Wake Up Call: The First and Last Time I Rode Over My Head Print
Written by Jessica Prokup   

the gsx-r600 fit me like a gloveIt happened in less than a second, but I remember clearly two full sentences going through my head. First, “Holy shit, I’m really far over.” Then, “Holy shit, there’s the ground!” 

Before I could react in panic, before I could do anything at all, the sportbike crashed to its side and spat me off. I bounced off the road and landed on my feet, watching the bike slide away. I stood there in disbelief for a few moments, willing myself the power to take it all back. It happened so fast, did it really happen? Was that bike really lying on the ground? Reality came in the form of a bleeding gash in my knee. 


This was my first big crash after years as a conservative, responsible rider. I’d put thousands of miles on all kinds of bikes, and now I’d just wiped out in a corner like a bona fide squid. This may be a good time to mention that it was a manufacturer’s press bike and, even better, it was supposed to be used in a photo shoot the next day. By the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Where I work as a communications staffer and a RiderCoach. Suffice it to say, as I stood there looking at the GSX-R I’d just tossed to the ground, I felt, oh, like a complete idiot. 

What had turned me, a normally mild-mannered rider, into a statistic? Let’s wind back the clock to when this crash first began to form, all the way to the start of that chain of events.


My First Touchdown

i never could get comfortable on the sv - hence the awkward body positionAbout a month earlier, I’d done a couple of track days at Buttonwillow Raceway, a fun, twisty little track near Bakersfield, California. On the first day, I rode my SV650S (pictured)and did okay. On the second day, I switched to a GSX-R600 and really hit my groove. I always loved my SV, but I’d never had a bike fit me as perfectly as the GSX-R. I hit corner after corner with my body wrapped around its curves, shifting my weight easily from side to side. Everything I’d been striving for – smoothness, control, finesse – was falling into place. It was like finally growing up. 

Then, coming around a long left-hand sweeper, I did something I’d been dying to do. I scraped my knee on the ground. I don’t know if this is how everyone experiences it, but this is how it was for me: a moment of panic, because it’s loud and raspy and sounds like something’s wrong; then complete exhilaration. I was riding better than I ever had in my life, and I’d just joined the ranks of track riders who touch down their knees. Never mind that I was still pretty slow. 

After that, I spent every lap trying to touch either knee to the ground, and in a lot of turns I was successful. It wasn’t just my knee puck scraping pavement that made me feel good – it was the way my whole body was poised to grip and steer the bike through its lines. The rest of that day, I rode with sheer joy.


Bring on the Corners

that light stripe near the rim is whats called a chicken stripThanks to that track day, I started thinking about buying a GSX-R. So I borrowed a 600 from Suzuki and rode it every day for a month or so. Everything felt easy and effortless, and I was brimming with confidence. The more I rode, the more determined I became to push the envelope. I even remember pointing out excitedly to a friend that I’d gotten rid of the chicken strips on the tires (demeaning term for the stripes of unused rubber at the edges; the farther you lean the bike, the smaller the stripes get). 

My only complaint about the GSX-R600 was that you have to keep it revved pretty high, which gets hectic when you’re riding around town. It gets buzzy in the footpegs too, so much so that my foot fell asleep after hours of riding in the canyons. I thought I’d test out a bike with a bigger motor, thinking I could use more torque and less vibration. So I went back to Suzuki and traded the 600 for a GSX-R750. 

Things were getting serious.


Must Have Hit Idiot Mode

The GSX-Rs all have a mode selector switch (A, B or C mode) that lets you dial back the power when needed. I didn’t feel a ton of difference between A and B, but I didn’t like C at all. It felt like the bike was pulling against a giant rubber band, as if it wanted to go faster but couldn’t. I think it’s a good mode for rain. 

So I mostly rode around in B mode, figuring it was a kind of safety valve. But I didn’t dial back my own riding. I kept testing my limits, pushing myself to lean farther and faster, even in the most reckless of places. I’d started treating every corner like I was on a racetrack – including intersections. Intersections! Where multiple lanes of traffic come together in a choreography that works only most of the time. Thrilled with my newfound skills, overconfident, cocky, I was letting my ego make all the decisions while my brain was out to lunch. 

Finally, it happened. I was headed to my office one Sunday afternoon, and I took the same freeway exit that I take every day. The ramp ends at a T and then I go left. Ordinarily, there’s a line of cars waiting at the light, so I usually slow gradually as I exit. But that day, there was no one ahead of me on the ramp, and the stoplight was green. I came flying into the intersection and shoved the handlebars aggressively into the left-hander, and that’s when those two sentences flashed through my head. In one instant, I was amazed at how far I’d leaned the bike over, and the next instant I realized there was no saving it. It was as though I’d pushed it straight to the ground. 

Fortunately, I bounced up immediately; unfortunately, I bounced off my knee and ripped through my jeans, scraping off a thick chunk of skin. All in all, I was lucky not to have suffered much damage. The bike didn’t fare as well. The left-side fairing was mauled and a few other parts had scratches. Mostly, though, it was easily fixable stuff. (Says the girl who crashed a bike that didn’t belong to her.) 

The worst of the damage, to be honest, was the loss of my confidence.


What I Learned

jess articleIt wasn’t that I had a problem getting back on the bike. I called a co-worker and he came out and helped me pick it up, then followed me back to the office. Even right after the crash I wasn’t afraid of traffic, or the throttle, or the brakes…but I was afraid to lean. 

For a long time afterwards, I couldn’t shake the memory of how it felt to fall over. Whenever I started getting close to the ground in a corner, my heart pounded with terror. The skills I’d worked hard to achieve disappeared, along with my faith in tires. I stopped riding in the canyons, and I didn’t do another track day for nearly a year. I’d taken a lot of the joy out of my riding. 

I know there are people who crash more frequently, like racers for instance, who get right back on the bike and ride just as hard. In retrospect, I guess what freaked me out the most was that the crash was completely my fault, and I had to recalibrate myself so it wouldn’t happen again. I never knew exactly what happened that day. I think I came into the corner too fast, pushed the bars too aggressively, opened the throttle too quickly and then lost the rear tire. In other words, I found the limits of my capabilities and suddenly, violently exceeded them. 

Without a doubt, I needed a wake-up call. And I was lucky that the crash happened under fairly harmless circumstances. Imagine if I’d pulled that move in a four-way intersection with cross-traffic, or with someone right behind me. All the skill in the world won’t save you if your judgment is shot. On the flipside, falling off a motorcycle doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world, as long as you learn a lesson from it. 

Now I’m left with a scar on my knee and the distinct memory of those nanoseconds when I realized I’d lost control. If I was smarter, I would have realized I’d lost control a long time ago.


Track photos by Vanhap Photography