Common Tread

Riding, wrecking and rebuilding: An eventful first tour on a Suzuki TU250X

Aug 01, 2016

The sky had no sooner turned black than the rain began to fall. Big fat drops pelted our helmets and distorted our vision. I could blame it on the rain, but the truth is I just didn’t notice the railroad tracks until it was too late. I didn’t even have time to utter a warning across our Bluetooth system before she hit the rails. Her screams echoed in my helmet as I stared helplessly in my rearview mirror, watching her crash.

We had been friends, thick as thieves, for over a year. I helped her buy the little Suzuki TU250X last summer. She fell in love with it instantly and rode it everywhere.

Meagan Benz and Spurgeon Dunbar with Triumph Bonneville and Suzuki TU250X
Meagan and I had spent nearly every waking moment by each other's side for a year, but this was the first time we were taking a real motorcycle trip together. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We spent our free time exploring all the nooks and crannies Philadelphia has to offer. Cafes, museums, libraries, dive bars, and ice cream shops. We spent countless nights using locations as excuses to ride together. But whenever it came time to venture outside of the city, she would leave her keys at home and climb on the back of my bike.

It was my idea to take this trip, and Meagan lit up when I suggested it. She was apprehensive about taking a big trip by herself. It’s easy to forget how intimidating your first solo trip on a motorcycle can be. Especially if you let those marketing folks get in your head, reinforcing the need for a big touring bike for a big adventure.

With three days free over Memorial Day weekend, we set the date.

The crash happened in slow motion. I don’t remember stopping, but there I was, watching her bike slam into the ground while she was launched into the air. It seemed as if she was suspended, mid-air, for an eternity. In reality, it was probably only a split second before she smashed, headfirst, into the asphalt, tumbling out of view.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, I insisted she learn basic maintenance associated with her bike. She spent countless hours rummaging through my old Craftsman toolbox and lying on the floor of my garage. She volunteered to help her friend Brad fix a flat tire to see how it was done. By the time we left, she had learned what tools she would need and how to use them.

Meagan Benz Suzuki TU250X
Meagan spent countless hours in my garage, determined to learn her bike and the tools necessary to repair it. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We spent Saturday morning loading the bikes. I was on my old Triumph Bonneville T-100, a bike that prefers to tour at a slower speed, which was perfectly suited for pacing Meagan’s little Suzuki. For luggage, she had rigged up my old Cortech saddlebags and filled them with rain gear, spare tubes, tools, and a few choice outfits. Last, but not least, she packed a donut. She was never without a donut, and considered it a necessity for the open road. With the donut secure in the top of her saddlebag, we clicked the bikes into gear and took off down the road.

Leaving Philadelphia, it took Meagan a few miles to get used to the additional weight of the saddlebags and a full tank of gas. While she insists she is five feet tall (it says so on her driver’s license), I am pretty sure that’s wishful thinking. Unladen, the Suzuki requires a bit of effort for her to maneuver, due to the reach the ground. Fully loaded, it was even more cumbersome.

Meagan Benz Suzuki TU250X
Getting used to the added weight of the bags took a little bit of time. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

By the time we pulled over for lunch, however, she was handling the fully loaded bike like an old pro.

Silence. The silence that followed her crash was more terrifying than the screams. I shouted that I was coming for her. No response. I kept asking if she was OK, if she could hear me. No response.

After lunch we headed into northern New Jersey, exploring winding roads that cut through farms and small towns. Meagan was getting better at looking through curves and keeping pace with me, when she wasn’t stopping to visit with cows and other creatures she met on the road. By the time we made it to the New York state line, she was having a blast navigating the two-lane blacktop and leaning the little Suzuki confidently through the corners.

Despite a few rolling thunderstorms, we managed to stay relatively dry. When we woke up to sunny skies on Sunday morning, we thought the worst of the weather was behind us as we continued on to New Paltz, New York.

I was running back to her, passing her Suzuki, which was lying on its side in the middle of the road. I finally saw her. She was covered in mud, lying motionless on the edge of the road.

Meagan was learning that motorcycle touring represented a brave new way to explore the world and she was eating it up, literally. She spent breakfast mapping out local chocolatiers and bakeries she wanted to try. As the co-owner of Crust Bakery back in Philly she was using this trip as a reconnaissance mission to see what other bakeries were whipping up.

