Going to two wheels? Take a (non) crash course

Sitting astride a Yamaha off-road motorcycle, it’s 26C under the scorching sun. I’m wearing a thick padded jacket, leather gloves and a stiflingly hot full-face helmet. I have never ridden a motorcycle before, but I’m about to learn. Truth be told, I’ve only ever ridden a moped twice, both times in Key West. The last outing ended with a terse warning from a local lawman and his offer of a free night’s stay in one of his cells.

My introductory lesson came courtesy of the Rider Training Institute (RTI), a not-for-profit organization that has been training riders of all ages since 2002. In addition to covering the material required to take the riding tests, RTI teaches defensive motorcycling, rider etiquette and basic maintenance. RTI is also permitted to test and license riders. Enrolment in its program does not guarantee success, but participants generally experience a 75% pass rate on the first attempt and over 80% on a subsequent re-test.

Sharron St. Croix, executive director of RTI, says she has seen an explosion of people turning to two-wheeled transportation, in particular mopeds and scooters, in the face of rising gasoline prices. While most of these rides fall under the same provincial laws, many owners do not see themselves as motorcyclists and tend to forego formal instruction — that is a mistake.

The media program I attended required no specific rider training aside from the ability to ride a bicycle. Once you learn to balance, you’re not supposed to forget — or so they say. RTI provided the motorcycle and safety gear — jacket, gloves and helmet for my day of training. My lone contribution was a pair of boots — ever the fashion maven, I laced up the trusty Kodiaks I’ve had since high school. It was quite an outfit I have to admit.

My instructor, Marlon Pollock, started riding dirt bikes in his teens and, 25 years later, he decided it was time to give back to the riding community and help raise rider competence and the safety that comes from knowing the correct way of motorcycling.

The lesson began by developing a pre-ride routine — how to mount the bike and start the engine safely. The routine becomes ingrained after it’s repeated many times. Even at the early stages of instruction, it became clear that learning to use the bike’s controls was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Lurching around a parking lot, I was struggling to maintain any semblance of finesse. Pollock noticed that I was using my wrist to control the throttle instead of my fingers. A quick adjustment and there was one fewer thing to worry about. Another seemingly foreign motion is using the clutch mounted on the left side of the handle bar. Feathering the lever on a motorcycle allows the rider to control things at low speeds. Riding a dry-clutch on a car would spell disaster; however, most motorcycles use a clutch bathed in cooling engine oil, which allows it to withstand this abuse.

After 30 minutes of puttering and trying to maintain my balance at slow speeds, I was beginning to enjoy relative success! At least I didn’t feel like a child trying to ditch training wheels any longer. Looking the part, however, was going to take much longer.

Yet more information to digest. Learning the rear brake is the pedal on the right side of the bike and the front brake is a lever operated by the right hand takes some getting used to. Then there’s the shift pattern of the gear lever that sits at the end of your left foot. After practising over and over, the proper use of the bike’s controls was finally becoming second nature, an important consideration before heading out to share the open road with all those four-wheelers.

The final piece of puzzle came in the form of learning to push steer. If you’ve never been on a motorcycle, the term is probably as foreign to you as it was to me. Apparently, above 20 kilometres an hour, turning the bike requires you to push on the same side of the handle bar as you want to turn. Got that? Turn left? Push on the left side of the bars. As silly as it sounds, think back to your time on a bicycle. The gyroscopic force of the turning wheels requires counter-steer as you lean into a corner. I wish the instructor told me it’s like steering a bicycle instead of freaking me out with this push steering business.

By the end of the course, I’d spent two hours scooting around practising stops, starts and various turning manoeuvres, including slow-speed loops and a mid-speed slalom course. With the basics under my belt, I commented to a fellow participant that I was ready to commandeer a motorcycle and wheel away with confidence. Perhaps I was being a touch Walter Mitty-ish and dreaming.

In spite of the sage instruction imparted by RTI, I remain leery, given the previous offer of jail time the last time I ventured out on a motorized two-wheeler.

Photograph by: Rod Cleaver, for National Post