October 2004

October 2, 2004

My first time to write since I started taking my MSF course. Phew! On Thursday (Sept. 30), I spent 4+ hours in the classroom, reading the handbook, watching short little movies and ending with a written exam. There were about 24 people in the class, 6 of them were women. I was glad to see some women there, because I think it's great that women are out there riding. Student ages ranged from early 20's to late 50's, so it was good that there were people there my age. Some students had already been riding a while but decided to become "legal" (that is, finally get their license) and others were like me, first timers.

Our class was run by a motorcycle officer from the Fremont police department. He's been riding for many years and was just about to embark on a 6,000 mile trip (spread out over 24 days), to visit friends, attend festivals, etc. He's got a big touring bike, fitted out with a GPS device, satellite radio and even a place to plug in his cell phone. It was a very beautiful bike and well-equipped for the long trip. One very interesting thing I learned was that the Fremont police department tests their motorcycle officers every quarter, to make sure their skills are always at their best. I assume the California Highway Patrol and other police departments do something similar. That does make me feel safer, in some strange way.

Class was a mix of short movies, demonstrating things we read in the handbook. Each table would get a series of questions assigned to them, we'd find the answers in the handbook and then certain questions/answers were read out loud. Cleverly enough, the questions we read aloud were part of the written exam. So, if you just focused on those questions and understood/remembered the answer, you'd do well on the exam. I have pretty darn good retention in situations like these, because you only have to retain the info for a very short time. So I aced the test, getting 50 questions out of 50 correct. (She says, patting herself on the back.)

Today was the first day of riding range. This is where you learn to actually ride the bike. Man, not an easy task, mainly because you go very slow on the course. You see, the whole idea of the class is to learn control and control is really hard at slow speeds, so they teach you the hardest thing first. That way, when you master the hard stuff, the faster riding will be easier.

You start out by learning where the controls are on the bike. Bikes are all the same when it comes to the primary controls: throttle, clutch, gear shift, front brake, rear brake. Other basic controls are the fuel valve, choke, turn signals, horn, engine cut-off, starter, ignition switch, side and center stands, and speedometer. Most bikes also have odometers and trip meters. Getting familiar where all the controls are on your bike is crucial to safe riding, of course, so it was good to find all the controls and learn where they are. Then we learned how to mount the bike. Sounds so fundamental, but if you don't hold that front brake, you can imagine how heavy the bike is when it topples over.

From there we learned to "power walk" the bike, which some people call "duck walk". This is where you sit on the bike, making sure that it's in neutral and then (without turning anything on) "walk" the bike forward or backward. It sure takes leg strength to walk the length of a parking lot on a motorcycle! Next step was to start the bike, which should be done in a particular order. You can remember the order by remembering FINE-C: Fuel, Ignition, Neutral, Engine cut-off, Choke/Clutch. So, turn on your fuel valve, turn on the ignition, make sure you're in neutral, turn the engine cut-off to Run and set the choke (when your engine is cold). It's not a hard word to remember (FINE-C), but you'd be amazed at how many people would forget to turn on their fuel valve, or start in first gear.

Once the engine is started you learn about the "friction zone", which is the area in the clutch where, as you're letting it out, the gear starts to engage and the bike starts to move but before you've let the clutch out all the way. We practiced power walking the bike in first gear using the friction zone to propel us forward. It was a really good exercise, because you started to learn when the gear would engage, etc.

After we (more or less) mastered the friction zone, we started doing some real riding exercises. We learned to ride very slowly in a straight line, using only the clutch and throttle to move forward. That was hard! It did teach us to look ahead (rather than looking at the ground right in front of us) and helped us learn balance. From there, we progressed to curves, then weaves. Man, weaving was a toughie! First they had the cones set about 30 feet apart, then 20 feet. Then (horrors!) about 8 feet and 3 feet. The 3-footers were brutal and I don't know that I ever did those correctly.

We moved on to shifting (up- and down-shifting) and finally to stopping. You have to use both brakes (front and rear) which sounds like a no-brainer, but think about it: in a car you have one brake pedal that does all the work. On a bike, you have the front brake, which is controlled by your right hand, and the rear brake, which is controlled by your right foot. That's twice as much thought that needs to go into braking than in a car.

