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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

It's (not at all) grim up North


My route
It is roughly 260 miles from the quaintly crumbling South Wales town of Penarth to the Yorkshire village of Grassington. That's assuming you do most of your travelling via motorway, which is what I tend to stick to when I need to get to places on time.

Of course, the "on time" concept is often a fuzzy one for me. I am a strong adherent to the Ride Your Own Ride school of thinking and one of the ways in which that manifests is in how long it takes to do certain things. Some days I move pretty fluidly -- stops for petrol or food are well-coordinated and efficient. On other days, I seem inclined to spend upward of 10 minutes adjusting my scarf before putting on my gloves. Such was the case this past Sunday when I set out for northern England.

Grassington is one of the "honey pot" villages of Yorkshire Dales National Park, which is to say it is one of the places that sees the most visitors. For those of you playing along in the United States and other countries where governments actually adhere to IUCN categorisation, a national park in Her Majesty's United Kingdom is not what you might expect. Here, national parks are, in fact Category V and Category VI protected areas. In truth, there are no real national parks (Category II) in Britain, we just like using that phrase because it sounds good. 

The best U.S. comparison to a British "national park" that I can think of is the area that falls under the purview of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in California and Nevada. Except, much of that area is far more wild and I would argue that the TRPA does a better job at pro-actively protecting landscapes (a).

I realise all this is off the point -- this is a motorcycle blog, after all -- and that I have mentioned it before, and that on the Venn diagram showing motorcyclists and environmentalists the space where those two circles intersect is probably not very large, but that doesn't stop me from being annoyed by the whole thing. So, I rant about it at any opportunity. The United Kingdom needs to try harder to protect its natural spaces.

That's not to say British national parks aren't lovely, though. They are. If you want to be guaranteed of enjoying the very best that this tiny archipelago has to offer in terms of scenery, landscape, and hospitality, head to one of the 15 UK national parks. Before Sunday, I had visited Brecon Beacons, Cairngorms, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Lake District, New Forest, Northumberland, Peak District, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia and South Downs. With the Yorkshire Dales I've now visited an even dozen.

Timing is everything when it comes to visiting any outdoor space in Britain. The weather can make it the best or worst experience of your life. So, I accept that my personal list of favourites shows bias toward places I've visited on warm spring/summer days. But even so, I think the Yorkshire Dales is the bee's knees. 

Getting there was easy enough. As I mentioned, I was in a somewhat relaxed mood when I set out. So, my intended departure time of 10 a.m. became 11. And by the time I was actually fuelled up and properly under way it was edging close to 11:30.

Security forces have erected barriers and a 9-foot fence to protect a castle...
Traffic was light, but for the first time in my eight years of living in this country everyone was sticking to the speed limit. I suspect this had something to do with the ever-growing police presence coming that had come in preparation for the NATO summit taking place a week later. More than 67 world leaders are attending the event, including President Barack Obama, so all the security bells and whistles were being brought in. A 9-foot-tall fence had been erected around Cardiff city centre, Cardiff Bay and Celtic Manor in Newport; seven NATO warships were stationed in Cardiff Bay; and more than 10,000 police officers from all parts of the UK were being brought in.

Ten thousand. Riding up the A449 and M50 I encountered several hundred of them en route to their posts: great convoys of police riot vans and Land Rovers, as well as the lightning-quick packs of motorcycle police, riding two abreast and looking like DayGlo versions of the Nazg├╗l.

I am in the process of training to run a marathon these days and had run 15 miles the day before, so by the time I was nearing the southern edges of Worcestershire my knees were aching, and the right arm thing that happens from time to time was worse than usual.

Sometimes when I ride it feels as if a nerve in my armpit is being pinched; it causes slight pain in my bicep and elbow, and results in my losing feeling in my fingers. I can never really figure out what causes this, though I have noticed it more since I started wearing a Knox Fastback gilet.

Based on that, one automatically assumes the Fastback is to blame, but it's not pinching me at all and is comfortable to wear. Also, I started wearing the Fastback right when I started taking longer journeys -- first throwing it on when I rode to the Peak District back in April. So, perhaps the issue is not with what I'm wearing on the bike but how long I'm on the bike. Additionally, the pain and numbness really only seems to show up when my Honda's engine is turning above 5,000 rpm; perhaps buzzing in the handlebars is the true culprit? If anyone has any input on what might be at the heart of my right arm thing I'd be glad to hear it.

