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Common Tread

An interview with Common Tread's own Lance Oliver

Nov 14, 2019

For Season Two of our podcast series Highside/Lowside, we’re adding value to the podcast by including interviews with interesting people in the motorcycle industry, and for Episode Three we’re turning the lens on one of our own, Managing Editor of Common Tread, “the Silver Fox” himself, Mr. Lance Oliver.

Unlike anyone else on staff, Lance is actually a career journalist. In the 1980s and early '90s, Lance cut his teeth as a staff writer and editor for a series of newspapers before moving on to the freelance world. In February of 2001, he took an editorial position at the AMA, where he spent the next seven years of his career. Lance started working for RevZilla in 2014 and since then he's been the managing editor and driving force behind RevZilla's online magazine, Common Tread.

From his humble beginnings in rural West Virginia, riding his dad’s Honda Cub up and down the driveway, to his coverage of the 100 millionth Honda Cub rolling off of the production line, Lance has seen and done quite a bit over his career. And we’ll touch on a little bit of all of it in the full interview on Episode Three of Highside/Lowside’s Second season releasing next weekend. 

To make sure you don’t miss it, type in “RevZilla” to Apple iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and subscribe to our Highside/Lowside podcast. For those of you who can’t wait to learn more about “Ol’ Lightning,” the following is an excerpt from our interview.

Lance Oliver Honda Cub 50
Lance, his sister, and his father posing on the Honda 50 in 1967 in an old scrapbook photo. Photo by Dorothy Oliver.

Spurgeon Dunbar: How old were you when you got into riding?

Lance Oliver: Well, I didn't grow up with the opportunity of riding mini bikes and dirt bikes and all that kind of stuff. I come from a long line of baseball players and I sucked at Little League so that went nowhere. 

But the one thing that did happen that kind of inadvertently introduced me to motorcycling was when I was in grade school, my father took a year off from work to get his master's degree. He was a high school teacher and he had a scholarship at the University of South Carolina, so we moved there. When he went back to school my mother took the one family car and went to work. He needed to get to class and the cheapest way to do so was a Honda 50.

Actually, when Honda built the 100 millionth Honda Super Cub, I wrote an article about this. He bought a brand new Honda 50 for $245, rode it to class for a year, then he went back to work and never got on a motorcycle again.

But the Cub was just hanging around. And we moved back to West Virginia where we had like four acres of land. I'm not old enough yet to have a driver's license or anything, but there's that Honda sitting there. I mean, it's the easiest thing in the world to ride, three-speed transmission, no clutch, twist and go, right? So I just started riding it around. We had this long gravel driveway which was two ruts with barbed wire on both sides. And that was the first time I actually rode a motorcycle, but then I didn't actually have one of my own until I was 18.

Lance Oliver
In 1993, Lance had moved to Puerto Rico and was living in Old San Juan, where parking is scarce on narrow, ancient streets. His apartment building had an interior courtyard and he talked the building owner into letting him park his Suzuki GS500E inside, making him likely the only guy in Old San Juan to have free, indoor parking. Photo by Lynne Houle.

SD: So what came first, your desire to be a writer or your desire to be a motorcyclist?

LO: Well, you know, those two things sort of happened in unrelated and parallel fashion for the first part of my adult life. I bought my first motorcycle at 18, which was a Honda CB360. I feel like this was the first bike of choice for an entire generation. There are so many people my age who you’ll ask about their first bike and it was a CB350 or CB360. Those things were everywhere.

And at the same time, I was going to college and studying journalism. And then, when I got out of school, I started working at newspaper jobs and worked my way up the ranks in that for a long time. There was a dark period in my 20s when I didn't have any money because I was getting paid so poorly and I had to sell my bike to buy a car, but other than that, I always had a bike. But my motorcycling and my work were not related in any way.

SD: And you didn't realize that there could be an overlap there at that point?

LO: Well, I mean, I did. But when I set out to start my career, I was really focused on the news business. I was a newspaper journalist, and that's what I wanted to do. And that's what I did until I was in my early 30s. Obviously, I was reading motorcycle magazines and I knew there were people who were out there doing that, but that just seemed like such a huge jump from what I was doing, from what I was trained to do. So it wasn't until later on that my profession and my avocation sort of merged.