We did about 9 different riding exercises today. I think I did pretty well on all of them, except weaving. That will just take practice, I think. One thing that was incredibly annoying during the range work today was this one guy who DID NOT WANT TO SPEED UP! Even when the instructor was motioning "speed up! speed up!" he was as slow as molasses. The thing is, some of the exercises required you going about 15 mph, and this guy was crawling. I was stuck behind him in one exercise and at the end, the instructor said to me "I'm sorry that happened." What's really amazing is that I had asked the guy before what kind of bike he had. He has some kind of 600 cc bike, which is waaaay bigger than my bike (I have a 250 cc). So, he goes as slow as molasses on a little 125 cc bike and he expects to ride a much bigger one on the road? As one of the instructors said to me (when the guy stalled during an exercise) "Ever see a pancake on a road? If this guy stalls on the road and there's a big semi coming up behind him, you'll see one!" Scary, but this guy was unsafe because he was riding too slow.

So, that's Day 1 of the riding range. Tomorrow we have more exercises and then a riding exam. I know that one of the exercises tomorrow is to do figure-eights in a rectangular box. Yikes! That's going to require tons of control! I'll keep my fingers crossed that all goes well.

October 3, 2004

Day 2 of the MSF BasicRider Course Riding Range: it was tough but fun! The day started early – did I mention that I chose the course that started at 7:15 AM on both days? Lucky for me I did, because on Day 1, the temperature started rising around 11:00 and being done by 12:15, we could cool down. The 2nd group started at 12:15, so they had to do all their training in the hot sun. Yuck! Anyway, back to the range. We started at 7:15, with the sun just starting to brighten the day. It was lightly overcast, which was great because we didn't have any kind of glare issues to worry about. We started our bikes and just did some basic ovals, to warm up our bikes and warm up our skills!

Our first exercise was the dreaded figure-eights. What you're basically doing is emulating a U-turn. In this case, however, you're bounded by a rectangular box. The name of the game is to turn your head and body in the direction you want to turn, so if the U-turn is toward the left, turn your head fully (which prompts your upper body to follow) and amazingly enough the bike goes that way, too. The thing is, though, that you're doing all this in first gear, you're not braking at all, so all the control is done with the clutch and the throttle. Let me tell you, that rectangular box looked MIGHTY SMALL when I was riding in it! The first few times were pretty bad. I put my foot down, I was waaay outside the box, I throttled like a madwoman. And you only get about 4-6 times to practice it, because there are other exercises to do. I still hadn't mastered it by the time we finished the exercise, so I was starting to mildly panic that I'd fail that section of the test. Great. What a way to start the day.

Our next exercise was to ride over obstacles, which in this case was a 2-by-4 piece of wood in the road. When you go over an obstacle like that, you have to raise yourself up slightly on the foot pegs, throttle a tiny bit and go over it. I was pretty lucky, because Craig had taught me that when we did my little ride last weekend, so that was a piece of cake.

From there we went on to imaginary lane changes, learning to 1) look in your rearview mirror, 2) use your turn signals, 3) look over your shoulder to make sure nothing is there, 4) guide the bike to the appropriate lane, and 5) turn off your turn signals (bikes don't have automatic turn-offs on their turn signals). We tried this for lanes to the left and to the right. I did better on left turns, which is weird, but we tried a few times. After that, we learned to swerve, which is what you want to do if there's something in the road you don't want to ride over or jumps out in front of you. Again, my left swerving was much better than my right swerving.

After all this was over, the instructors set up the course so we could practice some of the exercises that would be on the test and that we might be having problems with. As you can imagine, we all got to practice figure-eights! I started to get better, as soon as I hammered into my head that you keep your head up and focus on the place you want to go, and forget about the ground. Always keep your head up, looking ahead at where you want to be, and the bike will follow.

