MOTORCYCLING’S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
(Published in Sport Rider Magazine, February 2003)
We were railing at a pretty decent clip across the Cherohala when we spotted the helicopter. “Police chopper”, was our first thought, as we checked our speed. But a little further along, when we came around the corner to the blue lights and the flares and the double-handful of bikes parked along the side, we realized the real reason. Medivac.
That one was sobering in its clarity - there was lots of blood on the road. We would find out later that the guy survived. Barely. The Armco had taken off one of his legs, just above the knee. The police estimated his entry speed into the corner at nearly 100mph. Of course he’d been with a group of other riders. Naturally.
Riding with a group of like-minded friends can be one of the best parts about our little sport. Being able to talk about and laugh and share the experiences on the road can be a real kick. But it also has an ugly side. Group riding is nothing less than our dirty little secret. Why? Because that is where an extraordinarily-high percentage of single-vehicle motorcycle accidents happen.
The simple fact is that most of us - and especially guys - have an investment of ego and pride and desire for self-inclusion and, yes, even competitiveness, which too-often drives us to do things in a group setting which we generally wouldn’t do when by ourselves. Including piloting a sportbike at too-fast speeds. It takes a really mature individual to defy those instincts to “stay with the pack”. To not stay on the tail of that rider in front of us even though the pace has elevated far beyond what we feel comfortable. Frankly, most of us simply don’t have the discipline to not do those things.
The blunt reality is, mile for mile, our chances of being involved in a motorcycle accident are sharply higher when riding with a group than when riding alone. I don’t know of any formal statistical study which proves that. The Hurt Report didn’t elaborate on that particular dynamic. Yet the empirical evidence is overwhelming. It happens wherever motorcyclists and good roads meet - the Sunday Morning ride in Northern California, the Angeles Crest, Deals Gap, route 211 in Virginia, or any of the countless other lesser-known places favored by local sportbike-riding cognoscenti. Just turn your gaze towards any of those places and contemplate the crashes that happen there virtually every weekend – the vast majority of those involving riders in a group. Funny how the solo riders running those same mountains manage to mostly stay on two wheels.
So what’s the answer? Not to ride with friends? Refuse that invitation from one of our buddies to go on that overnighter just because we don’t know the rest of the riders? Never dare to ride with that group of strangers we hooked up with at the gas station?
One thing’s for sure - there aren’t any simple answers. There’s certainly no panacea. But it can work. There are groups of sport riders who routinely ride together without incident.
We have to start by acknowledging that group riding does indeed carry that extra risk. Always has and probably always will. The ego thing is very real. And if you’re a guy, figure you’re doubly-susceptible. More than one woman, on observing a bunch of male riders together, has remarked that “the testosterone is running mighty thick”. We need to beware the consequences of that.
More-experienced riders, usually the ones who set up and lead these rides, also have an obligation to assert some manner of leadership. Simply pretending that everyone will “ride their own ride” clearly doesn’t work much of the time. Smaller groups are better. So is more spacing between riders. So is a willingness – too often absent – to point out to riders that something about their riding is unsafe, or that it’s clear they are pushing too hard. So is insisting on proper riding gear. So is making it emphatically clear that the ride route may include sections that are more challenging and that will likely cause some of the slower riders to fall back and perhaps lose sight of everyone else – and, oh, by the way not to worry because everyone will wait and re-group at whatever checkpoint. So is appointing one of the more-experienced riders to run sweep, tagging along with and keeping an eye on the slower riders.
And, of course, there’s always the track.
Those are some of the things we can do. But they alone won’t fix the problem. Even more important is the attitude that everyone brings. An insistence by each of us that we will not be involved in an incident on this day. One day at a time. Just like those guys in recovery – a notion not too far from the truth for some of us.
The problem isn’t going to go away on its own. If we don’t do something, if we don’t – via self discipline and peer pressure and self-policing – begin to insist on better behavior and less carnage within our own riding community – it’ll be done for us. We’ll see ever-more draconian enforcement of traffic laws, more police stings, and more road closures. That’s not the kind of environment most of us want to contemplate riding our next sportbike in.
© 2002 Jeff Hughes and Sport Rider Magazine