I think I have blocked some of my more embarrassing crashes out; the older you get, the more you’ll appreciate selective memory. And I apologize to both of my long-time readers who’ve read about all these get-offs at least once before. I’ve always rationalized my crashes by saying at least I’ll get a good story out of each one, and I always hope that by sharing I might help others not do the same stupid thing. Also, crashes off of paved surfaces don’t really count unless they’re truly spectacular; the WWW doesn’t have enough room for all my off-road mishaps. I only regret that most of my greatest hits happened before everybody carried a camera to document them for posterity; the photos that do exist are mostly on slides mouldering away in various photographers’ archives.
10. Triumph Tiger 800XC, circa 2011
This crash got a lot of play because it’s the fault of the photographer, Tom Riles, who both instigated and captured it on film. We were riding around a bend and past his lens at not more than 5 or 10 mph on a dirt road when he said, ‘Hey John! Spin the tire up a little next time, kick up some dirt so it looks like you’re flying!’
Motojournalism is all about looking like you’re flying instead of actually doing it. The rear spun up instantly in that dust, the Triumph whipped left and this is the result – a broken bag mount and a busted windscreen. I would go on to become a leading proponent of Traction Control, especially off pavement, which all Triumph adventure bikes now have.
Moral: Make sure your new adventure bike has TC and don’t take advice from photographers.
9. 1982 Suzuki Katana GS550
I bought this thing used when it was 4 or 5 years old, my second streetbike. A couple days after I brought it home, Kansas City had one of its signature ice storms and it sat for a week in the freezing garage. I was dying to ride it. Dying! One afternoon the sun came out, though the temperature was still near freezing. I’ll just take it for a spin around the block! The first patch of ice I hit took out my left glove, the elbow of my shiny Trans Am jacket, the clutch lever and exhaust pipe and a chunk of my helmet, and you can still see the scar on my knee. The second patch, after I picked the thing up and got going again, did the same to the right side of the bike and me.
Moral: Wait for the spring thaw unless you’ve got outriggers, or move to California. Also it’s a good thing Missouri had a helmet law because I am a dumb-enough ass that I doubt I’d have been wearing one otherwise, and would’ve been deceased before my thirtieth birthday.
8. BMW R1100GS, circa 1996
Before the WWW ruined the motojournalism lifestyle, they turned me loose on one of these for a week (maybe two) to ride to Colorado. Not only was the original GS a great bike for getting there (but not back), it also gave me great confidence when I got to Colorado and started blasting around its dirt backroads. Say, why are all these puddles still back here in July? (It never rains in California in the summer.) I even got the wife to fly into Durango for a little couples therapy and some trout fishing! Let’s take this dirt road that goes along the Animas River!
It was all going great even after the dirt road turned into single track, but when the dirt turned to slick goo after an unexpected afternoon deluge, things went to hell quickly: I slid the BMW’s rear tire off the trail and the rest of the beast followed amazingly quickly behind it, tumbling downward through the wet underbrush before landing with a tremendous splash in the river below, wheels up and steaming. Not only was I not getting the bike out of there, neither was anybody else except a party on horseback with a sling and a helicopter. Whoops. It was a long walk out that’s fun to laugh about now. Okay it’s not.
Moral: Know what the climate’s like, or might become like, when you take off into the unknown on an adventure.
7. Willow Springs 24-Hour Motorcyclist magazine GSX-R750 test!
The all-new 1996 GSX-R750 was a serious game-changer, and the decision was made to put it through the ultimate torture test, 24 hours around Willow Springs Raceway. Not in an actual race, although the idea came from the fact that Willow did run an annual 24-Hour back in the day which my boss, Mitch Boehm, had won a time or two. A lot of time, money and effort were expended. I got sideways exiting Turn 2 at about the three-hour mark, swapped ends for about 50 yards, and crashed the thing into a twisted, gravel-filled metal sculpture. Luckily Suzuki had brought a spare, so we carried on, but it wasn’t quite the same. Certain people were angry with me.
Moral: Don’t be a dumbass.
6. 1989 Suzuki GSX750 Katana
Here was a motorcycle so unloved, it’s even hard to find a decent photo of one on the interwebs (this one is some sort of Euro model). But that was no excuse for me to crash one on my first big assignment at Cycle magazine. Ken Vreeke remembers it better than me, and says he thought I’d get fired but knew I’d probably at least live, since I had the presence of mind to duck just before I slid under the bottom rail of the three-rail gate I was in the process of extruding the ex-Katana through. We were on a photo shoot with Rich Cox, and I’d seen enough Cycle mags before I got there to know that my duty was to put on some speed and lean that sucker over till there were sparks flying, not really aware that it might take a few years to build up to that. And not really aware that not even Anton Mang could lean a bike over that far in the dusty 90-degree left Rich had picked for more of a moody beauty shot than a speedy one.
Moral: See #7, and #10(b). Also be sure to learn to crawl before you try to walk, much less run.
5. 1986 Yamaha SRX-6 racer, Crash #1, circa 1992
Sorry, but this is the only image I can find of my old SRX-6, complete with Joe College on the gas tank. There are more pics of it here from my first stint at MO, but they’re tiny. In my first race ever, “Formula Singles” at Willow Springs, I remember wondering why that guy was hanging way outside as we came to the exit of Turn 2, and then watching him make a crazy dive toward the apex that used my front wheel as a waypoint, sending me cartwheeling down the straight for about 5000 yards. The SRX lay on its side idling perfectly, a thing I could never get it to do when it was upright. I hobbled over and hit the kill switch while I began to appreciate the soft tissue damage I had done to every part of my anatomy.
