An emergency is a crisis with a consequence. The seriousness of the consequence is a direct result of the amalgam of reaction time, relevant skills, preparedness of the machine and the ubiquitous element of luck. Handled well, most emergencies turn out to be no more than education with high adrenaline levels. They might scare the hell out of you, but don’t eventually leave permanent results like physical or mental scars. Every motorcyclist faces an emergency situation some time or the other in his/her riding life. Usually it is more than once – such is the nature of motorcycling. Let us take a close look at different emergencies that are generic to all kinds of riding and see the best course of action to be taken, to reduce the consequences that remain as education for the future and nothing worse. This article, though in no way purports to be an exhaustive work on each and every possible emergency arising in a rider’s life.
Text: Sandeep Goswami/Old Fox
SUDDEN TYRE DEFLATION AT SPEED
Those of us who have spent an appreciable part of our riding lives on tube-type tyres know this pretty well. Some from even up close. And sudden deflation of either tyre, front or rear, on a motorcycle is frightening at the least and lethal at worst. Tubeless tyres have more or less eliminated this danger and a few of its allied complications. Sudden deflation is more rampant in tube type tyres since the air at pressure is contained within a thin walled rubber tube which in turn is contained by the tyre around it. If the tube bursts or suffers a puncture large enough for the air to escape quickly, the tyre deflates faster than the rider can realize and take corrective action. Sudden deflation of the tyre results in an unstable wheel (since at its simplest the wheel is no longer uniformly round and firm) which in turn results in an unstable motorcycle. As a secondary consequence, the tyre bead tends to run off the rim further destabilizing the wheel and the bike. The destabilization is so severe and sudden that the rider barely has time to grab the handlebars to check the bike from wobbling and swaying all over the road before finally falling, taking the rider down with it.
Prevention: The best preventive is a change to tubeless tyres. But if you do use tubed tyres, check that they are in a good condition (enough tread, no micro-cracks from ageing along the side-walls, no damage to the sidewalls or signs of bulges in them, changing the tube with a new one after a couple of repaired punctures at the most) and that the inflation pressure is as per the tyre manufacturer’s recommendations. Talking of inflation pressure, it is better to go a trifle higher than running on low pressure. Less pressure causes greater deformation of the tyre sidewalls which apart from heating up the rubber and the air inside also causes the tube to rub with the inside of the tyre. This friction creates local hot-spots on the tube weakening it from those areas which eventually leads to failure and deflation.
If it happens: Very sudden deflation is rare. The air takes some time in escaping even if that time can be counted in seconds and on the fingers of your hands. And in a rider’s world, a few seconds can be as long as a lifetime if he knows what to do in that time. A sharp drop in inflation pressure of any tyre makes the bike pull itself to a side (this usually is in the direction of the camber of the road though not necessarily so) or it is felt more as a reluctance to respond to your corrective steering input. The bike is reluctant in obeying your command. And this unexplained reluctance or sideways pull for no apparent reason should alert the rider to the possibility of impending full deflation. As soon as you feel that pull, get a firm grip on the handlebars and expect the pull to get stronger soon, very soon. Once all the air escapes from the tyre, it starts folding up under the weight and motion of the bike. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE EITHER BRAKE TILL YOU ARE SURE WHICH TYRE HAS LOST PRESSURE. This is very important. Once you know which tyre has deflated, gently use the brakes of the good wheel to slow the bike to a safe stop. Avoid steering while braking until you have really shed speed and are at say below 20 kmph. A ‘situationally aware’ rider will know the kind of traffic following him and around him and so will know how quickly to shed speed and steer to the side.
If this happens during a turn, you are half in the almighty’s hands. At the first sign of that dreaded ‘reluctance’ to maintain the turn, counter-steer to straighten the bike, ease off the throttle and start braking on the good tyre, as soon as you know for sure which tyre is the culprit.
Tubeless tyres deflate slowly since the entire hard carcass of the tyre is inflated and there’s no thin ‘delicate’ tube inside that can fail like a punctured balloon. Also tubeless tyres better absorb inflation pressure errors, especially those on the lower pressure side. Further, the stronger bead of these tyres seats better and more firmly on the rim and doesn’t slide off the rim so easily in case of deflation. Of course hard application of brakes to a deflated tyre will get even the best of them off the rim.
