Steel is scraping asphalt. One after another, 850-pound Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycles are being thrown around tight corners in the parking lot at Alexian Field, dragging foot pegs and frames.
They're not ordinary moves, but these aren't ordinary riders — they're motorcycle cops from 14 departments around Chicago and the Illinois State Police.
"You tell me if you can ride your motorcycle on these courses," said Elk Grove Village Police Officer Dave Struwing. "Then we'll see how good you really are."
I've been riding for a long time, and I can't do the things these guys can. Not even after hours and miles, track days and safety courses. I'm just here to ride and fulfill a promise I made in a hospital bed last fall.
A motorcycle crash put me in that bed, and through surgery, months of recovery, loads of painkillers and, eventually, Struwing asking whether I wanted to take one of the big police bikes for a spin, maybe tell these officers my story. Turns out they've heard it before.
I remember a driver making an illegal left. Locking my brakes. Harlem Avenue going white, then black. Then the searing pain. My spine was broken in three places. The gash on my head would take 19 staples to close. It was one of the rare occasions I've ridden without a helmet. Later, my doctors would tell me that escaping without brain damage was the first miracle; avoiding paralysis the second.
"Statistically speaking, your crash, Tom, was textbook," Struwing said.
By textbook, he means literally. According to the ironically named Hurt Report (for Harry Hurt, the University of Southern California professor who organized the Head Protection Research Laboratory 20 years ago to look into motorcycle accidents), the textbook crash happens at an intersection when a car violates the motorcycle's right-of-way, usually while making a left turn. In most cases, the driver says he never saw the cycle.
Motorcycle cops see it all the time — and experience it.
"I'm on my bike, running lights and siren to a call, and they don't see me," said Evanston Police Sgt. Tom Moore. "I've had people pull out in front of me. They're 10 feet away from you, and it's like you're not even there."
I remember the instant I realized a crash was inevitable. Minutes later, I was on a backboard being loaded into an ambulance, joking though an oxygen mask with a paramedic named Biff.
"Am I going to die … Biff?" I asked with mock drama. It seemed hilarious at the time.
Eight months later, I get back on a cycle, the police Harley, and rev the engine. I feel sick. For the first time, I don't want to be on a motorcycle. I slip the clutch and ease out onto the track. Normally, this would be a thrill, riding with these guys on one of their bikes on a closed course. I even throw on the police lights, but I doubt riding will ever be the same.
Jo Giovannoni drops by. She's on her ninth bike and fourth decade of riding, a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Giovannoni had her own textbook crash last summer. Same scenario: car, sudden left turn, collision and now injuries that will likely give her pain for the rest of her life.
She wasn't wearing a helmet either, but Giovannoni suffered no head injuries. The cops I'm riding with don't lecture about helmets, which are not required in Illinois, but they do have a lot to say about rider education. The big take-away from this day at the track is defensive riding and the importance of taking a class before hitting the road.
I've taken two, and while they didn't save me from a broken back, they may have saved my life.
Tom Negovan is a reporter for WGN-TV.