A Head in a Helmet, Bike on Fire

As bikers we all understand that there are certain risks we have in common. Risks that our car driving brothers and sisters of the byways and highways of the open road do not have. I’ve often theorized that this risk is the glue that binds bikers together and formulates our metaphoric commonality. A fender bender in a car is an inconvenience. A fender bender on a bike is a potential catastrophic injury. Believe me, I see it in my office every day. Not everyone has the proverbial balls to throw a leg over. It takes risk assumption. My accountant, who is a perfectly nice fellow, but is risk adverse in his loafers and argyle sweater vest, will NEVER ride a bike. He is simply not wired for it. It wasn’t the way he was raised or what he was taught by his Dad, or built into his psyche by whatever God he chose. He’s simply a conservative guy. He likes his Mercedes with 30 airbags and his online chess club, his golf days and his wine tastings. It’s who he is. I respect it, it’s just not me. Most likely, not you either.

It is no secret that riding is riskier than driving. You are 37 times more likely to die in a bike wreck than in a car wreck. Deer, potholes, soccer moms, all risks we deal with. And that is with all the safety mechanisms we as a 1st world country build into our biker’s societal fabric. Mandatory helmet use in half the states, Kevlar, anti-lock brakes, modern traffic engineering, excellent police presence and the like. I’ve ridden all over Europe and in South and Central America. It’s a whole new level of risk in other parts of the world. We are better off than other countries where bikers face risks we in the US generally don’t even consider. I’ve heard many examples in my work and in my travels. I know of a travel writer named Mark Jenkins. He writes a lot for National Geographic Magazine and travels the world chasing interesting stories. He recently travelled to the Altay Mountains in China to report on indigenous Mongolian elk hunters who hunt herds of elk using downhill ski’s. Nothing to do with bikers. His initial story was about the hunters who compete with wolves in their quest for big game and their ever vigilant guard from the roving packs of wild K-9 meat eaters known as “Canis Lupus Familiaris.” To be clear, a wolf is not like the 30 pound coyotes we have here in north Georgia. It is a carnivorous killing machine upwards of 125 pounds, capable of devouring 25 pounds of flesh at a time, torn and swallowed in minutes. They hunt in packs using cooperative group strategies; with designated roles for members, reflective of a social pecking order. They are complex social animals with reason behind their legend of ferocity and cunning. Attached you will see a picture I snapped last week of a gray wolf in a nature preserve out west while on spring break with my kids (from the safety of our rental car). WAY bigger than I thought they’d be. It stood in the road before us with an impervious look only a mammal without predators could have. It finally moved and upon driving past it looked straight into the car at me with all 4 feet planted on the ground. Chilling. Here is where the motorcycle risk part comes circling back into my story. The Mongolian locals told that writer Jenkins a story of a village motorcyclist they knew, who ventured off alone attempting to traverse a snow blocked pass north of town too early in spring. The biker found himself stuck in snow drift and became stranded on the mountain road. Jenkins’ elk hunting hosts told him about how the biker unsuccessfully tried to extricate his motorcycle from the snow bank and called the distant village police precinct for help. He called back soon afterwards in a bit of a panic. It seems a pack of hungry wolves had begun to encircle him and his stuck motorcycle. Assuring him they were on the way, the police advised to light the entire motorcycle on fire, to ward off the wolves and buy time until they could come to the rescue and pluck him from amidst the creeping carnivores. As much as it must have displeased the biker, he found a way to light the bike on fire using matches and some gasoline spilled from the tank. I trust this was a very difficult decision on the biker’s part, that being a quintessential counter intuitive action of burning up one’s own motorcycle. Heck, I cringe when I scratch my paint. Nonetheless, he evidently complied and had a good fire going. However, this radical plan at self preservation was futile. When the police arrived at the scene in their 4x4s some 20 minutes later, they found the charred smoking remains of a burned up motorbike. What else they found must have been quite a shock even to the police. The blood soaked scene around the bike comprised of only some torn clothing and a helmet on the ground next to the bike. Upon further inspection, it was what was inside the helmet that was the shocking. The biker’s severed head snugly affixed by a chin strap, yet separated from what was previously a whole human body. A body that was gone without a trace sans the mess of that which evidences a violent death. A quick meal for a pack of wolves, a futile effort at survival, a motorbike that simply burned too quickly! So much for rescue strategy. While this is not the typical risk we as bikers associate with our chosen mode of transportation, it does speak to the vulnerability of riding ‘out in the open’. I’ve been caught in the rain and complained to myself about, it cursing the wet down my neck. I’ve forgotten my chaps in winter and had cold legs and grimaced about it, rolling along uncomfortably chilly. I have even laid a few bikes down and come away bruised and broken, with a wrecked bike to boot. In retrospect, I shouldn’t complain. There is always someone less fortunate. Head in a helmet, bike on fire, yea, that’s a predicament I’ve not been in. So beware the soccer Moms, the texting teenagers, the sleepy trucker or even the tar snakes and pot holes. But count your blessings and steer clear of the Altay Mountains in China! Someone’s always got it worse.

Well, signing off for now. Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end make sure you ride home. -Irish

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