I could have wished for a bright, sunny, Northern California morning, but when I stepped out of the house I was greeted by a gray, overcast, damp, foggy day. The artichoke plants in my garden would be very, very happy.
I rolled the ancient 650 cc Triumph out of the garage onto the apron and up on its kickstand while I fixed my Bell helmet and donned the heavy leather gloves. She was a chrome-laden beauty. I have spent thousands of dollars refurbishing every detail until it now was in finer shape than any bike the British factory had ever shipped across the Atlantic. The gleaming candy apple red paint awaited the sun to truly make it sparkle. It may have lacked the speed and handling of modern crotch rockets, but it oozed class and heritage. Of course, it started with just one kick, and I slowly motored out of the drive into the still dark but breaking dawn.
What could tempt me out of my warm, comfortable Sunday morning bed at this hour? Passion: pure passion. My whole being trembled with emotion in unison with the throbbing pulsation of the engine beneath me. Although I had taken this trip countless times before, each Sunday morning was a new and exciting adventure. This was the fabled Sunday morning ride.
The Sunday morning ride started in the early ’40s; 1941 sticks in my mind. A few guys decided to meet early Sunday morning at a gas station in Tamalpais Valley where Miller Avenue branched off from California One. They would meet each Sunday for a ride through one of the twistiest roads in the nation along the cliffs above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean to the left and the looming presence of the majestic Mount Tamalpais to the right. Somewhere up One, they would get breakfast before heading home. More and more riders joined the group meeting at 6:30, every Sunday. The smallest group ever to make the run was in the ’70s when two die hards braved a nasty January storm to make the ride. I was going to go, but when the alarm went off I rolled over and cuddled next to the lady I was with, missing history. I’ve been on rides when about 300 motorcycles and their riders showed up to thunder up Tam Valley to scrape paint off the side-stands in the curves above the cliffs.
I reached the Tam Valley gas station at 0616 hours. The March weather had definitely put a damper on participation as only about a dozen bikers had arrived thus far. Except for three young guys in their early 20s, the rest were hard-core regulars. The three new guys all rode Yamahas and introduced themselves as George, Harry, and “Tiny.” “Tiny” was about 6’6”, and his arms and legs angled out from the low slung superbike in four directions like a tarantula perched on an ant. They had heard about the Sunday morning ride from “Mouse” at the Yamaha shop and vowed to go this Sunday come rain or shine.
“Mouse” was there as usual. He never missed the rides. Riding motorcycles was his life, especially since he had lost his leg on the mountain. His Yamaha had hand controls to make up for the lack of a limb. He lived in a very small apartment in the city, rented a garage, and spent most of his waking day in the garage working on the bike or riding every road in Northern California. He survived on some sort of disability check, and probably spent most of it on gas, oil, and tires. His nickname was because he was smaller than most of the jockeys at Bay Meadows — go figure! Mouse was an excellent rider and usually was the first guy to breakfast. The tradition was that everybody else chipped in and the first biker to get to the breakfast location at Inverness got breakfast paid for. It wasn’t supposed to be a race, but people are competitive.
They all knew me as Doc. I don’t think that any of them knew that I was an orthopedic surgeon, nor did they really care. They just knew that I was some kind of doctor. People who ride are judged more on how skillfully they ride, or by the motorcycle on which they show up. In my case, the cherry antique Triumph was my key to acceptance, as my riding skills were suspect, and I was almost always a back marker.
The only lady rider out today was Cheryl on her very powerful Honda. She wore a pink helmet, and you could always spot her anyplace on the road. She was a superb rider, always in contention to get to breakfast first. Her jet-black pony tail swayed like poetry as she took the toughest of curves with grace.
Other regulars were Rocco and Lopez. They were in their 30s and had grown up together in the Mission District, graduated from Mission High together, and went into business together, though not as partners. Lopez worked for Rocco at Rocco’s Garage, which was a cinder block one-bay auto repair garage in the heart of the barrio. They both rode identical Kawasaki Ninjas. The bikes differed only as to their custom paint. Lopez’s was red and yellow, like the Spanish flag, and Rocco’s was red, white, and green, like the Italian flag. Other than that, they were twins, sliding through the S’s like they were glued together at the handle bars.
