Jun 19, 2017
The Geezer with a Grudge Columns
(Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycling Monthly Magazine.)
All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day
If you didn't know me you might suspect the title of this essay is saying something about my dislike for good 'ole Mommy Nature. That's not the case, of course. I'm a certified/certifiable tree-hugging, semi-environmentally-conscious guy and one of the many reasons I continue to call Minnesota "home" is the spectacular abundance of live-and-in-color nature we have here. However, I would rather not impact more than fresh air, the occasional rainstorm, and the more frequent hoards of bugs while I'm riding my motorcycle.
On top of my list of nature's gentle creations that I particularly try to avoid are deer ("hooved-rats" or whatever insulting nickname you've given these moving targets). Over the years and miles, I've developed a few tactics that I like to think have contributed to my survival while riding through some of the country's densest deer populations. I'm not claiming that luck hasn't played a terrific part in my avoiding death-by-fur-ball, but I do think some of the observations and statistical tactics I've collected, developed, and practiced have helped. I'm going to try to pass on a few of these in this article and I encourage our readers to object to, add to, or refine anything I have to say here.
First on my list is practicing braking and swerving skills on a regular basis so that I have the tools necessary when I need to make a major maneuver or apply my motorcycle's braking system near the limits of traction, braking horsepower, and stability. When I talk about this in my MSF courses, I suspect most of my students think I'm either joking or exaggerating . . . but I'm not. While all of my riding skills are far from perfect, I think I have pushed my ability to haul my motorcycles to a stop harder than anything else I know about riding. That would be, mostly, because it's easy to practice using the brakes well and often: at every stop light, stop sign, or any other time you need to bring your bike to a standstill. Use both brakes correctly and precisely and you'll be ready to do something with those skills when you need them.
Watching deer cross the road in front of my house, I've learned that deer travel in groups, predictably. I don't know if I've ever seen a single deer in our neighborhood. The most common group number appears to be four, but three through six has been the regular pattern in Red Wing. So, if you see one: assume three more and make your speed appropriate for threading several animals in the near future. Don't be a stupid as a deer, speeding up in the insane hope that going faster will reduce the chances of impact makes you into uncontrolled prey.
Now this tip is purely my own statistical analysis and personal observation. There is no real science, other than observation and experience, to this piece of advice. On two lane roads, travel near the middle of the road as often as is practical. In the MSF's BRC, we break a highway lane into three sections: left, right, and center. During the active time for deer (and at night) I believe that you can statistically improve your odds of either chasing the deer out from the edge of the road and into your path or give yourself a little more time to avoid deer coming from the near (right) side. By sacrificing a little margin from the left side of the road, you can create a little space and time for yourself hugging the centerline. If the road is crested, you even get a slight line-of-sight advantage into the ditches from this position. There is no science to this. I haven't read any studies that prove or disprove my theory, but the number of times I've had this tactic work for me is way into the hundreds, so it might work for you, too.
This tip is useless for Iron Butt'ers, for for the rest of us it's just a minor sacrifice. When it comes to suddenly-appearing 100 pound animals with no traffic sense, your time to evaluate and execute road hazards is a fraction of a second. With that in mind, my advice is don't ride at night. Once you're riding on your lights and intuition, deer are unavoidable. You just don't get enough warning from your headlights. Worse, the damn headlights often paralyze deer right in your path of travel. If you are stuck riding at night, stay on the biggest road you can find, well-lit freeways are best, stick with traffic as much as possible, and slow down. Trying to make up time when your sight-line is only a couple hundred feet is close to suicidal.
Implied in some of my other deer-avoidance advice is buying time and space and that almost always means modifying your speed. I'm going to repeat this last piece of advice, since I think it is the real key to surviving deer encounters. Speed kills, especially during deer prime-time and those long hours of poor-visibility. When your lights and line-of-sight are limited, you have to make practical accommodations for what you don't have and set your speed appropriately. It's impossible to make up time ridding in the back of an ambulance, so consider that possibility when you are hauling ass through tree tunnels at dusk.
Be realistic about your attention capacity. It's one thing being on a short ride through a few of Wisconsin's letter roads and another being at the tailend of a 12,000 mile, month-long trip. If you are daydreaming, you are not scanning the edge of the road for potential moving obstacles. The moment you stop watching for Bambi will be the split-second you needed to avoid her. If you are tired, bored, or distracted, you are a moving target. The idea is to be the shooter not the target. Motorcycling is not a spectator sport. You don't get to enjoy the scenery until you are stopped.
MMM July 2016
In his HBO special ("Fully Functional") one of my favorite comedians, Australian Jim Jefferies, asked his audience to raise their hands if their kids were "stoopid." Obviously no one raised their hands and admitted to having spawned one of the many half-pint-half-wits who are overrepresented in our school systems . So, Jefferies reminded them that, statistically-speaking, it was impossible for a crowd as big as the one he was performing for not to have at least one stupid offspring. He went on to rant about Americans being a nation intent on breeding "stupid confident people . . . the worst employees in the fucking world." When I hear motorcyclist revolt against the obvious truth that there are two kinds of motorcyclists--those who have crashed and those who haven't yet crashed--I can't help but think motorcyclists might be among the stupidest human categories on the planet. It's even worse when the revolutionist admits he's already crashed a number of times and still believes motorcycles "can be safe."
