How not to get back in the saddle

I was replying to Sue’s comment on my well-wishes blog for Lori Cannon when I stopped and thought, hmm.  Maybe this deserves a bit more in passing.

Sue said one of the hardest things she ever did was get back on her ex’s bike after a crash.  And I’m sure she’s right.  On a level that I’m not even familiar with, because I’ve never crashed while riding as a passenger.  (Sue, that’s how I interpreted your statement – if I’m wrong, smack me correct!)  Riding as a motorcycle passenger requires a hell of a lot of trust, and climbing back on after an accident requires even more.  Seriously.

But just getting back on the ol’ iron horse after a crash definitely takes some guts.  And while I talk a lot about what Pirsig would call the romantic aspects of motorcycling, there is hard reality there also.  Maybe it’s only fair – and more honest – that I talk about my cold experience with harsh reality.  And I can already tell that I should update my glossary a bit with some new biker terms after this post.

In my own case, well, I’d crashed bicycles badly enough to get second-degree roadrash burns as a kid, and I’ve dumped dirt bikes a time or four when I was a teenager.  But I crashed my road bike twice:  once when a lady in a Honda hatchback ran me off of a little backcountry road and didn’t bother to stop to check on me afterward, which all in all was a fairly minor 20mph lowside (although I sprained the shit out of both wrists), and once a year and a half later when I leaned over too hard on a new rear tire that wasn’t adequately broken in yet, and lowsided again.  That one would have been minor, also…if not for the guard rail.

I can tell you that, while the world doesn’t exactly move in slow motion, the two seconds I spent sliding toward that guard rail definitely seemed to take a while.  I was going uphill into a constant radius, positive cambered left-hand turn at about 30-35 mph, so there was no blinding speed involved.  The rear tire just slipped out to the outside.  One second I was hanging off to the left and on the throttle, the next I’m sliding on my left hip and watching the bike slide away ahead of me.  (Leather slows on pavement faster than aluminum and plastic.)  It took me a pregnant instant to realize it:  “Holy fuck, I’m on the ground!”

Well, realizations came pretty quickly after that.  “Oh shit, the bike’s gonna hit the rail!  Oh…crunch…fuck.  Damn, that su…wait a sec, oh fuck, I’m gonna hit the rail!  This is gonna…oof.”

Sliding uphill on my left side, I took the guard rail to my back, about three inches to the right of my spine and an inch above my waistline.  Other than a nasty bruise there, though, I was unhurt.  The bike had definitely seen better days, though.  I rode it home, and then to make an already long story somewhat shorter, there’s my long profanity-laced tirade about insurance and repair shops that ends with the bike being totaled for what I estimated I could have fixed myself for about $1000.

But this post isn’t about bike repair or insurance.  It’s about fear, and overcoming fear, and getting back on the horse even when you’re scared shitless.  And I have a somewhat stupid angle on that story.  You see, I had entirely too much (as in, an unhealthy amount) of my self-image wrapped up in my biker identity NOT to get back on.  After some years (too many) of reflection, I can say now that I’m still a biker, even without a bike – but I recognize that I’m a biker but not just a biker, or even predominantly a biker, if that makes sense.  I’m bigger than that.  Motorcycling is still a unique fix, and one I’ll probably never get out of my system, but there’s more to me than that.

At the time, though, it was somewhat pathetic how frightened I was of losing that identity of “Biker” that I’d wanted for so long and held not long enough.  Particularly after my first crash, I was much more afraid of that than I was of whatever else might happen to me on the bike, so I pushed myself way too hard and way too fast to get back on.
After my first wreck, I ordered the parts and did the repairs to the bike even while my wrists were so badly sprained that turning the wrenches almost brought tears to my eyes.  I got back on and rode even though twisting the throttle and using the levers definitely brought pain.  I knew I was being stupid and tempting a worse accident by pushing through the barrier of pain AND fear of crashing, but I couldn’t stop myself.  The cost to my self-image was too high to contemplate otherwise.  In retrospect, that whole episode was one of the most pathetically foolish times of my life.