Lance Oliver Speed Triple
Lance with his Speed Triple in 1998, back when it was new-ish. Photo by Lance Oliver.

SD: I think a lot of people probably assume that folks in our position get into this to ride only the latest and greatest bikes. But in fact the majority of bikes you're currently riding are at least what, collectively, 20 years old?

LO: No one's gonna be too envious of my stable right now (with a laugh).

I have a 1997 Triumph Speed Triple that I bought in 1998 when it was a year old and I still have it. Lemmy loves to give me grief over that because it's so poorly maintained and generally worthless. But hey, after 21 years why would I sell it?

2006 Triumph Daytona 675
Lance's 2006 Daytona 675 is the newest bike in his stable. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

I also have a 2006 Triumph Daytona 675. (This bike was actually featured in the Street Triple 765 video review). And then I have another bike that's worth nothing monetarily but it's worth a lot sentimentally. A little 1996 Suzuki GN125 that my father bought for my mother for her 59th birthday as her re-entry into riding a motorcycle. It's a humble, cheap, little bike that's 23 years old, but it really looks older than that because it's basically a design from the '80s.

That bike is a family heirloom for me. My father died last year and my mother gave up riding several years ago. So I said, I'm going to fix that bike up and keep it. I ride it all around, I rode it today. I ride it when I have to go run some errands around town.

However, having recently sold my Kawasaki Versys 650, I'm currently without anything suitable for making a 500-mile trip over to Philadelphia. So I gotta figure out what I'm going to buy so that I have something that I can actually go somewhere on, instead of just my bikes that are too old, too small, or too uncomfortable to actually be of much use.

Suzuki GN125
Lance fixed up his mother's old Suzuki GN125 and plans to hold on to it as a family keepsake. It's slow, but it's not a bad urban motorcycle. Photo by Lance Oliver.

SD: How much would it cost to get you to commute to RevZilla and back on the Suzuki? 

LO: OK, true story. I actually did a 600-mile day on that bike once many years ago.

There's this event that takes place every year, a charity ride called the Lake Erie Loop.

It starts in Northern Ohio and you ride around Lake Erie, and you just get back to the starting point as fast as you can. The catch is that it's limited to bikes under 200 cc. So even when you're going top speed, you're probably not violating too many laws. And the money that's raised from people entering goes to a charity that the founder set up to help kids who've suffered burn injuries.

I decided I was going to write an article about the event by participating in it. I mean, other people had written articles about it but they wrote about it by just showing up and watching them leave and watching them come back. I thought, well, that's not real, you gotta do it, right? So I borrowed my mother's GN125, and I did the Lake Erie Loop. That was about 600 miles in one day. So I’ve done that already.

SD: Did you tell her what you were going to do with it when you took it?

LO: Actually, I did. I called and said, "Hey, mom, I would like to borrow your bike for this event. It's this charity ride, you know, around Lake Erie." And I realized sort of halfway through my phone conversation with her that it was Mother's Day, which I should have thought of before I called her. So here I was on Mother's Day asking if I could borrow her motorcycle that was a gift from my father so I could run it at redline for basically 18 hours straight, trying to keep from getting run over by traffic in Ontario and Detroit.

Fortunately, Mom’s just enough of a fan of those sorts of crazy ideas that it appealed to her. And the bike didn’t blow up so it all worked out in the end.

Lance Oliver RevZilla's Common Tread
Lance lending his expertise during our "How to tackle your first track day" video. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

SD: I want to shift gears and talk a little bit about the early days of RevZilla’s media team. As the founding member of Common Tread, and the driving force behind it for the past six years, how did you get hooked up with RevZilla?

LO: Well, it was a really lucky accident for me. The idea of branching into doing original content was the brainchild of Anthony Bucci, one of the RevZilla founders. Because nobody working at RevZilla at that time had any experience in editorial, they went looking for someone to help launch this for the company. I heard about the job through a contact I had in the industry. 

