by Thomas Day
I occasionally teach MSF Basic Rider classes. I used to do it a lot more than I do now, but I still enjoy the exercise, the opportunity to get paid for riding a small motorcycle on a closed course, and meeting new people who want to ride motorcycles badly enough that they’ll pay money and spend a weekend freezing, soaking, or sweltering on a Minnesota parking lot for the privilege. Most of the riders I know take riding for granted both the skill and the access to public roads, and it’s revitalizing to be around folks who are excited about learning the skills and having the opportunity.
The main thing that detracts from the pleasure of teaching folks to ride motorcycles is watching panic reactions turn something that should be simple, fun, and exciting into accidents, pain, and outright terror. When I discuss the mental skills necessary for riding motorcycles, I try to convince my students that “every panic reaction you have on a motorcycle will be wrong.” I sincerely believe that is true. When we are moving faster than humans can travel, naturally, we’re traveling at a velocity for which a million years of evolution has poorly prepared us. At 70mph (or 102.7ft/sec), for example, typically inattentive motorists often travel 200-300 feet before they begin to react to a hazard. I’ve whipped on this dead horse before, in my rant about tailgating, but this is a different issue, mostly. After closing the hazard gap by 300 feet, the last thing we need to do is to react irrationally. Panic will inspire irrational reactions.
Sometimes I think the reason we do things like ride motorcycles, jump out of airplanes or from bridges, climb mountains, spelunk caves, scuba oceans, and get married and have children is so that we can practice controlling our panic reactions. If we never experienced stress at extreme levels, we wouldn’t know how to react when we found ourselves in a real emergency. Practice makes perfect, if you believe that sort of thing. Extreme recreation invents panic situations so we can practice our reactions in unnaturally dangerous situations.
Motorcycle training on a small parking lot with low powered motorcycles in a controlled training environment, you would think, should be a place where panic can be easily controlled. You’d be thinking wrong. Even at speeds barely above a brisk walk, some new riders flip out over every aspect of riding. They fixate on the exact position of the front tire, following the wheel around the course, like unguided robots. They desperately search for the hand or foot controls as if they were moving targets. They refuse to try skills like counter-steering or counter-weighting, sailing all over the range while they stubbornly cling to tactics that don’t work. They clutch the bars with enough strength to squish the grips into barbell shapes and pump up their arms until they cramp. They absolutely refuse to test the front brake with any muscle because their dad or older brother told them that front brakes are barely disguised launching pad triggers. They fall over every time the motor makes a noise.
I’m beginning to think that going from a sedentary and secure lifestyle to a stress-induced (even if the stress is controlled and mild) activity is a poor plan. On the rare occasion that someone asks my opinion, I always recommend a few hundred miles of bicycling before taking on motorcycling. When I taught motocrossers, thirty years ago, I recommended off-road bicycling before off-road motorcycling. If you can’t deal with the relatively mild and simple demands of bicycling, you shouldn’t be on a motorcycle. Motorcycling is a physical skill first and a mental skill second. If you can’t develop the physical skills, you won’t be safe on a motorcycle.
Panic isn’t something only connected to newbies, either. In Minnesota, we suffer from an embarrassing number of “single vehicle crashes.” In non-political-ese, Minnesota riders panic and run off of the road like lemmings going swimming. Large numbers of experienced, but untalented, riders flip out when they are surprised by a hazard and let their panic do the driving until they come to an abrupt stop in a ditch, against a tree or guard rail, or plastered against someone’s front bumper. These folks have not mastered the physical skills well enough to engage the mental skills. They are not doing motorcycling, the sport or activity, any favors with their participation in statistics generation, either. In fact, they’re killing themselves, literally, and the rest of us, politically.
Twenty years ago, a work acquaintance who was curious about my motorcycling transportation habit, told me that he used to be a motorcyclist, in the sixties. He’d ended his two-wheel career by sliding his bike under a semi trailer and spending two years in rehab. The bike, of course, was a “customized” bike with no front brakes, a $3,000 paint job, a five-foot front fork, and a hard-tail “suspension.” “The semi pulled out in front of me and I had to lay ‘er down,” was his story of motorcycle destruction. He thought it was a pretty macho tale of motorcycle woe. I thought it was a damn embarrassing story, sort of like admitting you thought J. Edgar Hoover looked cute in his print dress. In motorcyclist terms, that story says “I wasn’t paying attention, I flipped out, panicked, did all of the wrong things, and fell over and got busted to pieces.” Anyone who is surprised by the appearance of a sixty-foot semi and trailer in downtown L.A. traffic isn’t paying attention to anything. I could understand missing the docking of the Mothership before I could comprehend not paying attention to a semi approaching an intersection. That’s about as brilliant as seeing the ocean recede a mile or two and thinking “that looks like a golden opportunity to pick up sea shells and marooned fish.”
Otherwise, this is an intelligent man. After a few years of watching me go everywhere on my bike, including lugging 60 pounds of scuba gear to his home in Dana Point and picking up industrial equipment (mostly computer gear) at his business in Santa Ana, he got the itch and bought a new Harley (naturally). The very afternoon he picked up the bike, we went for a ride and he scared the crap out of me a dozen times in fifty or so miles.
We stopped, for a beer (naturally), in Silverado and I took the opportunity to mention that his riding technique could use some work. I think I said something diplomatic like “Are you freakin’ stupid? Do you not know that we drive on the *(#^@$ right side of the road in this country?” And I went on in that vein for a few minutes before running out of wind and topics. He was a bit surprised, thinking that we were both good ‘ole boys and reasonably friendly. After I calmed down, we had a talk about riding courses and I strongly encouraged him to take one. We parted company and I went north for a few hundred miles of solitary motorcycling and he went back home. We might have been less than close friends at that point.
However, he did look up riding courses and took one at a race course in San Diego the same month. Not a race class, but a predecessor to the MSF’s ERC (Experienced Rider Course). The next time I saw him was, as usual, when I picked up some gear at his shop. His bike was parked outside. After the usual polite stuff, he mentioned the riding course and what he’d learned in the past couple of weeks. He apologized for scaring the crap out of me, talked my ear off about what he’d learned and how differently he now looked at traffic, maintenance, road conditions, and motorcycling in general after the course, and asked if I wanted to go for a ride that weekend.
We went riding. We had fun. We went riding, often, for the last couple of years I lived in L.A. We stayed friends for another fifteen years, then I lost contact with him after he and his new wife (his 4th or 7th, I lost count) launched their 1999 Goldwing into a Central and South American tour. He’s retired, rich, and seeing the world by motorcycle, ferry boat, barge, and tow truck, last I heard. The Goldwing had touched highway in mainland Europe, England, Australia, New Zealand, North Africa, India, Alaska and Hawaii. The last time he wrote me, he described a panic situation on the motorcycle. He’d misplaced his passport in the Wing’s storage caverns at a border crossing near a war zone in eastern Europe. I have no problem imagining freaking out in that situation.