The fourth, and probably final, installment of the emails I sent to my grandsons on the occasion of their taking up street riding.
Managing any risk involves an assessment of the upside and the downside, the consequence and reward. There is no such thing as a risk-free life and if there was, it would be relentlessly boring.
I recently listened to an interview with the guy who “free-solo” climbed the 3,000 foot high vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite. That means without ropes or any protective device, just his skill and the friction of his climbing shoes and fingertips. Any…literally any… mistake would have been fatal. He said it took him seven years of practicing with rope assisted climbs, mental visualization and preparation, knowing every single hand and foot hold he would use, every move he would make all the way up, so that when he finally went to make the ascent, he felt that there was, in his mind, no risk. He didn’t make any mistakes in executing his plan and he survived. Those who are amazed at his feat typically don’t know about or emphasize the seven years of preparation for a 4 hour climb.
Operating any mechanical device has risks. (For example, picture getting the strap on your bathrobe tangled in an electric mixer). Operating any motorized transportation device among other people doing the same increases the risk exponentially.
In very broad, simplified terms, the risks come in a few categories.
1) Inherent risks.
2) Environmental risks
3) Self induced risks
Whether you make it home from your next ride smiling, upright and functional depends on your assessment and managing of those risks.
The inherent risks are those the machine itself presents. For motorcycles those include
1) balance: it falls over if not balanced, 2) traction: it only has two small contact patches of rubber connecting it to the surface, 3) mechanical reliance: you have control of the few things the motorcycle can do, (turn right or left, go faster or slower down to a stop), but the controls have to be in good working order and you have to know and constantly practice how to use them. And, by the way, cars have the same situation, though with far less emphasis on balance (it won’t fall over, we hope, but balancing the weight in a curve is important) and two more contact patches.
Environmental risks are much broader and less predictable, meaning the control that you do have becomes more important. They include the other vehicles around you, driven by imperfect humans or now, perhaps, imperfect AI, as well as the usual things like temperature, weather, and surface conditions. Such things as paying attention to the sun: if it is behind you (your shadow is in front of you) the oncoming traffic can’t see you well, if at all, and this increases the prospect of someone turning left in front of you among other errors. In rain, cars will tailgate and they can’t stop as quickly as they think. They can hydroplane and be in your lane. I represented several truck drivers, 18 wheelers, and they have told me that when the road is wet, they can’t stop quickly and once a 40 foot trailer gets out of control, the tractor it’s attached to is just along for the ride. Know the seasonal hazards: grass clippings in summer, farm tractor mud in any rainy season and in the fall, leaves, walnut goop under trees, and deer anytime but particularly in the fall,
Self induced risks are the easiest category, but since we are all humans with the complicated mental processes that status entails, one of the most difficult and trickiest to control. It should go without saying that you never ride impaired by drugs or alcohol, or by extremes of fatigue, heat or cold. Riding or driving requires that we have confidence in our abilities and it is normal for most of us to want to test the limits sometimes, but overconfidence is hazardous to your health. We must be brutally honest with ourselves about our abilities, always practicing to improve, and use only yourself as the standard. Don’t worry about what someone else might think, don’t burden yourself with thinking about the “judgment” of others. The ones who are loudest in judgment usually are covering up their own inadequacies.
When I was a trials rider, I was pretty good, but I was not ever going to be in the first rank. I still had a marvelous time doing what I could do. In my brief motocross career, I was average at best and overestimating my abilities brought me to a hospital ER and a sadistic dentist, neither of which do I want to repeat. On the street, I was a fairly quick rider, not fast, not slow, but I hope I came across as more of a smooth and competent one. Going too fast on the street ramps up all of the risk factors I have mentioned way over onto the “downside” end of the scale. As my friend Boone used to say, “the best thing that can happen is you get there a few minutes sooner. The worst thing is you die”. I would add that there are, in my experience and opinion, far worse things than dying and they too are high on the list when going too fast on the street.
Riding motorcycles and driving cars are extremely satisfying and fun activities, which I have enjoyed for nearly 60 years. I want you to do the same. None of these things I write are meant to scare you, but rather to keep you aware of what it takes to consistently make it home with a smile on your face for the next 60 years or so and so you can pass this marvelous experience on to your next generation.
Your parents and grandmother have been pretty cool about letting me expose you to motorcycles from an early age. All of us, me included, have been worried about the time when you would start riding on the street. If you are going to crash and get injured, wait until after I’m gone so that I won’t have to face your parents and grandmother after it happens.