I rode my first motorcycle in 1955. It was a Puch 250 with a unique 2-stroke split-single (“twingle”) engine design featuring twin cylinders with a common combustion chamber. Despite the indelible memory of it being great fun, it would be another 10 years before I was back in the saddle. I remember telling the finance company that I needed a motorcycle because it was cheap transportation… I might have even believed that.
Fifty-five years later I’m still riding. By now, as with many of you, motorcycles would probably show up on a DNA test. But does all this experience actually mean that I’m a competent rider, that I know what I’m doing out there on the hellish highways?
I’d like to think so, but there are a couple of factors that work against this. The Big One is my age, 77. I continually hear from riders in their seventies but there’s little doubt we’re a minority. Old age usually brings any number of fun things that work against our fun thing. Fun things such as diminished strength, balance issues, eyesight problems and slowed reaction times. The good news is that every one of these conditions can be improved upon. If we’re letting them get between us and the saddle then there probably shouldn’t be a saddle in our garages.
The second factor is a bit more difficult to deal with if, for no other reason, we don’t always recognize that it’s in play: stubbornness. And that’s because we often revert to that teenage ‘know-it-all’ condition. Except at our age we say, “Been there, done that, paid the fine.” C’mon, we’ve been riding for decades! We know what we’re doing, right? Uh, maybe not.
Like many of us I learned to ride by trial and error; no real instruction, just repetition. This works, to a point, but what it also does is create and reinforce bad habits. Getting a friend or relative to help often makes it worse as we then inherit their bad habits. (“Front brake? We don’t need no stinkin’ front brake!”)
I took my first motorcycle training class at the age of 49, after about 27 years of riding. I can’t recall why I took the class, but I remember bringing along a bit of ’tude, figuring there was not much they could teach me. Pride goeth before a fall, as the saying goes. While I didn’t actually fall, my pride got severely dented. By the end of the day the revelation was that while, yes, I’d been riding for 27 years, the reality was closer to having one-year experiences that I had repeated 27 times. It’s not that I was a bad rider; but I was careless and often sloppy, trusting more to fate than skill. It was just small things, but each was potentially a buzz kill. Things such as not turning my head, improper braking, and being unaware of my surroundings.
Over the decades I’ve taken many more classes and each has served to tune my skills and keep me riding with ego in check. I’m not the rider I once was, and that’s a good thing. It took me a long time to understand the critical difference between being an aggressive rider and an assertive one. Once I learned that, those close calls I often had just disappeared.
Many years ago Yamaha ran a ‘Learn to Ride’ program. They’d show up with a semi full of small bikes, recruit local riders as instructors, and invite the public in to learn. I was one of those instructors during its swing through NorCal. I vividly remember the difference between teaching men and teaching women. Women would listen, ask questions, listen some more, try the exercise, then ask more questions. With men I’d get about halfway through an explanation and they’d cut me off with, “Yeah, I got this, lemme try it.” Then they’d go out on the range and do it wrong.
I mention this because with us men, our egos are often the biggest impediments to improving our riding. This would be humorous were it not for the fact that dying out of ignorance is not particularly funny. And yes, women can be just as stubborn.
There are some excellent riding schools spread throughout the country. Find one that specializes in street riding, swallow your pride, and sign up. 5
If you’d care to explain to Kittrelle why his existence on this planet is no longer required, email firstname.lastname@example.org