Wednesday, August 25, 2010

They Call Them "Twisties"!

Me and one of my new pals, "Extreme Ed" (aka "Freak" to his
St. Louis buddies) at the Bixby Country Store in Bixby, MO.
Photo by Brian Eaves

DISCLAIMER: The screaming in my mind while riding with the St. Louis Scooter Club is not in any way a reflection on the Club or it’s members.


From my perspective, I'm careening straight down a very steep hill and somehow I'm supposed to make a sharp curve right in the middle of it.

Two days before beginning this 3,400 mile journey, I met with my brother and we evaluated my braking technique. I'd been taught one thing in my safety class and now, just before leaving, everybody was offering their opinion about what were the safest braking practices. Having only logged a few hundred miles on a simple Vespa scooter the previous summer, I had crammed 1,000 miles of training into the two weeks before departure. On top of that, I was now riding a Piaggio MP3 250, a peculiar scooter with two wheels in front and one in back. So I needed to know once and for all if I had to adjust my braking style, two days before leaving.

My brother used to race motocross, and when he climbed on my scooter and raced around the high school parking lot, he made it do things I'd only seen on the Piaggio website, performed by professionals. My heart was in my throat as he whipped the bike from side to side and came within inches of dragging his knee on the ground. He rode back to me and calmly said, “It's pretty top-heavy, and the two wheels in front give it a pretty different balance." He explained that it would be easy to lock up the front tire if I applied too much pressure to the front brake, and the back tire could skid out of control. "In the end, I think you actually should brake the way you were taught.”

The general wisdom is that in a panic situation, we do what we're used to doing, only harder and faster. A more experienced rider can use more subtle pressure, called “feathering,” to brake; but we didn’t think there was much room for it on the Piaggio and anyway I didn’t have time to get more experienced. So, we made a rule, which I had practiced for the 2, 700 miles leading to St. Louis: in turns, rear (left) brake only.

But now I was pulling my left brake with all my might and I was still flying straight ahead while the road curved sharply right. I screamed out to John in my mind, “I have no choice, John! I’m gonna go easy!” I didn’t really think I had time for easy, and I was past the turn before I could evaluate how I did. I couldn’t tell you how much I used that front break for the rest of the ride.

Maggie Madonia, the leader of the St. Louis Scooter Club, always leads the ride. The novice rider goes behind her with another experienced rider bracketing right behind. Two days before, she and Pete rode 40 miles out of St. Louis to meet me and ride me into the city. Now, this has it’s own kind of stress, because there are other riders to keep track of, keep an even distance from, etc., but these two worked seamlessly as a team to keep me safe. Maggie would signal that she was going to change lanes, I'd look behind me, and I'd see that Pete had already changed lanes and was holding the traffic for me. Working together they created a kind of shield around me, and it was amazing. I was beginning to understand what it might have been like to learn to ride under their tutelage, instead the way I'd learned, out on the road all alone.

Me and the St. Louis Scooter Club peeps at
Sandy Creek Covered Bridge.

On this journey to Bixby, MO, Maggie was at the lead, then me, then Pete, then about eight others from the St. Louis Scooter Club. It was a wild mix of scooters and Harleys, truly a "come one, come all" attitude. Our stop at the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge was my first chance to talk to some of the riders that I'd only seen for a moment at our safety review before we left the hotel that morning. I was blown away by that first segment of the ride. At this point, I thought my arms were going to fall off. They felt like they had the first week I started riding, but now each turn was coupled with elevation and either braking or driving throttle. On the first incline when we took a curve I realized, “Whooooooa, that is a CLIFF there! No barrier, just road, a few inches of dirt and then trees lacing a CLIFF.”

That was the last time on the ride, though, that I had enough time to even think a complete thought. The mantra-prayer sentence I'd been reciting throughout my tour, whenever I was stressed (when I was first learning to ride the gentle wide sweeping turns at higher speeds, the foggy three-and-a-half hour ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Paradise, the ride through a near tornado into Wausau, Wisconsin) was reduced to a single word: “LIGHT!” I could not even speak the word. I shouted it in my mind, just once, at that first curve when I saw the cliff. After that the prayer had to become an action, and time and space were compressed.

I closely watched Maggie up ahead — in part to stay a safe distance behind her, but also to observe her ride. I could see that she had an easy, even rhythm around the turns. When I could mimic it, I could feel the road in my body and it was bliss — it was no longer me and the bike in the environment, we became the environment. During most of the tour my time and attention had been so focused on developing my skills that, I confess, I hadn’t had much fun when riding — but suddenly I thought "Ah, I can see why people want to ride!" It was sweet, that roll to the right, then left , then right, again, and again.

