Posted by Liz Francis on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 Under: Guest Motorcycle Articles
There's lots of information out there that gives advice on how to choose your first motorcycle and choosing motorcycle gear when you're just starting out. I have my own opinions about that as well, but I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about what experts don't, what it's like to be a novice rider.
First, I'll admit that I bought a bike before I took the MSF class. (I have friends that bought new bikes before the course and the decision didn't always work out well) I bought a 2007 Vulcan 500 that had been sitting for four years. I got a screaming deal on that bike, so that even if I decided that I didn't like the bike, I would get my investment back.
After we had the bike up and running, my husband rode the bike down to a parking lot behind a strip mall while I followed in the truck. He gave me my very first lesson. He started by teaching me how to turn my bike on, then we progressed to duck walking and power walking the bike. Within an hour or so, he had me riding in a circle shifting up and shifting down. Did this teach me to ride? Nope. What it did was give me confidence that when I got to the class I'd be able to pick my feet up off the ground.
I'll be honest, that moment when you're about to pick your feet up off the ground for the first time is the moment that generates the most trepidation for new riders. (And it takes a while for that trepidation to stop happening at the beginning of every ride.)
I chose to do the Harley Davidson Riding Academy - Learn to Ride course over the MSF course. The Harley course has more classroom time and more riding time. In addition, they limit the classes to a maximum of 8 people. The MSF usually has twenty or more riders per class. This means the Harley class riders spend less time waiting for their turn on the course and instructors have time to do one on one instruction. The Harley class also uses larger bikes, the Street 500. The MSF course uses 125cc sport bikes or 250cc cruisers. I felt the larger bike prepared me better for real life experiences.
Yes, the Harley course costs more, but I felt it was worth the extra cost.
My very first ride after the class was to have breakfast at a Denny's that is about one mile from our home. Turn left out of the driveway on a very slight uphill street. At the stop sign turn left, go 50 feet to a stop sign on a steeper uphill street. I won't lie, it took me four tries to get through that stop sign without stalling the bike on that uphill start. After all, the MSF class is held in a flat parking lot. We hadn't done any uphill starts.
From that stop sign, a left turn onto a four lane street with a 35 MPH speed limit. Okay, that's easy. Oh, good, the light at the intersection is green. After the intersection, the speed limit goes up to 40MPH and it feels like the speed of light. After all, the fastest we went in that parking lot is 20MPH.
I get to the intersection where I need to turn right and I do what was my fatal flaw in the MSF class: I look where I don't want to go, which is the curb. Because I'm afraid to hit the curb, I'm staring at it and the bike is heading right towards it. I start panicking a little bit when I remember that my instructor said that sometimes a little more throttle can save a turn. I roll onto the throttle, it tightens up the turn and saves my butt from hitting that curb.
We head down ¼ mile to the next turn into the shopping center. I use my turn signal for the first time... because... well, honestly up until that moment I had so much going on that I couldn't even begin to think about stupid button. Then 100 feet later, we turn into Denny's parking lot. I'm intimidated by the tight u-turn, so I go past the parking spot, turn off the bike and duck walk my bike backwards in a complicated three point turn. As I get next to my husband, he says "Your turn signal is still on". (That turn signal has continued to be the bane of my existence).
When I pull my helmet off, my heart is pounding, my skin is clammy and I feel like I'm going to throw up. I also feel like jumping up and down and pumping my fist in air. I did it! I survived my first ride! I did more than 20MPH while circling a parking lot!
Now I'm three months into having my license and I've put over 700 miles on my bike. I've ridden with someone else for every ride except for two solo rides. I'm lucky to be surrounded by very experienced riders and riding behind them has taught me many things. By watching them I can see when they shift, when they lean into their corners, how far they lean into their corners, how they approach obstacles and how they deal with traffic. This has provided a fantastic learning experience for me.
I did one longer ride through a canyon out to a casino to hit the buffet with friends during those first two weeks, but the majority of my rides were down to the coffee shop, out to breakfast or lunch and to a few charity meetings. I still do that a couple of times a week because I've discovered that I if I go more than a week without riding, my skills get rusty quickly.
We typically do at least one charity ride every weekend, which hasn't always been a fantastic experience. The very first poker run I did had a route towards the beach. So, traffic was miserable. It left me sitting in stop and go traffic, going downhill with a road that slanted to the left. I felt like I wrestled that bike down the hill and I wasn't experienced enough to split lanes. My husband and his friend had to shut their bikes off because the air cooled motors weren't getting any airflow.
What I have learned as a new rider participating in group rides is that you never know who is riding next to you. You don't know their skill level or courtesy level. On my very first poker run, I was deliberately riding single file because of my newness, when an experienced rider passed me on the outside of a right hand turn. Because I was a novice, my right hand turns were still wide and I almost hit him. His lack of courtesy combined with my inexperience almost caused an accident. Thankfully, all that stuff my instructors drilled me on came rushing back and saved the day.
The best advice I can give about riding with a group of people that you don't know: Leave plenty of room and be alert.
So, here's what I've learned in three months and 700 miles:
- Don't discount the little trips. Not every trip needs to be a 100 mile cruise. The little trips get you used to starting and stopping, lots of shifting, dealing with turning through intersections and will keep your skills fresh.
- Like many people, I found the freeways intimidating. San Diego freeways can be as wide as six lanes wide in each direction... and they can be completely full. One of my instructors gave me a piece of advice that I have found to be absolutely true: The freeways are pretty empty early on Sunday mornings. Getting out there early gives you a chance to deal with the freeway rather than dealing with other traffic.
- Muscle memory counts. When my instructors said that they were going to give us some muscle memory, I privately scoffed. It was two days of riding in a parking lot and I was positive that wouldn't be enough. The first time I had to stop quick and lock down my bike, I was immediately thankful for all of the stopping drills we did in that parking lot. The muscle memory will save your butt.
- Ride with experienced riders. If none of your friends or family ride, go looking on forums or Meetup.com. If you've bought a Harley or have taken the Harley Learn to Ride course, contact your local Harley dealership. They have a list of HOG (Harley Owners Group) riders that are willing to mentor new riders. You'd be surprised how many experienced riders are happy to help an inexperienced rider get their feet under them.
- Find a reason to ride. Honestly, not every ride needs to be life changing. Just make the decision to ride somewhere when you would normally drive. I have also found that having the wind rushing around me and the sun shining on me can change my mood and lighten my spirits. So, just GO RIDE.
- Every single time you ride, it gets easier. Muscle memory takes over, you stop over thinking every shift or fighting your bike in the turns. It absolutely gets a little easier each and every time, which means that every ride gets a little more fun than the last one. So, just GO RIDE.
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