Two friends, one life-changing ride.
Technology is amazing. With the help of Google Maps and Street View, we can see a turn that almost killed my friend and I. Nothing has changed in over 25 years. I get chills seeing this view.
I haven’t thought much about that ride with my friend Matt all those years ago. I survived my only serious motorcycle crash unscathed. Matt, however, lives every day with a constant reminder of that ride. Oddly, this 5-minute journey and subsequent crash put Matt on the path to become a registered nurse, and made me a lifelong motorcycle rider.
The year was 1991. I was eighteen years old, and I lusted after a blood red Suzuki Bandit 400: a hot bike that never sold in any numbers because it only made 39 horsepower. My mom saw that I was determined to get a motorcycle. Although nervous, she relented and agreed to help me finance the purchase. The caveat was that I needed to buy my own helmet. Her excellent strategy was to delay the bike purchase by first having me get a good helmet. I saved all my funds from my lifeguarding job and purchased a very nice helmet for the time, a Shoei X-8 Waney Gardner replica. My first real sport bike helmet… sick!
I figured if I got the helmet, a motorcycle was sure to follow; that is the thinking of a teenager.
My friend Matt, on the other hand, had better luck and connections. A family friend hooked him up with a used 1977 or 78 Suzuki GS750 with mag wheels, perfect.
The Suzuki GS750 was a poor answer to Honda’s excellent-selling CB750, a bike that is regarded as the pinnacle UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle). Never selling in great volume, this copy was a heavy, slow-steering beast with poor brakes. Look at that one small front disk to stop that monster!
Life-changing decisions of youth are often made casually without much thought.
Matt got the bike in the spring and his girlfriend got him a very expensive leather jacket. Ironically, he wasn’t wearing the jacket when we crashed. I did not see a lot of Matt that summer but I knew he was riding frequently with his girlfriend. Taking a passenger with only 2 months experience? More teenager ‘thinking’.
The first time I saw the Suzuki GS750 in person was two weeks before school started. My first thought was, “That’s big!” The bike was a beast, and well over 525 lbs. with fuel. In a 1977 article Cycle World described it as a “very well-balanced bike with excellent handling.” I question the lucidity of the author. This was probably one of the worst bikes a beginner could own, second only to the 1000cc version.
My Suzuki Bandit 400 never materialized. “Maybe next year!” said my mother. It never did. I got my helmet and I wanted to ride. One Saturday afternoon I said to Matt, “We should go for a ride.” I asked, “Can you do it?” Matt lived near River Road in Latham, NY, which runs parallel with the Mohawk River. “Sure, I ride with Michelle all the time. We’ll go down River and be back in five minutes.”
Matt let the beast rip. I had to hold on as the analog dials swung past 60 mph and 7,000 rpms.
Life-changing decisions of youth are often made casually without much thought. In that moment, I had pressured Matt for a ride knowing he might not be up for it. A big red flag should have gone up for both of us. Matt wanted to show his motorcycle chops, and I wanted the wind over my new helmet, no matter what. “Let’s ride!”
I do not remember the ride out from the house but I do remember the turnaround, as Matt bogged the big GS750 at Lock No.7 Rd. My extra 75 lbs. of weight was causing the old Suzuki’s clutch to have fits. Our helmets smacked together. “Hey, it’s new!” I yelled, feeling pissed about the sloppy shift. To make up for the embarrassment, Matt let the beast rip. I had to hold on as the analog dials swung past 60 mph and 7,000 rpms. The noise from the wind was coming in loud now. My visor was open. I closed it, and I could really hear the engine. It sounded great. A late 70’s inline four in full song – magic! We were much faster coming back, and I knew that the S-turn lay ahead. Matt had once mentioned that he found this turn “tricky.”
A quarter mile from the house the turn begins as a long bend to the left, setting us up for the S-turn. At 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, we were hustling the bike to our doom! Truthfully, this turn is diabolical for even the most experienced rider. The road abruptly drops down just before the start of the turn. Guardrails pop up on both sides of the road, narrowing your perception. The road itself physically tightens to make it over Shaker’s creek. The heavy woods on either side cast the turn in darkness as you dive headlong into the unknown.
The speed, the weight, the shit front brake, the experience of the rider, and 170 pounds of first-time passenger had sealed our fate. Death lurked ahead.