After my second accident, while riding my damaged bike back home, I actually did contemplate hanging it up.  I’d been riding long enough to know people who’d been seriously hurt.  I had a wife and a child who were depending on me.  And I’d crashed twice in two years, which although there was bad luck involved in both, there were things I could have done to have prevented them both.  I didn’t exactly have a sterling record as a rider to be able to tell my family “No, really, this time it’ll be all right.”  And my wife’s terrified tears when I made it home safe definitely gave me a lot more to think about.

But ultimately I decided I wanted to get back on it again.  I think that time it wasn’t quite as unhealthy as before, but probably still somewhat so.  I couldn’t let it beat me, and I still didn’t want to let go of that self-definition.  Obviously that’s still true to a degree.  Hell, I call myself “Taoist Biker” when I haven’t sat on a running motorcycle in over two years now, ferfucksake, and it’ll be at least two more before I can start seriously thinking about it again.  But now, after reflection, even though I still want to get back onto a motorcycle, I think I have a better perspective on the whole thing.

And I’ll be a little afraid when I climb back on again for the first time, still.  But as bikers sometimes tell each other, the day you’re not afraid of it anymore is the day to hang up your helmet.  It’ll be hard for me, and it’ll be scary, but I think I’ve learned a whole lot about myself not only from riding, but from crashing, from getting back on too soon, and now by not being able to get back on.  Honestly, I think talking about my past fears and foolishness helps in that regard.  So I hope I can be a little bit wiser when my next opportunity rolls around.


5 Responses

  1. You are absolutely correct, I was a passenger and he was driving. Me and the bike both went tumbling ass over teakettles across a country road, landing firmly in a ditch filled with 2 feet of muddy water.

    I only got a little road rash on my upper left thigh and a piece of gravel firmly embedded in my left palm out of that, but it was plenty.

    I did get back on the bike to get home, but rode very little with him after that. He had panicked when he approached a corner strewn with gravel and blacked out.

  2. I had a “moment” in of those cases, too. I was almost committed to the corner when I saw the gravel. I managed to straighten it up and get on the brakes hard before running off the other side of the road and down a, oh, fifty foot embankment. Woohoo!

    Gravel is one of the natural enemies of the motorcyclist.

    And that’s one of the reasons I’m ATGATT – I prefer NOT to find out what it feels like to have gravel scrubbed out. Ouch.

  3. “It’s about fear, and overcoming fear, and getting back on the horse even when you’re scared shitless.

    Yup. It doesn’t matter if it’s motorcycles, horses, cars, or in my case, relationships. I have some serious relationship issues, as you’ve seen. It’s my “horse” if you will.

    And yes, I think my blog ate your comment on my V-Day post. Damn. But I’m glad you liked it.

  4. I was in an accident years ago (completely my fault) but ever since then have sworn off motorcycles. I just don’t think they’re the sex machines men think they are.

  5. Pammy – I actually read that in your “about me” about five minutes after I left a comment on your page, and thought to myself “Hmm. Shoulda read that first. She’s gonna see my name and roll her eyes.”

    I don’t really think motorcycles are sex machines, personally. I’m sure this sounds totally weird to most folks, but to me it’s a completely different thing altogether, and some sort of crude sexual innuendo attached to it just cheapens it in a way. It would be like making a rude joke about someone’s meditation.

    I’ve been in and around groups of motorcyclists long enough to see lots of them survive accidents in varying states of health. Some swore it off completely, some hopped right back on, and some swore it off only to come back years later.

    The more experienced bikers in the group would always say that the best way to find out if you’re really a biker at heart is to walk away from it and see if you come back. Because some always come back even after five, ten, twenty years since their last ride.

    That said, I never look down at someone who tried it, scared themselves, and walked away. Better that than forcing yourself into a stupid mistake that could seriously hurt you or someone else, just to live up to that sex machine image. Sorry about your accident – hope it didn’t leave horrible permanent scars, physical or mental!

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