Why I Had To Get Back On That Horse (Power)

If you’ve ever crashed a motorcycle, you’re probably familiar with what I felt like when I did.

I shouldn’t have been surprised since I have a history of crashes when it comes to trying new things equipped with motors. The first time I took my daughter on a jet ski, I dumped us . . . twice.  When I first learned to drive a truck, I hit a car door that opened in my path, rolled a trash dumpster into a freshly constructed block wall, rear-ended a car and, well . . . you get the point.

But I’m not easily deterred. When my friend, Jeff, surprised me with a motorcycle riding class for my birthday, I was psyched to learn how to ride. I figured that I’d be well prepared, thanks to the professional instruction, none of which I had for either the Skidoo or the Mack truck. It seemed to work. I learned what the instructors had to teach and passed the competency test that Spring with flying colors. I was, the instructor said, “a natural.”

They Say The Kid’s a Natural

Eventually, I knew the day would come. The day Jeff would want me to go riding with him. I figured he would want to see how well I’d done with his gift; to evaluate his return on investment, so to speak.

That day came in the Fall. We met at Hal’s Harley Davidson, where I’d be renting a bike for the day. After 45 minutes of the kind of paperwork that would make anyone wary of what they’re doing (forms with names like “The Inherent Dangers of Motorcycle Operation,” “Waiver of Liability,” as well as several charges to the credit card for rental, multiple insurance policies and a $2,000 security deposit (“just in case”) we were almost ready to ride. Just needed to do a simple figure-8 pattern through the parking lot . . . twice. And I made that without incident (actually I started off quite rough, but recovered, thankfully), or at least I was good enough to go.

The Heritage Softail bike was a pretty (okay, cool) cobalt blue. It was a tad, two times in fact, heavier than the Buell model I’d trained on in my Riders Edge course. Like the Buell, though, this bike had five gears, a clutch, an accelerator and, most importantly, front and rear brakes.  What could go wrong?

I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will mention that I enjoyed myself a lot. Mostly. Jeff is an experienced rider, the kind of rider for whom 500 miles a day is not just doable, but exciting. An expert, fair to say. As he led me from the dealership onto the freeway (for the first time) and into the country and farmland of Southeastern Wisconsin, I was into the way the wind, the rumble of the engine and the beautiful scenery blended seamlessly together to create a unique, put-a-smile-on-your-face kind of experience.

Until I heard that noise.

A Brain-Body Miscommunication

Jeff and I had just had lunch at the Fox and Hounds and were on our way to Oconomowoc Lake. We Harley’d along a country road lined with trees announcing Fall’s arrival with their colorful leaves. The road was built to curve gently around the trees, preserving their beauty.  Relying on my training, I leaned the bike softly to the right, then softly back to the left to navigate the curves. Not softly enough, though. That became obvious when I heard, and felt, the crash bar under my left foot scrape the road, the result of a pinch of inattention mixed with a dash of incompetence.

No problem, though. My brain was quick to process the fact that “scrape” in bike speak, means bad. It sent a message to my body to pull up. Now. Trouble was, my brain forgot to tell my body exactly how much to pull up.  Lacking that critical piece of information, my body did what came naturally. It pulled up a lot. Too much, it turned out. Overcorrecting is, I think, the clinical term for what was happening.

Because of my brain-body miscommunication, the Softail and I were headed, helplessly I concluded, straight for the garage of a house that seemed ridiculously close to the road. Sensing an imminent collision that would be bad for my existence, my brain sent another command. Brake! My body did as it was ordered. I was braking, losing my balance and looking for non-garage landing alternatives when I spotted the mailbox posts (the 4 x 4 kind), and a tree. Decision time.

The posts won the quick “which is softest” test I mind-conducted. As the inevitable collision approached, my instinct was to lay the bike, along with me, down and slide, like a baseball player stealing a base, between the posts and the tree.  Safe! Dust was hanging in the air around me when I opened my eyes to see what had happened. The decorative rocks dressing up the mailbox posts had spewed onto the driveway, disturbed by me and the bike.

Down, But Not Out

I was able to extricate myself from under the bike and quickly surveyed the damage.  Minimal. Three thoughts dominated my moment:

  1. I hope no one is home at this house (they weren’t, I think);
  2. I hope no one drives along and sees me here, pathetically looking at my bike (correction, Hal’s bike), all cobalt and majestic, on its side by the mailbox (they didn’t);
  3. My instructor might be re-thinking his “you’re a natural” assessment.

My heart was pounding. The byproduct of fear mixed with adrenaline and embarrassment. I knew there was only one thing to do, of course, and that was to pick up that bike like a brave soul and carry on. Get right back on that horse (power), so to speak.

Lifting the bike up was easier than I’d anticipated, despite the extra pounds of dirt that had collected on the footpad and the front fork. Once I had the bike upright, I got back on and fired the engine. It stalled. I gulped. I fired the engine again. It stayed running, and I tapped the gear shift to first, but it wouldn’t go into gear because the footpad was jammed into the crash bar. Nothing wrong with second gear, I thought, and with that, I made my way back up the road. Total time from touch down to lift off, probably 30 seconds or so.

As I got going back up the hill, I saw Jeff coming toward me, looking for me like you look for a lost pet. We pulled over and stopped at the next intersection to assess the damage. Initial analysis — bent footrest peg. No biggie. Lucky. My pride was damaged more than the bike.  Security deposit, preserved.

Jeff was worried that I was okay. Apparently, despite his experience, he’d never seen anyone crash before and, at least technically, he didn’t see me either. Realistically, going on was the only option. After all, I wasn’t going to walk the bike back, and the chances of crashing again were, I hope you’ll agree, remote (this wasn’t some jet ski, you know).

I’d love to tell you that the rest of the trip went along without incident and so I will (and it did). By day’s end, I felt good about our ride, spending time with Jeff on the open road and learning (okay, improving) how to handle a bike on the road. Sure, we noticed more damage to the bike throughout the day, a broken tail light, bent turn signal assembly, stuff like that. Minor issues, especially if the bike’s your own rather than a rental.

When we got back to Hal’s, I thanked Jeff and encouraged him to get on his way; no sense in him having to share my humiliation with the rental manager. I didn’t know this at the time, but motorcycle rental managers lose their smile and turn white when you tell them you’ve crashed their bike. They also reach for “the clipboard.” I was thinking that ten minutes to five on a Saturday afternoon is about the worst time to report a mishap like this. Sort of ruins their weekend and all. I must admit that Bud handled it well (no laughing or cussing) and I commend him on his eye for detail, as he managed to find even more things wrong with the bike than Jeff or I did (imagine that). Of course, Bud couldn’t tell me what the repairs would cost because, surprise, the body shop was closed, and they’d need to give it the once-over as well.

Turns out the body shop also caught that the front fender was “tweaked,” something that even Bud had missed. Long story short, $800 in repairs.

“Would you like me to put that on your card?” Bud asked, rhetorically, but respectfully.

The crash cost me dollars and some pride. And wouldn’t you know, my right shoulder, the one that absorbed the 4 x 4, hurt a lot by the time I got home. Bruised, but not broken. But, all things considered, it saved me from the tree and the house and, as a bonus, provided another motorized mishap story to share.  All lessons come with pain.

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