There’s always someone faster than you
‘No work today, the sun is shining’
Those words often run through my mind. They don’t amount to much when taken on their own, because their real poignancy is all about context. They are to be found etched into a memorial table outside of the bus station café in Abergavenny, a popular tribal gathering place for motorcyclists in South Wales, and the focal point of some of the very finest riding roads in the UK.
I don’t know anything about the background to those words, whose they were, or quite how that person came to meet their end. But I’m always touched by their innate poetry, in that particular location; by the way they suggest the essence of a character and spirit, how they encapsulate a tale, and express both the joy of life, the embrace of its simplest, greatest pleasures, whilst also – by virtue of context – illustrating how fragile and transient our time here is.
Nor is this memorial inscription the only one. There are others; all for motorcyclists. Little plaques, affixed to the cluster of wooden benches surrounding the café. They bear dedications of heartbreaking brevity that leave the imagination trying to encompass the scale of the ordinary tragedies they represent.
This otherwise unassuming outdoor furniture, dedicated to the fallen, always elicits a few moments of reflection and respect from me. It serves as an affecting testament that, however much we may revel in the joys and satisfactions of motorcycling, we are always, to some extent, grabbing a tiger by the tail and would do well to stay sharp about just how finely-balanced is this gyroscopic act which those of us fortunate enough to still be here keep managing to pull off. A gentle, solemn reminder that messing it up can have proper consequences.
So it was, on my return run from Abergavenny, that I was passed at what seemed to be banzai velocity by another bike, immediately howling out of sight beyond the vanishing point of the next curve on the tight, twisty road we were navigating. And I found myself wondering – how much margin for error did he think he still had in hand? Not as much as I’d want to retain, that’s for sure. This was, after all, a tricky, challenging country road in South Wales on a Sunday afternoon, not the Senior TT.
Now, I’m a moderately quick road rider, and decades of experience are brought to bear upon maintaining a pace that will be safe and appropriate for the conditions, although at times not necessarily in accordance with the view taken by the Highways Agency when posting limits. (I’ll readily admit that this is a complex equation, and suffers from the inclusion of a human being’s capacity to accurately judge their own abilities, which is likely to be an unreliable metric at best. But, still, I really do think that as a general principle many of us are better drivers/riders when responding fluently to their vehicle and the road conditions rather than fixating on a speedometer).
For me, as a broad rule, fast riding means operating at around 60-70% of my (perceived) absolute capacity to deal with any sudden unexpected events. If I’m rolling into a blind bend I’ll carry as much speed as I can, but never so much that I wouldn’t feel I could realistically stand the bike on its nose in an emergency stop if I were suddenly presented with something that ought not to be there. Anything beyond this is outside of my comfort zone.
But experience has taught me a lot about how much extra latitude you actually need to build into these parameters, because it’s one thing to take account of the risks that one can reasonably anticipate – diesel spills, side roads, zombie sat-nav lane changers – quite another to factor in an allowance for the ones that you can’t.
An example: riding on this same quiet, remote road, on a different day, I startled a huge buzzard that was tearing into some fresh roadkill on the verge. Perfectly camouflaged in dappled shadows, the bird was effectively invisible until it took flight, at which point – inexplicably – it chose to launch itself straight towards me. My closing speed was such that the buzzard and I collided only an instant later, its immense outswept wings completely filling my field of vision. Only by virtue of an instinctive duck and shimmy – and perhaps, on reflection, the fork compression under braking effectively dropping my height by a few centimetres – was I able to deflect the impact so that the bird bounced off my right shoulder. A lucky escape, as if we’d collided square-on there could easily have been a worse outcome.
Well, I didn’t expect that. But those are exactly the type of genuinely random events that could well do for you when you opt to gamble into some of your margin. Of course it’s a big buzz to go there. And it’s clear that you can get away with it, and get away with it, until that one occasion arises, the one perfectly awful confluence of chance and motion, when you have a brief instant in which to think ‘I wasn’t expecting that’, perhaps even to rue the fact that at 60-70% you might have dealt with it, but that actually it looks as though you might be about to hear the Song of the Sausage Creature.
There are motorcyclists who profess that their greatest fear is to encounter a leaping deer when riding through woodland. In Australia, airborne kangaroos are notorious for crashing through car windscreens without the slightest warning, and you can’t fit ‘roo bars to a bike. In Scandinavia, I believe that moose-strikes commonly claim lives on the country’s forest roads.
Some years ago I worked with a biker who told me how he’d once rounded the blind apex of a country bend in Somerset and ridden straight into a cow that had found its way through a hedge and was standing in the road. He’d spent months in hospital as a result.
Incidentally, the buzzard, as far as I could tell when I pulled up to gather myself, appeared to have survived the encounter too, as it was nowhere to be seen.
So my conclusion, reflecting upon the banzai corner entry speed I’d witnessed, was this: There’s always someone faster than you, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got your equation wrong. The fact that you’re still here, still riding, still unscathed – still loving every moment of it – means that your equation is working well for you. Continue to refine and develop your instincts and senses, listen to and trust them, and certainly never get sucked in to any pointless willy-waving nonsense with someone who’s chosen to operate with a looser risk calibration. Always keep a good fat buffer of capability in hand for that one occasion when you think you’re least likely to need it. And enjoy the sunshine when you can.
Abergavenny bus station car park and the Oasis Sandwich Bar. Tribal gathering point for motorcyclists in south Wales.
This post was previously published on my wordpress.com blog (titaniumparts), which still exists out there, in a place that nobody ever visits!