I used to write for a Harley-Davidson magazine whose editor secured me the long-term loan of a Heritage Softail from H-D’s press fleet. I rode the wheels off of that old barge, and enjoyed every mile, but I never subscribed to the unwavering dress code of the local Harley riders––a cat-bowl helmet over a do-rag, fingerless gloves: a denim or leather vest studded with ride pins, and leather chaps over jeans so greasy you could wring them out and use the drippings to lube your chain.
One day while out on the Heritage I pulled up to a gas pump behind a guy on a hardtail Shovelhead, costumed appropriately for his subculture. I was wearing my usual gear, an Aerostich Darien jacket and pants, gauntlet gloves, and a full-coverage helmet that cost more than some of the bikes I’d owned. The biker looked me up and down as if he suspected I’d stolen the Heritage, but curiosity won out and we struck up a conversation.
You now how sometimes you get talking to a total stranger and discover you both have a lot in common? This was the opposite of that. Although we were both motorcyclists, we had wildly differing views on riding gear (he thought my helmet––any helmet––was useless at best, dangerous at worst), accessories (he told me to get some loud pipes so people in cars would hear me coming), and riding techniques (he told me never to use the front brake because it’ll flip the bike and kill me––I’m sure he meant it, because his own bike didn’t have a front brake).
Over the years, thanks to encounters like this, I’ve developed the skill of simultaneously smiling, nodding, and grinding my teeth, mostly because the same old horsecrap myths about motorcycling keep popping up like meth-addicted prairie dogs. The damn things just won’t die, and even though I really should chill out and let people be as stupid as they want, I just can’t, because stupidity is contagious, and there’s always a chance that someone who doesn’t know any better will catch a lethal dose of it from some grizzled old fathead in a filthy Sturgis T-shirt who thinks “I had to lay ‘er down” is a legitimate excuse for crashing instead of an admission that he’s a terrible rider.
Bear with me, then, as I stick a pin in some of the most odious and persistent moto-myths in the sport.
Tire Mold Release
This mythical substance is often blamed for the crashes suffered by riders who have just had new tires installed, ride out of the dealership, and promptly land on their asses in the first corner they come to. It’s supposed to be a slippery solution applied to the mold before the tire goes in for the final cure to keep it from sticking to the mold when it’s opened.
The problem with this myth is that tires don’t stick to the molds in the first place. Mike Manning, Director of Marketing for Dunlop says, “We don’t spray the molds with anything. The tires come out of the mold just fine on their own.” Kevin Hunley, who is the Senior Manager of Motorcycle and Kart products of Bridgestone Americas, echoed that, saying, “There is no need for any type of mold release.”
But something must be causing all those new-tire crashes, right? In fact, there is a reason so many riders biff it on fresh rubber, but it has little to do with the rubber itself.
A new tire needs to be broken in gently, but not because you need to scuff off any slippery stuff on the tread surface. “The reason they need to be broken in is due to a chemical product,” said Manning. “All the different chemicals in it cure in the mold, but once they go on the bike the first few heat cycles finish that curing process.”
And that’s not all that needs to be broken in. As tires wear, their profiles change—typically the rear flattens in the middle and the front wears on the sides––and your reflexes adjust to those changes over the course of the tire’s life. When you get new tires with their nice round profiles, your bike’s handling changes instantly, but your reflexes don’t. You roll out of the service department on your new rubber, flick the bike into the first corner just the way you’ve been doing it for the last several thousand miles, and boom––you’re on your head.
As Manning said, “You were used to riding on your old tires they way they were, but when you get new tires the profile’s different. You have to get used to it. It’s more breaking you in than the tire.”
Hunley agreed, and cited Bridgestone’s website: In order for your new tire(s) to provide optimum performance, tires should be ridden very cautiously for the first 100 miles in order for the tread surface to be “Scuffed-In” and work properly. Directly after new tires are mounted, sudden acceleration, maximum braking and hard cornering must be avoided. This will allow the rider to adjust to the “Feel” and handling characteristics of the new tire and for the new tire to be “Scuffed-In” correctly in order to achieve optimum grip level.
Oh sweet Jeebus, where do I even begin with this? Look, if you don’t want to wear a helmet, don’t, I guess, although in some states it’s not really up to you. But if you insist on exercising your right as an American to do demonstrably stupid things out of sheer stubbornness (aka “Because I can, that’s why”) at least have the guts to admit it instead of telling people the reason you’re doing it is because helmets don’t work, like the guy who once told me helmets are tested to a maximum speed of 13 mph, so how can you expect them to protect you at highway speeds?
The best way to tell a lie is to season it with a dash of truth. There’s some truth to that 13 mph figure, but it’s not the whole story. For that I turned to Dave Thom, who worked with the late, great Harry Hurt on the first comprehensive study of motorcycle safety ever conducted in the U.S., Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, often appropriately called the Hurt Report.
