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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…

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British weather is proof that there is a God and that he does not like you. When you are caught in the middle of some interminable squall, the misery is just too great for such phenomena to be random. No; a higher power crafted this. Some great and awesome mind invested tremendous time and effort fine tuning every tiny aspect to ensure maximum displeasure. 

Sitting in my living room that morning, prolonging breakfast for as long as I could, I had known it would be awful. Now, narrowly skirting yet another completely distracted driver on the A4232, I realised I had underestimated just how great the potential for this ride to suck.

My bike was due its 16,000-mile service and I was on my way to Fowler's of Bristol. The 16K service is the biggest one as far as the Honda CBF600SA is concerned, and committing to having it done is inherently an act of committing yourself to the bike for a good while longer. It's like paying for your wife to have breast implants. You don't fork over that kind of money for the sake of someone else reaping the benefit.

After weeks of actually nice early-autumn conditions the weather had turned brutal overnight. High winds shook everything that weighed less than a building, and splatty cold rain worked its magic -- obscuring visibility and seeping into the clothing I had failed to re-waterproof after my trip to Scotland

It was all too much for many of my fellow road users. Despite the fact they live on an island that is world famous for having crappy weather, they drove as if having never before encountered wet conditions. On the A4232, a car in the lane to my left suddenly slammed on its brakes for no discernible reason, throwing itself into a skid. On Newport Road a car drifted back and forth across three lanes of traffic. On the slip road ("entrance ramp," for those of you playing along at home) to the A48, some cars attempting to join the hardly-moving flow of traffic had managed to position themselves sideways.

Typical traffic on M4 between Cardiff and Bristol

It is in moments like these that you realise the complete breakdown of society is never really so far away. But, hey, at least human kindness will persist. I found a surprising amount of it as I weaved my way down the A48 and onto the M4. Traffic was completely stopped at some points, moving at a snail's pace at others, so I took advantage of my right to filter through it -- easing the Honda down a narrow corridor between the endless rows of cars and vans and lorries. Many drivers spotted me and shifted their vehicles to allow a wider gap.

In the 48 miles between Penarth and Fowler's I'll bet I was filtering at least 70 percent of the time. Mile after mile after mile after mile of slipping past immobile cars. When you do this, you feel shocked and empathetically sad for the drivers who put themselves through such frustration just to get to work. Part of me wanted to stop and evangelise. Tap on their windows and say: "Hey, do you not see what I'm doing here? See how I'm getting places and you're not? Stop doing this to yourself. Stop living this miserable car-bound life. Join me on two wheels."

Attempting to testify in this weather would have been a challenge, though. And to that end, I was perhaps fortunate to be stuck in a filtering situation. Moving slowly through rows of giant metal windbreaks was helping protect me from the worst of the gale-force winds. I didn't realise this until things loosened up and I sped toward the Severn Bridge.

"RHYBUDD: CYFLYRAU GYRRU PERYGLUS" blinked a highway sign. (Warning: dangerous driving conditions.)

"No shit," I muttered, as the wind bounced me around in my lane and rain splattered my visor with an audible clack-clack-clack.

When we had still been stuck in heavy traffic, a small caravan of motorcyclists had formed -- about eight of us moving through the filtering corridor, taking turns as leader. Now, as speeds picked up everyone was spacing out, each taking a lane to him- or herself and settling into individual cruising speeds. A litre-sized CBR had long ago shot off. Everyone else was moving away from me at a more leisurely pace (You can take the boy out of America but you can't take the America out of the boy; I have a lot of trouble ignoring speed limits as flagrantly as Brits do).

The Severn Bridge on a good day

The Severn Bridge is a 1-mile span that soars above the wide and tumultuous mouth of the River Severn as it becomes the Bristol Channel. Crossing it is always a bit of an experience because of high winds, especially if you are sitting atop a 600cc dandy horse.

As the road arced toward mudflats and the straight approach to the bridge, the first truly brutal gusts hit us. I saw the bikes in front of me wobble a tiny, tiny bit against the wind blast. Then, the riders visibly taking in deep breaths of resignation, tucking in and throttling forward. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

I did the same, laying my chest on my tank bag and bringing my elbows in. I moved to the middle of three lanes to give myself some hope of avoiding trouble should I be blown completely out of my lane -- the other lanes had guardrails to punish me if I drifted too far. 

And, indeed, at one point I did drift too far. Jostling to get out of the turbulence coming off a cattle truck, I was slammed by a gust right as I moved past the giant, stinking vehicle. My bike heaved right and slipped across the dotted white lines into the next lane. Pitched at a 30-degree angle I fought against the gust to get back into my own lane. As I hit the white lines at that angle, my tires wobbled a little before finding better grip. 

