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Scooting the Detroit Potholes

After the winter that we had, this spring and summer is bringing us the worst road conditions that many riders have ever encountered. If it’s not a pot-hole filled road, it’s new and ongoing construction. Add in the normal unfamiliarity that drivers have in seeing motorcycle and scooters this time of year and you have a potentially disastrous recipe for riding. Let’s take a look at the few things that the scooterist can do to minimize wear and tear and maximize safety in riding the potholes of Detroit.

The patchwork quilt of road repairs on one suburban street near Detroit
Detroit Scooter Examiner
Scooting these roads is dangerous enough, but then potholes!
Detroit Scooter Examiner

To successfully negotiate these deteriorated streets, your tires must be in top shape. They must be free of old damage, have full or close-to-full tread and be inflated properly for you to even have a chance. Riding a tire that has an old repair, sidewall damage or that is just suffering from old age is a mistake. The hard edges of a pothole could help supply the blow that ends your tire’s life and might wind up tossing you off the scoot. If there is even a time to be absolutely obsessed with the air pressure in your tires, it is now. A tire with lower pressure will generate more heat and will be susceptible to compression into the wheel, with potentially catastrophic results. Too high of a pressure will result in a teeth-chattering ride, reduced traction, and perhaps a tendency to carry more speed into turns. The appropriate speed in turns is usually fun, but unless you know the condition of the road in the turn in advance, a lower speed is probably better for the grip and most riders.

Although there isn’t a lot we can do to adjust a stock suspension on a modern scooter, we can inspect the suspension for damage and for proper operation. Kneel down and take a good look at the various parts of your suspension - look for axle nuts or clamps and make sure that they are tight and at the right torque values. Examine your shocks and springs, both on the front and on the rear of the scooter. They should be well attached, with no “play” or loose hardware. The shock rods (the shiny metal part) should be clean and free from obvious dirt or oil. If you do see dust or a light coating of dirt, use a tiny amount or mild cleaner or light oil and a soft cloth to gently clean them. The idea is to keep foreign objects like dirt away from the seals where the rod goes into the shock. The cleaner the rod, the more ability that the seals will remain undamaged and that the shock fluid will stay where it belongs. Springs should be firmly mounted and free from rust or obvious dirt. Any caked on dirt or mud should be removed because at full compression the individual spring coils may come into contact with each other, crushing whatever is in between.

The key to riding the rough streets in and around Detroit is to maintain absolute awareness of the riding conditions. This means keeping an eye on the road surface and riding slower on the worst pavement. Scooterists have to have five eyes anyway (one for each mirror, two for each side at the front and one in the back of your head), so be sure to dedicate one of the five to watching the pavement. If you don’t actually have five eyes, use the “scooterist’s scan” to continually view the traffic conditions to the front, back and sides, but include the road surface. Add a quick glance of the road from a minimum of 15 feet to almost as far as you can make out road imperfections - perhaps 150 feet out. During your scan, try to pick out the bigger imperfections like big potholes and large areas of patches. Plan your avoidance of the larger road imperfections and make sure that you can move from side-to-side within your lane to miss the worst spots. Avoid the potholes at all costs, as small wheels typically don’t perform well hitting bottom or coming out of them. If you must ride through a small or shallow pothole, consider raising your body off the seat a short distance by standing on the floor. Keep the steering absolutely straight and try to keep a light touch on the handlebars. Maintain your body in the middle of the scoot — neither forward or rearward. In a truly deep pothole (the ones that you will avoid), you may be pitched off the front of the scoot if the front end digs in (a "highside" “off”), or you could pop an inadvertent wheelie as the front wheel clears the “ramp” and the rear wheel drops into the hole. Either way, it’s bad news and deep potholes should absolutely be avoided.

Another road condition to be ready for is the collection of deteriorated pavement pieces that line corners or slight dips in the road. These pockets of rubble should be traversed very carefully, if at all. The small pieces of road debris act almost as ball bearings on the bottom and sides of your tires, and can result in a “lowside” accident where the scoot goes out from underneath the rider. Keep your eyes peeled for piles of gravel in corners and in low parts of the road. If you encounter gravel in a corner, watch your speed and try to bring the scoot upright to ride through the gravel in a straight line. If you encounter the debris in a low point while riding straight, keep moving forward, maintain your balance and keep light grip on the handlebars.

Ride Ready
With good condition tires, proper air pressure and a functional suspension, you can safely ride even these pitted and rotten streets. All it takes is that sometimes-missing awareness. Be aware of the roads that you are riding, be aware of traffic near you in case you have to slow or move across your lane to avoid something nasty, and finally, be aware of your skill level on rough pavement. There is no better rehearsal than riding, so find a crumbling parking lot and try some slow maneuvers to build some confidence or as a tune up to riding the rough roads of Detroit and beyond.

What’s Next: The amazing Bandcamp Rally

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