Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.

I bought a new gun recently (holy crap! It’s guns again!) and as I was moving it from one end of Al’s shop to another, of course I had left one side of my cheap rifle case open, and of course I had removed the detachable stock, leaving the round metal socket exposed, and of course I was wearing my cheap running shoes on my always-sore feet, and of course the murderous steel thing fell exactly on the cuticle of my big toe, right where it would inflict maximum damage, as if my disjointed bolt-action rifle had taken a Krav Maga class in how to instantly subdue its assailant if it was attacked by a disembodied human foot. Ow.

I’ll say it again. Ow. Photo by author, 15 seconds after it happened, because the first thing you should do in case of an injury is post it to Facebook.

I’ll say it again. Ow. Photo by author, 15 seconds after it happened, because the first thing you should do in case of an injury is post it to Facebook.

Big toes are the perfect spot to inflict some serious pain, the kind of pain that’s not enough to make you go into shock so you don’t feel it, but way more than you can ignore without digging deep into your personal foul-language thesaurus. My epitaphs went into predictable territory, involving references to human reproduction that were immoral, unusual, and (mostly) physically impossible. Al, no stranger to self-inflicted wounding, cast an expert’s eye on my aggrieved extremity and said, “well, you’re going to lose that toenail.”

So why, after I gingerly removed my shoe and sock and gazed on my mangled toe, was I laughing so hard at my own misfortune? There’s a macho (or whatever the female equivalent for macho is) impulse to display the kinds of wounds that show the world we’re serious about our passion, and when it comes to motorcycles, I’ve shown them off as proudly as the next guy. I recall hopping around my college campus on crutches after breaking my tib/fib, and answering the questions about my temporary disability. Motorcycle crash! Yes, I’ll start riding as soon as this cast comes off. No, I’m not crazy.

I also remember arguing with my doctor, on more than one occasion, when he would tell me I couldn’t ride or race before a certain date. Sometimes I would ignore the advice — just prop me back up on mah horse an’ I’ll be fine, ma’am — but occasionally I would grudgingly accept it, like when my orthopedist warned me about re-injuring my back before my two crushed vertebrae had healed.

Doctor: You can’t ride for at least six more weeks.

Me: What? What am I supposed to do? Take the Goddamned bus like a common criminal?

Doctor: If you crash again, you could be permanently paralyzed.

Me: I love the Number 5 Fulton! What a treat!

The 5 Fulton, which is better than risking paralysis and smells like damp homeless people in the winter months. Photo: SFMTA.

The 5 Fulton, which is better than risking paralysis and smells like damp homeless people in the winter months. Photo: SFMTA.

Ha, ha! What a lark it was, cracking, crushing or snapping 11 bones, one or two at a time. Somehow, hobbies that require risk of self-abuse are just that much better. Observe how football players and other jocks swaddle themselves in ACE bandages, or how tennis players sport their arm and wrist braces like Soviet Great Patriotic War veterans wear their medals. Boxers have cauliflower ears and squished noses as badges of pride. I burned my eyebrows off making latkes one Chanukah, and of course had to proudly post this to Facebook, as if I was showing the scars inflicted during a civil-rights march.

Most creatures on Earth with central nervous systems learn from their mistakes when these mistakes cause bodily harm and pain. Even plants feel pain. A German experiment showed that grass emits an ethylene-gas distress cry and cucumbers squeal with discomfort when they get mildewed, yet I (and you) keep swinging our legs over our motorcycles despite hurting ourselves, sometimes daily. Not just with crashes, but carpal-tunnel in our wrists, monkey-butt on our posteriors, and when I had a BMW Twin, permanent scabs on my shins from banging them on those big, sharp-edged Bing carburetor tops.

