As an advice columnist, I originally started using the term “oopsie” to soften the blow of a newer rider making a mistake. An oopsie, or near oopsie, results in wounded pride, perhaps a small physical injury, and even a ding on the motorcycle. Taking the sting out of an “unforced error” is all about a bit of hanky action if tears accumulate, acknowledging that you are not the only person who ever did this, reviewing what happened, and determining how to never do it again.
As a rider with 30+ years on the road I can attest to the fact that oopsies are not the sole domain of the newer rider. Alas, even an experienced rider can have an oopsie moment, which leads me to classify oopsies on four levels:
- a new rider is overwhelmed by all the things they have to remember
- a newer rider, or a rider on a “new to them” motorcycle, is polishing skills
- a rider is preoccupied
- a rider is in a situation for the first time that they typically don’t have to deal with
Oopsies happen but I’ve yet to encounter a personal oopsie or read someone else’s oopsie tale, which was not a direct result of an overwhelmed, unengaged or under-engaged brain. The brain is the microprocessor of our experience, coordinating our thoughts, our senses, and our muscle responses to produce the desired result.
Well, you might say, that’s all good and fine, but some mistakes are easy to identify and correct while others aren’t quite so transparent. How are we to learn from a series of moments in which we have no real tangible idea of how something happened? The answer is that there are more clues available than you might first realize.
Let’s take a look at a number of real life tales of oopsie woes and the learning process.
The Overwhelmed Brain
“My very first oopsie happened the day I passed my MSF class,” said Michelle Schroeder of Coon Rapids, MN. “I decided that since I had passed, I should go home and try out my bike, which had been waiting in my garage for me. Not such a bright idea! I went from a 250cc bike, which was very lightweight, to my 650cc bike, which was significantly heavier. I did okay to start with, and we just went a block over to a parking lot. When I was almost at a stop, I managed to kill the bike, and promptly tip it over on its side. Luckily it had engine guards on it, so it didn't go all the way down.”
In taking stock of the situation, Michelle realized that she was already tired and stressed from the class that day. While fatigue might not result in a rider falling asleep at the wheel, the brain’s “executive function” is greatly impacted when we need to regulate attention. It has also been shown that just making a basic decision or selection can overwhelm an already fatigued brain. In this case, the simple sequence of applying brakes, pulling in the clutch, and properly placing feet for a stop were no longer able to be coordinated. Even in parking lot practice it is advisable to stop every 15 minutes to rest and hydrate.
“My biggest oopsie to date was learning the importance of where you look is where you go,” noted Amy from Thompson, CT. “It was on my practice route I was taking when I first started learning and hubby was along for the ride. We came to a stop and the plan was to take a left turn. As soon as it was clear to go, instead of looking left, I just kept looking straight ahead at the trees. I pulled in the brake/clutch but hit sand on the side of the road and never knew I fell until I was crawling over to shut the bike off.”
Amy fell prey to target fixation. She knew where she wanted to go but couldn’t peel her eyes away from what she wished to avoid. Amy continued on her ride that day but for many the mistake could have resulted in a drop in confidence. In this case I would council to head to an empty parking lot, set up cones, and mimic an intersection so that head and eye position leading to a proper turn is practiced more.
Here are two more examples where more practice in an area with no outside distractions would be of value:
“5 years ago, when I was first learning, I was following my husband around the side streets in our neighborhood,” said Darcy D. of Kansas City, MO. “I was so proud of myself for passing the MSF just two days before and earning my license. I had stopped at a stop sign and DH had gone on through the left turn. I had turned my wheel and tried to take off. Of course with the wheel turned, down went the bike. The amazing thing was the bike was down and I was still standing!”
“I think my scariest oopsie was when I was making a left turn and almost didn't make the turn,” added Michelle Leman from Douglas, WY. “We had taken the MSF course and I had my license for about a month. I went for a ride and came to a stop sign and had to turn left. So I waited for traffic to clear to give myself plenty of time to turn and started in. Instead of pushing the handlebars, I was trying to muscle it through the turn.”
