Opinion: One too many

All motorcyclists have their favourite roads, for all kinds of reasons. One of the all-time favourites in southern Ontario is Hwy. 507, about a half-hour north of Peterborough, which heads up toward Haliburton.

It’s a popular bike road because it’s winding and relatively little-travelled. On weekends, it can fill with sport bikes and the police know this; there’s a sign at the south end that warns of the fines if you’re caught speeding. On one summer day in 2017, three riders were killed when one motorcyclist, part of a northbound group of 11, crossed the centre line and hit two southbound riders. They were all men in their 40s, with families, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most speed fine warning signs in Ontario stop at 30 km/h over the limit. The Hwy. 507 sign warns against stunting, more than 50 km/h over the limit.

“It is a pretty popular area to motorcycle. A lot of turns, a lot of winding road, nice area up there,” said OPP Const. Joe Ayotte, talking to Global News last month. “We’re just asking motorcyclists to take their time in the area, and also reminding other motor vehicles to be cautious that there are a lot of motorcycles in the area.”

David Rusk wrote about Hwy. 507 in Cycle Canada magazine’s First Person column last year, when he rode up to visit the site where his friend Al Royer was killed on his motorcycle. “Twisting through southern Ontario’s cottage country this fabled jewel is rife with blind corners that offer thick forest or deadly rock as run off. Add the ever-present threat of wildlife and it’s plain to see why so many of us have been judged there,” he wrote, and then referred directly to his friend. “A horror found him that evening and like so many of our lost no one will ever know why.”

At the site of the crash, David found some small pieces of Al’s black-and-silver Honda Fireblade in the grass and he was struck by the full understanding of what happened.

“I saw where it all went wrong in those black marks and curse my imagination for drawing it all for me in my mind. Like a slow-motion movie, I saw my friend die,” he wrote.

“The realization and sharp inhale as the chain snatches wildly and the noise that makes. The huge eyes and a scream choked down to a grunt as muscle memory tries to save it all. The sublime violence of energies breaking free from control and finally the acquiescence a moment before the end.”

David Rusk, taking a break from riding, in his leathers.

That column was published in March 2018. Last month, David Rusk was killed on Hwy. 507. He was riding alone. Nobody saw his Honda RC51 slide into the right-side ditch on a left-turning curve; a homeowner spotted pieces of crashed bike on his driveway and discovered David’s lifeless body smashed against a tree.

“He knew the dangers, and he admitted to going fast,” says his partner, Lisa Downer. “He knew when, where, how – it was just one of those things. A lot of people think the way the curve was, there was a car (approaching him) that was just a little too far over the line and David had to compensate. By the time that car went around the bend, they wouldn’t even have known that David went off, because the sightline’s gone. Or it could have been an animal, or a bit of gravel. You just don’t know.”

There were no skid marks on the road. Like so many of our lost, no one will ever know why.

David’s Honda RC51 was much loved, and shared space with him and Lisa in their apartment.

David was an experienced rider who’d got back into motorcycling just three years ago; he was 52, but had put bikes on hold since his 30s when he went out west to work on the oil patch. He was still working in Alberta as a fuel truck driver but came home for two weeks every month, and when he was home, he loved to ride his bike. It was surely a release from the regimen of the truck. He was proud of his bike, too – he showed it at the Spring Motorcycle Show on the Red Carpet Display, where it was awarded the runner-up prize for Asian Sport Bike.

The RC51 was awarded runner-up in the Asian Sport Bike class at the Spring Motorcycle Show in Toronto this year.

“David was so confident,” says Lisa. “Sometimes, I would think, oh, don’t be too confident, but he was a safe rider.”

He was a fast rider, though. He posted video on YouTube last year of riding on Hwy. 507, where the helmet cam shows his speedometer. “A decent pace on the 507 in central Ontario, Canada,” he wrote in the description. “Typical Ontario roads..bumpy,.. keeping me in check.” His average speed on the near-deserted road was above 160 km/h, more than double the speed limit, and at one point it shows an indicated 199, where the digital display tops out. At such speeds on a public road, there’s little room for error.