REAR WHEEL SLIDE UNDER HARD BRAKING
The rear brake is one of the two most abused controls on a motorcycle. The other is the throttle. Overuse that rear brake and you end up with a locked rear wheel that loses all of its self-stability characteristics and starts to slide, eventually taking the bike and you down with it. Fear the rear enough to not overuse it, even inadvertently.
Prevention: Develop a habit of focusing more on efficient use of the front brake to give you the most stopping power, depend on the rear brake only for low speed braking needs (below say 30 kmph) or when on loose surfaces.
If it happens: If you do happen to over use the rear brake and lock up your rear tyre, don’t panic and let it go all of a sudden, especially if the rear has swung sideways. The bike could high-side you as the rear tyre suddenly regains traction. Steer the motorcycle along a straight line and if the rear also feels to be in line with the front, gently let go of the brake pedal pressure so that the rear wheel rolls free again. If the rear has swung sideways enough, keep on the brake pedal pressure. It is far better to low-side than to high side and get tossed over the bike possibly into oncoming traffic. If you are unfortunate enough to happen to lock the rear while braking in a turn, you will find yourself in a proverbial ‘Catch-22’ situation – ease the brake and risk getting high-sided, keep on braking and risk getting low-sided. This ‘devil or the deep sea choice’, in the interest of less relative chance of serious injury should lead to a decision of risking low-siding compared to getting high-sided. Gentle release of the brake can get you rolling again but ‘gentle’ usually takes more time and distance than you would have at hand under the conditions.
DRIVE CHAIN FAILURE AT SPEED
Motorcycle drive chains are tough nuts to crack. They are capable of carrying almost 9 times the peak load they are typically subjected to. (The Karizma drive chain for example has a tensile strength of about 2000 kg i.e. each link, roller and plate together can take 2 tons before fracturing) But like all things mechanical, chains too are fallible. Lack of proper maintenance which includes proper tensioning, slack, lubrication, cleanliness, excessive wear etc. are the prime reasons of drive chain failure. Rare but there is the case of tensile overload but then that never happens with OEM chains, just with improperly chosen after-market ones and that too on bikes with big powerful engines. Maintain the drive chain properly, which includes changing the chain and the two sprockets together at the recommended intervals, and it will not fail on you. Neglect it and you shall pay for the negligence.
Drive chain failure can become quite a crisis if your bike comes with a full metal chain cover. One reason why most modern bikes do not come with one as the benefits of a clean chain are far outweighed by the demerits of a tangled broken chain inside a cover jamming the wheel and causing a crash. The broken chain gets entangled within the chain cover, seizes up the rear wheel which causes it to skid just as if you’d stepped hard on the rear brakes. Just that in case of a braking induced wheel lock, you could get off the brakes and free wheel back into control but with a jammed wheel due to a broken chain wrapped around it, the wheel stays locked and you skid to a crash.
Prevention: Maintain that chain in accordance to the recommended procedure. In case you hear the chain clanging about inside the chain cover each time you shut the throttle or roll it open, get the chain checked for slack and wear at the first opportunity. A loose and excessively dirty chain is demanding attention and only a loose chain will clang about inside the chain cover. So is the case with a noisy chain which might even squeak when you roll the bike forwards or backwards.
If it happens: You are riding at a quick pace, intent upon making good time and suddenly hear a sharp crack followed by a total lack of response from the throttle. As if there is no longer any connection between the engine and the rear wheel. Assume the drive chain has snapped. If you’re riding a bike with a full chain cover, the chain is probably rapidly getting entangled inside the cover and around the rear sprocket. Hit the front brake and try to slow down the bike as quick as is safely possible. If your rear wheel locks and starts to skid, don’t panic and focus on keeping the bike straight and upright. Don’t fight the rear wheel going sideways as it slides with the handlebar. Just keep steering straight and wait for things to calm down. Even on a bike with a top-only chain cover, cut that speed as soon as possible and steer left to safety. The sprocket and the wheel can still be jammed by the entangling chain. And please be careful while untangling the chain from the rear sprocket. Get a finger caught in it and spend the rest of your life minus that finger. Yes, it can be that serious.
