Opinion: Getting started

Until last month, my wife Wendy hadn’t ridden a motorcycle for herself in more than 25 years. She earned her full motorcycle licence in the days before graduated licensing, but stopped riding soon after.

So now the kids are grown and time’s healed (almost) all wounds, she wants to give motorcycles another try. She’s ridden pillion with me for years, but she wants to be in charge. Mostly, I think she wants to pack twice as much crap on a trip. She signed herself up for another motorcycle licence course, though she already has the full M, and passed relatively easily.

Wendy took the test for an Ontario M2 motorcycle licence last month at Fleming College in Peterborough.

She was nervous, though. The instructors thought it was maybe because I was watching her with my camera and a long lens, ready to capture any moment of screwing up, but she’s used to that. It was mostly because she was just trying to remember how to shift gears on the fly and not look too shaky. And not crash.

Last weekend, we went for a ride together on the country roads near our home. She rode a borrowed Honda Rebel 500 and I followed on my Harley. The two of us chatted through helmet intercoms and it was supposed to be a relaxed ride, but she was still nervous to actually be out there with traffic.

“I wish there was some way of showing other drivers that this is my first time out,” she said. “Maybe they’d give me a bit of a break then.”

Back when we’d ridden together, 25 years ago, the two of us went on a camping trip; I rode my Suzuki DR600 and she rode my Honda Transalp.

The fateful trip to Lake Placid, New York, in the early ’90s, when both Wendy and the Transalp were still unscathed.

On the last day, she dropped the Transalp at a gas station, which shook her up, and then the two of us rode five hours from Lake Placid, New York, to Ottawa in a thunderstorm. Traffic hugged our tails in the blinding rain, and when we got home, she handed me the key. That was the last time she rode a motorcycle. Like most of us, she hates other drivers riding her ass, but on a motorcycle, especially in bad weather, they can be much more intimidating.

It was the same thing on our recent ride, but this time, instead of following me, she led the way and I rode behind to keep other drivers at bay. The Bluetooth communication made all the difference, as if I was there alongside or in view ahead.

There was a pickup truck behind us when we reached the first main junction, our road halted by a stop sign before crossing a main road to continue ahead. Wendy screwed up the gears because she’d forgotten to shift down as the stop approached, and then she found it hard to shift the gears on the stationary bike. I talked her through it while waving at the driver behind, who shrugged and seemed in no hurry.

When we moved ahead, she was still in third gear and stalled the bike in the main road. Another car was approaching with the right of way, but I moved alongside and signalled for it to slow down while Wendy wrestled with the transmission. We got out of there unscathed, thanks to the other drivers’ patience.

So why, in most of Canada, is there no way to tell other drivers that a rider or driver is inexperienced and should be given a break? Driving school cars display themselves prominently, but there’s no way to show drivers that a motorcyclist is inexperienced.

New drivers in British Columbia must display a red “L” plate (for Learner) for their first year, and a green “N” plate (for Novice) for the next 18 months at least. In Newfoundland, new car drivers must display a sign that says “Novice Driver” in five centimetre letters, though not new motorcyclists.

When other drivers see these signs, they don’t necessarily treat the new driver any differently, but if they see that person hesitating, or demonstrating uncertainty, then they can understand why. If there’s no sign, they just assume the new driver is an idiot and get angry and maybe ride their ass.

It seems like a simple thing. As well, it’s an incentive for novice drivers to move ahead through the graduated licencing process, to remove the potential stigma of the “L” sign. It probably wouldn’t be a popular political move, though. Can you imagine all the biker gangs with half the bikes sporting “L” plates? Or the grizzled old riders on their Hogs, or the Mohawk-helmeted Gixxers, all letting the world know they’re new at this?

So the politicians outside of the West and East coasts will just leave things as they are. It’s a good thing Wendy has me to ride behind her while she regains her confidence, otherwise she might just give up on bikes again.

The Honda Rebel is a non-intimidating motorcycle for novices, and a good bike to practice on.

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