“There are only two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have crashed and those who are going to crash.” I have heard that cliche since I began riding at age 14, but I still don’t believe that pavement munching is inevitable. However, I have done my share, usually caused by my own errors but sometimes by the kind of random chance that fuels the cliches about our sport. Below are a few examples from my experiences on the road.
The first motorcycle crash I recall clearly was on Carter Avenue in Ashland, Ky when I was 14. A friend and I were headed downtown on my 50cc Puch moped, with him sitting precariously on the rear fender rack, the heels of his Converse tennies on the ends of the rear axle. A large brown dog darted from between two parked cars directly in front of my wheel. Contact was immediate and we, the three of us went down on the pavement in a tangle of 4 arms, 8 legs, one tail and a moped. When the short slide stopped he and I were laying spread eagled on the asphalt, watching as the dog, apparently no worse for the wear, got up, barked at us, and ran off, no doubt thinking that these humans were unreasonably dangerous. We, however, were scratched and abraded, even at the 20mph that was our usual top speed two up, since our ATGATT of the day was shorts, t-shirts and canvas tennis shoes and none of these things had held up well. We retrieved the moped, banged the handlebars into a reasonable semblance of straight, and remounted to continue our important errand, which probably was just to wander around downtown Ashland to bump into others we knew would be doing the same thing. The road rash on our elbows and knees was no big deal for young teen boys in the early 1960’s and we may even have been proud of it. I don’t recall my parents even remarking upon it.
On another occasion, about the same time frame, I was behind the elementary school that was across the street from my house, using the steep hill that served for sledding in winter for jump practice. I would wind up the moped as far as it would go in first, twist the grip to shift into second and attack the hill hoping to get a little air under the wheels. Another acquaintance showed up to ride around on the school grounds and in the woods behind them on his “hardware store” minibike. It was one of those with a pull-start engine in a hardtail frame and spindly looking forks that offered minimal undamped suspension to an 8 inch implement style wheel. I swapped machines with him, each of us wanting to see what the other’s ride offered. As I came up the hill this time, a bit faster, I cleared the top with a few feet of clearance….and watched as the front wheel, still attached to the bottom portion of the forks, parted company and fell to earth. As did I a second later. I rolled and tumbled, along with the minibike, coming to a stop relatively uninjured…which was just as well since the minibike’s owner was interested only in the health of his machine. He did tell me that this had happened to him before (“did you not think to mention it to me ?”) and this time, like then, the bike was fine. We stuck the tubes back in the holes and he rode off.
Much of my riding in the 70’s and 80’s was done off road and in Observed Trials competition, both venues for more get-offs than I can recall or anyone would want to read about.
In the late 80’s I had acquired a 1984 BMW R80GS, one of the many bikes I wish I’d never parted with, and enjoyed the nimbleness, the upright riding position and the compliant, long travel suspension. I was in a neighborhood near mine in Lexington, just riding around to unwind after a day at work, and as I came around a curve, leaned over a fair amount, there was a car stopped in the road. I braked, lost the front end and went down, sliding on my shoulder and left side. As I was doing that, I watched as the GS bounced off of its crash bars, back onto its wheels and meandered slowly across the street to a nearby yard where it came to a stop and laid over on its side in the grass, engine still idling for a few moments, to wait for me to get up and join it. I was reminded of this crash when I saw a video of BMW’s new self-driving motorcycle. If only my R80GS had been fitted with this technology, it could have just gone home and waited for me in the garage.
