American Skid Marks
Setting out on a great American motorcycle roadtrip.

The Experienced Rider Course … Done!

Motorcycling is dangerous. Since it’s earliest days it’s attracted the barnstormers and thrill seekers, the rebellious, the brave, the foolish and those with something to prove. Sure, lots of us ride for different reasons, but somewhere, inside all riders is the attraction to danger and the desire to thrive despite it. That right there is one of the reasons I ride; I want to overcome the danger, to ride with flawless skill and bring myself home in spite of risking my skin.

So, we do what we can to manage the risks. We strap on protective gear, we ensure that our machines are running well and we learn. Every time I’m out on my bike I try to learn something, to play with something I have never tried or to master something I know I suck at. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to be taught. This past weekend I took part in The Experienced Rider Course offered by Puget Sound Safety. Early in the morning on Saturday we gathered in a parking lot in south Tacoma to learn some skills that could keep us all safer out on the road.

Motorcycles lined up and ready

The morning lineup.

At first, I was like, “I’m going to rock this class!” And then, I was like, “I suck so hard at motorcycling”. And later, I was like, “This class was the best thing I could have taken at this point in my riding career!”

Like, totally.

We started with a few drills weaving around offset cones, then weaving around cones that were offset a little further; working on feathering the clutch and leaning our bikes at low speeds, warming up the tires and getting our “riding legs”. The early drills were easy and made me feel like this class was going to be cake. Up next was slow speed U-turns.

This is the first point in the class where the central message of the entire course begins to be drilled into your head: “Turn your head farther than you think you have to.”

I wobbled through a couple, swung too wide and put my foot down through all of them. Then, after some coaching from the instructors, I started turning my head all the way behind me; I started facing back toward the exit point over my shoulder. Now, I’m not going to say that I started whipping through U-turns like a pro, but it is really amazing the difference that turning your head will make. Nope, not just a bit, you literally need to turn your head back over your shoulder and lift your chin as you shift your weight to the outside of the turn and lean the bike into the turn, all the while feathering the clutch and sometimes working the rear brake so that you can keep the engine pulling. It was humbling, thinking about the way cops swing their big cruisers, with no perceptible effort, through 2-lane wide U-turns every day. This was the point where I started to feel like I could not ride a motorcycle. The consistent failure of the other riders in the class on this exercise made me feel a little bit better. Basically, we all sucked at this ;).

After that, we worked on emergency stops. First, if you don’t already know, “The front brake stops the bike. Not the rear.” Beyond that, the keywords for this exercise are: “Gradual but Total”. You don’t want to slam on your brakes, you want to apply the brake approximately as fast as you would in a regular stop (maybe a bit faster) but you keep squeezing until you can’t squeeze any further and hold it tight until you stop completely (unless you lock the front brake). Quick note on locking the brakes: “Release the front, hold the rear.” After an initial ‘grabby’ stop on my front break, I got this one down pretty well.

Next up was emergency swerving. This essentially simulates swerving around an obstacle that is about the size of a car. “Push, Push”. This is not a braking exercise, without applying brakes we worked on leaning down hard on one of the grips and then recovering with the other: “Push, Push”.

Interspersed in the mix were some exercises to help our cornering. Again, turn your god damned head is the lesson of the hour here. Seriously, I may not have followed the perfect line or found the perfect entry speed on any of these exercises, but turning your head early and faaaaar will smooth out any corner you take. By the end of the class this turning my head felt natural.

Cornering practice

Cornering practice

During the hydration and food breaks we reviewed some classroom material. This is the standard “duh” kind of material. Wear proper gear, make sure your bike works, don’t get shit-housed before you ride and watch out for stuff at intersections. That pretty much sums it up.

We took a written test on the “duh” material and then performed 4 exercises while being graded:

  • U-turns
  • Emergency stops
  • Emergency swerves
  • Proper cornering

I passed.

Leaning my bike into the first turn out of the parking lot that day, my turns felt solid. On the cold ride home I felt in more control over the movement of my bike than I have in years. I’ve got plenty to work on before the Total Control class in mid-May but the foundation is strong. I’ll be going out to a large parking lot in Kirkland to try to re-create all of these exercises and I’ll be working on some of the techniques out on the open road so that I can dive into the advanced riding class in May with total confidence.

If you ride and you have not taken a riding class, go do it; especially if you think you don’t need to. These classes will show you just how poor your technique is in some areas and will definitely give you something to work on next time you’re out on a ride.

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