Saturday, July 26, 2008

Motorcycle Crashes on Modern Marvels

Caught the episode detailing some of the science behind crashes. A portion of the series segment focused on motorcycle crashes and how scientists study these crashes in order to develop state of the art equipment to minimize the damage done to riders.

Independents vs. The Dealers

I dropped the 650 off at my favorite local shop for maintainance. I used to enjoy performing the work myself and still do a few of the routine tasks such as changing oil. Mostly, I just can't squeeze the time out of the day to tear a bike down the way I once could. It's the price I pay for chosing a career that doesn't directly involve motorcycles.

I figured I might have an oil leak as well and wanted the guys at Cycle Works to give the bike a thorough inspection. It took them a little longer than usual but I've finally got the machine back. In the past, it hasn't been uncommon for them to return the bike to me within two days. This time took about a week. Apparently, one of the mechanics was down in the back and they got a little behind in work.

Any time the work takes a little longer than I'm accustomed to, I get a little antsy and start thinking of other shops where I might be able to take the bike. I prefer independent shops like Cycle Works because I get treated with respect while my machine's on the lift. My experience with dealerships, almost across the entire spectrum of manufacturer, has been that if I appear not to have a significant dollar amount to spend, then I'm not worth the trouble of approaching. I've been to dealers where I've been received by absolutely no one, even when staff are on the floor and doing little more than speaking with one another.

So I pick up the bike, engage in a bit of pleasant conversation, and ride off on a machine that's dialed in like it rolled off the showroom floor. I'm also not treated like an idiot for not knowing all the inner workings of the machine. No website for the guys at Cycle Works, just word of mouth and a spot of advertising. I was drinking coffee at a local micro-roastery when the owner struck up conversation over the machines we ride. He suggested the Works when I told him I needed someone to tune the bike. The place had been recommended to the coffee bar owner by a motorcyclist that stopped to try and help the owner with a flat. I've passed the word on to those who just want their bikes handled with as much care as they would give if they had the necessary skill. One motorcyclist helping another motorcyclist.

Cycle Works, 3302 Preston Highway, Louisville, KY (502) 366-7102

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ride to Work Day

Today is the 17th annual Ride to Work Day. Ironically, I'm in the cage today due to the bike being parked at the mechanics garage for maintenance and an oil leak. Good Morning America ran a brief segment this morning touching on increased use of motorcycles and scooters by the American public. Predominantly, the piece focused on the rising cost of fuel and the efficiency of two-wheeled transport. A video segment highlighted an interview with a Vespa dealer in the San Diego, California area. Apparently, all of the dealerships in that area retailing scooters sold their entire stock. Piaggio, the owner of the Vespa label, experienced record sales for this year.

I wasn't able to find a link to the footage or story anywhere on GMA's website. However, I did discover references to the piece among the comments posted by viewers. Motorcyclists are chiming in concerning the lack of safety gear worn by Chris Cuomo. He rode to work with a top notch helmet and a brightly colored textile jacket, but must have forgotten his gloves and boots. The light-weight business slacks aggravated a few posters.

I think I'll send Chris a comment of my own. I don't want to jump down his throat over safety issues. What about those of us who have been riding to work for years? Some of us have made motorcycles a large part of how we live prior to the rise in fuel costs. Not saying we should receive some sort of extra credit, but the perspective of experience could prove useful to those wondering whether the two-wheeled life is right for them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Blue Ridge Snippets

I'm working on some photos from a recent trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway. While I'm sizing and tinkering, I thought I'd post a few of the small video clips I managed to record along the way.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mania Accelerated

My usual morning commute follows I-71 a crowded 35 miles into downtown Louisville. It's the fastest approach to the city from where I live, but it's also a high risk ride. The interstate only spans four lanes. Once past I-265, the Gene Snyder Freeway, there are only two exists before entering the city. I-264, with Waterson Parkway, functions as an inner bypass loop and exits to the left off of I-71. There's Exit 1, Zorn Avenue, which serves as access to River Road running past the Riverfront Park area and my prefered route of travel into downtown. But it's populated by heavy trucks hauling scrap metal and gravel and I'm likely to be tailgated by BMW and Mercedes sedans hauling ass into the city from Oldham County. While negotiating these limited pathways toward my place of employment, there's precious little room for mistakes. The traffic flow tends toward the bumper to bumper variety with speeds in excess of 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. I've witnessed some of the most shocking behavior while traveling through this gauntlet of speed and risk. This morning, a black Lincoln Towncar in the fast lane parallels me just before the tight, left-hand exit onto I-264. At this point, the fast and cruising lanes seem to change places. For a brief instant, the two harmonize and then the traffic in the cruising lane slips forward and rockets into the turn where I-264 east bound splices into I-71 south. It was in that moment of singularity, of unity at speed, that I glanced into the Lincoln traveling the left-hand lane to observe the car's driver leaning into the passenger seat to spit into a cup positioned there, a toothbrush protruding from the side of his mouth. A quick glimpse at the speedo indicates I'm at 70 mph. Then I'm sliding past, he's behind me, and I'm shaking my head as I lean into the curve. Just a few more miles and I'm safe at work. Secure for another eight hours before chancing the afternoon mania.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Drive Home

