Monday, February 18, 2008

Freeze frame.

It's mind boggling how fast trouble can find you. Even though riding is a relaxing pursuit, a rider can never relax their vigilance. The enemy never sleeps. Our radar needs to be continuously scanning for bogies. Skills can never be allowed to become rusty. Will our weapons be ready at a moment's notice? They'd better be.

Here's an example from early Saturday morning. There's no photo. If there were, it would be a freeze frame from a movie playing in my mind. A freeze frame of a very tense moment. You'll have to visualize it through my words

The background scene. Oh Dark Thirty Saturday morning. Later in the morning another eager group of riding students will begin their two wheeled adventure. A new instructor is also in the beginning steps of his journey. For better or worse he'll be under my mentorship for the weekend. Before the students arrive there's a range to be cleaned and coned off, bikes to be started and put in place, as well as other details to be attended to. The site is a 35 minute ride North for me. A very early start is called for.

There's ice on the rigs parked outside. Fog shrouds a lot of the neighborhood. It was cold and clear during the night. Residual moisture abounds. My street seems ok for traction. Sophie responds eagerly to the touch on the starter button. As we glide along the quiet roads it looks like ice won't be a problem for us. That wouldn't prove to be true for all road users this morning.

Due to the early hour, the darkness, and the cold, we're headed for the Interstate. The ride home will be under warmer skies. There's this awesome route that runs South out of Salem, into a little burg called Turner, then out Parish Gap Road. Roller coasters have less fun than a motorcyclist on this road. This treat was still hours away, though.

Freezing fog is a strange thing. You never know when and where it will appear. There's no formula for where it will freeze to the road. I'm keeping a keen eye on the road surface. Oftentimes traffic will keep the freeway clean. Not so this morning. Too few vehicles have passed this early. Watching the roadway is hampered by the darkness and the fog itself. It's ironic that the thing posing the hazard also cloaks itself. This kind of situation is nothing new to me. Sophie and I are veterans at negotiating less than ideal weather conditions. Are we too bold?

Remember the piece of freeway I once described as the Canyon of Doom? It's still there. One of these years the construction project will be finished. Southbound is pretty nice but concrete barriers still squeeze us into two narrow lanes as we head North. Just after this stretch the highway opens up into three lanes. Mission Street carries a lot of traffic and crosses over the freeway. Eastbound it starts travellers on the road to Central Oregon. I'm in the right lane until I see a car coming down the ramp. I've spotted it early. Years of riding have made it second nature for me to always glance up towards the top of these ramps. The earlier I can get information the better. Today it would prove to be the difference between disaster and escape.

At the top of the ramp is a small, dark colored car. It has a front end that sharply angles down to an edge. Pop-up type headlights are lighting its path. Smoked windows prevent me from ever getting a look at this driver. As the small car rounds the decreasing radius curve, it's picking up speed very quickly. For whatever reason, this driver's in a big hurry. Sophie and I are travelling at about 65 mph. The freeway's a little better illuminated in this stretch. We've passed the areas that are usually the trouble spots in freezing weather. Only a few miles remain until our exit.

As we pass under the overpass I'm moving left to allow room for the driver to merge. By now the car's actually a little ahead of us. There's a place where the two big painted lines will join and it will be clear for the car to merge onto the freeway. At least that's the way it's supposed to work. The driver decides to merge early. What looks like painted lines are actually wide bands of plastic stuck to the road. The Department of Transportation has taken to using decals instead of paint. I see what looks like dust clouds rise into the air. Ice and debris rob traction. At the same time the back end of the car starts to twitch. The twitch gets worse. I observe the front wheels moving quickly back and forth. The driver's timing isn't good. Instead of helping, the inputs make the car fishtail more severely. It's time to move farther left into the third lane over.

Freeze frame. A heart-stopping moment in time. The car is sideways across the freeway. Headlights are burning a pathway directly towards the right side of Sophie. I'm praying that the car tires don't pick this instant in time to hook up. I'm praying that's there enough traction for me to grab a big handful of throttle and get out of the way. Both prayers are answered. Sophie leaps forward without incident. The car continues its rotation. Ice on this stretch keeps it sliding as it turns. The nose has crossed into the lane where I had just been. As I look in the mirror I see the car sitting on the freeway facing the wrong direction. I slow and pull to the left shoulder, ready to flee if needed. Ready to get involved if there's a bigger accident.

