Learning to Ride, Saturday

I have several friends that ride motorcycles, and I’ve been curious about riding for several years now. I finally decided to bite the bullet and see if riding is something I would enjoy and something I would be good at. So, this weekend I participated in a beginning motorcycle rider course. I finished up Sunday afternoon, and this seemed like a good place to let folks know how it went. Fair warning, this one’s LONG. 🙂

First the credits… I took the “Basic RiderCourse” (BRC), a course designed both for people who have never ridden a motorcycle before and for beginning riders. It’s hosted by the Motorcycle Safety Program with the Alabama Traffic Safety Center at the University of Montevallo. They use a curriculum and materials developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Right off the bat, I’ll say that after 3 days of classroom and riding time, I’m convinced that these people do know what they’re doing. Speaking as someone who has never ridden before the course, I highly recommend this course to anyone who’s thinking about riding. MSF-affiliated courses are available all across the US. Follow the link above for more info.

It started out Friday evening with some classroom time. ATSC had sent me materials for study ahead of time, so I had a pretty good idea what we were going to cover that night. Even so, our two “RiderCoaches” (MSF apparently doesn’t like spaces) were quite friendly and open to questions. When we got to the section about proper rider gear, I had a couple of questions, and they were more than happy to answer. I also got to meet the other 5 people in our half-sized class. There was a husband and wife that wanted to learn to ride. There were two guys (one who looked younger than me, the other retired) who work on the Arsenal and needed the course credit to be able to ride and park their bikes on post. Finally, there was a woman whose husband has been riding for years (often with her as a passenger). All in all, I was probably tied for last place with one other person for having the least experience.

Bright and early Saturday morning, we met out on the riding range. It’s an area of asphalt laid specifically (and very generously) for this use by the county of Madison. It’s located off the end of the taxiways at the Madison County Executive Airport (MDQ) in Meridianville.

As a total aside, each of us picked a bike (they were pretty much all identical) and stayed with that bike for the entire course. Each bike had a number, and we obviously had to remember it. I swear it was a coincidence. I just kind of walked toward the first red bike I came to. It looked nice and friendly. 🙂 What number did I choose? 37. I had zero problems remembering my number for the entire weekend. Everyone say it with me, now: 37!?! One of the coaches asked me on Sunday what bike number I’d been riding. I told him, then asked if he’d seen Clerks. He said that he hadn’t, but that he wanted to. My response: “When you watch it, you’ll understand why I didn’t have any trouble remembering.” I love planting that little time bomb. 🙂

Anyway, I started out Saturday feeling pretty good. We started with some exercises to familiarize us with the bikes (BTW, the bike we used was a Kawasaki Eliminator 125). We did “rocking” and “power-walking” to get used to where the “friction zone” of the clutch is. Obviously, the exercises start out slow and easy. I won’t bore you with all the details, but things started getting a little bit trickier for me on about the fourth exercise.

I should mention that the MSF exercises are big on practicing multiple skills during the same exercise (and sometimes multiple skills simultaneously). The one that started getting me was where we had to shift up to second, do a controlled stop, and shift back down during the stop. We had to use both brakes, and shifting down during the stop was important. If you know about motorcycle controls, you know that means that we had to manipulate controls with both hands and both feet all simultaneously. For a minutes-old rider like me, this didn’t go all that smoothly (literally). My two biggest problems were not getting the downshift and (much more problematic) grabbing the front brake lever instead of squeezing it. The Eliminator 125 has a heck of a front brake for such a small and light bike. It doesn’t take much pressure to jerk the bike and not much more to lock the front wheel. On top of it all, for some reason I was bad about looking down (at what?) or looking at the coaches instead of up and ahead.

I don’t think I got that one completely right once. And, for added humiliation, right after the coach debriefed me about the stop I flubbed up, I had to make what’s called a “perimeter turn”. I didn’t get any of those right, either.

Again, skipping some details, most of Saturday was pretty depressing for me. I kept messing up exercises, and just when I felt like I was beginning to learn each one a little bit, it was over. The offset weave, stopping quickly, more perimeter turns… all of these were messing with me pretty badly. At some point we broke for lunch, and I pretty much decided that if things didn’t improve, I was going to just save myself some embarrassment and drop out. Heck, that’s why I was doing it, right? To figure out if I was going to be any good at it? I was basically going to give myself one more exercise to improve.

Then, as if to underscore my situation, the very next exercise involved THE BOX. THE BOX is 24′ by 60′. The idea is as follows: You make a short 90 degree left into one corner on the short side. You ride down the long side, make a left U-turn, cross back toward the corner where you started, make a right U-turn, then exit on the corner opposite the one you started at. All without touching the perimeter. Once you exit the box, you immediately move to navigating an S curve, then I think a perimeter turn. I literally thought to myself, “This is it. I’m obviously done after this one.” The first time through the box, I totally screwed it. Nowhere close. Shot the S-curve to hell as well. The second time was closer, but not nearly close enough. At that point, I’m not sure what kept me going. Probably realizing that stopping in the middle would cause more problems for other riders. I don’t know. Somehow, though, a miracle happened on the third try. I actually made it. Just barely, but I made it. The next two tries went even better. I even got the S-curve down. The coaches were literally clapping and throwing up their hands in joy each time I got out of the box. One more fairly easy exercise, and we were done on the range Saturday.

The course naturally involved a riding skills evaluation at the end on Sunday. I was worried Saturday night. I replayed each exercise in my head trying to absorb as much as I could out of what had happened. I gave myself about a 50/50 shot of passing. Somehow I did actually manage to fall asleep.