- Category: Motorcycling
It’s March 1994, and I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a motorcycle. The thought has been brewing in my adolescent head for several years, but funding shortfalls and parental units had previously placed restrictions on such things. There’s no stopping me now, though. The classic mystique and excitement of two-wheeled motivation is in me for good.
I don’t really know anyone who rides, so I’m left to mosey around used bike lots and scour classifieds and take wild guesses at what bike is for me. The internet isn’t mainstream yet, so there are no busy forums to guide me. I’m shopping on my guts.
Miraculously (or maybe foolishly), dealers are willing to allow me test rides with just a motorcycle learner’s permit and a helmet. My first ride was phenomenal. I’d never felt such powerful acceleration! I was hooked, and the bike was sold.
I was happily oblivious to the physics of motorcycling back then, and it didn’t matter. Until I crashed, just two months later. Fortunately I was wearing my helmet, but unfortunately not a whole lot else. A minivan pulled out of a lot on a curve and I locked the front. My helmet saved me a severe smack on the road, but I suffered significant road rash and was treated to a ride to the hospital and what I now affectionately call “the toothbrush treatment”.
Still, I kept riding. In fact, it never once crossed my mind to quit. I don’t know how many people asked me if I was going to sell the bike now, but I didn’t understand their mindset. It wasn’t an option.
I didn’t learn much from that crash, though. I evolved as a rider, and not always for the better. I quit wearing my helmet for a while, and I still wore shorts and t-shirts on occasion. Simply, I wasn’t a safe rider. I didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until online forums like this one1 grabbed my attention that I began a final transformation. I matured as a rider, and I began to see my riding experience differently. I realized that my first crash was almost entirely my fault, and it shouldn’t have happened.
I’ve read several books2 on motorcycling. I’ve read countless accounts of accidents and near-misses in forums. I’ve taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Experienced Rider Course3. I’ve begun to think differently.
Here are what I consider to be the four major phases of motorcycling. They don’t apply to everyone. They’re what happened to me.
Stage 1: New bike nervousness
Your family has warned you against those dangerous machines, and you’ve read the ominous statistics. You want one anyway, and to heck with the consequences. Still, you’re concerned. Maybe you checked into training. Maybe you got help from a friend who owns a bike. Maybe you’re a solo spirit and are determined to learn it yourself. However you go about it, you’re likely to be more cautious now than at any time to come. This is a survival stage, when your fear keeps you in line.
If you bought a helmet and planned to wear it, you probably will. You may have purchased a leather jacket, either for protection or simply to look the part. You know that motorcyclists wear jackets for protection, but sometimes it’s just too hot.
At this stage, you’ll likely put more interest into straight-line acceleration, which made you buy the bike you did in the first place. You’ve seen the racebikes on television and read the ads in the magazines. Once you’ve been on a bike, and tasted the power, you’re hooked. But you still have that little voice that says, “Hey, this might not be smart.” Your gut clenches and you relax the throttle.
You’ll either do fine during this stage, or do something dumb and dump it, like I did.
Stage 2: False confidence
At this stage, you’ve learned the controls and the feel of the bike. You’ve pushed your personal top speed upward, little by little. Maybe you’ve popped the front wheel up a few times. This leads you to believe that you’re a fairly skilled rider. You’re not. It takes years and thousands of miles, not to mention some actual study of those who do have skills, to become a talented rider.
Also, this is the stage where you decide that your risk is low, and you stop wearing your helmet and start posing. Maybe you carry passengers now, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You’re thinking that maybe you’re ready for a bigger, more powerful bike.
In fact, this is probably your highest risk stage. Your false confidence is leading you to try new things, some of which you aren’t ready for. And since you may not have had an accident yet, you aren’t paying enough attention to the world around you - namely the idiots in the cages out to flatten you.
Stage 3: The wake up call
This will either come in the form of a bad experience, like a crash, or news of a friend’s crash (or death, or paralysis). You realize that you’re not the rider you thought, and wake up to wearing proper gear, and doing some learning. You might buy a book or attend a track day, and you realize that motorcycling satisfaction might just come from handling the curves, rather than rocketing ahead in a straight line. I have forums like this one to thank for my wake up call. Reading posts from anonymous friends has changed me as a rider, only for the better.
Stage 4: Maturity
This doesn’t mean invincibility. It means that you’ve studied and practiced emergency maneuvers. It means you know what the moron in the minivan will do before he does it. It means you ride for yourself, and the feelings you generate, rather than to impress anyone else. And it often means you give up the race-replica squid bike for something more appropriate to your skills and usage.
That’s not the end, though. After a number of years or thousands of miles with no close calls or crashes, riders tend to wander in and out of various stages. Confidence goes up and carelessness creeps in. If we’re fortunate, we’ll get a gentle reminder to sharpen our skills and improve our awareness. If not, well....
Author's note: I wrote this back in 2007 or so in a shorter forum post format. It got a surprising response there, so I expanded it into the article you see here, which was then shared by other riders on quite a few motorcycling forums.
- http://www.motorcycleforums.net (formerly http://motorcycle-journal.com) - a general motorcycling forum with a good emphasis on new rider guidance
- http://maximum-suzuki.com - a Bandit-focused forum with a user bias toward older riders where I learned a great deal about that particular motorcycle; requires registration
- http://sport-touring.net - an all-makes motorcycling forum geared toward travel and adventure touring
- http://riderforums.net - a Kawasaki-oriented forum with good information about the new Ninja 1000 and its predecessor the Z1000
- http://www.advrider.com - an adventure touring forum where I go mostly when I want to dream a bit
- Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well, by David Hough - a fantastic primer into motorcycle dynamics and an antidote to common novice mistakes
- More Proficient Motorcycling: Mastering the Ride, by David Hough - a great addendum to the original
- A Twist of the Wrist 2: The Basics of High-Performance Motorcycle Riding, by Keith Code - while the title sounds like this book is geared toward track riders, I consider every motorcycle a high-performance machine; this book applies well to all riders who care about safety and the enjoyment of the ride
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig - a classic adventure story with a side of philosophy--ideal to get your inner riding bug agitated