As the snow goes.... and comes.... and goes away again, we're all champing at the bit to get out there and get back on our bikes.
However, it's been a long winter, a rather nasty winter, and not only have the roads taken a beating (we have potholes several feet across and sometimes rather deep appearing here in Cowtown), many of us haven't thrown a leg over in more than 4 months. Not only is it possible that we may be physically a bit rusty with our riding skills, we may be a bit over exuberant, and possibly not thinking like riders just yet.
With that being said, maybe it will help to run over some safety and procedure thoughts just to get us into the right frame of mind to be safe, sane, and surviving riders.
Start at the Start!
Let's start at the start. Sand and gravel have always been the mortal enemies of traction on pavement, and we all know it. I would rather ride on wet pavement than sand and gravel any day. This spring, the roads are positively covered in the stuff after snowfall upon snowfall hit our Canadian roads, and we're not talking about a thin layer, either. Some of the roads and intersections around here have an inch or more of the insidious pea-gravel laying on them, and I'll assure you, it's crappy to ride on, and crappy to put a foot down on once you come to a stop. Be aware of it, keep it in the forebrain, and be ready for it. You might find tires or feet sliding around, and you might just find the stuff causing other drivers to slide around as well, when they're not throwing the stuff at your head with tire treads!
Keep the winter thought of "brake early and gently" alive and you'll find it's a lot easier to navigate the gravel traps.
Melting Snow Means Puddles!
Next, and sometimes on top of the gravel... is a danger that a LOT of early season riders seem to forget about...snow melt. Puddles, if you will. In March, April, and even May, snow melt is causing puddles to form, and they not only can hide dangers (like piles of gravel), they are inherently dangerous. Beyond the fact that they can conceal hazards, they can reduce traction (or cause hydroplaning), suddenly wash out your windshield, face shield, or goggles, and if a car traveling near you should throw a sheet of water of you, not only can you be temporarily (or worse) blinded by the dirty water, it's COLD. The shock of that hitting you can cause involuntary reactions that can throw you out of control in a heartbeat.
As well, if it drops below 0 at night, when cars drive through the puddles in the morning, the water they spread can turn into a fine, invisible sheet of ice that will take your ride out from under you before you have the first inkling of there even being a problem. The old practice of looking well ahead to recognize threats is going to be your friend, here.
See the puddle, assume it's icy nearby, and adjust accordingly.
Cool Might Quickly Become Cold!
Speaking of cold, even the morning air can present a danger to the spring rider. When you walk out in the morning in full riding gear you think "hey, +5 is pretty reasonable"… but that's before you're running down the highway at 100Km/h or .... so....
Make sure you dress in layers, and wear good gloves. It's amazing how fast cool air becomes cold, and how fast cold air can create hypothermia. Even something as simple as gloves that allow the air to rush up your sleeves can give you a chill that can be dangerous... dress for the weather you have, not the weather you hope for!
It’s Not Always Others Fault!
Now, in among all of this are the factors that you simply cannot predict. You can't dress for them (although ATGATT - all the gear all the time is a good start) and you cannot predict what they will do, because they're the people on the road around you.
Now, as riders, we are often swift to blame the "cagers" and truckers and other drivers we share the road with for incidents where 4 (or more) wheeled vehicles and bikes tangle. In all honesty, we have to admit that not always is the blame 100% on the other driver, and sometimes things could have been avoided if the rider had simply made better choices, even if the “cager” didn't do everything correctly.
Let's start with lane and riding positions. I see it every day, all summer in Calgary... riders who are so far over to the right side of the lane they can't possibly be seen properly, or who ride smack in the middle of the lane. In North America, the usual preference is to ride to the left side (driver's side) of the lane you're using, in order to accomplish several different things:
- This places you as visible to anyone overtaking the vehicle behind you. Especially important if the person behind you is in a large vehicle, by riding in the left wheel line of the lane, you are immediately visible when someone overtakes them... if you're in the right portion of the lane, an aggressive driver may actually begin moving into the lane before they can see you, if they see you at all.
- You're in the left mirror of the driver ahead of you. Next time you're in your car, look straight ahead, but use your peripheral vision... notice that you will get a hint of something in your left mirror long before you notice something in your right mirror. It's simply closer to your field of vision. By riding in the centre or right side of the lane, you may actually nearly be hiding from the driver in front of you, and if it's a large truck or van, you ARE invisible if you're anywhere but on the left side.
- You have a better chance of seeing what's going on ahead. If you're in the right hand tire track of the right hand lane, you have at least one entire vehicle blocking at least part of your view to the left and ahead. We know it's quite common that incidents happen by left turning vehicles, so the more you can see ahead of the driver in front, the better.
- Can you see THEM? If you cannot see the head or face of the driver in front of you in at least one of their mirrors, they most likely can't see you either. Trucks are often equipped with multiple mirrors and have excellent visibility compared to twenty years ago, but the fact remains that you, the rider, are the most visible and recognizable feature of your bike. Make sure you can see at least part of their face as much of the time as possible. When overtaking a large vehicle, make the pass as efficiently as possible in order to avoid trapping yourself in a blind spot.
Next, be seen. And I mean, SEEN. The old adage that loud pipes save lives doesn't hold water any longer in a world where people drive wearing headphones, or with multi-kilowatt stereos on warp factor holy crap for volume. It's not uncommon to ride with extra driving lights or high beams in the daytime, but also consider high visibility clothing, or at least "not black"… which is a stretch for me, too. I love my black riding leathers, but I also know that it’s like stealth technology when other drivers look around- they just don’t see it. My answer is a huge batch of multicolored patches all over my vest- not that I think it replaces a good hi-vis getup, but I will never claim to be perfect. This is one place where the sportbike riders often get it right, they wear brightly colored or flashy leathers and helmets, and their bikes are often brightly colored as well, and it does help.
I can’t say it loudly enough or often enough, either… ride like your life depends on it, because it does. Although it’s glorious to get lost in our thoughts while riding, keep your wits on high alert. Think about who’s around you, what kind of vehicles, whether or not they can see you, and what kind of dangers are represented. I, for one, will never travel next to the tires of a transport/semi truck. I once, a long while back, found myself riding beside the trailer, in between the drive axles and the trailer axles. In my mirror, I saw an outside dual positively explode, and leave the rim at frightening speed, crossing directly through the space beside the truck and heading into the ditch. Anyone on a motorcycle that got in the way of that 100+ pounds of rubber departing at 100+ kph would have been obliterated, and it scared the living daylights out of me, I’m not afraid to admit. However, when the shredded steel belt then took its partner out and IT departed the rim even more violently, I got the heck outta there. So that’s how I ride now- I look at what’s beside or around me, and whether something like that can take me out, and I ride to avoid it. I do that all the time, but I still find myself in situations where I have to take emergency measures sometimes… like ducking UNDER a deer that decided it could leap over us! (True story!).
So, in the long and the short, we’re responsible for our own safety. We cannot bet our very lives that the hazards and drivers around us are going to respond in predictable ways. The old adage “ride like everyone is out to get you” is still very sage advice, and really, it holds true on and off the highways.
Take responsibility for your own safety and your own life… of all the people who can be counted on to put your life first, YOU should be #1!
Ride safely, I hope to see you out on the roads this summer.
Jeff “Thunder Lizard” LeGrand
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