How to Crash a Motorcycle at Low Speed
When I first began to ride motorcycles, a common expression was “There are old riders and bold riders, but no riders that are old and bold.” It is curious that you do not hear it much anymore. Over the years I realized that it’s not that the bold riders die, necessarily (although the careless often do), but that after a few close calls and a crash or two they moved on to some other pastime such as stock market investing or fantasy football leagues – presumably boldly.
Among those that have ridden for decades you will hear this: “Incidents less than 10mph do not count as accidents.” If this comforting concept is held to be true, then I have been crash free since June of 1969! That one was a real crash caused by a loose nut controlling the handlebars – me, and need not be discussed.
Since that unfortunate day over 46 years ago I’ve had a bike bite the ground 5 times. That may sound like a lot, but having ridden far over 500 motorcycles a total of several hundred thousand miles since then, that number is not all that awful.
I am leaving out crashes on dirt bikes here, for several reasons. 1.) I took an adventure riding class one weekend where crashing was an expected outcome, and everyone did – repeatedly. 2.) It was not my bike. I learned in that class that I could indeed ride off-road bikes, but did not particularly like it. Different strokes for different folks.
As to the five incidents, each was educational in its own way, although I appear to have a flat learning curve for one type of incident. Let’s look at the details.
First incident: It was somewhere in the late 1980’s, and I was teaching at Kamiakin Junior High. I was commanded to get a half-day substitute so I could attend a meeting for teachers of Honors classes, held at Redmond Junior High. The meeting was about as useful as most of them were, but when I escaped it was a truly gorgeous day. I got on my spotless 1977 Yamaha 750 triple, and proceeded to enjoy a jolly ride back to Kamiakin on winding and traffic-free (back then) roads. I was not going crazy, but I was “in the zone” and enjoying myself mightily. I swooped into the Kamiakin parking lot and came to an abrupt stop in a parking spot of choice. With the bars still turned. The motorcycle threw itself to the ground and I jumped off. My first thought was that I must get it back on its wheels again before a bell rang. If some students came outside and saw my plight I would never hear the end of it. Miraculously, the Yamaha showed no damage at all, and I went inside to resume teaching.
Lesson: Do not glom onto the brakes at low speed with the handlebars turned. (“They all do that, sir.”
Second Incident: In 2001 I purchased a lock for the front brake disc of my beloved Kawasaki ZRX 1100 as a theft deterrent. I was warned not to do this by sales manager Scott McMillan, who pointed out that every person he’d ever known that had done this eventually forgot to take it off before departure, and the resultant damage was far more expensive than the deductible on my theft insurance.
Not me! I’d be careful. And I was… for a while.
I rode to Bellevue to host episode of my call-in radio show – “The Motorsports Show –with Dave Preston!” A guest for this one was a young man selling legal insurance called “Legal Shield.” I was pretty sure this was a pyramid sales scheme, and I intended to expose the scam through persistent but polite questioning. Instead, by the end of the program I was a customer! This program has been a boon at times, and the $16.95 fee per month has not increased in 14 years.
After the show three of us stood in the parking lot chatting on a beautiful evening. The other guest was my friend Frank Kai, at that time a Harley salesman. He’d been on the show to discuss the latest and greatest coming from Harley – which in those days could be summed up as “new colors!” Eventually the insurance guy drove away and Frank and I continued yakking. I was so pleased with how the show had gone, and the evening was so gorgeous, that Frank got on his customized Harley (a bit redundant there – pretty much all Harleys are customized by their owners sometimes before taking possession), and I clambered aboard the ZRX – and forgot.
When I started the bike and put it in gear it rolled forward a foot and then threw itself on the ground, with me stepping off as it went down. It felt like some unseen monster had simply clobbered it, and I was confused – until I saw the disc lock jammed against the fork.
We picked up the bike (no damage to the paint – again!) and with some difficulty got the disc lock free of the fork and off the bike. The problem now was that the disc carrier in the wheel (referred to as the ‘spider’) was hitting the caliper and the wheel did not want to turn. A few hammer blows from the heavy chrome disc lock Frank had in his bag (but had not bothered to put on) got the spider straight enough that the wheel could turn freely
As we rolled away I soon learned I was not out of the woods yet. There was still contact inside the brake caliper, and the pads were being pushed back in their bores. I had no front brakes without pumping brake lever several times. However, we riding back up I-405, and I followed Frank. My reasoning was that a ZRX with only a rear brake could probably stop more rapidly than a Harley with both front and rear brakes. I think that was correct, although I did not have to prove it. I rode very carefully to work the next day and had the spider replaces for $260 dollars. Scott was right.
Lesson Learned: Do not use a disc brake lock.
