Motorcycle negotiating cones

By Thomas Day

This August, I took advantage of a Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center (MMSC) Rider Coach invitation to take the program’s Expert Rider Course at Century College. Two of my favorite coaches from the Minnesota program, Rich Jackson and Ben Goebel, were the instructors for this class. It was pretty much a no-brainer that if I was going to demonstrate how far from “expert” my riding skills are, this would be the safest place. Both of those guys are so far outside of my skill-set I hesitate to call myself a “motorcyclist” in comparison. Sort of like when someone asks me if I’m a musician, my immediate point of reference is Jeff Beck and my response is, “Hell no.” Also, lucky for me, it was a small class, so there wouldn’t be many witnesses to tell tales of how many times I rode through an exercise without making the slightest attempt to demonstrate the skills being taught.

The MMSC offers a variety of classes, beyond the Basic Rider Course (BRC) that many people use to obtain their motorcycle endorsement. For example, the MMSC offers Basic Motorcycle Maintenance, Intermediate Rider Course (IRC), Introduction to Motorcycling Course, Moped Rider Course, the Minnesota Advanced Rider Course and the Expert Rider Course. I’ve taught the IRC for about 15 years under a variety of names (ERC, BRC II, and the current acronym), but my previous summers’ teaching schedules prevented me from taking either the Advanced or Expert courses. This summer, I had a light schedule and I lucked into an open weekend.

The price ($75 for a one-day, eight-hour range, 9AM-5PM) for either the Advanced or Expert courses is a steal, but the classes aren’t offered often and enrollment is limited. There is very little similarity between the IRC and either of these courses. Both the Advanced and Expert classes were designed by Rich Jackson, a Minneapolis Police Department motorcycle officer and MMSC Rider Coach; both courses have some similarities to the training a motorcycle officer receives. The cones are bigger, the exercises are harder, the speeds are higher, and the expectations are elevated. What passes for “a tight, low speed turn” in the other MMSC classes feels pretty roomy compared to the Expert Course obstacles. Likewise, an emergency stop or an offset-weave at 30-40mph is very different than from the 12-15mph BRC or IRC experience. Many of the exercise names are self-descriptive: “40-mph brake-and-escape, instantaneous stops, the Iron Cross, J-turn, slow and 30 mph offset weaves, tight and locked turns in confined spaces.”

The exercises are broken up by “breeze-outs,” which are follow-the-leader trips around the college campus; in single-file, side-by-side, or staggered formation. The breeze-outs are an opportunity to experience group ride tactics, hand signals, and the three basic formations for group riding. When Rich introduced a few of the hand signals, mostly for my benefit, I demonstrated my one and only motorcycle group hand signal: a wave bye-bye. No one was amused. Rich and Ben are excellent instructors and I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to learn from their experiences, but I’m still unconvinced that group motorcycling is a clever idea. Even when the group is being led by actual experts (instead of the usual best-dressed pirate bozos), it still feels to me like rolling bowling pins. I have seen no evidence of safety in numbers when it comes to motorcycles. I’m glad I got the Expert group experience, but I’m still riding solo on my time.

The breeze-outs are a terrific opportunity to cool off the motorcycles, reduce some of the performance pressure of the class exercises, and get a feel for close-quarters group exercises without the hazards of traffic. There is enough of a hooligan aspect to the breeze-outs to blow off a little steam, too. When else will you get to ride the sidewalks, basketball and tennis courts, and handicap ramps of a college campus without worrying about campus security? Those rides aren’t aimless rambles through the park, though. Rich and Ben kept the pace quick enough to require serious lean from the big bikes in the group.

Most of the student and instructor bikes were pretty large, too. There is a 400cc minimum size requirement for either the Advanced or Expert classes and most of the participants in my group exceeded that engine-volume by a few multiples. Unexpectedly, I was really impressed with my fellow “students’” abilities. Of my group, I was clearly the least “expert” in the crowd, but I was the most experienced/oldest. For every rider who claims the DMV’s riding test is “impossible” on a “real motorcycle,” these guys consistently proved that the DMV’s test is a cakewalk for an actual motorcyclist.

Motorcycle negotiating cones
Photo by Cat Ely

In my opinion, this course is really close to what I think should be required every four years to re-up a motorcycle endorsement. Currently, there are about 200,000 more licensed riders than registered motorcycles, just in Minnesota. Far too many people simply pay the extra $13 to add an M-endorsement to their license without being able to demonstrate even the most basic skills. Even better would be a tiered license system that required riders to take and pass a course like this to obtain a license for 500cc or larger motorcycles. If the goal is to reduce motorcycle morbidity and mortality, it’s only common sense to require motorcyclists to make a minimal effort to be competent riders.

So, who is this course for? It should be obvious that anyone who intends to participate in group rides belongs in the Advanced Course; at the least. There are a lot of subtleties to riding in a group that most people participating in these rides do not know. Becoming familiar with hand signals, the tactics and complexity and importance of formation riding, and knowing how a group should come to a stop and take off from a parking spot are just the beginning. Doing all of that in a completely supportive and non-threatening situation should be a baseline requirement for anyone wanting to ride safely on public roads in a group. For riders like me who don’t feel particularly tested with the IRC’s basic exercises, the Advanced and Expert Courses up that game considerably and provide a dose of humility when you see your skills compared with other experienced riders. If the Basic or Intermediate course seemed difficult, this isn’t a great fit for you. However, if you put in the time and effort to become comfortable with those fundamental exercises, setting your sights on these two courses for your near future is a practical aspiration. I strongly recommend this course and, particularly, with these two instructors. At the least, you’ll spend a day playing around on a motorcycle refining your skills and hanging out with terrific people.”

MMM

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