A Woman’s Driving Ambition

by Kristin Leary

I must admit that I was reluctant to even be a passenger on this tippy, two-wheeled open-sided convertible. Years of listening to my mother’s “Motorcycles = Death” mantra coalesced with a frightening hyperbike experience to create a mammoth mental hurdle to jump. However, after listening to the cyclist’s lengthy list of driving credentials, my comfort level rose enough to take a trip around the block.

Those 60 seconds bloomed into six years as a passenger. I could finally relate to the Robert Persig quote that I had read in college. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he said, “Motorcycling is a total body experience.” Motorcycling was in my blood.

Being a passenger was wonderful experience. I’ve toured the Smoky Mountains, the Southeastern shores, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, Sturgis and everywhere in between. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve experienced a lot. Torrential rain in Indianapolis, snow in Canada, hail in Wyoming, 50 mph winds in Idaho…and I still love it. (Thanks to my rain gear.)

Throughout those travels I watched the driver. I asked questions. I learned to anticipate when he’d shift gears, pass vehicles and how he would react to challenging situations. It became somewhat of a game to me. At times I felt like I was at a video arcade driving one of those simulated motorcycle games. Motorcycling was merely entertainment to me then.

Gradually my independent and curious nature started to creep out. I wondered what it would be like to be the one in control. My six years of questions and observation proved helpful in realizing that cycling is 80% mental alertness and 20% mechanical skill. That made driving a bike seem well within my grasp.

In June of 1996 I bought a Yamaha XS 400 Special (to my non-riding friends it’s a “pretty, maroon bike”). I didn’t even know how to ride it.

Although beginning students in the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Course need absolutely no knowledge of riding, I wanted to prepare anyway. That evening I learned how to drive it in a grade school parking lot. Then I graduated to an abandoned shopping center lot. For two weeks I learned the fundamentals from my ever patient instructor/husband who just smiled politely each time I killed the engine. Every five minutes.

Despite those seemingly insurmountable hurdles back in 1991, I actually felt comfortable on my bike from the very beginning. From my passenger days, however, I knew that most other motorists don’t respect bikes. I knew that my safety–or more appropriately, my survival–depended upon my ability to handle my bike in all situations thrown at me. Safety class was mandatory.

I would strongly recommend this course to anyone interested in learning to ride their own cycle. As mentioned earlier, you need to know nothing at all about a motorcycle. It teaches you everything about a bike, all the basic riding skills and educates you on important safety issues.

The most important piece of information I took away from class was a comment made by our instructor. He stressed, “Ride within your limit.” Now, every time I get on my bike, I think of that powerful statement. It certainly is tempting to ride with more experienced drivers, go 65 mph on the freeway or take a road trip with my husband on separate bikes. But I’ve realized that I’m not there yet mentally. With continual practice, I am confident that I’ll be able to do those things one day. For now I’m content with using my riding ability to cruise the back roads.

I encourage other passengers to experience what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat. The feeling of independence is truly exhilarating.


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