by Charlie Williams and Bill Uhl
I was up on the hill the other day, and ran into a friend of the magazine. Billy Uhl, a leader in our sport. Billy was the top American finisher at the 1973 ISDT, as well as a 9-year vet at 6-Days’ competitions.
These days, Billy lives in a quiet mountain setting, from which he does trail construction and maintenance; and his environment provides him with time to think and study. Billy has watched our sport from behind the scenes for many years; so if we are smart, we will listen when he speaks.
When I ran into Billy, he was out doing trail work and I was out riding for fun and looking for new subjects to write about. Billy had a subject for me, NOISE & SOUND. He works on the trails up here in Idaho. He’ll ride his old bike up the hill, park it, and cut and dig trail all day long. It’s hard work, but great surroundings. (Billy loves his “office.”) He had heard me coming, and I have a quiet bike. It’s a 250 two stroke with a good silencer, so it’s never revved up on the pipe. It’s stealthy quiet, yet he had heard me for the last couple of minutes.
We talked and visited. He had been to the ISDT/E Reunion and wanted to tell me all about it. He had a good time and got to see a lot of old friends. Many had read the article I had written a year ago, and they were all envious of his job and location. I was mumbling along, and he had to turn his head and say “Huh?” Billy can’t hear well out of his left ear. He blames it on years of chainsaw and bike use without earplugs.
Here is a guy who loves dirt bikes and riding, deaf in one ear, but he still noticed the sound my reasonably quiet bike was making. We continued our visit, and at one point he perked up like Radar on M*A*S*H, saying “Jet plane. You can hear them for two and a half minutes.”
“I never paid any attention.”
“Exactly the point I’m heading for,” replied Billy.” You can hear a plane for two and a half minutes, but people are used to them and don’t pay any attention to them. So they block them out, just like you’ve done.”
I perked up with my new-found sound sensitivity. “Dirt bike, 4 stroke.”
Billy checked his watch. The noise from an approaching bike died, but then became louder as it made its way toward us.
As the rider came closer to our side of the small valley, I looked at Billy with surprise because my new-found hearing had kicked in. The bike we had been listening to was now within a couple of minutes of us, but something strange seemed to have occurred during its journey. It appeared to have given birth to two other bikes that we could now hear softly purring. The entire journey across the valley had taken about ten minutes, but we only heard one bike up until the last two minutes.
“This is exactly the point,” Billy clarified. “Our sound is normally not audible as far away or as long as that of the jet plane. Because, traditionally, motorcyclists stay in the acceptable range of sound, their sound is only audible for a short time. In this case, we heard one bike a long way off — a long time — and the other two bikes only a short time.”
Three happy trail riders had now rolled up; one with a big-man exhaust. None of us knew each other, but the noisy rider was all smiles. Billy tactfully told the loud rider that we had been able to hear his bike from the time he crested the ridge across the valley. The guy just shook his head while saying something about the bike needing to breathe, so he had opened up the silencer.
Now, I was puzzled and made a caustic comment. “Why do they call it a silencer if it makes more noise?”
The guy explained that he needed the louder exhaust to get the most power out of the 450, and my sarcasm again rode to the surface. I almost asked, “So, why was one of your buddies ahead of you?” but I held it in check and queried, “So who are you?”
“I’m Bob Nobody.”
“Are you a famous racer? Have you ever won a big championship?”
“Are you in a big race right now?”
“No,” he replied sheepishly.
“Then why do you need to disturb everything and everyone for a quarter of a mile around just so you can trail ride?”
“Because I like the power.” He was getting defensive now, but I was filled with questions.
“Can you actually USE the power? Couldn’t Larry Roseler kick your ass on an 80cc bike? Haven’t you noticed that one of your two buddies was in front of you?”
Our conversation soon ended. Billy strapped his chain saw and pulaski back on his dilapidated Kawasaki. I strapped on my helmet, and the five of us took off. Not surprisingly, Billy rode away from me. Two turns and he’s gone. It’s something about the quality of getting the power to the ground, never spinning a tire; something about the quality of picking good lines. Basically, the art of riding well.
The booming 4 stroke was right behind me, or so it seemed because the noise seemed to be right on my shoulder. I made some good turns, and soon it felt like I must be getting away from him even though it sounded like he was still on my fender. The five of us rode a few miles before Billy stopped again and unhooked his chainsaw to clear a fallen tree. I rolled up and removed my helmet and started to help. Then the loud bike showed up. We had made our point. It’s not the bike or the power; it’s the rider. Bob Nobody and his two friends were shaking their heads up and down, as they took off their helmets and helped clear the trail.
Bob had been transformed. “I get your point, fellas. I’ll put the stock quiet exhaust back on my bike. If a guy in hiking boots riding a tool wagon can outride me, then maybe I don’t need the little bit of extra power the noisy exhaust might give me.”
