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Another Sunday, another rideout… another crash

I was just finishing up a few hours work on Sunday afternoon when I had a very shaken call from a friend of mine.

A couple of bikes out on a group ride had gone flying past her on the A252 between Challock and Chilham in Kent. She thought they were tanking on a bit, as she wasn’t hanging around in her car on what is a pretty fast bit of road.

One of the bikes in the group overtook her and the car ahead of her going into a left hand bend bend, and when she went round the bend herself a second or so later, it was just in time to ride into a shower of debris and see a rider cartwheeling into the hedge on the far side of the road, whilst two more bikes and riders were in the middle of crashing in the left hand lane.

She managed to stop without hitting anything or anyone although a chunk of flying bike hit the front of her car. No wonder she was a bit hysterical on the phone.

I passed the scene an hour or so later on the way over to see if she was OK.

From what I could deduce from the skidmarks, the bike that started the incident ran over the white line on the exit from a left hander that follows a short straight and hit an oncoming car head-on. The rider appears to have straightened up and locked up the rear when the bike was about 1m the wrong side of the centre line. From that point, he went diagonally across the other lane and hit the car.

The wreckage of the bike then slide back over the centre line and skittled the two bikes that were behind it, whilst bits of debris hit my friend’s car, and also damaged another bike that just happened to be in the mix.

The other two bikes that crashed ended up straddling the barbed wire fence on the inside of the straight with one rider apparently having flown over the fence in the field beyond it.

There are chunks taken out of the road surface by the sliding bike for 30m or so from the original impact point, and bits of the three bikes spread over the best part of 100m. One bike lost its front forks, snapped clean off as well as having its front wheel shattered.

From the car’s tyre marks, the driver was clearly swerving left and braking hard to try to avoid the bike at the time of impact, and was well away from the centre line; the impact happened only about 2m from the left kerb. The impact visibly shoved the car sideways (you can see that from the car’s tyre marks) which gives some idea that the bike was travelling at speed when they collided. The car ran left across the grass verge before ending up in the hedge.

Not surprisingly the driver of the car that was hit was in deep shock.

So what happened?

I know the road well, riding it several times a week, and it’s a fast but wide and innocuous bend with a virtually perfect surface – ironically until it was resurfaced a couple of months ago, it was one of the worst-surfaced bends in Kent! The weather was fine, warm and dry.

My friend apparently saw the rider running wide just before he disappeared from sight, and had interpreted this as an attempt to overtake the rider further ahead. But assuming I’ve read it right from the straight rear wheel skid mark, I would guess he just turned in too early after passing the cars, thus apexed too early which meant he started to run wide and at this point, rather than correct his line by steering he stood the bike up and braked, from which point on he was committed to going straight and inevitably into the collision.

Why did the others crash? They made the mistake of being too close and went down too being unable to avoid the fallen bike.

The woman in the car clearly did all she could to avoid the rider – she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time; likewise my friend who hit the chunk of debris.

Excess speed? Well, given the bike hadn’t gone down mid-turn and was still on its wheels, the chances are had the rider had the knowledge and/or the confidence to steer aggressively, or even trail brake, he’d have got round. Not neatly but he wouldn’t have run wide into the oncoming traffic.

But once committed to braking upright the end result was always going to be bike and rider going tangentially across the centre line.

Cornering errors are a mistake we can all make. Unfortunately, this particular “run wide on a left hander” is the classic killer accident in a bend. It’s an accident that’s been identified in all the motorcycle accident studies from the Hurt report of the early 70s to MAIDS a couple of years back.

30+ years of biking development and better training and yet we STILL make the same mistake.

But more than that, the incident’s an illustration of how fast things go wrong on a bike when we push a bit harder – the margins for error are narrower and go away much faster than people realise. We operate on safety margins of centimetres a lot of time. And when things go wrong, we go from being comfortable at the speed we’re travelling at to unable to cope in a millisecond.

And with ever-faster bikes and ever-faster cars that we overtake at ever-higher speed we forget another thing; with the extra speed, the “point of no return” at which we are committed to a bend gets ever-further back from it too.

With a faster bike we need MORE space to safely complete an overtake, NOT less, because the bend ahead hasn’t changed, and we need to get the speed down again to get round it!!

As far as I know, all three riders have serious but not life-threatening injuries. They are very, very lucky, particularly the guy who hit the car head-on. The woman driving the car was in deep shock and also had minor injuries, and my friend has had flashbacks to an accident on a bike in her past.

Final point. However much we would like to think we can, we don’t ride the road in isolation, as this accident has shown. Group rides are great fun but…

…keep the pace sensible at the front – you might think you’re setting a fun pass at the front, but following riders have to work progressively harder to keep up.

…and if you’re at the back and can’t keep up, don’t feel it a matter of pride to try, ride at your own pace.

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