Regardless, Strensham motorway services was my first port of call. The sun was shining and the weather warm. I chose to sit in the grass near where I had parked my bike and eat the sandwich Jenn had made for me. This somehow communicated to everyone who walked by that I wanted to answer any questions they might have about motorcycling, as well as hear stories about the bike they used to have.

More often than not I enjoy this aspect of motorcycling -- that everyone wants to talk to you -- and was happy to indulge it today. A mother took a picture of her son sitting on my bike. A man told me of the Fazer he had owned before "the wife" made him sell it (b). Another man asked if I thought the Honda CBF600 SA was the right size bike for him, as if he were shopping. But the best moment came as I was packing up to get back on the road.

"My dad's a biker," a balding man said, walking up to me. "Well. Was. He's 93 now, he is. But, you know, in his heart, yeah, he's a biker. Loves his bikes, him. Listen, mate, you wouldn't mind coming over to have a chat with him would you? Only take a moment and it'd mean the world."

He pointed to a car parked a few yards away in a handicapped spot. It was close enough to just wheel my bike over, but when I started to do that he stopped me and asked that I pull up at the passenger side of the car with my engine running.

"Really give 'er a good rev," he said. "Dad'll love that."

Not wanting to scare a senior citizen to death I waited until I was alongside the old man before even touching the throttle. The car's door was open and I pulled up to within arm's reach. The old man was weak and frail and pretty much asleep. Then he caught sight of me in his peripheral vision and rolled his head toward me.

"Go on, mate, give 'er a good rev," said the old man's son.

The old man lifted a bony hand and waved it as encouragement. Stock Honda pipes are not exactly renown for their sound but I gave it my best shot. I clicked the bike into neutral and held in the clutch just in case, then twisted the throttle back as hard as it would go. The inline four's engine jumped to 9,000 rpm and let out a roaring whine that probably frightened me more than anyone else.

A British dispatch rider in WWII.
The old man was grinning now. He motioned for me to kill the engine. He wanted to tell me about his motorcycling days. He had started riding bikes in World War II, as a dispatch rider in Italy. He had been seriously injured four times in crashes because they would have him ride at night without lights and inevitably the dispatch riders would end up crashing into shelling craters.

"'Course, you'd rather be thrown from a motorbike than shot," the old man explained. "So you kept going, didn't you?"

He talked for a good 45 minutes -- about riding in the war, some racing he had done, and listing off just about every machine he'd ever ridden or encountered. His body was beat up, and he did little more than move his head and weakly wave his right hand, but he wasn't a 93-year-old man. Not in his eyes, at least. When I glanced at the man's son, the one who had insisted I come over, I saw in his eyes, too, a much younger person. I saw a little kid looking up to his dad.

The old man spoke until he wore himself out, mumbling and beginning to retell the story of his breaking his leg because he was thinking too much about a girl and not the moonlit Italian road he had been speeding down. His son smiled warmly and cut him off. He thanked me for taking the time and told me to ride safe.

I pulled on my helmet and fired the Honda to life. The old man came back around and said something unintelligible, but reading his face I guessed it to be a joke. I laughed as loud as I could, to be heard through the helmet, then waved goodbye.

A few seconds later I was out of the car park and on the M5, settling into an 80-mph cruising speed. I thought of Italian girls and felt thankful that British potholes aren't quite as bad as they could be.

To be continued...

____________________

(a) British conservationism is too often nothing more than a happy side effect of protracted bureaucratic ineptitude. It's similar to the way a massive insurance snafu that keeps you from driving for six weeks would help to "preserve" the engine life of your car.

(b) Usually when I hear these stories I suspect the truth is that "the wife" is, in fact, "a temporary fit of intelligent self awareness." I imagine the individual realised that his combined lack of skill, immaturity, and unwillingness to subject to the "embarrassment" of learning was eventually going to get him killed, but to admit any of this would be emasculating so he blames his partner.

Comments

  1. Great post! Not much to add, except that it's always a blast meeting a much older person who hasn't lost their spark.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nothing like a motorcycle to draw people towards you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chris,

    I'm sure you made the old man's day...and I bet you felt good about it too. It was a nice of you to take time to listen to his stories. We could all learn a lot by listening to more WWII vet stories, sadly it won't be long until their generation is gone.

    Curt

    ReplyDelete

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