“On the lyrical state highways of Vermont I blatted and roared, up and down through the gears, at eighty, at a hundred and something, at much more than a hundred and something miles an hour. The motorcycle had a relatively long wheelbase and felt absolutely solid in a straight line, despite the shaft-drive, and steady enough in a turn, but not quick to turn and right itself. The bike was rather heavy, not deft and flickable, but it was wonderful to look at, wonderful to be on, wonderful to ride, a source of pride. The sound it made was magnificent. The feeling was of riding a powerful musical instrument. The hills echoed and the valleys lit up with my song. You used to be able to say of a motorcycle that it was on song when it was going full tilt in perfect tune and at the right revs just at the redline, the rpm limit for the motor. I was on song. I felt in tune, in love, so proud. It was late summer, almost fall. Pride goeth before the fall. Then I fell.
“I was rounding a turn on the MV at considerable speed when I had the only serious accident I have ever had. Years before, I had jumped the Triumph Metisse off the top of a rise, knowing I would land in sand, and curious to see if I could do it and keep going, but I was prepared to crash, and I crashed. That didn’t count. I may have been going eighty miles an hour on the MV when I realized I would not make it around the turn. I had a choice: I could throw the bike down on the highway or aim for the unplowed field straight ahead of me, as the road curved to the left. I chose the field and shot off the road and rode across the field with the bike upright, and then I hit a ditch, going quite fast still, and crashed. I was furious, embarrassed, outraged. My first act was to get the bike upright and try to start it. A passing state trooper was flagged down by someone who had seen me go off the road. The trooper was rushing a kidney-dialysis machine to another part of Vermont where it was needed in an emergency, and he certainly did not want to be held up, but when he looked at me he decided he had better get me to the nearby Ellsworth Clinic in Chester, where, when I walked in, I saw the blood drain from the face of the receptionist as she looked at me, and heard her insist to the trooper that I be rushed to Springfield Hospital. She obviously thought I had done terrible damage to myself and was about to go into shock. The trooper sped to Springfield with lights whirling and siren whooping. This same trooper was killed six months later in a high-speed crash. It turned out he had been reprimanded several times for his risk-addicted driving. At the hospital it was determined that I had broken three ribs, that was all.
“I had to explain this mortifying event to myself and to the world. When the wrecked motorcycle was examined, it was apparent that there was something not right about the foot pedal that operated the rear brake. The pedal swung loose, meaning it could move down from its position at rest but also it could move up—not normal, not desirable—and it was possible, perhaps likely, that this had been the state of affairs before the crash. A Vermont motorcycle dealer named Peter Pickett had driven down to JFK in his small red open-bed truck to pick up the MV after it cleared customs, and had taken it to Peru, Vermont, where my friend Jill Fox lived and where I spent a great deal of time. The crate was unloaded, opened, and set aside to be saved, it was so good-looking in its own right. The motorcycle, pretty much ready to be ridden, nevertheless had to be gone over to make sure everything was in order. I examined the front end while the back portion of the bike was checked by an experienced rider and sometime mechanic who lived in the village, not exactly a friend but someone friendly and eager to play a part. My immediate thought after crashing was that it couldn’t have been my fault, certainly couldn’t have been the result of my taking the wrong line in attempting to go through the corner, certainly couldn’t have been a case of not leaning the bike into the turn sufficiently because of the speed I was traveling, couldn’t have been the speed I was traveling stopping me from correctly managing the bike, couldn’t have been . . . and so forth. So it had to have been the consequence of the adjustments made to the rear brake pedal by the fellow who checked out the rear of the motorcycle. It suddenly was apparent that the lever controlling the rear brake had been set up in a manner that applied the brake when the pedal was pressed down, as is normal, or when the pedal swung up, when downward pressure was applied or when no pressure was applied, and the pedal was for whatever reason forced up, as when rounding a corner at great speed the centrifugal force pushed the lever up . . . and the back brake was applied without my foot touching the brake pedal. I believed this theory. I propounded it to all, grunting with pain from my broken ribs. I offer the theory to you now, dear reader. Believe me, that is how it happened. The brake was applied without my touching the pedal, the rear wheel locked, I felt it lock, felt that I could not possibly get around the turn, without knowing what exactly was the matter, and decided to go straight, into the field I saw there, straight ahead of me, and did so, dragging the locked rear wheel . . . and riding, if that is the right word, through the field might have made it to a safe upright stop if I had not come up against a ditch, almost a canal, too wide for the dead weight of the motorcycle to cross, and then BAM.
“For days, for months, I replayed the scene, explaining to myself what had happened, excusing myself. Anything to avoid thinking I had been an incompetent. And there is something else in this. There is a way in which feigning nearness to death risks death. Faking it at all well imitates real danger too faithfully and brings danger. I had gone into the turn too fast. I had not made it around the turn. I started playing down the danger I had put myself in and at the same time playing it up. Motorcycling is full of bravado and posing and the nearness of death. You pretend to be calmly, even coldly focused, when you ride, eyes everywhere, eyes on the job and immune to thoughts about risk. That is how one describes riding these fast motorcycles, except of course there is in addition the pleasure. You are riding beauty and you are riding speed and you are riding death. And it is a pleasure. But you offer yourself as a dashing devotee. You realize you are performing the role of yourself, and may be maimed out of existence as part of the act, as part of the character you are playing.
“The bike went back to Italy and returned, having had its bent and wounded parts rebuilt at great expense, with the latest disc brakes off the racing bike added. Again it was trucked to Vermont. It looked so glamorous. I rode it once, just to do it, like getting back on a horse that has thrown you. Eventually the MV was put on display at Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari dealership in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was bought by a visiting English rare-car dealer to add jazz and romance to his personal collection.
“I had another shaft-drive bike at the time, the classic BMW 750cc opposed-cylinder twin, with its sober and good-looking black bodywork with white pinstripes. It was a touring bike, very comfortable and reliable, the latest version of the design in a long line of opposed twins the company had made. I rode it around Vermont, and then one day, with my young son behind me as my passenger, riding on a dirt road, I descended a very steep hill to get to the paved county road and went into a slide, a barely controlled slide down the hillside in the dirt, which I managed like a motocross racer, or a skier, touching the brakes once or twice only, and lightly, and driving safely away. That little hill thrill chill did it. Once home, I was ready to sell the bike and stop motorcycling for good.”
from “On Motorcycles” by Frederick Seidel