Both Darcy and Michelle were still struggling with the exact mechanics of executing a smooth turn from a stop. With traffic distractions and the possibility of another vehicle crowding from behind, it can leave one with the sense that there isn’t enough time to review the coordination of looking, clutch friction zone with throttle, and the lean.
Michelle continued, “It made me nervous after that and I went to the school parking lot to practice my turns. If I make a mistake and am in town, I try to go practice that skill right away so I don't worry over it or get scared to attempt that maneuver again. If I am out on the road, I make a mental note to work on it the next time I go out. That has been very good for me to overcome the jitters and is a good confidence builder, knowing that I made a mistake but practiced and honed that skill.”
Here is another example of the overwhelmed brain:
“After about a month practicing in parking lots with an untried endorsement, my husband told me I was ready for the road,” said Lindsay from North Central, AZ. “My inner voice told me it wasn't too sure I should go and of course that self-fulfilling prophecy kicked in. I tried a left turn from my 25mph side road onto a 65mph highway (the only way to town off the rural road on which I live), followed my eyes across the lanes onto the shoulder, finally muscled my way south, and by a miracle stayed upright and headed down the road in the correct direction.”
We can see that Lindsay was also struggling with a smooth, coordinated turn, but she notes that her true oopsie was not listening to her inner voice … her gut instinct. Lindsay felt pushed into something she wasn't ready for and the net result was that it spooked her for a while. She had not heard the saying "Ride your own ride" until seeing it mentioned online. “Now I do ride my own ride and will be sure to do so every time.”
If there is any one universal lesson in these examples it would be that a new rider should never fall under the spell of an artificial timeline of learning. Each skill must be practiced until it is second nature and for one person that could mean an hour and for another it might take 10 hours. The road will be there for you when you are ready, and if in the first road practice sessions it is clear that more parking lot practice is needed, than by all means, do so. Confidence is built in layers and the timeline is unique to each rider.
The Under Polished Brain
“When riding slippery downhill twisty roads in the rain, don’t frantically use the brake like it is going out of fashion, because this will make the bike slide” noted Sue Fry from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
Although well versed in normal braking situations, Sue’s skill set wasn’t up to speed for a weather change. As rain is a normal weather pattern in most parts of the world (with specific exceptions), a newer rider is served well by purposefully going on rain rides in a distraction free area to test out how the motorcycle handles. The chances are that at some point in your adventure in riding, you’ll encounter rain and should be ready to handle it. While the basics are about slowing down, keeping a greater distance from other vehicles, and being much more gentle with brakes, nothing can be learned unless you venture out.
“I've had quite a few oopsies and most of them had one thing in common: I didn't take the time to evaluate a specific situation, but felt rushed and just did something without thinking it through,” said Susanne Koch of Glendale, AZ. “One example was when I went into a parking lot after my hubby. He picked out a space and pulled his bike in perfectly. It was too tight for me to park next to him, but I decided to try it anyway instead of looking for a better parking space. Big mistake, I almost dropped it trying to get into the spot. Another one happened when hubby suddenly made an unexpected right turn into a side street. I saw him slow down too late, but instead of just going on and making a u-turn somewhere down the street and coming back, I made the turn anyway - of course I was too fast and went into the other lane. Those are just two examples, but I could go on. I really had to learn to ride my own ride, to not feel rushed by other people, and to slow down and think about maneuvers before I actually did them.”
The “why not just try it” school of learning can be a harsh one. Susanne found out that there are often safer alternatives that may take a bit more time, but will get the job just as well. When the basic skill set is truly polished, then the quick stop or tight spot park is more doable, and yet, any experienced rider will tell you that sometimes the “B” option is simply the smartest one. The point is to ride and arrive safely!