Seen on YouTube, David takes a curve on Hwy. 507 at 177 km/h.

So it would be easy to dismiss David Rusk as just another speed freak, killed by his own excess. Yet the stretch of road on which he died is unremarkable: some switchbacks headed south, followed by a shallow rise and then a gentle turn to the left, barely a curve at all. Of all the challenges on Hwy. 507, this is not one of them.

The stretch of road where David died. His body was found in the ditch on the right, against a stunted tree just before the driveway, and the motorcycle came to rest on the other side of the driveway.

Surely there’s been a mistake? Surely the directions given to this site were wrong? Except there in the ditch, half-buried in sand, is a small shredded piece of plastic, painted black and silver in the colours of a Honda RC51.

Found in the ditch.

Now Lisa is left to try to make sense of it all, and of course, there is no sense to it.

“I sit here and I try to think – what’s it all supposed to mean? What am I supposed to learn? What am I supposed to do with this? I feel like there must be something.”

In recent years, David had begun writing about his motorcycle passion – for Toronto’s Spring Motorcycle Show magazine, for The Riders Mag, and for Bikelife.com. You can read some of his stories here and here, and Lisa hopes to gather some of his writing into a book, so that he’ll be remembered by readers for years to come.

In BikeLife, he wrote about the feeling of going just a bit too fast around a corner, when “All your precise actions mutate from the serene to panic and caresses turn to stabs at the controls.” On the top of his gas tank, he had a sticker with the words “Look Lean Believe”. “Look and it will happen. Lean and believe in your tires and bike, believe in you. Look to save yourself,” he explained.

David Rusk was cremated last month in his leathers. We’ll never know for sure why he overshot the curve that day, and Lisa will probably never know what it’s all supposed to mean.

David Rusk and Lisa Downer.

16 thoughts on “Opinion: One too many”

  1. Thank you for sharing your stories Cam. We must all keep in mind we are frail beings galloping along on our piston steeds. We need to watch out not only for other drivers but also ourselves. Both for our our own sake and for those around us.

  2. After reading this and the way it was written as if the rider were a victim of circumstance, I had problems with it. If riders aren’t going to take responsibility for their riding, who will? I’m saddened by such a senseless loss of life and frustrated at how this wasn’t framed like Mark’s 2017 ‘quick and the dead’ – you wanna go fast? Start doing track days. You want to touch three times the legal limit on poorly maintained back roads full of blind corners, gravel and wildlife? Reality will teach you some harsh lessons.

    1. I have to go along with you on this, Timothy. As I read in only a few sentences, I got an uneasy feeling that this person has some poetic, esoteric notion that’s divorced from reality. And sure enough, the uneasy feeling was presented with the demise of this person, at one with the fates.

      I am not shy to admit I consider myself no more than a 6/10 ths rider. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I think about everything I am not doing well enough. I especially like to be smooth, not so much fast. I took a safety course on a track (i.e. not racing) in my 11th year so I could regain some of the confidence in myself and in the bike. My “edge” was slipping away. The voice in the back of my head was telling me I needed a refresher so I’d have more moves – more options at my disposal the next time some clown crossed the line or I don’t judge a curve correctly.

      To me, motorcycle riding is the best thing I’ve taken up on my own volition in maturity. Strangely when i paddled closed boat white water, motorcycles were alien and scared the bejusus out of me. School chums had died horribly on them. My friends thought I was nuts launching into rapids with death lurking around every rock. It was just fun at the time and required constant learning and practice to improve. Safety was always impressed among us, not thrill seeking to cheat death. Now I love my motorcycle and you would probably not get me back into a C1 (one man closed canoe).