When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind ... In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into is own.
-Mihaly Csikszentamilhalyi

But in the second segment of the ride, there came a moment of sheer terror: I got ahead of myself in a turn and I was skidding off to the very edge of the road. From my view there was only a few inches of gravel, then trees, then — cliff. I didn’t have time to picture what could have been — only to realize that my eyes were on the piece of ground that I was sliding on, and in the last instant to do what I had taught myself in the 2,700 miles of turns before; it was just a moment for me to lift my head, which resulted in what I had practiced: “LOOK UP! at the final edge of the corner and let the bike LEAN to that point!” But this correction required a quick, hard and fast lean and then... I made it. My heart was beating about 240 bpm, and I know what that feels like, because my heart had beat that fast at times when I was in the ICU.

Our convoy through the Ozarks, as seen in Extreme Ed's side mirror.
Photo by Flynn.

Did my practice save me? My instincts? Certainly the fact that I was only going 30 at the final recovery moment helped. If you look at my drive reports (part of my real-time tracking on my web-site), you will see that I was going 30 every single time the tracker located me in that pass. I have Maggie to thank for this. There was a great deal of talk about how I “rode my own ride”; for those of you who don’t ride motorcycles/scooters, this means I didn’t feel pressured to ride above my ability just because I was riding with a group. Now that is partially true - we went super slow for me all day - and the members of the St Louis Scooter Club were angels about it, charming actually, talking about how they had noticed that a certain farm had horses, or saw certain kinds of trees they had never noticed, because they had never ridden this road so slowly (as an aside, I didn’t see anything except Maggie and the road; I knew it was green on either side of me but that was about it).

It took every ounce of RAM I had just to stay alive as they moseyed on down the road. But I believe there was a positive pressure to keep an even tempo. If I didn’t have Maggie ahead of me, so smoothly demonstrating each and every turn, had I been out there alone, I can assure you I would have braked more into the turns and tried to speed out of them too heavily. I’m only talking about 2 or 3 miles an hour more, but I think it would have made my ride jerkier, less stable, and less safe.

The truth is, for all my panicky thoughts and momentary terrors, Maggie and the St. Louis Scooter Club guided me through my first technical ride. Now what do I mean my technical ride? This is the term for a ride that requires skills, not really a ride for a novice rider. If I have anything “bad” to say about my experience with the St. Louis Scooter Club, it is about their cute little term for a technical ride: they call them “Twisties.” It sounds like a treat you might get at the Dairy Corner, right?!

Now just to be clear, Maggie repeatedly said, and I QUOTE, “This is going to be a challenging ride, with higher elevation and lots of twists and turns, which you are NOT used to.” UNQUOTE! This should have been a red flag. I probably should have asked, “What kind of elevation are we talking about, and what degree of turns?” But for some reason, I didn't. And on top of that, I’m a person that usually knows my geography, but somehow I had not put it together that we were talking about a technical ride through the OZARK MOUNTAINS. I was told we were going down the Mark Twain Trail; doesn’t that sound sweet? The lesson here, is DO YOUR HOMEWORK! LOOK AT THE MAP! FIND OUT THE ELEVATION AND THE DEGREE OF TURNS! Even when guided by incredibly safe and careful tutors like the St. Louis Scooter Club, I should have known what I was getting myself into, instead of being shocked out on the road. That was my own fault.

And here is another lesson: had I known what the level of difficulty was, I probably wouldn’t have done the ride. But the fact is if Maggie and Pete, these two experienced riders who had ridden into St. Louis with me the day before, didn’t think I could handle that ride they would have made another plan. Okay so I won’t ever go into a ride “blind” again, but in this case, in the end, I'm glad that I did; otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to raise my riding level, safely and carefully, with their guidance. It would have been a sadly missed opportunity. And again, to be clear, Maggie repeatedly said, “We will take this at your pace and you will be fine.” Which is exactly what happened. We did take it at my pace, and I was fine.

BUT... the real challenge came in the third section of the ride. As I was finally beginning to get the hang of the braking, the throttle, and the degree of lean needed to meet these turns, I felt a deep sharp pain in my right hip and abdomen. This was a bigger OMG moment, when I realized that this distraction could lead to an error, which could mean a ride off the cliff. I had another moment of terror when I almost failed to navigate my way around a curve. So now I had to stay with the “ride” with my full concentration on staying safe, while managing constant stabbing pains that came sometimes when I was braking and sometimes when I wasn’t.

I knew the pain could mean one of two things: it could be the unthinkable, a severe abdominal injury (which could mean a surgery that my surgeon, the best in the country, has repeatedly said he's not sure how - or if - it could be done again on my body); or, it could just be torn scar tissue, which though painful is not a big deal. I figured I would know by morning. In the meantime, I needed to “ride over it,” mainly because there was no other way out of this terrain. And if I were to stop the bike on that steep, winding road I'd have risked a major accident for myself and everyone behind me. There was no time for prayer, just work: the brake, the throttle, the road, and the lean. I just had to focus on each turn, each moment, each now.

Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable (emphasis added). Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action. If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills or are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur. The climber will feel it when the mountain demands all his strength, the singer when the song demands the full range of her vocal ability, the weaver when the design is more complex than anything attempted before, and the surgeon when the operation involves new procedures or requires an unexpected variation.
-Mihaly Csikszentamilhalyi

When we stopped at the Country Store in Bixby, MO I let the photographer/motorcyclist on our two-day film team ride my scoot the final 15 miles into Salem, MO. I told the St. Louis Scooter Club that I was fatigued. Only my crew and my husband would know about the potentially disastrous situation I was in. I'd just have to sweat it out until morning...

...and low and behold, in the morning, after no significant pain in the night, I knew it had only been torn scar tissue, which I'd experienced when I first started riding the scooter. "Whew!" would be an understatement. I’m truly thanking God on that one.

Me and the amazing Bridget Bohac, Queen (and Owner) of the Bixby Country Store.
Photo by Brian Eaves

So, there we were in Bixby, MO at the Bixby Country Store, a general store I had heard so much about from Maggie... and it was that much more than she had described. When I first walked in my eye was drawn to the ceiling where a toy train ran along a suspended track. I heard someone yelling, “Please turn on the train! Turn on the train!” There was candy, amazing food, a wild selection of drinks, and an incredible mixture of paraphernalia from the past and the present. As we were eating in a back room one of my photographers captured video of around six hummingbirds dining simultaneously outside the window.

I knew that meal was my last chance to talk to my scooter club friends, because I was moving on and they would be heading back to St. Louis. I'd met several of them the day before at Maplewood Scooter, but it seemed I'd had so little time to talk to them before this unforgettable ride, this ride where they held me to my own line, the day I learned to ride with a group, the day I became, in my own mind, a rider -- the first day that I met the edge of the road, with fear, and recovered. Of course it was just another day for them, another ride to a beloved spot, Bixby; but for me it was my first technical ride. They can call it a “Twisty” if they want.

When we stopped just after my “near incident” I sheepishly said, “I’m sorry about that you guys,” because I knew that if I had blown it and gone down I would have put every bike behind me at risk too. The guy we called “Extreme Ed,” a big Harley rider with a shaved head and a helmet decorated with a grinning skull, calmly said, “You were okay. That is the hardest turn in the trip. It has a double apex. You had the first one, then you were too high for the second one, but you figured it out and got yourself down.” Each time we stopped he'd had something encouraging to say to me. He added, “The Rule is: when in doubt, LEAN. If you're in more doubt, LEAN more.” I hope I hear his words the next time I’m in trouble.

At the hotel, just before we embarked on my first "Technical Ride."
I wouldn't have looked nearly so sassy if I'd realized what was coming!
Photo by Brian Eaves.


  1. What a way to go out! Sounds like you had your own "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle" experience. This bike group looks and sounds wonderful. I'm so glad they were with you on this one. Love the photos, too!

  2. "The general wisdom is that in a panic situation, we do what we're used to doing, only harder and faster." That definitely sounds right. I'm not surprised that you have made this kind of insightful observation, given how attuned you are to your surroundings and your body.

    That's quite a heart rate! How did you know the rate? Your experience sounds terrifying. You illustrate that terror well. Suspenseful post! I'm glad that you are paying such attention to safety. Maybe this post will encourage others to do the same.

  3. @ loveable: my heartrate was monitored and it was actually much higher, (I actually have documentation). I know it is hard to believe, I was given medication to keep it down to around 240. There were many arguments when I was finally released from the medically induced coma, because when I would try to talk my heartrate would start rising above the 240 and alarms would go off and nurses would come running in again. So, I distinctly remember what that feels like, because this when on for several weeks.

  4. @ Liz
    No kidding, there is no way to quantify my experience with the St. Louis Scooter Club! My words do not do it justice! And each and every person is so incredible, I so wanted to bring them all home with me!

  5. My heart was in my mouth as I read your post. It hadn't occurred to me until now that the two wheels in the front could actually be more, not less challenging although more stable. And anyone who's ridden a bicycle down steep gradients will relate to the importance of choosing the correct brake - I can't imagine making split-second decisions in hair-pin turns at 30 mph with a fleet of riders behind you! What an incredible experience, Ara - as you say, best you didn't know in advance! Sometimes ignorance leads to bliss ...

  6. Ara as someone so close to you I am first and foremost so proud of you for both undertaking AND completing this most challenging adventure!

    Secondly the little wuss that I am, I am glad I did NOT know some of the perils you faced until AFTER you had faced them and made it through intact!

    What an amazing experience that you will always have to look back upon - taken on by you to give some attention to your cause and I am sure test some of your own limits.

    You Go Girl!!

    Love you,


  7. @ Janet and Kelli,

    Thanks for appreciating that major YIKES of it all.