Learning Curves on the Training Course


Hard as it is for me to accept — because it means damn, I’m getting old — I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 40 years. When I got my motorcycle license at the tender age of 18, motorcycle safety classes were still something of a rarity. They were available, but at least in the Midwest, it seemed like most aspirants to the world of two wheels got their “training” on the road, mixing it up out on the street with all the four-wheeled metal boxes fighting for their piece of the asphalt. Like myself, a lot of riders got their first taste of motorcycling in the dirt, the operative word being “taste”: I’ll never forget burying the front wheel of a Honda CB175 in a hidden wash in the tall grass of a hillside, the bike coming to a quick stop while I continued forward over the bars and into the dirt — face first.

Recollections of my first experiences riding motorcycles rushed to the top of my memory bank recently as I watched Jean Denney, group editor of sister publications Mother Earth Living and Heirloom Gardener, going through the paces of the Basic Rider Course at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Tracking Jean’s progress out on the course, coming to terms with the dynamics of piloting a powered two-wheeler as the instructor guided her and three other women through a series of challenges, I was reminded that riding, at least for most, doesn’t come naturally. It’s a focused exercise, or at least should be, and it benefits from training, a fact too many riders don’t seem to appreciate.

I certainly didn’t, at least not in the beginning. Fresh out of high school, free from the “’rents” and ready to start college, I’d been scheming to get the bike my mother wouldn’t hear of. So when I went into the DMV on my 18th birthday to update my auto license and the bored woman behind the green IBM Selectric asked, “You want a motorcycle license?” I said, “Sure, what’s it take?” “Fifty cents.” Fifty cents? That’s it? Hell yeah. No test, just two quarters handed over to the lady at the DMV. And I’d never ridden anything bigger than a minibike.

The riders in Jean’s group had each shelled out $225, and watching them being put to work to understand the nature of the machines they were hoping would open doors to new experiences, it was clear it was money well spent. I’ve watched more than a few new would-be riders, usually encouraged by a misguided friend or mate, try to make their first launch on a bike, and with predictable results: With no training or real understanding of what they’re doing, they crash within 50 feet. Jean’s group was in a controlled environment. Removed from the stress of lurching out onto the streets like weak-kneed newborn calves ready to fall over, they could grapple with the unfamiliar in an environment that let them focus completely on the task at hand.

No doubt there are differences in the experiences. Age is a big one. I was young when I got my license, mentally and physically agile, and eager for the challenge. Jean is 56 (the youngest in her group was 39, the oldest in her early 60s). And while she’s mentally and physically fit, there’s no questioning that we don’t process information — or move our bodies — as quickly when we’re older. Jean’s been going for rides with me on the back of my bike for a few years, so when she expressed an interest in learning to ride herself I was cautiously enthusiastic. Few people take up a new sport when they are older, and at many levels that’s what motorcycling is. It’s a physical and mental challenge that requires engagement. It involves exposure and risk, and physical and mental competence if you’re going to be safe. As Jean and more than a few others in the class discovered, if your bike falls over, you have to pick it up. And when you do, you need to understand the physics of using your 140-pound body to right a 400-pound machine.

Riding is one of the great joys of life for me, whether I’m on a wheezy little 2-stroke or a thumping twin. And every ride brings new experiences that teach me how to be a better rider. The unexpected rain storm, the blacktop road that suddenly turns to gravel, the wrong turn that takes me onto the wrong road with too many trucks — every inch of it is a potential learning experience that can return dividends. No doubt Jean and the other students in her class were filled with a certain terror as rain started falling on their last morning of training, but their instructor made them ride through it, in the process helping them discover they could ride in the wet, no worse for the wear. Without planning, an unexpected negative turned into a positive piece of their learning curve.

6/20/2019 1:30:20 PM

My two-cents on ancient beginnings: My first riding experience was on a 1967 SEARS (Gilera) SS106 that my Grandfather bought in 1969 on clearance for $200 from SEARS. We trucked the bike out to his bit of land in the country and taught ourselves how to handle this beast. I remember holding the front brake in while twisting the go-grip and doing unwanted "doughnuts"; HELP! Not much riding for me as we lived 16 miles away in the city and it was a little bit of a hassle loading the bike into grandfather's van. When we did load the bike up, I would get to explore the empty tar and chip county roads. Fast forward to 1977, I got a job at the local Honda shop and I needed to have a motorcycle classification. So, I studied the official Rules of the Road for motorcycles, fretted and worried. I take the written test and pass, with one or two errors I don't remember, then the examiner takes me outside to my Honda store loaner where I demonstrate my knowledge of the controls. Gosh, I am nervous but I guess I passed, he didn't say I did anything wrong. Oh God now the driving part, the Rules of the Road didn't describe this, "What is he going to make me do?" "Ok, now I want you to start the bike, ride out of the lot turn right, go to the first corner (the only one, as the road dead-ended) then turn right, go to the next corner and turn right, go to the next corner and turn right, go to the next corner and turn right, then turn into the lot, park here and turn off the bike." I thought to myself Huh? Is that all? Ok what's the trick? Did I miss something? The examiner would only be able to see me until the first turn and as I re-entered the parking lot. Well I completed the tortuous 1/2-mile test route and lived to park, receive my M classification and tell the tale. Whew!

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