Everyone has a place that stays in the mind as a refuge, the quiet place where the real world stops intruding and one can be still, wrapped in one’s own thoughts. For me, that place is the Blue Ridge Parkway. I try to make at least one trip there every year and this was my first for 2012. Brother-in-law Jay and I headed out Thursday, before the Memorial Day weekend. I was riding my 1993 BMW R100GS/PD, the “dual-sport” version of the venerable boxer twin, with its huge gas tank and tall 21 inch front wheel, looking more like it belonged in the desert than here, and Jay was on his 95 BMW Mystic, a beautiful machine made for just such roads as we sought.
You remember how when you were a kid and your mom smacked you for something you didn’t do and when you protested she said, “Well then, that’s for something you did when I didn’t catch you !”. Well, after not being smacked by the road on many, many occasions when I deserved it, the road got me when I thought I was innocent.
Our second day on the Blue Ridge, perfect smooth pavement, cool mountain air, an absolutely gorgeous place to be. In the early morning, the fuchsia blooms of the rhododendron made a parade-route lining for the road, with the black rocks, wet from dew and looking like they’ve been freshly varnished, setting it off like a border on a painting.
We had commented to each other on this trip that we had now aged our way out of the kind of riding we used to enjoy, the seeking of greater lean angle, riding faster than was good for us. We’ve decided to slow down and smell the rhododendron, taking it easy.
Just past Pisgah, we took a loop off the Parkway, down Rt. 276 toward Cruso for variety. As we turned down the steep side road, I thought “wow, this road’s in a lot worse shape” than the Parkway” then BANG ! Skritttttttccccchh ! crash bars scraping along the pavement, scene jerking up and down in my vision as my head bobbles, eyes wide open to a changed perspective as I’m suddenly a lot lower, watching my bike ahead of me sliding on its side in a long arc to a bumping stop, nose down in a ditch. I’ve got my left hand outstretched, as if I could bring the bike back to me by sheer will. I hear Jay yelling “Don’t get up” but before I can process that information I am up and looking around to see if a car is coming as I head toward the fallen BMW.
We had been going fairly slowly, no more than 30 or 40 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 learn that my front tire had hit a fine mix of sand and gravel 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 an unseen cable, yanking the bike out from under me. The gravel/sand patch was composed of a fine mix of black pebbles, detritus from the winter-ravaged blacktop, 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 now facing 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 front 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 where it had been on the bar. The design of the 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 motorcycle.
The bike fared much better than I expected, and I believe much better than a more modern machine like my newer GS would have done. There was a scraped area on the crash bar, nearly through the wall, but not quite. The left valve cover was scraped, but again, not through the metal. The left saddlebag had a scar on the bottom edge, with no breach of the interior. The bar ends, the mirrors, the fenders, none of these touched down. The front end nosed down into the ditch, but without any observable damage.
As for me, I shredded the shoulder and sleeve of a perfectly good mesh riding jacket and put some 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 at my age then, mid-60’s, that’s the way I usually was, 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 been writing this in a skin graft ward of a North Carolina hospital.
We continued on for the next three days, still going at a moderate pace, though I was constantly looking for gravel. Every shaded patch became, in my opinion, a hazard. It took me a while to get my confidence back and again consistently keep my eyes up to the vanishing point of a turn and not down in front of my wheel. I had to tell myself that the odds haven’t changed, that the road is no more treacherous than it’s always been, that this was just a case of my number coming up. It wasn’t my first crash, and probably, odds are, it won’t be my last. Fortunately, in all the years since that day, I have so far managed to keep the shiny side up, but I still find myself backing off for the shady spots….and always, always, ATGATT.