Going Down
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Panicking and silently yelling obscenities at my disheveled self, I tried to peel my heavily loaded Suzuki DR650 off a nice-looking couple’s car. This was the rush hour in Neiva, Colombia, and as I tried to filter through traffic, my right pannier got hit by an impatient bus, propelling me into a clumsy wobble and, eventually, into the door of a black sedan. It wasn’t really a crash, more of a soft, embarrassing thud – but there I was, stuck, with the terrified car people staring at me in shock and disbelief …

No, no, stop, rewind. “Hit” by a bus isn’t quite accurate. The bus just sort of nudged me a little, almost lovingly, and …

Okay, okay. Fine. The bus didn’t hit me. It didn’t nudge me, either. I hit the goddamn bus. I miscalculated the width of the panniers, the bus was moving and I guess I sort of bumped into it.

There I was, a one-woman circus, an idiot gringa who tried riding Colombian style and ended up sideways. People were staring, some visibly amused, some deeply unimpressed. A nice older man jumped off his own motorcycle and helped me pick Lucy up. I thanked him and tried to apologize to the freaked-out couple in the car, but the traffic started moving. 

A minute later, the whole incident was forgotten. People just went about their business. Me, I never forgot it, and to this day, I mostly lie about what happened. “I got squished between two cars,” I say to people. “A bus hit me.”

“Well, nudged me, really.”
“In fact …”

When I got my first motorcycle, a Chinese 150 cc, I was not aware that falling was generally viewed as uncool. As a former horse rider, I felt no prejudice towards involuntary landings. If one fell off a horse, all one had to do was tuck and roll, get up, locate and catch one’s mount, confirm there were no hard feelings on the four-legged side, and get back into the saddle. 

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During my brief but entertaining horse training career, I experienced many forms of falling off: dragged along country lanes with my foot stuck in a stirrup, thrown into tree trunks and hedges while fox hunting, launched over fences during show jumping, bucked off while negotiating a with young, uncooperative equines. It was just part of the job, and no one ever batted an eye. Even photo captions in English fox hunting magazines under pictures of red-jacketed riders tumbling over hedges would read “Spectacular Dismount at the Shropshire Hunt,” instead of “Bunch of Inept Folks Fall Off Horses, Haha.”

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I brought the same attitude to my little motorcycle: I’d come off once in a while, but because the bike was so small and light, I’d giggle, pick the bike up, dust myself off and carry on. It never dawned on me that the act of falling was somehow lame. It was just something that happens sometimes, like flat tires, or grit in your face from a passing truck, or rain. Just a natural rhythm of moto-life, I figured.

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But when I started hanging out with other motorcycle riders, especially after coming back to Europe, something changed. Somewhere along the way, I learned that to fall off meant humiliation. To fall off meant you were incapable, a noob, an object of sniggers and laughter. Nobody explicitly said this, of course. They didn’t have to. Falling off just was uncool, even if you tucked and rolled with smashing success.

However, not all dismounts were equally lame, I learned. Just like other baseless social constructs that unnecessarily, but spectacularly, complicate our lives, there is a hierarchical system categorizing motorcycle falls. Some are permitted, some tolerated and some cruelly laughed at –  the Tiers of Uncoolness.

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Dignified Dismounts

There are falls caused by forces outside of your control: other vehicles, suicidal squirrels, landslides and the like. If you fall off your bike because a befuddled Bambi ran out in front of you, your fall counts as a justified, and therefore dignified, one. Perspective is an important element. Sure, maybe you lost control on loose baby-head rocks, or maybe, just maybe, you spotted a field mouse soaking up the sun on a pebble and didn’t want to ruin his afternoon. Maybe the bus hit you, maybe you hit the bus … Semantics.

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Tolerable Falls

Some falls are kind of okay. They’re kind of your fault, but still sort of tolerated, like if you find yourself on the ground after attempting to ride slick mud, deep ruts in bulldust, a log or some equally sinister surface. After all, in these cases, you’re not just Egle the Nerd who forgot to focus due to daydreaming and tumbled off – no, you’re a Brave Fallen Hero of the Gnarliest Tracks Imaginable.

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Laughable Stupidity

Finally, there are falls that should not, by any means, be brushed off or forgotten easily. You know when you have to stop at the top of a hill, and there’s a slight decline on the left side but you’re not really paying attention, and before you know it, your bike is tipping over? That is a serious offence, in many cases more despicable than killing John Wick’s dog. Fell off crossing a small puddle because your front wheel slipped? Disgrace. Came off on a slow uphill U-turn? Duuuude.

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But just like with all other social constructs, in reality you’ve got a choice: You can either strictly adhere to the code, scrupulously log and categorize your falls, and using the Tiers of Uncoolness algorithm, calculate where you stand on the spectrum between utter lameness and glorious badassery. Or you can simply tuck and roll, unselfconsciously chuckle, get back into saddle and keep riding.

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Obscure places & extraordinary people; motorcycle travel & tales from the road.
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