“My scariest oopsie was when I was behind a slow driver, and when the driver turned, I sped up to the speed limit and was busy thinking and on a new more powerful bike,” said Tricia J. from Kelseyville, CA. “The oopsie came when I saw a green light (too far up ahead) and sped up, forgetting I was already at the limit because I was still in the ‘behind the slow driver’ thinking mode. I hit about 70mph when the light changed to yellow and me, thinking I was going slower, didn't think I had enough time to make it so I braked hard. Fortunately what I was thinking about was posture and handlebar control.”
Tricia ending up skidding 100 to150 feet with some minor weaving, but didn’t release the brake until she had slowed down to about 30mph and then feathered the brakes lightly. She was in second gear when she went through the intersection. What she learned was that she wasn’t paying strict attention to her speed; otherwise she would have realized how easily she would have made the light. While Tricia notes that she was preoccupied with the slow driver, I’m reading a bit more into this example … perhaps she wasn’t as in tune with the feeling of speed on her new motorcycle as she needed to be.
This is the time I want to chime in and reiterate that any time a rider is on a “new to them” motorcycle, the learning curve literally begins over again. The nuances of each motorcycle vary at the clutch, brakes, weight, balance, turning radius, curve lean, and control placement. Practice each combination of skills as if you are just starting out again. I remember borrowing a friend’s BMW K75 for a trip (I was riding an old ’76 Harley Superglide) and spending 1,000 miles on my own to make sure I understood everything before tackling the trip. Thank goodness because I found out there was a big difference in down shifting from third to second and could have easily been tossed over the K75’s handlebar if I had needed a quick downshift stop!
In this next example, the rider is aware of the road condition and finds trouble despite that knowledge:
“We all went for a nice ride on the weekend earlier this year,” said Tracy McCrory from Plainville, CT. “It was my husband, his friend, me, and my friends. We were going on one of the nice routes by the lake, and there is still sand on some of the roads because it is still officially winter, so roads have not been swept yet. The road has some nice curves on it. I'm following with a nice distance from the rider ahead and my friends have nice distance in back of me. In this one curve, I see tons of sand on the side of the road. I'm leaning and steering to the left to avoid it … nope … I'm actually heading for it. Now my handlebar is shaking uncontrollably, I can feel my back tire losing control. All I can think of now is that I am going down and crashing. I let off of the throttle and by some miracle, the bike straightened out and I was out of the sand.”
Upon review, Tracy realized she had unwillingly fixated on the dreaded sand, so while she was leaning the bike and her body, her head and eyes where staring straight at the obstacle. Tracy also noted that she was trying to keep up with the rest of the group, which compounded the problem.
Target fixation from a stop can normally be worked out in practice sessions in an empty parking lot. Fixation at a higher speed is a different animal and typically involves a curve. The only solution that I know of is to do some solo rides on curvy roads with the intent of perfecting your lane position and full look through the curve. When riders allow themselves to take a quick sneak peek back at the mid point of a curve, the split second shift in focus is enough to throw the rider’s lean off balance. You can’t erase fixation if on a regular run you are doing “lazy” looks through the curve.
The Preoccupied Brain
“My oopsie happened almost two years into my riding life,” said Christine Z. from Reno, NV. “I was so very proud that I drove to work on the highway. When I got back home, my hubby went to take a picture. He had a problem with the camera and I went to go help him. The oopsie was that I forgot to put my kickstand down. As I got off the bike to help him I felt the bike tilt over and was wondering why. Then as I hit the pavement I said, ‘kickstand!!’”
If ever there was a classic example of the preoccupied brain, the forgotten kickstand is it, and happens to more riders than you might imagine. Christine noted that she was already feeling very unstable when sitting on her bike … a feeling like she was going to tip over. Clearly it is important to stop and think but another interesting lesson from this experience is that Christine’s saddlebags cushioned the bike’s fall. She made a note to herself to get an engine guard as soon as possible.