Assuming the "average" rider's skills are average, the usual bell curve indicates that about 70% of riders are on either side of "average" and about 95% fall into the 2-sigma area.
In his New Yorker Magazine essay, "The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?" Dr. Atul Gawande reminds us that doctors are no different than any other category of human activity, "What you tend to find is a bell curve: a handful of teams with disturbingly poor outcomes for their patients, a handful with remarkably good results, and a great undistinguished middle." If that is true for doctors, a profession that prides itself in its selectivity, high performance standards, and rigorous education and training regime, why wouldn't it be true for the rest of us who just become who and what we are out of attrition, general indifference to how we do our jobs, poor management, and luck? Studies have found that And if career statistics are this dismal, how could it be possible that driving, an activity that has such low standards of performance as driving could be lucky enough to have half-decent expectations? Motorcycle licensing is no different, with a variety of routes available to obtaining a license with minimal skill, no serious safety equipment requirements, and lifetime licensing that allows riders who have merely maintained the "M" on their license for decades to swing a leg over a motorcycle without the merest hint of riding abilities.
Due to the constant downsizing of the motorcycling public over the last 30 years (peaking in 1980 and in decline since) and, especially in the last decade, the Motorcycle Industry Council (through its "training" lobby, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, MSF) has campaigned to keep licensing as simple and accessible as possible. Fighting progressive ideas such as graduated (or "stepped) licensing--an idea that has had substantial success in Japan, parts of Canada, England, and some parts of the EU (likely soon to be all of the EU)--is a double-edged sword. On on hand, the MIC is ensuring itself the maximum number of customers by putting a motorcycle in every possible rider's hands. Likewise, the MIC has been barely on the fence about helmet laws with wishy-washy "freedom" arguments that hold exactly no water with the strapped-down-by-law cager public. There is some validity to the claim that if helmets are universally required, fewer people will ride motorcycles. On the other, our incredibly dismal mortality statistics are edging regulators closer to removing motorcycles from public roads, which will close the door on motorcycle sales forever. Damned if you do, double-damned if you don't. Something has to change soon, or something will change.
Using something more like a minimum acceptable "average" rider skill as the centerpoint, a left-skewed distribution curve would result with dramatically more riders in the "below average" category and a wide range of abilities in the "above average" group.
In pure population terms, it's pretty obvious that the "average" point in motorcycle skills is skewed data. If you plant yourself on any popular corner in most cities, you will observe cornering techniques that range from out-of-control to "not too bad," with a tiny portion of riders executing turns with decent technique and control. If we were to score lifesaving skills such as stopping quickly, swerving to avoid a hazard, turning precisely at a variety of street-legal speeds, quick combination maneuvers requiring these skills, and one or two low speed control skills on a scale of 1-to10, I think it would be safe to say that more than 70% of us would be substandard riders. That's probably being optimistic. In terms of your own survival, you need to be able to identify where you fall on this curve and, if you aren't where you want to be, find a way to upgrade your skills or admit that riding a motorcycle is either not for you or a high-priced suicide attempt.
I know that it's hard to be realistic about this. Studies have found that 80% of drivers think they are above average. More statistically impossible crap. It's one thing to be protected by crumple-zones, air bags, seat harnesses, and auto-piloting cars. It's another to be sitting on 200hp of two-wheeled instability in your wife-beater, flip flops, and pirate bandana. If you are one of the 70-90% of motorcyclists who suck, you should trade in your bike for a fancy lawn tractor and take the muffler off of that vehicle: just in case the lack of a loud pipe might cause one of your neighbors to run over you with his even fancier and larger lawn tractor.
On the other hand, if you suck and know it but have the patience, interest, capacity, and time to get better, work on it. Get some training. Spend a few days on a race track (on track days, not racing unless you really are one of the cool kids and decide to be a racer). Buy or borrow a few books on riding. Practice your riding skills at every stop light or sign, on every curve, and any other opportunity you may have where the results are not critical. And practice where you screw up you can just go back to the start point and do it again until you get it right. Do not be afraid to suck, but you should be damned nervous about being proud of sucking.
MMM August 2016
Jun 14, 2017
Jun 5, 2017
So, for the when I was 26 years old, father of two, sole support of my family, going AGAT for the time with armored denim overalls, a Fury open face helmet with a snap-on face shield and Scott goggles, Justin roper gloves, Malcom Smith/High Point ISDT enduro boots, and a kidney belt. Today, all that sounds a lot like riding naked, but it was geared-up for the day. I was as fearless then as I would ever be. I drove a 1970's Ford E100 Econoline van an average of 100,000 miles a year covering a service territory from North Dakota to Kansas and Iowa to Colorado. The truck housed a work bench and cabinets holding at least three-quarter-ton of equipment and parts. If I had ever come to a sudden stop, I'd have been instantly crushed by all of that crap tearing loose and shifting forward in a contained avalanche. I was always late to every appointment because my boss couldn't say "no" to anyone, so he promised me in at least three places at once, 100-500 miles apart. My average speed in that truck had to have been close to 80mph because I kept the throttle pegged anytime the coast was clear. Motorcycle racing seemed pretty tame compared to my work week.
