Duke's Den: Risk/Reward

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

News flash: Motorcycling can be dangerous. Illustrating this fact are the left hands of myself and international roadracer, Jeremy McWilliams, seen in the above picture, a photo I imagine many would think is more than a touch morbid. The missing digits are the result of crashing motorcycles while racing.

And we’re not extraordinarily disfigured in the world of motorcyclists. Three-time World Superbike champ Troy Bayliss lost his right pinkie finger at the second knuckle after a crash, and a similar injury afflicted flamboyant Grand Prix champ Barry Sheene’s left-hand pinkie. Former AMA roadracing champion Randy Renfrow had perhaps the most lurid amputation story. A particularly ugly high-speed crash at Willow Springs catastrophically mangled his right thumb to the point that he had doctors amputate his big toe to replace the thumb so he could continue racing.

My finger became detached after losing a battle with the chain and sprocket of a CBR600F2 while racing at a small track in Canada, Gimli Motorsport Park. A powerslide while exiting a corner turned into a wicked, headshakin’, highsidin’ event that hoisted me off the left side of the F2, and somewhere along the way to hitting the ground my index finger found its way between the chain and sprocket. Horribly flukey.

Lost in the tumult of bouncing off the ground and grinding my elbow through my Kenny Roberts-era (KR Sr., not KRJR!) Dainese leathers, I initially didn’t even feel the injury to my finger. I got up and began running to my CBR in the hopes of rejoining the race – I was in second place when I crashed – when I glanced down at my hands and a Sesame Street tune started running through my head: One of these things is not like the other…

My CBR600F2 was so gentle… until it decided to literally bite my finger off! Lesson learned: don’t race without a steering damper.

“Hey,” yelled the cornerworker, “are you okay?”

“No,” I yelled back. “You gotta find my finger, man!”

Somewhere in the tall prairie grass of the track’s infield was my missing digit. Medics quickly arrived on the scene, so I left the finger search to people who weren’t bleeding. I had always been aware of the dangers of riding motorcycles, but not once did I imagine a motorbike severing one of my limbs. The sprocket and chain had mowed its way through my second knuckle. No problem, I thought, a surgeon will just sew that puppy back on.

Later at the hospital, the doctor explained how, with chunks of my finger and its joint missing, I’d be better off without reattaching my finger. “But, doc,” I implored, “I ride motorcycles, I play drums and guitar – I need my finger!”

Then, in the most surreal moment of my life, the doc placed the detached portion of my finger next to my 4.5-fingered hand to illustrate how much tissue and bone was no longer there. It was a horrifying sight, and I quickly lost my will to explain to the doctor that my plan was better than his. “Okay, put that thing away,” I said queasily.

Check out the simple plastic guard fitted to Aprilia RSV4s below the swingarm that routes errant digits away from a potentially hungry sprocket. Providing it as standard equipment is a classy touch from the Italian manufacturer. I wish my old F2 had such a device.

And that’s the story behind the 10% reduction of time it takes to trim my fingernails. And, as my old buddy Paul Lie quipped afterward, at least I’ve got a better story than if I had lopped off a finger while making a spice rack.

My injury was pretty devastating to me, not to mention it really crimped my barre chord potential on guitar. My mom, always worried about my safety, memorably lamented, “Oh, Kevin you’re no longer whole.” To anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with riding, such a serious injury should be more than enough to cast off motorbikes in the pursuit of more docile escapades such as fishing or backgammon. But I never for a moment thought of quitting riding.

Motorcycles can be hazardous to my health, and I’ve since gone on to prove it several times over when the force of gravity overcame my sense of balance. And yet the sensations of piloting a swift machine that requires a multitude of senses to keep from falling over continues to be one of my life’s greatest pleasures.

Here’s the result of a rear tire overcoming the available traction on a sandy canyon corner a decade or so ago (pay no heed to the tree appearing to grow out of my shoulder – it’s a picture of an x-ray shot outdoors). Notice the misalignment of my collarbone and upper three ribs. What you can’t see is the punctured lung…

Riding motorcycles does things to a human brain no other vehicle can duplicate, providing a shorter path to one’s emotions. They can range from existential daydreams when riding on an empty road into an endless horizon, to the tingly, all-nerves-firing focus of navigating traffic potentially threatening your mortality from all directions, and countless other heightened emotions in between. Some people are content with lives that are dull. The lives of motorcycle riders are seldom dull.

I love the feeling – the thousands of feelings – of riding a motorcycle, and I can’t imagine my life without that joy. I believe motorcyclists have a bigger thirst for life because they’re not afraid to expose themselves to risk. Yes, we can get hurt. But once having tasted the immense glory of skillfully piloting a ground-bound, two-dimensional airplane, a life lived without motorcycles would seem unduly muted.

Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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4 of 16 comments
  • Chris Cope Chris Cope on Feb 16, 2016

    Having grown up in the South, I know a number of people who have lost fingers as a result of fishing incidents.

    • Old MOron Old MOron on Feb 16, 2016

      No kidding? So Casey Stoner, who loves to go fishing in his retirement, might still lose a finger? That would be ironic.

  • Mikoaj Mikoaj on Feb 18, 2016

    As long as the motorcyclists expose only themselves to being hurt that's fine. The problem is that lots of motorcyclists expose others to being hurt too, by being cretins on public roads.

    • Marcozoid Marcozoid on Dec 19, 2016

      For every motorcyclist I see riding in a way that is reckless and presents a real danger to others on the road (and they are out there), I see 100 automobile drivers doing far worse. And if I had a penny for every time I encountered someone in a car creating the conditions for disaster by tailgating a motorcyclist, texting or otherwise fiddling with his or her phone while driving, I would be a rich man.