REAR WHEEL SPIN UNDER HARD ACCELERATION
The throttle releases power to the rear wheel making it spin and it is the rear tyre’s ‘grip’ on the road that makes the motorcycle go forward. The tendency of the rear wheel to ‘spin’ under power is checked by its tyre’s traction i.e. the tyre grips the road and the spin gets converted to forward thrust. Reduced traction, for example on a wet road, gravel/sand under the wheel, an oily patch etc. allows the tyre less ‘grip’ and the wheel tends to spin freely under power rather than grip the road and roll forward. This can happen even with good traction underneath – when the engine power is strong enough to overcome the traction between the tyre and the road. This is put to spectacular use by riders when they spin their rear tyres under power while stationary and raise lots of rubber smoke. Stunts aside, power overcoming traction can be a real problem while riding not just very powerful bikes but also our friendly neighbourhood one’s, especially in low traction conditions. Leaned over in a turn, you roll on the throttle in 2nd gear and the tyre rolls over a slippery patch. The sudden loss of traction underneath, the power overcomes tyre grip and the wheel begins to spin and slide sideways, threatening to send you down in a low-side.
Prevention: Be gentle on the throttle in low traction situations vis-a-vis wet roads, over gravel/sand/thin film slush/oil spill etc. Also, special care is needed when riding big bikes with powerful engines and turning on them, it is best to stay in a gear or two higher than you would use on a dry and clean road surface. Remember, the throttle has the potential of being one of the most dangerous controls on your motorcycle if improperly used. A power induced rear wheel slide can even happen during a straight-line motion on a bike with a very powerful engine, like any of those litre class ones, the ‘Busa etc.
If it happens: A ‘power induced’ rear slide is quite like that induced through locking a wheel under hard braking and the motorcycle tends to behave in a similar manner. Except that instead of the rear brake, it is the throttle that is the culprit here. The rear tyre loses traction and tends to slide the bike sideways threatening to low-side it. First and foremost – don’t panic and don’t chop the throttle all of a sudden. Roll it back gently reducing power and allowing the tyre to grip again. Regain that grip suddenly and if the rear was sliding sideways even a little at that time, you are sure to be high-sided off the saddle. In safe conditions and with the bike upright, apply enough throttle to make the rear break loose and get a feel of what it is like with a power induced wheel spin. Learning to recognize the symptoms will go a long way in helping you catch that slide as early as possible drastically improving your chances of preventing further damage.
A rider’s worst nightmare come true, is a bike coming alive like a rouge stallion hell-bent on throwing him off. And this happens with extreme violence when a motorcycle gets caught in a rapid side to side oscillation at speed – so violent that the handlebars flap from side to side virtually ‘slapping’ the fuel tank on each side. That’s what they call a ‘tank-slapper’. It is extremely difficult to get out of a developed tank-slapper but relatively simple preventing one from happening. Imagine riding down a great piece of tarmac at speed. You are accelerating through the gears and hit a minor bump that makes the front wheel rise fractionally off the road. And when it lands, all hell seems to break loose. The clip-ons suddenly seem to have a mind of their own. A sudden onset of the jitters or a head-shake overcomes them. The front shimmies side to side and before you realize it, the clip-ons are wrenched out of your hands and the bike spits you off. Whoa! What did I do wrong? And more important what the hell happened?
You were accelerating and hit a small bump. Two things that collectively took the weight off the front wheel. It was momentarily in the air. The action began when it hit the road again. If the wheel hit the road straight and upright, no issues and you just ride on. But if the wheel lands a little off-centre, there will be a sudden and strong corrective force, which tends to straighten the wheel. Invariably, this force is sudden and strong and so ends up over-correcting, taking the wheel to the other side. This overshoot again sets in a corrective force that tends to bring the wheel back to the straight position and overshoots again. This is the side-to-side shake of the wheel that eventually wrenches the clip-ons out of your grip.
Technology has provided bikes with a steering damper as a preventive measure. A steering damper is a device that tightens up the steering just enough to damp some part of the corrective force, especially the part that makes the bars overshoot the central position.
Prevention: You the rider can avoid the tank-slapper by avoiding accelerating so hard that you inadvertently wheelie during it. Take care not to do this especially when exiting a turn over any less-than-the-smoothest pavement. Even on not very powerful bikes vis-a-vis our friendly neighbourhood Pulsars and Karizmas, slow down when you encounter an undulating road surface. Two dips that are located just the right distance apart when hit at speed can send your bike into the slapper mode – and remember you don’t have steering damper on most of these bikes. The designer depends on the conservative steering geometry and low power for keeping the tendency in check. But neither of these two is 100% insurance against not experiencing a tank-slapper. It can happen to any bike and at any speed; such is the variety of possible variables that can make it happen. You can avoid it only through conservative and safe riding practices.