When coming home from work, I take I-71 North out of Louisville. For an interstate, there are relatively few exits between downtown and my exit 35 miles away. One in particular, the second Buckner exit, can be hazardous for travelers on the highway and those entering the flow of traffic. The ramp spits cars out from behind a rock wall onto an all too brief acceleration lane just over the crest of a hill. It's not uncommon to top the rise and find a slow moving block of steel and plastic lumbering into my path of travel. Today, I wasn't disappointed. Just over the rise, I meet a black Honda Civic. I'm riding at 75 and the Honda's driving at 40. I swing into the passing lane and cover my controls, getting ready for the car to dart across both lanes to clear others behind me in the cruising lane. Instead, the driver eases into the slow lane and waves as I pass. I'm so used to not being seen at all, that the thanks catches me off guard. It takes a few seconds before I return the wave and merge into my original path of travel.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Anniversary of Doom

It dawned on me while sitting around a quiet table with friends yesterday evening that July 6 was the anniversay of my latest crash. Three years to the day. While crossing an intersection in Owensboro, KY on my way back to my office, a 21 year old kid pushed his 1989 Olds 98 over the speed limit and through the stop sign perpendicular to my line of travel. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, steamy, and I recall seeing the flash of the car's grill as it bounded out of a dip in the pavement and into the sunlight. Time ground to a standstill. I had enough time to think, "Oh, this is going to hurt." And then I was pimp-slapped by God. I had no idea something could strike me with that much energy. The force propelled me over the car's hood and into the windshield. Though I never saw it, the police and EMT's theorized that my head busted the glass. Impacting the curvature of the windshield shot me upwards and to the side in my direction of travel so that the rear of the car passed beneath me. I hit the ground on my left side and the bike, a 1995 Harley-Davidson XLH 1200, came to rest on it's right side a half a block south of my impromptu landing pad.

I had a few things leaning in my favor that day, things I attribute to my still sucking air today. I was wearing a full-face helmet. This was a big one for me. Three weeks before the crash, I'd decided I'd had enough of playing Russian roulette with the drivers around me and purchased the first lid I'd worn in five or six years. It wasn't anything spectacular, a basic all-around shell, foam, and visor. It cost me a little under a 100 bucks. I remember the first rides with it on, especially in late June, feeling like I was suffocating. I'd stop some place and pratically rip the thing off to get air.

Boots. I was wearing a well-worn pair of Red Wing lace-up work boots, the reddish Oxblood colored kind. The doctors told me that if I hadn't had on sturdy, above-the-ankle shoes, I'd have lost my right foot. Apparently, the car sandwiched my right leg between the grill and the bike. The leg snapped, moving the foot over and upward inside the skin toward my knee. I remained conscious all the way until they rolled me into the ER, where the numbness of shock wore off and the hazy sub-reality of morphine took over.

I always take a little time out of the day during my Anniversary to remember the police officer and EMT's who cared for me during the first moments following the accident. Each of them was a motorcyclist. At one point, I asked the officer what had happened to my bike and he said, "Uh...well, I wouldn't worry about that right now, bud." And then the EMT's whisked me onto a spine board and into the ambulance. Well, maybe not whisked. More like trundled. Trundled with extensive swearing supplied by me. During the ride to the hospital, the EMT told me about her bike and how she was considering selling it because of the all the accidents she'd witnessed over the years. To this day, I sincerely hope she hasn't.

I mark this anniversary as a special one not just because I survived, but because the experience changed my approach to riding forever. The helmet did it's job and although badly torn up, permitted me to arrive at the hospital with little more than a moderate concussion. I haven't ridden without one since. The EMT's cut the boots off. After I learned to walk on my reconstructed ankle, I had the Red Wings restitched only to find that I couldn't wear anything that laced up around the ankle. The constrictive leather aggravated the hardware in my leg. Though they're not as stylish, my kevlar reinforced, waterproof roadboots are almost as comfortable as those faded, old Wings. Almost.

