Chasing Valentino Rossi

by bj max

Last week I spent a couple of hours watching the Doctor, Valentino Rossi, win his one hundredth GP race in Assen, Holland. Now I’m not a big fan of motorcycle racing in general. I do enjoy flat track racing and The Isle of Man TT, but lack of exposure curbs their appeal. MotoGp, on the other hand, pops up on cable all the time and that, plus that kid from Kentucky, have made me a fan.

Sugar Booger and I have spent every last Fourth of July for the past forty years with our family. But this year, the kids deserted us and left us home alone so we accepted an invitation from some fellow rednecks to ride to the Ozark Plateau for a weekend of two wheeled nirvana. We packed a small bag, saddled up and crossed the Big Muddy into Arkansas where we hooked up with Buck, Richard, and pilot monitors, Donna and Donna, at a fast food joint just off I-55. Buck and Donna ride a yeller’ 1800A and Richard and Donna wheel a loaded Ultra Glide Classic; both capable touring machines.

After we got our hand shaking and howdying done, we discussed our route with Buck, a native Arkansas Razorback, who promised some of the best roads we had ever put a tire to. Our destination, Eureka Springs, three hundred and ten miles distant, was only a couple hundred miles as the crow flies suggesting that a whole range of twisty roads lay ahead.

The only bad thing about riding the Ozarks, from our perspective anyway, is getting there. We have to ride sixty miles across the Arkansas Delta, a hot and miserable plain that’s great for growing cotton and country music stars, but lousy for riding motorcycles. But an hour of tedium for admission to some of the best roads in the world is a small price to pay so we cowboyed up and hit the road.

Within the hour we began pulling out of the Delta near Bald Knob and after a fast four lane connector to Arkansas sixteen, we began picking up hints of the great roads that lay just over the horizon. The undulating terrain gradually rolled the hills up into the Ozark Mountains and the roads began to climb, looping and coiling their way to paradise.

At a maximum height of 2650 feet, the Ozarks are not in the same league with the Smokies, but the roads are just as intense with roller coaster features that challenge both man and machine. The engine and brakes really get a workout; not to mention the pilot. Out front, Buck was boomin’ and zoomin’ through the twists and turns, seemingly without a care. I’ve ridden with Buck for several years now and despite not knowing these roads and knowing I’m not as good a rider, I couldn’t help chasing him. I pushed myself as hard as I dared and I still wasn’t gaining any ground. Buck made it look easy and it was frustrating.

Then, as if on cue, the movie theater in my head began playing an onboard video of Rossi at Assen the previous week. In this mental clip I noted that in every corner “The Doctor” slid his butt off the bike in the direction of the turn, supposedly giving him more ground clearance and control. According to the engineers, it’s all about centripetal acceleration and angular momentum, with a little teleparallel gravitation thrown in for good measure; and a lot of other claptrap that I don’t understand. But hey, what works for Valentino Rossi should work for me. Right? That’s the way I saw it anyway and besides, Buck was gettin’ away and I had to do something.

Leaning into the next curve, a right hander, I cautiously shifted my weight to the right and powered through. Did I feel more control there or was it just my imagination? A left hander came up immediately and I shifted to the left. Only this time I actually slid my precious posterior off the side of the seat a couple inches. Wow! You bet there was more control and it was amazing. I began to shift quickly back and fourth and I could sense that my speed had picked up. This is fantastic. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Shifting my weight bucked up my confidence to a level that I had never experienced before and that, I would learn, ain’t necessarily a good thing. But I was gaining on Buck now, no doubt about it. And this crooked little two lane was endless so there was plenty of time to see if I could run him down.

We zoomed into a right hand kink. Downshifting to fourth I leaned the bike over and, mimicking Rossi, I slid my butt off the side and looked deep into the corner and poured on the coal. It felt good and my confidence soared. And that yeller’ Wing was definitely getting bigger so I put more pressure on the handlebar and smiled when my right foot peg scraped noisily along the pavement. Then, just when I was gettin’ comfortable with my newly discovered technique, my foot was rudely snatched from the peg and jerked under the motorcycle. I felt Sugar Booger stiffen as the bike bobbled and quivered then shook itself into an eye blurring wobble.

With a bit of skill and a ton of luck I was able to regain control and the danger was over almost as soon as it began, but it scared the shinola out of both of us. (I’ve always been told I didn’t know the difference) But dragging the peg did not initiate that wobble. That was the result of a long standing habit I have of riding with my right foot cocked about forty five degrees and hanging half way off the foot peg. Not my left foot, only my right. Why? I don’t have a clue. All I know is that I do and I’ve ridden that way for years.

When the peg began scraping the asphalt it was only a millisecond before my foot dug in too, so hard that it beveled a three inch length of my forty dollar oil resistant, super ground gripper sole. The blacktop pulled my foot under the bike for a split second and then, just as quick, spit it back out and miraculously didn’t break my ankle. All this happened in an eye blink and naturally it upset the balance of the motorcycle, triggering the wobble and almost wrecking us in the process.

There’s an old motorcycle axiom, ride your own ride; a truism that some of us pretenders have to learn the hard way. There is a time to roll on the throttle and a time to roll off. A good rider knows instinctively when to do what. He can feel it in the seat of his pants. A dumb rider can feel it, too. He’s just too stupid to pay attention to the prompts. We were fortunate that I was able to hang on despite that stupidity, and maybe I’m a better rider for it. I certainly hope so. I’m gettin’ too dad gummed old to be pretending I’m somebody I ain’t.

But it sure is fun.


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