I remember there was a really long process of talking back and forth with Anthony about what he had in mind, and what he wanted to do, and what I could do, and how we could develop it. The exciting part about it was we were inventing it from scratch.

SD: That must have been pretty exciting for you.

LO: It was so much fun because we were literally starting from zero. And, of course, that means it takes a long time to build up any momentum, but it also means you get to do it right. And you get to do it how you think is right, because there was literally nobody there to tell me, "No, you can't do it that way because we do things this way here at RevZilla" because nobody had ever done that. So that was a lot of fun.

SD: From your point of view, what did Common Tread look like in those first few years of production?

LO: It was a pretty small operation. I came in and we didn't really have anybody among the employees who was more than just an occasional contributor (in the beginning Lemmy's main gig was with the merchandising team and Spurgeon was in Customer Service). So I set out trying to put together quality content, but also keeping it at a steady flow. It’s interesting to look back on some of the early stories we published as a reminder of how we would post an article and if we got four or five comments on it by readers, we thought, "Oh, wow, that's great, that did nicely."

As things have grown we have stories posted on Common Tread that have 700 comments on them. I mean, that's not the norm, but we've hit some crazy numbers before. These days even if we just post some little thing, we'll usually get 20 or 30 comments on just a run-of-the-mill daily story and we average around a million unique page views a month on Common Tread alone. So looking back now and remembering those days when we hardly had any readers at all, it's gratifying in the sense that we've been able to come a long way.

Lance Oliver, Lemmy, and Spurgeon Dunbar with a Kawasaki Versys 1000
Common Tread has come a long way since the early days. Photo by Andy Greaser.

SD: What were some of your biggest struggles along the way? And you have to think a little more creatively than saying “Working with Spurgeon or Lemmy.” 

LO: (Laughing) I didn't have a stable of writers. I didn't even know where our audience was going to come from, what they were really going to be interested in, what kind of stories were really going to work, which ones weren't. A lot of things that we did in the early days didn't turn out to be as successful as I thought. And in other ways, we've now become so much more successful than I expected it would be, so that's great.

But when we were starting out the manufacturers didn't pay attention to us. They weren't inviting us to come ride their new bikes or letting us know about what they're doing. We learned it's hard enough just to get a news release when you're starting out. It was a struggle just trying to get on people's radars.

And it still is at times. The industry is in such flux, that everybody is trying new stuff all the time and nobody really knows what to do for sure. People just come up with theories and try to make them sound good and say, "Well, we're gonna go pursue influencers, you know,” instead of trying to get a credible article which might offer too many critiques.

But for all of the flux, we’ve remained a constant for roughly six years now.

Lance Oliver on the Cover of AMA Magazine
This shot of Lance riding the Buell 1125R through the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca was on the cover of American Motorcyclist magazine when he worked there.

SD: After nearly 20 years of developing motorcycle content, you've become an influential force for people in this sport. Hell, your articles influenced me long before I ever had the pleasure of working with you. If you could offer one piece of advice for a new rider or for someone looking at getting into motorcycling, what would it be?

LO: Well, I'll go back to one of the early pieces I wrote on Common Tread that addressed that very question. And that piece of advice is “look where you want to go.” And I say that because it works on every possible level.

When you're riding on some twisty road and you realize you're into the curve a little too fast, what do you need to do? You need to look through the curve, look past the apex, look to the exit. That's where you want to be. You don't look at the guardrail, you don't look at the cliff at the edge, you look where you want to go. And that is the way your body works, you'll get there. It's the same as telling, you know, a baseball player, "Keep your eye on the ball." That's the way we work.

It also works for so many other aspects of life. If you keep your eye on your goal, you keep your eye on where it is you're trying to end up, what you want to accomplish, and what you want to achieve, you're a lot more likely to get there. So that's the one thing I always say if you have to boil it down to one thing, look where you want to go.

SD: For our readers who also enjoy our Highside/Lowside podcast, we want clue everybody in to the fact that in addition to his interview in Episode Three, Lance is going to be joining us on the couch in Episode Four as we discuss some of our favorite bikes of 2019.