My 'Lucky' Day
March 24, 2011
By KARL SEMLER
It was the spring of 1990, and I was stationed at "beautiful" Camp Pendleton, Calif. I had just recently married my high school sweetheart, was two months from pinning on the rank of corporal and was gearing up to go on my first deployment. I thought my life could not get better until I received a phone call from my older brother asking if I was interested in purchasing one of his motorcycles.
Being that I was stationed in sunny California, the thought of riding a bike down the Pacific Coast Highway was a dream I now had a chance to make come true. My brother had a couple of friends interested in the bike, but he thought he would keep it in the family and give me the first shot at buying it. My wife, on the other hand, was not too excited about the idea of me riding a street bike. She knew my only previous experience was riding dirt bikes in Arizona, and that had been years ago.
Well, I jumped at the offer and was on the road to Phoenix the next weekend to pick up the bike, a fully loaded 1982 Honda Gold Wing. My pride in owning a tour bike was showing as I told my wife of all of the places we were going to explore while enjoying the freedom of riding a motorcycle.
The week after I bought the bike, my staff sergeant had me enrolled in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic RiderCourse. I was sure it would be a piece of cake. Little did I know it would become quite the challenge to get such a large and heavy bike around that short, tight course. I could have easily breezed through it on the dirt bikes I used to ride, but the Honda was much more difficult to maneuver. I instantly realized it would be a while before I could even think about taking my wife for a Sunday ride.
After I completed the course, I became a licensed motorcycle rider and was eager to get out on the road with my buddies and their bikes. They knew I was a new rider and actually took it slow for the first couple of rides. However, it soon became a challenge to keep up with them. They all had sport bikes, typically called "crotch rockets" - known for their instant speed and maneuverability. They were much different from the large, heavy touring bike I was riding. As I slowly gained more and more confidence riding, I began to push my limits.
Eventually, I had the confidence to take my wife on a ride with my friends to the town of Julian, Calif. Julian is a small town known for its apple pies and friendly atmosphere, and for months my wife had wanted to visit. I figured what better way to see it than on a bike. So we met my friends, who were eagerly waiting on their sport bikes, and began riding through some of the most beautiful countryside in southern California. Every so often my friends would open up their bikes on a long straightaway when there was no traffic and sometimes I would join them. My wife and I were both young and enjoying the adrenalin rush of the speed and freedom of being on the bike.
As we got closer to Julian, the roads became narrower and the turns tighter. As they rode through a tight 10-mph turn, I was amazed how smoothly their bikes maneuvered. However, it didn't go quite so well for me. I hit the turn going 20 mph and couldn't lean the bike far enough to avoid drifting over the double yellow line. We crossed the oncoming lane and stopped on the far shoulder, where we could "enjoy" looking down from a 100-foot cliff.
We were fortunate there was no oncoming traffic. I was also glad to be wearing a helmet, as it protected me from my wife, who was a "little" upset and slapping me on the back of my head. The ride home was uneventful, and the sale of the bike two weeks later was a blessing.
As I reflect on the situation, I can't believe I let the excitement of riding a motorcycle override my using risk management to recognize I was riding way beyond my experience level. My friends were much more experienced and riding bikes that were much smaller and lighter than mine. If I could turn the clock back, I'd have purchased a smaller bike to learn on while riding on the streets and highways and resisted the urge to push the limits.
My wife and I were lucky not to become part of the landscape that day. However, luck doesn't cut it - not when your life and the life of someone you love are on the line. Don't buy more bike than you can handle, thinking you'll "grow" into it. You may not live that long. And give yourself a break; recognize even Superman had to learn to walk before he could fly. Ride within your skills and, if you're a bit sharper than the average "tack," leave yourself a little margin for safety. After all, when you're headed for the edge of a 100-foot cliff, where would you rather stop - one foot before or one foot beyond'