So you’ve passed the MSF course, took the state written test, and got your motorcycle license. Congratulations! You’ve now picked out your shiny new (or, more likely, dingy used) bike and are ready to tackle the open road. You are a well trained, highly proficient rider. Except you’re not. As we discussed before, the MSF course is a great environment to learn the bare basics of control and operation, but does not really prepare you for the real world.
There are other MSF courses with more advanced training, but I never took one of those, and I imagine the vast majority of you won’t either. So this is how I progressed from the class to the street.
A lot of riders will just just jump straight into tearing up the highways and back roads as soon as they get their mitts on a bike and a helmet. If you’re like my friend and want to take your GSX-R 750 on a 40 minute highway blast the day you get it, go ahead. I may not agree, but you do you, man.
But if you’re like me, and are a little more timid, it’s best to ease into it. Think of it like that time you experimented with joining that doomsday cult back in college. You don’t just go rampaging in, you experiment a little, to gauge your comfort level. If you’re having fun, keep going. If things get a little heavy, put down the Boone’s Farm and reassess the situation. (Didn’t that happen to everyone?)
I tracked down a 2006 SV650 with 2,400 miles a few months after passing my MSF course, but it was at a dealership a good 45 minutes from my place. I certainly had the option of riding it home, but didn’t quite feel comfortable with that. Sure, I had ridden a 250cc around a parking lot for a weekend, but this was a new bike, with more power, different dynamics, and in traffic. That seemed a bit much to process all at once.
So I recruited my brother, the one who got me interested in bikes in the first place, and had him ride it home for me. It feels a bit weird to have someone else ride the bike before you do, but I wasn’t so eager to prove my masculinity that I was going to push myself beyond my comfort level. I drive a Mini Cooper and have a tattoo of my cat, so my masculinity is pretty goddamn secure, I’d say.
After the bike was down at my apartment, we began the process of me getting comfortable on it. A new v-twin sportbike is a wee bit more responsive than a ragged 250cc learner bike. So we spent some time in a parking garage, trying to re-jog that muscle memory and get used to the controls and balance. That was the first time I dropped it. Less than two hours of ownership, and I slammed my bright orange motorcycle into the pavement. Which is depressing, but it actually wound up being a positive. That kind of took the edge off.
Yeah, the bike fell.
Yeah, it scuffed it up and broke some bits off.
Yeah, that sucks.
But I was fine, the bike still ran (after we built a new shifter peg out of a tiny c-clamp and epoxy), and at least now I wasn’t paranoid about scratching it up. A motorcycle is a functional object. Each blemish, scuff, and scar tells a story. The story may be “I’m a fucking idiot,” but it’s a story.
Once I was confident in my ability to pretend to know what I was doing, I hit the neighborhood. That’s how I began. Just doing small laps of a couple blocks through the tight and winding streets of my neighborhood. Just like with learning to drive a manual, this is a great way to practice. You get to really work on your clutch work. So I would do a lap, come back, and discuss what went well, and what didn’t.
This was a good way for me to compartmentalize the lessons. Instead of being overwhelmed, I could take one 10 minute ride, and deconstruct it with someone who actually knew what they were doing. Plus, it stopped me from getting too frustrated. Work at it for a few minutes, take a breather to decompress, then go back at it.
Eventually you do have to leave the neighborhood, but you can still do that in gradual stages. I would exit the neighborhood onto a main street, ride amongst the armada of SUVs for a couple blocks, then duck back into the empty neighborhood again. Little did they know there was a small man trying not to soil his pants riding next to them. Riding unprotected next to one of these behemoths truly gives you a different perspective on their size.
As my comfort grew, so did my travel radius. I started transitioning from surface streets to interstates. It sounds odd, but the highway is actually way safer than a normal street, mainly because of the lack of intersections.
With everyone headed the same direction, the odds of a wreck go way down. You’re less concerned with someone not seeing you and pulling out in front of you. There’s just the factor that if something does go wrong, it going to be much worse. So keep your eyes up, and plan ahead. Remember: they’re bigger, but you’re smaller and faster.
Before I started commuting to work, I did a little reconnaissance run in the off hours. With all of the potholes and railroad crossings on my route, I wanted to see how the Suzuki handled them without having to worry about dodging semi trucks and drunks at the same time. So I rode out on a weekend when that end of town is basically abandoned.
When I was still getting used to riding, I would often scout things out, either in person or on Google Street View, just to know what I was in for. Eventually, you get confident that you can handle it all, from gravel, to railroad tracks, to tumbleweeds, but there’s no shame in taking it slow for a while.
That’s my biggest piece of advice as you move to the street: take it at your own pace. I’ve seen too many people go down because they tried to keep up, literally or figuratively, with their friends. If you’re not comfortable riding in heavy traffic yet, but your friend is, let him go. If you’re not comfortable riding in the rain, but your friend is, let him go. If you’re not comfortable ripping dank wheelies, but your friend is, throw up the devil horns and let him go.
As Iron Mike said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Regardless of how detailed and comprehensive your training is, eventually you have to take your skills into the real world. But you can make that transition less painful by easing into it. Take things slow, gradually expand your comfort zone, and just have fun.
Next time we’ll go into picking out a motorcycle, and how I wound up with the Miata of the sportbike world.