By: Lalita Chemello
If you had asked me a few years ago in the earliest adult years regarding my interest in riding a motorcycle, I would have given you a flat out no. The idea of having a large hunk of worked metal (even if beautiful) complete with an exposed, hot, running engine sitting between your legs with nothing protecting you beyond a helmet and some tough fabrics was anything but appealing. Especially while I was living in Detroit, where it is sometimes difficult to just get a car through the city in one piece, scratch and/or dent-free.
But I am now a country bumpkin on the west side of the state and away from the traffic chaos of the Motor City, so when my other half [heavily] encouraged me to take a swing at earning my motorcycle endorsement here in Michigan, with time, I eventually said yes.
I saw it as an opportunity to try something new, especially as a car fanatic and an individual that craves adventure. The added bonus was, if I liked it I would gain a fun (and slightly less expensive) hobby in the process. Granted, cars can be cheap endeavors, but a brand spanking new and fun bike at $6000? It’s a difficult feat to beat.
So the end of April had quickly arrived. And because it is Michigan, it was unfortunately bitter cold. But I would be learning how to ride, despite the somewhat comical failure of a weekend awaiting combining snow, technical failures and just plain clumsiness, it’s almost a miracle we all passed.
Friday Night, Day One
Michigan’s motorcycle laws require some form of written test completed for the endorsement, and when done through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses (MSF), you complete that portion online. Three hours of clicking through skills videos and answers, you’ll either feel prepared and ready for the next portion of the class, or more anxious and overwhelmed.
First night of class contained a handful of tired adults of ages ranging from early 20s to mid 60s stuffed into a middle school classroom in the middle of nowhere Michigan. We were tired, but this class was only $50 instead of the $300+ it would cost to take the same course at the nearby Harley dealership, so the pain was necessary for the gain.
The room was mostly quiet (read: exhaustion) with slight bursts of giddy, noting most of us had traveled 45 mins to an hour and a half to be there. We made it through the book work lessons, had an opportunity to create some “accident art” (see photo), took another written test, and drove home to brace ourselves for the part we were really here for the next two days: actually riding a motorcycle.
Saturday, Day Two
Arriving at the school from the evening before, the ambient temperature was a brisk 43 degrees, cloudy with the occasional icy gust of wind. The forecast called for snow but weather reports indicated it wouldn’t start until the finish of class for the afternoon.
The course provided bikes, but they were not assigned. Instead we’re directed to each select a bike that was to be ours for the weekend. I was eyeing a newer, soft grey Suzuki TS250. There were two of those Suzukis (the other was a bright red), a V-Star 250 and two very worn garnet Kawasaki Eliminators. The two men in class made their way to the Suzukis, leaving myself and the other two women the others to choose from. I landed one of those tired Kawasakis, a 2001 model, which plays into this story later.
Now you have a bike and it’s time to explore all of it and be introduced to the world of neutral and your shifting point! This is where the gear engages on the bike and begins to propel it forward. Without starting the bike, you walk the bike forward and back, learning the process of shifting in and out of first and neutral.
After a few walks back and forth successfully, we learn how to start the bikes.
Lucky for me, my old dinosaur ride happened to have this wonderful feature: a choke. If you’re not familiar with this particular feature on any motorized vehicle, I’ll just say it involves a carburetor and a lot of patience. And as these are hard to come by on vehicles unless you’re operating vintage or lawn equipment, the wonders of a carburetor will baffle and irritate you (thus the aforementioned patience).
What I can tell you from experience, as the first bike I owned possessed a choke and carburetor, the cold is not your friend (nor are many other things if it isn’t maintained properly…).
Let me emphasize it was very cold out. My right hand would be an expert at continuously dancing on that throttle all day to keep that bike running. It loved to stall when I tried to move forward. Or when I stopped. Or just while I was sitting there. Yes, all the time.
(And a quick note, student riders are instructed to turn off the bike between exercises so as to hear what they were explaining for the next trial. Today, I find this was most likely a mistake considering how cold it was. But I understand why they did it. However, this treatment and the frigid air would mark the end of the Eliminator later in this story.)
Apart from learning how to deal with the operating issues, the rest of the evening was pulling forward and coming to a stop. Learning to accelerate. Turns….
Turns were not complicated, but I did find out I had a difficult go at holding a leaning bike from a stop when turning or pulling up to turn. My first dropping incident (and of course as the trailblazer I am, the first in the class to drop a bike) was while making an abrupt stop, mid-turn. As I was already making a turn and my petite self couldn’t hold up the bike that was now slightly leaned, the bike decided along with my body, that we were not going to be able to hold each other up and sideways we went.
I jumped out of the way as the bike added yet another scrape to its already very beaten body when it hit the pavement. Killswitch engaged, I quickly rose to stand with my arms up in near victory-esque form, scarlet-faced, and eagerly yelled “I’m alright!”
It sounds silly, but one of the first things we’re instructed to do when a bike is dropped is kill the engine. The instructor will then come over to you to ask how you’re feeling, pick up the bike and look it over to make sure it is still safe to ride and operational before allowing you to continue using it.
My incident caused the loss of part of the clutch lever, about an inch of it had broken off. My instructor handed the piece to me as a memento/good luck charm. To this day, I still have it in my riding jacket pocket.
Sleet was now part of the picture, but luckily the ground was just warm enough to prevent accumulating while we continued learning and completing road course exercises. But the cold was wearing on myself and my classmates a bit. Out of desperation, some of us would hold our hands to hot engines hoping to get some sort of feeling back in our fingertips.
After completing somewhere around seven or eight of the required course exercises, we wrapped up class and made our way home to prepare for the next and final day of training. Rather we attempted to defrost ourselves.
