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".