His friends were beaming smiles. We all laughed, and Billy put in a shameless plug about his riding school and how he could get Bob up to speed without all the extra noise. We laughed some more, then Bob and his companions rode off. Billy and I listened to Bob’s loud bike for a long while. He was being light on the throttle now, trying to slip away without making any more noise than he had to.
Our conversation turned to our surprise at discovering that there were three bikes when we had only heard one. The difference a quiet pipe makes is almost unbelievable.
We sat down on a log, overlooking the mountains of Idaho. You could see for hundreds of miles in all directions. Huge pine trees and rocky crags towered above us. Streams cut their way through valley floors filled with the sharp, sweet smell of pine sap and rich dirt. Birds chirped and chipmunks skittered about. Mountain lions and wolves live there too, not to mention elk and deer and all the other friendly woodland creatures. A 24-inch wide motorcycle trail snaked its way along, following old miners’ routes which had followed the traces of Indians who followed animal trails.
You get the picture? There is a tiny ribbon of trail zigzagging around. Everyone is happy UNTIL someone puts a loud bike on it. All of a sudden, noise can be heard for about a quarter of a mile to the north and south — a half-mile-wide corridor of unnecessary noise is created just so one loud biker can use 24 inches of trail! (Note: Sound travels different distances as terrain changes. We are using the worst case scenario; a ridge trail.)
Billy said, “They keep coming after us. Sound will be the next issue.”
“They who?” I jerked around and looked over my shoulder looking for bears, wolves, or mountain lions.
“The Government is coming. They used the two-cycle engine excuse in their last attack. When they outlawed two cycle engines, they thought that would close us out or at least make it more difficult. The factories started building better four stroke motors, and our sport struggles on.”
“Yeah, and the sound a four stroke makes carries a lot differently than a two stroke.” I tried to stay in the conversation.
“Yes, the 4 stroke’s sound carries differently. But, any more the snowmobile guys are running straight expansion chambers and can be heard from a mile away. That’s a 2-mile corridor of noise. The snow and cold air seem to carry and reflect the sound so much more. I love snowmobiling and ride them all the time, but it is annoying to listen to them all day while I’m at home trying to split some wood or patch the roof. It really seems selfish to me — or at least short-sighted.”
“Hell, they have three cylinders — 140 to 160 HP! How much more power do they think they need?”
“They don’t need more power. It’s just like the bikes. It’s not the power; it’s the rider and the ability to ride well.”
“Talk about noise, how about those helicopters and small planes? They create far more noise than even a loud 4-stroke bike.”
“Yeah, they aggravate everyone for miles around. The worst thing is that dirt bikes are lumped right in with them. To the general public, any sound that is different from what they are used to is “bad.” One loud bike can turns them sour against all riders. Then, when loud snow machines enter the scene, bitter feelings escalate. We know we are separate from machines that create more noise, but the public and the government lump all motorized recreation together. Some how we have to rally the troops and police ourselves.”
“If we don’t do it, the government will, and I guarantee that we won’t like what they do to us. It’s such a problem that we need to convince the manufactures to stop selling loud exhaust systems. We have to get them to sell us good, quiet systems. They make them — 92 db or less, all day long — same amount of power; just quiet. We need to convince them to stop selling the loud ones. Nobody needs the noise or the hearing loss that emerges from it. People just don’t realize that trails and tracks are being closed to us because of what’s called ‘sound pollution.’ How many tracks have been shut down just because of the sound?”
“You know the Speedway guys have gone to quiet exhaust, and they have a new track right in town. Back in Indianapolis, Speedway participants share the parking lot with an exotic dance club, so how much noise are they making? They share a parking lot then offer free admission to spectators, so it’s good for everybody!”
“Yeah, that is cool. I wonder how the Speedway guys got the quiet thing started? Hearing loss, land closure, fatigue, these are just a few problems with noise, how about just getting the evil eye when you are at the trailhead? Sound could be the next battlefield. Did you know they are using money from the Green Sticker program to buy decibel meters?
How stupid are we? Are we really going to finance our own demise? Uncle Sam will shut us out. It’s the only thing he knows how to do, so we absolutely have to create an alternative scenario. If we don’t address the sound issue on our own, we will be committing recreational suicide.” Billy has given this lots of thought and energy, so we should listen and take action.
I answered, “You know, I went to a desert race the other day. They started in three rows, A, B, and C. The A row was pretty quiet. Most of the four strokes had stock exhaust, and the two cycles didn’t stand out as being loud. The B row had a couple of loud bikes, but the C row was the noisiest of all three! Most four strokes had big man exhausts on them, so what we are up against is educating the beginners.”
“Yep” agreed Billy. “Those who are not burdened with education need to peek at the light.”
I continued on, pretty much rewording what I had just said. It sounded good last time; let’s see if I can pass it off as genuine thoughts again. “The expert riders understand that loud exhaust is not good. They know it fatigues them, and the manufacturers understand noise is not good. Manufacturers just build them because the educationally unencumbered buy them, thinking they need the noise. The general public HATES the sound, and other riders are also annoyed by it. Nobody craves hearing loss, and none of us want more land closures.”