Here’s another kickstand story with a different twist:
“After a night of being up too late and drinking a bit too much wine at a bike rally, I headed home with a big group the next day,” said Rose D. from Long Island, NY. “It was 95 degrees and very humid. I was tired and definitely not at my best. When we stopped for gas and a bite to eat, I was so happy to be getting off the bike that I forgot to put my kickstand down! What a freaky feeling ... the bike going past the point of no return and me following it! So embarrassing too! But I learned a big lesson there too: Get enough sleep and hydrate before a big ride!”
Rose has shared a very important point about alcohol and the ability of the brain to function at its highest capacity, which one study after another has shown. Just so you don’t feel the need to test the theory out, I’ll share that even on a short ride, with a long stop and one beer, there’s a fuzzy feeling when you get back on the bike, and the brain-to-muscle coordination slows down. The truly scary part is that as you are realizing this, it dawns on you that you are in traffic with other drivers, and your ability to gauge their actions is woefully underpowered.
Most of us get it that drivers, even at their best, are unreliable, and here is a case-in-point from Alice M. from Dearborn, MI:
“My biggest oopsie happened as I was riding down the highway through a small town. There were two lanes on each side and not much traffic. This fellow way up ahead of me in a truck had his turn signal on and appeared to be making a left turn. I slowed down just a little as I figured he was going to be well out of my way by the time I got to where he was. What I didn't count on was that he was just going to sit there with his turn signal on and not actually turn. I was going to move into the right lane and pass him, but when I checked over my shoulder, lo and behold, there was a car roaring by.”
Alice stopped just inches from the truck’s bumper and credits her BMW’s antilock brake system for making the difference in a stop that didn’t result in a slide, but added, “How many mistakes can a girl make all at once?” If we count them, there were three: 1) she failed to pay enough attention to what was going on around her; 2). she assumed that the truck driver was going to do what seemed obvious and didn't even plan for him doing anything else; and 3) she somehow completely missed seeing another vehicle near to her, even in the mirrors. “About the only thing I did right was check over my shoulder before attempting to change lanes.”
So, Alice’s brain was preoccupied with what she was sure was going to be a sequence of events and therefore had disengaged her brain from judging things in real time.
“I treat all cars and trucks like my enemy,” noted Zlata Medica from Willowick, OH. “Just when you think that you have a good read on the road, think again. Last fall, I nearly had what could have been a fatal accident, definitely more than an oopsie. It happened 6 houses up my street. A SUV had passed my house. I turned into the road behind her and held an appropriate distance of two or more car lengths. It’s a residential street with cars parked to the right of me. The SUV appeared to have pulled off, as if she was going to park in the street. So, I did what I would do even in a car. I shifted a little left of the road to give her room in case she quickly opened her car door. Instead of opening her car door, she decided, ‘Nahhh, I’m going to park in my driveway,’ and she swung left in front of me.”
Zlata’s world changed in a split second and all she could do was hope that the skills she had built up over time would pull her through safely. She down shifted, applied both brakes for a quick stop but the rear tire still went into a side skid. In that slow motion of a fast moment Zlata remembered it was preferable to go down on the low side rather than releasing the brake, which might result in throwing her completely over the bike, on what is called the high side, thus throwing her body into the vehicle. In the end she didn’t release the brake but fought to keep the handlebar straight and swung her hips in the opposite direction of the back end slide.
“I got to the corner and came to a full complete stop,” continued Zlata. “I calmly looked over at my riding partner, Coz, whose face was ashen grey, and I said, ‘I think I just tinkled.’”
Riding a motorcycle is most often described as being a sport in which one has to be on the defense all the time. This requires proactive brain engagement, meaning that you are actively preparing for any conceivable outcome of any situation around you. For the newer rider this can be very overwhelming but we also see that an experienced rider can be caught up in a decision that doesn’t follow script.
Zlata added that being able to calm down after a near oopsie is also a skill, one that is rarely discussed or taught. “You have to bring that adrenalin into check quickly, so that you can bring your bike back home safely.”