Hilarity from swapping injury stories aside, another reason we hurt ourselves may be shared with members of religious orders who wear hair shirts or whip themselves to show their devotion to their faith. Whipping, cutting, burning or tearing your own flesh would, they believed, bring them closer to God and purify their souls. Breaking a bone or otherwise immobilizing yourself from a motorcycle injury has a similar effect. You can only binge-watch so many seasons of Homeland before you have to reflect on the big questions. Are the risks worth it? What if I’m hurt worse next time? How will I take care of my family? Can I use my physical-therapy money to buy a new exhaust system?

Riding a vintage motorcycle is a surprising time-saver, as the vibration, horrible ergonomics and tiny, rock-hard seats can injure you without crashing. Tiny dents on your shins can be the start of this year’s “human golfball” costume for Halloween.

Riding a vintage motorcycle is a surprising time-saver, as the vibration, horrible ergonomics and tiny, rock-hard seats can injure you without crashing. Tiny dents on your shins can be the start of this year’s “human golfball” costume for Halloween.

It’s easy to make light of this stuff – if your injuries are recoverable. All of us here have had friends and family killed or permanently disabled in motorcycle crashes, so it’s no joke. Some of you reading this may even have had your lives limited in some way. I hope you’re still riding (if that’s what you want to do) and happy, but I hope my injuries will always skirt that middle ground between lasting impairment and superficial uninvolvement.

We live in a culture of hyper safety, where my five-year-old has to sign a waiver to get into a bouncy house and motorcycle safety classes refrain from telling students the exact risks of riding to avoid scaring them. It’s nice that our human need for adventure, our human need to rough ourselves up a bit, hasn’t been fully squelched. Would motorcycling be worth doing if we didn’t risk grave injury for doing it wrong? Like video games, riding would still be fun, but probably wouldn’t be a lifelong passion for me, either. Like love or my cat, your life’s passion should bite you occasionally to remind you who’s really in charge.

Now go out and drop something heavy on your foot so I know you’re serious.

Gabe Ets-Hokin was the 122nd Emperor of Japan. He presided over a time of rapid change as the nation quickly changed from a feudal state to a capitalist and imperial world power, characterized by the Japanese industrial revolution. He loves Jenga.

  • Auphliam

    Flat Track racing is about to get serious. Especially when the factory entries from that company in Minnesota hit the scene in ’16-’17.

  • mog

    Improve Flat Track by putting a bridge in the middle of the inside field. Then reroute the track as a ‘figure 8’. Now they might need a front brake (just like a street bike) and have left and right turns with a longer straight way (2 straights one with a bit of a jump at the bridge).

    Industrial designer has made safety improvements on the old ‘8’ to keep them ‘upright and on track’.

    • therr850

      It’s not figure eight, thank God, but try TT. Half mile and mile racing don’t need no stinking figure eight.

  • john phyyt

    Guns don’t kill people. Just @#$#@%$ hurt their toes. Very funny. I hadn’t realised Hirohito’s grandfather rode BMW s

  • john burns

    Grandpa Ken Vreeke lost his Disqus pw and asked me to post, Gabe:

    I’m with ya Gabe. If the bone ain’t sticking out, you’re probably ok to at least finish whatever you’re doing. Especially if you are in a store and something fell on your foot—although a gun makes it sound way more manly than, say, a can of soup. That’s just sound advice for the kids.

    Big toes are tough but important. Doug Polen lost his big toe at Willow Springs when it got caught between the chain and rear sprocket, then went out and won a world championship. Randy Renfrow lost his right thumb in a crash, and instead of giving up his racing career, he had his big toe amputated and grafted to his right hand. Ugliest thumb ever. He beat guys like Wayne Rainey after that.

    So take care of that toe. Someday it might be your thumb.


    • john burns

      who was the Italian guy who crashed and said, I brake, I go into thee chicane, I crash and lose thee fingers of my foot…

    • Born to Ride

      That was the manliest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.

      • john burns

        also, I think Polen lost not just his big toe but a couple of its mates too…

    • john burns

      KV also says, People forget how good [Renfrow] he was. He beat factory Honda and Rainey for the F1 title in 1996 out the back of a van.

