Learning to ride
Learning to ride. Click image to enlarge

Part Two: 21 hours that could save your life

Story and photos by Michael Clark

When it comes to fun, the best life experiences usually start with signing a waiver.

As my scrawl hit the release form at the Manitoba Safety Council’s Gearing Up motorcycle training course, I envisioned the possible goof-ups that myself, and my classmates might incur. Forgetting to put the side stand down, or up for that matter. Confusing the clutch and front brake levers at the worst possible time. Or leaving a tell-tale tire track across an instructor’s windbreaker.

“First off, we assume you know nothing about a motorcycle,” said Guy Jeanson, our Chief Instructor. Jeanson has been up on two wheels since 1976, and has been teaching motorcycle fundamentals for the MSC since 1979. “The reason I took the course was because I got into an accident,” said Jeanson.

The class was truly an interesting mix. There was about a 60/40 split between male and female. Age ranged from the teens to none of your business. Some had ridden before, with considerable years of dormancy. And there were those bored of the view of their significant other’s helmet. “I’m tired of sitting on the back,” said Tannis Clark. (No relation.)

The first of five evening sessions dealt with classroom theory. To attend training, a student must have a DOT-rated helmet, boots with ankle coverage, a minimum of denim for jacket and pants, as well as gloves. Improvements on basic gear are discussed, as well as the art of “conspicuity”. “Motorists are not looking for a motorcycle,” said Jeanson. A proper motorcycle jacket isn’t just for avoiding road rash; a day that seems hot in the driveway can lead to hypothermia for those who choose a t-shirt and shorts. Wind noise can lead to the onset of fatigue, so much so that Jeanson recommends the use of earplugs for highway driving.

Learning to ride
Learning to ride. Click image to enlarge

There are enough sobering statistics to make you opt for the three- dollar water bottle instead of the two-dollar beer at your favourite patio. In an Ontario study, 27 percent of all motorcycle fatalities had consumed alcohol prior to the collision. “Driving a motorcycle requires all of your skills,” said Jeanson. “One (drink) is truly too much.” In Manitoba, new riders are required by law to maintain a zero blood alcohol rating while behind the handlebars. Not only does your Class 6 license go bye-bye if caught, so does your Class 5.

Intersections are easily the most collision-prone real estate for riders both new and seasoned. “You have to ride as if they don’t see you,” said Jeanson. He recommends going as far as honking the horn and flashing your lights to get the attention of day-dreaming motorists. Choosing the proper lane position is crucial to your survival. “You want to minimize that invitation into your lane,” said Jeanson. A standard lane of traffic affords two tire track choices for the motorcyclist. Which track to choose depends on the lane position. For example, if a rider is in the median lane on a two-lane street, they should be travelling in the right hand tire track. This provides a safety cushion for the rider to move into, in the event that a motorist attempts a lane switch without interrupting their cell phone conversation. The centre of the lane is never advisable, since the safety cushion is greatly diminished. It’s also where oil and antifreeze drippings end up from vehicles, providing plenty of banana peel slippage.

The next four evenings were hands-on. The MSC uses a selection of Kawasaki Eliminators and Buell Blasts. The Eliminators mimic a cruiser style experience, with the smallest displacement of the trainers at 125 cc’s. The Blast is the quintessential sport bike, just shy of 500 cc’s. A quick scan of their condition reveals surprisingly few battle scars. The skills learned by previous students were quickly grasped, and definitely retained. Each student is required to perform a safety check of their motorcycle before venturing out to the training areas.

Learning to ride
Learning to ride. Click image to enlarge

The course doesn’t start with a roar; more like a grunt. Once the basics of the riding position have been explained, your first road trip is courtesy of a fellow student. With the power of a push, students practice the fundamentals of balancing the motorcycle, as well as using the front and rear brakes simultaneously. The braking power split is 70 percent front, 30 percent rear. Even at engine-less speeds, the stopping force of the front brake is quickly understood, and respected.

