Visions of Vespas and front row parking danced in my head as I signed up for a motorcycle class at the local community college. The vintage green scooter with the surf rack must have obscured my better judgment when I picked a weekend in August, in California, on asphalt, and in boots, jeans, gloves and a long sleeved shirt. I blame everything that happened next on my heat stroke addled brain.
The first evening of the class was held in a comfortably air conditioned room and started innocuously with introductions. Reasons for taking the course ranged from learning to ride on the freeway to clearing a violation for not having a motorcycle license. Our teacher, Doc, spent three hours teaching us motorcycle safety, but all I heard is 257 ways to get killed riding a motorcycle. Doc’s gems included, “whether the ball hits the window or the window hits the ball, the window pays the price” and “humans are at the top of the food chain, and bikers are at the bottom.”
My favorite question came from the Jersey boy, Jared, in the row behind me sporting a gold necklace and two diamond earrings. He asked, “what if I’m just running up to the store to get a pack of cigarettes in the middle of the night? Do I need to wear boots?” Leave it to Jared put the old axiom ‘there is no stupid question’ to bed for all time. To his credit, Doc fielded the question like a pro. The rule is, “all the gear all the time or take the car.” He went on to paint a picture of Jared hopping on his motorcycle in the middle of the night to get his fix wearing flip-flops. Going 40 miles an hour, Jared hits a rock and lays over his bike. The result is a meat sandwich – the asphalt and bike are the bread and Jared’s ankle is the smoked turkey. A compelling visual. I felt like we should also break out the slides of cancerous lungs, but one step at a time.
Among other protective riding gear Doc talked about armor – pieces of metal placed at strategic bony points on the body like knees, ankles and knuckles. Doc told a story of getting the freeway and the car in front of him kicking up a rock that hit him on his index finger knuckle. It felt like a shot and if Doc had not been wearing armored gloves, he was sure his finger would’ve been taken off. It was about this time that I began to seriously reconsider my Vespa decision. Even the lure of endless parking may not be enough.
We then went out to the lava pit for the riding portion – ten hours on pavement so hot it melted the glue in my classmate’s boots – not Jared’s of course because he didn’t show up. The fancy hand and footwork required to ride a motorcycle includes a clutch, gearshift, throttle, front and rear brakes and is a lot like dancing the samba with a robot. We didn’t have to deal with mirrors – all the previous crashes took them all off.
We spend hours weaving through cones, practicing swerves and fast stops. For a beginner like me who was still trying to figure out how to stay upright, it was fantastic and when we hit 15 MPH it required my full concentration.
We spent 10 total hours at speeds approaching 20 MHP riding in circles, shifting, stalling, and turning and not one person – even the total newbies dropped their bike. We did, however, spend a lot of time honking at each other while trying to signal a left-hand turn. Those buttons are really close together.
Then the clipboards came out and we took our driver’s test. I passed with non-failing colors after wiping out a few cones that apparently didn’t represent pedestrians. The whole class passed and celebrated with an ice cold water under a pop-up tent. At the graduation ceremony the instructor, Dan, said something that changed my life forever. “These are perishable skills. If you don’t practice them, you’ll lose them.”
The next day I swung by the Harley dealership and made it official. I bought at red Sportster and enough gear to break up a prison riot. But I had tell my mother about it via text because I’m not THAT brave.