Old Bridge, NJ; November 14, 2010
By: Chris Loynd
Indian Summer! Are there any two descriptive words more delicious to the psyche?
Well, thinking upon it, perhaps there are a few others: winning ticket, tax refund, motel sex.
It was a gorgeous Indian Summer weekend. Every convertible owner dropped his top. I saw a beautiful Morgan tooling along with a spry older couple. Joggers reverted to shorts. Folks in their shirtsleeves were out in their yards raking leaves. Motorcycles appeared like mushrooms after a summer rain.
It was a wonderful day to ride, almost too warm for Polar Bear motorcycles. Likely I could have done with one less layer. I plugged in my electric jacket and gloves, but barely employed them. And when we got stuck in stop-and-go traffic on Route 18 north headed home, I cooked. It felt great.
I do not choose to ride my motorcycle in winter because I like being cold. I much prefer riding across Arizona mesas in streaming sun wearing my mesh jacket. I ride in winter because I cannot imagine putting my motorcycle away for three months. I would love it if polar bear season was like this every weekend. Ah, but fate landed me in Stratford, not Savannah.
Warm weather means big turnouts. We drew a crowd that eventually swelled to 12 bikes.
At the Dunkin' Donuts in Stratford, at a very reasonable morning hour of 9:30, owing to the short distance, Captain and your blogger had a discussion about breaking into two groups.
Riding in one large group can have some special challenges. Ten or more motorcycles, riding in staggered formation, gets to be a very long line. Leading such is like managing a train running through multi-lane interstates. Lane changing must be kept to an absolute minimum.
Still the Captain convinced me to keep together in one group with this statement, “These guys are all good riders. They know what to do.”
John J. was offered the lead, cajoled may be more like it. He whiffed. So I stepped up to the challenge. John J. instead fell in as the last bike, the “sweep” position.
Isn't it amazing how small, seemingly innocuous, decisions can have major consequences, unforeseen?
“We don't need enough lifeboats for every passenger; Titanic is unsinkable.” “We can get the Donner wagons over the mountains before the really heavy snows come.” “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
We left Stratford with a manageable eight bikes. Even with that many, it is nearly impossible for the lead bike to see the sweep, the sweep being just too far back. So we rely upon some procedures to manage the ride so it is fun and safe and successful for all.
Each rider knows his place in a safe, staggered, formation. It is important that the group remain tight to prevent the incursion of cars. Each rider holds his lane position.
There are special duties for the lead and sweep riders.
The lead has to find very big holes in traffic before signaling for a lane change. He has to allow for merging on ramps; tolls can be a real challenge.
The sweep watches for what the lead can't see. He picks up stragglers and clears for lane changes.
Changing lanes with a big group of bikes can be done safely and smoothly, if the riders are disciplined. The lead signals a lane change but does not move. All the other bikes pass the signal back to the sweep, but do NOT move. When traffic is clear the sweep moves over. Now the line of bikes controls two lanes, the current and future lanes.
Any cars stuck next to the bikes in the target lane will move up and out of the way. The sweep holds the lane, preventing any other cars from entering. When the lane is clear the lead moves over, all the other bikes following.
When done properly it is a marvel to see.
Unfortunately, some guy in the middle typically just can't wait. He sees the signal to move and jumps over to the next lane, effectively trapping a car in the space the sweep had hoped to clear. Now the sweep, and any bikes ahead of him but behind the trapped car, must make a dash around to get in front of the trapped car and back in line.
I digress, dear blog reader, but only slightly.
Sunday we had a new rider, Bob V., self-admitted Polar Cub, still Bob is an experienced rider and road captain and knows the drill.
Bob does not have EZ Pass and clearly announced that ahead of time.
So the way that works is as we approach a toll, the rider without EZ Pass zooms ahead a bit, headed for the cash lane. Meanwhile the leader slows the rest of the group approaching the EZ Pass lanes. If the leader figures the differential correctly, the rider paying cash is ready to rejoin the line just as the Pass riders exit the tolls.
Sounds good, right?
We reviewed the procedure with Bob\ and headed south.
We exited at the Darien rest stop to pick up three more riders: Jim, Fonz and Scott.
