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Common Tread

RevZilla rents: A look back at humble beginnings in motorcycle reviews

Jun 10, 2019

A YouTube commenter really let me have it in a video recently. 

Here’s what John wrote:

"Demo rides? You guys really live in your own little wor[l]d, don't you? Outside of the major metropolitan areas, demo rides are still as rare as ice water in hell."

I wrote John a response, telling him I felt his pain, and also let him know RevZilla’s reviews have some pretty humble beginnings. In recounting our early days of bike reviews, I realized that many of our fans might be interested to know that the “review” part of Common Tread and RevZilla’s video department was laughably low-buck — and hinged almost entirely on EagleRider. Yep, the rental company. Today, EagleRider is a business partner of RevZilla’s. Back then? They had no idea who the hell we were.

Motorcycle rental as an extended demo ride

RevZilla’s first motorcycle review was executed in 2015, as a proof-of-concept piece by Spurg. He reviewed a 2010 BMW F 800 GS. That motorcycle belonged to our current CEO. The next review we did was the first one we rented, and also the first one we released. I was aboard a 2014 Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle. Although I'm probably about to mortify poor Spurg, allow me to include a rough edit of his review that hit the cutting room floor half a decade ago. (This is special, people! Never-before-seen footage of The Big Guy!)

We used (if I remember correctly) one more employee’s bike for a shakedown of the Triumph Thruxton (Thanks, Tony Juice!), and then we had a string of rentals. Yep, rentals. The manufacturers didn’t know what to make of us. Nobody seemed to want to lend us a bike, and the problem with borrowing them from willing owners was that dang near everything older was modified. Most owners of motorcycles new enough to be relevant were understandably a little reluctant to lend them to a guy who rides like I do. (I think Spurgeon’s obviously less-sadistic tendencies got him a little farther than I ever did.)

V-Rod rental
Here I am getting cameras prepped for our review of the 2014 Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle. That was a good motorcycle. While we had it, I even took the liberty of fitting up a few pipes so people could get an idea of how exhaust looked and sounded in real life on the bike. I'd recommend you not do this. I suspect EagleRider would echo that sentiment. RevZilla photo.

We couldn’t catch a break, it seemed. It was truly like trying to find that ice water in hell. When you think about it, we were trying to do the same thing a demo rider is doing: borrow a bike, get a feel for it, and return it. (Granted, we need ‘em a little longer for evaluation and shooting purposes. Same church, albeit a different pew.)

So we then rented a Harley-Davidson Street 750 and let the world know what we thought of it. (I think we picked that one up from a dealer that’s local to us. I got word that Harley-D was so irritated at them that they evidently ran the video frame-by-frame to see the dealer’s name emblazoned on the other side of the vinyl keyring that was flipping around in the wind! Is it true? I have no idea. Sure sounds plausible, though.)

After that, I was sent on an interesting assignment I’ll not likely soon forget, as it was the last time I ever saw 30th Street Station’s famous flipboard. I was given a train ticket bound for Maryland, where I was to take possession of a Honda Gold Wing and bring it back to headquarters. I cabbed my way to a local Honda dealer who also was an EagleRider drop point, and away I went. I thought the review turned out pretty great, but I did wonder how much of my headshake issue was the neck bearings, and how much was the somewhat-worn front tire!

Hi Viz Lem
1) Rent a Gold Wing. 2) Rent a passenger. 3) Get matching highlighter-yellow safety gear. 4) Trade one rider stereotype for another for a couple of days. RevZilla photo.

A few years later, when Honda overhauled that bike, I was sitting in a very nice hotel room in Austin, Texas that Honda was kind enough to provide for Mrs. Lem and I. We were iced out of a day of riding, and as I swilled a breakfast Shiner Bock, I took a moment to contemplate the difference in circumstances surrounding how I ended up on each of those two Gold Wings. Life moves pretty fast sometimes.

BMW and Victory shoot
We were literally shooting the BMW scenes (the bike by the van), then switching off and shooting takes with the Victory. And in my pocket? Those are script notes. Fun Easter Egg from the BMW review: I forgot to flip my suspender straps up for every take we shot of one scene, and they flap away in the breeze for a portion of the review. Whoops! RevZilla photo.

After the 2015 Gold Wing review was done, Spurg and I hopped on a plane and did concurrent reviews of now-defunct Victory Empulse and BMW S 1000 XR outside of Los Angeles. (We literally shot separate scenes with different bikes. Trying to keep all the facts straight hurt my head. Never again!) Those bikes came from manufacturers, but once again EagleRider, now practically a silent partner in the RevZilla review business, played a part. While I fetched the test machinery, Spurgeon was gracious enough to head to EagleRider and pick up a Street Glide.

Shooting a review
This picture probably explains the camera setup better than most. Note the seatbelt and saddlebag-rail-cum-footpeg setup. Remember, we're highly trained professionals or something. RevZilla photo.