Thom’s CV is impressive: motorcycle-accident research assistant and associate (1977-1981); research associate and later the laboratory director of the University of Southern California’s Head Protection Research Laboratory (1981-1998); general and senior program manager of the Head Protection Research Laboratory of Southern California (1998-2003); and currently a senior consultant specializing in protective headgear, safety, and research at Collision and Injury Dynamics, Inc. So, yeah, he knows something about helmets.
I once asked Thom about that 13 mph figure. “It’s an important and often misunderstood point,” he said. It turns out that 13 mph—13.4 mph, if you want to get picky about it––is the terminal velocity of an object dropped from six feet, or about the maximum height of the head of a rider seated on a motorcycle. “If you pick something up and drop it from six feet, it’ll hit the ground going 13.4 mph.”
OK, but what if I’m going 60 mph when I crash?
“The speed on your speedometer is very seldom any indication of how hard you’re going to hit your head,” Thom said. “The only situation where it is an indication is if you hit a vertical object, like a bridge abutment. Then your speedometer speed is very important.” But in most motorcycle accidents, the rider’s head falls more or less straight down and hits the ground at 13.4 mph or less. “We found way back in the Hurt studies that the typical impact on a head at the 90th percentile was less than the DOT impact speed of 13.4 mph.”
In other words, the vertical speed at which your head hits the pavement matters far more than the horizontal speed you’re moving when it happens. If you want a demonstration of this, Thom said, just turn on your TV and watch a motorcycle road race. “If you’ve ever seen a guy fall off at 120, they almost always get up even though their forward speed was huge. They fall off, and they very likely hit their head at least once, but they have that six-foot fall––“ much less in the case of many road racers whose elbows are practically skimming the track when they bail “––which is what we test helmets at.”
No safety device works 100 percent of the time––not helmets, air bags, seat belts, parachutes, or condoms––but using them increases the odds in your favor. If you disagree, fine. It’s that sort of keen analytical thinking that keep Las Vegas casinos open, and EMTs working double shifts on sunny weekends. Just don’t try to convince me or anyone else that head-butting the highway without a helmet is safer than with one.
Loud Pipes Save Lives
This one has even other motorcyclists shaking their heads in disbelief. The idea is that despite the uncontested fact that many car drivers are morons––so busy texting, yelling at the kids in the backseat, and yacking on their cell phones that they run over motorcycles and don’t even slow down to see what that thud was––they will respond to a low rumbling sound coming from somewhere outside the car and immediately think, “Ooh, there must be a motorcycle nearby. I must set aside all distractions and watch out for the rider’s welfare.”
That’s a nice theory, but it crumbles in the face of reality. Most of the threats to motorcycles, such as left-turning cars, oncoming traffic wandering over the double yellow lines, and sudden lane changes, first appear in front of the bike or just to the side, well within the rider’s immediate field of vision. Loud pipes, I’ll thank you to note, are pointed 180 degrees away from these potential accident causes. It’s like taking all the STOP signs in town and turning them around so you only see them in your mirrors after you zoom through the intersection.
Noise isn’t actually all that good at alerting people to your presence, anyway. Ask firefighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers how many times other vehicles fail to yield to a blaring siren in traffic. Some of that is due to sheer stupidity, but it’s also because when you first hear a faint siren in the distance, it’s damned hard to tell where it’s coming from, and damned near impossible to hear at all if the car radio is playing loudly. You usually get a clear idea of where the emergency vehicle is only when you see the flashing lights.
I almost broke Google looking for a large-scale, objective, scientifically conducted, peer-reviewed study showing that users of loud pipes have a lower mortality rate compared to other motorcyclists. I found a lot of studies on the effectiveness of helmets, and bright clothing, but most of what I found regarding loud pipes consisted of anecdotal evidence that wouldn’t stand up in food court. “He was going to turn left in front of me, but I revved the engine and he stopped.” How can you be sure that’s what prevented an accident? Maybe the driver saw your headlight, or a glint of sunlight bouncing off chrome, or just decided there wasn’t time to turn before you got to the intersection.
Relying on loud pipes to alert car drivers to your presence is a passive strategy that hands responsibility for your safety and well-being to the very people you fervently believe are too stupid and inattentive to share the road with you. You might as well set your hair on fire, close your eyes, and step off the curb into traffic yelling, “Please don’t hit me!” Actually, that might work better than loud pipes, because at least the fire would attract attention; there’s plenty of credible data showing that visual stimuli like auxiliary lights and high-visibility riding gear are effective at getting drivers to notice you.
Defensive riding is every rider’s best shot at getting home in one piece. Stay out of other drivers’ blind spots. Slow down approaching intersections. Create and maintain a safety buffer in traffic by following at a safe distance and waving tailgaters by. Leave yourself room to escape if the sh*t comes down. Put a plug in those pipes and learn to ride defensively.