Beginner motorcycle course writeup, August 11, 1991


For those who are interested .... be warned, this is long!! I thought I'd send out a group mailing on my experience taking a motorcycle safety class.

As you may know, I took a beginning class on how to ride a motorcycle in order to gather information about the feasibility and sensibility of finding motorized transportation to and from campus in LA.

It's very easy to find a class: California advertises the number (800) CC-RIDER number which gives you the numbers of all the sites in your area. It is required for all riders under 21. As many people have observed, I have long since placed out of this category, but still wanted the class to learn all the basics of how to control a motorcycle, as well as road strategies and correct turning and braking.

The course I chose was an 18 hour course, with lecture and "range" riding, and it cost $140. They provide the motorcycles and helmets, you have to bring gloves and cover the rest of your body.

The class had an interesting mixture of 12 people total. The instructor went around and asked each of us why we were there. Two women in their early 40's owned Harleys, Geri and Cathy. Cathy was an unbearably talkative Canadian woman who has ridden quite a bit, but, as she explained lengthily, had not ridden much here in the US and needed to regain confidence to the driver's test. Geri had been riding for about a month with her husband and sensibly felt she needed some proper instruction.

Another couple, David and Beth, hoped to make commuting more fun and perhaps take trips together. David was a very wide black man who reminded me of James Earl Jones, but with a Carribean accent. It turns out he grew up in Brooklyn. Beth, his wife, was a timid Asian woman who hardly spoke. Whenever I asked her a question, David would answer for her. An interesting couple; an imposing black man and a soft-spoken petite Asian woman (I should say, Beth LOOKED softspoken, I never actually heard her speak). I figured she wouldn't last at all.

There were two roommates from Hayward State who reminded me of Bill and Ted. They didn't want to walk 600 yards uphill to campus. Diana was a brash, outspoken girl, with long blond hair, teeny cutoff shorts and a dirty mouth. She'd always wanted a bike, and had just bought one, and her boyfriend wouldn't talk to her for a week. Definite bimbo potential, I prejudged.

Matt was a 25-year-old wearing a School of Medicine shirt and drove a Mercedes 300SEL. He had never ridden and was learning as part of a steeling process before relocating to LA. Jonathan admitted he wanted a bike to look cool. Henry was a heavy, jovial Chinese guy who just wanted to learn to ride. Most of us had never ridden at all.

The first night of lecture wasa lot of administration. Out of 4 hours, there was about 1-1/2 of very useful information. The instructor, Jim, talked to us about different types of motorcycles, rules such as ride within your limits, defining those limits, the controls of a motorcycle, that sort of thing. Lots of silly videos. At the end, we did a practice run and pretended to start up a motorcycle and get it moving and shift gears. The sequence for shifting up (the operation I feared the most) was fast and involved many steps, and when I left I was concerned that I'd have to practice it. I knew that would be a big problem for me.

The first day of range riding was great, even if it did start at 7:30am. They took it very slow with us; we didn't even get the bikes started for an hour. Once we did, we played with the clutch and its friction zone a lot, and worked on just riding in a straight line. Then we got to ride around in slow turns, sharp turns, around cones, practice stopping, all sorts of things. By the end of the session, we were all tired but everyone did pretty well. Some of the ones who were timid on the throttle were having trouble balancing, like Beth and Henry. After the first circle the instructors pulled Henry out of the class, since he never gained any measure of control. He will be invited back for another try, they said, but in the meantime his lower skill level was making the rest of the class dangerous. They came close to pulling out Beth, too, since she was going almost too slow for stability.

Timidity on the throttle was not my problem.

We did a slow race, which was tough - the last person to get across wins. I was one of the first ones to arrive - my Honda Rebel had a very touchy throttle, and any time I was about to tip for going too slowly, I'd try to barely ease the throttle and the thing would lurch forward. Later I discovered if I lowered by elbow rather than turn my wrist, the motion was slight enough to produce a smooth throttling. But not in time to miserably lose the slow race.

Everyone really did quite well the first day, and we were pretty happy about it. Despite the diversity of people, everyone made friends and were supportive. During a very slow, tight turn, Beth "dropped" the bike once, but like a trooper just got back on and everyone encouraged her.

There is crucial terminology one picks up. No one says you "fell" on a motorcycle the way one does with a bicycle. You "drop" or "dump" a bike. Also, you don't have accidents, you have "mishaps". ("Drop" to me is a very strange term, since it implies an object was at one time at a higher altitude than, and not in contact with, the surface it ultimately strikes.)

