Thursday, September 1, 2005

Learning to ride a motorcycle

In the Summer of 2005, I decided that learning to ride a motorcycle would be a fun thing to do and would be a great way to get around San Francisco. After recruiting a friend, we signed up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's (http://www.msf-usa.org/) Basic RiderCourse a few months out and began what became an ongoing obsession with the CraigsList motorcycle classifieds.

The class met over a Saturday and Sunday out in Alameda. My buddy and I got out there with plenty of time to spare and settled in for some classroom time. Interesting stuff that built up a healthy respect for the seriousness of riding a motorcycle. Towards the end of the day we headed outside and mounted small engine Hondas and Yamahas for our first experiences on the bikes. After a general review of the controls as well as hand signals the instructors would be using, we started with a no-throttle, slow clutch-release "waddle" back and forth across the course. With some new confidence, we were allowed to ease on the right hand grip and circle around the track.

Pumped up after our first day, I called a guy who had listed a 1973 Honda CB 750 on CraigsList and arranged to meet at his place in the Western Addition. In his garage, he explained that he had picked up the '73 and a '74 CB 750 from a couple in Arizona who would take them on trips around the Southwest. Apparently only occasionally since, if the odometer reading was correct, these bikes had only travelled around 13,000 miles in over 30 years.

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The deal was made on the orange sparkle '73, and before I knew it, I was sitting on a rumbling, grumbling 500-plus pound monster bearing little similarity to the scooter I had ridden hours before. As I slow clutch-release waddled it out onto Steiner, it bucked and pulled like a rodeo bull. Any lean to one side or the other and the immense mass of the bike would fight to continue its progress towards the pavement. I was definitely in over my head but somehow managed to convince the wild beast to cross Market Street and churn up the hill and down into Noe Valley.

On a high from my newfound skills as a cycle-whisperer, I got a call from my motorcycle class partner about a party that night. It was Saturday night after all and we were newly minted rebels looking for a cause. That cause turned out to be a live band in full mullet-wigged regalia playing covers of 80's rock songs in an apartment the size of a dorm room. Perfect.

Perfect that is until the MGD ran out and for some reason I decided that vanilla vodka was the way to keep the party rolling. Long story short, at 4:30 am, someone dropped me off at my house smelling like a Good Humor man on a bender.

The alarm came even earlier than it needed to for the second day of class because weeks earlier I had agreed to a breakfast meeting with an ex-girlfriend who would be in town. Starting to feel the full effects of my poor decision-making skills the night before, I limped through an emotional rehash of the circumstances of our breakup while shoveling in as much alcohol-absorbing eggs and bacon as possible.

Wondering whether my ambitious breakfast was just the latest in a series of questionable choices, I raced towards Alameda only to arrive just as the group was pulling away for a few warm up laps of the course. The clearly miffed instructor told me to get my helmet on right away and get out there with them.

Within seconds of slipping the plastic over my head, I felt the eggs and bacon getting claustrophobic. They did not like this confinement and wanted out. As we raced around the course receiving input from the instructors my mind was racing over the consequences of a mid-ride, in-helmet stomach evacuation. I had visions of the plastic screen of my helmet instantly becoming a technicolor blast shield which (barring the use of The Force) would result in me missing the next left turn and ending up in the chain link fence.

Through sheer fear of that result combined with the need for concentration on the bike, I somehow managed to not only keep my breakfast down but to lay down a perfect score on my riding test.

In the end, I felt like the MSF's program was well-run and extremely valuable to me as a new rider (it also passes for your DMV driving test in California). At the end of two days, I learned many lessons about operating a motorcycle safely. As for other lessons I should have learned over the weekend, only time will tell.

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