Questions Without Answers

by

Jeff Hughes

 

The last vestiges of comfort are gone shortly after dawn, with the sun still low in the sky.  By the time the first session begins, the suffusing heat and humidity which would mark the day are already rapidly climbing.  Georgia in July is hot.  It’s surely not a day to worry about getting heat into your tires.

Nor is it a day on which one expects to crash.

But something is amiss.  As I pull into the pits 20 minutes later I’m still trying to figure out what it is.  It’s not the bike, which seems reasonably sorted.  Nor is it the track – the circuit here at Road Atlanta is providing the sterling grip that it usually does.  But still, something doesn’t feel quite right.  I don’t have that dialed-in feeling that I usually expect.

I shrug it off, chalking it up to first-session jitters.

Heading out for my second session, my mind abides a moment of gladness at being here, with two full days of track time in front of me.  Up the hill out of turn one, I drag my attention back to the task at hand.  I’m still building speed out of the pits, searching for that synched-up feeling for pace that frames a day at the track.

I know I should give my tires a couple of laps.  But as I start down the long, storied, back-straight I can already feel the exuberance building.  A half-minute later I steal a quick glance at the concrete wall as I sweep past the pits.   A voice in the back of my mind whispers a caution as I head into my first flying lap.  But that voice is already being drowned out by a sudden determination to push through my morning disquiet and get to the crisp, fast laps that I came here for.

Slicing through turn two, I hold to that moment of restraint necessary before heading into the decreasing-radius turn three.  Perfect.  It sets me up for a clean entrance into the downhill esses.  I nod in satisfaction as I head into those.

Pressing now, hard into the right-hander, I add a couple clicks of throttle.  Although my boots are as high and tight on the footpegs as I can get them, my toe slider is nevertheless down on the pavement and my mind, in a curious bit of worry, imagines the tiny strands of plastic trailing off behind me.  I wonder how long the sliders will last.  I didn’t bring a spare pair.

And then, in the flash of an instant, I’m down. 

I’m awed by the violence.  There is a cacophony of formless shape and color exploding through my field of vision and I realize that I’m tumbling, not sliding.  There’s a surreal sense of disbelief, a voice saying this can’t be happening.  But the sudden headache from where my helmet smacked down and the sharp pain from my right ankle tell me otherwise.  I wonder how bad this will end up being.

As I finally come to rest against the tire wall across the grass outfield there’s a quick sense of relief – a lot of things hurt, but everything more or less seems to work.  Slowly sitting up, my thoughts begin to congeal around a single question.

“What the hell happened?”

 

 

Crashing a motorcycle sucks.  It is as stark a reminder as our sport has that we screwed up.  The only good that can ever come from it is… a lesson.  A lesson in what not to do again.

Riders crash for all sorts of reasons.  With newcomers to the sport it’s often simple inexperience that brings them to grief.  They already have a built-in tendency to concentrate too much on the machine – to stare at the instruments and to over think what they are doing.  They use an inordinate amount of their attention focusing on the bike rather than the environment.  Combine that with the peer pressure that often comes with riding with buddies who may have more experience, and it’s no surprise that new riders often fall down – with reasons that are usually obvious.

But what about the rider who has gotten through that phase, the intermediate and advanced rider for whom those basics have long since been assimilated?  What causes them to go down?

That’s where it starts to get more complicated.  An experienced rider is operating his motorcycle at a much higher level – including perhaps much higher speeds.  He is exerting far more subtle influences on its controls at the same time that he is interpreting very subtle cues from the bike.  And he’s doing all that while interacting with the road itself in a far richer way.  Combine all that and suddenly the things that can go wrong have dramatically increased in number at the same time that they have become far more subtle.

And there is yet another complication – crashing by experienced riders is often caused not by a single, discrete event but rather by a confluence of factors.

Pressing too hard, for instance, is a common backdrop to crashes among advanced riders.  But pushing the pace is rarely the sole reason why a rider goes down.  What are some others?

Let’s start with cold tires.  Advanced riders are often riding more aggressively than their newbie counterparts, demanding more from their tires in the process.  And yet think of how many times we’ve been out for a ride, stopped for a rest break, and then gone immediately into full-tilt mode upon leaving.  Indeed, many of the places we stop are chosen precisely because of their proximity to good roads.  The same thing happens on the track.  The exuberance that a track day naturally induces often prompts us to short-cut those first couple of laps every session, when we should be incrementally building speed, as we wait for our tires to come fully up to temperature.   And, no, weaving our bike back and forth a handful of times is not a substitute.

Lack of attention is another frequent complicating factor in crashes.  The very experience that marks an advanced rider often gives him a false confidence, allowing him to exert less than a full measure of attention to what he is doing.  Certainly no one can bring total focus, all the time – our brains aren’t wired that way.  But we need to be mindful of those portions of our ride where we are most at risk, and make sure we bring our complete game to those times.

And that brings us to judgment, the parent voice inside our head that should be watching over it all.  Judgment isn’t often viewed as a riding skill, a competency to be developed.  And yet, as the progenitor of all our decision making – where should I ride today, what should I wear, who should I go with, what shall my pace be, what should my line through that corner be, and on and on – it sets the stage for everything that comes after.  Absolutely, judgment should be nurtured.  Alas, it’s a lot harder to teach judgment than something like trail braking or how to wheelie.  And it’s usually the first thing we toss aside when we start having fun and get all happy.

None of this is new, of course.  We’ve heard it all before.  But lest we all walk away from it, nodding our head at the obvious truths, only to go out and continue doing what we’ve always done – let me point to one last thing to think about:  our attitude.

In the aviation world every crash is examined in minute, exacting detail.  No stone is left unturned in trying to determine what caused it.  And that information is then disseminated widely.  You can actually buy books that are only about airplane crashes.  That lay out in grim detail case study after case study of how it all went wrong up there.  Of how those who were there in those planes responded.  How the information they had and the choices they made determined whether they lived or died.

And pilots read that stuff, because they know that understanding what other pilots went through – how some of the stuff those pilots did worked, and some of the stuff didn’t – may someday save their own ass.

That kind of critical analysis contrasts sharply with the attitude too often seen in the motorcycling community – where oftentimes our crashes are embellished for dramatic effect and where a busted up bike or a pair of scarred leathers are somehow seen as badges of courage.  And where there’s usually little or no attempt to seriously decompose the crash and come up with an answer to the question.

Those scarred leathers?  They’re simply a reminder that, for a single moment in time, we sucked.

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes