The Dreaded U-Turn

by bj max

I’ve been riding motorcycles for nigh on to forty years now. I lived through the sixties, survived the seventies, stumbled through the eighties, whizzed through the nineties and traversed the turn of the century all in one piece. I’ve wrecked bikes, raced ‘em, acted a fool on ‘em and scared myself silly a buncha’ times. I’ve owned Harleys and Hondas mostly, but a lowly Allstate was also part of my stable at one time. I’ve enjoyed motorcycles most of my life and you would think that after all these years and all those miles I would be a pretty good rider, wouldn’t you? Well, so would I but the sorry truth is, I’m not a very good rider at all.

This realization was glaringly apparent recently when I watched a guy on a big touring rig make a U-turn. He did it with the grace and style of a ballet dancer. He was so smooth, and the confidence he had in himself was obvious. My U-turns, on the other hand, are awkward and shaky. I wobble this way and that and drag my feet like a two year old. That old trucking song, “Gimme’ forty acres and I’ll turn this rig around” comes to mind. It’s embarrassing. That stranger on the Gold Wing became my inspiration. If he can ride smooth and slick like that then, why can’t I? It was high time I learned and I vowed to at least master the U-turn, even if it killed me.

I’m a self taught rider. Never had anybody teach me a thing. I’ve never been to any kind of riding school and have never read anything on the subject. Motorcycle Consumer News has a column called “Proficient Motorcycling”. I’ve never read that column. Too dry for me, I would say. In other words, I’m too thick headed to learn. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as the saying goes. There’s a lot of truth in that and bad habits that are honed and perfected over the years become so ingrained that it’s really hard to break them. I finally admitted to myself that if I really wanted to improve, I needed help.

I began looking for a riding school, but the only one offered in my area was a three day course at the local Harley-Davidson dealer. But I ride a Honda and I didn’t think the dealer would welcome an interloper from the competition so I checked it off. A friend said I should try the Motorcycle Safety foundation. So I called around and learned that the local technical school offered the MSF course three times a year. I contacted State Tech and made a reservation for the next class.

The Happy Bottom Riding, Yachting and Snipe Huntin’ Club meets the second Thursday of every month at a pizza parlor about a mile from my home. On meeting night, as I sat chewing on a slice of deep crust cheesy chitlin’, one of our members hobbled in assisted by his wife. He was on crutches’ and wore a cast on his leg from the ankle to the knee. What happened to you Myron somebody asked? Yeah Myron, what happened to you? Myron sheepishly explained that while attempting a U-turn during a recent MSF course, he fell and broke his leg. I almost choked on my pizza. Must be a tough course I thought. So, being the wimp that I am, I called and cancelled my reservation. I can’t afford no broken leg. I have to make a living.

What was I to do? If I wanted to learn to be a better rider, I was gonna’ have to cowboy up and accept some risk. But I didn’t want to pull some stupid mistake while in the company of my friends. So I decided to practice my riding skills then take the MSF course. Problem was, I didn’t have any riding skills. So I began searching for self help ways to at least build my confidence before attempting the MSF obstacle course.

Enter Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, issue #89 and a book review by Sev Pearman. The book, “Total Control” by Lee Parks, former editor of Motorcycle Consumer News and motorcycle racer of some note, teaches street riding technique and the book was hyped with the line, “Take control of your machine.” Mr. Pearman’s last few words in his review advised, “Start scraping pegs on that GL1800”. I felt like he was speaking directly to me so I went right out and bought the book.

Surprisingly, it was in stock at Barnes & Noble right down the street. Chapter thirteen dealt with my nemesis, the low speed U-Turn. Mr. Parks makes the claim that most riders are able to reduce their minimum turning diameter by thirty to forty percent with only five minutes of practice. Yeah right. But then, I asked myself, why would he lie? I decided to sacrifice five minutes out of my busy schedule to find out. You know, to see if he was lying.

So early one Saturday morning, I hopped on the bike and rode to the nearest super market parking lot and tried out Mr. Parks’s method. And to my amazement, it worked. Within ten minutes I was making tighter U-turns. Really. They weren’t pretty, but they were an improvement. And so simple. No, I’m not going to reveal the procedure here. It wouldn’t be ethical. You’ll have to go out and buy the book yourself.

This was all I wanted to know so I tossed the book into my bookcase and considered the thirty four bucks I paid for it well worth the money. Then I continued riding, even though I still didn’t really know how. The problem with riding and not knowing how and not knowing you don’t know how is about as thorny as this sentence. Yes, my U-turns had improved and my right hand turns were tighter, but maneuvering at slow speeds still suffered. I wanted to be as proficient as that stranger and I hungered for more than the book offered. Books are fine as long as your comprehension skills are good, but if not, books can actually hinder ones education. I tried to con my ninth grade English teacher with that line once. She didn’t appreciate my philosophizing and flunked me anyway.

According to an old Chinese proverb, a picture is worth a thousand words. With that thought in mind, I recently ordered a DVD titled “Ride like a Pro” by former LA motor patrolman, Jerry Palladino. The video is actually a modified version of the LA police department’s motor officer school. I was skeptical at first. So many self-help videos are crude and overpriced. But, I’m happy to say, this one was very professional with an interesting script, a bit of humor and excellent video illustrations. It has taught me more in a couple of weeks than I learned in forty years of riding. I can’t say much more than that without turning this into a review and that’s not my department. But I will tell you that this video points out all the bad habits I’ve picked up over the years and I’m finally learning how to deal with them. Especially the dreaded U-turn. I’m not where I want to be just yet, but I’m gettin’ there.

Happy Motoring


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