If it happens: If in the worst case you do hit a slapper; let your loose and flexible body become a damper for the bars. Hold them lightly (I know it goes against all instinct as you want to grip this crazy shimmying thing harder), don’t try and fight the oscillation as you cannot be fast enough in catching it, slow down the bike and let the energy of the oscillation dissipate itself through shaking up your body and the resistive forces of the tyre rubber. The ‘slapper’ is another of those inherent hazards of two-wheeler riding and a dangerous one at that. Know it, respect it and avoid it.
RUNNING WIDE IN A TURN
Taking a turn well on a motorcycle needs loads of coordination between physical riding skills, visual acuity and an ability to look well ahead of the present moment. Which is why the pleasure of leaning and turning that bike on a twisty piece of tarmac, far surpasses any other riding pleasure. Turning a motorcycle is a complex exercise and is influenced by a large number of contributing factors. But the foremost amongst them is the entry speed. Enter too fast and you mess up the rest of the turn – usually dangerously so since a fast entry speed will make you run wide through it. Going wide can mean riding into oncoming traffic or even off the other side of the road if the turn further tightens up or the rider is too fast! Either of these two can lead to very serious consequences. The rider needs not just good judgment, but also excellent road reading skills to be able to turn his bike well and safely through a bend. Needless to say, no amount of learning or practicing this aspect of motorcycling is sufficient at any point of a rider’s riding life. The learning of turning never ends.
Prevention: Slow in – fast out. That’s the adage followed even by the fastest and the most proficient riders across the world. Not because it sounds trendy but because Physics dictates it thus. A relatively low entry speed not just allows you more time to read the road ahead, i.e. the severity of the curve, the road surface quality through it, the content, position and speed of oncoming traffic etc., but also allows other road users to gauge you. A comprehensive situational analysis makes the rider forewarned of the demands of the manoeuvre. So hold back those horses while entering the turn, keep a sharp look out during it and if it’s all clear, roll on that throttle and freak out with a sizzling exit!
If it happens: All right, we all make mistakes and entering a turn too fast is usually more a case of misjudgement than an intentional error. No one wants to crash and burn. You enter too fast or realize that it is a reducing radius turn that tightens up on you and as a consequence makes you too fast for it – don’t panic. Usually you have more traction reserves left at hand than you’d either believe or know. Which means that you can lean the motorcycle more and tighten your turn still further, even though you feel that such a course of action will make you skid and fall. The only conditions needed are that you keep a calm clear head on those shoulders and react promptly. See yourself running wide – don’t just chop that throttle or hit the brakes or go rigid all over and freeze! Do something. And that something means 1) stay on the throttle – don’t chop it. Doing so will load up your front tyre further and make the bike run wider 2) Put more weight on the outside peg and lean the bike some more inside to further tighten the turn. This is the most difficult part and goes totally contrary to your instinct. But this is the only correct course of action and assuredly will take you past your judgment error provided of course you have not entered a turn so fast that even such basic corrective action takes you past the available traction reserves of your tyres. But before entering any turn, always remind yourself – SLOW IN – FAST OUT!!
RIDING OVER A FALLEN OBJECT OR SMALL ANIMAL ON THE ROAD
Imagine yourself on a motorcycle tour, making fast miles on that road stretching to the horizon. You see a truck in the distance possibly carrying what looks like a load of wood. You get closer and to your horror, a piece of wood drops on the road, right in your path. No time to swerve or panic brake. Or it could be a small animal that suddenly bursts out from a side of the road and rushes across your path. Thankfully the piece is thin enough for you to be able to ride over or the animal is small enough, even at speed, if you stay calm and in control. Get a tree trunk on the road in your path or a goat saunter across and then ‘God help you!’
If it happens: The moment you see that piece of wood dropping in your path, get the bike upright, steer straight, tighten your grip on the bars, keep the throttle on and get a little off the seat to fully weigh the pegs. Getting a little off the saddle also isolates your body from the sudden jerk the bike will experience as it rides over the object and being isolated from the bike, you will not be jolted with it and so will stay better in control of the handlebars. Staying on throttle gives you a light front end that rides relatively easily over the obstacle and also allows you to positively steer the bike to keep it straight. Staying straight and upright is also the key here. A skewed front wheel or a leaned over bike is a sure recipe for a fall. So do not try to steer your way past the obstacle or try to panic stop when you do not have the time and space for either. Of course that judgment lies entirely with you and within your skill/experience envelope.