Learning Curves on the Training Course

The founding editor recalls his first motorcycling experiences after watching the editor of our sister publications acquire her motorcycle license under a far different process.

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus
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by Richard Backus

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.

Jean passed the class, and she’s looking forward to getting in some real street time. I guess it’s time to tune up the ’76 Suzuki GT185, a perfect learner street bike if ever there was one, for Jean to continue her education. Ride safe.

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