by Thomas Day
In early May I attended and filmed the MN-Sport bike group’s foray at Dakota Technical School’s road course. I even got the opportunity to make a couple of laps myself after the program ended and the track was good and rain soaked. During the event, a couple of riders went down and at least one of the bikes was severely damaged. Later in the week, the rider of that bike posted a note to the group describing the sequence of events and bad decisions that led to the crash. I mean every tiny detail, down to the color of the grass beside the track and the road surface where the crash occurred.
In reading his description, I was reminded of my own disgustingly large collection of crashes, most of which occurred 20-35 years ago in my dirt biking/racing days. Other than a slightly painful spit-off that I received a few days after I purchased my used SV650 (caused by a modification made by the previous owner which pinched the throttle return cable between the frame and the carbs resulting in an unexpected acceleration when the bike was leaned over and the bars were locked full right), all of my crashes were done off-road and most were during competition or practice. But the real issue is that they happened years ago.
A decade or two ago, one of my daughters had a tee-shirt that read “I only wish I could ride as fast as my father remembers he rode.” The fact is, I don’t remember myself riding all that fast or often. I made thousands of laps around an oval dirt track in western Kansas and spent a decade on an assortment of motocross tracks from Texas to Nebraska. I regularly rode cross-country races and an occasional enduro. I even did a couple of hill climber events, once on my Kawasaki Bighorn and once on a Rickman 125. In my motorcycling memory, most of what’s left are those seconds before and during my most spectacular or painful (often the two are linked) crashes.
If I work at it, I can recall a moment or two where I felt like I was riding fast and well in competition or practice, but those memories are pretty fuzzy and indistinct. I have no trouble at all recalling the crash that resulted in five toes being broken. I can remember the accident that ended my motocross hobby almost like it happened a few weeks ago, even though it was almost 20 years ago when it actually happened. I can even pull up the “splat” sound that my ribs made as they separated into a collection of disassociated bone fragments. I can also remember the hallucination that I had while unconscious, something about being in a cargo plane flying over a desert and being tossed out without a parachute. After that accident, I decided to “grow up” and act like a man who was married with two children and no health insurance. I rode trails for a few years and, eventually, turned to street riding and no more air time.
I used to love “bench racing,” that thing we do in Minnesota for way too much of the year waiting for our short riding season. In Nebraska, where I did most of my motocross, our bench-racing (or bar stool) season was about the same as here and about as well practiced. I don’t do much of that any more. I don’t even like doing it all that much. The memories were from too long ago to have any meaning or value.
I don’t have any recent stories to tell so that takes the edge off of the desire to “share” an experience, but, mostly, remembering my days on the track brings up memories of being way too close to the track. I was practically embedded in the track, in fact. At least once, I was so much a part of the course surface that other twenty-plus riders used me to improve their corning traction.
On one level, it’s sort of fun to recall those moments and realize that I survived them and learned from them and they are part of my riding experience. Other than having an unnatural ability to tell when the weather is about to change (anywhere on the planet), I’m in pretty good shape considering what could have happened every time I took a spill. In fact, the longest lasting and most painful injuries I’ve suffered came from landscaping my backyard and chipping ice on my driveway. So, motorcycling hasn’t been the only risk to which I’ve been exposed. Buying and maintaining a house in Minnesota has been more painful and hazardous.
Still, the point in all this gibberish is that it seems odd that the moments before a crash would be so permanently etched in memory. There is something about being a motorcycling enthusiast that makes some of us want to make every corner perfect, every stop as efficient and quick as possible, and every evasive maneuver precise and controlled. When that effort breaks down or completely fails, it’s like a psychic hangnail. That’s been true for me. I have gone over those moments and analyzed where my experience and skills failed to meet the needs of the moment, until I have every second embossed in my memories. Sometimes I’ve learned something useful from the analysis. Other times, I’ve just learned how to thoroughly memorize one of my life’s painful moments.
All the good times, fast times, coordinated and skilled times, and the ruthless moments of racing concentration are not nearly so well remembered. I don’t remember being anywhere near as fast as kids are today. Nobody was, and we had some really fast guys in our time.
But I wasn’t one of them. I could do some stuff pretty well. I held my own on a track and did a little better than average on a 100 mile long cross country race. Not only do I not see myself as being capable of doing that at my current age, I don’t see myself being competitive with today’s rocketeers if I was 30 years younger. Today’s riders are faster, better trained, better equipped, and more radically pushing the edges of traction and technology than their predecessors. They stand on the shoulders of the riders who went before them, but they’ve taken the sport way beyond the skill and imagination of earlier riders.
And, they’ll keep doing it until their collection of painful memories overwhelms the thrill of riding on that edge. Then, the motivation to go fast and take chances gets moderated by the fear of pain and disability. At that point, the next generation takes over and the sport goes the next step faster.