Things I Wish I Knew

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

Day 8A couple of years ago, I had picked up my wife at the Halifax, Nova Scotia airport. As we headed off toward our four day home base, about 90 miles east along the coast, the sun went down. 10 miles later, the sky fell and we rode into a waterfall. I haven’t experienced such darkness since I was a kid in rural western Kansas. Joseph Lucas and his heirs would have been proud to see such an illumination void. Every village we passed was pitch dark; no street lights or signs, no open businesses, no lights in homes, no sign that anyone still lived in those places. To make things worse, about fifty miles of the road had been recently resurfaced and there were no centerline or shoulder markings. It was barely possible to see the edge of the road with my V-Strom’s excellent headlights. There was a festival in Halifax and the Eagles were playing a reunion concert that night (seriously), so turning back to find closer accommodations was pointless and we were committed to making it to our destination. This was a test ride of almost everything I know about motorcycling.

When I first started riding street bikes, I thought I was a good rider. I’d raced, off-road, for almost 15 years. I even taught a regional motocross program for a year or two. In the spring of 1983, I loaded up my 1979 CX500 Honda for the move from Nebraska to California and I was convinced I knew everything I needed to know to make that ride safely. I was a clueless moron.

Leaving Omaha in late March that spring, I encountered strong winds that tossed my heavily-loaded Honda about like a small sailboat in high seas. Most of that instability was due to my lack of knowledge of how motorcycle steering actually works. From years of riding small bikes off-road and from a lifetime of misunderstanding two-wheel bicycle physics, I was used to applying a lot of body English to my steering corrections. By the time I made it to my parents’ home in western Kansas, I’d wrestled my bike for 300-some miles and stressed my upper back muscles so badly that they are still a source of occasional pain. Today, I know that applying counter-steering pressure on the handlebars will achieve what fought to accomplish with all that wasted effort. Today, high winds bother me less on a heavily loaded 250cc dirt bike than I suffered on a road bike in 1983.

Less than predictable paved road surfaces used to baffle me; which might seem weird since I came from a riding background of completely unpredictable road surfaces. However, since traction was always in short supply off-road, I had never given predictable traction much thought. Dirt from hard-packed to freshly plowed, gravel lubricating the surface of a packed clay track or knee-deep desert sand, wet and slippery clay or slushy muck that sucks rider and motorcycle into the earth’s sticky maw, my solution was always “go like hell until you crash.” My cornering style was pretty much “throw the bike into a slide, bounce off of a berm, and hammer the throttle out of the corner.” That is a pretty violent tactic on pavement, so I used a wimpy variation of brake-and-pivot for more than ten years before slowly including some reliance on good traction in my cornering style. When I began my MSF coach career in 2002, I began to look more seriously at my outlook on traction and adopted a more optimistic tactic for turning on pavement. That has given me more control of how I use the space available on the road and allows me to adapt to the more consistent surface variations provided by regular highway maintenance. The first step to being smooth is in having a plan for entering and exiting each and every corner you approach. Counting on luck and youthful reactions is not a practical or reliable long-term strategy.

Even after having broken a few bones and ripping apart muscles and tendons that were designed to remain attached, it took me most of my life to realize I am mortal and a lousy patient. I do not tolerate extended pain well. Staying shiny side up has become a bigger deal to me in old age. I take longer to heal; physically and mentally. That knowledge inspires me to work on basic riding skills, wear the best protective gear I can afford, to avoid hazardous situations, and to limit my risk-taking tendencies. In other words, I slow down, as a riding tactic, at least as often as I pin the throttle. For twenty years, my solution to almost every emergency situation was “drop the hammer and get one or two wheels into the air.” That’s plan is not as universally useful as I once thought it was.

The more luck I have experienced, the less I trust my fortunes to remain constant. As I look back on the bad things that didn’t happen to me, I realize how close to the margin I have been. I have avoided close encounters with deer and other varmints, cagers and truckers, falling rocks and collapsing highways, and disaster caused by my own inattention. I do not trust good fortune any more than I trust good intentions. That is a lesson it has taken a lifetime to appreciate.

I have been a fan of preventative maintenance for most of my life, but I’m even more pre-cautious in my geezerhood. I walk around my motorcycle, looking for loose hardware and worn out bits, habitually. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a saying that doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. “If it an’t broke, it’s about to be” seems to be a lot more realistic. I carry tools, spare parts, and double my fuel stop time with inspection habits. I have never liked surprises, even surprise birthday parties, and I like them even less the older I get. (Consider my opinion of cell phones for reference.) Maintenance prevents surprises.

With those lessons and more behind me, after 40-some years of riding my brave and long-suffering wife and I slogged through those 90 dark miles of torrential rain without incident. Because the road and conditions were so severe, I was running totally on habits and experience, concentrating on the edges of the road for deer and anything that might require even more attention than I was already using staying on pavement. It wasn’t a quick trip, but we made it to the resort wet, exhausted, and safe. The next four days were warm, sunny, and we had one of the best vacations in our 44 years together exploring the highlights surrounding our temporary home.

Looking back, I can think of a thousand things I wish I knew when I started motorcycling. Some of those lessons required a smidgen of common sense, so they would have been unavailable to me until I turned fifty. The stuff that I could have figured out with a less limited attention span and minimal ability to listen to advice, could have come faster and easier. The fact is, I really did love jumping on my bike and flinging it around a race track without the slightest clue how I could get better. Maybe it all worked out for the best, but there were some hard lessons that could have been less painful.

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