I have been riding motorcycles the majority of my life at this point. I consider it to be one of the greatest sources of joy in my life. I find value and I respect the level of discipline it requires to do it well and to do it safely. I know what you are thinking, because many of you have said it to me in some form or another. “Kurtis, you can’t control the other people on the road.” That’s right. I cannot. Because if I could, I would make them kindly leave the road altogether. :) Yet there are things I can do to mitigate that risk. This blog entry is for those people, the other drivers. I realize you may not understand us…the two wheeled devils… and we come in many flavors. I want to try to illuminate that here, for both of our benefits.
I once wrote an article for a motorcycle magazine about the difference between a “motorcyclist: and a “biker.” This offended many at the time, it probably still will, but to me it still rings quite true. A biker treats riding a motorbike as a hobby. Something to do on Sunday, or to ride to the bar with friends. These riders simply walk out and throw their leg over a machine and roll away without giving much thought to the discipline. Motorcyclists treat riding a cycle as a sport. Like any sport, they are picky about their instrument, they wear gear, they practice. They do not simply see this as a toy or a method of transport, but a skill that con be continually developed.
If you walk out to a motorcycle, polish off that little smudge on the chrome, throw your leg over the beast and fire it up…and ride away… you probably aren’t thinking of the physics and mechanics of what is occurring. This is important, because it is extremely dangerous. However, if you spend 10 minutes putting on safety gear, carefully looking at the wear on your tires, the fluids, the condition of bike, checking the indicators and headlight, then mounting the machine, you will almost unconsciously accept that what you are about to do…is dangerous and important.
I am a motorcyclist.
I know, you are about to ding me about my jeans. Kevlar, CE Armor...
There are different flavors of both kinds, though. I will opine on those here, and offend many. Sorry, not my intention, but this entry isn’t for you. It is for the cagers (four wheeled vehicle drivers.) I am explaining (and perhaps overgeneralizing) these stereotypes in an effort to help car and truck drivers understand what they are dealing with on the road. I will follow that up with some tips to make both of our road experiences better.
The Weekend Cruiser
This person uses the bike as a toy on the weekends. They ride it to some simple destination like a coffee shop or a bar, and they keep it shiny neat. Nothing wrong with this, but from the perspective of the rest of the drivers, this person is often not a very skilled rider. Not because they don’t want to be, but because they have not put in the hours.
The Weekend Warrior
This rider is conquering the world over the weekend, often pilots a touring bike or an adventure bike, and is putting on hundreds of miles each trip. This person is moderate or advanced in their approach to motorcycling and probably owns multiple bikes.
This person rides to work on their motorcycle every day. Some of these folks, like my good friend Kermit, will do this for decades, rain or shine, snow, sleet, etc. These people are typically very advanced riders primarily due to experience in traffic.
The Long Distance Rider
This crazy person rides their motorcycle thousands of miles each trip. They camp along the way. They typically have experience both on and off road. You can recognize them by the type of bike (typically a large tourer, sport tourer, or adventure bike) and the kit. They will have saddlebags, and roll bags strapped to their panniers, or on the back seat of the bike. They will have mounted GPS, and large windshields, they may be wearing a hydration pack. These are very experienced riders, but they may not be from where you experience them on the road, and may be unfamiliar with the terrain.
These folks often give the rest of the motorcycles a bad rap. They are young, they are on race bikes, they aren’t wearing proper gear. They rev their engines, the pop wheelies, and they split traffic even when it is illegal. Some of these folks are talented riders, but they are inherently unpredictable, and careless. Careful around them.
You will only see these folks on their way to or from a trail. They are on smaller dual sports that look and function like dirt bikes. They will be wearing bright colored gear, and helmets with beaks and goggles. They are good riders, and many fit into the other categories on non-off-road days. Their experience in traffic or on pavement varies greatly.
Some off-roader action...
Vintage and Older Riders
As a BMW enthusiast, I encounter these folks frequently. They are often an older generation, ride older bikes, and are measured riders. Many of them have been riding for decades and have meaningful experience on the road. They are typically safer riders, save their bikes might drop a part or two on occasion.
This person has a sport or race bike and practices on the track. They may be wearing one piece leathers, and will ride conservatively in traffic, but aggressively on twisty roads and canyons. These folks are presumably very skilled riders, and are taking classes and have a strong understanding of the physics fundamentals of motorcycling.
