How I learned to ride a motorcycle

This past weekend I passed the Motorcycle Foundations Safety course, an endeavor that should only take 3 days to complete, but for me, stretched on for 6 months. I have given birth to twins (no c-section here), I’ve obtained my concealed carry license, and I’ve been a single parent…but I can honestly say that this was one of the hardest things I’ve every done.

Last spring motorcycles became part of our family. Scott had mentioned how nice it would be for the two of us to be able to cruise somewhere on a bike, kinda see the world (well, as much of the world you can see while being roped into the Brazos County region and having 4 kids still at home). He had ridden motocross and quads all his life, so street bikes were the logical next step for him.

I, myself, had never pulled in a clutch. My mom drilled into my head how terribly dangerous motorcycles were, so I avoided them.  A buddy in high school had a sport bike that he rode – my bestie Annie took a ride around the block with him one day and burned her leg real bad when she pressed it up against the hot muffler.  Case in point.  Well, not really…we were the stupid ones back then to climb on the back of a motorcycle in shorts.

Fast forward to this May.  Having spent many months on the back of Scott’s motorcycle (it’s called riding bitch, but I can’t say that because my youngest reads my blog), I thought it might be nice to learn how to ride myself.  Give me a greater understanding of what he’s doing up front, and possibly be able to help should we ever get in trouble.

They don’t have any “learn to ride” classes in these parts, and I was not ready to try to learn from Scott. I’m not a patient learner, and I tend to yell when I get nervous….Scott wanted no part of that.  The best choice was to sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundations course.  This course is required before you can get a motorcycle license.  Its touted to all skill levels – from brand new beginners to those that have been riding illegally for years.

After hemming and hawing about it for weeks, I decided to bite the bullet and sign up for the next available course, which was in June. That was my first mistake, because in Texas, by the time June rolls around, the temp is in the mid-90s with the heat index easily over 100.

Scott took me out to a newly forming neighborhood before the class so that I could sit on the bike and get a feel for its power.  My job was to just walk the bike feeling the friction zone pull me along.  That’s when I got my first taste of how much power this bike really had.

So I show up for my class – there’s a classroom portion Friday evening, then an on-the-bike portion Saturday morning, back to the classroom Saturday afternoon and you finish with more on-the-bike training and a riding test on Sunday. Friday went as well as expected.  I was one of 2 girls there – the other was an older woman who had bought herself a Harley, but hadn’t had the nerve to start it (she’d never pulled in a clutch either). The others were all college age boys or younger, ready to tear up the streets. 4 hours of book learning and we were given our marching orders to meet at the high school the next day.

Saturday morning started out warm….and only got worse. We were required to wear long sleeves, long pants and boots that came over our ankles (as well as gloves and a helmet).  This was going to be a long day. I jumped on a Honda CBR250, since I knew I would eventually be riding a CBR500.  We learned how to walk the bike using the friction zone, then progressed to riding across the short portion of the parking lot with our feet on the pedals.  I was officially a motorcycle rider….even if I was only going 8 miles per hour. My lone female friend got on a small 250cc bike and couldn’t figure out of to walk with the friction zone.  After several attempts, the instructor took her aside and quietly dismissed her from the class.  I was now the token girl.

As the day wore on and the temperatures rose, the maneuvers we had to execute got increasingly harder (at least for a newb). We rode in circles, getting into 2nd and 3rd gear; we did cone weaves, with the cones getting farther apart to produce tighter weaves; and we practiced emergency stops. The farther along we went, the worse I felt about myself. I kept getting pulled aside by the primary instructor.  He was very nice and patient, but I was not getting the hang of it. I almost dropped the bike once (he caught it for me). I killed it some many times, I lost count.  Every time I got pulled over, the tears would start to well up in my eyes. I knew I just wasn’t getting the hang of it. The secondary instructor kept yelling at me….speed up, go faster, stop covering the brake. I was growing more and more defeated, and the heat was tearing me down more. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he stopped me while practicing emergency stops.  He said, “you should be doing better than this by now.” Thankfully that was the last exercise before we broke for lunch.

I got in my car and bawled all the way home.  You would have thought my favorite aunt died, as hard as I was crying.  Luckily all the kids were gone and Scott was flying UAVs, so I had the house to myself.  I got in the shower and cried some more.  I got out and made some lunch and couldn’t stop crying. Y’all, I haven’t cried so much in one sitting in forever. Big fat ugly crocodile tears. My soul was crushed.

But I cleaned myself up and headed back for the 2nd portion of the classroom training after finishing lunch.  I remember sitting in class, so depressed, wondering why I was still there.  Somehow I listened and learned throughout all of it.  At the end of the day we had to take our written test and I passed missing only one question.

That evening I went home and cried some more in my chair.  I told Scott that I just didn’t think I could do it.  I texted our teacher and told him I was thinking about quitting.  He said that he thought I was doing a lot better than I thought and that I could definitely handle tomorrow’s portion, but it was up to me.  After crying and crying and talking to Scott, we decided it just wasn’t worth it. If I didn’t feel ready, it wasn’t the right time.  Scott said he would work with me for as long as it took and I could take the test again when I was ready. I decided to not go back for Sunday’s class, to quit, and I was pretty damn sure I was never going to take that course again, much less get my license.

