Category Archives: Discovery

All over

The past few months I’ve been all over the board with what kind of bike I want. Classic. Naked. Vintage. Cruiser. Sport. Super sport. Back to classic. It’s so hard to make a decision. It’s like the first bike will define me or something. But it won’t. Instead, I suppose, it’ll define my first experience buying and riding my own motorcycle. And I like taking things slowly. Nothing needs to be rushed or hurried. Nice and easy.

There have been a few things which have helped me narrow down my choices in selecting a first bike. If you’re looking to follow the masses, I’ve read article after article about bikes for beginners, and they all boil down to the same seven or eight: Kawasaki Ninja 300, Honda CB or CBR 300 or 500, KTM 390 Duke, Suzuki GW250, and throw in an entry-level Harley for good measure.

These bikes are fine. Nothing wrong with them. I considered most, if not all, of them in my search over the past few months. The only problem was I didn’t find the motorcycle of my dreams in any of them. I really don’t want a big bike, 300 cc feels fine, and I like the idea of a lighter bike too. But none of these made me swoon. So I decided to make my own criteria.

  1. Besides learn on it, decide how you’ll spend most of your time on your new motorcycle. What do you want to do with it? Take long day trips, race, commute, or go cross-country. Once you know what you’ll be doing when you’re on it, it’ll be a little easier to narrow down the type of bike you’re going to want to consider. If you’re looking to do a road trip to Montana and back, you might want to reconsider that Ninja 300.
  2. Ease of riding. How big are you? How much bike can you handle? How much saddle time have you clocked after Motorcycle Training School? If you haven’t taken a course in motorcycle safety, you might want to reconsider. Mine was awesome. If you’re an experienced rider, you go do you, buddy, and skip to number three. Some people will say you want to start with something small like a 250 or 300. And they’re probably right. Hence, the list above. But if it doesn’t speak to your soul (see number four), then it doesn’t matter how big or little it is. It’s not for you. There are forgiving bigger bikes out there for the novice. You just need to find the right for you.
  3. Budget. How much do you want to spend on your new baby? Are you going to buy new or used? There are pros and cons to both. New is going to be more expensive, but less maintenance and you know exactly where that bike has been since its third or fourth mile. Plus, there’s more than just the price tag that you’ll want to consider. You have insurance, sales tax, upkeep, maintenance, parts, and interest if you finance it. No reason to bust the bank for your new beast. Remember, as beautiful as a motorcycle is, it’s a depreciating asset. It will not go up in value unless you keep it for fifty years behind some glass box and never use it. But where’s the fun in that?
  4. Look deep into its eyes or mirrors or pistons. Run your fingers along the shiny, glistening tank. Does the bike speak to your soul? Are you meant for it and it meant for you? It’s not cheese that I’m spewing here, it’s truth. You’re going to need to take care of that bike and that bike is going to take care of you. Although there will be bikes that come and go, your first is always going to be your first.

After all that, I still haven’t decided on what I’m going with. I’m leaning towards a Triumph. When I see one, it’s speaks to me. I’m just not sure what it’s saying yet. Buy me or beat it.

I’ll keep listening.

Motorcycle Riding Skills Test

Motorcycle School

While the written motorcycle test is exactly the same and must be taken at the DMV, the riding skills test for the CA DMV is different than the test taken at the end of the safety course. The DMV asks the rider to identify five controls: starter, engine cutoff, clutch, throttle and gear shifter. Then, the rider must demonstrate specific riding skills on their course: serpentine or weave in and out of five cones about five feet apart, circle both left and right staying inside painted lines, slow ride in a straight line, gear shift up and down during a ride, and break smoothly to a complete stop. If you go outside the lines or put your foot down during any part of the course, the test is over. You fail.

In the safety course riding test you must demonstrate similar skills, however, it is a much longer and grueling test. None of us would learn if we pass or fail until the conclusion of all tests. A couple of riders dropped a foot down during the tougher skills, and every one of us felt for them in that moment. During the gear shift up, then corner and break quickly/smoothly test, I scraped the right peg on the asphalt and thought for sure I failed. That fear was only slightly tempered by the pure joy of riding that low on the little Kawasaki Eliminator.

About an hour later, after all of us had been through every skills test and one large traffic simulation evaluation, Walter Champion asked us to line up the bikes and shut them down. He instructed all six of us to raise our right hands. Then, he proceeded to walk down the line slapping our gloved mitts. Congratulations. We passed.