I remember Matt never even applying the brakes as we dropped down into the turn in the late afternoon sunshine. The motorcycle squatted – probably from bottoming the suspension – and Matt simultaneously laid the bike over. We disappeared into darkness. The lazy Suzuki GS750 held a beautiful line; it was exquisite! The locked-in feeling of speed I could never replicate on my BMX bike captivated me. I had leveled up! I had just experienced and felt my destiny. This one turn made me a motorcycle rider, despite what happened next. Coming out of the darkness, I looked ahead to see the road rise and turn to the left. It looked like we had effectively entered a grass-strewn dead end street. Immediately, we arrived at the end.
Matt did try to turn the bike and follow the road; he might as well have been wrestling a steer. The gyroscopic effect of the mag wheels and the applied single-pot caliper made the bike stand bolt upright. There were no more steering inputs to be made. Our course was set. The speed, the weight, the shit front brake, the experience of the rider, and 170 pounds of first-time passenger had sealed our fate. Death lurked ahead.
I heard the throttle chop and the brake squeak for one last second. The road moved away to the left, and then I heard and felt gravel as we left the road. Pinging sounds as rocks hit the fender under my seat. I thought, ”Where the hell are we going?” I peeked around Matt’s helmet to see a hill of grass looming ahead. I closed my eyes then something brushed my leg, startling me. I opened my eyes to see Matt was gone.
Sudden impact followed at 30 mph. The GS’s 35 mm forks collapsed along with the mag wheel, melding into the inline four, forever becoming one. A five-foot-high dirt mound unceremoniously halted my first ride. The headstock snapped and the bars kicked right, as my seat pushed me up into the air with the force of an air cannon. My feet hit the bars as I flew over it.
Rising in the air, I reached the top of a parabolic arch as time slowed to a crawl. I looked around in silence, having time in the air to see where I was going to land. The hillside rose up to meet me.
The chest-high summer grass was golden straw yellow, thick and soft. The landing was just as abrupt as the take off. Ripping through the grass, my helmet buffeted with the loudest raspberry I ever heard. Arrested, flat on my stomach, the sound dropped from my ears. In silence, I rolled to my back to stare up at the towering canyon of grass rising above me. Motionless, I was staring at a blue sky and racing white clouds moving across it. Then the sound came back up to full blast. The silence was replaced with a combination of ringing and crickets. I sat up and looked down the meteorite path I created. I knew what lay at the end: my friend Matt and the crippled motorcycle.
His skin looked like fresh hamburger.
I limped to the top of the embankment and saw the motorcycle had tried to finish the turn alone. Bouncing off the dirt mound, it had traveled ten feet back towards the road. Movement next caught my eye, as I saw Matt staggering towards me. Matt had jumped clear as we left the road. “Are you ok?” he asked me. “I’m ok,” I replied. “Are you ok?” Matt tried to speak, but was only able to whisper, “no” as he turned away from me. That’s when I got a full look at his right side – with road rash from ankle to shoulder. I remember white specks mixed in with asphalt and blood. His skin looked like fresh hamburger. “Pick up my bike and bring it to my house!” Matt yelled out, as he staggered towards his home. I did not know what to do. I couldn’t lift the destroyed 500-pound bike alone. I heard a scream in the distance as Matt had rung the door bell and Michele answered.
Two motorcycle riders approaching from the opposite direction both knew immediately what had happened. The first rider was on a beautiful red, white, and blue 1989 Yamaha FZR1000R. They were the riders Matt and I would never be. Stopping, he ran to me. “Hey dude, don’t move. Just stay down.”
The other rider, on a red and white 1990 Suzuki GSXR750, was talking to Matt’s girlfriend who had loaded Matt into her maroon Volvo. “They are going to Troy Hospital. I am going to get there first and let them know he is coming.” The rider succeeded by hitting 140 mph and arriving 5 minutes before the Volvo. The surgical team was ready and needed, as Matt’s injuries were extensive: one spleen removed and in ICU with severe road rash, a fractured wrist and leg. Matt spent almost 3 weeks in the hospital.