We spent the summer tooling around when the heat wasn’t just ungodly.  Scott kept trying to get me back on the bike to practice, but my confidence was still shot. I think it took until fall before I agreed to try.

We went back to the scene of the crime, the high school parking lot, and he had me get on the bike.  I sat on the bike and sat on the bike…..I didn’t want to move. I was downright terrified. He gently talked me through it, and finally I was moving forward. This is how it went weekend after weekend….we would practice when we had time, but not every weekend and not often enough for me to get comfortable. But little by little, my confidence started to return. Little by little he would have me do more on the bike, practicing different and new maneuvers.

In late October I was doing pretty good.  Scott started having me work on the exact skills I would need to pass the test; we did weaves, we did emergency stops, we even did the box (a 20’x80′ box in which you have to ride a figure 8). Weekend after weekend Scott would drive me up to the parking lot, get off the bike, take off his helmet and watch me ride around.  Every now and then he’d give me a task to accomplish. But he’d sit there patiently for and hour or more just watching me do my thing. We finally got to the point where we both felt I was ready for the test.  I signed up for the weekend of Nov. 18-20.

Wouldn’t you know it, the week before the test, I got sick.  Nothing serious, just your run of the mill head cold. But then I was slated to go on a business trip to Philadelphia on Monday.  The plane ride and the conference didn’t help my health, and by Tuesday I was feeling worse. I contacted the riding school and somehow convinced them to let me move my training date to December 9-11. Scott and I spent the extra couple of weeks getting in a couple practice rides, but as the date grew closer, my nerves got worse.

Fast forward to Dec. 9. I showed up for the classroom portion Friday night – yes, I had to take this part all over again even though I had tested and passed. To my thrill, there were 3 other girls and plenty of newbies who had never pulled in a clutch.  This was a crowd I could ride with. I was also very happy to see my old instructor Mark – the friendly one from the last go-round.  Even happier when I found that the grumpy old instructor was not there – in his place was a new guy – Phil, a retired police officer.

Saturday morning rolled around to the temp of 32 degrees. The polar opposite from June’s class.  I had on 2 layers of pants, three layers of shirts, a neck warmer, along with a jacket….and I was still freezing.

They rolled out the bikes and I knew I was going to grab the same CBR from the last class…it was most like my bike and this is what I had been practicing on.  Of course, when the Mark told us to go stand by the bike we wanted, another guy took off and got to my bike first.  So I went to a CBR300F….also the same type bike I was used to.  Markcame up and quickly asked how tall I was.  I told him 5’3″ (ok, maybe a stretch).  He suggested I might prefer one of the small Suzuki 250cc bikes.  I told him my reasoning behind wanting the CBR.  He understood, but didn’t think the 300 was going to be small enough for me to maneuver. He took me over to the 250 I had wanted in the first place, checked my size on it, then told the guy who had claimed it to step off, that he was giving this one to me. Whew.

We learned how to start the bikes and feel the friction zone – I was already familiar with this, but we had people in the class who had never done this. I was feeling cocky, thinking this was gonna be a breeze.  THEN we started walking our bikes across the parking lot with the friction zone.  And all my insecurities came back.  Especially when we got to the end of the lot and had to turn the bikes around.  You don’t do that with any engine power – you have to turn hard right and then circle the bike around to the left…all under the power of your own 2 legs.  It was then that I started to question my choice in bikes.  I couldn’t maneuver this bike around at all – it felt much heavier than the last time I took the class.  I was the last one to get my bike turned around each time….and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got the feat accomplished.  I have been doing Crossfit for almost a year now and I can’t push this bike around?  Maybe I SHOULD have taken the little Suzuki.  Another newbie girl who was much tinier than me was riding one of them, and she was turning that thing around on a dime. What have I done?

We then learned to pick up our feet and ride across the parking lot.  My fears came back and I was shaking….and not just from the cold.  And so it went for about 10 minutes.  Ride 40 ft…stop, turn the bike around manually….ride 40 ft.  This was a simple task that was making me feel less confident, not more.  I was deep inside my head with all sorts of negative thoughts.  But someone else was in my head as well…it was Scott.  He kept telling me to stop it, that I had done all this and more and I was going to be fine.  So I took a deep breath and wiped my mind clean and went on to the next exercise.

The riding portion of the class was actually quite easy with a little experience under my belt. I had no problem weaving in and out of the cones, doing the 135 degree turn; heck, I even got commended for keeping my head up and actually looking where I was going (that’s the number one thing you learn….your bike goes where you look….so don’t look at that tree). I did have problems with the wider weave, so Mark pulled me over. Not to yell at me, but to give me some advice on how to approach the maneuver better.  I asked him if he recognized me, that I was his quitter from June.  He said he did, but he wasn’t going to say anything unless I did. He offered up words of encouragement and I was off to work on the weave again….no tears in sight.