Meagan Benz and Lagusta's Luscious in New Paltz
Lagusta's Luscious in New Paltz sells custom-made chocolates and candies. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

As we left New Paltz, the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky. The little Suzuki was purring along at 45 to 55 mph, sipping fuel at 65 miles per gallon, and proving to be a perfect companion for Meagan. The idea was to make it down to the Pepacton Reservoir before turning around at Downsville. Out of nowhere, the sky clouded over and the rain began to fall. We never made it.

The railroad tracks surprised me as much as they did her. The crash happened so fast I didn’t have time to think or process what was happening. All of a sudden, I was just there, running through the rain, trying to keep myself calm.

Everything was still moving in slow motion as I knelt down in the mud beside her. I saw her Bluetooth communicator lying in the street and realized that it must have been knocked loose in the crash. This explained why she was unable to hear me earlier. I asked if she was OK, trying to sound calm.

Meagan stared up at me through a scraped and muddy face shield but didn’t immediately speak. She just nodded as she tried to prop herself up on her elbows. I slowly helped her sit up as she opened her face shield.

“How bad is my bike?” she asked.

I remember smiling with relief. I also remember ignoring the question, asking instead how she was doing. She replied that she felt OK, but was trying to remember what went wrong.

She was covered in mud, had a few rips in her jacket and jeans, and a nasty gash in her helmet. I helped her to her feet as she tried to stand on her own, checking for any immediate pain. In spite of having face-planted into the asphalt at 45 mph, it appeared that she had only ended up with a few scrapes and bruises.

Meagan Benz Suzuki TU250X
All cleaned up, Meagan was in good spirits and ready to ride. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I hadn’t even realized that a crowd had gathered until a local woman, whose farmhouse Meagan had crashed in front of, spoke and offered to help her get cleaned up. Another gentleman helped me lift her bike and get it to the side of the road.

While Meagan went to wash off, I looked over the bike. The small 250 looked almost as healthy as Meagan. There were a few scratches along the fender and exhaust. The handlebars suffered a nasty bend and the right foot peg was angled straight down, but overall, it came out relatively unscathed. The Cortech luggage had acted as an airbag, saving the bike from further damage.

A few minutes later, a slightly less muddy Meagan walked back down the hill and insisted she was ready to ride. I tried to protest saying something about a tow truck, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted that we were going to finish our trip. The little Suzuki fired right up and Meagan got a feel for the new lopsided setup.

Meagan Benz Suzuki TU250X
Covered in mud but still smiling as she got used to her lopsided controls after the crash. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The weather cleared as quickly as it had rolled in and we enjoyed a slow, sunny ride into town. Back in New Paltz, we parked the Suzuki at the hotel before heading into town where we feasted on burritos with homemade chips and guacamole. Meagan washed down ibuprofen with frozen margaritas in an effort to to combat the pain setting in around the bruises on her thigh. We both knew how lucky she was, but neither one of us wanted to dwell too long on that fact. Instead, we toasted the trip and her health, and discussed the route home.

By the time we rolled into Philadelphia the next afternoon, we had covered over 600 miles, spread over three solid days of riding. Half of which Meagan had traversed with a rather lopsided bike. Something she wasted no time remedying.

Meagan Benz Suzuki TU250X
Meagan beginning the rebuilding process by cutting down a new set of handlebars to fit her Suzuki. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.
She immediately ordered up a new set of CRG mirrors and traded baked goods for a set of used dirt bike bars from our buddy Rob. She swapped the grips and cut the bars to fit. I helped her make bends and adjustments to the levers so they would work with the new setup. We were able to remove the foot peg and bend the mount perfectly back in place. By the time her new helmet arrived at the end of the week, Meagan was back on her bike.

Motorcycle trips are like snowflakes: No two are the same. Each one becomes its own little story with varying lessons and morals to be learned.

Meagan learned a lot about herself (and her motorcycle) on this trip. On a very basic level, she learned that she doesn’t need to run out and buy a bigger bike in order to travel further from home. She gained confidence in her abilities on two wheels. She found immense satisfaction in waking up with nothing to do all day but ride. Ultimately, she conquered her biggest fear: crashing.

I could say something profound like “I learned the immense responsibility and personal accountability that comes with introducing someone to traveling by motorcycle.” The truth is I learned that I have never been more scared in my entire life than when I was watching her crash.

The trip we set out to have is not always the one we end up traveling. But at times, it’s those unexpected surprises on the road that leave us with the most valuable lessons learned.