In the mid- 90’s, I was on my way to a Reg Pridmore CLASS session at Mid-Ohio race course, riding my 1993 R100GS/PD when I stopped in at the ATM in Eastland shopping center for some trip cash. As I was leaving the machine, focused on the exit of the lot, I made a quick turn and then I was on the ground, sliding. When I came to a stop and walked back to the PD, I could see that there was a small spill of coolant from a car on the asphalt lot, smeared by my front tire. Only about 4 inches square, it was at the exact point where I had made my turn and with essentially zero traction, the front had dropped out, putting me down. No damage, really (this is, after all, a PD) but a decent scrape on the underside of the valve cover. Later at the track school, young guys were circulating through the pits after the first session, checking out each other’s tires for comparisons of lean angle . Mine were scuffed out to the edges, not that difficult on an “adventure tire” of the era, but they were really captivated by the scrape on the valve cover which seemed to suggest that I had been touching down hard parts at extreme angles. I mostly let the macho youngsters think whatever they wanted, but if asked, I ‘fessed up that I wasn’t still on the bike when the scrape happened.
The worst one, in terms of injury, happened in 1999 at less than walking pace, in Virginia.
Brenda and I were on the black 98 R1100 GS, my first brush with modern technology, a bike that whispered seductive things in my ear to make me ride like I was a lot better at it than I was, but that’s not what got me. The fuel injection on that bike was problematic, BMW not yet having perfected their system. At constant speeds it would “hunt “, never being able to maintain a steady RPM and sometimes at low speeds, just transitioning from closed throttle to open, it would cough and die. I had taken a wrong turn up an incline and, as I was making the U turn to go back, the engine died. Suddenly without power, the bike lurched to the right and I tried to put down my foot to stop it. Unfortunately that leg was about 24 inches shorter than what was necessary on the slope and over we went. Brenda slid off the back, landing in a seated position unharmed. She described to me later that she watched as I was launched in an arc down the hill, landing on the single point of my right shoulder with a loud cracking sound. I recall the arc, having time to think that I had shoulder pads, then hearing the crack and knowing that things had just changed dramatically.
I got to my feet quickly and turned to check on Brenda who was standing up assuring me she was fine. But when I tried to reach out for the bike, my right arm wouldn’t raise..instead, the collarbone popped up like the Alien in that movie, trying to escape through the skin. Though it really hurt, I had to do it a couple of times just to see what was happening.
The 1100 was on its side, facing downhill. With Brenda’s help, I backed up to it and with my butt against the seat and my left hand on a frame rail, walked it upright onto the side stand. It started immediately (NOW the fuel system decides to work !) and after taking my left hand to raise my right arm onto the grip, found I could use the right hand for the brake and throttle as long as I didn’t have to lift it. I managed to get on and maneuver the machine into a position pointed downhill, Brenda climbed on the back and we set off for the nearest town with a hospital about 15 miles away. How Brenda had the nerve and trust to get on the bike, I don’t know. But there was no cell service, no sign of a dwelling near where we were and no traffic on the road, so it seemed like the only option at the time.
We pulled up to the Appalachian Regional Hospital that served the area, parked the bike and walked in. I suppose at that point I was still, against all evidence, hoping that some sort of splint could be fashioned to allow us to complete the trip. Brenda was not so convinced and as usual, she was right. In the ER, x-rays confirmed that I had a “comminuted fracture of the clavicle” meaning that I hadn’t just broken it, I had shattered it leaving jagged ends instead of a clean break. No surgery was required, but I wasn’t going to be riding anywhere for a while. The arm would be tied tightly to my chest in a sling. The ARC folks told us that, because they served a wide region, they had lodging rooms available to stay in for the night. Soon we were ensconced in what looked like a nice motel room, making arrangements for supper. The hospital cafeteria was closed, but there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that delivered. We learned that it had a minimum order for delivery and the staff here had just finished their meal break, so quickly the two of us were supplied with enough different dishes for a party of four, spread out on the bed in front of us. I called our son to make arrangements for him to come retrieve us and the bike-the first and only time I’ve ever had to do that. When he answered, I said, “we’ve had a little accident..” and he interrupted with, “Mom’s dead, isn’t she !”.. I assured him that she was alive, well and eating Mu Shu Pork at the moment and explained our predicament. He came the next day with my pickup truck and we started the return trip in a very different manner than I had planned 24 hours earlier.
