6. Accidents Happen

TRD issue 40 – December 2000

The hot news was the heavily guarded showbiz wedding of Material Girl Madonna and mockney Lock Stock director Guy Ritchie, a few days before Christmas at an exclusive ceremony in the Scottish highlands; whilst at the other extreme of the temperature scale, the nation ground to a halt at the end of the month when a powerful cold weather front known as The Snowplough swept across the country delivering the first UK-wide snow covering in six years and temperatures as low as –13C in the parts of the Midlands.

Over the last three years, there have been innumerable words printed in these pages on the pros, cons, risks, dangers and sheer joys of despatch riding and by extension, about biking in the broader sense. There’ve been almost as many opinions as there’ve been authors, with arguments for and against just about any conceivable position. Interestingly, whilst occasionally there’s been consensus, the most significant thing you learn listening to other people’s opinions is that most people have established beliefs and convictions and tend to maintain their assumed position, irrespective of the weight of any arguments or evidence to the contrary.

Let’s try something we can all agree on: bikes have the potential to severely fuck you up. Anyone who disagrees with that, besides not being long for this world if they ride one, is also ignoring the basic rules of physics. A straightforward mathematical calculation can tell you exactly how much potential energy your body possesses at any given time. If you want to work out your momentum at a particular speed, it’s easy, you simply multiply your mass by your velocity. Then all you have to do is factor in your deceleration time and you can work out, in p.s.i., exactly how much force you would hit a solid wall with. When you realise, that at any sort of speed you’re talking about tons per square inch – and that your soft and crunchy bits constitute the only crumple zone – it brings to mind the old joke about the fly hitting your visor at 120 mph: ‘What’s the last thing that goes through it’s mind? It’s arse!’

Let that one percolate for a few moments. I’m not trying to worry anyone, I’m hardly broadcasting a secret! I established last month that I’ve accepted that at some time between now and the far distant future, I will die. I’ve looked at it, dealt with it and consequently rarely give it a thought – it certainly doesn’t keep me awake nights. It’s the same with the most extreme horrors bikes have to offer. Maths aside, we all have a kind of peripheral idea of the possibilities; it’s just that some people choose not to confront them, so they lurk at the back of their minds and fuck with their heads. To live and ride with a clear head, it’s worth considering your most drastic scenario thoroughly, so you know you’ve made the kind of informed choice Roger, Wulf and all the other ‘advanced motoring and body armour’ types bang on about.

It’s fascinating hearing someone else’s perception of the danger biking presents and the kind of precautions they deem essential for the level of risk involved. I’d be interested to discover how many people there are who wouldn’t dream of riding a bike without leather and Kevlar in all the right places, but fantasise about little else than indulging in a little bareback sex. And if the opportunity came up with the right person, would they consider the risks or jump at the chance? I haven’t checked the figures, but there have got to be more people dying annually as a consequence of unprotected sex (and that’s not a reference to last month’s “Life is a sexually transmitted disease…” line) than ever shrug off the coil on a bike. So I guess risk must be just another question of perception.

At home, I’ve been told off for my trashy analogies – apparently they lower the whole tone of my writing(!?). But sex and motorcycles both offer such extremes of pleasure, danger and pain, that I can’t resist using one to illustrate a point about the other. There’s something about the commonality between an activity that’s a basic urge at a hormonal level and another that has its origins in a fundamental drive to procreate. If you were to take the same unblinkered view of the dangers involved in the exchange of body fluids as I’m suggesting for biking, you’d check medical pictures of dick rot; the reality of living, or dying, with AIDS; and the implications and complications of an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy. You need to think beforehand, because temptation is a powerful thing and with sex, as with biking, you’re unlikely to come to any satisfactorily sensible decisions in the headlong rush to get naked and inside or outside of someone you’re hot for. And face it, the last thing you want when you’re in or on the saddle enjoying a dream ride is to suddenly have pictures of decaying genitals, or thick stone walls with spikes on, flashing through your mind (unless you are actually trying to slow yourself down, that is).

It makes sense to decide what you consider a sensible level of protection in a calm calculated and considered way, so that if you suddenly find yourself in a hot situation, you can go with the flow. Naked to all risks undeniably gets you closer to the fun, but taking the minor precaution of wearing a few microns of latex – or a crash-hat, jacket, boots and gloves – hardly distances you from the action either, so there’s plenty of room to strike a balance. Obviously there are those who wouldn’t feel safe unless they were wearing two anal-strength condoms, a femidom and gum dams, just in case – and they probably ride like double-wrapped, armoured Michelin people. But it begs the question: what’s the point? If your take on the dangers is that extreme, why not play safe? Forget about bikes and consensual jollies; buy a Volvo and drive somewhere nice for a wank.

Here’s my opinion: accidents happen. I realise there are those who come from a Roadcraft/IAM perspective for whom that’s blasphemy, and in my work there are plenty of Freudians who’ll ask you to step outside if you even dare to suggest there’s any such thing as a coincidence. In a perverse way they’re both right. There may be a reason for everything, but that has nothing to do with the world we live in. No human has the information or the wherewithal to predict every factor, there are just too many. The idea of a computer that could anticipate butterfly effects and map chaos is an IT wet dream. In your world, it’s more a case of London bus effects or chill factor than any of the more subtle nuances. The real miracle is that more shit doesn’t happen.

