According to the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, I can now ride a motorcycle well enough to be licensed.
Honestly, this class was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Friday night was “book-larnin'” and that was a breeze. Even though most of the material was unfamiliar — and in some cases, badly explained by the text (though clarified, thankfully, by our instructors) — it was still a read-the-text, remember-the-answer sort of thing, and that’s something I’m good at.
Saturday morning we began the “Range” work — aka riding the bikes. I was on the smallest (engine size), shortest bike they had, a (red) Kawasaki Eliminator, and I still would’ve liked something smaller (at this point, I should note that this is apparently one of the four smallest bikes on the US market).
In some respects, this class may have been more fast-paced than normal (and therefore a bit harder for me), because there were only three (out of eleven) of us that had never driven a motorcycle before. Of the three non-riders, only Tia (the other female) and I don’t drive stick-shift cars. (I know — I *have* driven a stick-shift car, but it’s not something I do often. Or well, for that matter.)
Even though I had a little manual transmission experience, it didn’t help much, as the controls are, of course, completely different than in a car. And if driving a stick-shift car weren’t bad enough, a motorcycle adds yet one more thing to control, as the front and rear brakes are controlled independently.
So, right hand has to deal with throttle (aka “go pedal” in my car terms) and front brake. Right foot has the rear brake. Left foot has the gear shift lever and left hand has the clutch. Whew. That’s a lot of limb coordination for someone who doesn’t play video games with more than one button and one stick/dial. (Seriously. I like Tempest, Pac Man, Centipede, etc. Don’t like Joust. Too many buttons. 1). And that doesn’t even take into account the turn signal, horn etc.
To further confound matters, the right brake lever was a little far away for me, so that whenever I pulled on it, I unintentionally added some throttle. Not ideal. That’s ok, though. I quickly rectified that problem by “laying the bike down” (doesn’t that sound sweet) and bending the brake lever. Ooops. That being said, it was easier to use after. And, no, I didn’t hurt myself (at least not very much). I have a LOVELY black & green bruise up the inside of my left leg from ankle to knee where the bike “kissed” me as it was going down. I also thought I’d ruined my jeans, but an Oxyclean/spray-on session removed the nasty grease stains.
And then there’s the it’s-only-got-two-wheels-and-won’t-stand-up-on-it’s-own thing, which added yet another dimension of…fun.
Did I mention that the range was sloped? (Most, apparently, are flat).
All Saturday I struggled with the ever-elusive gear-clutch-throttle balance 2, but I finally got the hang of it Sunday morning. Basically, the end learnings were: use more throttle than you think you need; don’t be scared of the big zoom 3 noises (IOW, rev the engine); and it’s ok if you’re using the clutch for longer than you would in a car. 4
The other major factor contributing to the course being HARD was the heat. As you may have noticed, it was in the mid-to-upper 90s on Saturday. The good news is that we weren’t required to wear full kit, just a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, over-the-ankle boots, gloves and helmet. The bad news is that a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, over-the-ankle boots, gloves and helmet are still *plenty* hot. The gear is also heavy (my boots, for example, weigh about twice as much as my normal street shoes) and, in some cases, acts like an oven (like the helmet). Add to that the fact that the bike, though a *light* one, still weighed 280+ pounds and puts out a fair amount of heat on its own and that we were basically on the range from 7am (we started early in an attempt to beat some of the heat) to 4:30pm Saturday (with an hour lunch break), and you get one very tired, very miserable Gina. We took *lots* of breaks for water and rest 5 — about every two exercises — but for most of those we were still in the heat, so although they helped, they didn’t really help enough.
I was making good progress until about 3 on Saturday. After that point, the heat and the tired and the overwhelmed with information really got to me, and I rapidly started to wear out. My stomach was woobly, I felt a little faint and I was not processing very well (yes, I knew I was heading for heat exhaustion). I was doing a turn exercise when Peter, one of the instructors told to turn my head (you’re supposed to look towards the endpoint of a curve as you start it). I couldn’t understand him over the engine noise and the helmet, and got discombobulated, throttling by accident, which caused the bike to try really hard to get away from me. Very disconcerting and I needed all the concert I could get at that time.
