Starting Small: An Introduction to Riding

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

A couple of issues back, I mentioned my son and daughter’s pending date with a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) training class (see Learning to Ride: Motorcycle Training Class). That date has now come and gone, and I’m happy to report Charlie and Maddie both passed with flying colors and are now in proud possession of their Class M motorcycle licenses.                              

I’ve never pushed them into motorcycling, instead letting them discover for themselves if they were interested. Charlie was the first of the two to show interest, back when he was 12 and his sister was 14. Their first experience with a motorized two-wheeler came with a little three-quarter-size Suzuki DR100 that Dave, a local dual-sport fanatic with saddle time in Cambodia, dropped off at the house one day because A) he’d bought it on a whim and B) he didn’t know anybody else who could ride it. I told Charlie and Maddie they could ride it when they could put both feet on the ground sitting on the saddle. Natural selection meant older and taller sister Maddie got the first ride, and it was a long year for Charlie as he desperately encouraged his legs to grow the needed couple of inches for his first spin on the Suzuki.

That little DR was the perfect introduction to riding. Light, low and moderately powered, it’s easy to come to terms with. Its even-tempered 100cc 4-stroke mill has enough torque to stumble through ham-fisted clutching without stalling, and a humble 12 or so horsepower means it won’t get away from a neophyte operator at the twist of a wrist. And near as I can tell, it’s almost impossible to kill.

I’m a big believer in starting small, building up slowly before graduating to larger machines. I’ve never understood starting out riding 700-pound V-twins or 600cc-plus sport bikes. I’ve got to believe you’ll be a better rider getting familiar with falling and sliding a 12 horsepower, 150-pound dirt bike out in field — far from any four-wheeled interference — before hitting the street on a 75 horsepower, 500-pound sport bike. Certainly the MSF agrees, at least at some level, their class fleet consisting mostly of small, light, easy to handle Honda 250s.

I’m pretty certain the limited experience Charlie and Maddie got on the DR helped them fly through their MSF class. They were already comfortable with working a clutch, throttle and brakes, and now that they’ve graduated their MSF class I’ll let them slowly work their way up from the DR.

Charlie and I have been coaxing a 1974 Yamaha TX500 back to life from a near miss with the motorcycle salvage yard, but his and Maddie’s first street bike is a neat little 1976 Suzuki GT185 2-stroke twin, a nice small-bore classic with enough poke to be entertaining, but generally predisposed to mild-mannered riding. It’ll move with alacrity if you really want it to, but you have to wring the throttle to get there. That makes it a lot safer in my book, because you have to work to find its powerband. You have to get acquainted with the bike and gain some level of knowledge before you can exact the most from it. Once they’ve mastered the GT, they can move to the TX500.

Charlie and Maddie’s street experiences have so far been pretty mellow. Reflecting their personalities, Charlie’s been jumping on the GT every chance he gets, while Maddie’s been a little more thoughtful as she engages the experience. That’s OK by me: The goal is learning to ride, learning to ride safely, and learning to ride with authority. A good recipe, I think, for many happy years in the saddle. — Richard Backus

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