Funny how a planned group activity can quickly whittle down to just a couple of people. The only person in my group that didn't bail had never set foot on a motorcycle. What the hell was I doing here? After all, my motorcycling skill set was a little beyond a beginning motorcycling class.
When you've done something for more than two-thirds of your lifetime it inspires the illusion that there is nothing left to learn. An instructor ten years older than me, who spoke with such affection for motorcycling that he garnered my attention, helped me overcome this. It took only 11 minutes before he talked about something I did not know: suddenly, I was learning something new.
The next day we were on the range, AKA: a cordoned-off part of the LBCC parking lot. We were supplied with motorcycles to ride. There were a variety of bikes--none with an engine bigger than a 200cc. My bike has 1450ccs. You do the math. I felt like I was on a clown tricycle.
Let's talk rain. We in the PNW have more than a passing flirtation with precipitation. I have probably ridden more miles in the rain than not. Thus, one would expect that my purpose-specific rain gear (designed for 70mph motorcycle rides through rain that's falling so hard animals are lining up in pairs) would laugh off a rainy October day. I wasn't laughing. First the water made its way past the "sealed" neck opening. Then it seeped its way up from the arm openings. I got the best/worst soaking from having two inches of jeans hanging below my rain pants. Water wicked up my pant legs to my knees. And that was before I even got on the bike.
You think that's bad?
Both of you who read my recent essay about getting vertigo might appreciate the irony when, the first morning on the range, the demon vertigo made a slight return. I was standing on a wood floor in the shelter and discovered that the floor had a fair amount of spring to it. A springy floor is the fast lane from recently acquired normal balance to hell. I quickly went outside and stood in the rain on firm blacktop and discovered that staring at anything but my feet didn't do a lot for my stomach. Fortunately, the first half of the day on the range we did very simple maneuvers that allowed me to focus on the instrument cluster above the handlebars.
There are those who would see participating in such a class while positionally challenged as foolhardy and downright bull-headed. But, many of us have passions that supersede health. I've known rock climbers who have climbed while suffering the stomach flu (look out below!). I've known distance runners who have run zillion-k marathons on a broken foot. I have intentionally ridden motorcycles through some of the worst conditions that Ma Nature can dish out. Something wonderful happens when we indulge in our passions. Often, no matter how stupid it might seem, as soon as we are doing what we love we start to feel better. This day, it took a couple hours to feel normal--as normal as I ever feel.
Did I mention the rain? Almost all of the other students had an advantage over me: no experience riding in the rain. They had not enjoyed the jarring experience of having your motorcycle tires lose traction on a slick road, so they trusted their traction. When we started the riding portion of this class, I found myself apprehensive about pushing too hard into the corners; I expected the tires to slip out from under me.
Then it happened. My mind let go of the fear and I was slapping that bike between the cones like a skier bouncing between moguls. This was the most fun I've ever had with my rain pants on. It was like flying. I was struck with the epiphany that this is why I was in a class so rudimentary. There was some very basic stuff I hadn't taught myself. I have to say this joy was followed closely by watching new riders slaloming around the range like they owned it-though they had never touched a motorcycle before that day.
Did I mention the rain? I was soaked all the way through my raingear. My buddy's leather jacket was soaked and everyone in the class was in the same boat, including the instructors. When the blessing of the lunch hour came, we leapt into my car and turned the heater up full blast. I had to keep my window open so the humidity from our clothing wouldn't fog up the windshield. We got our food to go so we could sit in the car and pull off our soaked boots and wiggle our bare toes under the heater's blast. We had to wring out our socks before putting them back on. Yes, this is considered "fun."
What happens after being chilled to the bone and then warming up-especially after lunch? That's right, you get sleepy. Just in time for a couple hours of classroom instruction. I literally nodded off a couple of times during the PowerPoint presentation. We even dared to drink AM PM coffee, which has cathartic abilities immortalized in songs sung before the white man came to this valley. Nothing keeps you awake like an intestinal tract coming to life. But, we still dozed. This had nothing to do with the quality of the material.
The next day on the range was a little more challenging.
Technical note that might bore the civilians: In 1973, Ralph Nader pushed through a law that all motorcycles had to have their foot shifters on the left side and the rear brake peddle on the right. Since the Brits don't even know what side of the road to ride on, their shifter/brake is set up opposite that of the Japanese and indigenous motorcycles populating American streets. Many people on those pre-'73 bikes were not keeping the rubber side down because the brake was not where it was supposed to be.
I learned to ride on these Brit bikes, and it took decades to rewire my brain to the "proper" position of the controls. However, once back on a bike about the size of my old Norton, my brain unwired. A couple of times on the range I tried shifting the gears with the brake pedal. Not my finest moment showcasing my decades of experience.
We practiced braking. Get 'er up to 20mph and then squeeze on the binders. The wet pavement did a wonderful job of letting us know when we were applying too much braking to either wheel. We practiced turns, lane changes, evasive maneuvers, picking up chicks, and so on. Through all of this, no one dropped a bike, which is a fine testament to the capability of the instructors.
Something I was grateful for: no one talked about how much experience they had on two wheels--even the other experienced riders in the class. Everyone was starting from the same place: the basics. One of the instructors is a regular at the Darkside. He knew this was not my first day on a motorcycle and made only one comment: he apologized for not having a Harley for me to ride--but only when we were out of earshot of the others.
I was persuaded to take this class because several of my homies said they would take it if I would. I forgot to say I would take it only if they did. I wanted company because it was scary for me to take the class. My safety record on a bike ain't bad. Did I really want to mess with a good thing by taking a class that will change the way I ride? When I got my motorcycle endorsement long ago--a long, long time ago--the "test" consisted of answering a few questions and taking a ride around the parking lot. The trickiest question was, "How did you get your motorcycle here?"
"I pushed it?"
"Good answer." He signed off on my endorsement and set me loose.
I have a friend who is an ER doctor and he calls riding a motorcycle "risk-taking behavior." I guess compared to a day spent golfing, it is. When it comes right down to it, I wish Team Oregon classes had been available when I was commuting on an old CB350, back when disco ruled the airwaves. As the class progressed and I acquired new skills, I watched more and more of the "risks" of motorcycling fade away. Yes, motorcycling is more dangerous than driving a car. In this world of airbags, crumple zones, ABS brakes, and computers that call the mother ship if an airbag inflates into a crumple zone because the ABS brakes failed, it is a good thing to have a motorsport where you are the only person responsible for your personal wellbeing. Even as basic as this class was, I feel like I now have a few more tools to deal with the student drivers returning to Corvallis, and a few of the year-round residents. You know who you are.