We finished up the riding portion for the day and parked our bikes.  Mark asked me how I felt I was doing.  I said, “much better!” He said he agreed, that I was riding much better than the last time. I took off for lunch with a big ‘ol smile on my face.

We did the afternoon classroom portion and took our test.  This time I made 100. Yeah baby.

The next morning I woke up with a sense of peace, which I thought was weird, because I had not done this portion of the class. We started right away working on the figure 8 in the box.  I had had trouble with this maneuver when I worked with Scott, so I was not surprised when I still had trouble.  This time I didn’t let it frustrate me, and just did the best I could.  Did I stay inside the lines? Nope. Did I put my foot down? Yep.

We took a break and Phil asked if anyone was heading to the gas station – the only place available for us to pee.  I told him I was and he asked if he could ride along.  I figured if I took the instructor, they couldn’t very well start the next session without me.  As we were driving over, Phil said that Mark had told him I had taken this class before. I told him yes, that I had made it through Saturday and then quit.  He said that that surprised him, as I seemed like a real natural on the bike. He said he had been watching me and I seemed very comfortable. Wow, it was really visible.  Confidence boosted.

Along with the box, we practiced the emergency stop.  You have to get up to about 15-20 mph, and then after passing the cones, come to a stop as quickly as possible. I had practiced this with Scott, but was nervous about locking up the wheels.  My bike has ABS brakes, so I had never experienced that before. First run at it, I got up to speed, passed the cones and hit the brakes….and locked up the back tire. Phil said, good job…next time just add in some more front brake. I came back for another pass and stopped on a dime.  Phil said, “just like that, every time.” I had this one down and it didn’t scare me anymore. It was actually quite fun.

I headed back over to the box, ready to practice again, when Mark stopped me at the cones and told me to shut it down.  He then proceeded to have everyone line up behind me. We got off our bikes and he asked for everyone’s first name in order of the bikes lined up.  Yep, you guessed it, he was making a roster for the riding test.  And I was up first.

The worst maneuver in the test was up first – the dreaded box.  It was actually combined with a second test, which was the swerve.  So we were to do the figure 8 in the box, then immediately speed up and maneuver a swerve. You got points off if you crossed a line in the box, if you put a foot down, if you didn’t speed up prior to the swerve and if you hit a cone during the swerve.

I started my bike up and headed into the box.  I ended up putting my foot down on the first part of the figure 8 and I touched the line on the second part of the 8. But I survived! I sped up, made the swerve and came to a complete stop as instructed.  I waited for my instructors to give me the thumbs up and I moved over to the next cone to wait for the third test.  I shut the motorcycle down and took a deep cleansing breath.  I had made it through the hardest part and knew the rest was going to be a piece of cake. I got to watch as my fellow classmates went through the same test as I  did.  I saw plenty of foot touches, people riding way outside of the box, and one even got called back to try again because he didn’t speed up enough for the swerve.

The next test was the emergency brake stop.  I was excited for this one, because it was actually fun.  You got points off if you didn’t get up to about 20 mph, if you touched the clutch or brake before passing the cones, and then if it took you too long to stop.  I started my bike up and took off.  I got up to 20, hit the cones, and hit my brakes, stopping in 8 ft. Mark waved me on to the next cone. I shut the bike down and tears started welling up in my eyes.  Not because I was upset, but because I knew there was only one test left, the 135 degree turn, and it was going to be fine.

For the 135 degree turn, you had to get up to 2nd gear at a speed of about 15 mph and go through the 135 degree turn as quickly as possible.  You got points off for not getting up to speed, using your clutch in the turn, not getting into 2nd, not looking where you’re going and not being fast enough over all.  I started my bike up, got into second, did the curve, came to a stop and Mark waved me off. I was done. I had survived and was pretty sure I passed the test.

I had to sit and watch while my 10 classmates completed the last test themselves.  Then we lined up the bikes and waited while Mark and Phil conferred.  They came over to where we were standing and said that Phil would call each of us over one by one to discuss our scores….in REVERSE order.  Which meant that even though I went first, I was now going to have to wait until everyone else had gotten their scores.

With just me and another girl left, all of a sudden I heard my name called.  They were calling me up before her (I think because she failed the class).  I walked over to Phil and shook his hand.  He said that I had done exceptionally well and had actually placed 2nd in the class. I got points off in the box (putting my foot down and touching the line) and the 135 degree turn (not getting through it fast enough). I made a 92 overall. I did a little fist pump and said “YES!!”

He handed me my certificate of completion and congratulated me. I had actually done it!  I thanked Mark as well for being so patient and helping me through this. He said he could see huge improvement and that I was ready to ride.

I texted Scott a picture of the certificate, then headed home to celebrate with the family. I was greeted at the door by the entire family who smothered me with hugs and high fives. With a cheering squad like this, who can fail?

This is something I never thought would accomplish. I honestly thought after the first class that I would not go back. I figured I was going to be a back seat rider. But Scott was kind and patient and slowly helped me get my confidence back. Because of him, I accomplished one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried. And now comes the time for him to patiently teach me to safely ride on the streets. I’m sure there’ll be a story to tell there!