I was heading west on University Parkway, the stretch of US-29, a four-lane divided highway, between Athens and Atlanta, GA. It was late afternoon on a Friday and a thunderstorm was threatening overhead. People don’t mess around that time of the week. They are ready to get home to start their weekends or, like me, are already on their way to the party and are in a hurry to get there. Time is of the essence when the workweek is done. The average speed on the west-bound side was between 70-75 miles per hour. The east-bound side had been shut down due to a traffic accident and was backed up for miles. I gave quick thanks to the God of Speed for not being stuck in that mess.
Traffic was medium-heavy and I was averaging about 80 mph, making sure that I wasn’t the fastest vehicle on the road but keeping up with the faster cars of the crowd. I noticed a white sedan that had passed me, but then settled down to about my pace a little distance ahead. I eventually caught up and passed the car again. No big deal, it happens, I paid the car no mind as I continued to fling myself westward toward the horizon, bouncing around in my seat, tapping out the rhythm to some Lady Gaga tune with my right foot; I think it was “Bad Romance”. My thoughts were already occupied with playing in the twisties that were scheduled for the following day. The car eventually picked its way back through traffic and got ahead yet again.
Now it’s getting a little weird! After a while boredom and curiosity get the better of me and I am in hot pursuit of my highway stalker. It doesn’t take me long to catch up with my target. The car is still hanging out in the left lane, so I scoot over and slowly pass them on the right. I see what looks to be four college-aged kids bouncing around in their seats, hair flying, talking animatedly and obviously checking me out. Oh, shit! A carload of cheerleaders! They point and wave at me and I smile, — even though they can’t see through my darkly tinted face shield — I nod and give them a peace sign with my outstretched clutch hand. Then I grab a fistful of throttle, twist it quickly to the stop and treat them to a completely “unnecessary display of horsepower”. Gratuitous. I can’t help myself. I have no excuse. I pull triple digits for a few seconds, pass another vehicle by executing two acute lane changes to get a little high-speed lean for effect and then let the engine slow me back down to the speed of traffic.
It doesn’t take very long for them to catch up. Two songs, maybe. I’m astonished to see them again. When they pass me on the left, I see one of them is holding a sheet of notebook paper up to the passenger side window. It reads in bold-red Sharpie print:
I prop open my visor so I can make eye contact as I pace them. I smile and give them a thumbs up and a fist pump with my free hand. I yell: “Hell yeah!” even though they can’t hear me. I speed up and they stay directly behind me as my wing women until we part ways at a red light a few miles up the road. I turned right and they kept going straight. Each of us heading towards weekend adventure. I wish I could have taken a picture of this or had the video camera going. It’s the little things like these that make even a bored and hurried flight down a two-lane seemingly never-ending straight worth it. For one little instant my path merged with that of four strangers and life was just good.
That’s one of the reasons I ride.
Riding a motorcycle connects you intimately, even if only for a short moment, with others and the world around you. You become part of that world, rather than being isolated and distanced from it like you are when sitting in a car. This is one of those reasons why bikers refer to cars as “cages”. I’m sure of it.
My husband wanted to go on a bike vacation for his birthday and finally become one of the initiated, one of those tough biker dudes who “did the Dragon”. He can now answer the question, that inevitably gets asked of a man when any number of motorcycle riding hooligans find themselves together in a loosely assembled mob of smelly leathers and dirty denim. He can now hold his head high, stick his burley chest out , striking a manly pose; stand tall and answer loudly and proudly: “Yes. I have slain the fabled Dragon. I have gone north in search of the mythical beast and I have drawn blood.” Translation: I found him whilst on his afternoon snooze. I snuck up on him and totally stepped on his tail! The beast woke and breathed fire upon my wife who had been to its lair on a previous raid to inflict pain and suffering upon the monster with the aid of a merry band of rocket-riding wild women. My wife put her knee down and the Dragon slithered off in search for easier prey, such as three drunken Hog Wranglers on a Moonshine run, and his spare set of testicles.
…and they lived happily ever after, for about a week or so. Can we please do this again? Like every year? How does every second week in May sound!?!
Works for me.
Michelle, whom I met on Facebook, invited me for a ride through the Chattahoochee National Forest to show me around her “neck of the woods.” We had a blast on two wheels. It was a great weekend filled with good company, good food, good beer and beautiful roads. Michelle is a most gracious hostess and is an excellent motorcycle rider. She helped me “reset” my brain to enable me to enjoy street riding again for its own merits and with its own set of challenges. In other words, I had to retrain my attitude. Street riding has been a fairly frustrating experience for me for the past year and a half. I couldn’t enjoy the street because my brain was stuck at the track. This is a dangerous problem to develop. If you find you cannot separate and compartmentalize the differences between racing and street riding, you’ll soon find yourself in a world of pain. It’s really a little like playing Russian Roulette, but with bullets in most chambers.
The first racing school had cured me of such silliness as trying to put my knee down on public highways and practicing racing technique on curvy roads. There comes a point in a rider’s skill development where the street isn’t the proper place to learn anymore. The focus shifts from trying to “be faster” to honing your risk management skills and collision avoidance. There is a reason why a lot of racers eventually quit riding on the street. I fell into the trap without even realizing it until it was way too late.