The second lecture was chock-full of information about road strategies, correct turning, the procedure for stopping in a curve, how to negotiate objects in the road, how to swerve - the list goes on. This immediately followed the first range session on a Saturday, so we were all keen and interested.

The last part of the lecture involved a written test, which was multiple choice with 3 choices. No one got a perfect score, but everyone passed. I STILL say that helmets reduce: a) peripheral vision, b) hearing AND c) head injuries; they say that (c) is the ONLY correct answer and "all 3" doesn't count. They should try seeing and hearing in the helmets I've used.

By the end of the day we were tired but everyone was excited about riding.

On my way home I could already tell I was going to get much different things out of it than I had originally thought. I'd figured I'd learn to ride a motorcycle, and then get a scooter or something just to take me to and from school. I should have realized that the mobility and technical challenge of it would appeal to me. Many people told me I'd get bored with driving a car once I learned how, and that is far from true (actually, I haven't REALLY learned to drive a car yet). When I learned to ride horses, I found that the technique, challenge and precision of dressage is what hooked me. Same thing with the rigor of ballet. I like to be involved in whatever it is I am using to take me from one place to another; and in retrospect plopping on a little scooter does not fit in with the developing pattern. This insight hit while driving my clunky four-wheeled vehicle home, using a new awareness which proved lost and unnecessary in the protection and visibility of a car.

I had no trouble arriving the next morning at 7:30 am for the second range session. I was surprised to find that my hands and wrists were sore from squeezing the levers so much the day before, and several other people reported the same trouble.

The second range session was 5 hours of stopping, turning and swerving exercises. We actually got to shift to second gear! It turns out this, my imagined greatest obstacle, was by far the easiest thing to do. The slow turning and maneuvering were much harder; shifting requires little thinking (except that it works a lot better when your foot is prepared to do it!!).

Cone-weaving was my bane, and I watched with dismay as everyone in the class creeped their way around the offset cones (offset cones are like this: /\/\/\ where each point is a cone). Not once did I get through them without missing half of them. By then, Beth had gained some confidence and slowly and methodically made her way through them. I had to respect the way Diana leaned left and right through the cones and made her way through flawlessly. Diana had established herself as the sweetheart of the class, and turned out to be really quite competent, cheerful and supportive. Most of the guys went through with little trouble too. Hotshotish impulses were contained long enough to make it through most of the exercises with no "mishaps", and really performing them quite well.

I had a Honda Rebel 250cc, since it was one of the lower motorcycles. Most of the class had Honda Rainbow 125ccs, which Honda loans to them for 5 years and takes back. They are special training bikes with extra lights on the back. Unfortunately, my bike would not go into neutral without switching off the ignition, quite a nuisance. Plus it was low and long, with I thought contributed to my maneuvering problems until I saw Beth on her Honda Rebel carefully weave her way through the cones without hitting one. No excuses.

At the end of each exercise, the instructors would thumbs-up us or correct something, either in the exercise or the technique. By then I had the hang of making wide turns and leaning, but I not once got a thumbs up because I always forgot to do something crucial to the exercise. For instance, in the rear-wheel skid exercise, you're supposed to use just your rear brake to stop hard. When I did it, the instructor came and told me - great stop: next time don't use the front brake. Or I'd forget to downshift when I was supposed to, or I wouldn't turn my head to turn, or I'd go way wide on a turn.

The only "drop" the second day was from yours truly, at a complete standstill. While rejoining the group, I stopped with the handlebars turned and the bike leaning slightly. I was trying to straighen the handlebars, but the bike just kept leaning more and more and then just got too heavy and fell over. I managed to pull it up again, powered by the force of growing humiliation with each person who would see it there as instants ticked by.

Toward the end, the class was getting consistently good, although I felt rather behind since I had never mastered the cones and had never done anything absolutely correctly. The last thing they did was run a skill test, which only one person in the class HAD to pass to get his license (one of the Bill & Ted dudes). The first part of the test was - you guessed it - cone weaving. I did better than I ever had, but once I missed one, it was very hard to recover. I was the only person in the class who didn't make every cone.

The other tests went OK, I made a few mistakes on each one. One was a swerve test, and it was a tighter swerve than we'd practiced and I hit a cone on the way out. This turned out to be my undoing. I was already borderline from my miserable performance on the cones, and that final cone caused me to be the only person in the class who did not pass the skill test. Thankfully, I can come back for the second range session and get more practice and take it again. The extra practice is key!! I don't NEED to pass the test, but it can't hurt insurance rates and confidence. The extra day on the range of instruction is really crucial.

