“Number 35,” A Play In One Act


The fact that this should have been a Play In Three Acts will become apparent as I proceed with the story.

Friday, three weeks ago, I left work an hour early, got packed up, and rode the R1200GS to Winchester, VA to spend the night. Early the next morning, I would be meeting friends Neil and Michael for a couple of days of riding in West Virginia and Virginia.

In my motel room, I temporarily unpacked my coat and tie so that they wouldn’t get too wrinkled. Coat and tie? On a motorcycle trip?

In preparation for this ride, I’d changed the oil and filter and had my substantially worn-out Michelin Anakees replaced with a new set of Pirelli MT90’s at Bob’s BMW. Aware of the reduced grip of new tires, I carefully wire-brushed the tread surface to remove the new-tire “glaze.” Motorcycle Consumer News recommended this as one way of improving the traction of new tires, and I could see a noticeable difference in the appearance of the tread. Here’s the Mighty GS, all set to go on Saturday morning. Note, too, the pickup with its Port-A-Pottie in the back. I guess if you urgently need a restroom, it’s good to have one readily available!

At 8:30 or so, I met up with my friends. Here, Michael is backing Neil’s GS out of its overnight garage:

Speaking of Neil, here he is about to load his own set of dinner clothes into a Jesse bag. Our destination this night was the Homestead Resort Hotel, in Hot Springs, VA, and such dress is required in their best dining room.

Before getting underway, Michael downloaded the weekend’s routes into my Zumo. It looked like a great set of back roads and highways, and I couldn’t wait to get started. We set off, and almost immediately ended up slightly off-course. We stopped to consult the GPS’s and were soon on our way again.

Before long, we were back on track and scooting along nicely, following the border between Virginia and West Virginia and initially heading toward Petersburg, WV. Coincidentally, Buzz and I had just been riding through West Virginia a few weeks earlier, as chronicled in Return to West Virginia. This weekend’s route would overlap only slightly with my prior trip.

As I followed Neil and Michael along the twisting road, I mentally relaxed and allowed myself to “just follow.” I knew better, but somehow lulled myself into a state of inadequate concentration nonetheless. I normally ride alone, and I’ve always prided myself on paying exacting attention to road conditions, traffic, possible wildlife, etc.–but this morning I just wasn’t.

Still, there was no problem until I came to a particular left-hand corner. I quickly realized that, due to my inattention, I had not turned into the corner soon enough, and I promptly leaned over more to tighten up the corner. Normally, a “late apex” approach to riding on unfamiliar roads is not a bad idea. You enter a little slower, start turning a little later and a little more tightly at first, and then accelerate out on a wider line as the corner unfolds. It’s far preferable to an “early apex,” which puts you at risk of running off the outside of the corner at the exit.

This day, however, as I leaned over smartly to correct for my inadvertently late entrance, my new tires were not up to the task. Ironically, the worn-out Anakees would have made it, but the wire-brushing hadn’t resulted in full traction on the new MT90’s. Without scraping pegs or anything else, the tires started to squeal and the GS began to squirm sideways–and I was still near the outside edge of the corner. It took only one second, roughly, for the sliding GS to reach a thin layer of gravel that covered the outside 18″ of the corner, and down we went at approximately 30 mph. After sliding along the road for perhaps 30′ or so, the GS fetched up against a guardrail and we collectively came to an abrupt stop.

As I lay in the road, my first thoughts were (i) my back really hurts, (ii) my knee (which I’d seriously injured in a volleyball match years ago) thankfully didn’t hurt, and (iii) I wish the horn would quit its feeble honking. I didn’t think I could get up unassisted, but I was able to reach over and fiddle with the horn button until it came unstuck. After a couple of moments, I thought “Maybe I can get up,” and I managed to do so without too much difficulty.

I hobbled over to the guardrail and sat down against it, and gingerly took off my gloves, helmet, and riding jacket. Just then, Michael returned and sprang into action. His first step was to check that I was lucid, etc., followed by uprighting the GS. It was too close to the guardrail, however, requiring Michael to lay it back down and, with an incredible show of strength, drag the fully loaded, nearly 600-pound bike away from the guardrail before lifting it back up. (He’s not head of security for Rush by accident.) By now, Neil had also come back looking for us. While Neil helped check me over, Michael started my GS and moved it of the road, parking on the shoulder. They both then gave me a battery of tests involving arm and shoulder movement, etc. I could do everything they asked, and it appeared that I had just strained my left shoulder muscles pretty good.

My GS appeared to have ridden out the crash quite nicely. The only significant damage was that the right-side Vario case mounting bracket had sheared off, apparently when the bike landed against the guard rail. We were able to take the bag off and strap it to the passenger seat, using Neil’s cargo net and a heavy rubber strap offered by a helpful nearby resident who came over to assist. The GS now looked rideable, and Michael gave it a short run to make sure it was mostly okay. Other than a glowing ABS failure light, it seemed to be fine.

