How to: Go back to school

My wife Wendy recently signed up for a motorcycle refresher course at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough. She has a full M licence from the days before graduated licensing was introduced in Ontario, 25 years ago.  The school’s owner, however, suggested that was just too long to be out of the saddle and recommended she instead take the full weekend course, which costs $537.72 and would normally earn her the second stage of an Ontario graduated licence.

So she did.

Students line up on their school motorcycles for the M2  course at Sir Sandford Fleming College, with instructors in red to guide the way.

Why do it?

There’s a right way and a wrong way to get a motorcycle licence in Canada. The wrong way is to buy a bike, get your dad or boyfriend or room-mate or whoever to tell you how to ride it, go to the ministry to take your test, then launch yourself off on a cross-country road trip. Don’t laugh – plenty of people try this.

The right way is to sign up at a motorcycle safety school, have trained professionals teach you how to ride on a school bike, then take your motorcycle test that same weekend on the same school bike. With your licence in hand, you’re ready to choose a bike for yourself, get insurance and ride on the road. With practice, your reactions will become instinctive and automatic, and you’ll be considerably safer and more accomplished.

Ooops! If you’re going to drop your motorcycle while you’re learning to ride it properly, which you will, it’s much better to do so on a borrowed school bike than your new pride and joy.

The system is far from perfect. In Ontario, you need to hold an M1 licence for at least 60 days before moving to an M2, supposedly to give you some time to practice, but in reality, very few insurance companies will cover a rider with an M1. Those that do charge exorbitant rates: school owner Mike Weil recalls one teenager being quoted $11,000 a year for a 650 cruiser, and the company would not refund any of that payment once the M2 was earned within three months. So new riders get their M1 licence, then get their M2 licence and must wait up to two months for it to come into effect before they can practice any of the skills they were taught.

In the classroom

How does graduated licencing work?

All Canada’s provinces and territories have a graduated licence system for getting a motorcycle licence. They vary in the details, but they’re generally similar.

In Ontario, a potential rider must first apply for an M1 motorcycle licence. This is achieved by passing a written multiple-choice test on rules of the road and the workings of a bike. The M1 licence must be held for a minimum of 60 days and expires after 90 days. It’s intended to give the new rider a little time for practice before the next stage. The rider must ride only during the day on roads with a speed limit no faster than 80 km/h, not carry a passenger, and not drink any alcohol whatsoever.

With a valid M1 licence, the rider must then pass a practical riding test. This will earn an M2 licence, which removes all the restrictions except for not drinking. The M2 must be held for a minimum of 22 months (or 18 months if a recognized safety course is taken), and is valid for five years.

Within five years, the rider can take another on-road practical test for a full M licence, which allows a small level of alcohol in the blood and is valid for life.

For a province-by-province breakdown for the rest of Canada, click here.

We turned up at the Peterborough campus of Sir Sandford Fleming College on a recent Friday evening for three hours of classroom instruction. I sat quietly in the back, taking notes, while my wife Wendy settled into class.

The senior instructor for the weekend, John Gruihn, gave the 14 students a handbook and then showed us a bunch of videos from the early 2000s prepared by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in the U.S. If you could get beyond the cheesiness, they were very instructive – but you had to get past that cheese.

Gruihn talked us all through the points that each video was making: lane positioning, protective gear, rules of the road, visibility, planning ahead. He didn’t just think this stuff up. It’s all part of the government-approved “Gearing Up” curriculum prepared by the Canada Safety Council, which sets out the lessons and exercises needed for safe riding. It’s not just about passing the test.

Classroom work comes before you get on a bike.

The CSC has 36 approved schools in Ontario and 75 across the country. “CSC’s Gearing Up program is designed as a means to heighten awareness and create a safety conscientious rider in a safe and controlled manner,” says Jackie Barbe, the CSC’s Traffic Safety Program Co-ordinator.

Getting on the bikes

On the Saturday morning – dry and warm for the first time this season – the bikes were lined up in the empty campus parking lot. Some Kawasaki KLX 140s, some Suzuki DR200s, a few fat-tired Yamaha TW200s and even a Honda Grom, for short riders. All the students were asked to choose a bike for the weekend. There were three instructors, one for every five students.

I was impressed that Wendy’s DR200 had absolutely zero kilometres on the clock until I realized it had no speedo cable, indicators, or mirrors. “We don’t want the students staring down at their speed when they should be looking where they’re going,” said instructor Trevor Mills.

Wendy gets a push from fellow student Melissa Richards, to get a feel for the balance of the bike and its brakes before starting the engine.

There wasn’t much speed at the beginning, of course. The students had to push and be pushed, sitting on their bikes with no engine running, to get the hang of the brakes and the balance. In fact, the engines didn’t even fire up for two hours as they practiced stopping and starting, and learned the basics of the controls.

VICTORIA PREDDY, soon-to-be Fleming student: “I fell, but it was just a little skid, that’s all. It didn’t hurt at all. Unfortunately, I scraped some of the plastic. But this is frickin’ cool. I love this.”

Do you know the five basic things to check before getting on your bike? Quick – don’t read ahead. Close your eyes and name those five check-offs to yourself.


You sure? All five?

Take a look at the rear tire, that it’s not low or bulging. The chain, that it’s not dry or sagging. The front tire, for the same as the rear. The brakes, that they bite. And the controls and cables, that they work correctly. “There are some things in life that are good when they’re kinky, but cables are not one of them,” said Mills. And I thought the videos were cheesy…

DEAN RUSCHKE, auto dealership sales manager: “A friend of mine across the street, his brother had one and he got one, so I decided to get one and I don’t regret it. I absolutely love it. I was always totally against motorcycles, but it’s the person who’s riding it who has to be aware.”