Next: the dreaded test! We all lined up and thankfully, I was not in front. For some strange reason, at nearly every exercise today, I was the lead person, but this time I was fortunate and was 5th in line. I'm glad I didn't have to go first. It's nerve-wracking enough without having to be the "lead dog". The first exercise was, of course, the figure-eights. At least we got it out of the way. It was actually a combined thing, where you do a figure-eight first, followed by a controlled right-hand swerve. You read correctly: a swerve to the right. *Sigh*. Not my forté, but there was no way around it. I started talking out loud to myself (ah, the beauty of having 12 motorcycles revving and wearing a full-face helmet with face shield: no one can hear you talk to yourself!). I said "You can do this. You can make the figure-eight. You can turn your body completely to one side. You WILL do this!" ... and it worked! I did a great figure-eight, within the lines and without putting a foot down! I then did the right-hand swerve and did it well. I couldn't believe it! I was so thrilled.

The next part of the test was hard braking. You get into 2nd gear (between 12 and 18 miles per hour) and then at a pre-determined point, you brake and downshift into 1st gear. I thought I did well on this, because I hadn't had any problems braking during training.

The last part of the test was to start, upshift to 2nd gear, go around a mild curve, accelerate in the straight section, brake to slow yourself down before another, much tighter curve, then go through the curve. I still talked to myself, saying "outside, inside, outside" for how you attack the curve. I started, upshifted, accelerated, braked and went through the curve without going outside the markers. Phew! That was the last part of the test!

The instructors then told us the bad news: no one was going to have to come back and retake the test. WHEEE!! We all passed! I was so incredibly relieved. They told us our scores individually, in case some people were shy about having their score announced. Scoring was like this: you start at zero and you get a point for each error you make. If you have a score of 21 or higher, you've failed. I had a total score of 8. I had zero points for the figure-eight and the swerve (all that positive pep talking I gave myself really worked!) I was docked in the braking, because apparently I took a little too long to stop. I was also docked in the curve because I went through too slowly. I felt like I was racing through it, but maybe that was just my heart beating like a big drum.

So, I have officially passed the Motorcycle Safety Foundation BasicRider Course. This means that when I go get my license at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), I do not have to take a riding test. I only have to do a written test. I've been reading up on the written test for about a month now, so I think I should be OK. You have 3 chances to take the written test and you can get 5 wrong. My written test is scheduled for Thursday, so that's my next hurdle.

What a weekend! I'm pretty exhausted, but it was well worth getting up early. I can't wait till I'm fully licensed, so that I can start riding Bruiser. I'll still want to practice a bit in parking lots before hitting the road, but I know I'll feel a lot more secure after having taken this course.

October 7, 2004

So today, the big event was to take the written test at the DMV. Success! I passed that and now I'm officially licensed. How exciting! I can't believe I did it. Now I'm just dying to take Bruiser out to at least a parking lot to practice. The problem is that there are no good parking lots close to our house, so I'd have to ride about 5 miles to get there. So, do I ask Craig to ride there and I follow in the car and then I practice, or do I brave the streets myself? Big question and it all depends on how comfortable I feel. I want to practice, though. I'd like to get more familiar with emergency stops and swerves.

I should be able to go out this weekend and get some practice in. Wish me luck!

October 10, 2004

Finally, I got a chance to ride Bruiser again. It feels like ages since I rode a bike (sheesh ... it's been only a week since class, but I've been thinking about it daily, so it does feel like ages!). Craig rode my bike to a large parking lot and I started practicing: fast braking, upshifting, downshifting, u-turns, right turns from a dead stop, left turns from a dead stop, a little bit of swerving. Everything and anything I could think of. I spent the first 30 minutes working mostly on braking and spent the last 30 mostly on right turns from a dead stop. Left turns seem to be easier for me than right turns, so I really wanted to get better at that. I didn't want to have super wide right turns. I had to remember to KEEP MY HEAD UP and not "target fixate" on an object. See, on a bike, wherever you're looking is where you'll go. So, if you're looking down, then you'll go down. Ick. If you see an object in the road, you could fixate on it and then ride right toward it. If the object is a car, well then, you could drive right into the car. Not quite what you want to do, so you really have to concentrate to keep your head held high.