      Both activities have left me cold, tired, sore, and out of cash for gas to do it all over again. But there is nothing transcendent about either of them. It’s as real as it gets and it can be over in a flash, leaving some very upset people behind.

    2. Timothy, you’re making the very reasonable assumption that David Rusk was riding too fast when he went off the road, and he probably was, but we don’t know this. The site of his crash is 5 km from the end of a 40 km stretch, so he may well have slowed by the time he reached it. Also, he may well have ridden that day at a far slower speed, for whatever reason. We don’t know the cause of his leaving the road and unless he was running a GoPro, which the cops have never mentioned, or his phone can be traced for velocity, or an eyewitness saw him flash past at high speed, it is still just an assumption based on previous behaviour that his death was caused by something unexpected at high speed. His body and bike were found fairly close to the road, after all, and very high speed would surely have sent them much farther from the point of the crash. The whole point of this column is that you never know what’s finally going to get you, though David seemed to predict it while feeling impervious to it, but if you take all reasonable precautions, you’ll (hopefully) have the upper hand.

  3. I live in Peterborough. Riding for the last 15 years. Currently own a Yamaha tracer 900. I’ve ridden the 507 dozens of times. I keep it under 100 when I do. I avoid it now. Not because it’s a bad road, though it is getting pretty rough. Not because it scares me. I’m sick of the sport bikes and riders from out of town. The reckless speeds they ride at, coupled with the blatant disregard for other motorcyclists and cars, is just plain ignorant. Every single summer riders die in single vehicle accidents needlessly, and frankly stupidly.

    I’ve had too many run ins with that type of rider over the years. Reckless passing in corners. Being passed in my lane on the right at speeds that defy logic. Near head on misses in corners, when a speeding rider goes wide.

    No thanks, I’ll stick to other roads, not travelled by these selfish fools.

  4. There are old fighter pilots and there are bold fighter pilots. There are very few old bold fighter pilots. This is a favorite saying of good friend of mine which I think about every time I ride.

    On Monday I rode the 507 and as I rode I thought about the various motorcycle deaths that have occurred on that road. I also thought about the residents who live and travel that road – mothers, fathers, grand parents, children, and first responders. The area is a summer vacation paradise marred by motorcyclists with loud pipes, and frequently excessive speed. The road is rife with elevation changes, blind curves. driveways, sideroad entrances, heaved pavement, and on and on. Imagine what it is like to live there, coexisting with the foolhardy. Imagine what it is like to come across an accident scene with your loved ones; or to be a first responder who tries to produce miracles and sage a mangled life; or worse, tell a surviver that there loved one has perished.

    If I were a local, I would be lobbying hard to ban bikes from this road. Think about it.

    Mark, you wrote a lovely piece. The man who died was a human being who was loved and liked. However, I am disappointed that you didn’t take the opportunity to leverage this tragic story to promote not only safety for motorcylists and the at Public at large, but also to make the point that careless and care fee motorcycling really tarnishes the image of all motorcylists.

    1. I have a cottage on the 507 and have been an ER and military doc for most of my working life. I have had to deal with half a dozen bike wrecks, some live and some dead, over the years on the road. The trauma is as bad as any road side bomb, limbs off and lots of blood. I don’t ride that road to the lake as the bikes are as dangerous as the cars and granite. Romanticize it all you wish but the death is as final, ugly and violent as anything in combat, and the waste just as great.

  5. One more thing. This summer a guy went for a spin from the Slocan Valley in BC. Filled up for gas in Castlegar and then poof, disappeared. No closure for the family. I carry and use a SPOT GPS locator with the tracking on. So at least my family could find my body and get closure. Especially in BC where I ride, very remote, minimal cell coverage. Hard to dial your phone when you are dead, injured or have no coverage. Most of our bikes are very fast, fast is fun, but more dangerous. Even on the track. Speed is very addictive, so is heroin, pick your poison. Cam

