STREET SMARTS - How I survived the past 40 years on a motorcycle

  • Published
  • By Col. Bruce W. Lovely
  • Air Education and Training Command director of manpower, personnel and services
A few years back, I was riding a Triumph Trident motorcycle down a back country road, at night, in the rain, going about 50 to 55 mph. Halfway through a turn, I saw a white, bulky mass in the middle of my lane about 80 feet away. It took a moment for my mind to register what it was ... a large mattress!

Initially, I froze.

With little time to react, I quickly regained composure and did what I learned at a riding course: I straightened up the bike, lined it head-on with the mattress, downshifted, stood on the pegs, gripped the handlebars tightly, leaned back and accelerated just as I hit the obstacle. ... The bike went over the mattress with little more than a slight wiggle. I came off the mattress, adjusted slightly and continued on around the turn.

Lesson learned? Don't panic, and trust the motorcycle's capabilities to help keep and get you out of trouble.

I'm a hard core motorcycle rider. I've got about 500,000 accident-free street miles on motorcycles ranging from a dual purpose 125cc Kawasaki to a 1300cc (180 hp) Suzuki road racer. I've also owned assorted BSAs, Nortons, Triumphs and a couple of new-style cruisers. My current ride is a Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic -- amazing how comfort becomes more important as you age!

With 40 years experience on the street and five years before that in the dirt, I've learned a thing or two about surviving on the back of these powerful machines. Here are my top five tips.

1. Practice, practice, practice
First, get all the motorcycle training you can, and then practice, practice, practice. In my younger days I simply thought I was indestructible and that my riding skills were "perfect." Trust me; that's a bunch of crap.

As I got older and wiser, I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Experienced Rider Course, and much to my amazement, I actually learned a few things. I've now taken about 12 riding courses; and in every one, I've learned something and became a better rider. I plan to continue this education until I can no longer ride.

Also, at least once a month, I go to a large, empty parking lot and practice my skills, such as, emergency braking, obstacle avoidance, etc. When bad things happen, you must instantly respond; training and practice allow that to happen instinctively without thinking.

2. Stay within your limits
Never, ever override your skills and experience level. This is absolutely critical to surviving on the street. But it's also one of the easiest disciplines to fail at and get into trouble.

When riding in a group, do not try to keep up with better bikers -- stay at your own pace and practice your skills. When riding alone, avoid the tendency to speed down straight-aways; because, inevitably, at the end there will be a turn ... and depending on your speed, you may or may not make it around.

Many years ago, I entered a turn going way too fast. I started to drag hard parts underneath the bike and was on the verge of losing control. The good news is that I was able to leave the road and cut across an open field. The bad news is that it was springtime in Maine. So when I stopped, I sank in mud up to the frame and spent the next three hours pushing a 500-pound motorcycle back to the road. Luckily, the only thing hurt was my pride and ego!

3. Be fearless
If you're going to ride motorcycles, you need to be somewhat fearless. Please note that I didn't say "stupid," which is something altogether different. Being fearless does not mean taking unnecessary or foolish risks. You need to respect motorcycles; but fearing them is an accident waiting to happen, because fear leads to panic. At some point, all motorcycle riders experience trepidation. The key is how we respond to it and control it.

It's usually not the motorcycle's inability to go around a turn, but rather our inability to control our fear, thereby, not allowing our training and practice to kick in and take us safely through the turn. When fear takes over, a typical motorcycle rider will freeze up and, at that point, lose control of the bike with potentially fatal results.

Today's motorcycles are technological marvels and have amazing performance in both power and handling -- usually well beyond the rider's ability to test its limits. When confronting a challenging moment on a motorcycle, it's critical to corral your anxiety into action, fall back on your training and practice, and allow the motorcycle to perform.

In most cases, this will get you out of trouble, just as it did me when I unexpectedly faced that mattress in the middle of the road.

4. Maintain good situational awareness
When riding, you should always maintain a "bubble" of safety around you. Slow down, speed up, change lanes -- do whatever it takes to keep a safe distance between you and vehicles in front, behind and to each side. Good situational awareness at all times can save your life.

Cars and, particularly, trucks have blind spots. Your job is to ensure that you're not in them. Also, when changing lanes, don't trust your mirrors, as you have blind spots as well. Always look over your shoulder to ensure the lane is clear before making your move.

Additionally, assess intersections, and assume that the car will not yield the right-of-way. You never want to play chicken with a cage driver, because you will lose!

Never ride alongside an 18-wheeler, because if a tire blows, you're toast. So, pass them quickly or slow down and let them go by.

At a stop sign or a red light, always keep your bike in gear and continually "check 6." Several times I've had to run a red light because it was clear that the speeding car coming up behind me was not going to stop.

5. Gear up
And last but not least, wear all your personal protective equipment. Never pick and choose between your safety gear -- you need it all. Wear a helmet with a visor or protective eyewear, long-sleeved outer garment, long pants, over the ankle boots, gloves and a reflective vest. I prefer leather because of its abrasion resistance.

Years ago I learned the necessity of wearing all my protective equipment to help mitigate risk and ride safe. As a young lieutenant assigned to Bitburg Air Base, Germany, in the early 1980s, I bought a European model Suzuki GSX1100 and started road racing at the Nurburgring and Hockenheim circuits. In a sweeping turn at the Nurburgring at a little more than 100 mph, my bike high sided and flipped me off. I flew nearly 10 feet in the air, landed, rolled a couple of times and then slid across the pavement. Once stopped, I jumped up, ran over to my bike (which was still running), picked it up, quickly checked it over, got it into first gear and got back into the race.

My complete set of safety gear saved the day. I had just a few scuff marks on my leathers and helmet, along with a few sore muscles ... that's it!

The bottom line is riding motorcycles is already exciting enough without adding unnecessary hazards to the mix. So when you're taking advantage of the great weather during the summer months, ensure your head's in the game and you've taken steps to mitigate the risks. All of you are important to your family, your unit, your Air Force and your nation.

So ride safe, and keep the rubber side down!