Because as we left class, the sleet had turned into snow that had lightly dusted the ground. And it was in the lower 30s of degrees.
Sunday, Day Three, Test Day
There’s not much more of a discouraging start to your test day than waking up, looking outside and seeing snow. In preparation, I had layered myself with enough clothing to make things more than bearable. I was now dressed like the little brother from A Christmas Story.
Bright and early we returned to the school parking lot–it was maybe 36 degrees and the grass was now coated lightly with snow. Perfect riding weather … .
We run through a few more techniques and basic skills, followed by drills combining all of what we learned thus far. Acceleration drills. Turn signal operation. Braking drills. How to cross over objects in the road (ours was a two by four that would move more and more to one side as each of us riders would ride over top of it). There were figure eights for more practice in curves and turns at higher speed
The figure eights were one of my favorite exercises. You find a rhythm, dancing as you slow into your turn but lean back and forth depending on which way you were turning.
And that relaxed and confident demeanor immediately fades as you start box drills. Box drills are set in a very large rectangle to complete very tight turns with your bike. The objective: make a slow, but tight turn in a limited space without touching the ground. Difficulty: extremely.
Part of my issue was my bike was in a perpetual stalling state. If I hit the throttle gently to compensate it would keep it going, but in some cases would give me a tad too much power to make it through the box remotely smooth. Add in, if I ever failed to bump the throttle once in a while, it would shut off.
And that was how my Kawasaki met its end for the weekend, during the second-to-last exercise before our riding test.
Our younger male instructor was waiting patiently on the other side of the lot for me to start the exercise. I hit the start again, and again, and the Eliminator would not respond. I begin making rather odd signals with my arms, flailing with some gesturing, trying to let him know this bike would not start.
Neither instructor could get it to start. Their only remedy was to give me a completely different bike.
So came the decade and a half newer Suzuki. Suzukis and I have not been the most compatible as their seating and handlebar placement for their cruisers and sportbikes is just uncomfortable. Add in the fuel injected engine and a touchy, newer throttle, and this was a recipe for what I considered my nightmare.
In my struggle I manage to somehow complete our last two exercises. The box turn made one last brief appearance before test time and I rocketed myself out of it trying to gently operate the throttle. The bike didn’t like operating slow, so my ever-so-slight wrist movement to achieve a lower few mph turned quickly to a double digit and I was ejected from the line, or off the course.
Whatever confidence I had on this freezing cold morning prior to my test was gone. To make things even better, it was now test time.
The instructors set up most of an elaborate course and you complete each portion of the test in stages. Your objective is to complete each portion without stalling, touching the ground, or dropping the bike, for which points were taken away for each instance. Stages included accelerating, stopping and taking off. Accelerating around “dropped objects.” Changing lanes. Smooth turns. Some were fairly easy.
And that box made the cut. Of course.
The new bike was manageable for most of these portions. I was relieved we would do one at a time, so as to have a breather to gather what little part of confidence I had left to make it through the next stage. Or to tell myself it is what it is, while more and more convinced I was failing.
My bike stalled a couple of times. The box? I touched the ground twice and accidentally launched myself through the stop mark (again, trouble with the throttle). I was in tears between the last few test portions.
A quick break follows our completion of the test. I store my helmet and gloves in the car, get a drink of the hot cocoa to warm up a tad and cry for a few minutes as my poor boyfriend tried to reassure me I didn’t do as poorly as I believe I had done.
Our instructors would call us over one at a time to discuss our results. Two classmates passed before my turn. I walked over to hear my results, the most defeated I had felt in a long time.
My instructor paused for a moment, and told me I had passed. Relieved, yet also shocked, I thought it was a joke, so I asked if she was messing with me. She insisted she wasn’t and discussed my score with me, finishing with awarding me my Motorcycle Safety Endorsement (MSE) certificate.
Before we parted ways, she explained I had done spectacularly well considering what I had to tackle in the weekend. With a bike that was on its last limb, the cold, the stalls and having to adjust to as best as I could a new bike in the course of maybe a half hour before taking my test, I had appeared collected, determined and made it through something not many people would have had to do otherwise, especially as a beginner rider.
I still think they were a little more forgiving on my score considering my situation, but I also believe they would not have awarded me an MSE if they thought I would be a hazard to others on the road.
Following class, I found humor in telling my story. Who could say that everything that could go wrong, went wrong during their test, in nasty conditions and still pass the class? And the weather, stalls and other mishaps really prepared me for some seriously interesting worst-case scenarios, proving that my conquering anything is possible.
The important takeaway here being, if you take the class seriously, listen and follow instructions, you will come out of this class more prepared for the road. I have friends who didn’t take the test or the class, and although they are decent riders, even they, going back to take the class, say they learn a lot. Also you get a break on your insurance too, so perks kids.
The idea behind the MSF courses is to give you the skills and knowledge to not only be a skilled rider, but a safe rider. Although motorcycle fatalities per year are dropping, according to the NHTSA as of 2018, still nearly 5,000 individuals died. Some really stem on riders not being aware of or prepared for their surroundings and lack the proactivity you learn in adjusting your riding as the “invisible” entity to the other drivers out there. Some you just can’t escape disaster even when paying attention and the other individual is careless.
If you’re looking to take this course, check out MSF’s website. I encourage it to all riders and the fees to take it are usually minimal. It’s a great way to learn. And the class as a beginner does give you a chance, in a safe environment, to figure out whether or not you really want to ride a motorcycle. We had one classmate that didn’t after the first class and dropped out, and that’s okay.
I honestly went into this adventure thinking I’d probably enjoy the experience but would not want to take it further, and I enjoyed it enough I did. Despite the mishaps, utter frustration and tears, I quite enjoy riding, and I truly hope in the future if you decide to embark on this journey, you will too.