To top things off, the last exercise of the day was to be the trickiest yet, involving a slow-speed three-quarters-of-a-figure-eight loop (would seems like it should be a figure six, but it’s not) in a box that was — I think — 24′ w x 30′ long, followed by two “S-curves”. While we were getting water before the exercise the feeling of failure (and tired and overwhelmed and miserable) got the better of me and I started to lose it. I had to walk away just to get calmed down enough not to cry, and when I returned I told Jeff that I didn’t think I could do the next exercise. Thankfully, Jeff recognized just how bad off I was and we talked to Kathe, one of the instructors, who, seeing the desperate look in my eye, reassured me and went off to talk with Peter.
When they returned they said that the exercise was optional that afternoon and that we’d do the exercise again in the morning. I sat it out, and am really glad I did, as I think I’d have (at best) gotten even more frustrated and depressed than I was and (at worst) hurt myself or someone else.
After having a wee bit of a breakdown Saturday night, Sunday morning got off to a fresh start. I did the tricky figure eight exercise flawlessly. No foot touch and all inside the lines. I also seemed to have finally gotten the hang of the whole gear-clutch-throttle balance thing, which made everything much easier.
The skill I’d been most worried about prior to the course (other than the shifting business), was turning, mostly due to one comment a friend of and mine from college, Kyle. We were riding in my car (going somewhere that I don’t remember), and I took a corner in my typical fashion (which involved a little braking through the curve), and he said: “Gina, I’d hate to see you try to ride a motorcycle, cause you can’t turn like that!”
Then there’s the whole countersteering thing, which I’d read about (in Jeff’s motorcycle books and magazines) and discussed intensively with him (and many of the Europrezzes). The bottom line is that in any turn over about 8mph, you end up steering in the direction *opposite* the one you want to go in order to initiate the turn. So, if I were making a left-hand turn, I turn the steering wheel to the right. 6 Yep. Really.
So I was anticipating turns to be a nightmare. Of course, ironically, they were the only thing I was *really* good at. I did get anxious a few times thinking I wasn’t doing it “right” because I didn’t feel like I was countersteering, feeling instead like I was swinging the bike in the right direction using my hips; however, Peter & Kathe assured me that I must be doing it correctly or I wouldn’t be turning. Finally on Sunday I figured out that I was probably doing the right thing, but was more attuned to the motion of my hips than my arms (since in either case it ends up being the same thing). I had no trouble with sticking to curves and even got up some pretty good speed and leans in some of them. Fun too.
I’m not sure I really “get” the fun of motorcycling yet (at least the driving portion — pillion is great)…it’s (at this point) just too much to keep track of with the shifting, which I really still don’t care much for. That being said, the riding bit was cool, once I got the blasted thing going (and before I had to stop), and the turning was downright nifty. These factors combine to make me want to try a scooter (like a Vespa), which has the zoomability without the shifting. Plus they’re really cute ;-)
All of that being said, I’m really glad I did it. This course hit me right in the middle of a very uncomfortable area (coordination, mechanical ability and physical skill) and is not the sort of thing that I think I’m any good at. It was a huge “stretch” but in the end I triumphed. I still sorta can’t believe I did.
1 I don’t think I could have dated myself any more effectively if I’d tried.
2 Apparently it was particularly tricky on this bike, as it was so small (engine-wise) that it stalled easily at low revs. I found that I really had to give it some juice before I let the clutch out or it would just poot out on me.
3 Zoom, zoom, zoom. Yeah zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom.
4 “Slipping the clutch” is, apparently, a legitimate part of riding technique and is often used to adjust speed in low-speed maneuvers.
5 Note: the best way to ensure you have cold water all day in a situation like this is to take several water bottles and freeze them, making sure to leave at least one unfrozen. Pack those in a cooler, and also pack a thermos of regular water. As the water in the frozen bottles melts, add water from the thermos, which will cool very quickly due to the contact with the core of ice left in the water bottle.
6 They actually explain it as “pressing” on the handlebar in the direction you are trying to go (IOW, for a left turn, you press on the left grip), but either way you describe it, it nets out the same. I *think* they think that pressing left to go left makes more “sense”, but it was more confusing to me. There are also several explanations as to why it works from a physics POV. I won’t try to explain it myself, but will point you here.