Third incident: Working at Cycle Barn, I was asked to bring a used Kawasaki ZX6 from the shop area to the showroom. This was a lovely used bike in bright orange with neon purple lights hidden in it you could turn on with a switch. Inexplicably, I thought it was really cool. I got on the bike in the shop and needed to back it up about thirty yards down two parallel rows of bikes awaiting storage, their front tires making a wall on either side. I backed up very carefully, and thought I had cleared them all. The last one was a Honda Valkyrie, a bike with a very long wheelbase. Its front tire jutted out a little further than the others. As I finished backing up and turned my attention to the front, the rear tire of the ZX6 rammed into the front tire of the Valkyrie. Caught totally unawares, the ZX6 was on the ground before I could stop it, although I pulled a muscle in my right calf trying. Colleagues rushed to help me, and the bike was back on its wheels in a jiff. A small inch or two of road rash marred the metal flake orange paint on the left side, and I was crushed. Everybody said not to worry about it, which was kind but did not help much.
The next day the detailer (Ken Muncey) who was a genius at this sort of thing, waved his talented hands over the bike and all the damage disappeared. The bike was sold to a happy new owner soon after.
I was still moping about this when CFO Gary Harper quizzed me one day when I mentioned my stupidity. “How long have you worked for Cycle Barn?” he asked.
“And how many bikes have you ridden in that time?”
“And this is the first Cycle Barn bike you’ve put on the ground?”
“Wow – you need to pick it up. A lot of employees have done much worse than this. You’re behind!”
Part of my job status was that I was ever eager to ride any motorcycle. Many people can be a bit picky and will turn down the opportunity to ride a bike that is not in their comfort zone. I’ve never understood this. I had an impeccable record in terms of caring for company property. In fact, many of the employees were not allowed by the insurance company to ride any bike owned by the dealership due to past indiscretions.
Gary’s kind words helped a lot
Lesson Learned: Be VERY careful backing up a bike. It takes very little to upset the apple cart.
Fourth incident: In 2011 I was leading a group back to Seattle from the WSBMWR Rally in Republic. My steed was a BMW K1300S, the second one I had to ride. The very best part of my job at Ride West was that I got to order a new BMW each year of my choice, and to option it to my heart’s content. In 2010 I went for a K1300S in “lava orange” and larded it up with all the options I wanted. Tinted screen, center stand, electric suspension adjustment, expandable bags, rear rack, tank bag, and an Akrapovich exhaust the shop had taken off a previous used bike the new owner did not want. About half way through the year it dawned on me (I can be a bit slow) that this bike was so expensive the store would take a big hit when it was sold in the fall. They may have written it off as a business expense so perhaps this was not true.
I absolutely adored that bike, probably the finest motorcycle in terms of capability I’ve ever experienced. Very fast, yet very civilized. Easy to ride at any speed from mild to unthinkable. I called it a “Gentleman’s Hyperbike.” Alarmed at the cost, I suggested to the owner that I ride it for two or three years to make it more economically palatable for the store. He refused, stating that I had to be riding a model current for the year. So in 2011, I ordered another one! This one was red and black, and I left off the center stand and the rear rack, which I regretted for the rest of the year. I also was not that fond of the color, but who is going to complain when works offers a plus $20k motorcycle to ride? I mean, really!
In any case, I loved the orange one, but merely enjoyed the red one. Curious.
We rode back from Republic on Highway 20, which is normally one of the best rides you can have. On this occasion we got stuck behind some bozo in a 40 foot long RV – towing a car, who refused to move over. There was no place for a group of 8 or 10 motorcycles to pass safely, and the highway had just been chip sealed. We rode for about 50 miles in very high heat inhaling clouds of dust with small pebbles bouncing off every surface and body. It was miserable.
In Marblemount I stopped for fuel and hydration. Totally knackered – tired, overheated, and de-hydrated. Refueled, I pushed the bike forward to make room for others and repaired to the side to inhale two bottles of water.
Wil Wen came up to me and mentioned that I should push my bike forward a few more feet, as he thought he’d seen a nail sticking out of the rear tire. Oh no! I rushed to the bike to push it forward, and things went from bad to worse in seconds. I heard a clanking sound and realized I’d left my brand new $600 helmet on the seat. It was now bouncing and rolling across the parking lot. I went to put the side stand down, but it had hit a rock and folded itself up. It was not there. The heavy bike leaned over and, with no side stand, kept going. Standing there in the heat, my bike on its side and my helmet on the ground. I was so stunned that I just stood immobile in a fog of dismay. My friends rushed to pick up the bike and the helmet, but my entire self was crushed in defeat. As it turned out, there was no nail in my rear tire, and Wil apologized for a false alarm that had ended so badly, but it’s always better for a friend to think there is a nail and check for it than to keep quiet. Not his fault at all, and in fact I hope he’d do the same thing again.
Back at work you had to look hard to see the damage on the bike – a small bit of road rash on the left side just as the red paint met the black of the lower fairing. The black was OK. But I saw it every day, and the bad memory was hard to shake.