A combination of thoughts and feelings filled me. I was elated, relieved, and a little terrified. Great, I passed. Now what?

Tough Love

moto_school

Walter Champion stares contemplatively across the range at the six riders straddling their newly assigned cruisers one behind the next at the starting gate. The starting gate consists of two small, orange rubber cones, no more than three inches high.

“First rider,” he says, holding up his arm. Then he moves his arm from the front of his body to the other side indicating to get in gear and twist the throttle down. “Go!”

The first rider, Sean, complies. Just as he gets into second gear about 15 feet from the start gate, Walter points to the next ride and brings his arm down. Maggie takes off. Then he points to me, his arm up and then down. I take off easing the clutch out from my left hand, giving a little gas on the throttle with my right hand. I gain some speed, pull in the clutch, upshift with my left foot, ease out on the clutch with my left hand, and give it a little more gas with my right hand. And I’m in business. Second gear and entering the left curve at about thirteen mph. Lean left, push left. It feels good.

Counter steering is the act of pushing your handlebars forward (and away from) the direction you want to go. Everything in your mind and body tells you this is going to make you go the other direction, but it doesn’t. The lean is what keeps the tire’s traction on the ground. That, and the head turn. Look where you want to go, the bike magically follows.

Maggie stalls and kills her bike just after the third turn. The rest of us start to slow down. Since most of us don’t know how to downshift, let alone what happens when you break and not pull in the clutch, other riders start killing their bikes as we come to an awkward scattered stop.

As you might remember, rule number one is to obey Walter Champion at all times. Rule number two is do not pass another rider.

“Goddammit!” Walter yells as he takes long strides, fast and rhythmic, his black leather boots moving quickly in the direction of the stalled out rider. “Get out of first gear. Come on. Go.” Maggie restarts her bike just in time to accelerate away from approaching Walter. “Better. Good,” he says and looks around at us. “All of you, let’s go.”

It is not more than a three minutes later the same girl loses her gear shifter. It comes loose and drags under her bike. The silver metal piece shaped like a backwards upside-down L, which is used to shift gears from 1 half a notch up to Neutral then half a notch to 2 a full notch to 3 and so on, falls off its hinge but not off the bike completely. I have a pretty good look at it because my riding position is directly behind her. It reminds me of a small, shimmering snake slithering between her front and rear tires. It bounces and swings erratically with a few sparks shooting up from under her bike. It takes Walter a minute to fully recognize what’s happened.

Maggie stops her bike again. After pulling up the plastic face mask, she turns in Walter’s direction and says, “The thing fell off.”

I pull in the clutch, downshift, and cover my break in case I need to apply it. We’re going so slowly that it’s almost unnecessary. Once in first, the bike slows so much, you can pretty much glide to a stop. But I apply the front break gently, stop, and wait for further instructions.

“What in the world,” Walter barks. He looks under the bike and realizes that sure enough the chrome gear shifter has come off but not completely and her bike is unusable. He has her walk the broken bike over to the T, another staging area on the side of the range, and has us all line up behind her. He tells us to “shut ’em down,” which means kill the engine, turn the ignition key to off, put down the kickstand, and dismount on the left side of the bike. We comply and he gives us a break while he walks over to the offices, which are like mobile homes on blocks where the helmets and bikes are stored.

About ten minutes later, he rides over on a different bike. Before presenting it to one of us, he takes it around the course a few times and we all watch the expert rider corner. Finally, he’s satisfied and pulls it behind the rest of the bikes. Maggie puts her name tag in the new bike’s plastic slide cover taped to the headlight.

It’s not fifteen minutes later when Maggie breaks the gear shifter on another bike. The exact same affliction on a totally different bike. Again, we all stop and then pull into the staging area at the T. After dismounting, the riding crew jokes with Maggie in good fun, but there wasn’t a rider among us who didn’t steal a sideways stare at Maggie’s boots.

Again, Walter pulls the bike out of the lineup and walks over to the mobile offices. This time he rides over a different bike, a green one that is different than our smaller Kawasaki Eliminators. Walter tells Sean, who is the tallest of the group at six feet, to hop on because it’s a 250 cc, a heavier, faster and bigger bike so he should be able to handle it more easily than the rest of us. He directs Maggie to take Sean’s old bike.