I planned to exit – instead of picking them up as we rode by like we usually do – because Fonz needed some adaptive connectors I had for an electric vest he was going to borrow from Pogy. So far Fonz has been trying to get by with a battery powered vest for warmth, as in running off of a 9-volt in his pocket, instead of wired to his motorcycle's electrical system.
No really. Batteries. It works fine when Fonz is standing still. But at speed it is probably good so long as the ambient temperature is above 70 degrees.
Only Fonz did not borrow the vest, forgot about the connectors, and expected us to just blow by on the Interstate side. He had his other riders hyped to run down the on ramp to join our line of bikes. That explains the quizzical look Fonz gave me when I pulled to a stop next to him.
“Connectors?” I shouted. “I'm good,” Fonz shouted back.
Scott is something of a new Bear. He tried a Polar Bear run a year ago, or was it two? He got as far as the Greenwich rest stop on the Merritt Parkway, declared us all crazy, and rode home.
This year Scott is on a new Harley Softail, equipped with electrics, and ready to ride. Although he still eschews rain riding.
We motored on, now a longish line of eleven.
At the Hutch Parkway we picked up Token, making us dozen bikes long.
That gets to be a lot of motorcycles to keep in line.
After picking up Token, we merged onto the Hutchinson Parkway in bits and pieces, but managed to re-form our line.
We held our own just fine until we hit the toll booths at the top of the West Side Highway in New York City.
That booth has the distinction of having gates, even in the EZ Pass lane. Captain mowed one of them down a few years back.
About half our EZ Passes would not activate the gates. Mine worked just fine.
With no shoulder to regroup, I rode down the right lane of the highway at about 10 miles per hour.
When I guesstimated I had most of our guys, I headed for the GW Bridge exit. There is a stop sign at the end of the exit, and I figured I could stop there and count heads. Which I did. And thank you so much to the New York driver who shouted encouragement and suggested I just keep going. Excuse me, but I have a right to stop at a STOP sign, even in New York City.
Back in a tight group we managed the bridge okay and headed toward the NJ Turnpike.
Now I am hoping Bob V remembered his role.
Sure enough, approaching the NJ Turnpike toll plaza, Bob pulls out next to us, zooms ahead, and runs right through the EZ Pass only speed lanes. Wha?
As I caught up to him, Bob just gave a shrug and dropped back into line.
Well, I figured he could sort it all out at Exit 9.
Meanwhile as we motored down the Jersey Turnpike in relatively light traffic, apparently Token became annoyed with my perfectly precise group leadership. I try to lead a group ride like I have a cruise control throttle, which I don't. I set a smooth and reasonable pace.
I find big gaps and make smooth lane changes and minimize the number of changes. I carefully pick the route sure to give us the least troubles. I judiciously apply my skills, always vigilant to the rear view mirrors, my only thought the comfort and safety of my fellow riders.
Apparently this was all too bucolic for Token. He got bored and came jetting up the passing lane. Abreast of my position he slowed for a moment and began gesturing. Only he used none of the pre-approved road captain hand gestures. It's not that he was giving nasty gestures. I just had absolutely no idea what he wanted to convey. As Russ said, “Even Token's hand gestures have an accent.”
After Token defected, we rode smoothly down to Exit 9 and left the Turnpike.
Past the toll plaza there really is no good spot to pull over what was now 11 bikes. And after the exit we must run a gauntlet of stop lights. This is where the lead bike really has to rely upon his sweep. With a long line it is impossible to see if every bike gets through on green. Little did I know John J. had abdicated.
John J. just sped off with the rest of us, leaving poor Bobby V. at the toll plaza. For all we know Bob could have been in handcuffs for his earlier EZ Pass Only violation. We never saw him again.
John J. should have held back and led the straggler to our destination. He would make a lousy cowboy.
John J. did leave a voice mail for Bob V. But it went unanswered and we never saw Bob again.
Fortunately, Captain heard from Bob V. later that night. After getting lost, Bob decided to turn around and head back home, alone, missing lunch.
Despite his shabby treatment, Bob said he may try to ride with us again. I'll bet he puts the destination into his GPS this time!
And despite his malfeasance, John J. will be welcome to join us again, because, after all, who among us has never made a mistake?
Likely John J. and I will both choose the middle of the pack on this Sunday's ride. We'll let someone else take the heat and see what happens. “How is it you can see the mote in my eye and not the log in your own?”