Finally, before lunch, the students fired up the engines and practiced riding back and forth. After lunch, they changed gears and picked up speed and started riding in curves, leaning the little bikes and getting comfortable. Sometimes, somebody would hit a cone and slide out, but always they jumped right back up and carried on.

SHAWN NESBITT, Parks Canada employee: “I bought a Honda CRF250 Rally. I want to do trail riding with it, but also some commuting. This course has taught me so much. I’m probably not going to get hurt in my first week now. I really believe I’m going to be a lot safer on the road now.”

Halfway through

On Saturday evening, Wendy’s feet hurt from pushing her student partner on the motorcycle while wearing clompy Harley boots. She’d bought a pair of new Blundstone boots in time for the course, but they weren’t approved because their stretchy side fabric doesn’t protect the ankle at all.

Mostly, though, she complained that her wrists hurt. This was from holding the handlebars all day with a death grip. On Sunday morning, most of the other students also complained their wrists hurt.

Wendy concentrates her way around the parking lot on the DR200, no doubt holding the bars with a death grip.

Back in the saddle

Sunday morning, warm and dry again, the students fired up their bikes right away and rode fairly confidently around the parking lot. The cones were set up differently though, and two of the instructors showed the basics of counter-steering and accelerating through a curve.

They practiced this for a while,  then moved on to emergency braking and swerving, starting and stopping on a curve, and all those exercises entailed. It’s one thing to stop without hitting anyone, but quite another to remember to look behind you once you’re stopped, and be in the correct gear and move away quickly. To an inexperienced rider, this stuff all takes practice, practice, practice.

Left to right, John Gruihn, Lisa Searle and Trevor Mills.

At lunch, I asked the instructors why they do what they do.

“When someone is struggling, maybe they’re thinking too much, but then when they just get it,” said Mills, who’s been teaching for 18 years and just collected a new-to-him Yamaha R1 this spring. “You see it happen in their face, they become nice and relaxed and you see they’re having fun – that’s why I keep coming back.”

MELISSA RICHARDS AND SHANNON WILLIAMS, manufacturing company managers: “I have a hand-me-down bike, waiting for me to get my licence,” says Melissa. “It’s a Virago and it’s 1987. My boyfriend got it from his uncle. All my family rides. I got my licence 15 years ago, but never had a bike and had children instead.” “I’m dating somebody who has a motorcycle and he thought it would be a good idea if I tried it,” says Shannon. “He has a street bike, but I’ve no clue what it is. I don’t want to ride on it, because I don’t want to do something incorrect and cause an accident.”

“When the light goes on for somebody and suddenly they get it, that gives me a lot of personal satisfaction,” said the weekend’s senior instructor, John Gruihn. “That can happen when two partners are together and the one partner is still trying to coach the other. We’ll separate them, and it can make all the difference.”

“I call it the lightbulb moment,” said instructor Lisa Searle. “It’s being able to take someone who’s maybe nervous to the confidence of knowing they can ride. And afterwards, it’s knowing that people know how to be safe on a motorcycle.”

MAX MURPHY, general contractor: “I want to be confident out there on the road. I’m going to buy a 1500cc Suzuki. I’ve found one for the right price, but the insurance has to be okay. This course has taught me so much. When you turn your head and the bike goes where you want to go – I didn’t realize it would do that. I’ve always wanted to ride a motorcycle, but there’s always been something else in my life that came first.”

The test

You want to be an instructor?

To work for Mike Weil’s, one of the CSC’s accredited teaching schools with locations throughout eastern Ontario from Oshawa to Cornwall, a rider must apply with a note of interest. If accepted, there will be five full off-season weekends of learning classroom theory, roughly one a month, followed by a final weekend of practical riding just before the season begins.

You must be prepared to teach at least three weekends in a year – most people teach once or twice a month – and you’ll be paid about $325 for both days of the weekend. The senior instructor earns more, but also teaches the Friday night classroom course.

After lunch, it was time for the test. In Ontario, that’s eight different exercises of stopping and starting and turning and avoiding cones. Most of the exercises must be completed within a specific time – not too slow, not too fast – but the instructors demonstrated each exercise first so the students were clear on what needed to be done.

At the end of it all, everyone passed. Usually, there are one or two failures – some people just never get it – but not this weekend in Peterborough. Wendy came close to not passing with a score of 10 demerit points where 12 would mean failure, but this was mostly from just riding too slowly, nervous now for the pressure of being tested, and not to mention being photographed throughout by the editor of Canada’s leading motorcycle website.

Were all the students ready now for the road?

Well, they were ready for riding safely and cautiously, anyway. Now comes the real work of gaining experience, not getting over-confident, and practice, practice, practice. In time, those wrists won’t hold a death grip on the bars anymore and the road will be less intimidating, more fun.

And in time, Wendy will get more of her confidence back and we’ll be able to take trips on two bikes and pack twice as much crap. I can hardly wait.

Newly licensed and ready for the road! The class celebrates a 100 per cent pass rate.


  1. I should add that there are also shorter “Intro” (just want to try motorcycling without a full commitment), “Refresher” and “Experienced” rider courses – because the learning doesn’t stop after the one weekend. The Basic “Gearing Up” course is just the foundation on a lifetime of fun skill development.

  2. Very accurate depiction of the Gearing Up program which I teach at Niagara College in Welland, ON. Thanks for spotlighting the program! The best part, I agree, is when a student who is struggling begins to “get it” and the smiles get wider and warmer!

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