It all happened too quickly to be scared. But as my brain processed what had just happened I realised that the driver of a large white van into whose lane I had accidentally flown must have sensed such a thing might happen. He had held back as I passed the cattle truck. And now he chose to straddle his and my lane, using the mass of his vehicle to block other cars from riding up on me, thereby eliminating a lot of stress.

I kept my tuck and shouted out "Thank you" as loud as I could, hoping he could somehow sense that I was saying it and how much I meant it. With him and the cattle truck effectively covering my six, I made it the made it the rest of the way across the bridge without incident. As we came off the bridge and into the wind-blocking hillocks of the English side of the river, I dropped into the slow lane, sat up a bit and waited for the van to come alongside. I saluted. He gave a thumb's up and sped off.

A few minutes later I was on the M32 and back in the "safety" of filtering through Bristol rush hour traffic. Weaving onto the surface streets and through the incongruous maze of Bristol city centre I felt alive and excited. The city was vibrant. Everything was moving. Rain was falling -- heavily enough that I could hear it on my helmet -- but lightly enough that everything was clear.

Bristol is about triple the size of Cardiff and infinitely more cosmopolitan in its mindset. So, I wasn't the only one filtering, nor was there just a single filtering corridor. Between all the cars ran flowing streams of motorcycles, scooters and bicyclists. Trickling through Cabot Circus I caught glimpse of a woman in a red Volkswagen Golf, its windows fogged on the edges by conditions. You have never seen a woman looking more miserable. Not sad or grief-stricken or angry or upset, just miserable. Flat out 20-foot-thick misery.

I felt so badly for her. And for all these other people trapped in their cars, trapped doing this every single day -- year after year. I wanted so much to let her know things didn't have to be like this. I wanted to tap on her window and say: "Hey, do you not see what I'm doing here? Stop doing this to yourself. Stop living this miserable car-bound life. Join me on two wheels."


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Comments

  1. Chris,

    Sounds like you had quite an adventure. The thought of filtering makes me nervous...around here I'd be afraid someone would make a quick move to cut you off out of spite. I imagine it would be even more nerve wracking in the rain.

    My daughter and her family will be moving to England later this month (the Molesworth/Alconbury area) and I'm looking forward to visiting them and experiencing some of that English weather first-hand. Who knows, maybe I'll even get a chance to meet you in person. Until then...

    Cheers,
    Curt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See if you can hunt down a copy of A Texan in England by J. Frank Dobie. He was teaching at Cambridge during WWII and talks about watching the bombers flying in and out of Molesworth. Plus, of course, he's a Texan. A lot of his observations about England still hold true. For instance, the fact that British winters are uniquely miserable.

      Anyway, if you do come over, give me a shout. A lot of places rent (we say "hire" over here) motorcycles, but if you're not up for tackling British roads I'd love to share a pint or two with you.

      As far as filtering goes, by the way, the idea that someone would hit you or throw open their door is often given as a reason not to filter in the United States but I really don't think people are this evil. I mean, do drivers intentionally, deliberately try to kill or maim you in other situations? No. If filtering were legal throughout the United States, I have no doubt Americans possess the basic sense of humanity needed to simply ignore a motorcyclist as he or she passes by.

      Delete
    2. Chris,

      I'll definitely get in touch with you when we visit. I'm sure your'e right about filtering, people probably aren't that evil (or stupid when you think about it). Having never done it, it seems a bit intimidating but I'm sure I could get use to it quickly and it would make rush hour traffic more bearable.

      Cheers,
      Curt
      Live Free. Ride Hard. Be Happy.

      Delete
    3. In CA the majority of drivers realize it is legal to filter, or lane split, so they are courteous. The only drivers I ever have trouble with are those in CA with out of state plates. Makes sense.
      Hey if we're having a Blogger Party I wanna come!!

      Delete
  2. Chris,

    First, I want to mention that the same thought crosses my mind often. Mostly on sunny days, when the air is fresh and ripe with scents of lavender or alfalfa, I think these cagers are missing so much. I love the sunshine on my shoulders so much I will occasionally wear the biker's-old-lady tank top and grab a little Vitamin D on my ride.

    "I'm multitasking!" I tell myself.

    Seconly, on those stressful rides, do you find your hands aching from gripping the handles tightly? All to often I will tense up far too much and find myself a knot of nerves at the end of a challenging ride. Then Mister Mellow gets off his Honda and asks why I'm so stressed. Geez. . .

    Smooches,

    Sash ~ The Rude Biker Chick
    See Sash Videos!

    ReplyDelete

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