by Steve Natt; photography by the author and Ted Phillips
It was with more than a modicum of skepticism that I fielded the invitation to attend a weekend riding “some of the most beautiful roads in America,” in Texas, on exotic, high-performance Italian motorcycles. Reading the fine print had me really shaking my head like Scooby-Doo—a large contingent of Italophiles on Aprilias are scheduled to gather in an odd little burg called New Braunfels?
For some reason local historians could probably explain, there’s as strong a German heritage in this corner of East Texas as anywhere west of the Rhine. Mix that with the far more logical Mexican influence and you’ve got this weird pot that hasn’t quite melted. The Guadaloupe Smoked Meat Company is on Gruene Street. Schwamkrug’s Steakhouse and the Freiheit Country Store thrive peacefully alongside the Adobe Verde and El Tejano restaurants. Would you like your Tafelspitz on corn or flour tortillas? Exit the Faust Brewpub and you can follow Seguin Street (named for Juan Seguin, former mayor of San Antonio and Texas senator) to the town’s No. 1 tourist attraction, a massive water park called the Schlitterbahn. And nestled in the middle of all this is an Italian island: the slickest, most inviting Aprilia- only dealership you can imagine. Cue Scooby once more, “Rrr-Huh?”
To understand how this could be, we’ve got to take a short ride in the Way-Back Machine. We’ll need to trade the safe, provincial environs of New Braunfels for the breezy metropolitanism of Austin. A couple of too-smart-for-school buddies happened to be working at a dealership in Austin. One of them was Ed Cook, a science whiz who quit the University of Texas a few months before completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry so that he could devote all his time to being an itinerant motorcyclist. His longtime friend Micah Shoemaker had previously walked away from UT’s Mechanical Engineering program for similar reasons. It made sense these two would hit it off.
They came to be known as the best Aprilia mechanics in this part of Texas, and as their reputation grew, so did the dealership’s clientele. Being modern bachelors, Cook and Shoemaker spent much of their spare time on the Internet, but for them it turned out to be productive. They quickly found there wasn’t a great online hub for the small but growing community of Aprilia owners. They decided to do something about that, and AF1 Racing.com was born in 2001. Their user base grew and members started asking them for hard parts in addition to the advice they’d been doling out for free. All of a sudden they were businessmen, boxing and shipping parts on the coffee table in their apartment. “Our first sale was an air filter,” Cook reminisced. “I ran the box down to the Post Office myself.” The shipments grew from 1-2 per week, to 5-10 and up from there. Soon they decided to get an actual shop where they could work on bikes and sell parts. A $700 investment landed them in a small windowless building in Austin that they quickly outgrew. “It was all about the forum,” said Cook.
“We gave great technical advice, people got their questions answered and knew they were getting the truth.” Over the years they learned from consumer rants about problems with dealers, and put solutions into play when they were finally granted their own dealership in 2005.
A repeated owner complaint was enduring weeks of downtime while waiting for parts to arrive from Italy. “You gotta stock the parts,” said Jon Francis, the newest member of the AF1 team and current competitor in the Moto-ST endurance racing series. “We’ve got $350,000 of inventory, and we ship all over the world.” This has been key for them in growing their reputation, and complements their expertise well. “We hardly do any advertising,” noted Cook. “It’s all word of mouth, or in this case, text. You just have to be an expert in what you do, and people will find you.” Given where they are, they don’t get a heck of a lot of walk-in traffic, but are fast becoming best friends with local shipping and freight-line staffers.
The Road to Utopia
When you throw a party, you never know who’s gonna show up—especially if you’re a bit off the beaten path. But for AF1’s Open House, a surprising number of loyalists came in from as far away as Phoenix, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Erik Reutling trailered his Falco in from Lafayette, Louisiana, because “AF1 enhanced my ownership experience with tech help and advice. We Aprilia riders are kind of few and far between, and these guys brought us together.” It’s what they do 24/7 on their website, and once a year, they do it at their dealership in New Braunfels. The event kicks off with a welcome dinner party and a raffle where they gave away a scooter, a track suit and other goodies. Aprilia USA sent their demo ride truck, and the next morning AF1 staffers led groups of riders along some of the wonderful roads near the shop. This is the heart of the famed Texas Hill Country, and there is no better way to experience it than on a bike.
They loaned me a hot-rodded CapoNord with ABS for my day’s ride, which turned out to be a great mount given the dusty state of some the state’s secondary roads. We headed through downtown New Braunfels and out toward San Antonio. Route 187 leads to 46 past Lake McQueeney to Route 16 toward Bandera and then Medina, which is where this riding “Mecca” really begins in earnest. It’s beautiful country, with verdant rolling hills that contrast the stereotypical “skulls and tumbleweeds” image we have of Texas terrain. We roared along for 60 miles to 335 and then 336, where extreme elevation changes and tight corners make it feel like you are driving your own rollercoaster. This area is almost eerie for a city boy like me, because during the week you can ride for a half hour without seeing another soul. The home-run section here is where 336 turns into 83 at Leakey. Turn onto teeny 1050 and in 12 miles you’ve arrived, literally, at Utopia. Despite the oppressive heat, hammering along these miraculous roads on AF1’s hilariously fast Capo kept me smiling all day. No doubt, this has to be one of the top day-rides in North America. I wonder if they’ll loan me that bike again next year….[From the December 2007 issue of Rider]