This category of riders includes trikes (one wheel in front, two in the back), Spyders (as in Can-am, two wheels in front, one giant one in back), side-cars (two wheeled traditional motorcycle with a side car or seat bolted to the side), and “other” modes of open transport that consists of more than two wheels. This is a broad category, but I believe they can be subdivides as such:
People who do not want or cannot master the skill of riding on two wheels
People who have a physical disability that prevents them from riding on two wheels
Former two-wheeled motorcyclists who have decided to reduce friction in advanced age
Active two-wheeled motorcyclists who like “options” ;) (This is often the case with the side-car riders)
Now that I have offended many riders, and unfairly categorized and over generalized the participants in the discipline I would like to explain to the car drivers why we do what we do, what is driving our behaviors, and what we want from you on the road.
Most of us ride because it is fucking fun. It is fun to go fast, and it is fun to lean into turns, “carve” canyons, and navigate obstacles. It is a skill that we are constantly developing, learning every single time we get on the machine.
Most of us are kind people, professional adults, with families and friends. We don’t want to die, we just have chosen a hobby that has a lot of inherent risk. Many of us understand what we have signed up for, and accept that risk in order to enjoy the reward.
Further, most of us are also car or truck owners, and we drive to work like you. We know what your experience is like, we understand the frustration of traffic jams, being late to work because of construction. We sit on speakerphone on conference calls, have bad days and act out in how we drive, etc. We are the same as you.
Our behavior on our motorcycles is driven by a number of things, depending on the environment. Usually this behavior is driven by our desire to enjoy the ride, and our desire to survive the ride. When people make the obligatory comment “…you cannot control the other people on the road..” I explain that while I cannot control them, I can UNDERSTAND them and change my behavior to mitigate the risk. Here are some ways that these things play out on the road.
When we are on the bike we are extremely vulnerable. We know that many of you aren’t looking for us and we do not assume you saw us when you glanced our way. This is why in traffic we may slow down to an unusual pace when encountering an intersection or a perpendicular road where a car may be signaling to turn left. If you are behind us, this can be confusing and frustrating. But since the majority of fatal motorcycles incidents occur when a car turns left in front of the bike, causing a broadside impact, we are extra diligent. In fact, I train my eyes on the front wheel of the car at the perpendicular intersection and if that wheel moves…I stop. I try to stop as safely as possible, but it is more important for me to reduce speed than to assume that person sees me and is only inching forward. If you are behind me, you may get on my ass, you may get frustrated, because you don’t understand what I am doing…but…I don’t have a bumper. I may signal you by taking my left hand and facing it down, palm facing you, and will push my palm in your direction. This means you are too close. Please give us space, trust us, we are not trying to make you late for anything, we are just trying to live.
If you are that person at the intersection…stop inching forward. Please. Stop at the light or stop sign completely. Wait until it is appropriate and then move forward. Rolling stops at perpendicular intersections are frustrating as hell for motorcyclists. We can’t read your mind and we don’t want to die. Sit. Still. Please.
Stop lights have sensors and sometimes they do not detect our bikes. Modern bikes are made of less and less steal and iron and more aluminum, carbons, and plastic. If we are sitting at an intersection and we scoot up past the white line and look back at you. We may be wanting you to scoot up and trip the sensor. In some cases, after the light changes a couple of times without allowing us to go, we may just run it when it appears safe to so so, FYI.
Not unlike stop lights, garages have sensors. I hate this, but many of them are not motorcycle friendly. So if we are in front of you at a garage gate or door and look like we are fumbling around, we are likely trying trip the sensor, or calling the agent the kiosk. Sorry about that, they engineer these things for you guys, not us.
Road conditions impact us differently, too. Roads in bad condition or with what we refer to as an “edge trap” might keep us in an inconvenient lane for you. An edge trap is where the road is higher in one part than the other and is completely parallel. This often happens when there is construction and one lane of the road is higher than the other. A car can cross this divide with ease, but a motorcycle cannot. If you encounter us in this situation, you may be frustrated that we are in the left lane. We would rather get out of your way, but we cannot safely do so. Please be patient.
Likewise, we may slow down and conduct a seemingly strange maneuver if we are crossing an obstacle on the road. This could be an inescapable object like a board or piece of something, or railroad tracks that are not directly perpendicular to the road. It is always safest for us to slow down and cross these objects as perpendicular as possible. Thanks for understanding why were are acting this way
Rain and inclement weather will often cause us to ride much more conservatively. Our ability to stop quickly is diminished and so is yours. Our ability to see is diminished and so is yours. Our visibility to others is diminished and so is yours. Similar challenges occur when riding at night. Also, the glare that occurs on a motorcycle helmet when you leave your brights on can be absolutely a show stopper for us, please turn your brights off as soon as you see us coming. Please be patient with us in the rain, fog, dark, or other averse conditions.