The retro styling of some motorcycles fits well with the retro tech. (The last time I used a manual choke in a car, Trudeau was still in power.) The proper fuel tank setting, ignition engagement, and neutral search are required to be performed without looking at the controls. That momentary distraction could prove catastrophic if an oncoming motorist doesn’t see you. “The bike can be replaced,” said Jeanson, “You can’t”.

My first movements were jerky at best. Too much throttle, too quick on the clutch release, too rough with the gear shifter. “Keep your legs close to the tank!” yelled Instructor Barry MacKinnon. He was right. While your brain is telling you to fan out your knees to achieve balance, the weight transfer does just the opposite to the motorcycle. “Next class, everyone bring a twenty dollar bill and put it between the tank and your knee,” said Instructor Walt Makowski. “We get to keep all the ones you drop.” The fiscal threat was enough for my jeans to grow imaginary Velcro.

Learning to ride
Learning to ride. Click image to enlarge

I started thinking of automobile fundamentals to achieve silkier transitions between clutch and throttle. Practically anyone can launch a motorcycle to speed, however it is clutch control that allows the accomplishment of such real-life movements as parking lots and low-speed turns. The Gearing Up course includes an abundance of low-speed manoeuvres. The importance of looking where you want to go is emphasized the second your eyes drop to the pylons. You’ll knock them over every time.

It was during one such manoeuvre that I pulled a big no-no. While negotiating a slow speed right turn, my brain decided to go on strike for about 1 second, completely forgetting the clutch control and adding too much throttle twist. That’s when I hit the front brake, hard. The front tire locked, resulting in a bouncing skid. My right leg kept the Kawasaki from hitting the ground, however a muscle was pulled that I never want to pull again. “See what happens?” said Makowski. In retrospect, the handling villain was mostly fatigue. The physical and mental inputs required to drive a motorcycle with proficiency can easily rival the sweatiest workout.

The speeds would only increase. The cones were soon arranged in lane change configurations and sweeping curves. Shoulder checks are emphasized, since the buzz of a V-twin can quickly blur the rear view mirrors. “That extra shoulder check could save your life,” said MacKinnon. The backward glance is recommended at full stops, where one might have to ditch the bike and run as opposed to becoming an impromptu hood ornament, thanks to an inattentive approaching motorist. The curves allowed for the practice of counter-steering. Your brain wants to fight the input, however the lightest of pushes on the side of the handlebar that is also the direction you are turning causes the bike to lean just enough for a seamless cornering experience. Emergency braking is taught in both straight-line and curve situations, as well as emergency lane changes. The obstacle is an instructor, who indicates a left or right exit point as you hurtle towards them.

Learning to ride
Learning to ride. Click image to enlarge

What ultimately arrives for all students is two-wheeled finesse. It’s hard for the instructors to contain their enthusiasm as you breeze past them through the pylons. “You’re like our kids out there,” said Makowski. “It’s hard to see you leave.” The final class culminates in a skills test. It is stressful, and mistakes occur. Technically, no one fails the course, however those who attain more than 12 demerit points during the test will not be eligible to receive a $162.50 rebate for the course. However, it’s not the money that seems to matter. There is a comraderie that has grown between the students over the 21 hours. There are high fives for the successful tests, and genuine consoling for those who didn’t fare as well. There is plenty of banter concerning what motorcycle is on the shopping list, or what gear they will improve on. We have all joined a unique and exhilarating fraternity and we can’t wait to return a heart-felt wave when we pass on the street. It’s a motorcycle thing; and anyone can learn to understand.

  • Course details: Manitoba (Check with your local office of the Canada Safety Council.)

  • Basic Program (8 hours): Cost: $294.25 (includes GST)
  • Gearing Up Program (21 hours): Cost: $347.75 (includes GST)
  • A rebate of $162.50 is awarded for successful completion of the 21-hour course and passing the road skills test at the end of the course. There is no rebate available with the 8-hour course.

For more information about the Canada Safety Council visit www.ridertraining.org.

NEXT TIME: High-maintenance relationship? Michael Clark crosses his fingers with an ’81 Yamaha.

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