In general the younger men did the best (Tim & Dave aka Bill & Ted, and Matt), although everyone really did very well. Jonathan never looked very cool, though. Several of them surprised me: Diana was quite sure of herself by the end, and Beth passed the test with flying colors. It turns out Beth is a police officer?!

Tim & Dave (Bill & Ted), Diana, Geri and Cathy and I went out for pizza afterward. Many numbers were exchanged for riding together, and this group of people with nothing other than motorcycles in common were acting like they'd known each other for quite some time. There is something about being on a machine that requires so much attention and skill, and gives tremendous freedom of mobility, that inspires camaraderie, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its solitary nature.

I'm going to give "bike fever" time to pass before I actually purchase such a monster. The mere economics may make it infeasible. The other trouble is finding a suitable one that fits - motorcycles generally aren't made with me in mind as the target customer. Also I will have to wait until I go to Los Angeles to get it - or face the difficult task of getting it down there. The first step is to get a learner's permit and pass that darn skill test and kill those cones! I cannot recommend the course highly enough - it was great!! They keep telling us, the more you know the better it gets.



I re-took the second range session of the motorcycle class last weekend, and for those of you who are interested, this is an account of my experience.

First, a few highlights from the first class which I left out.

One thing I didn't realize is that this is a canned course which is offered all over the country and run by the MSF, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Some states give you your motorcycle license once you pass the skill test for the course. I'm sure it's the same one my friend Tom took in Colorado, because we both saw a video with a talking motorcycle, and no one would copy that idea on purpose.

Many people in the class I took last week exchanged numbers and promised to go riding together. One of the women, Geri, sought me out by calling the school and getting my number, to offer her husband's advice on bike-shopping! I thought that was remarkably nice of her. She was one of the ladies who already had her Harley.

One interesting fact is that mandatory helmet laws, whether or not one views them as an invasion of privacy, reduce motorcycle theft. Why? Because the average joy-riding thief does not carry a helmet, and it is easy for police to spot helmet law offenders. So after the helmet law goes into effect, California motorcycle thieves will be much safer.

I had asked the instructor if there exists a comparable course to learn to drive cars, and his response was: "Are you married?".


He said one of the best ways to get this instruction is to date a CHP officer. Oh. OK. I suppose then the relationship would be uncomplicated by the usual pitfalls of sensitivity and remembering birthdays? Well, at least I'm prepared with fresh material for next time I get pulled over.

This class was also a group of 12 people who had been through the two lectures and one range session together already. It had at least four people who appeared to be under 21 and HAD to take it. Also, at least four showed up on their own motorcycles. Another two brought scooters, one in a van. Both scooter riders had to switch to the school's scooters during the day due to mechanical failure. One guy, Todd looked like a blond Mark Cvitkovitch. A girl Dolane wore baggy jeans, straight long hair, round glasses, big long sweatshirt and if she didn't go to Berkeley I'm shark bait. She had enviable long legs and was proved to be pretty gutsy.

The school has two Honda Rebels they keep for people with short legs. I hoped to get the blue Rebel this time, the one that goes into neutral, but another girl who was my height, Theresa, had it. She was there with her friend Kevin. The class overall was pretty young and I didn't have much of a chance to talk to them.

Our two instructors were Greg and Jim. Jim was very Texan, complete with the drawl and easygoing attitude. I liked the way Greg seemed involved with the class, even though (I believe) he had never met them before. The supervisor of the school, Michael, was there all day this time, and oversaw every exercise, correcting the instructors and making suggestions. I was impressed at his effort in "quality control".

This class let us run the exercises longer than the first one I took, which I thought was great. I got to practice an exercise until I was tired of it, rather than two or three times and have to stop just when I was about to get the hang of it. I finally figured out how to maneuver the darn thing at slow speeds.

Cone-weaving, my bane from the first class, proved to be much less of a problem than last time. I discovered I can turn the handlebars and not tip as long as the motorcycle is moving even a little. I got through the offset cones with relatively little problem, even when lots were knocked over. That's harder, because knocked-over cones have an annoying tendency to roll. But I fared OK this time, and I was very encouraged!!

At the end of the cone-weaving exercise, Todd muttered he was glad cones weren't people. Greg said he'd never seen a class murder so many cones.