In time, Matt recovered, but our friendship never did. Strained from the accident, we drifted apart quietly. I know this event changed his life and set him on a different course. A few weeks after Matt left the hospital I visited the scene of the accident alone. Late in the fading light of an October afternoon I could still make out my landing path of flattened grass. I was shaken to see a telephone pole we missed by 3 feet, as we left the road. I stood and surveyed the scene for a few minutes, and then put it in a box in my mind, kicked it to the deepest recess, and compartmentalised the accident. At least I thought I did.
Last week I turned onto another River Rd., far from Latham. Looking for the address of a birthday party my son was invited to, I slowly said the words “R-i-v-e-r R-o-a-d.” I opened that box.
Matt, I hope you will understand and accept this apology for the mistakes that I made. We should have never taken that ride, and for that I am so sorry.
Skills Deficit: We’ve forgotten how to ride!
To add to the already glutinous amount of opinion with regards to the coming perfect storm of motorcycling’s demise, I would like to mention one more possible problem. It is the simple fact that today’s new riders cannot ride!
What I mean to say is they do not have any transferable “skills.” Manufacturers like Honda and Yamaha have recognized this “skills deficit” and are subsequently developing a self-balancing motorcycle, and a crazy three-wheeler, the Niken. When I first saw the Niken, I thought, “Who the hell is that for?”
To quote Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the motorcycle industry understands that motorcycles are “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle.” Compared to horses, they require a minimum of physical skills; in particular, one needs coordination and a good degree of balance and confidence.
How can the industry make motorcycling more manageable? The industry is trying to solve the problem of coming generations raised on computer games and smart phones instead of riding bicycles.
How could a generation raised playing video games lack the ability to keep all balls juggling at once? They must have the hand/eye and foot coordination to administrate throttle, clutch, brake and shifter, so what is the problem? Like a thunderbolt, I realized it was the act of riding a motorcycle itself.
“Can’t you ride?!” Millennials have no experience!
Those helicopter parents placed their kids in plastic bubbles, never letting them get out there to be a kid. These sheltered children never developed any riding skills whatsoever. This is the generation expected to save the motorcycle industry? We are in real trouble.
Motorcycles are “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle.”
Previous generations of kids in America and the world consistently followed the same path: we get a tricycle, then a pedal bike (with training wheels) and we never looked back.
As we got older, next came dirt bikes, then street bikes. A progression of skills learned as children makes us capable of handling most street situations on a motorcycle. This agogi of childhood bicycling taught us balance, lean, acceleration and deceleration. It was a right of childhood. Even the ability to change a flat tire and wrench on our pedal bikes cannot be underestimated, as it led to the shed tinkerers.
Millennials, and now Gen Z, were shortchanged without these essential childhood experiences.
I grew up under a canopy of green with a sea of rich brown earth
Growing up in my neighborhood, kids were everywhere. During our two months off for summer, there was stuff to do (outside) every minute of the day. The boys all had BMX bikes and we rode everywhere. Any summer day we would go to someone’s house and build BMX trails all morning, and ride them after lunch. I grew up under a canopy of green with a sea of rich brown earth to build, reshape, tear down and build again. Designing the layout of our trails, engineering and planning the height of the jumps (how much cubic earth it would take); can anyone say S.T.E.M.? We lived it everyday building BMX trails!
My generation was also fit; this constant travel by bike around town to parks, streams, hills, and abandoned buildings was all adventure, all the time. We rode all times of the year, night and day. We practiced jumps, skids, endos, and wheelies. We rode in sand, dirt, mud, gravel and on wet grass. Years of riding bikes in the streets with our future nemesis (the automobile), we became experienced. Crossing busy roads and predicting at an early age what car drivers would do became second nature.
I rode a 1987 GT Pro Series (TEAM MODEL) everyday of my life until I got my first girlfriend.
“Millennials, and now Gen Z, have been shortchanged without these essential childhood experiences.”
The group of 10 contemporaries I rode with were all skilled riders. Collectively we crashed thousands of times. In the 1980s, kids never wore helmets. Helmets were for American football. I cannot recall any of us ever hitting our heads, not even once! Lucky, or skilled? We were great; we knew how to crash a BMX bike. This instinctive “crash reflex” became natural. You learned it, or you got hurt.
I also know that the skills I learned as a child saved me last summer, as I exited Interstate 95.
