IENATSCH TUESDAY: Frightening Choices

It won’t hurt you to give ground…but it might hurt if you don’t.

group motorcycle ride in Box Canyon

Last Saturday I went on a group ride for a charity benefit. There were more than 200 riders attending and we left the city quickly and wound along country highways. I was second behind the leader and we rode in a staggered formation.

The leader was a veteran rider who owned multiple bikes and put on a lot of miles. He led with lots of hand signals and kept the pace sane and the group together.

But he scared me badly a few times with one particular action.

The reason groups often ride in a staggered formation is to allow each rider to use the whole lane when necessary. This leader scared me by never coming off the yellow line, sticking to the left side of the lane no matter what.

It was no big deal most of the ride, but twice I was screaming in my helmet. The first time was when we had a bicyclist approaching us on the shoulder of the oncoming lane, and there was a car coming toward us too. The car wanted to give the bicyclist room and moved all the way to the centerline to do that, and our leader held his ground and stayed just this side of the yellow line. His bike and the car passed very closely, both going 60 mph.

The second time, a semi-truck was coming toward us as we navigated a left-hand sweeper at highway speeds. The truck was already using all of its lane and my imagination saw him using part of ours too if he wasn’t inch-perfect in his control. Our leader stayed right on the yellow line. The leader’s bike came within inches of a fast-moving and massive hunk of metal.

adventure bike motorcycle group ride

I have questions for everybody: How good is the average American driver? On a scale of one to 10, where would you place him or her? Have you looked at the bumps and dents on a lot of cars? Have you seen the tire marks on curbs, k-rails and guardrails? Will a motorcycle ever survive a bike-to-car encounter? Is a hospital stay still expensive and painful even if you weren’t “at fault?”

Street riders must learn a simple truth: Drivers' mistakes can hurt or kill you, even if you've done nothing wrong. In Sport Riding Techniques, I write about surviving traffic by predicting mistakes and not being there when they happen. Watching this group leader's attitude and actions regarding lane placement put a chill up my spine. Nothing went wrong on Saturday, but twice we were only inches from catastrophe…and dependent on a car/truck driver to not make a mistake!

Swallow your pride and ego and “this is my lane, damnit” mentality. Yes, we need to command our lane like a Mack truck, but we need to be willing to give away position instantly when encroached upon, or even when there’s just a possibility of being encroached upon.

I invented an excuse at lunch to duck out early. Everything about the group leader, from the way he dressed and expressed himself to the bike he rode, screamed macho. He was daring the oncoming vehicles to stray into his lane, as if mistakes wouldn’t happen if he was vigilant in defending his turf. And it wasn’t just on the backroads. Our leader would stay in the left third of the lane and barrel toward intersections even with cars waiting to turn left. Our leader’s self-confidence/machismo/pride took for granted that these (almost always distracted) drivers would see and respect him and his right to accelerate toward the intersection. Where I was closing the throttle and covering the brakes, or at least going to neutral throttle, he was on the gas. Chill up my spine.

I watched this play out all morning. The leader’s habits in traffic were so different than mine. He never seemed afflicted by the paranoia I suffer from regarding the vehicles around me. His confidence was through the roof, taking for granted that he was seen and respected. Never did he err on the safer side by giving himself a larger margin for others’ errors.

naked motorcycles on a group ride

He rode well and expected other road-users to do the right thing at the right time. In the three hours we rode together, he was correct. Could be that 200-plus riders strung out behind him helped with the views and respect, but nothing that my imagination played out actually happened. He barreled along and demanded his space and I said goodbye at lunch time.

And as I rode home in my paranoid way, I began to see another explanation for “car hits bike” accidents. It speaks to my basic premise of the untrained, uncaring, and unfocused American driver who will make mistakes that we need to avoid.

It reminded me of something we do at the Yamaha Champions Riding School, when the class drives karts during the three-day schools. Before the karts roll, we have a drivers' meeting and stress this: Don't be running into people. But then we add: And do your best not to be hit. We want our students to see the issues coming, to see that the other student is about to slam the door or spin, and do whatever it takes to avoid it. Not only does it make the karting more fun (actual driving as opposed to bumper-cars), but it puts you in the mindset of sacrificing everything to not get hit.

Demand your space and control your lane, but plan on other road users making mistakes. And don’t be around when they inevitably happen.

It won’t hurt you to give ground…but it might hurt if you don’t.

More next Tuesday!

Action #1

Group ride in Box Canyon.Jeff Allen

Action #2

Adventure bike group ride.Jeff Allen

Action #3

Adventure bike group ride.Jeff Allen

Action #4

Sportbike group ride.Jeff Allen

Action #5

Naked bike group ride.Jeff Allen