Two Sundays ago, for the first time, someone in my riding group went down. I didn’t see the crash happen. I came around a bend and saw one of my fellow riders in a drainage ditch on the side of the road, getting out from under his Ninja. Two other bikes were parked and their riders running toward the downed rider. The leader of the pack hadn’t yet realized that he lost the group and would arrive a few moments later after making a U-turn. I was in the rear of the pack and I parked and scrambled as well.

The guy was OK. The bike was OK too – just a whole lotta mud and a small barely-noticeable scratch on the fairing. He rode away from the crash with everything physically and mechanically in tact – very fortunate. And even though I didn’t see things go down, there was a lot to learn from the situation:

It’s OK to be last in the pack. This particular group of riders are big-time risk takers. They have a “spirited” riding style and push the limits. But I enjoy the fellowship with them, and I always learn something. Kind of like when I ski with better skiers or golf with a scratch golfer. Art, the guy who leads the pack is in his 50’s but he’s the single most aggressive guy I ride with.  He works for a performance bike shop and rides a jacked up 240 horsepower Triumph Rocket III Silverback. I can’t keep up. And I don’t try. I let them do their thing, and Art waits for me at the intersections.

Art's Rocket III Silverback.

If I were in the middle of the pack on this ride, trying to keep up, and the guy who crashed was in front of me, who knows what could have happened? Maybe I would have been startled and lost control myself. If I was in front of him, maybe I would have been the one to hit the patch of dirt that brought him down. But none of those things happened because I was content to ride along in the group at my own pace, and not pressure myself to keep up with a far superior group of riders.

ATGATT will save your life.

My shorty helmet has got to retire.

The downed rider was fully geared up with armored pants and jacket, performance riding boots and gloves, and a full-face helmet. If he was in jeans and a denim jacket he would have been hurting.

A few months ago I was hanging out at Van Sant Airport – a popular gathering place for bikers in Bucks County near where I live – and one of the other riders related the story of a friend who had a particularly horrific crash the previous week and lived to tell the tale. The guy was going too fast through a covered bridge, and hit a bump as he exited that threw his front wheel in the air suddenly. He instinctively grabbed his brakes – wrong thing to do when a tire is in the air – and when the front end came back down it spun sideways and threw him off the bike, across the road, and under a guard rail, and he slid face-first into a creek on the side of the road. He was dazed and achey but was discharged from the hospital only hours later and walked out the door.

Gotta replace this helmet sticker on my new helmet. Says it all, doesn't it?

He was alive I’m sure in no small part because of some kind of heavenly intervention, but also because he was wearing a complete set of technical riding gear. Leathers with Kevlar armor, boots, gloves, full face helmet…the whole gamut.

Having seen a compatriot actually go down I’m planning to get more serious about ATGATT next season. Invest in a pair of armored riding pants and some real motorcycle boots (not the hiking boots I’ve been wearing while riding.) And I think my shortie helmet is going to have to retire. When I first started riding, if someone teased me for wearing a full face helmet I would just laugh it off by saying “This face and what’s between these ears are my moneymakers. I need to protect ’em.” Then I got a little too comfortable and started wearing the shortie or (to be honest) sometimes no helmet at all. No more.

The smallest obstacle can take you out. When asked what happened, the downed rider pointed to a smear of dirt in the middle of the road and said, “I hit that, and lost traction and slid off the road.” The patch of dirt looked insignificant. But it was enough.

During the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse I was taught to continually scan the road ahead for obstacles and adjust course to avoid them. And early on, it was impressed on me to avoid gravel, as a friend broke his leg when he was coming to a stop at a traffic light, hit some gravel, and fell down. So I try to be fastidious about avoiding it. I’ll keep doing it as a result of this experience.

Ride within your limits. As I noted above, I take to the back of this particular group of riders because they are aggressive. Later when we stopped for a break, the fellow who crashed shared that he had been riding 4 years – the same amount of time as me.  He might have saved himself a spill by taking a page out of my book and hanging at the back of the pack.

In  addition, the common denominator in both of the crashes described in this post was speed. Too fast, too spirited. Going fast means you have less time to react to obstacles you see ahead. Less time to avoid that smear of mud or gravel, the deer about to dart into the road, the teenage girl who just went through the stop sign because she was sending an important text to her BFF.  Now I’m not going to tell you I don’t occasionally – ahem – exceed the speed limit. But maybe I learned something about that last Sunday, too.