Slowing down on the exit ramp, I saw the glint of diesel on the motorcycle line. The turn tightening as I rode the corner, I knew I would cross it as some point! I got off the brakes knowing that one or both wheels would slide as I hit the diesel. I felt the front hit and ever so slightly tuck; then the back hit (now both wheels sliding). I held on without panicking. The wheels immediately regained traction at the same time. I never target fixated or locked up the brakes. The stripe of diesel mercifully ended, and it was over.
How many millennials would have come through this seat-clenching event? A childhood of BMX riding had just saved my butt.
My Generation, X (1965-1985) will be the last traditional motorcyclists with the necessary toolbox of skills that ride honest motorcycles. We should have raised free range children in a manner to mirror our own experiences.
Motorcycling should not need technological trickery to address monumental problems. Mark my words: two-wheel motorcycles will eventually be legislated out of existence as “unsafe.” Congratulations Yamaha and Honda, you are the motorcycle company equivalent of the helicopter parents and contributing to traditional motorcycles’ demise, in an effort to make sure no one gets a boo boo or needs a plaster (band aid).
In trying to keep this next generation safe, you have doomed it for the rest of us. Maybe Honda & Yamaha can give you a participation trophy every time you ride their three-wheeler or self-balancing motorcycle.
Is it 1891? No this is 2018, and if this technological nonsense is the future of motorcycling… I weep for you all.
We are doomed!
When Projects Creep Out of Control
Is ‘more’ always better?
Back in 2008, after more than a decade working in the motorcycle industry, I finally bought my first brand new bike. Like the kid in the proverbial candy store, I wandering through my local motorcycle dealer with my stomach in knots knowing that one of these shiny, magnificent machines would be mine. And like so many people tilted by emotion, despite years of experience and insider knowledge, or perhaps because of it, I let excitement take over the decision making process. I bought a motorcycle far beyond my needs.
It was not long after taking possession of my Yamaha FZ-1 that I realized my mistake. The bike was technically faultless, the problem lay in that it was not at all what I needed. With a tiny fuel capacity and very firm ride it was a lousy touring rig (especially in Quebec where road surface quality is akin to a bombed out airstrip), but conversely it was too bulky and heavy to flick into corners on curvy A roads. It was bigger, faster, incorporated superior suspension and materials technology than it’s predecessor, the Fazer 1000 I helped develop years earlier, an yet somehow the new package was less motorcycle.
When you ask motorcyclists what they want in a new bike, the answer is always “more”. More power, more space, more features. The only thing they don’t want more of is cost. It makes sense, after all we all want more of a good thing. With motorcycles problems often arise when designers and engineers are tasked with piling on those ever increasing specifications to an existing model. This mission creep can, if not managed carefully by a strong project leader, end with a product so packed with features and high specification that it can do everything, but none of it particularly well.
The 1998 – 2004 Yamaha FZS600 Fazer was a wildly successful motorcycle design. At a time when entry level, middle displacement (500cc to 650cc) street bikes were either extremely basic or used obsolete technology, the Fazer delivered modern handling and performance in a user-friendly package. Featuring the engine and brakes from Yamaha’s YZF600R Thundercat, and a compliant chassis made of steel pipe to keep costs down, the little Fazer sold like mad satisfying a wide array of beginners and experienced riders alike.
With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance.
Yamaha introduced a mildly revised version two years later, along with the aforementioned larger, 1000cc version. Honda blatantly copied the Fazer formula of packaging supersport technology into an inexpensive package with the CB600F Hornet. Yamaha saw sales plummet, so along with a dozen other designers and engineers I was brought into a group to create the next, all-beating Fazer.
And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.
A whirlwind tour of European cities took place in which we interviewed hundreds of entry-level 600cc customers. The specification list grew longer and longer each day, as the demands of existing users piled on. More fuel tank range! More wind protection! More cargo carrying capacity! And of course… more power! Always more power.
Back at headquarters, the project leader handed over the design brief. As a very young designer I was confused. The new Fazer would now have an R6 motor. It would feature an all aluminum, Deltabox frame, lightweight R6 rims and a 180 section rear tire. Projector headlights. LEDs. Twin, under seat stainless steel exhausts. The brief read like the spec sheet from a top-of-the-line flagship project, not the replacement for Yamaha Motor Europe’s best selling motorcycle.