Moral: Don’t let anybody ram your front wheel. Do a few track days before you go racing and get an idea of the kinds of unexpected things other amateur racers might do on a racetrack.
4. 1998 Kawasaki ZX-6R, Circuit Catalunya
Of all the great places I’ve gotten to ride motorcycles (and watch them), Circuit Catalunya, not far from Barcelona, might be my favorite. Kawasaki invited us there to ride its fresh 1998 ZX-6R. Naturally it rained, and not just a little. I tooled around, slowly at first, and gained a little confidence. Gradually I remembered reading Kenny Roberts’ book, where he talked about how fast you can go in the wet, if you’re smooth, and then I began to remember how cool it had been to race an RS125 Honda at Laguna Seca one year during a monsoon on rain tires. As I slid on my ass toward the gravel trap, seeming to gain speed on the wet asphalt, I remembered that I was neither smooth nor on rain tires. Just as I thought the bike might not be too hurt and I might be able to pick it up and keep going (maybe nobody would notice?), it hit the curbing and flew about 2000 feet in the air, did a Greg Louganis 2-½ backflip, and returned to earth in a mushroom cloud of plastic and gravel. Dang.
Moral: You can go surprisingly fast in the wet on rain tires, but street tires are not them just because they have grooves.
3. 1986 Yamaha SRX-6 Crash #2, c. 1993
Wow, did my SRX ever look that good? When I was finally able to “get back on the horse that bit me” (Greg McQuide, RIP), I dragged the new-and-improved SRX back out to Willow Springs. I really don’t remember the things I fixed/replaced, but I found out shortly what I should’ve paid more attention to. In practice, things had felt a little wobbly but I figured it was probably just me and it was time to man up. When the flag actually dropped and we all piled into Turn 8 at full idiot speed, the handlebars started whacking from lock to lock so violently we ran off the outside and into the desert at whatever the terminal speed of a hopped-up SRX is. About that time, I remembered the stories of guys going off out there and “hitting the berm,” so I jumped off the bike, using my legs like a combine to harvest about 100 yards of Mojave scrub brush and sand with my crotch. Later, it was determined that both my fork tubes were badly bent, and probably from #5, since there was really nothing to hit out there but sand. Who knew? (Note also the Öhlins steering damper in #5 photo from a couple years post-crash, probably the most expensive part on the bike.) With new fork tubes, it handled like a dream, but by then the baby, etc., had put an end to my race career. What might’ve been…
Moral: If you’re a crap mechanic, or just inexperienced (same thing), have somebody who knows what they’re doing have a look at your bike before you go “racing” on it. Or ride it at all, if it’s home built.
2. 2000 Yamaha R1, Circuit Catalunya
Things were swell at the millennium. The motorcycle biz was booming, love was in the air and most of us were fat and happy before 9/11 and everything that came after. The R1 was a favorite at the time (still is) and we were off to ride the new one at my favorite track, Catalunya, with special guest star Rich Oliver. Heck, we were even on TV there for awhile, Motorcyclist TV I think it was called, on Speedvision. Remember them? In our second session of the day, the plan was I’d ride behind Yamaha’s test rider, and Rich would ride behind me with a camera on the nose of his bike. Tire warmers were in the future, and the test rider was going to take it easy the first lap. Strangely on motorcycles, one man’s taking it easy is another man’s limit of adhesion, and Rich captured me sliding right out of the frame, prone position, in Turn 2 on the out lap. Musta gassed it up a tad too much trying to keep up with the test rider…
Moral: Never try to keep up with another rider unless you’re able to do so without falling off, especially if his day job is Yamaha R1 Test Rider. Might as well move into the 21st century and get a bike with Traction Control (though I still have a 2000 R1 in my garage as a memento. A crashed one.)
1. 1986 Honda VF500F Interceptor
Wow, my first brand-new bike bought with my own college loan! I went in for a new CBR600 Hurricane, but they were all out. I liked this leftover better anyway, and it was only $2,749 out the door. Don’t know how long I’d been riding it and being the coolest guy in Kansas City, when I came to a steep hill (75th Street?) I needed to descend that was still damp from a morning rain. Halfway down it, the rear brake (the one I used) wasn’t slowing me down enough since it was locked up, and we needed to stop for the STOP sign at the bottom of the hill and the busy intersection. So I clamped on the front, maybe for the first time, and proceeded to slide all the way to the bottom on the left exhaust pipe, handlebar and thigh. A black woman looked out from her porch with wide eyes: Are you alright, boy?
Actually I was fine, thanks to wet pavement not being so abrasive to one’s flesh. But I knew I needed to figure some things out. Not long after, the call came in from Phil Schilling to move to California, and the slightly scuffed Interceptor got sold. Kind of wish I’d kept it, sniff.
Moral: Learn how to ride.
Overall Moral: In every one of these chilling spills except #9, I was wearing great gear, and walked away without serious injury, usually without even being hurt. I only ever broke a collarbone in a crash I suppressed and just remembered, on a Zephyr 750 project bike on PCH. Then there was the time I fell off a GSX-R750 on the 405 North and rolled down the carpool lane but wasn’t even bruised, thanks to my Aerostich… others may still come to me later, but for now: Wear good gear, people.