Let’s now read about a near oopsie that resulted from a combination of stressors that another experienced rider faced:
“Four of us headed out on a long planned trip to Americade,” said Michele C. from New Hampshire. “I had stated at the beginning of the ride that I didn't mind leading part of the way, but wanted to switch off. I find it much more tiring being in the lead. No one wanted to switch along the way. After a very long day, we were heading back to our lodging, which was about 20 miles outside the event area. I finally forcefully said that I could not lead anymore, that I was just too tired and not sure of the turns we had to take to get back. It was also after dark in a strange area, and I was stressing about going up the driveway of where we were staying, which was a challenge, putting it mildly. So off we went, with someone else in the lead. But as we were approaching a big Y intersection, the light turned red. I was spacing it, and didn't realize the situation until it was almost too late.”
Michele ended up in the middle of the Y intersection with a slight sideway skid, but was still clear of traffic from the right. Michele’s three lessons were: 1) stick to what is comfortable for you; 2) make a definite plan everyone agrees on at the beginning of the trip; and 3) don't ride when you are exhausted. I think it is clear that keeping the brain focused on the immediate task at hand is more difficult when other circumstances are still processing and robbing the brain of its full “executive function.”
“My most memorable oopsie is also a lesson in communication,” noted Rose D. “My DH and I rode to my sister's house when I was a beginning rider. I had about a thousand miles under my belt at the time but I was still pretty green. My sister's driveway is gravel, so I was a bit nervous about visiting there to begin with. But DH said I'd be fine. We finished our visit and were about to leave. I said, ‘Ride out ahead of me and if no one is coming, just keep going so I can leave the driveway without stopping. Only stop if a car is coming.’ Her driveway comes out onto the street kind of blind. And on top of the gravel, my sister's driveway banks to the right at the very end of it.”
“Anyway, DH head out and I am right behind him, head up, eyes forward, handlebars straight, determined to get out unscathed. We're at the end of the driveway and I start leaning and pressing my handlebars to make the turn onto the street, when DH stops in the middle of the road. Assuming that means a car is coming, I brake - of course the front wheel is turned and I'm grabbing the front brake and you know what that means! Down I went. Not just down, but pretty much upside down! Because of the bank of the driveway, I'm rolling around in the dirt and the bike was shiny side down!”
Rose joked that what she learned was to never visit her sister on the bike again! Of course she was just kidding, but as was revealed earlier, we are reminded that riding our own ride is very important. Rose is now determined to find her own way out of a less-than-optimal riding or parking situation.
As we have read, the preoccupied brain manifests itself in any number of ways and the results range from a simple oopsie to one that is more complex and potentially dangerous. In reading through these examples it occured to me that often times I enjoy a solo ride “to clear my head” about something going on in my life. I think a review of the risk factors would be very prudent at this juncture. How truly engaged is my brain on the ride itself versus the “x” I’m trying to puzzle out?
The Untrained Brain
There are any number of serious situations that constitute a problem for the untrained brain, including other vehicles crossing the center line or making a turn in front of a rider. Since this article is about self inflicted “oopsies,” let me simply note that advanced rider training can be helpful in polishing both mental and physical skills so that the best course of action can be taken despite the truly dangerous situation. We’ll concentrate on a few incidents where the rider’s judgement almost resulted in an oopsie.
“I had just gotten to feel somewhat comfortable on my bike and riding scenic two lane roads on weekends had become a real pleasure,” said 5thwheel from Ontario, Canada. “Then I turned off onto a side road too quickly. It was still early in the season and the roads had sand from winter on many corners.”
While oopsies may be educational, they can also be truly scary, and the school of hard knocks should be avoided whenever possible. 5thwheel’s motorcycle started sliding out from under her and while she managed to straighten out, that left her heading for a ditch. She was lucky in that the ditch was fairly flat and she ended up back on the road, although with a pounding heart and shaking hands.
