Next-Level Risk Management: Quittin’ The Street

By TJ Noto
Artwork: Mr. Jensen

I’m a man of many interests and pursuits: a husband, musician, writer, armchair economist, and a lover and restorer of old cars. I can also whip up a beurre blanc of which Julia herself would approve. But the one thing I love above all others (except my wife), the one I’m most passionate about, is riding a motorcycle. I’ve been riding most of my life, on the street from the age of 18. As a bachelor in my late 20s, riding motorcycles consumed most of my time, energy, and disposable income. It defined me, and I defined what it meant to me: restoring old motorcycles, learning to ride ever more powerful and capable new motorcycles, racing, dirt riding, dirt track, adventure riding, and even vintage scooters. If it had two wheels I’d try to ride the damn thing. I simply love just about every aspect of two-wheeled vehicles.

I will always be a motorcyclist, but I will no longer be one who rides on public roads. Despite averaging fewer than 15 days on the street each year since about 2005, I’ve always loved the idea of going for a Saturday morning ride. But for the first time in decades, I do not have one single motorcycle in my garage that I can ride on the street. They’re all dry-docked, registered “non-operational” with DMV, without insurance. I’m not leaving riding, just the pachinko pinball pandemonium that the Bay Area’s public roads have become. I still intend to spend plenty of time riding my track-only 848 at Laguna Seca, Thunderhill, and Sears Point, and my KTM 450 XC-W on dirt and sand.

The road to me leaving public roads began in the early 90s, when my study of the art of riding a motorcycle began in earnest. The more I rode, the more riders I met, and inevitably, the more accidents I witnessed, and friends I lost. In the past 10 years the level of negligence and distraction on the part of drivers of cars seemed to increase exponentially, and as it did, the days I rode on the street decreased.

A little over a year ago I had several very close calls in just one month. The first involved a car heading west on 84, whose driver decided to cross 35 at the moment when my northbound ass was just about at the intersection. I had been watching him intently and managed to avoid a collision, but I’m not sure a novice rider would have been so lucky.

My KTM 1190 had only got ridden when I was able to muster the enthusiasm for street rides, an increasingly difficult ask. A ride through Big Basin Park one late summer afternoon proved to be the final straw. As I leaned in to a 180-degree uphill left hand turn, an oncoming Subaru WRX rudely greeted me. The driver had gone in to the corner too fast and was unable to make the turn, drifting wide in to my lane. Fortunately I was riding cautiously, in the outer third of my lane, or I’d have been the black and orange fly on the Subie’s windshield.

Returning home with a mixture of frustration, anger, and despair, I proclaimed to my always supportive (and motorcyclist) wife, that I was done with the street. The “return home safely” sticker I’d made and affixed to my dash cluster on the big KTM may have reminded me that I had people at home who loved me, but it had no effect on those behind the wheels of automobiles.

I felt a great loss but my love of motorcycling is not greater than my love of my family, and I have much more fun riding my track bike at Laguna Seca, or spending at day in the dirt at Hollister Hills with my wife than I ever do riding on the street, and I simply do not want to go out as hood ornament for a Lexus because its driver was looking at a cellphone.

I believe motorcyclists who only ride on the street are missing the best elements of riding, and if they learned to ride on the dirt, or on the racetrack they would immediately reduce their street time. Back in my racing days I stopped riding on the street altogether—it simply did not compare to the fun of riding on the track (what? No corner workers?).

I always worry about friends who commute on two wheels. I know it’s faster, but you’re putting yourself in the highest risk environment imaginable. Riding “defensively” is neither fun, nor cool.

Cars and motorcycles have been at odds with each other since the beginning, so it’s nothing new to observe that the four-wheeled vehicles are a great threat to the two-wheeled sort. Newton’s Law Of Motion states that an object in motion will remain in motion until it meets and equal and opposite force. The motorcycle ain’t equal to the car, and when the two meet, we know who wins.

Until about 15 years ago a very large component of car versus motorcycle crashes was due to a number of variables including but not limited to visibility, driver error, and rider error. My view is that technology has helped mitigate some of those variables, but that cell phone technology and our addiction to it, has made riding a motorcycle on public streets today markedly riskier than it has ever been. My opinion, based entirely on personal experience, is shared by those with a decidedly more empirical approach: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the largest increase (10.4%) in highway fatalities occurred in 2016, and researchers there believe that distracted driving, most commonly attributed to smartphone use, is the culprit.

Cite the NHTSA’s findings to your riding buddy and she’ll say, “well, duh.” It’s certainly not news to motorcyclists. We see much more than we do when we are driving a car. We’re much more aware of our space on the road and the minute changes when a car infringes on it. Ride on any stretch of road for more than a few minutes and you’re likely to encounter a car drifting out of its lane, braking erratically, or being driven inconsistently. I’m never surprised to see the drivers of these cars with their cellphone in their hands when I pass them.

Like all motorcyclists, I have witnessed, endured, and been the victim of distracted drivers for years. While my observations are non-scientific, and there is certainly the possibility of any number of biases, my view is that the risk exposure has increased significantly, and that today’s motorcyclists are in more danger than they have ever been.