And as for the Harley? She died with over 56,000 miles on the clock. The insurance company totaled her. When the adjuster met me at the bank to deliver my share of the HD's worth, he arrived on a BMW GS650. Though I was on crutches, that bike whispered something to me about the nature of my life on two wheels that I would spend the next nine months deciphering. That whisper transformed into an examination of the fundamental beliefs around why I turned to motorcycles in the first place, a calling to interpret the world through wind and speed, a steering of my spirit toward home.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Riders Rising

With the rising cost of gas, people are turning to motorcycles and scooters as efficient options for transport. As a result, a number of new and returning riders are appearing on the roads. Never a bad thing, right? With the number of riders on the rise, motorcycles are gaining attention in the media. Here's a prime example from The Washington Post. I've read several sources over the previous months citing many of the points outlined in the above article. Some new riders are purchasing their two-wheeled transport based solely on fuel economy. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't appreciate getting my dollar's worth at the pump, especially with the gallon in rural Kentucky climbing above the $4.00 mark. Safety, at least according to the above article, doesn't seem to be lacking. Record numbers of riders are enrolling in training courses across the country. Realistically, the number of new riders creates a demand disproportionate to the number of instructors and courses.

What concerns most long-term riders, this one included, is what will happen to these new converts as we progress toward the winter months. Here in the States, motorcycles make up a minute amount of the total vehicle traffic. Such a position gives rise to a particular bond among motorcyclists, a commonality that stretches across such boundaries as socioeconomic class, age, and brand affiliation. While some outright hositility exists between riders of various makes and models, most longriders will stop for a fellow rider stranded on the roadside regardless of what badge the tank carries. Truth be known, even in the recent past, there have been too few of us gracing the highways to let a simple thing like bike preference interfere with helping another motorcyclist.

It's homogenization of motorcycle "culture", if such a thing exists, that worries me the most. Do we teach, if only by example than no other method, to stop for a rider in need? Why do we wave to one another? These questions, and others similar to them, while not as immediate to the introduction to motorcycling as issues of training, are central to the passing on of this "culture" from one generation to the next, a generation measured in miles and stories told by gatherings at the road's edge.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Note from a Gypsy

Welcome to my little space under the stairs. It may not look like much, but pull up a cushion and get comfortable. You'll find the space sparsely furnished, a situation I hope to rectify over time. Check back every now and again and we'll see if I manage to add a few chairs to the circle. I intend these pages to chronicle my experiences as a motorcyclist. I'm a bit late getting started as I've been riding for the past fifteen years. So why start now? I survived a collision in the summer of 2005 that could very easily have killed me. When I review that day in my memory, I find myself coming painfully close to the concept of my own mortality, a condition, I believe, of which all bikers are aware to some degree. Having faced that realization and deciding to continue living life on two wheels, I'm also haunted by the idea of providing some tangible record for my brethren as well as outsiders should I suddenly find myself cruising the Lost Highway without having made plans to do so.

Over the last fifteen years and 200K+ miles, I've ridden a variety of machines. My current sled is the one you can see in the photo above, a 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R. I traded my '05 Ninja 250 in favor of a little more horsepower. In addition to the extra ponies, I received a balanced fuel-injection system, excellent braking power, and improved wind protection. All the above rolled into a bike designed for riders short in the inseam.

Previous to owning and riding Kawi's, I saddled a 1995 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster, a beautiful aqua-pearl, thundering American V-twin. Its life tragically came to an end on July 6, 2005 at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon on the hood of a 1989 Oldsmobile 98. I nearly lost my right foot in the crash. Two surgeries, two steel plates and nine screws later, and I'm walking and riding again.

I briefly owned a 1993 Yamaha Virago 1100 before trading it in on the HD, which was the only good thing I did with the Yamaha. Never again. Stay away, kids, from the Virago 250, the only surviving member of that lineage, unless you have a strong preference for starter and wiring difficulties.

I piloted a 1982 Kawasaki LTD 440 for over four years and 35K miles. I reserve a special place in my heart and soul for this scooter as it was the first bike I owned capable of carrying me over the horizon without the constant use of a wrench. I've spent many an evening hunkered by a fire, watching the tarnished light flicker in my steed's deep black finish, savoring the thrum of roadsong echoing in my bones.

If you're familiar with motorcycles and motorcyclists at all, you've probably heard the statement: if I have to explain, you wouldn't understand. Perhaps that's true. It just may be that the only real way to glean understanding of the two-wheeled life is to hitch up your jeans, throw a leg over the top, and get into the wind. Here's to hoping that these pages, while insufficient to convey riding savvy itself, may nudge you a little further toward the practical experience. Ride long, ride safe, and ride free.