The best part of the ride was this: I rode home myself! Yep, first time on public roads. Woohoo! I maxed at about 43 mph, Craig told me (he followed in the car). I did fine, although I almost dropped the bike about 2 blocks from home. *sigh* Figures. I was coming to an intersection, I was slowing down, braking, but when I finally braked, my front wheel was turned to the right, instead of being straight. When the front wheel is turning, the bike wants to turn/lean, too, but since the bike wasn't moving, a lean = a drop. In addition to the wheel not being straight, I was on a very slight incline (with the downhill side towards the curb). This, too, affected the bike, since gravity will take hold! I held on with all my might and got it straightened. Craig jumped out of the car in a heartbeat to help, but I managed to do it on my own. Phew! It was kind of scary!

Craig said I did very well, but I do need to work on a few things: faster acceleration from a stop. I've been accelerating up to speed, when I need to jump out more at the start. If you go slow, cars have a tendency not to see you. If you're moving at a faster clip, the movement catches their eye and you have a better chance of being noticed. Another thing I have to do, especially with street riding, is have my left hand hover near the turn signals and the horn. Turn signals on bikes don't automatically turn off, you have to do it manually. If you don't turn it off, however, you could give a driver the wrong impression of where you are going (you want to go straight, but your turn signal says you want to go left) and someone could cut you off by turning in front of you.

So, my first time "on the road". I didn't drop my bike, I didn't hit anyone, I made it home in one piece. This was a good day!

October 30, 2004

It's been ages since I last wrote, but that's because I've only been on my bike twice since my last entry and there wasn't much to write for the first of those two times.

The weekend after my last entry, Craig and I went out to the parking lot again and I practiced. I practiced quicker start ups and tried to get more intuitive with the controls (like hovering around the horn, to warn off "them thar dorks" who would potentially cut me off, etc.) I got a little cocky at one time and found myself fixating on a curb in the parking lot and nearly hit it. *Sigh* That's why they tell you not to fixate on one thing! If you fixate on it, you tend to ride toward it. Overall though, things were great, so I decided to ride around the area a little, with Craig following in the car.

I rode around for probably 15 minutes and at various times, Craig was in front of or behind me, depending on how traffic went. I started to get a little panicky at 4-way stops, because I seemed to be rushing to make sure I wasn't holding anyone up, etc. I think my brain went into information overload, because at any given time on a bike, you have to be conscious of: throttle, clutch, gear shift, braking, turns signals, horn, cars in front of you, cars behind you, cars to the side of you, blind alleys, traffic lights and on and on and on.

We stopped in a parking lot and I decided to let Craig  ride home and I drove home in the car. I just didn't feel comfortable anymore, even though he said I was doing fine.

I felt like a major wuss, a real gutless wonder when I didn't ride home that day. Mentally, I knew I did the right thing, because you shouldn't ride if you're not "there" mentally. Emotionally, though, I felt like I had let myself down. That was really tough to swallow.

I mused on this for some time and then decided that what I wanted was a real ride, with a destination and with speeds more than the 20mph you do in a parking lot. Craig asked a few times if I felt I was ready and I said yes. So, this morning we suited up, got the bikes ready (both of us were on bikes this time) and went out.

Man, what a feeling! Yes, there were cars around and I had to be aware of them, but this time I didn't have the same panic as the time before. I was careful, I still had some shaky starts but all in all, I did fine. Speeds up to 60mph, some twists and turns, a bit of traffic here and there, but I handled it all well. I mentally kept telling myself "Look ahead. Look through the curve. Brake lightly. Start faster." ... all the things that make for a better ride. I still have a long way to go to feel even a bit more experienced, but this was a GREAT way to get past a bit of the panic. We rode about 35 miles today, which isn't a lot, but it's more than I've done before, so I feel very proud of myself.

Some things I still need more work on, though: starting a cold engine, taking off quickly, resting my right foot slightly to outward so that it doesn't rest on the rear brake. So, now I need to do a little more reading about riding and then I'll try again, hopefully next week.

On to November 2004.