by Gary Charpentier
“The only time I really feel alive is when I could die any moment.”
They are all trying to kill me, those anonymous people in their ubiquitous cages droning along until their trance is shattered by the color and violence of my passing. They HATE to be awakened like that. It makes them ANGRY. They think, “How dare that man show me how different my life could be. How dare he wantonly exhibit his freedom like this. The Public Highway is no place to be having fun! Officer, arrest that man.”
Ah, the visceral appeal of a motorcycle at speed, scything through traffic like a Messerschmitt through a lumbering formation of bombers. Who can resist it? Oh, I see some two-wheeled commuters of the “milk-crate-bungied-to-chrome-sissy-bar” variety sitting meekly between the seething behemoths. What’s the point? You can get nowhere just as fast in a car as you can riding a bike in that manner. We are light, agile, quick and fast. We must use this to our advantage and strike when the time is right. I see all these bumper stickers that beseech us to “Start SEEING Motorcycles,” but I would rather remain invisible, then blast past them before they can even think about messing with me.
Consider this. When are you safer? When you travel at approximately the same speed as traffic, so other vehicles present a collision hazard from both front and rear? Or when you control both the rate of closure and the direction of your obstacles by maintaining a slightly higher speed than all other traffic? With speed, anything you are likely to hit is coming from in front of you, within your field of vision of the road ahead. One of the worst obstructions is when traffic becomes moving pylons. If you are riding co-speed with Goober in his Pick-em-up, you are depending on his (probably alcohol influenced) reflexes and (lack of) judgment to keep him from using you as another hideous hood ornament. Why not reduce your exposure to hazards like these with a little judicious use of the throttle? Besides, you are much less annoying to them when you pass in and out of their lives in the shortest amount of time.
Now, I admit that I write this under the influence of caffeine and adrenaline. It just seems more natural and, indeed, safer to treat the freeway and city streets as a hostile environment with motorcycles near the bottom of the food chain. In such circumstances, to use an old fighter pilot axiom, “speed is life.” Instead of the slothful indifference of the elephant, we must maintain the vigilance and quick movements of the gazelle.
Of course, some examples of our species reject this philosophy as far too strenuous. They elect instead to festoon their mounts with all sorts of shiny chrome and glittering lights, much like the peacock fans it’s tail feathers to attract mates or scare off enemies. But when confronted by an 18-wheeler with an exhausted driver “hammer down” to make it to his next stop on time, the full dress FL-ABCDEFG or Wingabago fares about as well as the peacock under the feet of the inattentive pachyderm. “Oops! Well, whatever that was, it sure was pretty!”
The point I am trying so hard to make here isn’t pretty, however. It isn’t politically correct either, but you can’t deny that it is practical. “Safety First, Ride Fast.”
“The Other Side of the Coin”
Last Monday, I was riding to work in my usual fashion, meaning I had a wicked caffeine buzz and didn’t spare the horses as I sliced through rush-hour traffic with the skill and precision of a world-class surgeon wielding a chain saw. Little did I know, as I focused on the portions of the freeway where cars were not and where I intended to be very shortly, that someone I work with occupied one of those “moving pylons” I referred to earlier. This guy is an engineer and has had some gear head experience in his time. I had a chance to talk with him about my riding style, or lack thereof. Let’s call him Rex…because that’s his name. Though I won’t quote the entire conversation to you, I will paraphrase the high points.
Me: It has come to my attention that I may owe you an apology. Did I cut you off in traffic the other day?
Rex: Well, no, you didn’t cut me off, but do you normally change lanes three at a time?
Me: Honestly, when I see an open lane on the other side of the freeway and a clear path to that lane, then, yeah, I do.
Rex: Well, do you realize how that makes car-drivers feel? First of all, it’s illegal, and second, it is not exactly safe.
Me: Yeah, I can see where you would have that perception. But for me, on a bike, there is no real safety on the freeway except that which I make for myself. If I maintain a speed that the cars can’t match and take the responsibility to avoid them myself, then my chance of being involved in an accident decreases, and the likelihood of injuring anyone but myself becomes less.
Rex: Yes, but don’t you see the effect that has on drivers when the next bike comes along? They will be less likely to give that rider a break, like space to merge or even space in traffic. That next rider did nothing to deserve the aggressive treatment, but you set the stage. When one driver acts aggressively, it causes the tension level of the entire traffic stream to increase, which makes the likelihood of an accident greater.
There was quite a bit more to the conversation, but most of it concerned the two of us finding common ground and respecting each other’s point of view. This was a priceless opportunity for me to find out what my version of commuting looks like from behind a windshield. There is much more than physics involved when we venture out onto the freeway, and it helps if we moderate that raw survival instinct with a bit of common sense and courtesy. This may change the way I ride to work a bit, but I still stand by what I wrote earlier about being primarily responsible for your own safety out there. Don’t depend on the other guy to watch out for you. Watch out for yourself, as well as you can, and try to enjoy the experience. Riding a motorcycle, even in traffic, is still one of life’s best (legal) thrills.