I’ve been testing factory-supplied motorcycles for more than 20 years, and I’m proud to say only a few of the 700-odd press bikes I’ve sampled have ever been placed improperly on the ground, i.e. crashed.

Testing motorcycles can be a dangerous occupation, and the stakes are raised exponentially when testing the fastest sportbikes on earth. The best venue for testing superbikes with liter-plus-sized engines is, of course, a racetrack. However, the aforementioned superbikes have lights and license plates, revealing their street intentions, so testing on public roads is a necessary part of the process.

And then there’s the devil on a shoulder, desperately pleading to feel shrieking literbike power with levels of acceleration as strong as anything else on street-legal wheels. Hold that throttle on a little longer; float that tire a little higher…

The devil was strong in 2006 when comparing the latest crop of Japanese superbikes for another publication. The 2005 Kawasaki ZX-10R was an epic literbike, a no-nonsense, stripped-down brawler with the best power-to-weight ratio I’d ever sampled from a production motorcycle. Then Kawi lost the plot in ’06 and delivered a porky-looking machine that violated the cardinal rule of building sportbikes: Must always get lighter.

The ’06 10R scaled in one dozen pounds heavier than the previous year, and several of those were placed up high and rearward – horrible places on a sportbike – in the form of a then-trendy undertail exhaust system. But the ZX-10R was no slouch, boasting a whopping 155 rear-wheel horsepower at 12,000 rpm. This is me from the ZX’s domestic launch at California Speedway.

The ’06 10R scaled in one dozen pounds heavier than the previous year, and several of those were placed up high and rearward – horrible places on a sportbike – in the form of a then-trendy undertail exhaust system. But the ZX-10R was no slouch, boasting a whopping 155 rear-wheel horsepower at 12,000 rpm. This is me from the ZX’s domestic launch at California Speedway.

A day on the Kaw that year will remain indelible in my noggin. I was riding on one of my favorite roads in southern California, a wonderful cocktail of desolate curves that’s minimally trafficked – or at least it was until Burnsie wrote a column about it. Might still be. A seat behind a keyboard instead of a handlebar has kept me away from there for months.

Montezuma’s Grade delivers curve after empty curve...

Montezuma’s Grade delivers curve after empty curve…

So, I’m riding up S-22 in the early morning after spending the night in a local hotel, and the ZX is challenging me to twist its grip a little harder. I scythed into a corner, feeling the tires gripping the asphalt. The road opened up to a tempting straight stretch, so I gave a greedy twist and fiercely rocketed ahead. It only took a second to go from street speed to track velocities, and the canyon wall behind the next corner loomed large, so I rolled off the throttle and began to reach for the brake lever.

Except the throttles remained stuck open!

Given a second to think about the situation, it would be easy to come up with a remedy to the predicament – pull the clutch or hit the kill switch. But I didn’t have a second to think about it, as I was on one of the quickest-accelerating vehicles on the planet hurtling toward immovable rock wall. So, instead of calmly reaching for the clutch lever, I grabbed the brake lever in an effort to slow my inevitable implosion into the cliffside.

Know-it-alls on motorcycle forums often brag about how they believe they can outbrake an antilock brake system. That might be true in a controlled-test situation with expert riders, (though I’m skeptical), but time compresses when faced with imminent death, forcing a brain to react to emergencies rather than think about brake modulation.

When pulling the brake lever did nothing to slow me, I pulled harder. That’s when the front tire began to skid while the engine kept cranking out its power.

I didn’t want to stop braking while I was still accelerating toward a wall, but neither did I want to crash prematurely. Either way, I was certain this was going to end horribly.

I didn’t want to stop braking while I was still accelerating toward a wall, but neither did I want to crash prematurely. Either way, I was certain this was going to end horribly.

I slightly eased off the brakes, which caused the front tire to regain its proper spinning motion, but that new force induced headshake into the chassis. Great, I’ve prevented a lowside by causing a highside.

Then, as if by the stroke of a god’s magic wand, the ZX’s throttle shut and caused the headshaking to vanish. Hey, look, there’s a corner coming up and I just might be able to slow enough to go through it! The Kawi stayed upright, and I swallowed hard to urge my heart back out of my mouth.

No one’s ever more alive than after they nearly die, so, congrats to me! But WTF caused this near-catastrophe?

We experimented with the throttle to see if we could replicate the problem, warily covering the clutch lever in case the throttles again stuck open. Dozens of tugs of the throttle would operate flawlessly. Then it wouldn’t, sticking open at random times and at random throttle openings. It’s the kind of thing I might want to blame on a ride-by-wire throttle, except R-b-W was still several years away from a ZX.

So the demonically possessed 10R went back to Kawasaki for investigation. The problem was difficult to diagnose, even by the experts at Kawasaki. It would be beyond embarrassing if no issue was found, leaving me to tell my sketchy story about how a motorcycle mysterious tried to kill me. Then, finally, the anomaly was discovered.

Here is the culprit! This seed inexplicably found its way past a fairing, frame and fuel tank to settle into the ZX’s throttle linkage, causing it to bind at various throttle openings and vibration levels. Did it fall from a tree? Did it get dropped by an animal? Did it get inserted by a rival publication? Coworker…?

Here is the culprit! This seed inexplicably found its way past a fairing, frame and fuel tank to settle into the ZX’s throttle linkage, causing it to bind at various throttle openings and vibration levels. Did it fall from a tree? Did it get dropped by an animal? Did it get inserted by a rival publication? Coworker…?

