Our Next Motorcycle Crash

Veteran riders may have ridden a gazillion miles and ridden everywhere (and everything), but this is what will bite you and me

crashed motorcycle on road
Crashed motorcycle on side of road.Barry Hathaway

At some point, we riders would like to be crash-proof. Our experience finally exposes us to every variable and we never crash again due to our physical and mental approach to the sport. We’ve either covered enough miles or studied the sport hard enough to grasp all facets of the danger. No more crashes.

Sounds good, huh?

My Yamaha Champions Riding School staff and I have found some inventive and amazing ways to crash motorcycles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the "Kick-Ass, Ass-Kicked" syndrome and that surely has been a factor in our interfaces with the ground, but underlying all our crashes is this one consistent factor: We don't allow ourselves time to adjust to something new.

stunt riding on a scooter
YCRS’s Kyle Wyman saw that Ray Bradlau had his camera out so a stunt on the scooter was in order. “I’d never done that before,” Kyle told us, “so I was about as focused as I am on a MotoAmerica grid! I hate wadding it on camera!” Something new? Bring the focus.TheSBImage.com

Because veteran riders have extensive muscle memory and/or technical understanding, we ride with a level of confidence and concentration that has proved to keep us safe for years.

But then…

—you highside your friend’s bike because it has GP shift and you slam a clutchless upshift from second gear to first, rather than from second to third.

—you run past your neighborhood stop sign into cross traffic because your brand-new unbedded brake pads and rotors will not grip each other like the brake pads and rotors you replaced.

—you tuck the front on the first lap because the “brand-new compound” Michelin tire that your tire guy imported from France doesn’t have the amazing cold-tire grip of your previous Michelin.

—you lowside yourself into the guardrail because the pavement put down last week does not yet have the grip of the pavement it covered.

—you jump on your 1980 sportbike with your wife on the back and highside yourself in the first freeway onramp because it doesn’t have the same lean-angle available as your 2015 sportbike.

—you hear that Valentino Rossi uses three fingers on the brake lever so you “grab” your front brake lever with three fingers instead of one and lowside on a cold tire.

—you trade bikes with your buddy at lunch and in the first right-hand corner his full-dress cruiser drags its pipes earlier than your Z1000 drags its footpegs and you’re pushed across the center line into oncoming traffic.

—you crash on the dead autumn leaves strewn across your lane under the sycamore.

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
It rained last night and you crash in the wet shady spot under one of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s bridges.GTPlanet.com

—you flip your bike over while wheelying during a California vacation because it never made this much power at 5,500 feet in Idaho.

—you change the ride-height to make your bike turn so well that you catch a footpeg on the curb.

—you snap open the throttle on your friend’s turbo bike like you do on your “slow” GSX-R1000 and wheelie over on the freeway.

—you lowside your Ducati while downshifting in a rain race, using the same non-rev-matching technique that had worked in the dry.

—you endo your friend’s bike over on top of yourself because his monoblock Brembos have ten times the initial bite and stopping power of your two-piece Nissins.

Should I go on?

Something changes and we don’t take the time to adjust to it. The confidence we have in our skills and experience gives us a false sense of security, and that secure sense allows our focus levels to drop, or at least remain “normal.” For veteran riders, a “normal” level of focus is amazingly high, but not always high enough to meet the challenge of the change in bike or environment. We must learn to ratchet up our focus levels to red alert and bring our speeds down until we master the change.

Eddie Lawson race action
Eddie LawsonCycle World Archives

And we are not alone in this quest. Four-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion (and AMA 250GP and Superbike champion) Eddie Lawson told me, “I bet my first two laps of practice were the slowest of the whole GP field. I was just giving myself a chance to see the track, feel the bike, work into it slowly.” Racers like Lawson never rode the “same bike” twice in a row; it was always changed and tweaked from session to session. He learned to give himself a chance to feel those tweaks at less than race pace, and he learned it from experience…experience that involved scratched leathers.

This subject is in my brain constantly, but especially this week as I travel to the AHRMA vintage races at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. I'm slated to race Chris Carr's 1981 Kawasaki GPz 550 and Carry Andrew's 1977 Kawasaki Z1 and both bikes are exceedingly valuable…and new to me. Every possible way of crashing is on the table and Lawson's approach will be my approach. Many things are changed and I must give those changes a chance to speak to me at less than race pace.

Chris Carr 1981 Kawasaki GPz 550
Chris Carr's 1981 Kawasaki GPz 550.Nick Ienatsch
Cary Andrew 1977 Kawasaki Z1
Opportunities for journalists to ride/race bikes like Carr’s GPz and Carry Andrew’s Z1 dwindle quickly when pavement meets fuel tanks. One solution is to “just ride them slowly all weekend,” but that’s not necessarily the best solution when you’re writing a racing story. Another solution is to start slow and with maximum focus. Just like Eddie.Nick Ienatsch

My last crash, and the last crash of the huge majority of the YCRS staff, is directly related to this problem of not adjusting to a change. For most of us, it was a tire issue…either a new compound or a different brand or different temperatures of rubber or track…and my staff is astoundingly good at not hitting the ground. Please let our experience, Eddie Lawson's advice and this article spike your focus and lower your speeds when something changes.

Ben Walters (left) and Chris Peris
Champ School instructors Ben Walters (left) and Chris Peris hold their second-consecutive WERA Endurance championship trophies. The past two seasons saw them travel to five all-new racetracks, so change was constant. Zero crashes in two years of winning. “You don’t get much practice, so getting a new track figured out quickly took every ounce of focus,” Peris relates.Nick Ienatsch

More Next Tuesday: Nick’s Diary from Four Days at the Barber AHRMA Vintage Festival!