Road conditions are a definite challenge for the untrained brain as we are simply not looking for something we don’t even know is likely to be there. Yikes! Sand, wet leaves, falling pebbles/rocks, snakes sunning themselves, a slow moving turtle, a road kill zone … let’s look at a few more tales of woe that involved road realities.
”Oil slicks,” muttered Zlata Medica. “Be very aware that the crest or center of a lane contains oil drips from cars traveling on it day in and day out. I knew that when it rains, this area of road is very slick and I had to watch for it. What I didn't know is that on a bright sunny day, even the furthest area left of the center of the road can be slick. You won't see it. I was coming up to a stop sign a little hot. I applied both my brakes and my bike was not stopping. It takes a split second for the brain to register what is happening. I was sliding in a forward motion. And if I kept going in the direction I was, I would have hit the SUV stopped in front of me.”
Clearly Zlata and SUVs shouldn’t be near one another (!), but I digress. When Zlata looked down she saw the very subtle sparkles of the oil slick on the road. I’ll simply note that this is also a huge danger when pulling into a gas station.
“I'd only been riding about three months and still learning things the hard way,” said Blacktop of Woodway, TX. “I was following another bike through a road construction zone in first gear. There were milled surfaces and new curbs. My nerves where already frayed when the lead rider decided to make a pit stop. Hard quick right turn over a bump up then down a sharp grade drive. The timing was great for the first bike, but then a car at the bottom of the grade decided to back out into my path of travel, which due to the parking lot curbs left me no room to avoid impact. I was in the midst of a slow turn when the auto started backing. I knew I didn't have time to straighten my bike and brake, so I thought I had enough room on the crest to use my clutch as an engine break. This all was working well until my front wheel decided to roll over the crest.”
Blacktop felt that a better choice would have been to hit the kill switch instead of ending up on the pavement. While I can see this newer rider being overwhelmed, I decided to classify it in the untrained brain section because she shouldn’t have been in this situation to begin with. The better decision would have been to talk out the type of ride coming up and whether she was ready for it. Of course the construction area may not have been known about in advance, but a lead rider making a quick move on a dicey road, knowing that a new rider was in the pack, was not the smartest move. We’re back to the idea of “riding your own ride” and that includes knowing what a group ride might entail.
Here is another example of a group ride that ran into trouble:
“We were on a scenic road that turned into a road of gravel made of the bigger rocks, not the small stuff,” said Michele S. from Moline, IL. “There was no escaping this and we thought it would be a short ride then it would turn back into a ‘normal’ road. The further we went, the more I hated it. We were moving relatively slow and so I started to cut the curves a little, trying to not have to turn the wheel so hard on a regular turn. Little did I know at the time, but all of this rock had been pushed into the inside of the curve, making it deeper and softer. I swear those rocks came right up and grabbed my front tire and stopped me. I did a slow, Artie Johnson-type fall from my bike, as the bike basically tipped onto my highway bar. The rock made it a little difficult to lift the bike as it was difficult to get good grounding for the feet.”
What would the better course of action have been? Many times a rider will tough out a situation in hopes that it will soon end. Take for instance the time I rode in a torrential downpour for five hours from a women’s rally because I was determined to get home that evening. Overwhelmed (gritted teeth), under polished (ignoring common sense), preoccupied (with getting home), and untrained (proper gear in driving rain) … a potential recipe for disaster. Apparently I lived to tell the tale and definitely learned a lot of lessons, but the better choice would have been to pull off and get a room!
With the brain as the microprocessor of our experience, we have learned how easily it can be pushed to the limits and how important the mental aspect of motorcycle riding is to our overall confidence and safety. Yes, oopsies will happen, but if we stop and think things through, we can identify the clues that led to the oopsie, and will emerge a better rider. With the plethora of resources available in books, DVDs, and on the Internet, there is a good chance that your particular oopsie has been discussed and analyzed from a wide range of viewpoints. You are not alone!
Visit Petra’s advice column at VTwin Mama, which includes a large letter archive, loads of resources, as well as a respectful and helpful message board where sharing and caring is emphasized.