We looked over the accident scene, reconstructing what had happened. The Hepco-Becker crash bar had dug an impressive little trench into the road for the length of the bike’s slide, making it easy to follow the post-spill trajectory of the bike (and me). We also noted that my First Gear Mesh-Tex jacket had abraded several holes from contact with the road. It did its job, however, and I didn’t have a scratch on me.

Although I hadn’t noticed it during the spill, it was clear that my helmet had contacted the road and had some significant scrapes. My neck was just a little sore, and I don’t think my head actually hit the pavement very hard. Nonetheless, the helmet will be replaced as a precaution. My left glove and boot both sustained significant scrapes as well, leaving me with no damage–but it’s easy to imagine what would have happened with no gloves and regular shoes. Or no helmet.

Not long after my spill, incidentally, Neil wrote an insightful column for his website regarding, among other things, the use of protective gear while motorcycling. It’s well worth reading and is available at: Independence Day.

As we stood around discussing the incident, the helpful resident mentioned matter of factly that I was “Number 35.” He went on to explain that, during the time he’d lived nearby, there had been 34 prior accidents at this corner, many involving motorcycles and many with cars. Prior to the installation of the guardrail, some vehicles had actually ended up in the creek below… Why this particular corner experienced so many accidents wasn’t obvious to any of us.

After the bike and Rick F. inspections, Michael suggested that we continue the trip via a quicker route to Hot Springs. I decided, however, that my shoulder pain was likely to get steadily worse, and I opted to return home while I was still relatively close. Neil fully understood this decision, although both were very disappointed that I would have to forgo the balance of the trip. So, with a great deal of reluctance on the part of all of us, we set off on our separate ways.

I punched the “home” button on the Zumo, which I knew would route me to Interstate 81 and then 70 back to Catonsville. I wanted a quick, smooth route rather than my usual back roads and interesting sights. I found that I could ride without much discomfort, but it was disconcerting that the Evo brake assist and ABS were gone on the GS, and I only had residual brakes. They worked fine, but required a much stronger pull on the lever. The first time I slowed, however, to cross a narrow bridge at 10 mph, the ABS light promptly went out, the Evo assist returned, and the brakes were back to normal.

The trip home was 110 miles and, thankfully, occurred with no further drama. Along the way, I realized that taking a deep breath was painful, and I began to wonder if I’d broken a rib or hurt my lung. Since it was Friday, I resolved to visit my doctor as soon as I got home.

Arriving home, I made a point of walking into the house under my own steam so that my wife Nancy wouldn’t be too spooked by my unexpected return so early in the trip. After I took a quick (and uncomfortable) shower, I asked Nancy to drive me over to our doctor’s office. He examined me and concurred with my assessment of strained muscles but ordered x-rays to be on the safe side. To everyone’s surprise, the resulting x-rays showed 5 neatly broken ribs and a partially collapsed left lung. Accordingly, the next stop was the emergency room.

At the hospital, the doctors weren’t concerned too much about my ribs (which in cases like mine are left to heal on their own), but they ended up keeping me two nights to monitor my lung. After steady improvement, they sent me on home, and I’ve been recuperating ever since, working from home for two weeks and back in the office starting last week. Michael and Neil called numerous times to check on my status. Following their surprise at my actual injuries, they were pleased to hear of my progress.

Overall, I’m doing fine. And I’m not complaining, since the consequences could have been lots worse. I am, however, very much disappointed in myself. After 4 1/2 years of very carefully managing the risks of motorcycling, I made a complete rookie mistake. First, I should have been “riding my own ride” and concentrating much more, as I normally do, rather than just following someone else. Second, I should have assumed that the new tires still weren’t ready for full traction and ridden extra cautiously until they were fully broken in. Overall, we weren’t traveling at an excessive speed by any means; I just fouled up, and the accident was entirely my fault. These were lessons that I already knew and should have been applying. The spill was a forceful way to be reminded of them.

So, the weekend adventure was over all too soon, in only one act. Act Two would have been the Homestead Resort. And Act Three would have been the Saturday night Rush concert at the Nissan Pavilion. Yes, as Neil’s guest again…

Well, that’s about it–except for my poor GS. I had it taken for inspection to Bob’s BMW by Rob’s Motorcycle Towing (a first rate operation, by the way). There, they found a broken steering stop, the broken Vario case mount, and a long list of cosmetically damaged parts including the windshield, handguard, bar end, mirror, Adventure winglet, tank side panel, H-B crash bar, turn signal, muffler, both Vario cases, and, on the right side, the final drive and swing arm. Overall, it added up to $9,000 of damage, on a bike worth roughly $11,000 and with a salvage value of over $6,000. All that will probably spell “total,” but the final verdict isn’t in yet. The H-B bar really did its job, by the way, in preventing much worse damage during the slide:

So, that’s the saga, which I hope will help serve as a cautionary tale for others. My riding days are over for at least two more months–maybe longer, depending on my verdict regarding whether I can properly manage the risk under a variety of circumstances. I’m not making any quick decisions in this regard.

I am, however, checking with Bob’s BMW to see if a new 2008 R1200GS can be obtained with training wheels and a roll cage…

Rick F.


Written by Rick

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