How did you learn to ride a motorcycle? If you’re an old-timer like me, you likely learned to ride when a friend who had a bike took you through the “Here’s the brake, here’s the clutch” routine. Then you tottered out onto the street and, with luck, didn’t run into a light pole.
Of course, learning to ride a motorcycle is a serious business, and in 1973 the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, or MSF, was formed to address motorcycle rider training. Because my son and daughter, Paul (22) and Julia (20), wanted to learn to ride, I was very interested in having them do so safely and properly, rather than have Dad run through the brake and clutch routine.
Paul and Julia took the course through Learn to Ride Ventura County, a local program near where we live in California. Many* local MSF programs are privately owned, and operate according to MSF guidelines. This one was conducted on a weekend by rider coaches (they’re not called “instructors”) who did the job nicely. I was impressed by how each lesson built upon the previous lessons to create a detailed learning process.
Each of the two days began with a classroom session conducted from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. Then, following a lunch break, the group met at a riding range from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. where students actually rode the bikes. On the first morning, the 11 class members were given a book entitled Basic RiderCourse Rider Handbook, and Coach Karina conducted various lessons and showed a number of short videos. These had mostly to do with familiarization with the motorcycle and its controls, paying particular attention to the clutch’s friction zone, that point at which the clutch begins to engage.
That afternoon, the class was met at the range by Bob and Christian, two experienced rider coaches, along with a selection of small-displacement motorcycles including Honda Rebel 250s, Suzuki GZ250s, and Yamaha’s TW200, XT250 and Star 250. Before riding, students had to present a driver’s license or permit, and don a DOT-approved three-quarter or full-face helmet, shatter-resistant eye protection, over-the-ankle boots, a long-sleeved shirt and pants, and have rain gear (if necessary). Helmets were loaned to students who did not have them.
Students selected bikes, and the coaches reviewed the controls with the group. The first lesson was to push the bike a short distance while stopping it with the front brake. Bob’s caution was to squeeze the front brake lever rather than GRAB it; the latter stood for “Get Ready to Abandon Bike” if done too ardently.
Students walked the bikes first, then started them in neutral, pulled in the clutch and explored the wonders of the friction zone as they slowly rode across the range. Soon they were shifting up to second gear and coming to a stop at the other side of the range, utilizing both brakes. Next they were weaving between cones. Then they were led to an oval, formed by cones, where they were instructed to “slow, look, press and roll” into the corners. Every step was designed to be a gradual building upon what had come before. Now I noticed that my son Paul, who had been hesitant and was originally making feeble weaves, was becoming more confident and throwing the bike into turns.
Bob, who has been an MSF instructor for 11 years, noted that the biggest mistake new riders make while taking the class is looking down when they should be looking up. “When they look up, all their problems go away.”
As the first day ended, students were shifting into the proper gear, turning properly and accelerating out of turns, braking with confidence and shifting down. It was a good day.
The second day’s classroom session began with lessons on lane positioning, being visible, curve strategies, dealing with obstacles, doing a head check before changing lanes, swerving, braking techniques, carrying a passenger and carrying loads. And since statistics show that one-third of motorcycle riders involved in fatal accidents were under the influence, there was a major component on the importance of riding straight.
On the range, riders first reviewed what they had learned the previous day, and then attempted S-curves and U-turns in a box painted on the pavement. After they performed these maneuvers, the coach would often call them over for a brief word on their technique. It was all very personal and hands-on.
Perhaps the most spectacular exercise of the day was to ride over an obstacle, in this case a 2-by-4 placed on the pavement. Students were instructed to cross it at a 90-degree angle, rise off the seat and accelerate just before the obstacle, then immediately get off the throttle after crossing it to prevent the rear tire from shooting it out behind. None of the riders seemed to have a problem with this exercise.
The course is very well thought out and useful. My daughter, Julia, observed that it presented a great deal of information, and she had not previously been aware that riding a motorcycle was such an involved process. Paul’s reaction was that, because so much information was presented, he wished there was a follow-up session in a few weeks to build upon the basics once the riding had begun.
My only criticism, based upon my 52 years of riding experience, is that I felt the course overemphasized the potential danger of braking in a turn, giving the impression that to do so will likely dump you on the pavement. With that said, however, I was very impressed with the MSF’s Basic RiderCourse. Prices are set by the various subsidiaries; our local program charges $150 for those under 21, and $250 for those 21 and over. To find an MSF RiderCourse near you, visit msf-usa.org.