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2 March 2010

Back in the spring of 1982, I got a crash course in motorcycle riding. Literally. Riding through the rocky backyard/pasture at my friend’s house in rural Maryland on his 80-cc Yamaha dirt bike, I caught the slippery side of a boulder jutting up out of the soil and tabletopped the bike, landing with it on my left leg. The handlebars came through the faceshield, leaving a small mark between my tender twelve-year-old eyes. As bad as it sounds, I actually got up and walked away; the bike faired slightly worse than I did, but was still functional, though my buddy’s helmet was pretty well trashed. That was the first time I ever rode a motorcycle, but certainly not the last.



Throughout my teen and early adult years, there were always motorcycles around; fearless as ever, I’d occasionally hop on this Ninja or that CBR for a quick spin around the block (or out of town). I was lucky never to repeat my sixth-grade stunt on anyone else’s motorcycle, but I’d hold short of saying I played it safe. Rarely did I give a thought to safety equipment beyond a cool pair of shades. And although I had a solid grasp on the basic mechanics of a motorcycle – clutch on the left grip, throttle and front brake on the right grip, rear brake on the right foot lever, one-down-four-up on the left one – I never really considered how different it is operating a motorcycle in traffic compared to driving a car. That changed a bit when we bought an Aprilia scooter as an in-town runabout in 2002, but puttering about at 30 mph on side streets is still considerably less demanding than riding a real motorcycle in real traffic.



The decision to broaden my professional horizons as a motoring scribe meant that I would need to finally get serious about becoming not just a capable rider, but also an informed, educated one. So rather than just show up at the driver’s services facility, take my written test and weave through the fairly simple obstacle course that constitutes a riding skills assessment – something I could have easily achieved with little practice – I decided to commit 20 hours of my life over the course of a weekend to doing it the right way by signing up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) beginning rider course.



Established as a national non-profit organization to promote safe riding through education and training, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is sponsored primarily by the major motorcycle manufacturers, whose contributions help underwrite the cost of the courses to make entering the motorcycling world as accessible as possible. In addition to the corporate sponsorship, the foundation also receives additional support through state and local funding; clearly every state has a vested interest in not peeling organ donors off the streets after motorcycle accidents, which is why most provide additional money to the programs to encourage participation. In my home state of Illinois, for instance, Northern Illinois University runs an MSF program for just a $20 registration fee plus a $3 processing fee. That’s for two and a half days of instruction, and they’ll even refund you the $20 after completing the course, if you wish (I let them keep it, naturally, as did pretty much all of my classmates). Other organizations run MSF-sanctioned courses privately, often at a cost of a couple hundred dollars or better.



With such a generous offer, the NIU classes filled up quickly. In fact, just registering for the class required an online waiting room, like trying to get Chicago Cubs opening-day tickets. Twenty minutes after getting my spot in line, I was finally able to pick a date but by the time I entered my personal information, it was filled and I had to pick a later one. I settled for an early-June date and watched the calendar for nearly three months in anticipation.



The first day of class was no less hectic than registering for it, with a lottery system for hopeful walk-ins praying one of the pre-registered participants had either forgotten about the class, changed his mind, or simply got lost on the way to school and missed the 6:00 PM-sharp deadline to be in the classroom for the start. The MSF instructors take their twenty hours of instruction very seriously, and by about 6:01, when all the seats were filled (24 total in my session, 11 of whom were of the female persuasion) they got right to work. An informal introduction had everyone sharing his or her name and riding experience and what they were hoping to get out of this class. Most of the men were not unlike me – guys who had ridden but needed to get licensed to buy a bike or get proper insurance – while most of the women were wives or girlfriends who were just sick of riding on the back.



The first four hours of class on Friday night were filled with group discussions about everything from the basics of motorcycle operation to traffic concerns and safety equipment, as well as numerous video clips to reinforce the discussions. Our instructor, Mel Hedden, a Goldwing-riding retired engineer, seemed to be made of one part drill instructor and one part high school math teacher. He’s not messing around, he just wants you to listen and learn! With so much to cover in such short time, he’s obliged to keep everything on a strict timeline.



Saturday morning instruction started at 8:00 (sharp!) and we were told to show up with proper riding gear. OK, well, not so much proper riding gear, but at least the basics – long-sleeve shirt, a jacket, a helmet, eye protection, long pants, lace-up shoes (you, in the flip-flops, better have some real shoes on in the morning!), and gloves. Scanning the group of assembled students, the garb included everything from Nike gym shoes to a satin windbreaker and Navy-issued cotton gloves. Very few showed up with their own helmets, which is why the course includes the use of loaners. I looked downright overdressed in Triumph riding gloves, a Rev-It! ballistic jacket, my own helmet and goggles, and Timberland boots.



Once we were sufficiently suited, bikes were issued from a motley crew of mismatched motorcycles. Everything was under 250 cc, and all of them looked to have been dropped repeatedly. Mine was a Yamaha TW (presumably for Training Wheels), a 200-cc thumper in a late-‘80s graphic scheme. These bikes no doubt lead a hard life, but amazingly they all started right up and ran like true champs. Not unlike the instructors, I suppose, who have to deal not only with a wide range of riding skills, but also all kinds of personalities.



Keeping in mind that this was the Basic RiderCourse, it’s not surprising we spent the first hour or so just getting used to the mechanical parts of the bike. After all, some of my fellow students had never driven a manually-shifted car, let alone worked their way through a sequential gearbox. Eventually we made it out to the range, where we practiced engaging the clutch, exploring the friction zone, and just walking around with the bikes between our legs. For someone who has ridden, this stage is painfully tedious; for complete novices, it’s a god-send.



By the mid-day break, we had barely “ridden” a motorcycle at all, having managed only small circles in first gear. The afternoon got more interesting when we finally got to move up and down through the gears, though the limited space of the riding range allowed only up to third gear, and then only just barely. Nevertheless, we were actually riding. Even the guy who’d never worked a manual gearbox. There were mistakes for sure, but aside from one collision caused by a rider failing to take her bike out of gear as she came to a stop, everyone was getting the hang of it (she bowed out at lunch never to return).



The second full day on the range included more practice of the first day’s skills, plus the addition of emergency braking and obstacle avoidance. These latter skills put fear into even the most confident new riders, though few had any real problems completing them. By now, just about everyone was getting comfortable on his motorcycle as we rode almost continuously for the better part of the day.



The second afternoon wrapped up with a riding skills evaluation and a written test. Despite some shaky performances under pressure, everyone passed and was issued an endorsement card, allowing them to simply walk into the DMV, pay a fee and gain the satisfaction of being a licensed motorcyclist.



As I mentioned before, I could have easily passed both the written and riding skills portions of my state’s licensing exam by simply walking in and doing them. A veteran of track days and driving schools, I was skeptical I’d get much out the classroom time that I didn’t already know from driving cars; but I was wrong. The skills needed to become a smart, safe rider are different than those needed to drive well. Having a low-key, conversational learning environment opened my mind to some new ideas that stick with me still. Even the riding portion, which at times seemed ridiculously remedial, proved immensely helpful in building confidence, especially with the more advanced maneuvers that I would be unlikely to test on the street on a more serious machine. Someone who has never spent time on a bike no doubt will find this time absolutely priceless.



For a couple years I sat on the fence deciding whether the MSF Basic RiderCourse would be worth my while. Now, having invested the time, I’m kicking myself for not having done it sooner. The transition from driver to rider can be intimidating, but I can’t imagine a better way to make the move. I recommend the course to anyone considering getting started on two wheels.


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