Headlights are coming up out of the darkness. Two other vehicles manage to avoid hitting the wrong way car. Thank goodness traffic's so light. I can imagine the panic they must have felt. It's not something you'd normally have in your mental picture of an early morning trip. Once the two other vehicles pass there's a large gap. The driver of the spun out car gets the car turned around and onto the right shoulder. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Disaster was averted. Only the fact that the freeway had just widened into three lanes saved the other drivers. If this had happened at an earler point there just wouldn't have been enough room.

This is a powerful example of how any seemingly normal situation can suddenly become ugly. I admit that my heart rate went up a little. It was literally one of the last things I would have expected to face on a ride to work. Fortunately Sophie and I met the challenge. Let me end the story with our definition of an expert rider.

An expert rider is one who uses expert judgement to avoid using expert skills.

Stay sharp!

Miles and smiles,



Charlie6 said...

wow, great report on the rewards of keeping alert to unforeseen dangers! Glad you and Sophie came out of it unscathed. You've some great riding skills and just the right complement of luck. : )

Freezing fog, scary stuff, I tend to wait for sunshine on days like that...

ps: thanks for adding a link to my blog.

Redleg's Rides

Krysta in Milwaukee said...

Yikes! That was scary (for both of you, I'm sure). Glad it worked out OK. Maybe I don't want to ask this, but were you carrying an extra pair of skivvies? And I completely understand not being able to pull out the camera. ::grin::

I've been in that wrong-facing car, also in the freeway median, but fortunately also in very light traffic. I think I was 17... learned a lot about safe driving since then.

And Karl was almost killed by hitting black ice from frozen fog. Actually, the ice just spun him 'round & slid him off the road; it was the tree coming sideways through his legs (& the car, of course) that did the damage. The tow-truck driver got there first & told the ambulance not to hurry, it's just a body recovery... until Karl waved an arm out the sunroof.

Semper vigilans et semper paratus.

Being watchful & prepared goes a long way toward keeping our skins (& machines) intact.

Bryce said...

All very normal for here...the first snowstorm of each winter means people still drive according to summer conditions. Mind some never learn summer or winter.

Riding/driving any vehicle in those conditions is hazardous, you did very well given all. Nobody here would even contemplate operating a two wheeled device on such roads, our climate is different.

Trust the balance of the weekend went well; how was the range for ice and snow? The new instructor,
how'd that go?

SheRidesABeemer said...

Wow, what a reminder, especially for those of us who are hitting the roads after weeks off. It's so hard to get your head around something that bizarre happening right in front of you. Thumbs up for the report and being alert.

Hrishi said...

WOW. that was quite a close shave if i understand it correct.

The learning never stops for a biker...

irondad said...

That's an interesting way to phrase it. I've sometimes said I would rather be lucky than good. However,that implies leaving things to chance. Maybe luck is like Krysta's comment below. Being prepared helps us take advantage of breaks that come our way.

As to the link, you're welcome. This blog is mostly about riding to work. Since you seem to ride to work on a regular basis I included you.

Didn't need the extra pair,thankfully. Your question reminds me of part of a Bill Cosby routine. He tells about his mother always urging him to have clean underwear in case he got into an accident. Bill tells of an imaginary scenario where the hospital calls his mother to tell her Bill has been in an accident.

She asks if he had clean underwear.

"Yes, Mrs. Cosby, we found them in the glove compartment."

His statement in an accident is that first you say it, then you do it!

Sounds like what you and Karl experienced fell into that category.

I do ride in questionable conditions but it's the result of calculated preparation.

No ice on the range. The fog did persist for a few hours, though. Made it hard to see the new riders so I could dodge them, you know.

The new instructor, with a little more experience, will be a credit to our program.

Funny how it goes. Having a lay-off from riding can make us rusty. Riding all the time without incident can lull a rider into complacency. That can almost be worse. A rider coming back from a down time at least knows they're rusty. We just have to keep reminding ourselves how quickly trouble can find us and prepare accordingly.

Thank you for the honor of a visit from a fellow rider in India!

Your simple statement speaks volumes.

Take care,


Krysta in Milwaukee said...

Thought of this post while I was watching the news Thurs. night.
They were showing the aftereffects of the storm that hit the east coast, people digging out, etc., with one video of a car spinning around on the freeway, thankfully not hitting other cars. Idiot was (obviously) going way too fast, and had brakes on the whole way 'round.

My wrong-way-car experience wasn't traumatic, though I was a bit shaken. Once I stopped sliding, I took a couple breaths, waited for the oncoming cars to go away, and drove back up onto the road. For a 17yo, I think I did pretty well. Or maybe I was 18 that winter... Either way, it's been a while.