Riding motorcycles is dangerous. So are all of the finer things in life. Luckily, there are things you can do to minimize the risk. These are the street survival skills I have learned during my three decades of riding to make the mean streets less angry – and I’m passing on to my offspring when he starts riding on the street soon. The ability to negotiate the big congested city on a motorcycle is one of the greatest gifts I think I can give him; it’s also terrifying.
If you have anything to add, please feel free to contribute how you stay alive in the reader feedback.
10. Use your Mirrors
A person recently wheelied past me on the 405 doing 90ish – nice technique, nice form. I was impressed. Until I noticed he’d removed his mirrors. Man, I don’t know how you can ride that way on the street; I feel uncomfortable on the track without mirrors. I learned in roadrace school years ago what’s passed is past; trouble will usually come from the front. That’s true on the street as well, but not always – depending especially upon how fast you ride. Every now and then, somebody evading arrest or just plain crazy will come blasting up on your six (I try to minimize this by going slightly faster than the general flow), and it’s good to see them coming and give them a wide berth. If somebody wants to ride my tailsection when I’m doing 80, that’s fine; I move to the right and let them lead interference, thumbs up!
When slowing or stopped at a light, I’m always eyeballing my mirrors to make sure whatever’s behind me is stopping too. I like to pull up between rows of cars at lights, and I have that between-cars gap in my sights even where lane-splitting is illegal. And when the light turns green, it does not mean go. It means go when it is safe to proceed. Look both ways.
9. Be sure your bike is ready to go
I was taking a DR-Z400 back to Suzuki the other day, bombing along in the carpool lane, when she started to sputter. In the carburetor days, kids, that meant time to reach down with your left hand and switch the “petcock” to “reserve” – where there’s supposed to be another gallon or so. Whoopsie! She was already on reserve. Luckily traffic wasn’t too heavy. I put on my blinker and using my mirror(!) and eyeballs and left arm to signal, made it across about three lanes of traffic, losing groundspeed the whole time. Unluckily for me, the shoulder was closed, nothing but right lane and concrete barrier right next to it. An 18-wheeler was getting bigger and bigger in my mirrors. Maybe he was going to stop, as I coasted down below 30 mph… just when it was feeling serious, the concrete barrier ended and I was able to coast onto the shoulder at last.
I’d like to blame the last guy that rode the DR-Z. But this one was on me for not checking. You need gas, air in your tires, and everything functioning as it should before you head into traffic. Better to think of your bike as an airplane if you ride in heavy traffic. And especially if you ride after dark. One of the things that sticks in my mind from the famous Hurt report is that the worst thing you can do is have a problem on the freeway at night. The first couple of cars following you will avoid you. Good luck with the cars follwing them. When you get your vintage CB all restored and on the road, do not neglect your vintage taillight.
8. Know how to make your bike ready to go
Your throttle should snap back to the stop when you let go of it, and the engine it’s connected to should respond to it and run reliably 99.999-percent of the time. Your brake lever should be firm. Your clutch should work smooth and easy and your shifter should go click-click-click like a well-oiled machine. Your suspension should suspend, not just bounce. Go into a dealership and work the controls on a new bike. That’s how yours should feel no matter how old your bike is.
Befriend somebody with tools if you don’t have any (these things can all be done with very few simple ones), and learn the basics. Lube your cables and controls. You can even buy new ones! In the age of YouTube, there is no excuse not to know how to do this stuff. Riding a motorcycle well is largely all about fine hand movements – and you can’t execute them if your throttle cable’s all dry and stictiony or if your brake lever’s half frozen and hasn’t been lubed since 1988.
7. Know how to use your brakes
I can’t do a stoppie if you point the camera at me and ask me to, but I did a tremendous one once when a guy on a Suzuki Boulevard suddenly jumped into my path from in front of a truck when I was lane-splitting down La Cienega Blvd. one morning in stopped traffic. I grabbed the front hard enough to stand my Ducati Monster on its nose, a big rolling stoppie – wooohooo!! You’ll be amazed how hard your bike can stop if you squeeze the lever nice and progressively.
If you haven’t been riding that long, get a feel for how powerful your bike’s brakes are in a big parking lot. One with no cars in it. Also, if you ever have to panic-brake in traffic, do NOT forget #10 about your mirrors. It will do you no good to stop short of the bumper in front of you if you get sphincter-punched by the one following you. Always have an escape route to the side. If your bike doesn’t stop hard enough to make your eyeballs bulge, see #9 (unless your bike is an old BSA or something – and if you’re still alive riding something like that around all these years, you’re the one who should be giving out the advice instead of me). Side lesson: Always look before you pull into the gap to lane-split.