This is project creep, and it happens when an organization is beset by fear and acts out of ignorance of the big picture. The reasoning behind this phenomenon seems sound: if your opponent has three guys with knives, you better make sure you have six. It makes sense until you discover that you only have enough food for four, and so field six starved, exhausted guys against three strong and healthy ones. In manufacturing history there are hundreds of examples of this, the most famous of which may be the case of the Ford Edsel. It had more of everything than any of its competitors, and yet was so much less car.
With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance. After all, motorcyclists are fundamentally sold on the thrill of speed and aggressive handling. The problem is that too much performance makes most motorcycles into unmanageable, sphincter-clenching torture devices. Among our tribe few are skilled enough to exploit even half of the potential of modern bikes, which makes adding high performance to models destined for the rest of us an academic exercise. Of course our egos won’t allow us to admit it, but inside we are terrified of opening the throttle fully mid-corner. So we don’t, and wobble around on large, expensive bikes that not only don’t satisfy, but fill us with regret because we cannot master the objects of our desire.
At the cruiser end of the spectrum, the height of the chopper era saw mature, fully grown manufacturers launch models that were laden with Edsel-like heapings of features. The Honda Rune was presented as the end-all, be-all of the cruiser genre. According to Honda America’s Ray Blank, they “…wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined.”.
The result was a seven foot long, 400 kg, six cylinder monster that boasted 50% more torque than Honda’s then flagship superbike.
It was literally the most cruiser you could buy from any mainstream manufacturer, and yet its’ excess was its failure. At $30,000 (US) it wasn’t more expensive than a range topping Harley-Davidson, but the market balked at its bulk and cornucopia of pointless styling. Honda had failed completely to stop the design at some stage and roll it back, asking the team to refocus on what make people yearn to cruise on a motorcycle: the simple joy of sitting astride a large mechanical powertrain suspended between two chunky tires. The Chopper is, by definition, a bike “chopped” down to its basic, core elements. A little baroque styling and flair is cool, but it is not the main attraction.
As an industry, the motorcycle business is not very good at learning the lesson of project creep. The endless fight to produce the sexiest products in the marketplace inevitably drive an arms race that produces some great innovation but also squeezes out lots of poorly conceived motorcycles. If a bike comes out with a strong styling direction that hits the market like a storm, then simply copying it only with a more extreme execution is not going to work. When a competitor eats your lunch, as the Honda Hornet did when it replicated the original Yamaha Fazer concept in 2003, then just doubling down on everything is not going to win the market back.
How did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat?
The second generation FZS600 (called the FZ6 in North America) that debuted in 2005 with all those crazy upmarket features did well in Europe for a few years, but alienated a lot of customers who loved the original Fazer’s rugged, approachable simplicity. They flocked to the second generation Suzuki SV650S, which was a better Fazer than the new FZ6 (ironically, the Suzuki’s styling was almost a copy of the updated original Fazer). By 2008, Yamaha introduced the FZ6R, a confusingly named but genuine successor to the formula that was simple, cheap, versatile and easy to use. It quietly dropped the over-spec’ed FZ6 Fazer without a replacement a year later.
In the market battlespace, project creep is easily seen in the most hotly contested areas. The 250cc class ballooned to 300cc because Kawasaki needed to edge out the class leading Honda CBR250. Then KTM launched the RC390, resplendent in its superior specification. The new Honda CBR250RR presented this winter is a very far cry from the CBR250 I tested in 2011. In five short years, the baby Honda sport bike went from being what I called “the missing link”, a motorcycle for everyone that the industry so badly needed, to being a mini CBR1000RR World Superbike contender.
I love the look of the CBR250RR, and if I am completely honest I want one rather badly. But how did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat? I suspect it has a lot to do with looking ahead instead of behind. I’ve seen this show and I know the ending. In five years time the 250cc class will be dead again, because it will have priced itself out of the marketplace.
Getting excited and dreaming of the ultimate motorcycle is the job, but it is also the duty of manufacturers to deliver products people can actually afford and use. The ultimate anything is, as the word suggests, the last of the line. And winning the battle for the ultimate product is meaningless if you destroy the consumer base as a consequence.