June 9th, 2005


Motorcycle course, part 1: preparation

Last weekend I took and passed the Ottawa Safety Council's Gearing Up motorcycle course. I had meant to post an entry on Saturday night and an entry on Sunday night but I was too tired to think, so you get the whole thing in review instead.

Wednesday night was the safety lecture and equipment inspection. It was pretty unremarkable, mostly because I'd already read everything that was discussed either in the provincial motorcycle licensing handbook, the Gearing Up handbook, or David Hough's Proficient Motorcycling which I took out of the library. This was also my first opportunity to see who else would be attending. The crowd was pretty varied, from complete newbies like me to nearly-new riders with their M1 license but a few hundred kilometres under their belt to riders who had had their license for a while but hadn't ridden for decades or wanted the insurance advantage of having taken a course. The class was about 1/4 female, the majority of whom were married to or dating bikers and wanted to have their own bike instead of riding pillion, and only three or four riders were under 20. In total there were 45 students attending, way more than I had expected.

I got up at 5:30 on Saturday morning to head out to the General Dynamics parking lot [satellite view] in Bells Corners. (The three trailers at the back of the parking lot in the satellite view are filled with motorcycles!) The course started at 7:45 and we were split up into three groups. My group of 15 students and three instructors was composed entirely of riders with no riding experience. The other two groups chose their bikes from those provided and followed their instructors off to the parking lots on the other side of the office building, which meant we got to stay in the first lot where the canopies and picnic tables were, which was awfully nice during breaks, since Saturday was hazy and hot with temperatures reaching 35°C at the airport. Motorcycle gear, even vented, doesn't breathe very well, especially at parking-lot speeds.

By the time the other groups had picked their bikes the selection was pretty limited: GN125s, Titans and a bunch of Honda Rebel 250s which aren't shown on their bikes page but look like the Eliminator but with a bigger engine. I grabbed a GN125 because I knew I didn't want to train on a cruiser but the Titans were all taken; I had hoped to learn on a dual-sport but they were all gone by the time the more advanced riders had left. I suspect that was by design, and the instructors prefer complete newbies to avoid the taller dual-sports. Getting a GN125 worked out well for me because it's a smaller version of the early-80s standard motorcycles I'm looking at for a first bike.

(This is getting long, so I'll split it up into a bunch of entries. Next up: the first day's riding.)

Motorcycle course, part 2: learning to ride!

(The first part of this entry is here.)

The practical part of the course started out simple: first, we learned how to walk a motorcycle (walk along beside the bike, not on it, and lean it towards you especially when turning away from the side you're standing on), and then how to balance it at slow speed -- without the engine running! We took half of the bikes and teamed up into pairs, who took turns riding and pushing down straight lanes. On my first push, I managed to make it about four feet before I was in the next lane. "Clamp the gas tank with your legs!" Tried again, this time no problem. Once all of us had the basic idea, the lanes were cut in half to make 90° left and right turns. Legs flailing again, all over the course. Clamp the gas tank. Legs in, no problem.

After a few minutes of that we were taught how to start the bike: fuel switch on, ignition switch on, bike in neutral, engine kill switch off, choke on, and hit the starter. No problem. With the bikes started, we started learning to get them moving with the clutch: find the friction point, roll forward a foot or two, squeeze the clutch, pull the bike back, and repeat. Then we started riding the slow-speed exercises: straight-line starts and stops, circles, sharp turns, weaving/slalom, and a long course which included all of the individual exercises in a loop. At this point we were being encouraged to shift into second where appropriate, and downshift smoothly. I got the hang of this stuff pretty quickly, since it wasn't a whole lot different than riding a bicycle; look where you want to end up and you'll end up there. About half the class was starting to get a bit behind the bike at this point, mostly because they were staring at the next cone instead of halfway around the circle or at the end of the slalom. I did the same thing occasionally, mind you, but I knew what to correct when I did!

After that, more of the same, but slower, slipping the clutch to go as slowly as possible around the inside of the circles we had just been going around outside. Slower is way harder, but necessary for learning balance and for maneuvering around parking lots and other cramped quarters. You could really see that part of the class was starting to have a hard time keeping up -- especially the women who were taking the course to get their own bike instead of riding pillion with their boyfriends and husbands. Those riders also tended to grab the Honda Rebels when it was time to choose bikes; while the Rebel would be close in position to what they would probably end up buying, they were also heavier, more powerful, and harder to manoeuver. The women who were taking the course without that background weren't having much trouble.

Lunchtime. An ambulance arrived over lunch, and we learned that one of the riders in another group had dumped the bike and injured her knee. She was up and riding later on, though, so it must not have been too bad.

