Photo credit Andrew Fails

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, for those of you not in the know, can best be summed up as motorcycle driver’s ed. In some states, it will waive the skills portion of your license test. In others, it will reduce your insurance rates. In all, it’s a good way to learn the bare-bones mechanics of how to operate one of these kooky contraptions in a quasi-safe environment. But make no mistake, it will not really prepare you for riding on the street.

I came into motorcycling relatively late. I wasn’t one of those kids that grew up racing dirt bikes and riding on the back of their dad’s Harley. On some level, I always was aware of them, and had a vague appreciation, but that was about as far as it went. It just wasn’t part of my worldview. Plus, in the Midwest, motorcycles are seen very much as a novelty. You either dress up in your best leather outlaw dentist gear to drink at your local dive bar, or you put on your board shorts and try to top out your Gixxer on I-435. Neither sounded particularly compelling.

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That was until my brother moved back from Tampa with his Kawasaki Vulcan. Any time the family headed out, we’d all pile into the various hatchbacks and pickup trucks, and he’d just glide away on the bike. Damn, that actually looked like fun. Like, actual fun. The ability to shut out everything else, and just enjoy the sheer sensation of motion and internal combustion.

But I’d never ridden any sort of motorcycle before, not even a scooter. I wasn’t exactly keen on learning via trial and error. Some of my friends learned that way, and sometimes it works. Other times, you wind up in someone’s front yard, or having to relearn how to walk after smearing yourself across the Walmart parking lot.

In the fall of 2010, I signed up for the Basic Rider Course at Rolling Wheels in Independence, Missouri which cost a whopping $150. There are a lot of venues for the MSF course, but I decided to go with these folks. Sure, you can take it at a community college or Harley dealership, but something about the fact that this was a company that did nothing other than riding classes gave me a bit more confidence. I didn’t want to be taught by someone who was a salesperson; I wanted to be taught by someone who was first and foremost a riding coach.

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Plus, if I wadded up the bike, or decided this wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my machine.

The facility itself was set in a strip mall next to a closed down Sam’s Club. because suburbia. Inside the building was a large room used for the classroom section. Outside, at the end of the parking lot, was a section walled off by concrete Jersey barriers. This means that even the most inept and unaware driver can’t run you over, which is nice. One less thing to be terrified of. That is where you actually hone your skills.

So I bought a full face Shoei helmet. Yes, the MSF course will provide loaner helmets, but I didn’t want to do that for a few reasons. For one, wearing a rented helmet is like wearing bowling shoes, but on your face. No one enjoys the feel of someone else’s old sweat in their ears. Also, buying my own helmet made me financially invested in the prospect of owning my own bike. Think of it as a very tiny down payment on that future.

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My class took two days, and consisted of equal parts classroom lessons and practical skills on the bike. Because I have a paralyzing fear of looking stupid in front of strangers, I spent the weeks leading up to the class pestering my brother with questions on technique and etiquette.

I could have saved myself some effort. The class starts out under the presumption that you have never seen a motorcycle, and have never heard of a clutch. So there’s a lot of pictures of various types of motorcycles, and descriptions of how the controls work.

Courtesy of the MSF handbook

The class consisted of roughly 15 students, two-thirds of whom were men, and two instructors, one male and one female. Of those students, two were middle-aged men who had ridden years ago and were trying to get back into it safely. Other than that, none of us had ever ridden before. Which was actually a big relief to me. Looking foolish in front of strangers is pretty high up on the fear list for me, but if everyone is equally inept, it’s not too bad.

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Once you eventually do sit on a bike out in the parking lot, you start with just walking it around in neutral, with it turned off, just to get an idea of weight, and how the handlebars work. Yes, you actually do start at that level. I told you, they assume you know literally nothing about anything. From there you move to using the clutch to just kind of creep the bike forwards using the friction zone.

The available bikes at our facility were primarily Honda Shadows and Honda Nighthawks, all provided by the course, and all 250cc. That means none of them would really going to get away from us. However, because these were all learner bikes, that also meant that they had all been horribly abused. Mechanically, they ran relatively well, but most had no functioning turn signals, and the gauge cluster on mine was broken. When a bunch of rookies are constantly dropping the bikes, they tend to look a little rough.

The mighty Nighthawk 250.

Speaking of dropping, I only saw one bike go down in the full two-day course. Well, I say I saw it, but really I heard it. We were all riding in a large oval, single file, when right behind me I heard the unpleasant sound of steel sliding across concrete. The young man following me had managed to low side his bike, and slid across the course. He wound up being fine, just a little road rash, and he was given a new bike.

