Saturday, April 23, 2016

“I had to lay it down.” Not.

This isn't just one of the most common motorcycle myths, it's one of the most dangerous ones. The things you say to soothe your bruised ego contribute to other riders' "can't do" attitudes and actually encourage future crashes. So just stop telling us that you "had to lay it down".

The other day, I wrote about a viral crash video. In researching that essay, I found an interview with one of the crashers, who repeated one of the most persistent lies in motorcycling: “I had to lay it down.”

He crashed as an immediate result of locking his front brake. So he laid it down alright. But he didn’t “have” to. That’s the case at least 99% of the time riders make that ex post facto rationalization.

Even this guy, who survived because he laid it down, probably just locked up his brakes and crashed without consciously thinking, "I see a gap under that truck." This is a very, very tough accident to avoid; most riders in that lane would see the truck start to move and assume it was going to enter the slow lane in their direction of travel. I'd say 90+ % of all riders are going to be taken out in this situation. That said, you can see the rider apply the brakes a fraction of a second late, and there was an open escape lane, using the break in the median to escape to the (empty) oncoming lane. Even this one was avoidable, although I suppose I'll grant this guy immunity if he says, "I had to lay it down." Which he'd say in Portugese, presumably, because this happened in Brazil. 

I guess when riders tell this lie, it makes them feel better about themselves; it allows them to think that they actually had some measure of control over their situations—situations in which they obviously didn’t actually have control. If they had control, they wouldn’t’ve crashed. It’s easier on their egos, too, when they tell their friends they “had to lay it down”. It turns the embarrassment of a crash into almost the opposite—a tough guy’s fatalism.

Before I tell you why I hate the persistent and pernicious “I had to lay it down” lie, let me tell you that I’ve laid it down more than a few times.

I started riding motorbikes in 1968. I’ve ridden countless thousands of road miles. Between 1999 and 2015 I did not own a four-wheeled vehicle at all; that included a year in which I commuted from San Diego to work in Hollywood. I don’t know how many motorcycle races I’ve competed in, but it’s certainly more than 100. I’ve tested motorcycles for Motorcyclist Magazine, Road Racer X magazine, Bike magazine (UK), and Motorcycle USA, among many others.

I won't even try to count the relatively harmless tip-overs. I’m sure the number of full-on crashes is in the dozens. When I was a kid, I called my mom from the ER so many times that I developed the practice of opening the conversations with, “I’m going to be OK, but…” so she wouldn’t panic.

I’ve crashed by myself. I’ve hit cars. Cars’ve hit me. I’ve hit bikes, and bikes’ve hit me. In all those times, there was precisely one crash in which I "laid it down" on purpose. [Or is that 'layed' it down? Neither looks right. MG]

Here’s where it happened:

In the late ‘90s, I was racing in the LRRS club series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The road course there leaves the Nascar oval and climbs something the locals call “The Mountain”. Just before you descend back down into the oval, there’s a sweeping right followed by a tight left (Turn 9) at the top of a hill.

At that time, I was a threat to win races in my class. No one on the track was capable of entering any corner at a speed 20mph greater than mine. At least, not while keeping their bike on its wheels.

But in one race, as I turned into that left at the crest, some moron t-boned me at a speed high enough to send me and my bike spearing off the track at at least 50mph.

I had time to think, “What the fuck?!?” and realize that I was still on my wheels, but riding down a steep dirt slope. On slicks. I was rapidly covering the yards of groomed runoff. Ahead of me, I saw long grass that, for all I knew, concealed rusting farm implements. Beyond that, there was a pond with bulrushes growing out of it.

All in all, a Very. Bad. Situation.

At that moment, I made the conscious choice to lock up my rear brake and low-side. The guy who hit me crashed, too. He said something like, “You turned in too early.”

I don’t remember what, if anything, I replied. But what I thought was, “Dude, if you think there’s any chance you were going to make that corner, you’re delirious.” He didn’t even make it after using me as a berm. My bike was more or less intact. I hoped his wasn’t.

So sure, technically there are times when you have to “lay it down”. But they’re vanishingly rare. Especially on the street, because the moment you lay it down, you’re giving up control and turning yourself into a projectile. You might hit an immovable object; you might be hit by another vehicle.

90% of all accident avoidance comes down to situational awareness. When I’m out there on the street, I see cars that I know are going to change lanes into my lane before that driver even knows that’s what he’s gonna’ do.

But the last 10% of accident avoidance hinges on your ability to brake, find an escape lane, and steer into it. It is almost never, ever acceptable to think, “Well, this is it—nothing I can do about it.” In fact, having that idea living anywhere in your subconscious is fucking dangerous.

I can guarantee you that the guys on the Secret Service Presidential detail never think, “Oh well, I guess the President is just gonna’ die.” You shouldn’t accept it, either.

Some day, you’ll be riding on some nice twisty road, and having a fun time, and you’ll come around a corner and find that a camper truck has broken down in your lane. Or some idiot tourist will exit a scenic overview directly into your path. Or you’ll round a bend and realize, too late, that last night’s rains have left a slick of dried clay over an otherwise clean stretch of asphalt. Or, sure, you’ll momentarily be distracted by a pretty girl at a sidewalk café and when you look up you’ll realize that all the cars ahead of you are stopped for a red light.

In moments such as those, the last fucking thing you should ever accept is that crashing’s inevitable. You might be already leaned way over and need to simultaneously brake and tighten your line. You may need to pick up the weight of your bike on your knee as you do a three-point slide for a few yards. You may need to slam on the brakes while choosing the widest gap between two stopped cars. And a split-second after you try any of those things you may indeed crash.

But you know what? You probably won’t. Because if you keep your wits about you and have reasonable machine control, 90% of the time you’ll just need a change of underwear and you’ll be as good as new. Better, actually, because as any racer knows, almost every time you learn some new machine-control skill, that knowledge came a split-second after you just thought, “Oh fuck…”

As you go through this ride we call life, you’re gonna’ lay ‘er down from time to time. But you will almost certainly not “have” to lay it down. Your default setting should be, “I’m not going to crash; I won’t fucking let it happen.”

I once heard a very skilled and experienced rider say, matter-of-factly, “I hate crashing, so I really try not to do it.”

That attitude will keep you out of a lot of crashes, and most of the time if you do crash, it will be after you’ve at least partially mitigated the situation and your crash will be less severe.

And if (I suppose I should say ‘when’) you do crash, be man enough to not say, “I had to lay ‘er down.” Far better to learn from your mistake than pretend it was unavoidable.


  1. I've been riding for 46 years and FINALLY someone has called out a public BS on the "I laid it down" thing. Riders who have come off a bike (as I have more times than I care to remember) know that shit just doesn't happen, it happens lightning fast! If a rider in such circumstances had the presence of mind and reflexes to consciously decide to "lay it down", then execute on that decision, they would have to be an alien, as no homo sapien could ever pull that off. Great piece, Mark!

  2. Spot on assessment Mark. I cringe every time I hear a rider say it.

    As you suggested, situational awareness and having an exit strategy goes a long way preventing a crash.

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