Why It’s Not So Obvious

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

“Wear all the gear all the time.”

“Never go anywhere without full protection.”

“. . .  there is no doubt after the first time a young kid crashes his little motorcycle that the idea of what might happen, and that it can hurt, takes hold.”1

“Approximately 80 percent of reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death; a comparable figure for automobiles is about 20 percent.”

You’ve heard it all. The politically correct choices are AGAT (All the Gear, All the Time) or Most of the Gear, All of the Time (MOGAT). Don’t get me wrong. The intelligent choice is to gear up every time you ride. That idiot’s claim, “If I think I’m going to do something risky, I’ll put on the gear,” makes about as much sense as saying “If I think I’m going to crash, I’ll wear a helmet.” Riding is risky. If you think you’re going to crash, don’t ride. Why that isn’t obvious is lost on me.

Those of us who started riding as kids probably have a better feeling for the disconnect between good gear advice and reality. My first (1964 or 65) racing gear was a pair of Converse high top canvas tennis shoes, a pair of Justin leather work gloves, Levis, a jean jacket, and sunglasses. I was racing either a left-turn only circle or on a modified figure “B” track with 4-6 equally well-dressed young men. None of us had ever seen a helmet outside of WWII movies. Nobody was shooting at us, so why would we need helmets? There was no AMA or any other rule-setting organization to interfere with our insanity. We just showed up at the track a couple of miles outside of town and rode 5-lap races until we got tired. A few months of that and we started putting a few dollars into a pile and awarding prize money. Someone set up a hotdog stand and sold drinks out of a cooler. Money changed hands and we kept racing in spite of the commerce. A few guys got hurt: broken arms, toes, fingers, and such. Most of us managed to get through a day of racing with no more than a few cuts and bruises.

Later, when I really got into off-road riding, I adopted a 3/4 helmet, gloves, lineman’s boots, and lightly padded jeans and a nylon jersey. I crashed a lot, at races and in practice and goofing around. Between ages 20 and 28, I spent a fair amount of time flying over the bars, sliding down the road with the bike in front or behind me, flipping over backwards, and crumpled in a heap. All through that period, I managed to go uninjured. The lesson I took from all that good fortune was obvious: I am indestructible. I wasn’t foolish enough to really believe that I couldn’t be hurt. I got hurt often at work. I just managed to convince myself that on a motorcycle, I was “too good” to get busted up.

In early 1976, that all came to an end. Practicing for Sunday’s motocross, I managed to crash and break all of the toes on my left foot. My brand new Hi-Point boots had to be cut off of my foot because the foot swelled up so quickly that I couldn’t get the boot off myself. I might have cried when that happened, not from pain but from seeing my $150 boots ruined. $150 was a lot of money (for me) in 1976. A few months later, practicing again, I crashed and broke all the ribs on my left side. That event ended my period of invulnerability. I have rarely since thought of myself as being lucky, tough, or unbreakable. From then out, I was clear on how much pain I could tolerate and how quickly that point could be passed.

The difference between me and a real motorcycle racer was that new vulnerability added several seconds to my lap time and I never regained the confidence I needed to go WFO for extended periods. I kept riding and racing for the next four years, but I spent those years in the back of the pack. In 1982, I sold my dirt bikes and bought a used Honda CX500, upon which I moved myself to California in the early spring of 1983. My family followed a few months later by train. As insignificant as it was, my racing “career” was finished and I have never since lined up at a start gate with twenty testosterone-jacked young (or old) men.

I have, however, put nearly a half-million miles on a collection of street bikes in several states and two non-US countries. Mostly, I’ve managed to stay rubber-side-down on my street bikes and the only breaks in that record have been on outback single-track trails or gravel roads. With that many hours on the road without mishap, it would be easy to start shedding gear.  I wear more equipment on my daily commute than I used to wear racing. What kind of sense does that make? Why not drop the armored pants? What could it hurt to ride in light-weight comfortable shoes occasionally? I’m just going to work, why bother with the helmet? Big Minnesota Mommy says I only need to wear eye protection and a speedo. If she doesn’t think I need all that gear, what am I wearing it for?

I’ve seen the results of naked biker crashes and it’s not pretty. The lucky guys bust their heads open and die on the spot. The unluckiest guys end up sucking the meals out of a straw and staring at a hospital ceiling for the rest of their lives. In between, people spend their lives recovering from a fraction-of-a-second lapse. I’m not man enough to risk that for a little breeze blowing in my hair or the relief from a few degrees of discomfort. I like my skin where it is and my bones properly connected. I’ll give it to you straight: I’m a coward. “I cover the stuff I want to keep.”

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