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With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: A hard lesson for longtime motorcyclist

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Greg Peck
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mark Helmer began work several months ago as a computer specialist at The Gazette. His new job wouldn't afford him the chance to ride his motorcycle—his preferred mode of transportation—to Janesville from his home in Poplar Grove, Illinois. After all, it's hard to carry computer equipment aboard a 1400 cc Harley-Davidson Road Glide.

Helmer, 46, told me he'd been riding since age 5, when he hopped aboard his first motocross bike. He also told me about a motorcycle accident he had in Rockford at age 25. A vehicle turned left in front of him, and Helmer wound up underneath it. To say he suffered severe injuries would be putting it mildly. He had a broken neck and broken back. His left leg was crushed; his right severed. Doctors were able to reattach his leg.

Still, he knows he was lucky. He wasn't wearing a helmet, and he suffered no head injury.

Helmer continued to ride without a helmet. A doctor told him that even with a helmet, if your head strikes the pavement, you're liable to wind up with a significant brain injury. Helmer told me a motorcyclist has more peripheral vision and can hear better without a helmet, so that crash 21 years ago didn't convince him to start wearing one.

A few weeks ago, Helmer rode his Harley, a bike he customized, to Freeport, Illinois, to help a friend with computer problems. He was there longer than expected. It was past midnight Aug. 1 when he headed home on Highway 20 between Freeport and Pecatonica, Illinois. That time of night, no other cars were on the road.

Suddenly, a deer jumped out of the median and ran toward Helmer's bike. The whitetail slammed into the side of Helmer's Harley, sending him careening into the ditch. The far side of the ditch was high and acted like a ramp, launching him airborne into a cornfield.

Somehow, Helmer survived.

“As long as I've been riding, certain scenarios go through your head. What would I do if this happened?”

He knew he needed a soft landing. The field offered that.

“It was instinctual because I'd thought about it so many times, which was to find a soft spot.”

Helmer leaped off the heavy bike so it wouldn't fall on and further injure him. Still, lacerations, probably from the corn stalks, made hamburger of his face. He suffered side and wrist injuries and a deep knee gash. Again, he got lucky and avoided any severe head injury.

He fared better than the deer. Helmer, an avid hunter, recognized it as a yearling. The crash cut it in two.

Helmer's bike suffered much damage. The fairing, or front shield, was destroyed. His saddlebag was cracked, its lid torn off. The crash bars were bent. Still, the bike was operable, and with no other motorists around, Helmer struggled to get it back on the road, climbed aboard and rode 25 miles to the nearest gas station before calling a buddy.

The next day, a doctor treated his wounds and drained blood from deep side bruises. Helmer suffered hairline fractures of two ribs.

Helmer was luckier than Trevor R. Arndt, 23. Arndt's motorcycle hit a deer last Friday night in Wisconsin's Shawano County, and the Tigerton man died a short time later.

Helmer says he has never hit a deer with a car, and he never before had a close call between whitetail and motorcycle. “You're a little more aware,” when riding, he told me.

He realizes it's lucky the deer wasn't a full buck that might have weighed another 100 or more pounds.

Helmer isn't riding these days. He's in the process of fixing his Harley.

His latest collision could serve as a cautionary lesson for inexperienced riders.

“This is an odd season,” he said. “This is the first time I've seen this many deer out, and a lot of the biker community has commented on it. It's a very high population this year.

“The big thing is, from dusk till dawn is when you have to watch out the most. And try to bike with somebody—multiple bikes, not just yourself. You've hear the phrase, 'Loud pipes save lives?' When you have a lot of bikes out, they make noise, and deer tend to run away from the noise.”

Riding alone that night, Helmer thinks his bike didn't make enough noise to startle up the yearling in time for it to run clear of his motorcycle.

He looks forward to riding again. He'll continue to do so without a helmet. He calls riding his “wind therapy.”

“It's in my blood,” he said. “I can't get rid of it.”

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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