5 Motorcycle Safety Lessons We Learnt The Hard Way
My first decent crash on a motorcycle was in front of about 20 strangers during a group ride I’d organized myself. And while I’d love to tell you about how it was all thanks to some gravel on the road or an errant oil spill, the sad fact of the matter was that it was my own lack of skills that did it. Worse still, I had borrowed the W800 I binned from Kawasaki Australia, so the following day I had to ride the whole busted-up, barely-functioning mess back to their warehouse in Sydney like some sort of proud idiot on parade.
The experience taught me two very important lessons. Firstly, motorcycling can be a very harsh mistress who absolutely does not pull her punches. The best-case outcome is probably a badly smashed ego. The worst involves you shuffling off this mortal coil. The second was that group rides are a fantastic way to get a whole bunch of riders to do really, really stupid things.
So let’s take a look at some tough moto lessons many of us have learned the hard way in the hope that some of you just might not have to in the future.
Lesson 1: Group Rides Suck
There’s nothing better than a bunch of riders getting out on a Sunday and enjoying life. But I’m here to tell you that a vast majority of large group rides are accidents waiting to happen. Unless they are overseen by some super experienced riders with very level heads, they can often end up being little more than a life-and-death pissing competition to see who can ride the stupidest.
The issue at the core of the group ride is ego, plain and simple. And that’s a double-edged sword. For more experienced riders, they see the ride as a chance to show off to the others, so they are quick to raise speeds and start attacking corners in a way they just wouldn’t do if they were by themselves. And of course, at the back of the pack, you have the slow and/or more inexperienced riders who – not wanting to look lame or lose sight of the main group – will ride beyond their abilities to keep up.
On more than one occasion over the course of my riding, I’ve found myself on group rides where I’ve just said to myself, “fuck this for a joke” and gone home. If you find yourself letting your ego twist the throttle or you feel coerced into riding beyond your abilities, I’d suggest you do the same.
Lesson 2: Target Fixation Also Sucks
You’ll often hear older, more experienced riders talking about how they love ‘the twisties.’ And there’s a very good reason for this because when you first start riding they scare the absolute shit out of you. It’s a real skill to get a bike through a set of corners quickly, and the main challenge you’ll have to overcome is your own disbelief. Target fixation and self-doubt are best buddies. Like chips and beer, they love to team up to bring you down.
We’ve all had that horrible moment mid-corner where your brain suddenly decides that it’s not happy and you go into a panic at the thought of a perceived crash, even though the reality here is that the biggest danger is all in your head. You lock your eyes on the corner itself rather than looking through it and suddenly you’re panic braking and upright trying not to run off the road.
And while straight-up experience and always looking through corners (and not into them) is the best fix here, it’s also really damn helpful to know thy enemy. It’s the way that target fixation creeps up on you that makes it so damn dangerous, so like any surprise, if you suspect it may happen, it’ll turn out not to be a surprise at all.
Lesson 3: ABS Is Awesome
Many riders have their first-off a nanosecond or two after they have to execute their first panic braking maneuver. Sadly, most countries will let you out on the road with your bike with very little understanding of how to do a proper, hand and foot, emergency stop. And if it’s a big one, the chances of you locking your front wheel and going down in a screaming heap of sparks and bruises are pretty damn high. Unless you have a bike fitted with anti-lock brakes.
Oldschool ‘experts’ will tell you that ABS replaces skills you need to learn and that it will neuter good riders, but that’s just a load of olden days baggage from when ABS on bikes was still in its infancy. Nowadays, it’s better than 99% of riders and it can even take into account the road conditions, lean angle on your bike, and what you ate for breakfast. Probably. But what is fact is that ABS can and will save your backside. More than once.
Lesson 4: All Of The Gear, All Of The Time
I know, I know. Wearing protective gear in summer is a sweaty, uncomfortable nightmare. In fact, it’s like a bad joke. Can you imagine if skiers took the same approach to gear? “OK, so it’s below freezing outside, but to keep safe I have to ski nude. I know it’s uncomfortable, but the less gear I wear in this cold weather, the safer I will be.” Yeah, it sucks. But the facts are plain and simple. If you don’t believe me, just Google ‘Brittany Morrow’.
My learnings here are pretty simple. Most riders get that they need the gear, but they buy it to suit more ‘average’ temperatures for days when a leather jacket and a pair of kevlar jeans is reasonable attire. And when it isn’t, they just default to either not wearing all of their gear or – worse still – wearing street clothes.
But there’s a simple solution. Just get a summer jacket and a pair of vented gloves. There are heaps of them around now and some of them have more airflow in through them than your average jet engine. You spend a few hundred bucks, you get new gear to show off in and you avoid looking like you’ve been trapped in a house fire.
It often blows new riders away to find this out, but as exciting and riding a motorcycle is, it’s very, very easy to fall asleep on one. And while I don’t speak from experience, I’ve had my fair share of ‘tired eyes’ and zoning out after a long day on the bike.
The human brain is amazing, isn’t it? It can suffer extreme anxiety thanks to target fixation and then – maybe on the very same ride – it can suggest that you go to sleep while hurtling down a highway and balancing on a two-wheeled explosion of horsepower. Thanks, brain.
No, the noise of the wind won’t keep you awake. And no, opening up your helmet to the cold probably won’t help either. But what does help is pulling over. If you have a spare hour or so, have a nap. And if you don’t, have a nap. And after that, have some caffeine. It sounds like a lame Public Service Announcement, but it’s better to be a little late home than to spend your final moments looking at the dirty underside of a rubbish truck.
And the final bonus lesson here? The final lesson is that you never stop learning. You never really become ‘great’. You just slowly suck less and less. There’s always going to be noobs beneath you who can’t ride for quids. And there’s always going to be riders who can make you look like an amateur.
Only fools think they have mastered something completely. But those in the know realize that as good as anyone seems at something, they can always get better. It’s what separates those at the back of the MotoGP pack from those up in the front.