Saturday, July 22, 2006
Motorcycle Training Course
I spent this weekend taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic RiderCourse at the local Honda Rider Education Center. This is a course aimed at new riders which teaches fundamental riding techniques and skills for safely dealing with traffic. In the state of Georgia, passing this course qualifies one to waive the tests for a Class M (motorcycle) driver's license endorsement.
The course is spread out over a Friday evening and two weekend days. The class fee is $250. Motorcycles and helmets are provided. I had to buy my own boots, gloves, and a rainsuit.
When I started telling people I was taking a motorcycle training course, a few thought it would be a waste of money. "I can teach you myself some day, if you want" was the typical offer. Thanks, but no. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I believe that a good training program will help keep me safe. Statistics show that riders who have formal training are less likely to suffer a fatal accident than those without training.
Prior to the class, my only experience with a motorcycle was a single ten-minute ride that I took on my uncle's bike, about 15-20 years ago. I drove through the deserted streets of a small town in North Dakota. I only saw one car during the ride, and I pulled over to the side of the road until it was out of sight.
Friday night's session was all classroom work (no riding), from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM. Class time was spent going over the first few chapters of the MSF textbook. These chapters are introductions to the various kinds of motorcycles, use of the controls and some basic safety information.
There are twelve students in the class. About half of them already had experience riding, some with street bikes and some with dirt bikes.
The course is led by two "RiderCoaches." However, the classroom work is structured as a set of reviews of material from the textbook and discussion among the students. This bugged me a little—it felt like I was paying money to just listen to other people read the textbook aloud and tell war stories about all the times they almost crashed their bikes. The coaches did provide some interesting information, and kept things moving along, but I'd prefer a less "participatory" kind of class. I want the experts to tell me what I should know; I don't want to get the information from a bunch of other people who are as clueless as I am.
In addition to the textbook, there are also some videos. They weren't bad.
I awoke to thunder, but that didn't matter. The class goes on even if there is inclement weather. They stop it only if there is lightning in the area. So I made sure I had my rainsuit with me.
There was a little bit of lightning in the area when class started at 8:00 AM, so we spent some time in the classroom. Unfortunately, one student showed up late, and was not allowed to continue the course. (Those are the rules.) So we're down to eleven students.
As the weather started clearing, we got to go out to the riding range. The "range" is basically a big asphalt parking-lot-like area where the coaches set up cones for each of the exercises. We each got a gray Honda Nighthawk to ride for the duration of the course.
The initial exercises taught us to mount the motorcycle, get the transmission into neutral, and start the engine. Then we put it into gear and experimented with getting it moving (much like you do with a manual-transmission car). After a lunch break, we had more exercises where we learned how to shift gears, corner, and weave through cones. At the end of all that, I feel like I know how to ride a motorcycle, although I obviously need a lot more practice before I'd be comfortable in traffic.
It was a hot day. The high today was "only" about 90 degrees, which is cooler than it has been lately, but I think the real temperature was warmer on that asphalt pavement. However, when the motorcycle is moving, it doesn't feel hot, so the exercises were a great way to cool off. Thankfully, we didn't need the rainsuits.
After the exercises, we had a couple more hours of classwork, going over various strategies for dealing with risk factors in traffic. There is another guy in the class who has a private pilot's license, and we both noted the similarities between this risk-management training and what we were taught during flight training.
The exercises on the range today were more challenging than those yesterday, including maximum braking performance, maneuvering in tight spaces, swerving, and negotiating turns. Swerving was pretty easy for me, but I had problems with each of the other exercises. I just wasn't able to get into the flow of many of the activities. I felt very tired for most of the day, but I was having fun.
In mid-afternoon, we had "Skills Evaluation," where we had to demonstrate our mastery of several skills. A good score on the evaluation would mean we could waive the state's testing requirements to obtain a motorcycle endorsement on our driver's licenses. I went over the painted lines on the course a couple of times, and hadn't maintained the necessary speed in a curve, so I was concerned that I hadn't passed. The instructor/evaluator said we'd get our scores later.
After parking the bikes, we had a couple more hours of classroom time, followed by a written exam (50 multiple-choice questions). I finished my exam, then waited for my turn to talk to the instructor about my skills evaluation.
He had bad news for me: I had not passed. I was one point short of a passing score. He had to deduct points for the times I went off the course. He said he knew I could perform the skills, but I just hadn't done them very well when it counted. He suggested that I should get a learner's permit and a motorcycle, and practice, and I should have no problem taking the state's skills test.
I got a score of 100% on the written exam, but that was small consolation.
The class ended with some disappointment for me, but it was still a weekend well spent. I had a good time, and would recommend it to anyone who wants to do something fun for a couple of days, even if they aren't interested in ever getting a motorcycle.
According to my bike's odometer, I drove 20 miles during the class. Nobody suffered any injuries: the class is very safe. My left hand is a little sore from working the clutch, and my left ankle is a little sore from shifting gears, but otherwise the activities were not physically strenuous.
I'm checking the classifieds for used motorcycles. I'm not sure whether I'm motivated more by an interest for motorcycles, or a need to prove to myself that I can pass that damned test.
I did get my license though - just had to do the written test at the DMV. Bought a Honda Shadow a week or so later and love riding it to work!