Enjoying a Ride

I love motorcycles, everything about them. I’ve been around them most of my life and even my job revolves around them. But up until lately, I didn’t ride – not on my own, at least. I ride a sport quad and I’ve putted around on dirt bikes a time or two, but other than that my motorcycle experience over the years consists almost entirely of being a passenger. I’ve got plenty of practice on the backseat and have always loved riding behind someone else, yet over the past couple of years I’ve developed an itch to ride on my own.

For a while I let fear and lack of time keep me from learning to ride, but I got tired of that recently and kicked those excuses out the window. I got online and searched for a local MSF Basic Rider Course so I could learn the skills needed to ride on my own and I signed myself up for the class. I thought I knew a few things about riding but really I only knew what people had told me, what I’ve read or seen, and what I’ve experienced from the backseat. I was smart enough to know it would probably be different than I expected, so I tried going into the course with an open mind. However, after years of advice from family and friends, of riding my 4-wheeler, and of working in the powersports and street bike industry, I’m pretty sure I started the course with a few pre-conceived notions. Whatever I thought I knew, I learned ten times more. Here are three lessons I learned that stuck out to me more than anything else:

Lesson Learned #1 – You really do go where you look.

I honestly felt like my handlebars were somehow connected to my head. Wherever I turned to look, the bike and my body angled that way too. I’d already been familiar with the concept that the bike goes where you look, but it was the first time I really got the chance to test it out. When I confidently looked in the direction I wanted to go, pointing with my chin and not just eyes, I went there! I learned how important it was to keep your eyes level with the horizon. When I got nervous and looked down at the ground or my hands, the bike followed my gaze and felt unstable or wobbly. If I looked back up and focused on my exit, I was stable again.

This whole concept was especially useful in turns. While practicing our U-turns, one of our instructors, Scott, said that “you have to crank your head like some kind of barn owl” to focus on your exit and get where you want to go. I don’t know why this concept surprised me so much because we do the same thing in other aspects of life, like when driving a car or playing the piano. We don’t usually stare at the ground right in front of us when we drive, or focus on our hands while we play – we trust our bodies with the controls or the keys and instinctively respond. It’s no different on a motorcycle.

Learning to focus on my exit and go where I looked helped me with many other aspects of riding. Control, stability, comfort, confidence, and even counter steering – looking in the direction I wanted to go helped take out the guess work. My body and the bike just followed suit. Sweeping an area with my eyes became easier without turning my whole head in that direction and compromising my performance. Peripheral vision was key in successfully navigating through the course and not fixating on the things I was trying to avoid… I’d unfortunately experienced the mistake of target fixation during one of my earlier attempts at riding when I almost skewered myself and the dirt bike on a huge industrial steel farm gate. Lesson learned.

Lesson Learned #2 – Ease up on the reins.

Hold Lightly on the Handlebars

I guess that after years of riding rough terrain on my quad, I’ve developed a habit of gripping my handlebars a little tighter than I should when situations make me nervous. I just do it out of necessity so I don’t go flying off the ATV. But I found out that same reaction really isn’t great on motorcycles. When I got nervous on the course, my arms would go straight and I’d grip a little tighter to the bike – which actually made me feel like I was going faster than I was and that I had less control.

After a while of struggling to remember to relax my arms, our other instructor, Rob, came over to talk to me. He asked me if I had much experience with riding horses. I told him I did and he asked if I ride with my arms stiff and gripping on the reins or relaxed with a light grip. I could see the point he was getting at. He told me to ease up on the bars and remember to grip the bike with my legs instead to stabilize myself. When I finally started to just relax a little more in the saddle and not lock up my arms or hold tight to the grips, riding became so much easier and enjoyable.

Riding with relaxed arms and a decent grip on the tank with my legs made for a much more comfortable ride. Physics took care of a lot more than I realized when it came to both stability and performance. If I felt unstable or wobbly, I learned to give the throttle a little twist and more often than not, a little speed would increase my stability and I’d feel more in control of the bike. I guess it’s all about learning the balance between physics and control.

Lesson Learned #3 – The class was only the beginning…

I think I was expecting to just be able to hit the road and be good to go as soon as I completed the class. But I started to realize throughout the course that, for me at least, this was just the beginning. By the time the course was over I think I was probably on a skill level equivalent with a little kid whose training wheels had recently been removed. I could ride, but it is going to take a healthy dose of practice to feel comfortable.

The course was the perfect foundation to start to build on. We were taught valuable skills that some experienced but self-taught riders may have never learned, or worse – have had to learn the hard way. The instructors worked hard to help us form good habits that we could naturally revert to if an emergency situation occurs on the road. Some 92% of riders involved in motorcycle accidents are self-taught, and research shows that formal motorcycle training reduces accident involvement and reduces injuries in the event of an accident. As I am not really willing to take too many chances with my safety, I was glad this class helped me learn multiple ways to keep myself and others safe while out on the road. Sure there will always be risks when riding a motorcycle but if I have a say in the matter, they won’t be risks I could have avoided with a little skill and training.

Everyone can benefit from a formal motorcycle training class. It never hurts to hone your skills and there are multiple MSF classes available to cater to certain skill levels. The more education we can get, the more proactive we can be when we are out on the road. And that leads to a longer life of riding overall, so it is a win-win situation. Plus, the class was a lot of fun! The instructors were great guys who were down to earth, love motorcycles, love to ride and have a passion to help others do the same. There’s no better group of people to spend your time with, in my opinion!

Our Faithful Bikes for the 2-Day Class

For a link on where to find classes in your area, click here. And for those who already ride, let us know what lessons have you learned on your journey as a motorcycle rider in the comments below! We’ll see you out on the road!

By Rachel Bretzing