May 14, 2018

Can I Help You with that Oxygen Mask?

All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day

oxygen_maskA dozen years ago, Pat Hahn asked me to write a section on "passengers" for the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Council's webpage. I don't remember why I was picked for that assignment, but Pat had ambitious plans for the state's motorcycle safety program and he'd gathered a collection of riders to author the various sections of the planned website. At the time, I almost never had a passenger on my motorcycle and not much has changed since. In fact, Pat is one of a handful of riders I'd ride pillion behind. In fact, when I wrote the MMSC article, my list was "my brother and my best friend." Pat was added a couple of years later when we did a segment for my cable program, Motorcycling Minnesota, at DCTC (see photo at left). The list is significantly shorter now, since my best friend quit riding last year. 
The finished article was titled "Co-Rider Seminar" and, to be honest, Pat wrote a lot of it. What he wanted was an article that described the "co-rider's" responsibilities and clarified what the passenger's expectations should be. What he got was an article that mostly warned potential passengers to carefully evaluate the decision to ride passenger and to think twice about who they were handing the reins to their lives. The fact is, I think swinging a leg over a bike to take a backseat on a vehicle that has a grossly unsafe history is pretty damn dumb. As I wrote in that article for Pat, "The first thing you need to do, to be a motorcycle co-rider/passenger, is to choose your rider carefully." That was about all Pat kept of my rant against the whole idea of being a passenger on a motorcycle. He forced me to come up with a list of passenger suggestions, once he'd made it clear that a page with little more detail than "Don't do it! He's an idiot!" was insufficient. The only bit of Pat's editing that I really regretted was his cutting my comment that roughly said, "If you wouldn't trust this guy without your life support equipment, why would you ride with him?" I thought that line was accurate, direct and to the point. Pat, apparently, thought it was too confrontational. 
I was reminded of all this when our car died late during the summer of 2014 and we were "forced" to use my V-Strom for transportation for a couple of weeks. That probably doesn't sound like much of a sacrifice, but I don't like riding with a passenger and my wife doesn't like being a passenger. Two-up is something we usually do about once a year, getting reminded of why we don't do it often and calling that one experience "good enough" for the rest of the year. On top of everything else, we were buying a house in Red Wing and needed to make the trip from Little Canada to Red Wing often during that period. In a week and a half, we put on more miles together on my bike than we have since our 40th anniversary, seven years ago. For the most part, we got through the week comfortably and even had a little fun. Regardless, I was on edge every mile we traveled and the necessity of riding two-up added some urgency to finding a replacement cage.

Luckily, nothing bad happened. However, all of the really dire warnings about riding pillion turned into reality when a guy pulled out in front of us from a side road when we were west-bound on Highway 61, just outside of Red Wing. The good news was that he saw us half-way into the intersection and stopped in time to leave me with a whole escape lane. The bad news was that, when I applied the brakes, I had all kinds of unhappy epiphanies. I'm a little over 200 pounds and my wife is a little under that mark and the usually excellent V-Strom brakes were overtaxed and under-equipped for a sudden stop. I'd recently replaced the rear tire and installed new rear brake pads as part of the process, but the 450 pound addition (counting gear and baggage) to the bike's gross vehicle weight completely changed the handling characteristics and, especially, my stopping distance. Earlier on the trip, I'd done a few experiments with the brakes as stop lights and signs, but in an attempt to prevent passenger nervousness I hadn't really tested our stopping power. I know my V-Strom pretty well, after 70,000 miles, but riding solo and riding two-up are different experiences. In those seconds before the driver made a decision and provided me with an exit route, I realized I'd be using every bit of strength, skill, and nerve I possess to get stopped if he continued into the intersection. It was a "moment" and I don't think my passenger/spouse even noticed how close the call was. It took me most of the way home to settle down, decompress, and relax enough to enjoy the ride a bit.

Afterwards, I couldn't help but think about all of the motorcycle safety students, both "Basic" and "Seasoned,"  I've taught who were almost completely unfamiliar with their front brakes or how to maneuver their motorcycle in an emergency. Many of them happily tell stories about the trips they've taken, the near-crashes they've managed to avoid, and the wives, children, grandchildren, friends, and strangers they've loaded on to their motorcycles without a care in the world. These are people who can't perform simple parking lot exercises without all sorts of mental and physical errors, but they're willing to double up the risk of riding with people they love because they do not know how badly they ride and won't know until disaster strikes. Trust me, if you can't maneuver your motorcycle in a low-risk parking lot course, you won't be able to do any better at speed with traffic on both sides and behind you. When I first moved to Minnesota, one of the state's instructors demonstrated performing all of the Basic Rider skills on a Gold Wing, with his wife on back, pulling a trailer, and he didn't miss a line or hesitate on a single exercise. Neither the coach or his wife were lightweights. I couldn't do that to save our lives, but I should be able to if I want to carry a passenger competently.

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