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This was a harsh way for him to learn what a lot of car enthusiasts already know: you have a limited amount of traction available, don’t use it up. If you’re already using most of the available grip, and then decide to brake heavily, one of those things won’t happen. In a car, you’d stop turning, and understeer. On a bike, you also stop turning, and then fall the fuck over.

I sound dismissive now, but at the early stages of the class, I struggled. Not with the clutch, as I’d owned manual cars for a few years at that stage, but with simple balancing. I’ve got the equilibrium of a drunk toddler. Motorcycles are inherently unstable at low speeds. As the speed increases, they function like gyroscopes, and want to stay upright, regardless of what you do. Think of it as a teenager. Once it’s finally up and going, it will work fine, but getting it up and moving is a struggle. It just wants to go lay down.

With any new skill I learn, there has to be a point where it “clicks,” and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have to have a brief moment where it’s fun. That lets me see the value of the activity, and makes the struggle worthwhile. For motorcycling, that happened the first time I took a long sweeping corner in second gear. Suddenly, everything made sense. The balance that was so shaky at slow speed smoothed out. The engine that was rough and sluggish at low RPM evened out once it had some revs built up. Oh, so this is why people do this.

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At one point after doing a few laps, an instructor pulled me aside to critique my form. The exact quote was something along the lines of “I don’t know if you’re lucky or just good, but there’s no reason your cornering should be that good when you’re not looking where you’re supposed to be going.” I chose to take that as a compliment. I’m doing well even while being wrong.

From there you gradually begin to add in more maneuvers. You ride in large ovals, do tight figure eight turns, and work on emergency lane changes and panic braking. All of this is interspersed with classroom sessions and instructional videos. My instructors were very thorough about giving you one on one advice, like when they told me to lead with my shoulder instead of my head on emergency lane changes. Your head doesn’t make you lean, pushing on the fucking bars does.

There is a written test near the end that I think might actually be impossible to fail. But the big daddy is the practical skills test. It is structured to combine all of the skills of the past two days. You do a low speed figure eight, getting docked points for every time you put your foot down. That sucks. Everyone is rough at it, even on the light bikes the class provides. From there there’s a few other small sections that are fairly simple as long as you’ve been trying. The final skills test is a timed portion. You accelerate up to second gear, go through a few corners, and bring it to a stop.

Overhead view of the course. Image courtesy of the Google.

I was one of the last people in my class to perform this section, and I was petrified of being too slow. I did find out later that every single person before me was docked points for going over the time limit. Well, go big or go home. In my determination to not be slow, I came in way too hot to the final sweeper. There was definitely a moment of dawning realization that I might not actually make the turn. So, summoning some weird well of confidence that I had no right to have, I cranked that tiny Honda over as hard as I could.

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We made it through, and my classmates congratulated me on my form, but secretly I had the urge to go inspect my underwear. The first, but not last time I’d terrified myself on a motorcycle. But me scaring myself witless did pay off, as I wound up being the only person to not have a time penalty. Well worth it, I’d say.

So, at the end of the class, which every single person passed, you get a little card that tells the state of Missouri (or wherever) you don’t need to take the skills test for your license exam. You walk out of there with your head up, and your chest full of ego and bravado. You’ve handled everything the instructors could throw at you.

You’re a goddamn biker now. Except you’re not. Not even close.

Some of the instruction, like not resting your fingers on the brake and clutch levers (also known as “covering” them), is good advice for people that don’t understand how the controls work, but is less practical in the real world. When riding in traffic, you can be damned sure I’m covering the brake. Sure, it’s a fraction of a second to move two fingers from the bar to the brake lever, but that may the difference between you stopping in time, and you kissing the rear bumper of a Tahoe.

Me, on Google Street View, covering the levers.

The accident avoidance techniques you practice at the MSF class are good, but knowing you have an emergency lane change in 30 yards is not quite the same thing as unexpectedly needing to try and dodge the CR-V that decided to run that stop sign. The MSF doesn’t really cover proper technique for trying to shoot the gap between the curb and the latte-powered crossover that is trying to shove you off the road.

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Regardless, it’s a great way to learn the basics in a low risk environment. You don’t have to worry about traffic. The bikes are all provided, and there’s no real repercussion for laying one down. So get your practice in, and understand how the controls work.

But make no mistake—this does not prepare you for reality. So take the lessons they taught you, keep what works for you, discard what doesn’t, and keep riding.

Shiny side up, sticky side down, if possible.