After spending an entire day at the Kevin Schwantz School learning and practicing my racing skill set, I jumped on my S1000RR and headed the seven miles back to my hotel. I felt claustrophobic and slow, even though my average speed hadn’t changed. But after being at a racetrack where you do not have to worry about such things as Jersey Barriers or pavement conditions or opposing traffic, everything I saw around me became a possible death trap. I calmed down. At first.
Eventually, the lines between track riding and street riding blurred once more; and even though I hadn’t fully reverted back to my former level of hooliganism, I was still racing, although with less confidence. Which was a good thing. It kept me diving into blind corners tempting the fates.
If you are riding at the edge of your skill and your traction, eventually you will lose and most of the time that means a very high probability that you may not live to tell your story the next time you round a blind turn and find yourself nose-to-nose with that car violating the double-yellow line to take the “race line” through the turn. This means possible death for you, especially in the mountains where there’s a wall on one side and a ravine on the other with no real place to go. It means a whole load of paperwork for them; not to mention you’ve just ruined their day.
Something had to give. I was intellectually acutely aware of this. But I still couldn’t refrain from “redneck road racing” for the most part. The frustrations with the limitation of street riding soon became manifested in such a way that I couldn’t even enjoy riding anymore. At one point, after losing my job, I had told my husband just to sell my bike and be done with it. He became irritated. Maybe he didn’t understand what I was going through; maybe he thought I was getting down on myself because of the financial distress my unemployment caused. That was part of it. A small part of it. My problem, however, ran much deeper than just simply trying to make ends meet with less money in the bank. I was subconciously looking for a way out. I knew what I was doing would spell disaster in the long run. I knew that street riding requires a completely different skill set than track riding. I knew that practicing racing technique had no place off the racetrack. I knew. My brain knew. My soul kept flying.
I behave when I’m in a group, even if it is just with one other rider. I am courteous and attuned to other riders’ comfort levels. I make it a point not to create an environment that breeds competitiveness and the pressures of trying to keep up. It never has led to anything good for anybody involved. It’s one of those things. Nothing ever happens. Until that one time… But I have lost my “street eyes”. Where before I knew what a proper following distance looked like and managed to keep such a distance no matter what speed or how curvy the road, since I scanned ahead and made early adjustments, now I find it of no concern when someone dives into a curve behind me glued to my tail section. And I have no problem shoving my nose up someone else’s pipe either. This creates that peer-pressured environment that I seek so hard to avoid. Never mind, that I know I can stay well within my lane and not run into the person in front of me. What exactly are they thinking about me being back there? What position am I putting them in? At best, they don’t care just like I don’t; at worst they get scared, lose their concentration and do something that causes them to wipe out. Who’s fault is it? Technically the person who lost control is at fault, they call it “failure to negotiate a turn”. In my eyes, though, I am the one who put them in the situation to begin with. Hence, I am at fault. But that’s the way I think.
But when is too close too close? That is the question. If you follow someone and they crashed for one reason or another and you couldn’t help but get involved in their crash, you’re following too close. Optimally you shouldn’t be diving into a corner before the person in front of you has exited the curve in question and is well on their way into the straight part of the road. In a lot of cases you don’t even know when that is, since you can’t even see the apex (for those of you who don’t ride: the middle of the turn, where corner entry becomes corner exit, the point where slowing down turns into speeding up). Even if you could stop in time to avoid becoming involved in a crash, is the person behind you capable of doing the same? It’s a tricky proposition to brake when leaned over and it takes finesse and knowledge of motorcycle physics and how all these forces interacting with each other affect available traction and your continued success of staying on your tires rather than sliding on hard parts.
I used to get to “Point B” and people could be overheard talking about what they’ve seen; how pretty that waterfall was or how cute the fawn looked grazing in that ditch. I get there, usually ahead of the pack, saying: “What scenery?!? And where the heck are we anyway?”
I am well on my way to regain my proper (and safer) street game, but I have yet a ways to go. But Michelle showed me that yes, you can have fun on the street without breaking the sound barrier and risking going to jail. Yes, you can have fun on the street without having to haul triplets down the straight and grabbing a massive handful of front brake lever, throwing in two downshifts and stuffing 999cc into that awesomely banked constant radius right turn. However, when I’m by myself, I tend to get bored and sometimes get caught up in the dance that is negotiating those beautiful curves winding through the mountains. It starts out innocently enough, but the speed seems to steadily mount with every passing curve, as the music moves into the second movement and the dance continues.
It helps to make it a point not to brake for turns, but to adjust one’s speed in such a manner that you can just flow through without even touching the brake lever. It also helps for me to make it a point not to hang off, since remaining center on the bike really does give you that feeling of going faster than you actually are. I can still get my kicks at more reasonable speeds. The problem with riding “in the zone”: if the people behind you are relying on seeing brake lights to know what they need to do, you risk getting a nose up your tail. I don’t rely on brake lights or turn signals. It’s not a good idea anyway. It works fairly well until somebody blows a fuse… or signals one way and then changes their mind without telling you. It can also lead to target fixation. Another bad habit to avoid when riding, since the bike goes where you look.
Last weekend I’ve had the most fun I’ve had on the street in almost two years. The speeds were kept sane, I came home WITH CHICKEN STRIPS and I actually enjoyed some scenery for a change.
Thank you, Michelle, for being my tour guide.