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Weighing the thrill versus risk of riding a motorcycle during Bike Week

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    "Monitor" reporter Jeremy Blackman adjusts his helmet as he gets ready for his motorcycle ride at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Thursday, June 16, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ‘Monitor’ reporter Jeremy Blackman heads out for a ride at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

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    "Monitor" reporter Jeremy Blackman heads back after his motorcycle ride at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Thursday, June 16, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 6/17/2016 7:34:24 PM

Bike Week is a spirited eight-day blowout of engines, leather and late-night theatrics.

But for emergency officials and us local reporters, it can also, sadly, be a time of predictable tragedy. All those bodies wrecked and lives lost in potentially avoidable motorcycle accidents.

This year has proven no different. If anything, it’s been worse, with at least five life-threatening crashes since last week in central New Hampshire.

So when an invite arrived early this week for a Monitor reporter to come test-drive the latest in two-wheeled transport (or three wheels in some cases) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, we thought it would be a good chance to focus on safety in the industry and see what, if anything, is being done to make an inherently risky endeavor less so. And as the only reporter in the newsroom licensed to drive a motorcycle, I got the tap.

I don’t know much about motorcycles, to be honest. I learned to ride three years ago, mostly because it seemed like a waste not to in a state with such iconic roads. I whipped through two days of rider training, passed a test and snatched up the cheapest functioning bike I could find: a 1994 Honda Nighthawk 250. It’s the model they teach novices like me to ride on; anything smaller is essentially a scooter. I drove it for a year and then sold it, because young journalists are always broke and should never invest in extraneous vehicles to begin with.

Having never ridden a larger bike – or any bike in the past year, for that matter – I was more than a little anxious heading into my demo session Thursday. Both out of fear that I’d injure myself or a bike, and that my inexperience would bubble up in humiliating fashion. About an hour before I left, I typed “how to start a harley davidson” into Google and skimmed a YouTube video titled, “How To Ride A Motorcycle - Must See, Everything You Need To Know!”

Ignition on, clutch in, gear shifter in neutral. Got it.

I showed up at the track just before 11 a.m. and surveyed the field of company tents: Harley Davidson, Ducati, Indian, Yamaha, Can-Am, Victory, Slingshot. All week, these manufacturers offer free demonstrations of their latest models on a 10-mile on- and off-track course. With the safety angle on my mind, I thought a good first stop would be Can-Am, maker of the popular Spyder trikes.

But when I approached the tent and asked about a test ride, I was told I’d have to sit through a 40 minute tutorial first. I rethought my plan.

“Do all the companies make you go through a class?” I asked.

“Harley doesn’t,” somebody said.

Jackpot. I headed to the Harley station and handed over my license. Five minutes later, I was seated on a forest green Sportster Iron 883, the engine rumbling beneath me.

Compared to the horsepower of my last bike, this was a big step up. Compared to the rest of Harley Davidson’s fleet, it’s just a baby.

I asked an attendant if there was anything I should know about the bike.

“Nope,” he replied, explaining it was pretty straightforward. I shifted into first gear and slowly, nervously, let out the clutch. 

The demo course starts just outside the track and heads south before meeting up with Route 106. As I leaned out of the second turn I shifted up once, then again, and the bike thrust forward. Air whipped into my helmet. I unexpectedly let out a deep, guttural whoop.

Safety concerns were quickly fading from my mind. Within a few miles I was on open roads, winding through hilly farmland and thick maple groves. Mountains were visible in the distance. A hawk spead its wings and swooped down over a nearby field.

In a car, you can experience all these things. You can roll down the window and listen as the wind streams in, smell the landscape as it passes, feel the heat as it beats down on your outstretched arm. But on a motorcycle, the experience turns technicolor. Sounds and aromas magnify. Your body hurtles through space fully exposed, its movements synced to the machine. You are on the brink of flying.

And this, of course, is the allure. It’s what makes riding a motorcycle and witnessing its risks so difficult to reconcile. I have two close friends who have each lost loved ones in motorcycle accidents. A guy I went to high school with died in one. I have reported on several of these crashes. Yet I still jump at the chance to get on a bike.

I pulled back into the Harley station, parked the Sportster and peered around at the other models. I wanted to try something bigger. 

I hopped on a blue Heritage Softail Classic. It’s the kind of bike where your feet are raised and arms elevated – think Easy Rider. Its High Output Twin Cam 103B engine gurgled as I budged forward, then roared to life when it hit the course.  

Last was a custom-painted Street Glide 110,by far the biggest bike I’ve ridden. The dashboard was large enough to house four display guages and a computer screen, which, ironically, reminded me throughout the ride to pay attention to the road. Speakers jutted out near my knees, blaring advertisements. It went as fast in second gear as my Nighthawk did in fifth. It felt like an Oldsmobile.

All three of these bikes were a joy to ride, and stirred tender memories of the months I spent riding my own bike. It reminded me that scenery wasn’t the only reason I’d learned to ride. I’d also hoped to prove to myself that I could take on a substantial risk, a feat somewhat foreign to me. 

It’s easy to berate motorcyclists for putting their lives unnecessary on the line. And some of that is certainly warranted, especially for riders who forego helmets and other simple precautions, like wearing appropriate clothing and proper mechanical maintaince. And for those who drink and ride.

But for the inherent risks that motorcycles present, I’m less sure. When I hear about deadly crashes like the one last Sunday on Route 106 in Loudon, in which a motorcycle passenger died after a collision with a car, I can’t help but think, what a waste. When I’m crisscrossing farmland on a purring Harley and the sun’s out and the wind whistling, I can’t help but think, what a blast.

Luckily for me, I’m not in a position to choose between that thrill and that threat. I just can’t afford to ride motorcycles right now. Whether that will change eventually, or whether my thinking might evolve if and when I start a family, I don’t know. 

What I do know is that a person’s decision to ride is his or hers to make, and that I can only hope they think through the risks and take every possible step to minimize them.

For those who have chosen to take that risk, good luck. Because in the end, luck is the only thing keeping you alive.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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