Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Terror Train to Reno

In the light of day, it's clear that last night's ride should have ended about 60 miles north of Reno.
The day's riding had been good, but we had been delayed by a few construction zones that brought traffic to a halt, and as we left our last gas stop we knew that we'd be arriving in Reno after dark. Being inexperienced riders, we didn't realize that we'd be hitting a stretch of 395 with steep hills on one side and Honey Lake on the other just as dusk hit and the winds picked up.
As the light faded the first gusts hit, almost pushing me onto the shoulder. This continued for miles and miles, and over time we learned to adjust for it. But it was wearing us out bit by bit, at the end of a long day of riding.
The "incident" occurred as we prepared to pass a semi. We had waited for the one-lane freeway to open up a passing lane, and since Natalie had insisted on being in the lead to set the pace, she was the one to slide into the left lane, tuck down behind her windshield, and gun it. In retrospect, there were a few problems with the situation. First, we were heading uphill, which meant we needed to push the bikes harder to get by. Second, we were headed for the peak of the ridge, where the wind is the worst. Third, our bikes make great sails with the panniers and gear piled up. Lastly, it was night and we were tired.
As we climbed past 70 mph, the wind started to get worse and worse, and we were getting knocked all over the road. Then three things happened at once: Natalie cleared the front of the semi and got the full force of the wind, right at the peak of the ridge, as oncoming traffic passed us and brought it's own blast of wind. The Bonneville began to oscillate back and forth, and entered into what riders call a "tank slapper". You can go search YouTube with that phrase to see some examples, but the summary is that it's a moment when the handlebars start wobbling from side to side with increasingly violent movements, until they're "slapping" into the sides of the gas tank. This often ends with a big crash as the rider vainly tries to get the bike back under control.
I give full credit to Natalie's rapidly growing riding abilities that she didn't end up testing out all her safety gear on the rocks and brush of the Reno desert. Later in the evening when we were safe in Reno, we each admitted that at that moment in the ride, we were both positive that she was going down. But as the bike went out of control, she did what she could to nudge it toward the shoulder, correctly judging that it would be better to crash there then into oncoming traffic. The semi she had been passing evidently felt the same way as we did, and with certainty that she was doomed, hammered on its brakes to prepare for dodging her and the bike once they were tumbling and sliding.
We have headsets in our helmets, and as the bike went crazy Natalie was absolutely silent. I was freaking out, saying "No no no no no!" over and over as things got worse. That lasted for a second or two until my brain finally found the bit info I read someplace about how to (sometimes, rarely) recover from a tank-slapper.
"Stay loose, stay loose! Let the bike do what it wants! Don't fight it, just let it slow down and it'll be okay!" I didn't believe the last part, not really. That's what the books said to do, but I didn't think it applied to a situation that had gone this far out of control. Plus, what I was telling Natalie was the exact opposite of what a ride would instinctively do.
Once again though, Natalie is a better rider than either of us realized. She stopped fighting the handlebars and loosened her grip on the violently bucking motorcycle, and as the Bonneville slowed down, the shaking stopped and she was just as suddenly cruising along stably at 60 mph. What stunned me was that when I suggested we stop to give her a chance to recover, she refused, and said that we'd stop once we were done. Later on she explained: "If I had stopped, I never would have started again."
We survived the ride and made it to Reno, but I will never forget how close we came to ending the trip in the Nevada desert, and how Natalie showed absolutely grit and a steady hand when confronted with almost-certain disaster. She's quite the incredible woman.

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