In fairness to Maggie, all of the bikes are what my old bartender neighbor would call used and abused. Every one had been dropped, and dropped often. My red Eliminator shakes so badly in first gear that I felt I might get tossed off. Eventually I learned how to quickly upshift to second. It was dumb luck when it didn’t die in neutral, or when I could get it in neutral at all. The body is dented on both sides of the tank and rust covers the bigger of the two scars on the left side. It has almost 50,000 miles on it. It’s like a 30 year old who looks 90 because of their hard and fast life. Only in this case, it’s quite the opposite. My bike has lived a painfully slow life in first and second gear and lots of laying down.

On we go.

The Range

The riding range, affectionately referred to as the range, is a large parking lot that could fit three football fields east to west and two more north to south. All students arrive 15 minutes early for fear of not being able to ride at all if late. We are split into two groups, six riders on opposite diagonal sides of the range. The morning is bright, the sky is a deep cobalt blue, and the hot sun is beating on our fully clothed arms and legs. Six shiny motorcycles sit lined up tire to tire across the parking lot, blue, red, black, silver, red, and black. They look so pretty, so enticing. Ride me, they say. The chrome shimmers in the sun playfully winking at us.

Our instructor’s name is Walter Champion. What a fabulous name. He’s an African American gentleman in his sixties with freckles, kind eyes and a welcoming smile. He wears a long-sleeved khaki-colored shirt with vents on the sides made for hiking or safaris. His hat is wide-brimmed, a slightly lighter khaki, also used on safaris, and I start to wonder if we’re going to see Lions on this tour. He’s wearing green riding pants and black motorcycle boots. Outside of the goofy hat, he’s the coolest cat on the range.

He checks us in, ensures that each of us have a helmet, gloves, long pants, ankle-high boots, and long sleeves. After gear approval, he requests we start intros that includes our name, where we’re from, where we live, and what kind of bike we have or want. There’s Maggie and Sean from San Francisco. They want to get their license so they can legally rent scooters when they travel to Italy in a few weeks. Adrian, a nineteen year old Chines kid, who looks 27 and wants to learn how to ride the dirt bike that was given to him as a gift. Flavio is in his mid-twenties and works for Twitter as an engineer. He lives in San Francisco and wants to buy a Kawasaki Ninja sport bike. Erica is in her early thirties, full-figured and she’s here because her boyfriend rides and he asked her to get her license so he can drink and she can ride them home. There’s a free dinner to a fancy restaurant in it for her if she passes the test.

Satisfied with our intros, Walter explains he has three rules, but the first one is the most important. “Obey me at all times,” he says without a smile making eye contact with each of us to show he is not joking. In fact, Walter Champion doesn’t joke much at all.
This ought to be an interesting couple of days.

Motorcycle School

School classroom in Japanese high school

Thursday night, motorcycle training starts in the classroom. I arrive ten minutes early and it feels like five minutes late. The instructor, a heavy-set, middle-aged white man with a handlebar mustache (no cliché here), is seated at the dated desk in the front of the room with his reading glasses resting on the tip of his nose.

“Name?” he asks without looking up from his list. I give him my last name, he holds out a white envelope and tells me to address it to myself. While I write, he reviews the six or seven pages of paperwork I completed before the class. It contains consent forms that remove liability from the instructors and the school should I fall off the bike and hurt myself or some other poor soul during the riding portion of the training. He informs me that I missed a signature, which I remedy on the spot. He tells me to find and take a seat.

The room is full. Twenty-two people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors, some shifting in their seats, some watching me, and others reviewing the pamphlet that is resting on the remaining open desks. I slide into an open seat and recognize the Motorcycle Safety booklet. The fifty-odd-some pages cover all the motorcycle rules and best practices of the road from cornering and lane positions to proper gear and blood alcohol limits.

Class begins promptly at 6pm and one student is left knocking on the outside door at 6:03pm. The instructor, Dale, goes on with his opening speech unfazed. Another student finally opens the door and lets the thirty-something year old Latino man inside the classroom. The instructor gives the mortified student the self-addressed stamped envelope and reminds him and the rest of the class not to be late on Saturday or the door will be locked forcing he or she to drop and re-enroll in a later session.

Dale fires up an old PC to display an antiquated Powerpoint presentation, which appears to have been created in 1996. The material he covers, however, is relevant, informative, and terrifying. For example, a motorcycle rider is thirty-three times more likely to have an accident than a car driver. Not double or triple or even quadruple, but thirty-three times more likely. We learn quickly that how you gear up matters: helmet, boots, jacket, reflective gear, gloves, and so on.

