Painted into a Corner
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
I was stationed near Stuttgart, Germany, when I bought my first real motorcycle — a Kawasaki GT 750. Back then, if you had a motorcycle endorsement on your stateside driver license, they just added it to your U.S. Army Europe license. There was no special training or safety courses required. I had an endorsement from my home state of Illinois. However, I “forgot” to mention I was limited to 150cc or smaller engines. Why bother the folks in USAREUR with such a minor detail?
My Kawasaki was a big street bike with shaft drive, air suspension, electronic gauges and a mean-sounding exhaust. I quickly learned it was much faster than the 125cc Yamaha I’d previously owned. I could do 0-80 mph in a block, a big change from a top speed of 60 mph.
One of my friends had a Suzuki 650 Katana and I was sure I could keep up with him because I had a bigger bike. We decided to ride at Solitude, a curvy road that ran through the hills to a castle. I’d like to say I got to see the castle, but I didn’t because about five minutes into the ride, I discovered I didn’t know how to corner.
My more experienced friend could corner like a professional racer, hanging off the bike at speed. I didn’t want to be left behind when he accelerated to pass a car, so I tried passing while entering a blind right-left “S” curve. I was going 85 mph when I cleared the car. As I did, I saw a car in the oncoming lane and quickly swerved right to avoid it. Just then the road curved left, and I was shocked when I realized I couldn’t lean far enough to make the turn. I froze. I felt I couldn't move the bike. I didn't know how to countersteer in a turn.
I ran off the road and into a ditch. I tried to keep the bike balanced and slow down on the grass, but it shook violently and I went over the handlebars onto an embankment. I landed on my hands and rolled forward, trying to control my fall. I then slid feet first for a short distance on my butt before my heels caught and I started flipping. Every time I hit the ground, it felt as if I stopped for a split second and then flipped again. Finally, I went up into the air and landed hard on my back. At last I’d stopped. I was wondering where the motorcycle was when I felt the license plate tap my left boot. The bike had tumbled to the bottom of the embankment and stopped just short of my leg.
I was numb all over, but I wasn’t scared because everything happened so quickly. I moved my fingers, toes and head and realized my back wasn’t broken. I then sat up and realized I couldn’t breathe. I stood up to check the bike and became dizzy. The driver of the car I’d passed ran up and grabbed my arm and told me to sit. As best as I could understand his German, he chided me for riding too fast and told me I was lucky to be alive. I tried to agree, but I couldn’t get enough wind to talk.
A German doctor who spoke English stopped and checked me. He explained my breathing problems could be due to a cracked rib and I should have X-rays taken. My friend then came back. He’d been waiting for me and wondering where I’d been.
For about a half-hour I could barely breathe. Eventually, I was able to take deeper breaths, but it was very painful. For about a month afterward, my lower back would spasm painfully every time I moved. I couldn’t apply backward pressure to my wrists or thrust my arms out without pain, let alone do my job or pushups. We had a field training exercise the following weekend, so I just got some Tylenol and sucked it up.
God must have saved me because I don't know why the bike didn't crush me during the accident. Solitude has a lot of trees, but, fortunately, there weren’t any where I crashed. I paid about 250 Deutsche marks (DM) to the towing service and, about a month later, was charged 450 DM by the polizei for the ambulance ride. I was also given a ticket and a few points for my license. But at least I was alive.
Afterward, I spoke to other bikers and learned how to countersteer and corner better. I didn’t let the accident scare me away from riding. However, from then on, I rode with a great deal more respect for my machine.
This accident was my fault. I was driving too fast for my level of experience and traffic conditions. I was passing on a blind curve — a very dangerous thing — and thought I knew how to ride when, in reality, I didn’t. I assumed a bike’s quicker acceleration compared to a car meant I could corner at higher speeds. I rode too big a bike too fast and too soon and almost died proving myself wrong.