December 12, 2015
It’s 7:30 a.m. on Saturday; and dawn is just breaking through a sky congested with low-hanging clouds. The weather reporters have been waffling between forecasts of light rain/drizzle and mere overcast skies since yesterday. They’re brave to be producing any kind of forecast; the weather tends to be particularly chaotic at this time of year, and any prediction is really nothing more than a crap shoot bolstered by pomp and circumstance.
As I do my walkaround / pre-ride check, Gunther’s ambient temperature indicator reads 1 degree. A bit chilly for a ride; but then, it is December after all; and dressing in layers makes all the difference–thin, Nylon / merino wool base layer under a heavy cotton sweater and padded, Cordura riding pants–and I’ve got the lining zipped into my riding jacket. Hands and feet are protected from the elements by insulated riding gloves and boots.
There’s a crisp silence in the air. Even the birds aren’t up yet. As I lean over the fuel tank to go through the start-up sequence, every rustle of clothing sounds like a wind storm. The fuel enrichment switch makes an ominous tock as it’s flipped into place; then, the soft grating of the key moving against tumblers in the ignition switch; and the subsequent click as it rotates to the “Run” position—everything echoes throughout the desolate neighborhood. With a press of the starter, Gunther’s engine roars to life, spark plugs igniting fuel/air concoctions that have been compacted down to highly-volatile, half-liter charges by those two, massive pistons. Helmet on; gloves on; up on the foot peg, and throw a leg over; side stand up; clutch in; drop into 1st; and we’re on our way.
Cracking the visor open a bit to keep it from fogging up, cold air fills my nose, making my eyes water. Waftings of cedar, oak and hickory smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves spice morning air not yet soiled by vehicle exhaust. Riding by some guys playing an early-morning game of pick-up hockey on a community ice rink, I’m struck by the surreality of being on a motorcycle while, just a few meters away, there’s an ice on the ground.
The ride down the parkway and through the empty business district is smooth and quick; and soon I’m backng Gunther’s rear wheel up to the curb on a deserted street. Kill the engine; side stand down; gloves and helmet off; dismount. The best part is, motorcycles don’t pay for parking in Toronto—which would be cost-prohibitive in this part of town given I’ll be parked here for most of the day.
My affairs in town have concluded. It’s been a productive day, but a long one; and I am looking forward to the ride back home.
The rain hasn’t made an appearance yet; but it’s been drizzling since noon. The temperature has risen to 4 Celsius—warmer than when I set out this morning; but still cool enough to harden rubber and asphalt. As I conjure the motorcycle gods to bring Gunther to life once again, I make a mental note that the wet roads will slippery.
The sun sets early at this time of year; within half an hour, night has arrived, and the dark grey skies have turned black. The road is shiny—never a good sign. Note to self: Double the usual stopping distance, and easy on the brakes.
Approaching the last set of traffic lights before home, cars in the on-coming lane are lined up to turn left; and I slow down a bit just in case one of them decides to turn in front of me unexpectedly. As I enter the intersection one does. Merde.
Despite having slowed Gunther down as a precaution, the car is right in front of me, leaving no stopping distance. Reflexes kick in; and I take evasive action, swerving to avoid a collision. I’ve been successful; but, in doing so, Gunther’s rear wheel has started sliding in the cold film of water and petroleum detritus that has coated the road. The back end swings left; I manage to bring it back; but, torque and momentum swing it around to the right, skidding me sideways across the intersection. The tires suddenly regain their grip; but it’s too late: The bike may have stopped, but it’s perpendicular to the direction I’m moving. Gunther flips to the vertical, launching me into the air, and then flops over onto his right side.
It’s funny how time slows to a crawl when one finds oneself unexpectedly airborne. It’s like one of those dreams in which you see everything from the third person. I see and hear Gunther’s right cylinder head hit the ground; I see the road rising to meet me; I am acutely aware of every sound being played back at half the normal speed, including the words, “Oooooohhhhhhh nooooooooo” coming from somewhere. Then, one final thought before I hit road: I’m going to feel this one tomorrow.
Regular time resumes and I hit the road with a thud, my hip and shoulder absorbing most of the impact before my head snaps down like the end of a whip (kids, always wear a helmet). I’m in a daze, and do a quick check before getting up: no serious pains; probably nothing’s broken. As I get up, I realize Gunther is in the middle of the intersection. Walking back to where he is unceremoniously lying on his side, I have the strange sensation of being on stage in front of an audience. That’s because I am. We’re in front of three lanes of rush-hour traffic; and headlights are lighting us up like stage lights on Broadway.
In the blinding lights, I try to get Gunther back on his wheels. Half-way up, there’s a searing pain in my lower abdomen. I’ve forgotten about my recent hernia surgery. Oh heck. I try again. Same result. My bike’s not going anywhere with me alone trying to lift it. Some of the cars honk their horns. Really? I feel compelled to launch into a soliloquy (after all, I am in the spotlight) that proclaims the merits of oh, I dunno, getting out of their fucking cars to help me to get the motorcycle off the road as opposed to remaining seated and simply pressing on their horn—which, given the circumstances, is as helpful as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
Suddenly, the drivers’-side door of one of the cars at the front of the pack opens, and an angelic silhouette walks toward me from out of the light. Someone’s actually come to help. She checks if I am OK, and helps me bring Gunther to vertical. My savior asks whether there is anything else she can do to help; and when I tell her I can take it from here, she returns to the sea of headlights. Perhaps there’s hope for humanity after all.
Once I’m off to the side of the road, I do a quick visual inspection of Gunther. There’s a gash across the the right cylinder head where it touched down; and the right rear indicator lens and innards look as though they’ve been through the wash (but the light still works, believe it or not)… and that’s about it. Really! Granted the impact was at a low-speed, and with the road as opposed to another vehicle; but, I am impressed. This bike is like a tank. With a little coaxing, the engine fires up; and I’m able to ride home. It’s almost as if the R1150GS were, um, designed to take such abuse.
The days and weeks since this latest adventure have given way to much reflection. It’s ironic, for example, that I rode 18,000 km to Alaska and back without incident; and this one occurred within a couple of kilometers of home. I hear statistics all the time about how most accidents occur close to home. Now that I’m one of them, I can’t help but wonder why this is. Is there something I can take away and pass on to others in hope of giving us that much more of an edge in traffic?
What really hit home was that, with the exception of the one person who checked if I was OK and helped with the bike, so many people just sat in their cars and watched as I struggled with the bike after my crash. Is this what we have come to? I wonder whether we are so accustomed to passively watching such events on Youtube and Netflix from our comfortable environments that it’s now a greater distance to the border of our comfort zone; and stepping beyond it to help someone who’s fallen in the road requires consideration. The Dalai Lama said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Then, there is the fact that, yet again, I have cheated the hangman so to speak. Sure, I’ve got some torn muscles/ligaments; and my ribs are still sore where, I think, they snagged on the end of the handlebar on my way over. But things could have been a lot worse had we made contact with another vehicle or a lamp post. I haven’t been dwelling on this too much, though. Fact is, I’m here to ride another day. And, aside from this setback, it was a great day of late (really late) autumn riding. Winter is now arriving; Gunther is tucked away; and I am dreaming about that first early-morning ride come spring.