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Learning to Ride: Motorcycle Training Class

Thinking about my two kids getting ready to enroll in a motorcycle training class to earn their motorcycle drivers licenses, it occurred to me that outside of the AHRMA vintage road race school I enrolled in two years ago during the Bonneville Vintage GP, I’ve never actually had any sort of motorcycle training.

That’s not a boast, mind you. I firmly believe in proper training and encourage everyone I know coming into the sport — and yes, it is a sport; pretty much the only people who ride for necessity live in Third World countries — to enroll in one of the literally thousands of Motorcycle Safety Foundation training courses held across the country. And yet, I’ve never done so myself.

When I got my license, I’d just moved back to my home state after a two-year absence. We moved during my last two years of high school, but right before we left — just days after turning 16, then the legal age for a full license — I secured my drivers license. I still had that license when I moved back for college and “renewed” it by going to the local DMV for a change of address. Filling out the form, the disinterested clerk banging away on an IBM Selectric asked me if I wanted a motorcycle certification. “Sure,” I said, “what do I need to do?” “Fifty cents,” came the answer. That’s all it took. A half buck and I was legal to ride. No proof of ability, no riding test, just 50 cents on top of the $3 it was costing me for a duplicate license. I had my first bike within a week.

It was only a year or so later that the state changed to a mandatory riding test before you could get your motorcycle license. The test was typically administered by whoever happened to be on duty that day, usually somebody with no or very little motorcycle experience. Most of my buddies had to take the test, usually on the smallest bike they could borrow to ensure making it through the cone course without knocking one over. They hated me for how easily I got mine.

That was back in the Seventies, and since then rider training courses have become the norm, and there’s no question in my mind but that’s a good thing. Motorcycling exposes you to a much higher degree of risk than a car, and a critical aspect of safe riding is risk assessment, something I’ve been trying to drill into my kids for years. Sixteen-year-old Charlie has become pretty familiar with two-wheeled exposure. He’s gotten heavily into bicycle racing, and when we salvaged a pair of old mopeds two years back he was the first one out. Nineteen-year-old Madeline has experience riding our little 100cc dirt bike, and I know both of them will benefit hugely from taking the MSF class to certify for their motorcycle licenses.

I like to think that I’m a competent rider, and I suppose my 36 years in the saddle without an accident (just jinxed myself, didn’t I?) might support that notion. On the other hand, that I’ve ridden so long without major issue could be as much luck as capacity. In my defense I’ll say I’ve always taken riding seriously, taking lessons, so to speak, by watching other riders and honing my skills on the road after reading tips from the MSF’s Guide to Motorcycling Excellence and the likes of David Hough, Lee Parks and the late Lawrence Grodsky.

Riders face a constant barrage of threats, but the more they learn the better they can assess risk and respond appropriately. My AHRMA class opened my eyes to just how much you can make a motorcycle do, and I’m betting Charlie and Maddie will make the same discovery in their MSF classes. They’re reminding me it’s never too late to learn, and that it’s high time I enrolled in a rider course myself. — Richard Backus