A few minutes before 10pm, Dale concludes the class and reminds us to be on time to the range, that is the motorcycle riding range, on Saturday morning. The plan is to practice riding for half the day on Saturday, then return to the classroom to complete a written test. If we pass the test, we can come back on Sunday. If we don’t pass, we can re-enroll at a later date. Assuming we pass the test, we ride on Sunday morning and take the riding test on Sunday afternoon. If we pass, we can apply to take the DMV test afterwards.

One class down, two days of riding and two tests to go. So far, still here.

Dropout

schooldropout
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Like a Taylor Swift song, no matter what evasive tactics I’ve employed, such as humming new melodies or attempting to jam-pack my mind with other things, you know, work stuff, writing, surfing social media feeds, pondering how Meisha Tate lost her UFC belt so quickly, any distraction, nothing seemed to shake the proverbial motorcycle love song in my head. The moto bug, as I’ve coined it, has me, and it’s infected my soul.
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While racking my brain for a solution and browsing through bikes on Craigslist, a new idea, like a beacon of shining (head)light, dawned on me. What better way to get this out of my system than to force myself to go to a classroom with boring textbooks and long lectures and tough tests. Nobody wants that kind of punishment, especially not me. I’ll simply enroll in a motorcycle training course, hate it, and end this internal battle. Affliction cured.
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After a little research, I landed on the Northern California Motorcycle Training course held in San Mateo. The course and instructors received good reviews on yelp, which made it feel relatively harmless. Besides, what did I have to worry about? I’d probably drop out after the first hour or so, right? Maybe I’d make it through the lecture, but as soon as I’d have to put on a helmet or coordinate my feet on pedals with my hands on levers while balancing on two wheels, well, that’ll be the end of it. I’ll fail, get discouraged, and walk off the asphalt, a bona fide motorcycle school dropout.
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So there, it’s done. I’m registered. If the course does its job, I should drop out and rediscover my disdain for motorcycles. I’ll have succeeded in putting this incorrigible idea to bed, buried deep in a dark coffin under many layers of dirt, asphalt and concrete. Before long, I’ll be saying to myself and others, remember that time I thought I wanted to ride a motorcycle and then dropped out of motorcycle training? Ha, what was I thinking? I or others will laugh at the absurdity of it all. Oh, what a goofball, a motorcycle of all things. And the whole idiotic insinuation will become a distant memory. It’s a perfect plan.

The Bug

first_person_motorcycle

Something happened to me. Call it a bite or a cold or a bug, I’m not sure, but it’s possessed me. At first it was an unsettling feeling, like the start of the stomach flu, slightly nauseous and unnerving, feverish even. I couldn’t quite keep my balance as the paradigm of how I’m supposed to live my life started shaking under my once steady and by-the-book legs.

Not a big deal, I thought. This will pass. Once, not so long ago, while reading The Goldfinch, I wanted to see if I too, like one of the characters, could spend an entire day, morning to night, completely drunk. It seemed like an interesting concept at the time. But as friends and enemies alike pointed out, as a person who can barely handle a few drinks before spewing them out sometimes making it to the toilet and sometimes not, I thought it wise to put the idea on the shelf for a while. The same thing should, will, must happen again. It’ll just go away, like a one night stand disappearing in the middle of the night so when the morning comes it’s hard to remember if it ever happened or if it was just a dream.

Instead the idea, call it infection, grew. This newly found deep desire to swing a leg over a saddle, wrap my fingers around grips, and take off briskly with the wind in my hair, dust in my path was infecting my mind. Before long, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Would I like motorcycling? What kind of motorcycle would I buy? Who else do I know that rides a motorcycle? In the midst of taking a shower or doing a run, I’d find myself thinking, would I like wearing all that motorcycling gear and a helmet? While cooking pasta the thoughts would pervade, is that a motorcycle going down my street? and I’d need to hurry over the window straining to see what kind of bike it was growling down the block.

Whatever happens when you suddenly find yourself obsessed by an insidious idea that for so many years you thought was detestable at worst and obnoxious at best has its fangs tightly wrapped around your throat and isn’t letting go. Who am I? Why is this happening to me? Motorcycles are for gang members and outlaws, not normal people and definitely not me.

Whatever happens to make a person want to ride a motorcycle, apparently I got it. And I got it bad.