, if you need a toll collector, or someone to paint and maintain the bridge, get someone else.”  Once a business is up and running, the key people are in place, the bugs worked through, the unknowns are all known, I’m ready to move on.

After these key household goals were accomplished, which occurred in only a few days, I turned my attention to my daughter and made sure I was getting her out for regular walks and excursions around the neighborhood. We lived with a lot of other young families and so running into other homemakers was unavoidable. Eventually, I was invited to a “Coffee Klatch” get-together. Wow, what an eye-opener that was.

Having not been here before, I let the 8-10 mothers do most of the talking, which was mostly about their kids progress and done simultaneously. “Lyle is so advanced; his doctor says he’s never seen a boy at 10 months who can crawl as far and fast as he does.” “My precious little Kathie is much more advanced, she was trying to put a dress on one of her dolls, and she’s only 7 months old.” “Little Buster is so ahead of the other boys in his daycare, the teachers told me they’ve never seen a kid drinking from a sippy cup at that age.” I was amazed: every one of their kids was in the top cohort, the upper 10% or in some other way, in the most advanced group ever – longest, heaviest, most hair, earliest tooth, motor skills, etc. Eventually, they noticed I hadn’t chimed in and tried to get me to open up. I was initially reluctant, but realizing you couldn’t have a top end of the scale without a bottom end, I told them in light of what I’d been hearing, there was no doubt in my mind, Ginny was clearly retarded. I went on to say, “I think she’s in the bottom third of everything they measure kids on. That said, I do think she giggles well. She really is very good at giggling – oh, and laughing, too. Damn, she can laugh extremely well. I was thinking she might be further along in laughing than some other kids and while I think it may be her strongest capability at this point, I have to admit, it seems pretty much the same as other kids her age.”  Hard to believe, but I never got invited back to another Coffee Klatch event.

But those mothers took their revenge. They began squealing on me to Maggie. They would snitch and inform on me about every little infraction as if it was catastrophically horrible. “He was out jogging, and he had Ginny on his shoulders, she was bouncing up and down, I swear to God he was about to drop her.” Or, “He was pulling her in the wagon and she wasn’t wearing a jacket, scarf, mittens or hat. She was so cold her lips were turning blue.” Fortunately for me, while Ginger was learning to speak, she wasn’t yet speaking in sentences or even making much sense when she did speak. Don’t get me wrong, she was delighted to try and say new words, but typically did not appear to know what they meant. As a result, she became the star, go-to witness in my defense and I called her to the stand whenever needed. When confronted by Maggie with the latest horrifying tail of something unfitting I’d done with our daughter, I’d look at Ginny and ask, “Did Daddy and Ginny have fun?” and I’d throw my hands up in the air and make a funny face. Ginny never failed to throw her hands in the air too, and giggle and laugh. This nearly always got me off the hook. We made a great team and none of the charges ever stuck.

The day I got into the most trouble began innocuously enough. I had turned a room into an office directly across from the nursery, with a desk and wall consisting of 3 large bookcases. It turned out the room was too small for the bookcases. I decided to move the bookcases out to the family room, which was much larger and would accommodate them easily. Studying the task, it seemed simple. Reach in, grab both sides of 8 – 12 books from a shelf, take them into the family room, and pile them on the floor. Once the bookcases were empty, have Maggie help me move them to the family room and then reload them. Easy.

But what to do with Ginny in the process of the book moving? No worries, I set her up in her bouncy chair so she could sit, play, and watch me as I made the move. After a few trips, the number of trips I was going to need to make began to dawn on me. So, with each new load, I began expanding the number of books I would take, squeezing my arms together more and more tightly. Soon I’d exhausted the lower shelves on the far left bookcase. Bringing in a 3-foot step stool from the garage, I could reach the top shelves. Putting my hands on either side of a pretty good length of books I slowly moved them off the top shelf. As soon as I turned around on the top step of the stool, the books collapsed in the middle and fell to the floor with a loud crash. Even before they landed, I loudly yelled “Oh Shit!” Ginger looked up at me, looked down at the mess scattered across the floor, and as clear as a bell, said, “Oh Shit, oh Shit, oh shit.”

God was I in trouble. Now what? I picked up the fallen books and put them in the other room. Standing in the doorway of the office, I looked at the shelf from where the accident had occurred. Sensing Ginny’s eyes on me, I got back up on the ladder, feigned grabbing another full armful, turned back to her, and said, “Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, shoot!” enunciating perfectly, to make sure there was no mistake in understanding, and slowly turning my head from side to side in a look of dismay. Looking up at me with a twinkle in her eye from her bouncy chair, as clear as a bell she said, “Shit, shit, shit. Oh, Shit!”

Ginger and Uncle John Gravley, at about the time this story takes place.

I’m not sure how many days it was before I got nailed, but it wasn’t many. Maggie was putting something away in the kitchen and she bumped a cup from the counter onto the floor. Ginny, sitting in her high chair, looked at her and triumphantly said, “Oh Shit! Oh shit, oh shit.” I was out on the deck, but heard Maggie call, “Steve, you better get in here, right now.” Yeah, I was toast. No witness to my defense this time. I told her the whole story and she reluctantly forgave me, but not before reminding me how impressionable young brains can be.

I loved my 3 months or so playing Mr. Mom and believe Ginny and I did bond in some special ways. Caring for her was an important task and I always took it seriously. There was never a point I put her in any real danger, although I’m sure I did things most first-time mothers might not do. But mostly I remember the two of us laughing a lot and having fun.

Dad and Ginger, dropping her off at Kenyon College. One of these two could not stop crying.

The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT