12 July 2008


To begin with, I should note that during the events that I am about to describe, no bloggers were harmed in any way.

Yesterday I set out to ride my motorbike, Betty, up from San Diego to Oakland. I need to move her, and it's a PITA to drain her fluids to truck her up, so as I have the time my plan was to take Highway 1 up the coast and enjoy the trip. Beautiful vistas, cheap motels, and the open road, here I come.

Instead, I had the most terrifying experience of my life.

I packed clothes and sundries for the ride in my big messenger backpack, a suit for job interviews into my garment roll, and a few other things I'd need only when I arrived in the Bay Area into my shoulder bag. Geared up for the ride, with the backpack on, I locked the shoulder bag inside Betty's side case and bungee'd the garment roll onto my back seat as a driver waited impatiently for my parking spot.

I think the waiting driver may have inspired some unwise haste on my part.

Ten minutes later I'm zipping up Highway 805 at a cool 70 miles an hour when there's a horrible chunk noise from the back end of my bike, and I'm skidding. I wasn't sure what had happened at the time, but I now know that the rear wheel had locked up completely. This is every bit as bad a situation as it sounds.

Let us now praise the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and their excellent RiderCourse, which I took ten years ago. They teach a number of safety skills, not least how to handle a rear wheel skid. (Don't panic, don't let up the rear brake, don't try to steer, and don't try to drive out of it, just let yourself come to a stop.) You actually practice doing rear-wheel skids during the class.

At fifteen miles an hour.

As I skidded from 70 to 0 the reflexes they taught me kicked in and I kept her upright. I even managed to drift myself onto the dotted line between the #2 and #3 lanes so that I wasn't in the direct path of traffic.

Instead, I had two lanes of traffic to either side of me. I tried rocking the bike back and forth a bit, but that rear wheel was locked tight. I couldn't get her into neutral, and her engine had gone dead. The shoulders looked very, very far away.

I did have my phone with me, so I rang 911 and had a nice chat with the Highway Patrol dispatcher. She didn't quite seem to grok how I could be literally in the middle of the freeway, or why this would inspire me to ask her to speak a little louder, but she did tell me that a tow truck and a cop were on their way. She also helpfully advised me that my first concern at this time should be my own safety.

Good point; I resolved to get right on that project, as soon as I could think of something I could do about it. The skid had been the scariest thing that had ever happened to me, by far, but I had demoted it to the #2 position on the list by the time the dispatcher gave me that advice. Cars were zipping past a few inches to either side of me. I switched on hazard lighs and put my helmet back on; every little bit helps.

Fortunately, a passing motorist finally took pity on my plight and stopped behind me in one lane. With his assistance, I managed to walk my (very heavy!) girl over to the center divider. In the process, I solved the mystery of what had happened. My garment bag had somehow escaped its position on my back seat and taken residence in my rear wheel well. I had a suit, a couple of dress shirts, and a few of my favourite neckties wedged firmly between Betty's engine and rear wheel. It was looking like I might have to actually get the wheel removed to get them out.

My fault. $#*+!!

I had time to create some inventive new curses before the tow guy showed up with a big flatbed truck. He tilted the flatbed back so it lay with one edge against the tarmac and—being more enthusiastic and strong than I am—he proposed brute-forcing Betty's rear wheel an inch above the ground and pushing her up onto the flatbed. This worked, and he had me sitting on the bike to keep it upright when, unannounced, he pushed the button to bring the flatbed back to horizontal. This was a very peculiar sensation. Or maybe I was experiencing things particularly vividly at that point, for some reason.

By this time the CHP officer had finally showed. He asked me if I wanted to file a report. Uh, no thank you?

I climbed into the cab and the tow guy asked me where we were going. I decided on just going back to my apartment, where I could call for a mechanic to haul away my dead bike ... and shower off my adrenalin sweat.

We get to my place and repeat the flatbed tilt a second time. I rode my bike backward, downhill, with the locked rear wheel, inching down using the front brake and the tips of my toes. I think this must have been kind of scary, but by this time that was small potatoes.

Somehow this process dislodged my bag. My rear wheel turned again. The tow driver suggested that I should try to start my bike, but I was sure that this adventure must have fubar'd the engine.

I was wrong. Betty runs like a watch. The tow driver obviously thought I was nuts when I kissed her. I had a word with my mechanic, who assured me that she ought to be just fine, save for a bald spot on her rear tire. I can still ride her, but since I'm still planning on a five hundred mile ride, I'll have that tire replaced next week.

Oh, and though my garment bag is hors d'combat, my suit and shirts survived. Well, they could use a little pressing. Unbelievable.

Lessons learned:

  • Bikers:
    • Secure your gear carefully.
    • Take the MSF class, it could save your life.
  • It turns out I'm cool under fire.
  • I have mad biker skillz.
  • I see why some people are addicted to adrenalin-inspiring danger.
  • I am not one of those people.
  • I thought that after my parked car was wrecked by a drunkard and I was laid off from my job that the city of San Diego was spitting me out, but it seems that she ain't quite done with me yet.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're safe!

Veleda said...

glad that you are okay.

dying is not an option. ; )

bella said...

Whoa... glad you're safe!

d a r k c h i l d e said...

egads! Is your Mercury still in retrograde? Glad it all worked out well, but I can see how that might have given your heartrate a new, higher average!

Al said...

Holy fucking shit!

batojar said...

Bald spot, may ass! Don't you ride that tire for an inch young man! From your description it's got to be paper-thin, if it blows while you are riding you could have a most unpleasant sense of deja-vu. Fix, then ride.

Glad to hear you are all right. Take care, talk to you soon.

nancyblue said...

Yoikes! Scary indeed!

Erik said...

Whoa! Way to keep it together in the face of utter disaster! Glad to hear you're safe.

Willa said...

Now THAT'S how you tell a story! Thank the plastic baby Jesus you weren't maimed or killed.

I wonder if life has become richer for you following this experience.

I'm still not sure how you managed to stay cool, but I sure am glad you did. Cheers to your mad skillz and multi-tasking abilities. Damn.