According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, your chances of dying on a motorcycle are 35 times higher than in a car, calculated on a per-mile basis. I always knew that, but it didn't matter.
I was a motorcyclist, and to a rider, risk is part of the package, in the same way that rejection is part of youthful love. As Hunter S. Thompson put it in The Song of the Sausage Creature (an essay on the Ducati 900 Supersport bike): "There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright-red, hunch-back, warp-speed 900-cc cafe racer is one of them – but I want one anyway…."
I wanted one. too. But that was then. Today, I am something I thought I could never be: an ex-motorcyclist. My garage doesn't have a bike in it, and for the first time in memory, I can drive past a motorcycle dealership without stopping to ogle the machines. What a long, strange trip it's been.
As a boy, motorcycles roared endlessly through my imagination. They were the perfect vehicle – fast and elemental, stripped down to the mechanical rudiments of wheels and engine. Motorcycles were poetry – Steve McQueen and Lawrence of Arabia both rode them.
My motorcycle career began in my teens, when I rode the cobblestones of Belgium on tweaked-out 50-cc Suzukis and Hondas with lowered handlebars and rear-set foot pegs that made them feel like Grand Prix machines. By my twenties, I was a motorcycle racer, riding 750s on the track.
Motorcycles were to me what Catholicism was to the Pope, or what the guitar was to Keith Richards – an article of faith. I rebuilt a Yamaha motor in a university dorm room, read every motorcycle magazine I could get, and dreamed of the day when I'd have a trellis-frame Ducati.
I knew that motorcycles were dangerous, but considered myself immune. For nearly 20 years, I lived a charmed motorcycle life – in thousands of rides, my worst street crash was a slide that left me with a couple of minor scrapes. I did crash several times on the race track, but that was part of the game – if you didn't crash, you weren't going fast enough to win. On the street, I was invincible.
Then came the summer morning that changed me. It was 1986. My wife and I had a new baby, and we were out of diapers. I'd worked the night shift in the newsroom, but duty called – I saddled up my new Yamaha FZ-750 and headed out to get a package of Huggies.
The ride would be short, but still a welcome break from the grinding routine of work and child care. My Yamaha had sticky tires, a racing pipe and clip-on handlebars like the bikes I used to race. I decided to take Spadina Avenue so I could run through the curves just north of College Street. I clicked down a gear and banked into the first section, carving through it like a low-flying plane.
Then it happened. Someone had dumped a load of gravel at the exit, and I was going too fast to miss it. My training and race experience meant nothing now – I was a prisoner of physics, sliding out of control into oncoming traffic. I missed two cars, but clipped the back corner of a TTC bus.
The crash left me with a scar on my left shoulder and a slightly wonky right thumb, but I got off lucky – had I hit the bus squarely, I wouldn't be here today. My bike was a write-off.
Amazingly, my wife didn't order me to stop riding motorcycles. And yet I knew that she wanted me to. But I rationalized. I was a skilled rider with a keen awareness of the risks. I could beat the odds. I sold my wrecked Yamaha and started saving up for a Ducati.
But somehow, the Ducati never arrived. Part of the reason was financial; we had two kids to raise. But there was more to it than that. A couple of years after my crash, my elementary school buddy died when he went off a cliff on his Honda during a dream-ride trip to Montana. My cousin ended up in hospital for nearly a year after a car turned left in front of his Yamaha XS-650. One of my former racing pals hit the wall at the track and suffered a life-changing head injury.
But I still wanted a bike. Or so I thought. Each winter, I planned the bike that I'd buy that spring. My wife held her tongue. And each spring, there was no bike. Then my buddy bought a new Suzuki GSXR-1000, one of the bikes I lusted for. He lives in Georgia, home to some of my favourite twisting roads in the world. I've driven them in everything from Honda Civics to Lotus Exiges, and blasting through the curves of Cloudland Canyon and Sarah Chapel Road never fails to heal what ails me.
Now I was about to experience them on the GSXR, a bike that epitomized sport riding. It was a newer, better version of the bikes I used to race, with more power, better handling and vastly improved brakes. This was going to be great. I returned three hours later a changed man. I knew that my bike days were over.
In a Lotus or a Porsche, the Georgia curves were a playground. I'd driven them for 20 years without incident, and not once had I felt like I might die. On the GSXR, I wondered whether I should update my will – as I arced through a sweeping, high-speed turn with a jagged rock wall next to it, I realized that a mistake would have serious consequences. I suddenly felt like an egg balanced on a spoon.
Risk is an interesting subject, and there is no better lens to examine it through than the motorcycle. Historian Jeremy Packer concluded that there are four basic approaches to motorcycle safety. The first is to quit riding. Then there's Risk Flaunting (epitomized by riders who refuse to wear a helmet and wear T-shirts that read, "You only live once"). Then there is Risk Valorization, where risk is accepted as an unfortunate but controllable component of a desirable activity. Packer's fourth approach is the one that used to be my mantra: Hyper-Reflective Self-Discipline (which I will refer to as HRSD).
The HRSD approach is based on constant training, scrupulous maintenance and personal scrutiny. It is embraced by countless riders, including many of my favourite motorcycle magazine writers. Among them was David Edwards of Cycle World, who once declared that motorcycles aren't actually dangerous, and that a smart, well-trained rider could "become almost bulletproof."
Then I started noticing the magazine writers who'd been involved in serious crashes – like Andrew Trevitt of Sport Rider magazine, the author of countless safety and riding technique articles who ended up in a wheelchair after a car pulled out in front of him a few years ago.
Reading his post-crash blogs was heartbreaking. Even in a wheelchair, Andrew remained a motorcycling advocate. But I realized that my motorcycle days were over. I used to argue with the "donor-cycle" critics, and I still love motorcycles in an aesthetic and philosophical sense – they are beautiful, pure and engaging in a way that few cars can manage. (As one of my friends recently noted, you don't see many motorcycles parked outside psychiatrist's offices.)
But the risk-reward ratio tipped somewhere along the line. Today, I love cars more than ever. I enjoy going fast in a machine that has inherent stability and crash protection. And I like riding with my wife next to me. Today, I realized that it's been 26 years since the motorcycle crash that began my slide away from the two-wheeled faith. Not once in all those years did my wife order me to stop riding. Instead, she just waited. That's one of the reasons she's the smartest person I know.
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