You see, way back when, we actually ran a cameraman backwards on our house Street Glide to shoot our videos. We modified the bike a bit: The bags would get stripped, and we had a LePera seat with an exceptionally flat pillion section, and I would remove the passenger footpegs and install an automobile seatbelt. That wasn’t for safety, but instead allowed the cameraman to brace fore and aft against either the lap belt or the saddle bag rails.

Empulse review
The "beginning" of our Victory Empulse review. Some nice park rangers sent our tight schedule awry, so my "break-of-dawn" intro was actually shot in a restricted construction area overlooking Glendora in California around supper time. I suspect most of you know that you can't trust everything you see on TV, right? RevZilla photo.

Many dirt racers will actually travel the country with a carburetor and some suspension bits, modifying stock bikes near the race location instead of shipping a race bike all over the planet. We elected to do basically the same thing, realizing that in order to get the shots we needed on a shoestring budget, finding a suitable bike to turn into a camera hauler was the only repeatable method. Imagine, if you will, a team popping out of a van in a suburban house (Airbnb), and a group of riders descending upon the house, commandeering the garage, where very new motorcycle is stripped of parts by a very hurried and angry-sounding man. I wonder what the neighbors thought. I sure as hell can guess what the nice person working the EagleRider counter would have thought, which is why I said as little as possible whenever we attempted this little stunt. (Can a business have only silent partners, and no loud ones?)

Another rental bike
Here's the end of our dual-bike shoot. Spurg is shown here returning our Street Glide to "civilian" duty — rentals typically don't come with aftermarket seats installed! The poor folks at EagleRider could not figure out why we were so adamant that we have a Street Glide, not an Electra Glide! RevZilla photo.

Early in 2016, we were told we needed to crank out a review of the Harley Sportster. Once we hit the ground in Vegas, we rounded up our test unit. (I’ll give you three guesses where that came from!) Of course, our seat and seatbelt were in my carry-on backpack. Spurg stuck me with the Sporty, and refused to give up any seat time on the luxo Street Glide, on the grounds that I needed to acquaint myself with the motorcycle I’d be reviewing. Thanks, buddy.

Street Glide hero
This shot could be in a magazine, maybe for a bike review. That's actually exactly where you could have found it if you checked out Spurgie's review of the motorcycle back in 2016. Not bad for a garden-variety rental. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Then (as now), we had to watch every penny and stretch every dollar until it screamed, so in between running the camera bike for the review I hosted, Spurg took notes and photos, and turned that multi-day rental into content. If you ever read our review of the 2016 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, that was a motorcycle we rented — so we could use it to film another motorcycle we reviewed. That motorcycle was also rented. Rentception.

Here's that same BMW Spurg reviewed. This is from an off-road test. Spurg had an upcoming review of a Triumph Tiger, and we were trying to see how feasible getting some off-road, on-bike shots of him might be. (The wooden box there, known on a film set as an apple box, was with us to simulate the camera rig!) RevZilla photo.

Somewhere around this period, we began to pick up a little steam. Our videos increased a bit in popularity and manufacturers began paying attention. Acquiring motorcycles in order to disseminate information and riding opinions about them was becoming easier. We took a little break from rentals. I assumed at this point that our renting days were behind us.

I was wrong.

When Honda overhauled the Rebel for the 2017 model year, even a casual motorcycle enthusiast could have understood that was pretty groundbreaking. We approached Honda about reviewing the bike in a side-by-side comparo with the outgoing model, and they agreed. However, they were holding their press launch in Venice Beach, California, and that was where any press motorcycles were located. And unfortunately, they couldn’t leave. That’s cool, right? Have wheels, will travel.

Um, except one little thing. We needed an old Rebel. We could have picked one off of Craigslist, sure, but what if it didn’t run? Having a whole video crew waiting on Spurg or I to sort out a fiddly carb or dry wheel bearings becomes a very expensive proposition, you know.

Rebels on Rebels.
I used to own one of these a long time back. Without this rental, I never would have gotten a little trip back into my teen years, because I wouldn't have had the first idea how to get on one of these without buying one. RevZilla photo.

So we called up EagleRider, and sure enough, they had a slightly used 2006 Rebel available for us to borrow. (And shoot. We didn’t tell them about that part. Mea culpa.) I think our review turned out pretty well. More recently, the video team once again parked a camera operator on the back of a rented Harley and shot a review on Indian’s FTR 1200 S.

Make no mistake, RevZilla is at this point, a pretty huge company. It’s kind of funny to me that we really still have not outgrown renting motorcycles in spite of our size. It’s also kind of funny how EagleRider has been there every step of the way for us, and they're still usually the best choice.

So, John, thank you for the opportunity to stop and look back at how things have changed here at RevZilla. It’s also been nice to have a chuckle at how they’ve very much stayed the same, too. Just like you, we can still sometimes have a hard time getting our hands on the motorcycles we want to ride.

Like you, I can’t always buy ice water. But sometimes, it seems, I can rent it.