(The third installment from a compilation of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began riding motorcycles on the street)
Riding a motorcycle on the street is not a “safe” thing to do. But neither is living. Both require us to make a lot of decisions, every day, every minute and sometimes we don’t make the correct one. After a while though, riding a motorcycle, we begin to trust our decisions because we have to and I think that makes us better at both riding and living.
Riding requires all of our senses, all five of sight, hearing, smell, taste (some smells, like diesel fuel and agricultural chemicals have a taste associated) and touch, and what some folks refer to as the “sixth sense” which is, in my opinion, just pattern recognition….that feeling you get when something just isn’t right even though you can’t put your finger on exactly what. Pay attention to what these are telling you and ask yourself what it is if you don’t recognize it immediately.
Motorcycles crash for a reason. In the movies and TV shows, they often crash for the silliest of causes, or no observable cause at all except that the plot required it to happen, but that is not real life. They crash because something failed…a tire, a suspension component, a mechanical part….or because someone did something wrong…you or someone else.
Always dress for the crash: helmet, gloves, boots, jacket with armor, preferably riding pants as well.
When deciding what to wear, picture yourself sliding down the asphalt and decide which parts you don’t want protected from the impact and abrasion.
Practice your braking and swerving yes, but also practice your mental skills. As you are approaching an intersection, ask yourself what you would do, what sequence of controls and movements you would make, if that oncoming car turned left in front of you. Or if that car passing another coming toward you doesn’t get back in his lane soon enough. Or if you had a flat tire right now. Or if the speed you set for that next curve turns out to be too high for your comfort. Having thought about it ahead of time gives your brain a template to follow when it does happen.
Surfaces. In a car, watching the surface is important, but not nearly so much so as on a bike. Cars have four big contact patches separated by a lot of bracing steel and, often, independent suspension, so that what happens to one wheel isn’t all that important if the others are on relatively good pavement. It won’t fall over if one wheel slides. Bikes don’t have that. There are two small contact patches, often less five feet apart, and the physics of the machine count on them to keep it upright.
A rear tire skid, within reason, can be dealt with, often scary but recoverable. Front wheel slides can be dealt with, but the “within reason” margin is much, much smaller. There are lots of cool videos showing Moto GP rider Marc Marquez casually using his elbow to lever the bike back up on its wheels in a front wheel slide at speed…but like 99.999% of the world’s population, you are not Marc Marquez.
That said, most of the time, on good pavement, a tire at either end isn’t going to just suddenly lose all traction and drop you on the ground. Old tires, “back in the day” sometimes would do exactly that if one exceeded their traction, but modern tires almost always will slide predictably and give you some warning…again noting that the front tire’s margin for error is small. But any kind of lubricant, traction reducer, can change the timeline on the warning drastically, perhaps even with your young reflexes and information processing, so that the first you realize that something went wrong is when your butt is on the pavement and you are watching the bike slide away in front of you. I have been exactly in that spot more than once.
Things to watch out for: Painted stripes when they are wet. Loose gravel (a very rough rule of thumb is that if you can count the pieces, it probably isn’t any problem to run through, but if it’s too numerous to count, slow down and stay upright). Broken asphalt, places where the pavement has deteriorated back into a fine grained gravel-like situation that gets spread out in the spots where pressure is applied by car tires….often in the middle of turns (leaning into a shaded turn, particularly with sunglasses on, makes this stuff nearly impossible to see. Ask me what happens next), tar snakes particularly in the summer when they are greasy, pavement just after the rain starts when the dust and oil and tire residue becomes a slippery paste until it gets washed off, gravel dust near quarries, mud from tractors or trucks entering the road from a muddy field, particularly in spring, horse poop in Amish country (you really don’t want to crash and be sliding down the road in that stuff…the EMT’s might say “no way you’re getting in my clean ambulance, Dude !”) , oil spills, diesel fuel spills,
Grass clippings in season (though despite what the internet memes may say, it isn’t that bad if you don’t lean into it or brake hard while on it…just riding through grass clippings while upright at a reasonable speed isn’t usually a problem).
In general, stay in the left or right wheel track on the road, avoiding the middle where the black stripe of accumulated oil can be a bit slippery, particularly when wet.
The list can go on and on. Many, if not most of these things will announce themselves through smell or sight, but some are more subtle, requiring experience to learn the signs.