  6. I’m going to be non-PC and call a spade a spade: Warning – severe bluntness ahead.
    I’m saddened by this needless loss of life.
    It wasn’t a ‘lapse in attention’ as that is simply too much of an exaggerated euphemism.
    Regardless of skill level, deciding to ride at multiple times the posted speed limit, on PUBLIC roads is simply an irresponsible and selfish ‘decision’ showing manifest contempt for the risks and possible consequences involved..
    Riding like a ‘squid’ in your late teens/twenties…sure, we’ve all done so, to various degrees, and I certainly have. Youth, testosterone and immature exuberance leads to poor decisions.
    Still practicing squid like behaviour on public roads while sporting silver hair? Inexcusable.
    As the saying goes…play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
    In my 40 odd years of riding, I’ve lost 2 very skilled riding friends due to their self inflicted, irresponsible riding style on public roads. What a great and sad shame when this occurs.

  7. I am a family doctor and fanatic rider, BC and Washington state. I have come upon 2 serious accidents in the past 2 summers. The first was between Kaslo and New Denver. 2 riders, they had just completed a very technical stretch uphill, at the pass it is very mellow. But the second rider went slightly wide in a right hand bend, not even a turn, and side swiped an SUV. I surmise he just relaxed and let his guard down. Many of us were with him, for about 40 min, he did not make it. I am still traumatized by that. Wife and 2 children. The second was a month ago. A new rider came around a wet corner about 40 km east of Princeton. The corner is poorly designed and goes to negative camber at the end. She went wide, hit the brakes, low sided and ended up under the front of an RV, left front wheel ran over her legs. Her boyfriend was in a car right behind her, imagine watching that. I was with her for over an hour, cold and wet lying on the pavement, 24 and so incredibly brave. The Princeton first responders were amazing. The volunteer fire dept got the RV up and we got her into an ambulance and up the hill to a chopper, 200 metres away! She made it. Her bike was a new Suzuki 250 street bike with no ABS!! Why is this allowed in Canada? Why do we not follow Europe? $200 bucks/bike!! Of course it is the new, young riders who don’t understand and don’t have much money. I don’t know if it would have prevented the low side, but if it saved one riders life, it is worth it. It is difficult for me to even write this, but it is too important to be silent. We all need to speak up and make our voices be heard. She is someone’s child, sister, partner. Cam

    1. I agree, if Europe can mandate ABS for all bikes (over 125 cc, I think?), I don’t see why we couldn’t. If all the models imported are ABS-equipped, it should help to keep the price down, too.

  8. I had the opportunity to race with and against Al Royer. Al would try to coerce me to ride the 507 with him. Tales of 200+ with knee on the ground did little to excite me. I always politely refused and tried to tell Al to take it back to the track. Al was an amazing rider and Pro 600 Canadian Champion if I’m not mistaken. One small mistake on the 507 claimed Al one summer’s day. His wife Gerry called me to let me know he had passed. For me I still enjoy a spirited ride but when my smile turns to a clench I know its time to back off. My new goal on a curvy road is to not touch the brakes. Like famous rider guru Nick Ienatsch says, just ride the pace. Take it down a notch or two on the street. If you want to go balls to the wall the track is the only place. RIP to all those that have passes chasing their dreams.

  9. Nicely written, Mark. Sad, but a reminder to us all. I think the remark above, “probably a lapse in attention,” seems most likely. I was saddened to hear of this, in part because we published his First Person story, but also because another one is always another one too many. Condolences to Lisa.

  10. He was an amazing writer, and I’ll miss his stories of riding and trucking..RIP David Rusk. My condolences to his family.

  11. So I guess the message here is:
    Slow it down a little, leave yourself a little room for error?
    Actually, looking at the crash site, I would guess this was probably a lapse in attention. Seen it before, done it myself.
    Also, I guess, consider those you’ll leave behind if you smash yourself on the side of the road somewhere.
    Or, maybe sometimes it’s just your time to go.

    Sad story, anyway.

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