Fear ye! Fear ye!

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.


16 thoughts on “Fear ye! Fear ye!

  1. Congratulations!!
    For what it’s worth, I only passed the class by the barest when I took it, too. And for quite a while (months) the only place I felt comfortable riding was the parking lot of the local college, during off hours. After having had somebody else ride the bike there for me. Yay you!! for pushing your own personal limits!


    • I can completely see the not-wanting-to-ride-anywhere-except-a-parking -lot thing. I have more than a healthy respect for the dangers of motorcycling — particuarly since multiple people that I like and who I think are good riders have had accidents.
      I can’t believe you bought a bike when you did (before getting comfortable with the idea of riding)…of course that’s sort of a vicious circle isn’t it?
      Thanks for the encouragement


      • Well, the first bike I practiced on after I took the MSF wasn’t my own. It was ‘s little 50cc (or maybe 90cc?) 70’s era thing (Kawi?), which was about as unintimidating as a motorcycle could get. I did put around town a bit on it, bracketed front and rear by other, more experienced/competent, motorcyclists. And I briefly borrowed Bry’s EX500 for parking lot maneuvers before I’d bought my own bike, too. And the first bike that I bought I ended up almost never riding. (In part because it felt big and heavy, and in larger part because when I had it, I lived on a street that had a very steep down slope and curves and turns. By the time I didn’t live there any more, I’d bought Li’l Bit and done enough parking lot time with her that I was taking to the roads more.)
        But yeah, definitely a vicious circle there, which was why I ended up investing in a bike (twice) when I wasn’t comfortable enough riding to be the one to ride it home. :)


  2. Motorcycling is HARD at first. So was driving, but motorcycling is harder. People who’ve been riding long enough they don’t remember that anymore are very common. People who ride and never felt like that in the first place scare the hell out of me. After you get enough experience so that it’s not hard all of the time, it’s a lot of fun.
    Out of curiosity, why take the MSF if you don’t intend to ride? I’m one of many who believes that the MSF doesn’t teach you how to ride; it teaches you basic form and safety so you don’t kill yourself while teaching yourself to ride. It’s kind of useless without a couple hundred hours of riding afterwards.


    • Yeah I failed my driver’s license test twice. On the same day. (see why “motor sports” in general scare me?)
      As for why I took it… damn good question. Partly because I don’t like knowing there’s things I can’t do (particularly if they’re things I’m afraid of). Partly because I was curious — so many people that I like really enjoy riding, so I figured there must be something to it. Partly because I wanted to know that if I needed to — in case of emergency — I could get Jeff’s bike from A to B (not well, mind you, but there).
      At least I think that’s why.. ;-)


    • Oh, and I forgot one thing: When you spend three days every summer with a bunch of folks who come from all over Europe to ride, after a while you really want to understand WTF they’re talking about. :-)


  3. Congratulations

    Well done Gina! :)

    It sounds like you had a difficult time (with the heat and all) but overcame it all very well.
    Also reading your report it certainly seems to me like you ‘got it’: “I had no trouble with sticking to curves and even got up some pretty good speed and leans in some of them. Fun too.”
    Curves are the main reason I ride a bike[1] and the most fun you can have on a bike with or without your clothes on…

    Oh, and I doubt very much that anyone on a similar course with a similar level of experience would have got any more out of it or done better. I know none of my pupils ever did. Most early riders are triumphs of enthusiasm, ignorance, and testosterone (in many cases) over skill and it is only luck that we don’t get too ‘banged up’ until we learn the skill too.

    Best wishes, and congratulations,

    Paul Hounslow

    1 That and the acceleration, and the filtering (which you can’t do anyway), and the shear level of control required. Mostly though it is the curves (swoop, swoop, swoop)….


    • Re: Congratulations
      Thanks, Paul — the compliment is truly appreciated coming from you!
      Curves are good. I now understand why Jeff luuuurves Switzerland!
      Miss you guys –


  4. I found this through selftaughtgirl.com — LOVED the story as I too took this course. I also passed. I have yet to ride a motorcycle again since then though and that was a year ago. God damn it was hard! I think if I dropped the bike though that would have been the end of it for me.
    And that figure 8 in the box thing? Ridiculous. We called it the “hell box”.


    • Thanks for the validation! It *was* hard!!! (And I gotta give huge props to my SO who’s been riding for 15+ years for reminding me that it is difficult and not doing the “oh come on, it’s not so bad” thing!).
      WRT dropping the bike: I’m stubborn as a mule. Actually…now that I think of it, if a mule and I were to get in a stubborn-off, I’m pretty sure I’d win.
      So what prompted you to take it?


      • I always wanted to do it ever since I was little and my dad would take me out on the back of his bike. It lost it’s appeal after the class though, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever actually drive a bike around town or anything. I do enjoy being a passenger though!


  5. Congrats
    Hey, it’s Kyle. Shannon sent me the URL. Please buy a bright yellow or neon outfit so I’ll know it’s you on the bike. :D
    Here’s what I’ve learned from years of riding (and a few years since riding). You get *really* used to watching all the other traffic, because when stupid people in cars do really stupid things you have to have a plan on how to get out of it. But what that means is that I’ve become a much better car driver because I pay more attention.
    The other thing is, given a choice between riding without my helmet and riding without the proper pants, coat, gloves, and boots, I would choose to ride without my helmet. Why? Because if I wreck without a helmet it’ll probably be quick and painless. If I have a wreck with a helment but not the other stuff I’ll probably survive but with no skin. Ouch and ick. :D
    And last thing. The cool thing is that you can tell people you are going riding and people won’t think you’re crazy for just driving around with no purpose. If you try that with you car people start sizing you for a padded room.


You have thoughts too?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s