Experienced motorcyclists take riding for granted, but the thought of getting on a bike can be intimidating for someone who doesn’t know how or where to begin. Consider this a primer for how to get on two wheels.
Story and photos by Liz Jansen
Caught in a reflective moment, Patti Pepin breaks out into a grin and says, “I’m riding a motorcycle? This isn’t me. I don’t ride motorcycles. I take the bus.”
Even after tens of thousands of kilometres of riding around North America, she still can’t believe she did it. It was a rocky start. Yet, at age 51, without ever having driven a car, she decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. Overwhelmed and ready to call it quits when she didn’t make it through the first day of her course, her daughter convinced her to try again. The following Monday, she booked another course and August 1, 2005, became her proudest moment – the day she got her motorcycle licence.
1. Decide if it’s for you
Learning to ride a motorcycle is a serious decision. The first and most important step is to examine your reasons for wanting to learn. If it’s something you really want to do for your own sake, then by all means, do it. However, if your heart is not in it and you’re doing it to please someone else, or because all your friends are doing it, stop right there. There’s too much at stake to go against your intuition. If you’re uncertain, many riding schools offer a three- or four-hour introductory program. At a fraction of the price of a full course, it’s a good way to confirm whether you want to continue.
Two other factors to consider are budget and time. Getting started needn’t break the bank. The biggest initial expenditure will be the course. Schools supply the bikes, so all you need to bring is minimum gear, which can be rented for the course: approved helmet and rugged jacket, pants, gloves, and boots that cover your ankles. You can get started with gear for $500 to $1000. Good used gear is often available on eBay, Kijiji or Craigslist, especially for women. Beyond that, you’ll need to factor in the cost of a bike, insurance, storage and maintenance.
Once you’ve collected the gear and learned the skills, keeping yourself sharp requires saddle time. If you’re not going to have the time to devote to riding, it’s better to wait until you do.
2. Is it necessary to take a course?
Absolutely. It’s necessary from a safety perspective. Even in provinces where it’s not mandatory, take a basic rider course from an accredited school. Qualified instructors must meet training requirements and be re-certified every year. The courses are first and foremost about safety, designed to give you the fundamental skills you need to stay safe on the road. They’re created for students who have neither ridden nor learned about motorcycles, so if you’re concerned because you have no riding experience, you’re the ideal student.
Learning to ride from a riding partner or friend is ill advised. As experienced, proficient and well meaning as they may be, they’re too emotionally attached for either of you to be objective. More importantly, in most cases, they don’t have the methodology, instructional background or observation skills to transfer learning to you. Besides, the premium discount offered by some insurance companies for completing the course can come close to paying the whole fee.
J. Brandon, one of the organizers of the Carson Tahoe Adventure Moto, recalls his learning days: “Professional instruction is vital to becoming a good rider. Unfortunately, there are many people who will offer to teach you, but who may not have the skills to help you get off to the right start. It can be very difficult to tell the good teachers from those who only have good intentions.”
3. How to prepare for the course
Your best chance of success will come with an open mind, a willingness to learn and an ability to take things one step at a time. Although students arrive excited, they’re also anxious, whether they admit it or not. While some have riding experience, most are there to learn from scratch. They’re worried about whether they’ll hurt themselves – or even worse, embarrass themselves in front of everyone by asking a stupid question, not being able to coordinate the controls or not understanding the terminology.
Fear of failure can be so great that it can interfere with learning. At the beginning of the course, one student will usually voice what the others are thinking: “What’s on the test?” The reality is that if you can focus on the lesson for each module, practice and learn the skills, you’ll have no trouble passing, as long as you can keep your confidence in check.
The Canada Safety Council’s curriculum is consistent across the country. The methodical approach introduces one or two key skills per module, each building on those before. The first two modules are spent learning eye control, balancing, braking and right-angle turns, where students take turns pushing each other through the layouts. You learn to coordinate the use of front and rear brakes and to apply them before even starting the bike. The repetition during practice begins to develop muscle memory and the baseline safety skills on which all others are built.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to learn at your own pace and measure your progress only against yourself. Differences in learning styles, life experiences and riding experiences mean that each student grasps the concepts at a different speed. You’re there to learn how to ride safely. This is all about you, so without overthinking, ask as many questions as you need to understand the lesson, then get out there and practice the skills. Take the praise and constructive feedback from the instructor without being hard on yourself. Learning to ride a motorcycle requires far different physical, mental and emotional skills than most people use in the rest of their lives, so be patient with yourself…