In my Geezerdom, I’m always trying to find baselines for measuring my decline. My daughter is fully on-board with my concerns and she’s recommended putting black throw rugs around the house because, apparently, old farts will mistake black carpets for bottomless pits and that is a tactic used to keep dementia patients in their rooms. Sooner or later, I’ll end up trapped in the bathroom and that will be the winter my wife escorts me to the front door during a sub-zero blizzard and sends me on some sort of grocery store errand.
Like the Minnesota drivers’ license “exam,” the nation’s motorcycle competency test is a low-bar baseline evaluation. While it is true that you don’t need to be “perfect” to pass the license exam, you will need to be able to perform every one of those simple skills perfectly to stay alive on the highway and in traffic. Living in tourist town Red Wing provides me with plenty of evidence as to why motorcyclists are thousands of times more likely to die per mile travelled than cagers: most motorcyclists barely contribute more to the direction and speed of their vehicle than do handlebar streamers. It’s a Village People clown show out there, folks! Nothing about being able to take a low speed left-hand turn and stop with the front tire in a box is demanding in any way to a competent motorcyclist, regardless of the bike. Nothing about weaving through some widely spaced cones and making a right hand turn should confuse or confound a half-decent motorcyclist. Making a moderately quick stop from 12mph in first gear is not complicated. A 12 mph “swerve” around a huge fake obstacle ought to be second nature. If anything on that test baffles you, either your motorcycle or your skills are totally out-of-whack.
This season was my “decompression and re-evaluate” year for my career as a motorcycle safety instructor. Since 2000, I’ve taught twelve to thirty basic and intermediate riding classes a year, but this year I signed up for only four and two cancelled. Other than a trip to the Rockies in July, I didn’t do much riding this year, either. My usual 12,000 to 20,000 miles a year has withered down to about 3,000 so far this year. I’m retired, so commuting to work is no longer a habit. That accounts for about 6,000 miles a year gone from my Cities’ routine. Leaving the 88dBSPL noise level of my old Little Canada/I35E home took away substantial motivation to “get away from the bullshit,” too. Most summer mornings, I can sit on the back porch with a cup of coffee watching the hummingbirds and listening to mostly nature. There isn’t much that I feel the need to get away from here. If the second half of this summer is much like the last couple of weeks, I might get in more bicycle than motorcycle miles in 2016.
I started this season out like I have every year for the last 15, with a couple hours of practice time on the class range at Southeast Tech. My spring habit since I started teaching safety classes has been to do the usual beginning of the season maintenance stuff, then ride to the range and go through the entire sequence of course exercises until I can do it all comfortably. In Red Wing, after that bit of practice I head south and drop off of the pavement for 100 miles or so of gravel roads and lightweight dirt bike practice and go home. This year, I went through that routine three times before my first Red Wing Basic Rider Class (BRC), which cancelled due to a lack of students, and once more before my first Intermediate Rider Class (IRC) in the Cities. We talked about that a bit in the discussion portion of the IRC and a couple of students said they’d consider adopting my springtime season-tune-up routine and at least one thought it was “way unnecessary.”
On the way back home, I thought about the ambivalence or resistance many riders have toward any sort of competence evaluation (something that should be, but isn’t, a part of the Intermediate Rider Course). About the time I got to Hastings and into some motorcycle traffic, it became fairly obvious why many motorcyclists would resist a serious competency test and regular skills evaluation. After watching my father’s driving skills deteriorate from barely-competent in his prime to life-threatening by his eighties, I have become a firm believer in regular (every 3-5 years) re-licensing skills tests for over-60 drivers who want to cling to their driving privileges. I’d drop that number to 50 and up the testing interval to every two years for motorcyclists. Since motorcycle, car, and truck licensing is mostly about putting butts on seats (selling vehicles) and has little to do with actual highway safety, we all know that won’t happen. That resistance to reality and health cost-containment has nothing to do with my life, though.
I have never considered my motorcycles to be an important part of my self-image. I don’t name my bikes and I don’t identify with any brand’s lifestyle bullshit. My motorcycles are transportation first and last. If I’m not using my bikes to go places, I’m not keeping them. The only things I’ve ever hoarded have been tools and microphones. The microphones are mostly gone with the retirement move and downsizing and I re-evaluate my tool ownership with every declining aging phase. If I haven’t used something in the last year, the next step is Craig’s List or eBay or the garbage can. Ideally, when I die the only thing my kids will have to worry about in an estate sale is getting rid of a bed, a few dishes, towels, and an empty house. So, like that dementia-test black throwrug, I needed a go/no-go evaluation tool for when it’s time to hang up the Aerostich. Lucky for me, I had one already laid out and it was totally familiar: the MSF’s BRC course.
I’ve already said that I consider the BRC to be a lowest-bar standard for the skills needed for riding on the street. However, for my own self-evaluation I need it to be a little more demanding. Likewise, I already had a self-test routine established. I just need to write a scorecard for the test. The first day of the BRC is mostly about introducing a motorcycle to newbies, but exercises 6 (a small 2nd gear oval), 8 (offset weaves), & 9 (quick stop from 2nd gear) demonstrate actual riding skills. Likewise, all but the lane-change and obstacles exercise from the second day’s BRC exercises 10-16 are useful evaluations. A more practical obstacle is a reasonably tall curb that I have to navigate from a 45-degree angle, so I added that to my spring warm-up. So, every March from here out I’m going to go through the old routine but after an hour or so of practice, I’m going to run through every one of the nine BRC exercises and the day I can’t do all of them “perfectly” (no cones hit, no lines crossed, fast enough, and clean enough) the bike goes up for sale and I’ll fill the space in the garage with a small convertible. I might buy a trials bike, but that will be the end of my street riding days.
Of course, your mileage will probably vary. In fact, I’d bet most of the riders I see in Red Wing couldn’t pass the Minnesota license test in a dozen tries. If you think that has no correlation to your riding skill or survivability, you are statistically very likely to join the ranks of the “dead wrong.”