6. Know how to ride
Track days are fantastic for learning your motorcycle’s capabilities, but they don’t have to be lavish affairs on expensive road circuits. See the videos from Colin Edwards’ TTBC, Danny Walker’s Supercamp, and Rich Oliver’s Mystery Schools. Two or three old tires or cones in a vacant lot and an old XR100 or two are all you need to boost your bike-control skills tremendously, or even a couple of cones in the big parking lot where you practice braking on the bike you already own.
If you live where it’s easy to go off-roading, even better. Learning bike control by dodging cacti, rocks and trees is the best way to make your motorcycle an extension of yourself, which is essentially the goal, to give your bike the right inputs without thinking. If there’s a motocross track near you, there’s probably a Vet Track – meaning no giant jumps or insane whoops sections. Find an old dirtbike and have at it; you’ll be amazed how many people will give you free advice at the MX park, how many kids’ dads will help you fix your bike and had one just like it, and will give you a cold domestic brew when it’s time to pack it in for the day.
5. Pride goeth before a fall
Wow, it’s great how competent you’ve become in such a short time. Don’t be getting all cocky. We were riding some cool new bike through a small town in Spain when a local on a YZ450F came wheelying up alongside in the other lane. Nice! Impressive! Bravo! Thumbs up! Unfortunately, the car we were following didn’t see him, and turned left right across his path. He glanced off with his front knobbie still airborne, bounced around and crashed hard. No helmet. He was in bad shape when the ambulance arrived, semi-conscious and bleeding from the ears and elsewhere. Hope he made it.
4. Yeah, wear a helmet
It’s a sad sign of the times that anybody needs to be told this. Life is too short to debate people who think helmets will snap your neck, restrict your peripheral vision, cause you to renounce heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and vote Democratic. I could trot out statistics, but people who oppose helmets typically aren’t swayed by facts.
Go stand in the street and look at the pavement. Picture yourself being dropped headfirst onto it from four or five feet. Contemplate chin-first also, which happens a lot. Ask yourself, would I do better with or without a helmet? I personally am not an ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time) literalist. Sometimes I do short hops without a jacket to the grocery store a few blocks away. Sometimes I ride down to the beach in board shorts and high-tops, three miles on surface streets. But I always – always! – wear a helmet and gloves.
3. And gloves
Because I have fallen off without them. You don’t appreciate what fantastic appendages your hands are until you jack them up. And unless you’re a martial artist or stuntman trained to roll when you hit the ground, you will stick out your hands to break your fall. Even a 10-mph fall from a scooter will mangle your paws and make it unpleasant to use them for weeks or longer. Wear the best gloves you can afford, even if they’re $10 Home Depot work ones – which actually aren’t bad.
2. Keep your wits about you, my child
Many ears slam shut as soon as they hear someone begin pontificating that having a drop of alcohol will lead immediately to the nearest guardrail. For some people, it’s probably true. They shouldn’t drink at all. For those who are going to have a beer or two, it is far better to err on the side of sobriety: no more than one cocktail per hour, and it’s always time to go after two hours anyway. Any more than that, and we could again trot out statistic after statistic that heavily correlates drinking with thrashing of vehicles. Opiates and anything stronger are a no-no. Mushrooms and hallucinogens are right out. But you really don’t need to be told this, do you? The spirit of rugged independence that put you on a motorcycle in the first place, we hope, also brings with it heightened self-preservation skills. Live to ride with a gray beard, either attached to your face or to a riding companion.
1. You’re Invisible
The other thing the Hurt report pointed out is that the main thing that hurts and kills motorcyclists is that people just don’t see them. I remember like yesterday being in the rear flip-up seat of mom’s Kingswood Estate wagon when she pulled out in front of a motorcycle when I was a little kid of seven or so. I saw him, but she didn’t. He managed to swerve around us with eyeballs as big as golf balls, but it was a near thing. My mom wasn’t a bad person. She just had four kids in the car and things on her mind. It happens.
When you’re on your motorcycle, expect it to happen. If somebody oncoming looks like they’re about to turn left into your path, flash your highbeams a couple of times and slow down and cover the brakes. Have ABS if you can.
In a metaphysical sense, make yourself less invisible by admitting to your Higher Power of Choice that no matter how careful you are and how much gear you wear and how many flashing lights you cover your bike in, you’re still at the mercy of things outside of your control. Lawrence Grodsky was the safest motorcyclist in the world, but the deer that had his name on it didn’t care. Be nice to people and animals. Avoid the seven deadly sins. Get a little walking in. Try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. That’s all I’ve got. For now.