A seed stuck in a throttle cable is an excuse for crashing I never imagined using! And the lesson here? It’s impossible to foresee all possible ways that could trigger a crash. Oh, and keep your fingers near the clutch lever.

  • Old MOron

    So Duke, great story, and well told. But why did you wait almost ten years?
    For a while, all of the guys crashing on the Snake were blaming “cold tires”.
    I wonder if your WFO Nut will make it into canyon carving lore.

    • Kevin Duke

      Never enough time in a work week, OlMO. Now I simply work all seven…

  • Curtis Brandt

    Great story, Duke!

  • JMDonald

    Knock on wood I have never been involved in anything like that. As far as antilock brakes go my new bike has them and I seriously doubt I could outperform them. That had to be a life changing event for you. It would have been for me.

  • Kirk Harrington

    I have only had two real moments of time where a bike failed me. 1 was a simple electrical glitch but I was going straight enough to roll it safely to a stop. 2 was a nice slide across the pavement in an unexpected engine failure in mile 5 on the Dragon. Nothing like having nice lean angle, listening to the rpms and then suddenly hearing nothing and finding you have left your motorcycle sliding without you. I walked away stawberried up but bitterly disappointed that I could have such a stupid get off and not have photographic proof from Killboy. LOL.

    • Kevin Duke

      Hard to expect that situation! Why did the engine fail?

      • Kirk Harrington

        Clacker broke. Dumbest thing ever. Kawi was so interested in it that they had the shop box up the parts and send them to Cali. How you doing, Duke? Get this- sold the insurance agency and I rent and sell Chinese scooters in Savannah, GA. Miss the mountains in N GA but Savannah’s been fun. What are the odds a MO crew is at Rd Atl? Watched the 600s on fanschoice earlier. Good racing today.

        • Kevin Duke

          Good to hear from you again, Kirk! What’s a clacker and from what model? Hope the change in careers is treating you well!

          • Kirk Harrington

            The Clacker is the riveted decompression valve. The rivet snapped, fell into the cam chain (as it was explained to me) and literally seized the top of the motor by pushing the cam upward. 09 KLR was the bike. Riding a VFR now but about to trade a friend the Viffer for a DL1000. I like the VFR but there is a little nerve damage in my left wrist and the angle makes my hand fall asleep. Since I insured the DL from the day it was new I figured it was a fair trade. New job is way less stress. So, all is well.

          • Kevin Duke

            Ah, the KLR. Some call that piece a doohicky! Glad you have less stress! What kind of scooters?

          • Kirk Harrington

            TaoTaos. You know if you run ethanol-free fuel in those chinese carbs they actually are very durable 50s and 150s. Between two stores we sell about 600 a year.

  • BDan75

    Wow…great story. And a good reminder of how “dumb” our split-second reactions can be in a panic situation. A couple years ago I was following a car down a narrow, twisty forest road at a very mild pace–I wasn’t following very close; there were no good opportunities to pass. At one point the car disappeared around a blind, nearly right-angle bend…but instead of doing the smart thing and slowing down, I held my previous pace.

    Problem was, just around the bend where I couldn’t see it through the dense undergrowth, a deer had run out in the road. I came around the corner and was greeted by two stopped cars right “in my face” (one was in the opposite lane). I don’t know the distance, but it was close. I panic braked, locked the rear but managed to keep it under control, and got stopped just in time, partly because I aimed for the shoulder. Phew.

    It was only after regaining my composure that I realized the engine wasn’t running. In my panic to get on the brakes, I’d completely forgotten the clutch, and killed the engine with the rear brake.

    I think my mistake with the clutch may actually have saved my bacon where the rear brake was concerned….because given that I used enough rear brake to kill the engine, with the clutch disengaged I probably would have locked it a lot earlier and lost control.

    I spent the ride home thinking about luck (what if I’d been trailing the car farther back, and had come around the corner 20 mph faster?), complacency (why would I assume anything about the road ahead, which I wasn’t able to see?), and ABS (my future bikes are gonna have it).

  • ducatirdr

    WOW! What a crazy story. It happening on that ZX-10 makes it all the more crazy. Glad you saved it.

  • Tod Rafferty

    ‘Nother words, the nut holding the handlebar was the stronger of the two.

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    Hey, MO had that same test unit you rode, I think.

    On an unrelated note, Sean, do you remember how you were always munching on smoked almonds while you did dyno runs? Good times.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Amazing how time slows down and yet our reactions are even slower in this type of situation. The best we can do is pick of course of action and quickly. You did something, even though with the luxury of hindsight there was a better option. Still beats the Hell out of freezing at the controls and doing nothing eh?

    Perhaps the inadvertently induced headshake freed up that damn nut/seed thing 😉

  • Backroad Bob

    WFO a.k.a. The Nut Job – that was a close call. I’ve never experienced anything like that, but I will be mentally rehearsing hitting the kill switch in a panic situation from now on. This is further proof that the occupation of motorcycle test pilot is one for nut jobs. Don’t look now, but

    THE
    RECALL: Ducati
    North America (Ducati) is recalling certain model year
    2010-2014 Multistrada
    1200 motorcycles. The inner sleeve of the opening throttle cable may
    move and prevent the full closing of the throttle.

    http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/recall-news-ducati-recalls-multistrada-1200-adv-motorcycles-possible-defective-throttle-cable