Monday, October 8, 2007

it finally happens

And so, it finally happened. I finally went down hard. The pavement was clean and smooth. I was riding down Blood Mountain in a routine little right turn I had driven a dozen times before. I was exiting the turn comfortably at about 40mph, and the bike just hit the pavement. The first thing I noticed was this sudden grinding noise. It sounded like I drug my foot peg, but it was actually the handlebar. I was already down. The second thing I noticed was my head hitting the road. To this moment, I have no real idea what caused that crash, but I remember every detail of it. I don't list all this to be morbid or to elicit sympathy; I detail it to make a point, that I got through this okay and will probably get through it again one day.

The last time we spoke, I had just watched three people in beanies and t-shirts bleed all over a gently sweeping curve in the highway. The irony is not lost on me. My bike went about 75 feet on a rear peg, a frame slider, and a handlebar, trailing a single black skid mark down the hill. There's a new scuff on the clutch cover. The rest of the bike is fine, as fine as my 2mph parking lot mishaps have left it, anyway. I traveled about 50 feet, riding that skid mark like some sort of weird runway. I slid, barrel-rolled, flew a little, then rolled some more. Sprained my hand, which will probably be this nice bronze color by the weekend. Everything else was basically painless. I'm stiff and a little bruised around the shoulder I landed on.

I only bring these things up because I learn something from them along the way. My loving wife tried to reassure me that learning how true "accidents" and surprises can catch you despite your preparation and skill is still worthwhile. Problem is, I already knew that. This didn't teach me that particular truism; it rubbed my face in it. I have a downhill curve and a 45mph speed limit between my apartment and the nearest stoplight. I can't go for a slice of pizza without braving three times as many road hazards as this trip and Atlanta's aggressive midtown traffic. That realization is just annoying now that I've actually fallen.

The other thing to learn here is that I can survive a get-off. It actually didn't even hurt. My leathers have these internal pads along the thighs and shoulders and Kevlar armor around all the joints. Every one of those pads is scuffed now. I have one small scratch on my arm, I believe from the Kevlar inside the sleeve. My boots ground so hard that one of the laces tore, but my feet are fine.
There's no reason to ride without real protective gear, which is not sunglasses and POW patches. I inspected the bike, had some Gatorade, and walked the site for about 20min, then rode the 100mi home to ice my hand. I was still in the mountains, mind you, behind 30mi of curves like the one I had just failed.
Every veteran rider I've shared this story with has been down at least once, most of them with one freak accident fall that never presented them an explanation or a lesson. I know two experienced, skilled riders who have broken their necks and had vertebrae surgically fused. They still ride and love it. Two days after my fall, a woman in her sixties slid her cruiser off that same road and down a ridge to her death. My wife met up with a rider who witnessed the crash, and he was devastated by it. I would not diminish the terrible tragedy of her death by speaking of it casually, but I have lived in dread of sliding my bike because of stories just like these. The material cost, the potential physical harm, the notion of being a projectile. That dread of the unknown is behind me now. The bike handled it. I handled it. I know exactly how bad it was this particular time. Every veteran rider I know has gotten up from one slide with scratches and bruises, having released that dread to transform into respect. I will probably even go through it again one day, though I hope it's not soon.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Doing foolish things

We have this neighbor who's a retired gentleman with an apartment in the city and a cabin in the mountains. Near as I can see, what he does for a living now is ride his motorcycles. I hope my retirement looks something like that! Anyway, he's a gracious host, and we accepted one of his many invitations to spend a weekend riding in the mountains. We slept to the sound of crickets and rode and ate out of convenience stores and diners. It was a fantastic weekend, and I learned a few things about myself and the people around me this weekend.

A couple hours into the weekend, we came upon a crash site. A guy on a cruiser locked his back wheel, slid out, and hit the pavement right on the yellow lines. It was a wide, gently sloping curve with a clear line of sight. He just lost it. Two people in the oncoming lane swerved to avoid him and went down, one into the guard rail. Some forty-odd bikes stopped along the road to assist, provide shade, lend satellite phones, and direct traffic. There were off-duty paramedics, nurses, and police officers among the crowd. I have never seen an automobile crash site collect that sort of moral and tactical support from other motorists. Never seen anything like it.

I've read a couple articles lately on the relations between traditional "bikers" and sport bike enthusiasts. There was even an episode of Superbikes! on Speed this week from Bike Week in Sturgis, SD, featuring a growing element of sport and stunt bikes. Something at this crash site caught my attention, and I'm almost loathe to mention it. The three people who went down and most of the people in their groups were riding big cruisers, wearing t-shirts and open-face helmets. They were bleeding from four places each. We and a number of those who stopped to help were on sport bikes, dressed in body armor and full-face helmets. A bystander who drove up to the site responded to the news of a crash by asking "were they on rockets?" with a grin on his face, the phrase "crotch rockets" being a nickname for sport bikes. We answered that they were on cruisers and not wearing any protective gear, which abruptly erased his grin and ended the conversation. I can totally appreciate the cruiser lifestyle, what with freedom and the road and the wind and all, but I will never understand people who express their "freedom" by exchanging protective gear for commemorative patches and sunglasses.

I'll end by saying a trip like that teaches a person a lot about themselves. I observed three people doing something foolish this weekend. I was one of them. I escaped, thank God. One person laid a bike down trying to do a U-turn, on an incline, on gravel, in the rain. They were not seriously injured, and the bike took the fall pretty well. One locked his brakes on a dry, clean pavement. It was sunny and breezy and beautiful. He had on this little beanie of a helmet, which I handed to the paramedic as evidence of how far along the road he had drug his forehead. He got to express his freedom and feel the wind in a helicopter that day.

It was 24 hours later when I did my foolish thing and went too fast and too wide into a turn. I knew better. I was trying to keep up with a more experienced rider on a race-ready bike, and I lost focus on my lines. It was my mistake. The driver of an oncoming car had the same look on their face as I, which was fascinating when seen at that angle. They say events like that happen in slow motion, and it's true. I remember every detail of those couple seconds. There were two lanes and a "Right Lanes Ends" sign, followed by a right turn. I was driving ... let's just say "quickly". I moved into my left lane too late, so I was still moving left when I should have been starting right. I leaned the bike until the foot peg dug into the pavement so hard it made the handlebars wobble. It still amazes me how many calculations I did in what must have been a quarter-second. (I was finally focused, ironically.) I could try to kick the bike out from under me, sending me onto the pavement and the bike under the oncoming car. There was a chance my momentum would continue to carry me leftward into the car as well. My other choice was to ride through the turn and trust the bike. I couldn't lean any further because of the peg. Slowing down would have dropped me. Speeding up would have stood me up and sent me further out of the lane. I had to commit or eject. I rode the turn. The bike eventually completed the arc and sent me back into the right lane around the time our front wheels passed each other. The car did swerve away, and we missed each other by four or five feet at the most. Technically, I think I completed the arc before we reached each other, but that is definitely not the point.

I came to some realizations while I was meditating there, inches above the asphalt. I learned that it was my fault for being there and it would be my commitment to get out of it. I also learned that the bike could handle some hellacious maneuvers. It's a good thing to know that. Athletes occasionally reach a level of skill where they outgrow their gear, where swinging harder just bends the racket and doesn't make the ball move any faster. I came very close to that with my bike. I went in sloppy, but I was strong enough to lean as far as the bike would go. That was what they call "undivided attention".