It’s March 1994, and I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a motorcycle. The thought has been brewing in my adolescent head for several years, but funding shortfalls and parental units had previously placed restrictions on such things. There’s no stopping me now, though. The classic mystique and excitement of two-wheeled motivation is in me for good.
I don’t really know anyone who rides, so I’m left to mosey around used bike lots and scour classifieds and take wild guesses at what bike is for me. The internet isn’t mainstream yet, so there are no busy forums to guide me. I’m shopping on my guts.
Miraculously (or maybe foolishly), dealers are willing to allow me test rides with just a motorcycle learner’s permit and a helmet. My first ride was phenomenal. I’d never felt such powerful acceleration! I was hooked, and the bike was sold.
I was happily oblivious to the physics of motorcycling back then, and it didn’t matter. Until I crashed, just two months later. Fortunately I was wearing my helmet, but unfortunately not a whole lot else. A minivan pulled out of a lot on a curve and I locked the front. My helmet saved me a severe smack on the road, but I suffered significant road rash and was treated to a ride to the hospital and what I now affectionately call “the toothbrush treatment”.
Still, I kept riding. In fact, it never once crossed my mind to quit. I don’t know how many people asked me if I was going to sell the bike now, but I didn’t understand their mindset. It wasn’t an option.
I didn’t learn much from that crash, though. I evolved as a rider, and not always for the better. I quit wearing my helmet for a while, and I still wore shorts and t-shirts on occasion. Simply, I wasn’t a safe rider. I didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until online forums like this one grabbed my attention that I began a final transformation. I matured as a rider, and I began to see my riding experience differently. I realized that my first crash was almost entirely my fault, and it shouldn’t have happened.
I’ve read several books on motorcycling. I’ve read countless accounts of accidents and near-misses in forums. I’ve taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Experienced Rider Course. I’ve begun to think differently.
Here are what I consider to be the four major phases of motorcycling. They don’t apply to everyone. They’re what happened to me.
1. New bike nervousness. Your family has warned you against those dangerous machines, and you’ve read the ominous statistics. You want one anyway, and to heck with the consequences. Still, you’re concerned. Maybe you checked into training. Maybe you got help from a friend who owns a bike. Maybe you’re a solo spirit and are determined to learn it yourself. However you go about it, you’re likely to be more cautious now than at any time to come. This is a survival stage, when your fear keeps you in line.
If you bought a helmet and planned to wear it, you probably will. You may have purchased a leather jacket, either for protection or simply to look the part. You know that motorcyclists wear jackets for protection, but sometimes it’s just too hot.
At this stage, you’ll likely put more interest into straight-line acceleration, which made you buy the bike you did in the first place. You’ve seen the racebikes on television and read the ads in the magazines. Once you’ve been on a bike, and tasted the power, you’re hooked. But you still have that little voice that says, “Hey, this might not be smart.” Your gut clenches and you relax the throttle.
You’ll either do fine during this stage, or do something dumb and dump it, like I did.
2. False confidence. At this stage, you’ve learned the controls and the feel of the bike. You’ve pushed your personal top speed upward, little by little. Maybe you’ve popped the front wheel up a few times. This leads you to believe that you’re a fairly skilled rider. You’re not. It takes years and thousands of miles, not to mention some actual study of those who do have skills, to become a talented rider.
Also, this is the stage where you decide that your risk is low, and you stop wearing your helmet and start posing. Maybe you carry passengers now, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You’re thinking that maybe you’re ready for a bigger, more powerful bike.
In fact, this is probably your highest risk stage. Your false confidence is leading you to try new things, some of which you aren’t ready for. And since you may not have had an accident yet, you aren’t paying enough attention to the world around you - namely the idiots in the cages out to flatten you.
3. The wake up call. This will either come in the form of a bad experience, like a crash, or news of a friend’s crash (or death, or paralysis). You realize that you’re not the rider you thought, and wake up to wearing proper gear, and doing some learning. You might buy a book or attend a track day, and you realize that motorcycling satisfaction might just come from handling the curves, rather than rocketing ahead in a straight line. I have forums like this one to thank for my wake up call. Reading posts from anonymous friends has changed me as a rider, only for the better.
4. Maturity. This doesn’t mean invincibility. It means that you’ve studied and practiced emergency maneuvers. It means you know what the moron in the minivan will do before he does it. It means you ride for yourself, and the feelings you generate, rather than to impress anyone else. And it often means you give up the race-replica squid bike for something more appropriate to your skills and usage.
That’s not the end, though. After a number of years or thousands of miles with no close calls or crashes, riders tend to wander in and out of various stages. Confidence goes up and carelessness creeps in. If we’re fortunate, we’ll get a gentle reminder to sharpen our skills and improve our awareness. If not, well….