Motorcycle Lessons - How to choose and survive a motorcycle training course
Thrill of the open road starts with basic skills
If you have visions of being a tough guy like James Dean or (a young) Marlon Brando, racing down the open road on your bad-ass bike, answering to no one ... well, back up a little.
Step one for enjoying the open road is to do so safely. And step one for safety is taking a class to learn how to ride a motorbike.
My husband and I inherited an ancient Norton that we recently had restored. Which got us on the road to thinking about riding. Thus started my quest to learn about motorcycle lessons and what was involved in motorbike training in general. Here's a little of what I found and learned in taking my own safety course to help you get off on the right foot with your own motorcycle adventures.
Starting Lesson: Types of Bikes
Just to get you excited about what your future holds.
Motorcycle Lessons: Why take a class
So what's the big deal about taking motorcycle training? How complicated can it be if you already know how to drive?
Given the benefits of a class and the risks, it surprises me that fewer than 10 percent of people out on motorcycles have had any formal training before they started riding. So for all the newbies (as well as the 90 percent of riders who are untrained) let's lay them out.
Most states don't require you to take a course in order to get your MC license, but you can avoid taking the driving test if you can show you took a course. (Just remembering how nervous I was doing the driving portion of the auto test, I was happy to skip this part!) Also, the driving part of the process requires you to have a second rider on a second bike for the tester to ride with. Inconvenient to the max.
In addition, there is often a discount from your insurance company for taking a motorcycle course similar to what you might get for taking a driving safety course.
Some people say it's easy to learn to ride a bike, but to develop the basic skills and techniques necessary to ride safely is another matter. To be in total control of your bike and to ride it safely on the public streets and highways requires you receive proper instruction and then practice what you've learned.
What to ask in advance
Some of these questions might seem obvious, but others ... well, you'd be surprised that you need to bring it up.
What kinds of bikes are provided? This might matter to you if you're like me and can't fight with a heavy cruiser. Most will have light street bikes, but it's good to ask. In my course, I ended up on a Suzuki with a 750cc engine, heavier than the street bike I now own.
What equipment is provided? What do I need to provide for myself? At a minimum, the company should have bikes and helmets for you. Additional equipment might include gloves, jacket, rain poncho, etc. Our provided helmets were OK, but not full face ones. Our trainers also had gloves available for use if you needed them.
What's the location set up? Because of the amount of space needed for riding the motorcycles, odds are good you won't be near buildings. Is there any shade around? Shelter if it rains? How far is the bathroom? (We were at a high school stadium, so bathrooms weren't too far away but not immediately and always accessible. Bathrooms are the key thing here! You'd be surprised how many times men tend to forget that women actually need a facility! Can't just pee on a tree, ya know.)
What's the policy on rain checks? Are they offered? Under what circumstances? And the rules on using them?
What type of training surface will you be on? Asphalt and concrete are the likely choices. Either is likely fine as those are also your choices for road surfaces in most places.
How do you select your trainers?
Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well
Reading this one right now to supplement what I learned in class. Awesome book with great pictures and clear explanations. Probably should be an annual read.
What to expect at class
First off, let me warn you to expect yelling. A lot of yelling. When you have 10 motorbikes going at once, it gets pretty loud and yelling is par for the course. And so, yes, you will get yelled at. Be prepared for that. Most of the time, it’s not personal at all, it’s just about the noise. I say most of the time because if they have to tell you the same thing over and over, frustration can be part of it.
Cost for the beginner level course runs in the $200 range depending on what part of the country you’re in. I think ours was around $180 per person and was non-refundable.
The class runs two days and you spend about half of each day in the classroom, the other half actually out on the bike. The experience in both places can vary greatly depending on the instructor. We were split into different groups for the riding section and it was amazing how that impacted our experience. Same in the classroom where we had someone phoning it in the first day and someone engaged the second.
In the classroom, you'll go over information in the book from an academic standpoint – learning the sequence for starting your bike, talking about how to take a turn, covering how to go over an obstacle. On the course, you'll actually do these things (and freak out trying to remember what they did in the classroom!). The course is set up in different courses and the instructor goes over the purpose of the exercise, what it involves and then you watch another instructor do the exercise. This is where things get interesting and tough. I found that we finished most exercises just as I was starting to get the hang of it and I wanted to spend more time with it, but no dice.
The riding test at the end consists of three sections, each with a couple of different exercises in them. We ran through them with instruction, then again as the test. (And they didn't make a big deal about “this is the test” so some people didn’t realize we were testing!) You get points off for things like putting your foot down, going outside the lines, etc. and have to hit a certain number of points to pass.
The written test is based totally on the classroom and book and ours was multiple choice. A breeze. (At least for those of us who test well.)
What to Expect in Class
A quick example of the basic rider course from the MSF.
Street Strategies: A Survival Guide for Motorcyclists
Equipment you'll need
Most motorcycle training courses will require the below at a minimum. Check with your instructor when you register to see what else you might need.
1. D.O.T. approved helmet (often provided by the course)
2. Shatter-resistant eye protection. This can be prescription glasses or regular sun-glasses made of plastic lenses.
3. Long sleeve shirt or jacket (think about the weather conditions, you will be outside during most of the training in all kinds of weather)
4. Long jeans (no holes, no extremely baggie legs)
5. Sturdy high-top shoes or boots that cover the ankle bones. (I wore high-top walking boots.)
6. Gloves that cover the entire hand. Leather riding gloves or leather work gloves are appropriate. (I just wore leather winter gloves and that was OK.)
7. Two-piece or one-piece rain suit. Poncho type rain gear is not acceptable, unfortunately. This is only necessary if the weather gets back. (Which is why you ask about rain checks. Usually you just ride even if it rains.)
Types of classes
Most programs offer a beginner and advanced level. Which you choose depends on where you are in your riding experience, as well as why you're taking the class.
The Basic Rider Course is approximately 15 hours of classroom and on-cycle instruction conducted over a two-day session. This is the one we took since I had never been anything other than a passenger on a motorcycle before. It's designed for people who want to learn to ride and some experienced riders who want to sharpen their skills. If you have a lot of experience and don't need the course for insurance or license reasons, you might want to move to the advanced.
(In my course, you could also take the course on a scooter if you wanted. A couple of women did that, in part because a scooter is automatic and allows you to focus on other issues than shifting.)
The Advanced Rider Course is designed for the experienced riders of all types of bikes. The one-day course is spent hands-on. You'll have to have a valid motorcycle license and provide your own motorbike - properly registered, insured and street worthy.
There are classes and training offered by others than the MSF, of course. Some are about racing, some related to handling - they all are about improving a certain skill set, though.
Safety Videos from MSF
Motorcycle Lessons: Did you take any?
More Proficient Motorcycling: Mastering the Ride
Just a few safety tips from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
1. Get trained and licensed
2. Wear protective gear -- all the gear, all the time -- including a helmet manufactured to the standards set by the DOT
3. Ride unimpaired by alcohol or other drugs
4. Ride within your own skill limits
5. Be a lifelong learner by taking refresher rider courses