Rocco’s or Lopez’s wife took turn playing spy. The spy would pile the kids in the car and follow Rocco or Lopez over the Golden Gate bridge to the rendezvous place and then go ahead with a cell phone and report where the “bean bandits” were hiding. The “bean bandits,” that’s the Marin County Sheriff, was also a part of the tradition.
They knew we would be coming and they also knew we would likely be exceeding the posted speed limit. To them it became a cat and mouse game. To us, the sheriff was a hazard along the Highway One gauntlet. It was the essence of why men climb mountains or ride motorcycles. It’s about nerve, skill, and controlling a machine on the brink of disaster. The power is in your right hand, you have a brake with one hand and a brake with one foot, a hand clutch, and a shifter that is operated by your foot. Balance is most critical: there is really no room for error. You know you’ve got it leaned over, scraping paint off the side stand, daring to twist the throttle just a millimeter more, wondering if you have already pushed the balance past the point of no return, or is there a little bit…more…? Do you dare? It’s a delicate, death-defying dance on the edge of a cliff. It’s an adrenalin rush that is hard to top.
As I was bringing up the rear, I didn’t actually see what was happening in front of me, but by listening to the after reports I can piece together the following: at the front of the pack Mouse’s Yamaha was only slightly ahead of Cheryl’s screaming Honda. Rocco and Lopez were the next grouping, joined at the hip as usual. A guy named Paul, a regular on a Suzuki, was a fair bit behind, but was in position to see what was happening. Behind Paul were a few more regulars, followed by the three Yamaha buddies, Harry, George, and “Tiny,” riding hard but unfamiliar with the trials of the treacherous road. Near the back was a gaggle of us more conservative riders.
Paul was witness to the incident, when Lopez went into a high-speed wobble in a corner, his fish-tailing back end slid over just enough to clip Rocco’s front wheel. At over 80 miles an hour, this was a disaster. Lopez managed to pull out of the wobble, but Rocco was not so lucky. The Kaw went on its side, slid down the road and over the edge, sans rider. Rocco did an arc in the air, landing on the pavement with his left shoulder, which broke his fall along with his shoulder. He rolled down the pavement following the Ninja over the edge. He tumbled over and over down a long slope, stopping short of the crashing waves of the Pacific. In some ways, Rocco was lucky, as this curve and slope wasn’t one of the steep, sheer drops. He lay there not moving.
Paul hit the brakes, jumped off the Suzy, and scrambled down the slope. As the rest of the group came upon the scene they stopped too. A couple of guys followed Paul; Lopez, who had circled back, led this contingent. He was very distraught with concern for his buddy.
Cell phones were fished out of leathers, and a 911 call was put in for an ambulance and a rescue team. Another call was made to the restaurant in Inverness to Rocco’s wife. She broke down crying, left the breakfast half-eaten, and piled the kids in the car to double back to the wreck.
I was the last of the bikers to arrive on the scene. I gingerly made my way down the slope. I yelled to the group not to move him. Rocco was conscious but only moving a tiny bit, and was groaning with pain. His left arm was at an impossible angle and the splintered bone was trying to pierce the leather jacket. Mechanic Lopez had a small roll of duct tape in his pocket and a crescent wrench. I had him take two straight pieces of metal off the wrecked Kawasaki and then used the duct tape and the metal pieces to fashion an improvised splint on the arm. Some gentle probing indicated that the shoulder was badly shattered, and supporting muscles trashed. It would take X-rays to know the complete picture. The neck and spine seemed undamaged. I taped the arm splint to his body. The expensive helmet/face shield had done it job protecting Rocco’s head. There would be sprains and bruises yet to be discovered, but he had survived a nasty crash.
We found out later that Cheryl had nipped Mouse less than a mile from the finish for her first breakfast win. It was a hollow victory because of Rocco’s crash. She had been ecstatic at finally beating Mouse but the damper of the crash news cut the celebration short.
After the ambulance left for Marin General, and the sheriff had written up the incident, we all dispersed without breakfast. It was a slow ride home, and I had a lot of time to think. Was all this worth the risk? I pondered that over and over, as the wind gently caressed my face and the engine heat warmed my body. The throb of the engine through the handle bars, and the power surge through the slight twist of the throttle gave me my answer: by 0630 hour next Sunday I’d be on the Sunday morning ride.
Strasser is a 70-year-old resident of Chesterfield, recently retired from 32 1/2 years of government service. He has also been a broker, banker, record producer, and magician. Obviously, from the story, he used to ride motorcycles.