The bike was sold in the fall, and it came back as a trade-in the following year, and now had similar but more extensive road rash on right side! The bike was sent to Sick Werks for new red paint and all was well
Lesson Learned: Always take a second to look over the bike before moving it. All bags zippered shut? Helmet secure? Much better
Fifth incident: This one occurred just the other day while enjoying a ride with a friend on Whidbey Island. We stopped for a bite at a Burger King (good idea), and then for fuel at the 7-11 next door (bad idea). Bike re-fueled with 87 octane, which was all they had, I noticed that the exit went only to the right, and we wanted to turn left. However, a few yards to the right beckoned a left turn space for the shopping center across the street. As I swung right and then left I discovered that the entrance was actually further left. I was now heading straight for an 8 inch high curb that would shatter the front wheel as the start of an accident. I hit the brakes hard; the handlebars still turned hard left.
Before I could register what was happening the chin bar of my helmet was bouncing off the asphalt and both bike and I were down in the middle of the street. I scrambled to my feet and the guy in the truck that chose not to run over me helped me lift the Triumph back on its wheels. I was heartsick. Almost ten years and almost 50,000 miles and my bike had always been a truly gorgeous triumph (pun intended) to me. Once rolled into the parking lot and with thanks to all who helped I began the grim task of assessing the damage. There was a small mark on the helmet, which I figured would be there. I was surprised the headlights had not taken a hit, or the instruments, or the fuel tank or the… there. Black smudges on the seat cowling and side panel. Well, much less than I expected, or deserved, and the only lasting damage would probably be a few scrapes. Still – I hate stuff like this!
I assured Mark that I was OK, probably more in hope than in actual evidence, and I did not take long enough to assess the bike or me. As we rode up the street the first thing I noticed was that my helmet visor would not close. We stopped for the first time and I managed to get the visor off and then back on, which can be tricky on an Arai. Mark noticed that my hands were shaking and asked if I was OK, and I replied that I was fine. The shaking hands were probably a result of the adrenaline surge of the crash.
Underway again, it did not take long to discover that the left hand mirror stalk nut had loosened. We stopped again to fix that, and by now I was embarrassed to be taking up so much time
As we rode toward the south of the island, I could tell that I was not quite right. The left side of my upper chest was sore, probably a bruised rib cartilage or two. I have done this before – non-motorcycle. But I was also troubled by my head. It was obvious that I’d been badly shaken up. My reaction times and decision making abilities were suspect. This is not good on a motorcycle, so we decided to ignore the many delightful side roads of Whidbey and head to the ferry. From the ferry landing in Mukilteo to the exit to my house is almost literally a straight line, and I arrived home with no further drama.
To my elated surprise, the black marks on the rear cowling came off easily with a little Goof Proof, and my bike was spotless again. The small bit of rash on the bar end was touched up with black felt tip pen, and all that remained were micro scratches on the end of the clutch lever and the rider and passenger pegs. I have never seen any motorcycle dropped while rolling at any speed that did not sustain damage, so I retired to bed with aching ribs to ponder my good luck.
Lesson Learned: This might sound much like Incident One, but there’s more to it than that. True, I might have chosen to yank the bars straight and stand on the brakes, and I might have stopped before I hit the curb. But I doubt it. The real error(s) began earlier, when I assessed the exit from the 7-11. It would have taken roughly zero extra time to poodle down the street a bit to a safer U-turn opportunity. I failed to examine the terrain carefully and opted for a path that led to the problem. I was in no hurry at all – just sloppy. The lessons are to scan the area in front of you more carefully. A second lesson would be to take more time for both the bike and the rider. I should have taken ten minutes to sit on a bench and talk through what happened, and taken more time to assess the damage to the bike and me.
What it all means.
There were several things that worked on my behalf, particularly in the last one.
ATGATT – “All the Gear All the Time.” In all five of these incidents I had on, at the very least, a very high quality helmet, jacket, and boots.
Friends – although I do enjoy riding by myself, it was such an asset to have Mark with me on this occasion. He was patient and eager to help, but not obtrusive. His calm acceptance of the relatively minor results helped calm me down.
Triumph techs. The techs at Triumph of Seattle set up my bike with the handlebar controls and mirrors tight enough to not move by themselves, but with just enough play that when they hit the ground they merely rotated instead of snapping off or breaking. This not only kept the bike in a rideable state, but saved me several hundred dollars in repairs.
The friend who broke several ribs when he hit the ground with his cell phone in his jacket. I have not carried anything inside the jacket since.
For younger riders, or people getting into motorcycling for the first time at any age, it may be comforting to think that these things do happen. I remember a young man on his first motorcycle and his first group ride. He was excited for the day, but a bit intimidated by the other riders, who were all friendly and welcoming but also people with decades of experience.
He did just fine until the lunch break, where he turned a bit too soon and clipped a piece of parking lot area separator, sending he and his new bike to the ground. He was not hurt, but so embarrassed.
I was so pleased with the group. They spent the entire lunch taking turns telling stories of stupid things each had done, each person trying to top the other. Laughter was frequent. Eventually the young man felt a lot better, as he realized that everyone who rides deals with these sorts of things.
Perhaps Jeb Bush said it best. (Never thought I would type those words)
Copyright 2015 David Preston