Groundhog Day

Story by Clinton Smout//
November 1 2008

I know you are going to say that I wasn’t paying attention, but I was scanning the road back and forth and checking my mirrors. It moved right out in front of me. It was big for a ground hog. I was conscious of my fellow riders, Grant and Jim, following right behind me in the staggered formation. I couldn’t swerve or brake hard without messing them up so, I guess the dirt rider side of my brain kicked in. I quickly dropped down a gear and hammered the throttle. I ran right over the poor groundhog. Checking my mirror to see if Jim was okay I saw him ride right over it as well. Then, in astonishment, I witnessed the groundhog keep running and dash into the field. I gave a ‘thumbs up’ to Jim to signal ‘are you okay?’. He misinterpreted my concern and pumped his left hand up and down to signal back ‘Ya, I got him too’. Jim is an avid hunter.

Sometimes there are obstacles in our path that you don’t have time to miss. It could be a piece of tire carcass, a muffler or an animal (that is asleep on the road). Perhaps you are following a truck or van too close. They usually won’t swerve or brake if they can straddle the obstacle or debris. Once you finally see it there may be no time to react other than decide to go over it.

Here is the technique that has worked for me on all kinds of motorcycles.

1) Resist the instinct to throttle off or brake. Instead give it gas. If you have time, down shift to the next lower gear which will provide more torque and front suspension elevating power. You don’t want to wheelie, but you do want to have the front springs as long as possible to maximize your ground clearance when you hit the obstacle.

2) Once the front wheel hits and goes over the obstacle it’s time to get off the throttle and get your butt off the seat. When the back wheel hits, it will want to lift upwards, possibly hurting your spine if you leave your backside in the saddle. You don’t want the throttle on hard when the back wheel hits since it will be more likely to lose traction.

3) If you are riding with others, you may want to warn them with a pointing arm. Be careful trying to help others too much. I thought I would be nice once by kicking a small red gas container off of a busy Toronto road. What I didn’t expect to find was that it was full of gas and almost broke my foot.

4) If you have a passenger, do try to warn them. My wife and I have a signal for potholes or anything else that would possibly jar her spine. When I know that avoiding an obstacle or pothole is impossible, I crunch up my shoulders as a visual signal to get your butt off the seat.

5) As soon as you can safely pull over, do so and inspect your rims and tires. It is not hard to damage a rim when hitting obstacles or potholes. I used to jump over curbs on my street bike to demonstrate certain errors when demo riding for the government license testers. It was fun until I found a big dent in my front rim. Aluminum rims are very expensive!

Riding over groundhogs, tire carcasses or trying to hit every pothole for practice isn’t something I would recommend. Riding a bicycle or, better yet, a smaller motorcycle over small obstacles is fantastic practice. We train riders to ride over small logs on off-road motorcycles and the same skill can be transferred to big street bikes.

I tried it on my Yamaha Warrior and it worked. I started with easy obstacles like small tires. Then I worked up to stiffer motocross tires and then a car muffler. It was a little harder on the cruiser because of the forward foot peg position. It is easier to stand up and get your butt off the seat for obstacles when the foot pegs are under you (like the ergonomics of a sport or conventionally designed bike). The lower ground clearance of cruisers will also minimize what you can safely ride over.

The best advice is to do your best to avoid obstacles. Maintaining a proper following distance may give you more reaction time instead of seeing the problem at the last second. Riding in the appropriate tire track (left or right depending on the lane you are in) may also help. Frequent road use by cars and trucks will often move the obstacle off the road or into the centre of the lane.

Remember, you might also be tempting fate by following trucks or any vehicle with open loads. I met a student who was just getting back into street riding after a ten-year absence. He had been following a transport truck on the highway when he saw a blur right before something hit him. It turned out to be a ten-foot long; two hundred pound recap off of one of the truck’s tires. The rider was luckily knocked unconscious and wasn’t hurt by the fall or other traffic.

I try to make it a rule not to follow trucks or ride in the lane beside them. The drivers are probably the safest on the road but their vehicles can be inherently dangerous for motorcyclists. There are a few problems that trucks create for us. A large rig pushes a lot of air out to the sides at highway speeds and smaller vehicles can be affected by the windblast. The trailer can also block cross winds until you pass the tractor so be prepared. If it is raining, the wheel spray from so many large tires can create vision problems for riders. There are also huge blind spots with such large vehicles. If you are beside the truck, the driver cannot see you unless you can see them in their side mirror. If you are just in front or behind the rig, you are invisible to the driver. They might be flipping in a Roadhammers CD just when you brake hard and yikes! So be careful out there.

Watch out for obstacles and try not to become one. I doubt that you are as tough as that groundhog.

Ride safely!

Clinton Smout, Chief Instructor, Canadian Motorcycle Training Services


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