Beads of sweat snaked down my back. It was only 80 or so degrees outside, but clad in thick jeans, boots, a long-sleeved henley, a black motorcycle jacket, riding gloves and a black motorcycle helmet, I strained to balance an unwieldy motorcycle on a blacktop while the sun beat mercilessly down upon me. And everyone said this was supposed to be fun.
(Full disclosure: The Motorcycle Safety Foundation wanted me to try out their two-day Basic Rider Course so badly that they waived the $350 fee, bought me lunch and supplied all the snacks and beverages. They also gave me my own motorcycle jacket and gloves to wear and keep afterward.)
It’s easy to get sold on the idea of riding. Every rider I’ve ever spoken to recounts tales of their favorite rides with wide smiles. I’ve experienced a little of this euphoria myself. I understand the joy.
Let me be clear: I have no real interest in riding a motorcycle. I’ve heard one too many crash stories from my friends. But a conversation over a couple beers landed me in a training and licensing course offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. I got into an all-women’s group and things looked like they were going to be okay.
It only succeeded in terrifying me more.
It was organized and instructed by the appropriately-named Trama’s Auto School. (I joke—Trama is the family name. But still!) The school provided bikes and all of the instructors were lovely and knowledgable people. If anything was going to convince me to commit to motorcycles, it was this.
A large part of the curriculum focused on everything that could be a potential risk to a rider: fog, curves, debris in the road, small animals, intersections, car doors swinging open, hills, manholes and weather. I was floored. They’re not lying when they say everything is out to get you when you’re riding.
We were introduced to our bikes in a little parking lot where we’d be given a series of lessons in handling a bike before being given a performance evaluation. Before we got started, though, the instructors, Tracy and Monica, had us fill out a short questionnaire.
“What is your primary reason for riding a motorcycle on the street?” the paper asked.
“Morbid curiosity/desire to fit in,” I scribbled back, being careful not to smear the ink.
Despite my resistance to the whole idea, I kind of loved the school’s forest-green Suzuki GZ250 I was assigned. We were in this thing together, for better or for worse. But the GZ250 did not want to get along. I swung my leg over it and tried to stand it up. It was heavy. I tried again. Harder, throwing my entire weight to the right. The bike lazily tilted upright. I put the kickstand up and settled down on the seat, hands gripping the handlebars.
So this was how it felt. I wasn’t thrilled with my arms being positioned so far forward, but what did I know? Nothing.
Meanwhile, Tracy stood at the head of the pack, coolly instructing us on the basic controls. She had us pull in the clutch lever and push the bikes forward so we understood that mechanic. Beneath my new jacket, I strained against the bike’s weight. It was so goddamn heavy. Why was it so heavy?
A few lessons in and it began to rain. We had been warned about rain. Rain made road surfaces unpredictable and increased the chances for a fall. Rain made it harder to see and for other drivers to see you. Rain was bad goddamn news.
Never in my life did a little rain stop me from taking a drive. I thought about it only if I had just washed the car. Now, sitting astride a motorcycle in a high-visibility slicker, it was a very palpable risk. At least it helped me stay cool as it drummed on my helmet.
The lessons did not all go smoothly. At one point, I had just finished an exercise and was pulling up to Tracy when suddenly she gestured that she wanted to tell me something. Panicking, I braked hard before my handlebars were squared up and felt the bike start to tip beneath me. I leapt clear of the falling body, which crashed onto the pavement. A flash of silver went spinning away from the bike. It was the end of the clutch lever.
“Oh, shit!” I clapped my hands to my mouth. I hurt the bike. I was a punk.
“Don’t worry about it!” Tracy comforted me warmly. She retrieved the little nub of metal and handed it to me. “It happens to everyone. I kept my first one.”
Some lessons later, it was time for the performance evaluation, which distracted me from my rain-related thoughts. You got points off for putting a foot down. You could only stall three times. If you dropped the bike or fell from it, you were disqualified.
I saw the first fall happen. Another student was thrown from her bike and landed heavily on her hands and forearms. It definitely looked more violent than it was, but I couldn’t help but wonder that if this was an extremely low-speed fall, then what would a high-speed one look like? (Hint: probably bad.)
We watched, hushed, as Monica and Tracy helped her right the bike and walked it off the course. She removed her helmet and put it down beside her. She was out. Things took on a very Hunger Games feeling after that. You’ve been eliminated. You’ve failed.
The feeling didn’t lift, even when we got our results back. “Kristen,” Tracy said, turning her piercing blue eyes onto mine. I trembled. “You put a foot down on the first exercise, you didn’t stay in the in the box, you didn’t complete the high-speed curve in the time limit and you failed to stay within the line. You didn’t pass.”
Everyone was extremely nice about it. “Just come back next week and retake it,” offered the helpful MSF rep. “You already passed the classroom session, you just need to take the evaluation again.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. Fuck that, I repeated in my brain.
Then Jalopnik bossman Patrick heard what had happened on Monday morning. He ordered me to go back and retest.
It was 90° F out on the last day of the course: ideal riding weather. Suited up, I was back out at it, baking under the full blaze of day and learned, first-hand, of another challenge riders had to face: extreme temperatures.
On days like these, the MSF team suggested taking frequent breaks so fatigue wouldn’t get the best of a rider. You could ride with just a t-shirt and shorts, I guess, if you don’t mind scraping off all your skin if you fall. I’m rather fond of my skin.
I progressed more and more going through the lessons again, and I just wasn’t sold. Going fast and riding a curve was exhilarating. Finding that perfect road was divine. But I just couldn’t get over how much prep work you had to do before you even got on the bike. How nearly everything was working against you, constantly.
My preference was clear: it has four wheels and airbags. You don’t even need to wear pants to drive one. If you love to ride a motorcycle, good on you. Really. But you also can’t deny that you’re a masochistic crazy person and you live for this abuse.
Sitting beneath a tree, another instructor, Eric, waved us over one by one to get our results at the end of the day. He gave me a triumphant grin as I approached. “You passed!”
“You’re shitting me.” I bent down closer to examine my scorecard. Indeed I had.
My friends who ride motorcycles were thrilled as well. “So what are you getting as your first bike?” they asked excitedly.
“I’m not,” I responded flatly.
They were confused. (My mother was relieved.) “Then why are you getting a motorcycle license?”
“Spite,” I clarified.
“Spite for who?”
My brother frowned. “I don’t think that’s how spite works.”
He’s wrong: as this is being written, there is a driver’s license on its way to me in the mail with a fresh motorcycle endorsement on it, because I like to collect things I’ll never use, like fancy stationery and artisanal soaps. I’ll have it in between two to three weeks.