I know why you lot are still alive, because you’re all red hot, street-smart professional riders. But if that’s the whole reason, why aren’t there more dead pizza boys? We all laugh about them and by and large the jokes are true, so you’d expect them to have the life expectancy of a 1940 Hurricane pilot; but clearly, whatever justice would suggest, that isn’t the case. Why do first-rate riders, who do everything by the book, die in freak circumstances? What about Sludge? Hardly a rules man; but when he found himself having major surgery and an eighteen month vacation, it was plain bad luck. He was replacing a blown fuse on the hard shoulder, when a car with a shattered windscreen chose that spot to dive for safety. Bang. A simple case of wrong time, wrong place.

A few years ago when I hit the kind of spot that Wulf seemed to be describing in November’s issue, I took advantage of my caring sharing (not) employer’s staff support scheme and treated myself to the half dozen one hour therapy sessions that I was entitled to. After my last session was over, I was leaving feeling pretty pleased that in spite of my earlier misgivings, I wasn’t completely useless and apparently I hadn’t made a total bollocks of my life after all. So when my head man chucked in a little tossaway on the way out, it left me pondering for days. As I was walking out the door, he’d said: “But what if it was all luck?” I remember driving home thinking: ‘You bastard, there I was believing I was all sorted; then you bung in a BIG question after the final whistle!’

My partner and my best friend told me once that I think too much! But I never understood what they meant. Your brain’s a product of evolution, not a piece of crap manufactured by a capitalist consumer society, with designed-in obsolescence. It’s the ultimate computer, the more you use it, the better it gets. So I applied my forty years of experience and knowledge to the question. Could it really all be luck? And what do we mean by luck anyway?

I came to my own conclusion after a couple of days of reflection; but a book I read a few years later summed it up in a page. The author used Winnie the Pooh to explain Taoism in a nice simple way for beginners. So I figure if he can screw with ancient and venerable teachings in order to point The Way, the least I can do is update it again, to bung a little candlepower into the darkness for you lot: –

Joe Cool was speaking to his Daily Express-reading neighbour Charlie, who remarked how lucky Joe’s son was to have won that lovely new red bike in the ‘spot the ball’ competition. It was so much more roadworthy than his dangerous old bike. Joe, a very wise and serene man, nodded thoughtfully for a moment, before smiling enigmatically and saying: “Maybe”.

A few days later, having heard that the son had wrapped the 916 round a Micra and was in hospital with a whole box of Meccano sticking out of his right leg, Charlie came over to commiserate, saying how terribly unlucky that was. Joe nodded thoughtfully for a moment before smiling enigmatically and saying: “Maybe”.

A week later, after the tragic sinking of an Isle of Man ferry killed 127 people including nine out of twelve of the son’s friends, Charlie was back. He was amazed at the son’s good fortune: he’d booked when they had, six months earlier, and if he hadn’t shattered his leg… A real stroke of luck! Joe nodded thoughtfully for a moment before smiling enigmatically and saying: “Maybe”.

When I had my first smash (typically about a month after I bought my first bike) I lay on a hospital treatment bed, watching peroxide fizzle in my open wounds and mumbled to myself not to be so fucking pathetic. The nurse, thinking I was berating myself for wincing told me I didn’t have to be brave. “Nah,” I told her, “I’ll cry if I need to. I just started a big What If? You see, I was going to come a different way; and IF I had, I wouldn’t have been there when that car turned right… but I realised what a load of old tut that was. I had come that way. I was there. And it did hurt. IF never came into it. As my brother says: “IF your Aunt had bollocks, she’d be your Uncle.”

“Exactly… and besides if I know anything, you were an accident waiting to happen,” she reassured me. “Sure, if you’re going to talk of ifs and buts, you’re lucky you didn’t go the other way; you could have met with a bejaysus of a big truck and had a rake of Consultant Surgeons looking after you now, instead of one pretty little colleen.”

She was right. Lying in a hospital with both elbows, both hands, your left knee and left ankle all liberally smeared with strawberry jam, it can sometimes be difficult to spot your good fortune. But you only have to begin to imagine a full stop head-on at speed; the crushing wheels of an artic; or a catastrophic collision with a sharp piece of street furniture – any of them with or without the benefit of body armour – to be able to count your blessings.

I’d replace Joe Cool’s “maybe”, with a “so far, so good”, but the effect’s the same. Life’s like a game of poker: you never know how you’ve done until you leave the table. After I’d thought about my BIG question, I decided that if I’d managed to get that far by a combination of luck and good judgment, I’d be a damn fool to mess with a good game plan. So in the end I guess the question each of us has got to ask ourselves is: Do you feel lucky?

Well do you, punk?

Be careful out there, but above all be lucky

Carin’ Sharin’

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