Irish Medical News


Motorcycling – a Zen thing


My love of motorbikes has tempered over the years…

Late one night, on the spur of the moment, three of us – aged 15 – scrounged a two-man tent, boarded an Ulsterbus and travelled to Dundrod for the Northern Ireland Motorcycle Grand Prix to be held the following day. We didn’t have sleeping bags (“Ach, it’ll be all right”), and our provisions consisted of 10 Rothmans, a bottle of lemonade and a Bar Six. In darkness and driving rain we found a boggy field, pitched the tent, and discovered that it lacked a ground sheet. With the air of a grizzled woodsman, one of my fellow campers predicted that the long hours ahead would be no picnic … and he was right. Our struggle against the elements lacked the epic heroism of, say, Shackleton’s sojourn in the Antarctic, but we learned an important lesson in survival: Thin denims, thick mud and mutual recrimination aren’t conducive to a pleasant night on a bare mountain.

However, the next day was joyful. Lying in a hedgerow, I gawped as a succession of motorcycle idols – Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read – hurtled past astride thunderous machines that shredded my ears, scented my nose with heady vapours of combusting Castrol, and fed fat my dreams of motorcycle stardom. That night I informed my father that I would buy a 500cc MV Augusta when I was 16. My father said “Is that right?” The following morning I fell off my pushbike and grazed my knee.

My love of motorbikes has tempered over the years. In 1970, the death of Brian Steenson at the Isle of Man TT races underlined the sport’s inherent danger. That was around the time I learned that Lawrence of Arabia (who didn’t wear a crash helmet) died a short time after steering his Brough Superior away from a schoolboy on the road – his death certificate reads: “Congestion of the lungs and heart failure following a fracture of the skull and laceration of the Brain (sic) sustained on being thrown from his motorcycle when colliding with a pedal cyclist.”;  and more recently it has become apparent that motorcyclists are the UK’s most vulnerable road users. For example, the relative risk of a UK motorcyclist being killed or seriously injured per kilometre travelled is more than twice that for cyclists and nearly 50 times that for car drivers.

Of course, cyclists are another vulnerable group of road users, and in the UK competitive cyclists-in-training, who often travel in packs, provoke more hostile reactions from motorists than do other cyclists. The title of a recent Australian report by O’Connor and Brown in press (at the time of writing) for the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport gives an idea of the risks courted by those who dare to challenge motorists’ assumed ownership of the highway. “Riding with the sharks: Serious leisure cyclist’s (sic) perception of sharing the road with motorists’ was inspired by a cyclist who likened cycling in Australia to swimming in open water: ‘ … when you choose to ride your bicycle on the road, you make the decision to ‘ride with the sharks’.” But whether you’re riding with sharks or minnows, wearing a bicycle helmet will help prevent head and brain injuries when accidents occur, although it’s also known that improperly fitting helmets, or incorrectly positioned ones, increase the risk of head and brain injuries.

With the recent opening of a nearby track, motocross has attracted my attention. At first glance it appears that the sole aim of the sport – which began in England in 1924 – is to shower spectators with as much high-speed gravel and soil as possible. Mounted on lightweight machines that can attain 100mph, competitors seem reluctant to apply brakes when a heavily shod foot can be thrust into a churned-up pasture instead.

However, those spectators who are prepared to peer through a perpetual aerosol of mud and dust will see levels of riding skill – some of it airborne – that are quite awesome.

But the combination of high-powered machines, rough terrain and competitive riders, means that accidents are bound to happen. Thus, Grange et al’s “Motocross Medicine”, published in Current Sports Medicine Reports (8; 3: 125–130, 2009) cites a study that analysed European competitions from 1980 to 1991, and evaluated 1,870 injuries that resulted from 1,500 accidents. It concluded that the accident incidence was 22.7 per 1,000 hours of riding (with an average of 4.5 accidents per race). The study categorised injuries as “… upper extremity (36 per cent), face (nine per cent), skull (one per cent), head (five per cent), chest (13 per cent) and spine (one per cent).” In addition, head injuries were more common in motorcycle road racing, and neck fractures were more common in motocross. Given the tendency for motocross riders to use their feet to aid balance and/or braking, it’s hardly surprising that 146 riders with ligamentous knee injuries were reported. Specialised knee braces, it seems, are an important piece of protective equipment for any motocross competitor.

But for those disinclined to wrap their fists around a throttle and let rip up a race track or through a farmyard, a more leisurely two-wheeled trip across the landscape of the mind can be had with Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), for which neither protective headgear nor knee braces are necessary.



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