When you least expect it

When you least expect it – motorcycle narrative

Gabriel Helms

I’ve been riding motorcycles for the past 20 years–my first one was a little trail bike that my dad bought for $5 because the engine wouldn’t run. Since that time, I’ve owned one other dirt bike and two street bikes and have racked up many hours and miles.

All that experience can be a great asset. You learn to drive defensively. You learn to anticipate the moves of others around you and react accordingly. Unfortunately, that same experience also can lead to overconfidence in your ability and in the bike’s performance. I was reminded of those shortcomings during a ride with some friends. I just had moved to California and was excited about getting out and trying all the local curvy roads. As anyone who has been on a high-performance bike can tell you, there are few things more exhilarating than zipping around hairpin turns.

A couple of friends and I decided to spend a Saturday riding through the mountains and seeing the sights. We put on our gear, fueled the bikes, and set off in search of hairpin turns. An hour into the drive, we already had found more hairpins than we ever could have hoped for. We were taking them at a decent pace–nothing excessive, but enough to feel the “G” forces sucking us down into the bike. We were having a blast.

I was bringing up the rear because we had a cruising bike among our sport bikes, and I didn’t want to lose him. After a while, I started lagging farther behind so I could pour on a little more power and lean harder into the turns ahead. Everything was OK until we came to a stretch of road with a fairly tight turn to the left, followed by another back to the right. The road then disappeared around the mountain.

I let myself lag behind about 200 yards and then poured it on. As I approached the first comer, I pushed hard on the left handlebar. The feeling was awesome. I was getting just the right amount of lean angle and could feel myself being sucked down into the bike. I came out of the turn, pushed hard on the right handlebar, and whipped the bike to the other side as I entered the second turn. I was having the time of my life–until I rounded the corner and saw nothing but brake lights ahead and a cliff on the left.

I was about as scared as you can be without losing control of your bowels. I didn’t have time to think; I just reacted. All I can say is, “Thank God for the Navy’s motorcycle-safety course and the fact the instructors had made us practice stopping as fast as possible.” I remembered that training and jammed the rear brake but resisted putting a death grip on the front brake.

Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic, or my only options would have been to run over one of my friends or to take my chances on the cliff. I came to a stop just over the center divider, with my legs shaking so badly I barely could keep the bike upright. Not more than 20 yards ahead, a fire truck was blocking both lanes of the road. The fire truck was there because some other motorcyclists had been unable to negotiate the upcoming turn and crashed. The rescue personnel had forgotten or just hadn’t had time to set up a warning signal on the other side of the corner.

I still was in one piece but never will know if it was due more to blind luck or to my experience. If I had been in the lead, or if we hadn’t been worrying about losing the guy on the cruiser, I probably would have been going much faster and wouldn’t have had time to stop. Worse yet, if one of my friends had been going as fast as me and had ended up in the other lane (like yours truly), I would have had to choose between running over him or learning how to fly.

I had an hour while rescue personnel were cleaning up the road to think about what had happened. I considered what went wrong and how I got so cocky and lax. We hadn’t seen a lot of traffic along the road, and conditions were great for riding. I had been riding hard but nothing outside my ability–in a perfect scenario. However, I momentarily forgot that most motorcycle mishaps occur because of something outside the rider’s control. People on cell phones changing lanes without doing a head check, animals running across the road, cars running red lights, and, yes, hidden dangers or obstacles in the road–these are the things that cause most motorcycle incidents. What’s the point of this story? I’m not a particularly stupid guy. I usually think about possible problems when I ride: Will that driver try to turn into me, and, if so, which way should I go to avoid him? Does that person see I’m stopped at a light? Should I be prepared to floor it and run the light to avoid being hit? In this case, though, I got overconfident. I also was new to the area, and I was too caught up in the excitement of a nice ride to worry about the standard “what ifs.”

If it can happen to me, it can happen to you, too. Never get so wrapped up in having fun that you stop thinking and driving defensively.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Navy Safety Center

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group