The Third Layer

by

Jeff Hughes

 

The breakfast back in Victorville had been filled with anticipation. After eleven days on the road, enjoying some of the best twisty-road riding that North America has to offer, I was finally in Southern California. If the previous week and a half had been the appetizer, I figured all those storied roads around here that I’d read about in the magazines for all these years would surely be the dessert.

From Victorville it’s just a few miles down I15 to Cajon Junction, where I pick up 138 westward into the San Gabriel mountains. And just a few miles from there California route 2 – better known as the Angeles Crest Highway - begins its tortured, twisting 66-mile-long dance into the Los Angeles basin.

Past Wrightwood, things immediately get serious. As I spool up the aggression meter on the K1100RS and begin pushing harder and harder into the turns, it’s obvious why this road has the reputation that it does. The curves come in a delightful, flowing, cascade. And as the miles roll under my wheels on this weekday morning, I find that I have the road almost entirely to myself. Only thing… I have this odd feeling of disquiet. There’s something subdued and mildly depressing about the landscape. The sky is blanketed in a somber overcast. The road is littered with chunks of rock, large pine cones, and enough shale dust that I figure it’s got to compromise traction. And there are numerous patches of black, burnt forest, with the odor of those apparently-recent fires still pungent in the air. All that, along with maybe a touch of suddenly feeling alone, so far away from home, add up to something less than the most inviting of tableaus.

But garbage on the road is certainly nothing new to me. Nor is being far from home. There’s something else here, too. Something edging with an increasingly incessant urging into my consciousness.

After whistling through pursed lips for the nth time, it finally becomes clear what it is: this is a deadly road. Not just dangerous – lots of roads are that. No, this one holds a hard-edged, distilled lethalness that is rarely seen. Countless numbers of those beautiful, seductive curves lie naked in the sky. There’s no earthen bank. No Armco. Not even a swatch of trees to stop you should you blow a corner. There’s nothing but an abrupt leap into nothingness, hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

The realization of what that could mean imparts a decidedly surreal feeling. It gives me pause. And it will prompt me to write in my journal later that night “this is not a road I particularly like”.

 

When we ride a motorcycle at speed there are three things that affect us. Three things that encapsulate the skills, knowledge, and wisdom that our sport demands. How we deal with those things – the three layers – will determine our fate as riders.

The first is the technical layer. This is what most riders think about when they consider their riding. It includes all those details, all the many nuances, involved in the actual mechanics of riding a motorcycle. Everything from what the road presents to how we manage ourselves and our motorcycle as we ride down it. When we assess the qualities of a particular road, for instance – its width, the quality of its pavement, its camber, the radius of its curves, that sort of thing – we’re in the technical layer. Likewise, when we decide upon a certain spot to be our entrance point, this spot here to begin throttling up, and that spot over there as our exit, we’re talking about the technical layer. When we’re heading towards a corner and we make the decision whether to brake or not, and, if so, which brake and for how long and how hard - that’s the technical layer. Our sight lines through a corner are part of the technical layer. And when we decide whether we’ll sit straight up on the bike or pull our ass off the seat and put a knee slider on the ground that, again, is the technical layer.

The technical layer has everything to do with all the particulars of the road, the rider, and the motorcycle. It’s the distilled essence of what we do. In a perfect world those things would be the sum total of what we would need to worry about.

Alas, the world is not perfect. And because it’s not, we have a second layer: the environment. The environment layer involves all those things which are changeable over time and which can influence how successful we are in executing the first layer. An obvious one is weather. If it’s raining it’s pretty clear that surface traction will be reduced. Time of day is another. We’ll certainly ride a curvy road differently at midnight than we would at noon.

Other vehicles on the road are another pretty obvious environmental element. And that can range from an in-your-face SUV with a talking-on-her-cell-phone soccer mom shading into your lane; to there not being a vehicle at all but nevertheless adjusting your line around that blind corner because of the very threat that a vehicle might appear. Ever dial it down on a sportbike-popular road because of the concern that a rider coming the other way might overcook that corner in front of you? You were thinking about the environmental layer.