The "what" was a 1973 Rickman 125 ISDT enduro. The Rickman was my first real off-road motorcycle, a 1971 Kawasaki Big Horn 350 being the first half-ass off-road motorcycle I'd owned before that. If I were ever to want to "go back" and restore a motorcycle I once owned and loved, this bike would be it. I just pounded the snot out of that little Zundapp two-stroke and it kept ticking like a legendary battery bunny. I raced it in a half-dozen 100+ mile cross-country events, in several years of the Nebraska state motocross series, in a few enduros, and trail rode that bike almost every weekend for three years. When I wasn't riding it, my wife was, until I bought her a brand new 1974 Yamaha MX100. Even then we sometimes argued over who'd get to ride the Rickman. I had tweeked, modified, and engineered that motorcycle for me to the point that it was recognizable at almost any distance. If you knew me, you probably knew my motorcycle. From the solid bars to the custom-canted rear Boge Mulholland long travel shocks to the blueprinted engine ports to the hand formed and welded exhaust, my Rickman 125 fit me like a glove. It was the toughest motorcycle I've ever owned.
"Where" was central Nebraska, probably a little northeast of Palmer, Nebraska. Weekends, I "lived" on limited-access roads between Palmer, Archer, and Fullerton, Nebraska. If I'd been on a bigger bike, I might have been single-handedly responsible for the 1970's gas crisis. As it was, I could ride pretty much all weekend on a tank-full of premixed premium and a spare three-gallon gas can. North of Highway 92 and south of Highway 22, there were hundreds of sandy abandoned roads between the fence lines of ranch land and a little farming. In 1975, some friends and I hosted a 125 mile cross-country race on those tractor-trails where about 40 riders experienced what we took for granted: miles of amazing trails, often crossing the Loop River, but never a single paved road. Two years later, I'd moved to Fremont for my first engineering job and my racing days were over. Once I left driving that truck, racing a motorcycle seemed a little crazy for a guy with a family to support.
"How" is a little confusing. Mostly, I just tossed on my gear and gassed up the bike and snuck out of town (illegally, since the Rickman was unlicensed) via farm roads until I crossed 92 into the trails. Sometimes, the whole family came along and we made it into a regular outing, even camping for a night or two a few hundred yards off of the official farm-to-market roads. I'd built a bike trailer out of angle-iron, expanded metal, and an old car axle, that could hold 3 bikes, two forward and one rear-facing. We'd load up the Rickman, my wife's Yamaha MX100, and my Suzuki RL250 trials bike and ride from early morning until the sun went down. The kids would play at the campsite with the children of friends who joined us and it was one big biker family party.
When I'd first moved to Nebraska, I was introduced to a kid, Mike, with a Suzuki TS250 Enduro by an employee and one of our neighbors, Randy, had a Kawasaki F6 125 Enduro. Those two, eventually, took us to their favorite trails, camping sites, and riding hangouts. When I first started riding with Mike, he'd panic and run when we found a rancher or farmer parked on one of the trails. Since I knew we weren't doing anything wrong, I rode up to there trucks and introduced myself. Mike would always hang back, expecting something awful to happen. Eventually, I got to know a lot of the ranchers who lived in the area. When we came on cattle loose or a busted fence line, I'd play cowboy on the bike and chase the cattle back into the pasture, put up the gate, cobble the fence back together, and stop at the ranch house to let the owners know their cattle had escaped, again. After a couple of years, we got to know the ranchers well enough that they helped with our one and only event.
We were all kids, then. Kids with kids, in fact. Now, we're all old. Some of us are dead. The fence lines have all been brought together and those limited-access roads are no more. Not only can you not go back, you can't even go where we went.
MMM June 2016
Jun 4, 2017
A fairly desperate Harley Davidson promotion is hoping to turn a whole town, all 75 North Dakota folks, into motorcyclists. “We looked at the town and said, ‘Why don’t we turn Ryder (ND) into Riders?’ It sealed the deal when we saw their water tank,” said Anoop Prakash, Harley’s U.S. marketing director.
The residents of this dinky village are, apparently, “game?” What do they have to lose? After the first new rider in Riders, North Dakota gets killed they’ll have the distinction of being the most dangerous town in America. Based on HD’s dismal Riders’ Edge program record, I’d expect at least two Riders residents to bite the dust by October and a half dozen to be hospitalized for serious injuries, assuming any of those folks are silly enough to actually buy and ride a motorcycle after their promotional “training” is complete.
It would be funny and appropriate if it turned out that Harley trains a small town, the small town residents realize that if you want to go anywhere for a reasonable price you have to buy Japanese, and the few people who do decide to be motorcyclists all buy dirt bikes.
It’s hard to imagine how unpleasant this place would be if it were actually populated with the kind of Village People who actually ride HDs. At the least, it would be noisier than downtown New York City. Put all of that crowd pictured above in pirate costumes and cover them with prison tats and you have the perfect place for the Walking Dead plague to ferment.