Another exercise was to make a turn from a dead stop. No power steering, folks! This involves stopping, turning the handlebars, leaning the motorcycle and starting slowly, letting the engine pull you out of the turn. I had a hard time with this since leaning the thing at a stop is VERY heavy. One of Greg's corrections during this exercise was to quit sticking out my tongue. I guess that's a habit of concentration.

I found it is possible to lean it and have the handlebars turned as long as I'm moving a little. Well, at one corner I stalled the engine, so when I tried to get it to move at that critical moment, it wouldn't. Pow, down it went. The first drop of the day.

We also did a figure 8 exercise, where the whole class rode around in a figure 8 to practice "gap selection" in traffic. This sounds hazardous, and it certainly seemed to be to us, but it was actually pretty fun to be interacting together. Just to show what pressure does to people, there were at least a few stalls & stops right at the cross of the intersection.

At one break, Greg warned some of them to quit hotdogging. One younger guy, Frank, kept backfiring his motorcycle on purpose, and popping the clutch and basically abusing his motorcycle. Apparently during the exercises he and some of the others were letting the troublesome combination of youth and testosterone get the better of them, and were doing things that were dangerous to the rest of the class.

One of everyone's favorite exercises is the rear-brake skid. Using just the rear brake, we stop the motorcycle so hard the rear brake skids, producing a swirl of smoke and a satisfying screech. They emphasized strongly not to let go of the rear brake once it has started to skid. If you do, the rear wheel regains traction, straightening the motorcycle from any tiny lean or side motion you might have - so violently you fly. This is called high-siding.

We were "treated" to a demo of this when Frank skidded hard, slid a little to one side, let the rear brake go and went airborne over the front of his handlebars and tumbled a few times when he landed. Hi-side! He was unhurt, but embarrassed (my theory, of course he didn't show it). Later some people griped it was too bad wasn't his own bike he'd "dumped" since he'd been difficult and aggressive throughout the class. But everyone was glad he wasn't hurt.

During one break, Kevin came over to me and said I looked familiar. I told him he was on his own because I had never seen him before! Well, it turns out he remembers me from University of Rochester. When we compared notes on who we knew, it turns out he roomed and worked with Derek Pitcher, who also knew me from college and who now works at the same company I work. Small world! We also had some other mutual friends from the Arctic (well, almost) university.

Another one of my banes had been the countersteering exercise, in which you push the right handlebar to go right and the left handlebar to go left. The exercise teaches us to swerve. One time when I did this, to my astonishment, Greg gave me a double thumbs up!!! I did it again to the other side, and Jim told me I got another double-thumbs, and some whistling and waving too. I really don't know what I was doing, but something was very right. I couldn't believe it, especially considering my miserable performance last time.

Then we practiced the swerving, where we countersteer left then right very quickly. Again, I must have done this very right, because Michael, the supervisor, pulled me aside and said that I was doing very well and that taking the range session again was really paying off. Jim said he'd ride with me anytime. This minor success was really making my day. Later, after the exercise, Greg pointed me out and said in front of the whole class, you did the countersteering *really* well, it was really easy to see.

Which made what happened next all the more embarrassing.

We practiced maximum braking on a curve, which means you must straighten the motorcycle hard, then brake hard. Your handle bars must be straight when you stop!! Well, mine weren't. After stopping, the bike was still slightly leaned, the handlebars were not completely straight and I was not moving. Leaned + turned + stopped + gravity = plop, down again.

This time it fell to the left, and my left hand was holding the clutch since it was still in gear. I waited for Greg to rescue me since I didn't want to let go of the clutch. It turned out that the class thought my left hand was pinned under the bike, and they were anxiously watching for them to free it!!! Todd asked me about it later and I said nah, without gloves I would have had some scraped knuckles, but I was *holding* my hand there.

Michael, the supervisor, pulled me aside again and gave me a deserved lecture me about straightening the handlebars. It is especially important for people with short legs since we don't have the length to stick our leg out and regain leverage. Then we noticed that something was leaking from the motorcycle. Michael tried to start it, and the starter motor made some nasty gravelly sound, and the dark puddle under the bike just got bigger and bigger.

That was it for the red Rebel.

Too bad, since the only other bike they had I could ride was the blue Rebel. Fortunately it was close to the end of the day, and there was one exercise and the skill test left. After the class finished the last exercise, they took a break, and I borrowed Theresa's blue Rebel to practice the last exercise. This one was the only one I had done well on in last week's skill test, so I felt OK about it.