Billy continued. “Even on ‘closed course,’ noise is a problem, if the MX track is bothering neighbors a quarter of a mile away, the government has no other choice than to shut the track down. We all need to get along with our neighbors, and sound reaches way out of the fenced area.”
“Yeah, they claim the loud pipes are just for closed courses, but they sell them to anyone. The buyers then use them everywhere; not just on closed courses. Just a few moments of noise can sour our potential supporters.”
“A closed course?” said Billy. “If the sound travels like it does here in the mountains, that makes the closed course a quarter mile radius of angry neighbors. These neighbors don’t care whether it is closed course or trail riding.
All they know is bikes create sound. They don’t like it, and they are going to act against us. Neighbors are going to call the cops, the cops call a meeting, the public gets organized and comes after us, and I don’t blame them one bit.” WE have a responsibility to clean up our act.
I went on, ” You know we had the noise issue going pretty good once the two cycles became water cooled and good re-packable silencers became practical. It’s only been in the last few years, when the so-called racing four stroke came back on the scene that noise become an issue again. Most of the racing four strokes are fairly quiet from the factory. It’s the after-market people who are feeding this problem for motorcyclists and riders of ATVs and snowmobiles. They are marketing to the ignorant. How do we convince the after-market people to stop selling the loud ones and focus on building good quiet ones? Don’t they realize they can sell more quiet than noisy machines and pipes? First off, for every noisy exhaust they have sold, they need to sell a quiet one to replace it. If they would just stop making them loud and sell a good quiet one, the problem would solve itself in time. All the loud bikes would soon become outdated and pushed to the barn.”
Billy continued, “I’m afraid the ignorant will always want more noise. They relate noise to speed, even though that is so wrong. To really ride well, you need to be one with the bike. You need to feel the RPM, you need to feel the ground through the tires and the pegs. If the bike is deafening you, how can you feel these things?
Billy continued, “Even if we get FMF and the other major manufactures to quit making loud pipes, ignorant companies will start building loud pipes. We need to make sure everyone knows just how un-cool it is to be noisy. Michael Lafferty’s 450 racer is quiet, so why does Joe Schmoe think more sound = more power. You know that 97 percent of us cannot use all of the power that modern bikes produce anyway! If Michael doesn’t need it, why does the C class? Everyone needs to know just how uncool they look when they are loud.
Billy’s passion for riding and the trails was so evident. “We’ve really got to make everyone conscious of this problem because it is threatening all of our rights to ride. We need to change, and we need to change now. If we don’t, the government will continue to force change, and we all hate that. One thing we can all do immediately is talk to riders with loud bikes. We can also refuse to ride with those with loud bikes until they make their bikes quiet. Some of the best riders in the U.S. are already doing this.”
I gathered my things and said my goodbyes. I told Billy I would write a story for the magazine. Most of the readers I hang out with are already on the quiet bus, so it’s the uninformed that we absolutely must reach. We have to counteract the propaganda that more noise = more power. You are of a higher plane of consciousness, and we need your assistance in educating those who are unconsciously creating offensive noise levels.
We need to start by enforcing noise restrictions at all of our races, events, and outings.. Enduro guys do a pretty good job, but the Hare Scrambles, MX, and family crowds could do better. The clubs need to change their rules and stand by them. Riders want to ride, so they will have to follow the rules, and they will buy quiet exhaust.
Manufactures want to sell. If we as riders and clubs demand quiet pipes, they will produce them, so they can sell them. We can go after the licensing organizations like the AMA, FIM, etc., and make them change their sound rules. The noise issue is finally one where we can start at the bottom and work our way up. If riders demand quiet, everyone above us will fall in line.
When I got back to the trailer home, I did a little research on hearing loss. It turns out the ear canal if filled with tiny hairs that change the mechanical energy of incoming sound waves into nerve messages to the brain. Too much loud noise, like a gun or explosion has the most dangerous affect, but sustained noise like a bike or a chainsaw damages these tiny hairs, causing permanent hearing loss. Ear plugs are not always the cure because some sounds travel right through the skull and cause damage. There is not enough research, but I’d bet a noisy 4 stroke bores right through the skull. It does mine.
When I shared this article with Billy, the mountain man from Idaho made one last comment. Apparently, Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Sound does not have to become loud, annoying noise.” Billy has a passionate plea, “Noise has to change to a sound level that is pleasant or acceptable, so go forth and ride quietly.”
My advice is, do something now! Write the manufactures, the after-market people, and the race organizations. Demand quiet pipes, contact the clubs and demand quiet races, repack your own silencer, and educate your friends and family. Lead by example because our future depends on our making a difference. Like Billy said, if we wait for the government to do it for us, we will not like what they do.