As I write this, my first motorcycle learner’s licence is barely an hour old and I’m listening to Mark Richardson on CBC Radio. He’s talking about the death of a motorcyclist, who, by all accounts was an excellent rider and an even more excellent human.
“Mainly you think it’s not going to happen to you. It’ll happen to somebody else. I tend to think that,” Mark is saying to the host. “I ride responsibly. I ride defensively. Ultimately I know that it could bite me like it bit Rob [Harris]. If your number’s up, it’s up. And there’s nothing really you can do about that.”
At this point I should be having second thoughts about motorcycle riding, about getting a first bike and continuing to learn to ride. I should just stop now before I get in too deep.
Do you remember the first time you swung a leg over a motorcycle? Felt the suspension squish down? Thumbed the starter button tentatively, not quite sure what to expect, and then the noise and vibration of the ungainly machine rattling, banging to life? The first time you twisted the throttle?
This was me a few weeks ago in a parking lot by Lake Ontario. I was as green as they come, taking RTI’s Riding Basics Course to earn my Ontario M2 licence. I’d never been on a bike as of Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon I’d already had my first crash. But I got up, got back on the bike and by that evening had passed my test with — and this is a pathetic brag — a perfect score.
Yes, that crash was my fault. I went to do my 12th emergency stop, wasn’t thinking, panicked, grabbed the brake lever, and then I was on the ground listening as my helmet scraped against the ground. Stupid.
For the next two weeks I watched daily as my right elbow bloomed purple and yellow and green. It looked like raw ground beef surrounded by mouldy cheese. I didn’t know my body could make those colours. My right arm is almost back to normal.
I know this thing I just learned to do, riding a motorcycle, could kill me. But it also gave me life: a richer, thrilling, frustrating, motorcycle-riding life.
Shit no. Absolutely not. No way am I going to stop now. I’m just getting started. After two days in that parking lot by Lake Ontario, I am hooked.
I’d be lying though if I didn’t say I was, am, scared. Hearing Mark talk about what happened to Rob scared me, and not just because of his tragic death. It’s because deep in my fancy monkey brain, I’m thinking — like Mark said — that it won’t happen to me; I’ll be careful; I’ll be different. I’m a lunatic! I’ve got absolutely no right or reason to think I’ll be okay where Rob wasn’t. I am as bad a motorcyclist as exists anywhere in the world right now. I’ve never ridden on a street, or out of a parking lot, or got above third gear. I — and to a lesser extent, all motorcycle riders — am testament to the amazing power of human wishful thinking.
Maybe that’s part of it. Is riding a motorcycle is about shrugging off the risk of death? Or, no, not shrugging the risk off, but living despite the risk. I never knew the man, but it seems like Rob did that.
If you are out there, thinking about learning to ride, here are five things I learned from my weekend at motorcycle school.
Don’t be cheap. Learn from my mistake. Buy proper gear. Everywhere I wore protection — head, knees, hands — I was fine after my crash at around 20-25 km/h. No scrapes, no bruises. My elbow, with only a jean jacket for protection, wasn’t so lucky. Get pants and a jacket with armour and make sure they fit properly. It’s more comfortable than you imagine. The armour is rubbery and soft. Any good motorcycle shop will help you find what you need.
Take a government-certified course. Don’t just let your friend’s buddy Darren teach you and take your luck on the road test. I took a class with RTI, the Rider Training Institute, but other institutions offer similar courses. RTI’s Riding Basics class is $450 and includes the cost of the practical M2 test, which you’ll take during the course. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even sat on a motorcycle before. They’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started.
Don’t wait for perfect weather. Learn to ride when it’s a bit cold. Or, even better, on a rainy day. Some people go years without ever riding in the rain. As I learned the hard way: it’s slippery, and takes a little extra care and finesse. But it’s nothing to fear.
Be humble. It’s easy enough to learn to putter around on a motorcycle. Don’t let that give you false confidence. Becoming a good motorcyclist is hard and will take a long time, a lifetime even.
Get your friends to take the course with you. If they don’t, tell them how amazing it was after the fact until they cave and learn to ride. Peer pressure — it works. Riding is more fun with friends.
Lastly, I asked Mark for some of his hard-won riding wisdom, but after much procrastination, he claims he’s “too busy” to put it all down on paper. So, I ask you, CMG reader: What tips do you have to pass on to a brand-new rider?