The Classic Mistake

Story by John Lewis// Photos by John Lewis
May 8 2019

How the author became his own risk manager and started riding again.

This is a story about my motorcycling journey: how I started, why I left and how I was able to come back to ride with greater joy and sense of adventure than I’d ever had before.

On a sunny day in June, the midday traffic on the Metropolitan Autoroute in Montreal was pretty typical. It was moving along briskly – until it wasn’t. It was during one of these “until it wasn’t” moments that an elderly lady missed the changing pace of traffic and rear-ended a BMW motorcycle. The rider spent the next six months in the hospital, four of which he was in a coma. That event would change the course of my motorcycling career.

When I was 15, a family friend asked me if I wanted to climb on his old Honda 150 and give it a try. My answer was an enthusiastic yes. I can’t remember if I always wanted to ride a motorcycle or whether I got hooked that day, but hooked I was. This is the clutch, these are the brakes and this is the throttle. Lesson over, I tore around the roads and paths on his farm for the next three days. I loved the freedom I had to roam and explore, and the concept of risk never entered my mind. It was pure joy. I didn’t have to become a motorcyclist. I was one from the moment I threw my leg over the seat. I decided that one day I would buy a motorcycle. And I did – I bought a brand new red Honda Shadow. She was a beauty.

The Day Disaster Struck

hi-viz-johnI had only ridden 8,000 km on my new bike when my girlfriend got a phone call. Her brother, a vice-president of a large technology company, was in a riding accident in Montreal. (Yeah, that one.) I had never met him, but from what I’d been told, he was a very experienced rider. In theory, I knew motorcycling had risks, but whenever I envisioned a serious crash, it didn’t involve a mature, intelligent, upwardly mobile professional – a description that fit us both. Even though I had only experienced the trauma and aftermath of the crash vicariously, it was so close to home it shattered my confidence. I had metaphorically fallen off my horse. Afterwards, I made the classic mistake: I didn’t get back on. I left my moto-steed in the garage, unridden, and eventually sold it.

But I guess I was still a motorcyclist at heart, because every spring I got the itch to ride and longed to have a motorcycle again. For years I put it off. I wasn’t afraid, per se, but I was in a kind of motorcycling limbo – a strange place where my joyful memories of the freedom of motorcycling were in constant battle with the vivid memories of the trauma I had gone through with my girlfriend after her brother’s crash. I was now all too aware of what could happen. Losing my life, or my ability to walk, or my ability to continue doing my livelihood or other joyful activities were all beyond my risk tolerance. But my reservations about riding were soon overpowered by the regret I feared I’d have if I never rode again. I decided, come hell or high water, I was going to get back on two wheels.

Risk Management Implemented

WM Coaching ModelTo overcome my reservations, I’d do everything I could think of to reduce the risk. I would always wear ATGATT (all the gear all the time) to protect myself from injury. I would wear a hi-viz yellow jacket to make myself more conspicuous. I would enroll, as a citizen participant, in a two-week Police Motor Officer Certification course to hone my riding skills. I detected a “motorcyclist as risk manager” theme. I realized that every decision I’d ever make with respect to my riding, my motorcycle, my gear or my training would all be informed by my tolerance for risk, and as such, would be risk management decisions.

This motorcyclist-as-risk manager idea gave me a feeling of control and suggested a way of thinking – a mindset – that could guide my decisions and actions. Evel Knievel said, “You are the master of your own ship, pal. There are lots of people who fall into troubled waters and don’t have the guts or the knowledge or the ability to make it to shore. They have nobody to blame but themselves.” If I was going to have the guts to ride again, I’d have to make sure that I had the knowledge and the ability to address and manage the risks and perils of motorcycling.

Personal To-Do List

The first thing I would do is become “master of my own ship.” I would accept 100 per cent responsibility for all eventualities, however and by whomever they were caused. This would involve removing the word “blame” from my motorcycling lexicon and accepting that the buck stops with me. No one on the road is going to look out for me. They are too busy looking out for themselves, or looking at their latest text or trying to get to work on time. Sure, they may be in the wrong. It doesn’t matter. They don’t wish me harm. I’m simply not on their mind, and quite possibly not within their conscious visual awareness, either. I had to accept a basic truth of motorcycling: If I’m not managing the risk and looking out for me, then no one is.

The second thing I would need to do is identify all the known risks of motorcycling. I learned that motorcycling is more predictable than not, and that 100 per cent, absolutely, guaranteed, car and truck drivers are going to pull out in front of me, lose me in their blind spots, lose me behind poles and other structures in the city landscape, lose me among competing traffic and sometimes follow me too closely. And that while I’m riding, I’ll come across traction hazards, corners that are tighter than expected, deer on the road, ruts in construction areas, and cars stopped over crests and around blind corners. (And a lot more.)

The third thing I would need to do is make sure I could keep myself safe in spite of all of these things. I’d have to learn the skills and strategies needed to prevent, reduce and avoid the risks inherent in riding.

Since I really wanted to ride again, this was a course of action I was willing to adopt.

Risks Make It Enjoyable

WM Coaching ModelWhether I am off-piste skiing (skiing in the backcountry in avalanche-prone unmarked areas) in the French Alps or rappelling into the depths of an underground cave in West Virginia (two other pastimes I’ve enjoyed), it’s not about eliminating the risk, but rather managing it. The risk is what makes it fun. For motorcycling, I knew it was the same thing. I’d just fallen off the horse. I felt that if I could manage the risks, I would have the confidence to get back on.

From this, I developed a moto risk management approach. If I had to put it on paper, it might look something like what’s depicted in Diagram 1. It’s not meant to be definitive, but it does serve to illustrate that managing risk is not a one-time endeavour; it’s a mindset and a process.

I still use it today. It helps me reduce, prevent and avoid the inherent risks of motorcycling. It reminds me that my safety is up to me and steers me toward learning the strategies and skills I need to continuously improve my riding. See Diagram 2.

I also have a post-ride ritual. In a notebook, I capture my thoughts about any incidents that have occurred during my ride about which I feel I can learn. I debrief both positive and negative incidents – reinforcing my positive riding habits and skills and providing an opportunity to develop a course of action to improve any areas that need work. It does several other things, too. It gets me asking questions about how I might have handled the situation better. For example, “How might I have avoided the incident altogether?”

It helps me identify patterns in my riding. For example, after several uncomfortable incidents, I noticed they all occurred while I was in a rush. I learned immediately that if I took it easy, I would avoid these types of potentially risky incidents. It also creates a great reference to go back to, especially at the start of a new season.

Observe and Act

If I do my job as a moto risk manager well, I see only a few scenarios: nothing happens, and my strategies keep me out of trouble; something happens, and because I am aware of the hazard, I have the skills and knowledge to deal with it; something happens, and its impact is reduced because I checked my speed or I was wearing ATGATT, etc. What I never want to see happen is a crash, caused by totally foreseeable events, that happens because I didn’t do what was necessary to stay safe.

Now you know why I became a little particular about managing risk. I wanted to ride again. Developing a risk management approach was key to getting me back on the horse. It gave me back the feeling of control I needed and suggested a mindset that would guide the strategies, decisions and actions I needed to take before, during and after my ride to keep me safe.

Today, I love throwing my leg over my moto-steed and riding hundreds of kilometres, often for days or weeks on end. I’m now having more fun on my motorcycle than I’ve ever had before. That’s what a little purposeful thinking about risk management did for me.

Ride safe. I hope to see you on the road sometime. Look for the rider in the hi-viz yellow jacket.


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