Then came the dreaded skill test. It has 4 exercises, and you can lose at most 20 points and still pass (21 points is failing). Last time I was down 9 points just from the cone-weaving, but this time I had gotten the hang of the cone weaving, sort of, so hopefully I could leave a larger margin for error on the test for other mistakes.

Even though I had done the cone-weaving OK during practice, I got nervous and hit a cone, then missed one. I have never tested well! I also had a hard time with the slow, tight turn part of the exercise. After the first exercise of the test, I had already lost 14 of my allowed 20 points. Good thing I didn't know that, or I would have muffed everything else up.

The next exercise in the test was a quick stop. After I did it, I was pretty certain I hadn't done anything wrong, but Greg and Jim looked at each other and shook their heads. Uh-oh.

The third exercise involved slowing down before a turn (selecting a safe turning speed) and then turning. Last time I had done this fine, so of course this plays tricks on my fragile psyche. I was hesitant and too slow. It turned out I lost a few more points on this.

Then Greg gathered the group and said, well, some of you are doing so well that even if you blow the last exercise you'll still pass, so you can go. Statistically, some of you can still fail and must take the last exercise. I walked right over to my bike and mounted, knowing what was coming. Out of 12, I was in this last group of 4. Bottom of the class AGAIN. I was comforted that one of the dudes who'd showed up on his own motorcycle was also in this group.

The last exercise was swerving, which I done well on today, but in the skill test last week I was the only one who hit a cone.

It all comes to this, I thought. The last exercise of the day. Plus I was last in line. I do it or I don't. Since I had done this OK in practice, I was certain I would screw it up, like the cone-weaving. If I hit a cone, I fail the whole test again. It all comes down to one cone. I pondered this as a metaphor for life, then noticed the instructors waving at me to get started.

I steeled myself and got the bike going. Suddenly the instructors waved at me to stop - oh no, now what?! A late, annoyed student was cutting across the parking lot in a van. Just what I needed, a false start. Better than having my first motorcycle accident before I even get out of the parking lot. So I restarted and did the swerve.

I didn't hit any cones, but that didn't mean it was perfect. No one came up to me afterward, and it wasn't until after I'd gone inside and put my helmet away and written the evaluation that I found I'd barely passed.

The stopping test and the swerving test I had done well enough on to pull me out. But I did much worse on the slow sharp turn/cone weaving than I had last time!!!!! Still, it's OK because I had finally figured out how it feels. Last time I had no sense for it at all. This time I screwed up the test, but last time I just plain couldn't do it.

Some people were impatient about getting out, and admittedly it WAS a long morning. We were there from 7:30am to 1:30pm, with short breaks. Still, I have complete respect for these guys who are giving us life-critical information and am willing to spend as much time as it takes to absorb whatever they're willing to give us. I also had to respect the supervisor's effort in advising and correcting the instructors. These guys were great and encouraging!!! It's easy to forget that they're human too, and like to be encouraged too. Most don't take the trouble to thank their instructors, but when one student shook the hands of all the instructors, I heard them talking and they really appreciated that.

One phenomenon of motorcycle riding I felt much more this time, and only a twinge the first time, was the comparative clumsiness of a car. Cornering in my car felt soft and listless. Part of it of course is my car, it is no BMW for handling, but now I can really feel the difference. Also I find I look ahead more than I did and am far more alert on the road. Unfortunately that will wear off, unless I keep the skill sharp by getting my own motorcycle.

I wonder how effective that pro-motorcycle argument would be against the ultimate resisting factor: But Mom, riding a motorcycle makes me a much better CAR driver!

Sigh, I hate it when she's right. "Even if you improve your chances by knowing what to do you're still not protected the way you are in a car. I know you're older than I was when I'd had all my 3 kids [thanks a bunch, mom], but I still don't want you to get a motorcycle".

My younger brother spent 6 weeks in full-leg cast after a Porsche rounded a corner in the wrong lane and hit him head-on on his motorcycle. He flew and landed on his knee, but thankfully there was no permanent damage. Although he wasn't insured, registered or licensed, he insists he wasn't doing anything *technically* wrong! He also opposes the idea of me getting a motorcycle.

It is difficult to describe what it is about motorcyle riding that is so appealing, but for me I think it is (well, will be) the concentration and skill that is required. It's fun and it's challenging. You're an active entity, not a passenger.

The next step for me is to get a helmet and find a motorcycle which suits the "vertically challenged," as they say on the net. I think I like that better than "short".

So watch out for those cyclists on the road!!!

be safe and enjoy,

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