From there it was into traffic behavior. The course was set up into four "blocks", with "streets" around the perimeter and through the middle of the lot. We practised hand signals, shoulder checking, stopping at intersections, and so forth all riding around the outside, and then were free to go wherever we wanted to go, having to coordinate with the rest of the riders as we would on a city street. This was easier than I expected, although it felt like you would expect to feel riding around a neighbourhood filled with fourteen brand-new motorcycle riders.

We finished up the day with emergency stops: go like a madman towards a set of cones, and then on a signal stop as quickly as possible with as much grace as you can manage to maintain: don't lean the bike, don't lock up the back wheel, try to end up in first gear ready to take off again, and so forth. This sort of came naturally to me, I'm not sure why.

I was wiped when the day ended. It was a very strange feeling to get back into a car at the end of the day. The steering wheel felt tiny, and it was so quiet! A day of wearing black nylon and a helmet had tired me out pretty good (and a glove with a really bad hot spot on my thumb didn't help -- the skin is still growing back!) so I went home and crashed.

(I'll put the next day's riding and the test in another post.)

Motorcycle course, part 3: Testing time

(The first part of this entry is here, and the second part is here.)

Sunday was a bit cooler and had a breeze, which was a very nice change. It was hot Saturday. I did manage to discover that my jacket was waterproof, but I learned it trying to get moisture from the inside out. Not fun. My helmet has been manageable, but they've let those of us with sunglasses ride with our visors open all the way.

I'm kind of tired of writing about the exercises -- I really should have just posted a bunch of one-liners from my Blackberry during the course. Anyhow, Sunday was a continuation of Saturday: start off with some simple practice to get used to riding again and warm up the bikes, then braking in a curve, emergency braking on a curve (surprisingly difficult, since you have to straighten the bike up fast at the end of the curve to avoid falling over when you stop), a lot more slow sharp turns, and then swerving around obstacles.

A lot of people had trouble with swerving, and I think that's because they tried to teach push steering before they let people try to swerve. Push steering is how you steer a motorcycle (or a bicycle!) at speed: since the bike turns from leaning and not from turning the front wheel towards the turn, initiating a turn becomes a question of how to force the bike to lean over quickly, and you do that by pushing the handlebar on the side that you want to turn away from you. Right turn, push on the right bar. It's counterintuitive to think about, but you can't easily get the bike to lean without countersteering; if you told someone to "go practice swerving", at the end of the exercise they'd be doing push steering, but trying to do it consciously gets you thinking about the bars instead of the bike. A remarkable number of people had a hard time managing to swerve in the direction they were told -- you're told to swerve in a particular direction right at the point where you have to start swerving, just like you would on the road -- and I wonder how much of that was being stuck thinking about which side of the handlebars to push on, and how much was just being prepared to go one way and being surprised at the last moment.

The test was surprisingly straightforward: five exercises, and a demerit system in which errors earn points. Twelve points accumulated is a fail, as is a crash, defined as letting the handlebar touch the ground -- if you drop the bike but catch it a couple inches from the ground, you'll probably lose some points, but it's not a crash.

I was the first rider of the last group of 5 to go, although I was originally told I was the second rider in the group. That threw me a little on the first test: a sharp right turn into a sweeping arc with a box at either end. You take the turn at slow speed and then speed up along the arc, and you're timed in the middle of it to make sure you're going fast enough. Controlled stop (downshift, stop vertical, no lockup) in the box at the end of the arc, turn around, and go the other way along the arc stopping in the other box. I took the first turn a bit wide and touched a cone (3 pts) but was otherwise fine. One of the other students managed to drop her bike at the end of her return pass through the arc. I figure it was just nervousness, because it wasn't a narrow turn at all, but she was the only failure of our group of 5 (and one of two failures in the whole group of 15 plus 4 retests from the previous week).

The second test was a sweeping curve at roadway speeds -- no problem, although it was tempting to take too fast, since it was a tighter turn than what we had been practicing on. After that, emergency braking in a straight line, which also went fine (although I stopped longer than I expected to). Leaving that exercise to head to the next one I stalled, which cost me another point. The next exercise was a swerve -- also no problem. One of the other students swerved the wrong way (would have been five points, I think), but she went too slow heading into the swerve, and had to redo it! I don't know if she was still penalized for swerving the wrong way or not. The last exercise was an emergency stop on a curve which also went without incident. I passed, with four points.

So now I get to shop for a bike and wait -- since my course was rescheduled a month earlier than I had expected, I've still got 40 days to wait before I can use the paperwork I received there to turn my M1 license into an M2 license. I'm going to start shopping around for a bike now and decide then whether or not it's worth insuring for the M1 month before I can get my M2, since it'll cost quite a bit more. Waiting to shop was definitely a good idea, though -- I feel confident in my ability to give a used bike a once-over now, and I had no idea what to do a week ago. The Bike Trader updates tomorrow, but here's what I have bookmarked now. I think I'm leaning toward the Maxims, or maybe the GS400 if I can talk him down a few hundred.