On the Blue Ridge Parkway, just past Pisgah, route 276 heads downhill toward Cruso twisting and turning its way off the mountain. My brother in law Jay and I turned down the steep side road, him on his 1983 RT and me leading on my 93 R100PD, one spring day in, I think, the early 2,000’s. As we left the Parkway’s perfect pavement to head downhill, I thought “wow, this road’s in a lot worse shape” then there was the noise, BANG ! Skritttttttccccchh, of crash bars scraping along the pavement, the scene in front of me suddenly jerking up and down as my head bobbled, eyes wide open to a changed perspective as I was now a lot lower than seconds before,, watching my bike ahead of me sliding on its side in a long arc to a bumping stop, nose down in a ditch. I remember having my left hand outstretched, as if I could use the Force to bring the bike back to me. I heard Jay yelling “Don’t get up” but before I could process that information I was up and looking around to see if a car was coming as I headed toward the fallen BMW.
We had been going fairly slowly, no more than 25 or 30 mph, being careful. It was a steep downhill left turn, not particularly sharp. From my memory, I had just begun the process of a lean when there was the noise and the “does not compute ” sensation that what I intended to happen wasn’t and something quite unexpected was.
Reconstructing the scene, we learned that my front tire had hit a fine mix of sand and gravel from the deteriorating blacktop just exactly as I had tipped the bike easily into the turn, losing all traction and tucking the front tire under, putting the bike down immediately. Jay said it looked like someone had pulled on a cable, yanking the bike out from under me. The gravel/sand patch was composed of a fine mix of black pebbles in the shade from the direction we were going, so that it was in effect, invisible, though it could be seen from the other direction, in the bright sun disappearing into the shadow as we stood there looking up the hill. I was looking through the curve, ahead to the apex, and not down at the area right in front of my wheel, so the dark gravel in the shaded area hadn’t caught my attention. I know I’ve been through hundreds, if not thousands of sand and gravel patches on roads in all sorts of places, without more than a twitch at the bars. This one, however, was exactly at the point of turning, just the spot where the tire needed some traction and there was none to be had.
I went down so quickly that I didn’t put out a foot or a hand. Jay said I was still seated when the bike hit the ground and it slid away from me, with my body in the position of a man sliding into home base, head up and left hand outstretched. The design of the airhead BMW meant that the first thing that hit the ground was the crash bar, then the saddlebag, so my leg was not trapped underneath a sliding bike.
The bike needed no repair. I shredded a perfectly good ventilated Fieldsheer jacket and put a few small holes in my Aerostitch Darien overpants, got a small abrasion on my left boot, but that’s it. Not even a bruise, no scratches, nada, zip, zilch. I was a bit sore and stiff, but in advanced age, that’s the way I usually am, so I couldn’t really tell any difference. From that point in the trip forward, whenever I saw a rider and/or passenger dressed in tank top, shorts and flip-flops, I wanted to stop them and point to the torn places on my jacket and pants. If I hadn’t been wearing all the gear, all the time, I would have spent the rest of my vacation in the skin graft ward of a North Carolina hospital.
These aren’t the only times I’ve had an “incident” involving getting off a street bike unintentionally. But I wear good protective gear on every ride and so far the Virginia episode is the only one where I sustained any significant injury. Two thirds of the broken bones I have had in my long life have occurred while tripping over my own feet. But no one ever tells me I should give up walking. I am under no delusion about the possibilities for serious consequences from doing what I love to do, riding motorcycles, but like nearly everything in life, risks are inevitable and, with care, manageable.
There is a story which goes something like this. The racing driver, Juan Manuel Fangio was quizzed by a reporter about the risks of driving racing cars. He asked the reporter, “do you expect that you will die in bed?” The reporter said he certainly hoped so, and Fangio replied, “then how do you have the courage to get in it each night ?”