    • Old MOron

      Hey JB, just in case Ken hasn’t tried this:

      If he goes to this web page, there’s a link for people who forgot their passwords.

    • Tell Ken it actually was a can of soup. Thanks Ken! You made my day reading my story.

  • TC

    Put in a 600 mile day on a bike, and see how much discomfort you are willing to tolerate. It’s not only the chance of a crash that we learn to accept, it’s the sore butt, the aching back, cold weather, rain, hot weather. There is a degree of masochism in motorcycling. Sorry about your toe. As far as ‘prop me up in the saddle’

  • John B.

    So, what is the skill difference between a professional racer, a middle-aged moto-journalist, and an advanced beginner?

    When I read articles like this one (and Grandpa Vreeke’s comments) I don’t feel like the riding I do is anything like what experts do. We need a scale that accurately describes the difference in rider skill levels. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced, even with sub-categories (e.g., advanced intermediate etc.) do not accurately reflect differences in rider skill.

    From John Burns’s recent article (, I gather a linear downward sloping line describes the reduction in lap times (i.e., increase in speed) for motorcycles over the past 25 years. My guess is differences in rider skill follow a logarithmic curve (like the Richter Scale to measure earthquakes) rather than a gradual linear one.

    I’ve been to the AMA races at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, and while sitting adjacent to the long back-straight, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the bikes without rotating my head and eyes at the same time. Nothing I’ve experienced on a motorcycle compares with what those riders do (we’re in different galaxies). I’ll call those guys (& Elena Myers) Professionals or Expert.

    In the article referenced above, John describes himself as “maybe an advanced intermediate rider.” Based on John’s experience and what I’ve seen the pros do, I would describe myself as an advanced beginner. (I’ve taken the motorcycle safety course twice, read a bunch, and have ridden about 30,000 miles mostly on long trips.) Using a pro racer, John, and me as reference points a proper scale for rider skill might look something like:

    (Y=X squared)
    Novice (No experience) = 1
    Beginner (more than zero experience) = 2
    Advanced Beginner = 4
    Low Intermediate = 8
    Intermediate = 16
    Advanced Intermediate = 32
    Expert = 64
    Professional = 128

    This scale would explain why the riding I do seems nothing like what the pros do, and why a moto-journalists with a lifetime riding motorcycles would describe himself as “advanced-intermediate.”

    The body I occupy mends much slower than it used to, and I have no interest in breaking any bones as a badge of courage or otherwise. I ride anyway, and accept the unresolvable risks. Whatever happens, I’ll deal with it.

    • john burns

      I remember braking into Turn 3 one time at Willow Springs, thinking I was really flying and wondering if I’d make the turn… when Jake Zemke passed me so fast with smoke coming off his CBR600 factory Honda, sideways, and zotted left up the hill. It totally reminded me of aerial combat footage, like I’d just shot a missile off my rail. Dang man…

      • LOL at your Dr. Suess-edition Thesaurus. Zotted!

      • John B.

        In high school, I went to the YMCA to play pickup basketball, and one day Darryl Dawkins (aka “Chocolate Thunder”) showed up to play. We shook hands, and his fingers reached halfway up my forearm. I was 6’3″ and 215 pounds, but playing against Dawkins I literally felt like a six year old child. We were powerless to stop him, and he dominated the game in every way. It’s amazing how good professionals are at what they do.

    • Old MOron

      “Nothing I’ve experienced on a motorcycle compares with what those riders do”

      Actually, maybe most of our experience compares to what other riders do. That’s why when our MOronic editors describe what it’s like to ride a new bike, we are able to relate to what they say.

      I could never hope to keep Jeremy McWilliams in sight through a single turn. Yet when I read his comments about riding a Ducati, I was able to enjoy his narrative.

      As for creating a number scale to rank riders, I’m not sure how useful it is. For example, according to your scale, JB is eight times better than JohnB. But what does that mean? Does he brake eight times harder? Does he makes decisions eight times faster? Is his lean angle eight times greater?

      Not knocking your system. Just engaging in discussion.

