Here in the frozen south, the sun recently peeked out for a moment. It filled me with dread. Not because I’m photophobic, a vampire or scared of my shadow. But because the first hint of sun leads to the first sunny weekend, leads to me watching the news and learning that a handful of bikers have once again celebrated the coming of spring by fatally crashing into a car or the nearest chunk of scenery. History repeats, year by year, and it never feels any less tragic because it doesn’t have to be like this. I’d love to see sunny days – or perhaps just release from lockdown - celebrated with big smiles, adrenalin, good friends and not a single shitty news story. So, without trying to be preachy – and with apologies to the veteran riders out there - here are my thoughts regarding the mindset and maintenance that might, I hope, go some way towards stopping excited spring riders becoming expired, sad statistics.
What surprises lie under the blanket?
There are those who ride come rain, hail or sleet. Then there are those who park their motorcycle under a cover come the first cool breeze, plug in a battery trickler and forget that the bike exists until the willy-shrinking cold has gone for good. I don’t judge, but if you ride regardless of the weather, you’ll mostly likely be keeping an eye on the state of your bike all the time, having it serviced, checking tyres, chain, all the usual. If you don’t ride over winter, well, nothing can go wrong with a bike that’s not being ridden, right?
Every year, dozens of fair weather riders welcome the sun by flinging the blanket off their bike with a flourish, then perhaps checking that the tyres are still keeping the rims off the floor. They are? Ripper! Check number one done. Check number two…insert key into ignition, rotate key. Dash lights up! Cross fingers. Thumb the red button. (Difficult with fingers crossed…) It starts! A big grin, followed by a sprint back into the house to find the riding gear while the bike warms up, because Dave said meet him in ten minutes. This is the sort of routine that has dozens of riders every year shitting themselves when it all leads to a heart-stopping near miss, and a sad few bikers never making it home again.
While a bike sits unused, over the weeks the tyres lose pressure. Most of us know that tyres that are even a few psi down from their correct pressures leave the bike handling like a hippo on stilts. What about brakes? Brake fluid is hygroscopic – it absorbs water over time, and the result can be brakes that fade after a few squeezes, or just go away altogether. Fluid lines can also decay, resulting in leaks when you least need them, and perhaps a rear tyre nicely covered in slippery coolant. Then there’s that half a tank of The Dreaded Unleaded that’s been left to turn to varnish over the cold months, and could easily lead to an engine that runs rough or intermittently.
Not to get all naggy, but all of this is easy enough to sort out with a bit of planning, and a quiet couple of hours spent in the garage before that first sunny weekend. And if you’re simply not the DIY type, get the bike serviced by a pro. It’s a smart move that’ll give you peace of mind and a bike that feels great on your first ride, instead of riding like a wobbly liability. Speaking of which…
It’s like riding a bike!
That’s the mantra of many a rider who ought to know better. Once you learn you can never un-learn, they say. That’s partly true, but it’s the other part that will get you killed. Because no, you won’t forget the basics of how to ride a bike over a handful of weeks or even months spent off it. And even if you’re a bit rusty, after an hour or two on the bike you’ll be as good as gold.
Or possibly dead.
It’s easy to get cocky or just complacent, especially if you have years of riding experience under your belt like many of us have. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it takes time for us to get back into the swing of things after time off the bike. Sometimes that’s a few hours. For some of us, it takes a few rides. Simply being aware of this and riding with a measure of extra care can help keep you out of an ambulance.
You know how it goes. It’s a bit of a thrill when mates start calling up, in no time a ride’s been organized and you’re out on the road. Being excited about riding is natural - it’s what we love, after all - but getting carried away or competitive can see the shit hitting the fan very quickly. It pays to keep your head screwed on and be conscious that your time off the bike might mean that you’ll take a little while to get back into the groove. You’ve got all summer, so what’s the rush?
One Saturday some years ago when I was out on a ride, the cops stuffed up their address book while carrying out some mundane cop business. They knocked on the wrong door – my door - and my wife answered. She instantly came to one conclusion, and fell to pieces on the spot. A couple hours later when I came home she was still in a state, and just how shaken she was has made me determined to iron out all the unnecessary risks that I possibly can when I ride. I don’t ever want her to have to answer the door to that kind of shock again.
In summary – it takes two.
It’s impossible for a good rider to be safe on a poorly maintained bike. It’s also hard for a rider who’s out of practise to be safe, even on a perfectly maintained bike. So it stands to reason that rusty riders setting forth on suspect bikes is a recipe for bad news.
I’m not the fun police or any police at all. I’ve done my share of mad risk taking and dickhead moves on a bike. But I like to think that I’ve learned enough just watching the evening news on that first sunny weekend each year to know that it’s time we started to play it smarter, at least on those early spring rides. If it’s been sat in the garage all winter – or during lockdown - take the time to check your bike or get it serviced. And take a moment to get your head in the right place before you hit the road, too. That first ride ought to feel amazing, and it should be the first of many more to come.
Stay safe out there, and we’ll see you on the road.