The Elephant in the Room


Jeff Hughes


Even knowing it was coming didn’t really prepare me.  When I walk outside the humid, balmy warmth of the air surprises me.  The contrast between the sleet and the snow and the near-single-digit temperatures we were experiencing just a week ago is remarkable. 

It prompts a sense of urgency.  I had planned on getting out today anyway, ever since hearing the forecast a few days ago.  But the liquid air sparks a sudden need to get moving.  I hurriedly air up the tires and pack my gear.

It doesn’t take long, and in just a few minutes I’m rolling.  A little hitch north, and then westward, into the ridgelines I’ve hardly seen since last fall.

Alas.  My pleasure in getting out is quickly tempered by conditions – the roads are heavily coated in salt and sand.  I expected that, of course, but the grimy reality sets in like a quick rebuke.  The compromised pavement will hold many surprises today, none of them good.  It will not be a day to rail.

That’s ok.  After a winter of unusually sparse riding opportunities I’m just grateful to be out.  Even at a somewhat reduced speed and with an extra dollop of attention directed towards what the tires are doing, the BMW feels wonderful.

At the stop sign I turn onto Blantyre.  Up past the pond the road is busted up in places from winter frost heaves.  In some sections they come so frequently and my line changes are so abrupt that it feels like I’m riding an old time trials course.

But Midway Road is in pretty decent shape.  It has the salt and sand, but none of the broken pavement, thankfully.  Easing out past the church, I glance to my left, my eyes sweeping quickly across the field to the edge of the woods beyond.  A mild overcast shadows the sky, but I see no deer.   I sharpen the throttle a hair, even as my mind drifts back.

This was the road that brought me back after my last street crash, fifteen years ago. Its patchwork of sharp edges and swiftly-breaking blind curves both raised the demons in my head, and allowed me to slay them.  It had been a stern teacher, forcing me to look at the question.

The nice weather reminds me that a lot of riders will be out across the region today.  And last night’s Daytona 200 – long my own personal demarcation between winter and spring, and the herald of a new riding season – means that weekends will soon once again be full of motorcyclists riding these roads.  The glorious awakening we see every spring.

But I also know that even as the springtime extends its annual offer of renewal and hope, it also has a darker underside.  A lot of those riders will crash.  Some because of being rusty.  Some because they’re trying to match their buddies, trying to do things their experience is not yet ready to support.  Some, just because.

I think back to July 2000.   I was at Mid-Ohio with Reg Pridmore, attending one of his CLASS schools.  When he came into the dining room at the hotel his face held a sorrowed countenance.  He had just received a telephone call that his friend Joey Dunlop had been killed at a roadrace in Estonia.  It was shocking news.  That an icon of the sport like Joey could come to such a fate just seemed so… wrong.

But of course it happens.  It had happened to Wayne Rainey seven years before that, in the Italian Grand Prix.  His freak, paralyzing crash had likewise shocked the roadracing world. 

Those are the times you think about it.

Stuck behind a car for the last mile doing exactly the 45mph speed limit, I grow impatient.  After exiting the little hamlet from which the road derives its name, I pull around in a quick double-yellow pass.  The first of the season.

It’s dark for the next half-mile, the straight section up the hill, running through the canopied forest which grows right to the very edge of the blacktop.  With the distraction of the car fading behind me, I settle into the seat, listening with satisfaction to the slightly coarse Boxer twin.  Thinking about the section just moments ahead, over the crest, one rich with technicalities, I add a little more throttle. 

It’s always worse when it hits close to home, of course.  Andrew’s crash last November had been a sobering reminder that even the best of the best are not held apart, immune from the vicissitudes of chance.

And that finally begs the question.  The one we all avoid.  The elephant in the room.  Would we ride if we knew that we were going to crash?  Would we ride if we believed there was much chance that that crash might be catastrophic?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we wrap the question in denial.  We preach training and awareness and wearing good gear and saving it for the track – and there’s no question that those are all good things and there is truth in them.  But what is also true is that we hold to those mantras like they were talismans, holding the question at bay.  They give us a rational basis for thinking we’ve managed the risk.  They allow us to believe it will never happen to us.

But that’s a myth.  I know quite a number of multi-decade riders, men who have riding resumes spanning vast tracks of time and hundreds of thousands of miles.  But I know only one who has never crashed.  Forrest’s sterling record is not an accident – he brings not only a strong competence to the table, but what also may be the most consistently steady judgment I have ever seen in a rider.  But there’s also no question he’s a statistical anomaly.

You and me?  We’re going to fall down.

Which brings us back to the question.

Over the crest, having left the forest behind, the light brightens.  The road tracks crookedly through a mixed landscape of small fields interspersed by small patches of woods.  There are occasional barns and houses and small groups of livestock, but I notice none of them.  The road has become intense, demanding everything.  Blind curves come like flash cards from a teacher, only seconds apart.

Gently adding throttle, the motor harkens to that sweet spot, the sublime edge where the torque it lays down has married with the tires to express their traction in a perfect kiss with the pavement.  The motorcycle comes alive.  And for the next two miles there is that quickening in my heart, drawn from somewhere eternal.

I think of my old friend Randy Renfrow.  Of the countless evenings we spent shooting the breeze back at his old shop in Springfield.  We talked about everything under the sun.  We talked about bikes.  We talked about the motorcycle business.  We talked about WERA and roadracing and the bumpy surface at Summit Point.  We even talked about crashing.  But, no, we never talked about the question.  We were young men, full of the immortality that all young men assume is theirs.

The road quiets, unkinking just enough that I can relax a bit, exultation trailing in its wake.  And suddenly there, in that mix of elation and joy, I begin to see a glimmer of an answer.   Not to the question.  For the more I think about it the more I realize that it’s a question that can never really be answered.

But to the reason we do what we do, in spite of the question.  Why we do it in the face of the unknowable.

It occurs to me that despite the several grievous injuries that Randy received while riding, it wasn’t any of them that killed him.  It was a tragic accident at home that did that.

Turning left at the stop sign, I gently roll on the throttle.  Even through my ear plugs I can hear the engine softly spooling.  My mind stretches ahead, conjuring the next section of what will later become the map of my day’s ride.  Cromwell Road, a couple miles ahead, sounds good.  Fifteen miles of undulating pavement, a slightly softer cousin to the road I’ve just finished.  It’ll make for a lovely, ziz-zag route westward to the Blue Ridge.

My eyes fall to the old, faded Vanson summer-weight gloves on my hands.  It’s such a pleasure to be wearing those instead of my bulky winter gloves.  And the whole season stretches in front of me.  I abide a moment of gladness. 

I don’t know the answer.  But that’s ok.  I know enough.


© 2009 Jeff Hughes