      • John B.

        Thoughtful comment OM. I am on the road now, but will respond later.

        • blansky

          I think part of the issue of Playboy Playmate vs physicians and other such issues is due to the follow the money phenomena. At one time people blindly followed the “educated” until we realized that so many people are on the take from various large or corporate entities that we no longer trust any of them.

          Of course the other problem in this country is celebrity worship.

          So who to trust. The medical industry and big Pharma or Big Boobs and a pretty face propping up a waning career.

          Kind of reminscent of the recent election. No easy answers.

          • John B.

            Valid points!

        • Old MOron

          Honestly, I think the MOronic wing-footed demigods, and the full-fledged MotoGP gods do pretty much the same things we do. They just do it on a much higher order – several orders of magnitude higher, to stay with your exponential scale.

          Judging entry speed relative to braking capacity, road camber, available traction, curve radius, they have to do it just like we do. Trail braking, selecting the right gear, transitioning to throttle, feeding it in while managing traction and trajectory, I think we all have to do that, too.

          Some (most?) racers are able to set up a bike, but as far as riding them goes, we all have the same controls at our disposal, and we all work within the same laws of physics.

          Notice that I am not devaluing anyone’s expertise. I’m gobsmacked in my awareness of how much greater others’ is than my own. But I also sense the commonality in what we do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother to read anything Evans, John, Kevin, Tom, and Troy write.

          Well, looking back, it seems I’ve done nothing more than restate my previous post. Sorry about that. Anyway, if your scale helps you to visualize what you might yet learn, who am I to argue?

          • John B.

            I agree with what you wrote OM. This may be one of those times where I didn’t have clear in my mind the point I was trying to express.

          • Old MOron

            Sometimes it’s easier to just call someone ignorant, uneducated, fascist, or other pejorative and be done with it.

          • John B.

            Definitely easier, but not useful.

  • Mark D

    As somebody who had to ride the 5 down Fulton to work nearly ever day for a year (until I bought a bicycle), I salute your commitment to your own health and safety. Saying it smelled like damp homeless is the nicest thing anybody has ever said about that bus.

    • Now I know what’s worse than the 5–riding a bicycle! JK

  • kenneth_moore

    If I can ever figure out a way to use my Health Savings Account VISA card to buy motorcycle parts and accessories I’ll be golden. It seems perfectly fair to me; the motorcycle generates the need for the HSA, thus the HSA should supply the cash flow to continue motorcycling. If only I could find a doctor who prescribes Oxycontin and ester-based synthetic 10w-30…

  • Butch

    I do not recall ever riding for the thrill of the risk; I just like the G forces of accelarating and turning. Maybe braking too, but I dunno. I sure love the animal between my legs. I used to be a skiing dude, but the moto is better.
    The best. Especially dirtbikes.

  • JMDonald

    Why is it that we feel the need to compare ourselves to other motorcycle riders across the broad spectrum of ability? I like driving a sports car. The top down going through the gears turn after turn going fast in the straight. It is one of the greatest things in life. I have never felt the need to compare myself to the great formula 1 racers. Same for me when it comes to motorcycling. The thrill for me is pushing myself to my own personal limit. I am not twenty five anymore. It is obvious (to me) that I cannot ride like I did when I was. Same goes for driving a sports car. My limit is different now I am older. Nice thing is when you get older you get to experience past injuries again in a totally different light. At least we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice. I am reminded of riding/driving the Ortega. It was close to my house and back in the day not as busy. I loved that road. All the way to Elsinore and back. I am looking for a new road. After I find it I will look for another. I think I need an Umbrella girl. Or two.

    • Jay F

      I can ride like I did 10 years ago, it just takes a lot longer to heal so I choose not to.

      • JMDonald

        I can too. I just ride different.

  • pcontiman

    I get the scar sharing experience and the thrill of danger but if I could ride my bike through that mountain corner scraping pegs and exhaust with no danger of flopping or launching….i’d be happy to do it, no pain needed. ;>