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The Outsider – Jan/Feb 19

PAR Steve ThorntonPosted on

Sometimes, it’s good to be in second place. Following a fast rider, for instance, on an unfamiliar road. I generally prefer to watch a motorcycle bend into a curve ahead of me rather than to be the first one in. The act of following another rider, particularly one who is on the same model of motorcycle, lends confidence to me. If he (or she, and there have been times . . .) hits a corner smoothly at a certain speed, say, 90 km/h, I’m pretty sure I can hit it at the same speed and come out the other end grinning.

It has happened that a rider I was chasing got away from me (I’m not talking about street racing; there was no intention to overtake, or to show off, or even to win money). Neil Graham on a (if I remember correctly) Yamaha FJR, somewhere in the bendies north of Toronto—it might have been Hwy 13, just north of Severn Bridge, about 90 minutes’ ride north from the Big Smoke, a road every sporting motorcyclist and most nonsporting motorcyclists, too, should experience; but please don’t hit the turtles, and watch for sand. I think Tim Poupore was with us. Admittedly, Neil was riding a more sporty motorcycle than I, but when he took off, I could not stay with him. I saw his ass bend into a corner and then I saw him again about five miles down the road, pretending to be asleep beside the motorcycle. “I had to wait for Tim,” I said. He knew it was bullshit.

But other times, even times following Graham on a fast bike, I managed to stay with the pack. The combination of knowing that your motorcycle will arc through a turn at the speed of your predecessor without getting strange on you and the desire to make him see you right there in his mirrors no matter what he does to shake you off brings a kind of glee to the act, and that motorcycle in front of you becomes a focus point; yes, you’re watching the pavement, you’re watching for dangers, and you might even be checking your own mirrors, hoping you’ve shaken off Tim, or whomever is behind you (it’s an ego thing), but the human eye has this strange capacity to know, to a surprisingly precise degree, when you’re gaining or falling behind in a procession of moving vehicles. You might be carving mountain curves at 70 km/h, but if your speed deviates from the leader’s speed by even a couple of kilometres per hour, you know it, and you adjust. This would be different from racing, where you’re trying, or just vainly hoping, maybe, to pass the rider in front of you; in this case, you’re working hard to stay an exact distance behind, no matter how fast that rider is going. If it gets dangerous, of course, you back off, which I did when I failed to catch Graham on Hwy 13. But confidence on a motorcycle is a contributor to safety, and the only times I’ve had what I’d call an incident (not a crash, just a “hmm, better watch it” moment) while following someone at a clip was when I was pretty well exhausted from too much riding.

Recently, I followed a rider for about 100 kilometres down a road that was nothing but curves, heading toward the Tasman Sea on New Zealand’s south island. Despite having his wife on the pillion seat, he went fast. And smooth; I never saw a glitch. I had to work to stay with him, and it was great fun, a wonderful ride for about an hour through a forest dense with giant ferns and strange trees. Not one incident (though, on the return trip away from the coast, in a right hand curve, I got a bit too close to the centre line and almost got clipped by an oncoming car).

They drive on the left hand side in New Zealand, though I suppose you could argue that since New Zealand is technically upside-down, it’s really the right-hand side, but they’re driving backwards. Regardless, even while riding in the left hand lane, following a fast rider down a very twisty and quite narrow road was simply a matter of concentrating, staying relaxed, and using confidence the way it should be used. However, that same rider, later in the day, managed to lose his concentration, rode down a mountain road on the right hand side, and had to toss his bike into a ditch when a car came around a corner on that same side. No injuries and not even much damage to the bike, but a lesson there. When you’re following someone, even someone who’s riding skills challenge you, there are a certain number of things you need to keep in mind. When you’re not following, and this guy wasn’t at that time, there are a number of other things you need to keep in mind. It takes guts to be a leader, but it also takes a lot of concentration, situational awareness, and, yes, confidence. And let’s not forget skill.

I hope to find other good riders that will allow me to follow them down twisty roads in the near future, maybe this summer. And if I don’t, maybe it’ll be because I’m allowing them to follow me. I hope they enjoy it as much as I do, and I hope I remember to stay on the right side of the road.

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