Most of us do not like to follow other vehicles closely on the highway. So when a vehicle passes us then pulls in front of us we slow down to make space. The primary reason we do this is because we cannot see what is in front of that car well and the car *may* straddle a piece of debris like a tire or a board and it will come flying at us at high speed from between the rear tires of the car in front of us. So if you are behind us on the highway, and you wonder why we keep reducing speed, this is why. I do a lot of cross country rides, and my rule of thumb is to go just ever so slightly faster than everyone else on the highway. This puts me in more of a position of control and I will be passing you, not the other way around. But sometimes, and some of us, do not prefer to ride this way.
Passing 18 wheelers or semis is dangerous. We would prefer to get this out of the way quickly. For those of you who linger in the left lane for long periods of time while passing a semi, you are putting yourself and us in danger. When an 18 wheeler blows a tire, the rubber will fling out from under that truck at over 100mph and will decimate whatever it hits. That includes your car, but could kill us instantly. Further, semis create a strange wind turbulence that can make our riding less than comfortable and sometimes unstable. Please help yourself and us pass these hard working road warriors quickly and efficiently.
A favor to ask regarding curvy roads…. Have you ever been riding on a beautiful curvy road and a motorcycle comes flying up behind you? Probably will be more than one. Often, these riders have ridden some distance to get to this very road. Perhaps they have ridden hours, just to ride this road and enjoy the curves which may only take 20 minutes. If this happens, you would be literally making our day if you pulled over and let us pass. The responsible riders among us will not pass you on a double yellow or a curve, but will be riding impatiently behind you cursing the universe that we made it to this wonderful road only to ride a moderate pace behind a car. We will praise you and send you so much positive meta if you let us by. Thank you, in advance!
To my knowledge, lane splitting, lane filtering, or similar are only permitted in a small number of US states. Unfortunately, many motorcyclists abuse this. Generally, the laws dictate that we are only to split traffic when traffic is stopped or moving at a low speed, 10 mph or less, for example. That squid that flies past you on the 405 at 75mph while you are going 65, is an ass. I am sorry he did that. The rest of us are helping you commute. It is scientifically proven that lane splitting and two wheeled commuters reduce congestion. Please keep an eye out for us and we will do the same for you. If you are in a state where this is not legal and a motorcyclist does lane split, they may also be an ass. But. There may be something else in play…. For example, some of us ride air cooled bikes that do not have coolant or a radiator. In high heat and humid conditions, our bikes overheat and die. This is inconvenient for everyone. These people may be forced to lane split to keep the bike from dying. I have had to do this on occasion. You may ask why we aren’t using the shoulder. Fair question, and I can tell you it is because of debris. The shoulder is rife with bits and pieces of things that are not tire friendly. We hate the shoulder.
A note on yard ornaments. It is a free country and you should be able to put whatever the hell you want in your yard. But I have to ask, why life size deer, bears, or similar? I think this applies to drivers too. There are areas of the US where the deer are rampant and both motorcyclists and cars should be vigilant. I cannot tell you how many times I come around a curve and slam on the brakes in panic only to find that is some ceramic life size buck in someone’s yard. I hate these things, please consider something else. I am not worried about hitting a knome, or a turtle, for example.
Lastly, parking and parking lots. It is easy to ride a motorcycle fast, it is difficult to ride a motorcycle slow. Parking lots can be a challenge for us. Especially parking lots that are uneven, gravel, or have potholes. This dictates how we behave in those parking lots and also how we park. Remember, we do not have reverse (well most of us don’t) and we lean our bikes over to park them. We are averse to leaning them into a hill, because it isn’t fun to try to right them when we return. Sometimes these conditions force us to park unusually, and I hope y’all understand. We are not trying to take advantage (most of us aren’t) we are just responding to our environment. Appreciate the thoughts.
Evening ride along Lake Springfield in Springfield, IL...
There are many kinds of bikers and motorcyclists out there. The lot of us are kind, well meaning folks, using these machines as transport or for fun. We want you to be safe, and we want to be safe too. We (mostly) respect the laws of the road and (always) the laws of physics.
When you see us stopped, come talk to us. We love to talk about our bikes. You will find the nicest people (on a Honda, as the old slogan goes) or any motorcycle for that matter.
Please send your hate mail, comments or thoughts. I have thick skin, well more like Kevlar, Cordura, and body armor…
Peace, and be safe out there!