I finally decided to sell my 1190, but not before a letter arrived from KTM North America informing me of a recall that required a trip to the dealer, in this case CalMoto Moto in Livermore. I didn’t relish the idea of riding it out there and back, but pushing a 500-pound motorcycle as tall as a sasquatch into my truck was even less appealing, so I decided to ride it out for the quick repair. I took a friend with me, and as we suited up she mentioned how she disliked being a passenger on freeway rides.

I told her that I didn’t like them either but that at least they were safer than city or suburban rides. Those words seemed farcical when only an hour later. As the big Austrian v-twin beneath us hummed along 680 at 70 miles an hour in the middle lane, cars passed us on both sides swerving in and out of lanes at speeds upward of 80 miles an hour. It reminded me of my racing days, and the dash to turn 1 after the green flag had dropped at Sears Point.

I had deliberately chosen to take the KTM in on a Tuesday morning, after the morning’s commute had subsided. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and due to road closures on Bear Creek Road and Summit, my route required me to take Black Road to Skyline, and ride south on Skyline to Bear Creek. That stretch of Skyline (between Black Road and Bear Creek) is a tight, twisty one-lane road, with numerous blind corners, and the recent storms left it in very bad condition. Trees, power lines, road slippages, running water, potholes, and mudslides all necessitated slow speeds and constant vigilance. Bear Creek had been closed for a couple weeks and I’d driven this section of Skyline dozens of times, as it was the only way off the mountain for us. Now, as I picked my way along, feathering the clutch in and out in 2nd gear, I stayed as far to the right of the road I could, almost on the white line that marked the edge of the asphalt.

It was just before noon and we were about half way between Black and Bear Creek when I came around a corner to find a green Honda Civic heading toward me, having just exited a corner. The car was travelling perhaps 35 miles an hour, and I could see that the driver was looking in the back seat, with one hand on the steering wheel. I immediately moved as far right as I was able, which was only a foot or so, for there was no road left, no barrier, just the side of a mountain. I subconsciously tried to make myself as narrow as possible, threading a needle between the oncoming car and a steep mountain. I was aware that I’d pressed the horn only when I heard its blast, and when the car was finally next to us I was certain it would hit us. Suddenly it was past and once I’d moved from the edge of the road I turned my head to see if the driver would stop. She did not. I pulled over, heart pounding, and just stared at the trees of the valley below, in shock. After a minute or so I asked my passenger if she was ok. “The toe of my boot dragged along the side of the car,” she said.

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m done.”

Artwork: Mr. Jensen

I use Sena headsets for rider to passenger communication but despite the flurry of thoughts and emotions running through my and my friend’s mind the final few miles home were silent.

I travelled that section of road several times in the coming days and weeks, and found the exact place where the near miss occurred. I stopped and made photos from both directions, and analyzed sight lines and road conditions. In the end, there was only one conclusion, that despite what most would consider common sense caution, the driver of that Honda assumed that she was the only vehicle on that section of road. She was counting on that being the case, else she would not have been driving at a high rate of speed and looking in the back seat as she did. If I’d been a couple feet to the left, we’d have been hit head on, and I might not be alive; a few inches to the left my left leg and that of my passenger would most likely have been smashed.

My rage at the woman who came so close to having a very negative, potentially final impact on my life remains, for she, along with the many other negligent drivers have required that I change my relationship with motorcycling. It won’t be a big impact, but it isn’t insignificant. I’ll miss rolling into the parking lot at Alice’s, telling stories with other riders and gawking at cool motorcycles, before heading down 84 to the coast.

There’s a lot about street riding I won’t miss however, and most importantly I don’t need to stop riding. I’ll just do it in a different environment, an environment that is safe, and a lot more fun. And if you think street rides are a great way to get to know fellow riders, spend a day at the racetrack, or at an SVRA—you’ll experience a level of camaraderie and fellowship which can’t be beat.

So I say to the driver of that green Honda, the one who almost killed me, “thank you not only for saving my life, but for reminding me where I want to be. It ain’t on the street.”

As it turned out, that ride was not my last. For simplicity’s sake, I decided to deliver the KTM to its new owner in the parking lot of the Los Gatos Lodge. It’s easier to find than our house, and well-suited to such transactions. That final ride was not devoid of irony, for as I travelled north on Highway 17, riding in the slow lane just a quarter mile from the Los Gatos exit, a Lexus just ahead of me in the fast lane began to wander in to my lane. I moved a bit right and accelerated to get away from him, and as I looked over noticed the driver with a cell phone in his right hand, trying to type on it. I gave him a hand gesture that is universal for “what the hell?” to which I received a forceful and angry middle finger.

After my initial irritation, I smiled and laughed. Knowing that a distracted driver will never flip me off again reinforces my belief in my decision. Saying goodbye to riding on the street is a pleasant farewell indeed.

TJ started riding before Evel Knievel tried to jump Snake River Canyon, and raced AFM Open Twins for 5 seasons in the mid-90s. Word on the street…err, well not on the street any more… anyway, word is, he might be racin’ again, now that he’s kissed the street’s sweet charms goodbye.

This story originally appeared in our May 2017 issue, which you can read in all its high-res glory here. And don’t worry—the rest of us CityBikers are still fighting the good fight, between the lanes, intersection to intersection, through the corners and beyond.

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