Oil, gravel, and other compromised-surface contaminants are other environmental factors. They’re not quite as obvious as a rain shower pouring down on you or that vehicle coming your way, but they’re important. There’s not a rider alive who hasn’t been caught out by them at some point. And most of us spend a fair bit of effort in trying to watch out for them.

But there are other less obvious environmental factors, too. The harsh shadows that are thrown into a corner on a bright, sunny day often impede our ability to detect those same patches of oil or gravel. There’s a subtlety to light and novice riders might not at first understand why many seasoned sport riding veterans actually prefer riding on a softly overcast day.

The environmental layer – it’s all those dynamic elements which can affect the quality and the safety of our ride.

Which brings us, finally, to the third layer: consequences. The consequences layer speaks to us of all those things which are likely to conspire against us should we fail to properly manage the first two layers. It answers for us the question of the repercussions of failure. Of what might happen if, perchance, we don’t make that turn.

A motorcycle racer visiting a new racetrack for the first time will be evaluating a lot of things during his initial sighting laps. He’ll be looking for his entrance and exit points. He’ll be calculating how deeply into the braking markers he can go before hitting the binders. He’ll be assessing where the best places to pass are. He’ll be thinking about the particular strengths and weaknesses of his engine/suspension package and where those match up well with the track and where they don’t. He’ll be figuring where he can make the most time. There’s an awful lot that needs sorting in a short amount of time, in other words. But even with all that, he’s looking at one other thing – runoff.

Whether on the track or on the street, having clear runoff is the single biggest factor affecting motorcyclist safety. When we turn on the TV to watch the latest MotoGP race and see the inevitable crashes that are part of the sport, it’s notable that serious injuries are very rare, notwithstanding the extraordinary speeds at which these riders are often traveling. Having sufficient runoff so that they can slide unimpeded to a stop is the singular reason why.

American racetracks - almost all of which were designed for cars - fall well short of most of their European and Asian counterparts in that regard. Which is why AMA races must rely so frequently on air fences to provide a modicum of rider safety.

But the point is that a racer must assess the danger in each corner, the consequences of a mishap there, along with all those other things. When he does that, he’s thinking about the third layer.

Public roads are far more complex than any racetrack, of course, and there are far more elements that a rider must confront when examining what lies past his apex. Everything from guard rails and trees and rocks, to mailboxes set atop 4x4 slabs of timber. In their worst incarnations, the third layer presents a rider with the certainty of death – like my encounter with the over-the-cliff-and-you’re-gone corners of the eastern portion of the Angeles Crest.

Whatever it presents, the third layer is an easy thing to figure out. All you have to do is ask yourself the simple question: “if I blew it right now, what would happen”?

It’s been my experience that most riders spend a lot of time thinking about the first layer. That’s the fun stuff. It’s what we all talk about with our buddies. It’s what we read about in the magazines. It’s what makes us all want to go out on that next ride.

Riders pay a modicum of attention to the second layer.

But, unfortunately, most riders pay scant attention to the third layer. We’ll blithely ride past threats as if they weren’t there. As if that corner with the fat oak tree six feet past our apex is no different from the one which opens up into a pleasant little meadow. Then, of course, we’re caught out if something goes wrong.

Running a road hard needs to be about more than simply line and camber and radius. We need to make that third layer a part of our routine, corner-by-corner, how-hard-will-I-run-it, calculus.

Back on the Angeles Crest, I clearly recognized those things. The sheer, breathtaking, danger presented by those cliffs made me dial it back several notches. It’s what made me write in my journal, that first night, that I didn’t much care for the road. But there’s one last thing to know about all this: familiarity blinds us. It softens the level of risk that we perceive and blunts our consideration of what might happen. It inures us to danger.

I spent five more days in Southern California on that trip and I rode the Angeles Crest every day. And every day, urged on by my growing familiarity with the road and the cornering delights it provides, I rode it harder and harder. By the time I finally turned back towards my home in Virginia, it felt like an old friend. The danger I had perceived when I first arrived had receded to some place of dim remembrance. And even today, a decade later, the joys of the road far outweigh my recollection of its dangers.

The third layer. It’s such a simple thing. But it’s the last piece of the puzzle. The final thing that holds the promise of keeping our ass out of trouble.

If we let it.


© 2007 Jeff Hughes