Friday, July 22, 2011

A Serendipitous "Oops" and a Near Miss

There are a couple of incidents that happened early in my riding life that have affected my outlook on riding ever since, and cemented motorcycles as a permanent and important facet of who I am.

The first requires an explanation before the telling. My first bike was a 400cc automatic. Well, Honda called it “automatic”. Semiautomatic would be more accurate, because you did have to shift gears – it had first and second gear, just no clutch. Neutral on the bottom. Hold in the brake, lift your toe to engage first gear, roll on the throttle and go. Around 45 mph or so, shift into second. It was a great learner bike for somebody who really couldn't drive a standard. I was able to learn about balance and how to deal with leaning and with being exposed to the elements without worrying about being in the right gear or working a clutch. I technically knew how to drive a standard; I just really really sucked at it at the time, just due to lack of experience.

I bought that bike in January of 1989, and rode it nearly into the ground. In addition to a lack of skill in operating a clutch, I had absolutely NO concept of maintenance. I went months without changing the oil (the level's okay, what's the problem?) or adjusting the chain (but I couldn't figure out what that loud clatter under acceleration was...). But the result of that is a topic for another day. Fast forward to October of '89. I'd returned from the Persian Gulf and had some cash. What to do? Head to the bike shop, of course! Luckily, I had that cash, because I had to part with a chunk of it to undo the damage I'd allowed to happen to the poor Hondamatic. Once there, I started to look around, because... well, because you can't be around that many motorcycles and not look. Or at least, I can't. The Hondamatic, being from the 70s, was what was referred to as a “standard” style bike. Meaning no real “style” to it. It had what it needed to have, arranged in an efficient and reasonably comfortable way. Kind of boring, but it got the job done. (Side note: I thought it was boring then. I've come to develop a real appreciation for the minimalist “standard” aesthetic in more recent years.) What I was interested in was a cruiser. Pull-back handlebars, stepped seat, laid back riding position. Well, lo and behold, there were two used (read: within my financial reach) bikes on the showroom floor that fit what I was looking for. They were both Honda Shadows. They were 700cc, mid sized, which is also what I was looking for – I didn't want to get in over my head either with too much power or too much weight if (when) I dropped it. I checked them out. There were the same year model, one had more miles, but the previous owner had installed highway pegs, so that saved me some trouble and money. Plus, if I remember correctly, the lower mileage one had something odd about it, like mismatched footpegs or something, leading me to believe it had probably been in an accident. I shopped around a little (very little), but wound up coming back to buy my 1985 Honda VT700C Shadow. 


Now we're getting to the meat of the story. It was late November by the time I got the loan from the credit union, paid for the repairs to the 'Matic, and put ink on paper to buy the Shadow. Now, I'm a native of Atlanta, where we'd get one good icy day a year and that would shut down the roads. We just didn't know how to drive in snow and ice. When I say it was late November when I picked up my new-to-me bike, bear in mind this was in Maryland. I saw my first “White Thanksgiving” that year. Also, I lived in the barracks, walking distance from where I worked. So, the bike sat for most of the winter, only going out for short rides when the roads cleared.

Spring came and it was Time To Ride. I had a friend in the barracks who'd previously owned a bike, so I loaned him a helmet and the 400, and I mounted up on the Shadow. Fun stuff. Maryland back roads, cool air, but warm sun, all in all, a pretty day. Great riding weather. Apparently, it was great driving weather, too. We hit a line of literal “Sunday drivers out for a spin”. I was frustrated by the cars holding me back. This frustration may be what contributed to what happened. I'm sure it was mainly due to having almost doubled the size and power of bike I was used to, combined with unfamiliarity with clutch operation. Plus, I'd only been riding around a year, and had just spent most of the winter not riding.

We had to stop for a red light. No problem. We were the first two vehicles at the light, so at least it would provide some distance between us and the long line of cars we'd been stuck behind. I remember having both feet on the ground, but having to keep my hand on the front brake because we were pointed uphill. On a fairly steep grade, too. The light turned green, I let the clutch out, and let go of the brake to apply throttle. And promptly stalled the bike. Sigh. Started it back up. Stalled it again. Stupid hill. Looked in the mirror and saw what seemed like hundreds of cars now being held up by me. Got a little embarrassed and a lot more frustrated. Pulled in the clutch lever. Stabbed the starter button. Revved the throttle. Revved harder. Dumped the clutch. Took off like a shot. “That's better” I thought as I pulled in the clutch lever to shift into first. And that's when the front wheel touched back down to earth. “Holy CRAP!!! A wheelie?!?!?!?” Funny how often we get the adrenaline rush after an incident, eh? That proved to be my first real adrenaline rush on a bike outside the safety class (where they intentionally pushed us to our limits). It was definitely not my last. Funny how often after that, I'd get the rpms up a bit high, before letting the clutch out a bit fast, bringing the front wheel up a bit off the ground...

The second event involved the same motorcycle, and took place a year or two later. I was married by this time, and living in an apartment off base. You know how they say that most accidents take place within a mile or so of home? Wellll....

I was going to turn left off our little side street onto a major road/minor highway. This was one of those roads that had three lanes going in each direction and a grass median running down the middle. I was at the light, waiting to turn left, and facing me from across the intersection was a woman waiting to turn right. If you ride, you already know that this is a recipe for disaster just waiting to be popped into the oven.

My light turned green, and let me add that I had the protected left turn arrow, which means Cager Lady still had a red light. Well, once my turn was made, I would have had the choice of three different lanes. Since I would be making a right in a couple of miles, I headed for the right lane. I was halfway through my turn, already set into the appropriate lean angle, when Mrs. Killabiker decided to exercise her option to turn right on a red light. I increased my lean angle and aimed for the middle lane. She kept coming. Right. At. Me. I increased my lean angle again, while pressing my thumb on the horn button, where it stayed for the rest of the incident. At this point, I was in a really sharp lean, actually into the left of the three lanes, and guess what? Yup. Madame Oblivious kept on coming all the way over. Now I was out of lanes, there was no shoulder, only the median, but all I thought was “don't get hit, don't get hit”, so I leaned more. I felt my left footpeg scrape into the asphalt. I could hear my engine roaring ever louder, and then realized that I'd leaned over so far all the weight of the bike was on the front wheel and the left footpeg. The rear tire was no longer in contact with the pavement at all! It's all a bit blurry now, due to the adrenaline at the time and the twenty or so years that have passed, but I know the main frame of the bike went sideways, but luckily, somehow my death grip on the bars kept the front end pointed straight down the road. I started pushing downward with my right foot, trying to get the bike back up, but I just kept sliding down the road. Just as I thought “This is it. I'm going down”, suddenly, I was airborne! Luck was with me right then, because I came back down to earth with the engine still revving, and the bike pointed in exactly the right direction. I'd finally managed to push the rear tire back down, but I'd never let off the throttle, so that tire was spinning fast and hard. It slung the rest of the bike up and around and shot me down the road. Half a minute later, the full realization of what had just happened hit me and I hollered “Whooo Hooo!!!!” or something to that effect, inside my helmet. Later, I discovered ways to get my bike airborne intentionally. But, again, that's another story.

The point here is that these two incidents, whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, taught me that riding motorcycles provides a (somewhat) controlled adrenaline rush. They're fun. Yes, they're dangerous, and they're not for everybody, but the danger can be mitigated and somewhat controlled by skill and experience. Luckily at the time, I had enough youth and reflexes to overcome any lack of skill and experience.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty cool story, ET. Thanks for sharing.