There's a well-worn saying among motorcycle riders that goes something like this: two types of people ride - those who have fallen off their bike and those that will fall off.
Count me in the first group.
Since getting my first motorcycle in 1965, I have hit the dirt in an intriguing variety of ways. There was that time I was coming home from my girlfriend's in the wee hours of the morning and collided with a locomotive; or when I rode for 12 hours straight and was so fatigued when I got home that I rode right over a six-foot embankment and slept where I fell. And let's not forget that time I dropped my bike on Douglas Street in Victoria, B.C., right in front of a loaded bus - much to the delight of passengers.
I have also come off the back seat while fooling around - facing backward - at 50 km/h, flopped over into the curb while riding a Honda Goldwing through downtown Needles, Calif., and dropped a fully loaded BMW K1200LT in front of crowded restaurant in Texas.
Those are the ones I can remember, and most were my own fault.
It seemed timely, therefore, to take a course on motorcycle handling. After all, it's only been 46 years since I got my licence - a guy doesn't want to rush into these things.
And I should also point out that when I got my motorcycle licence - lo, those many years ago - there was no motorcycle licence, per se. You just bought your bike and rode it. And even when the authorities did institute a testing program, some time in the 1980s, it consisted of executing a figure eight in the parking lot and demonstrating that you knew how to start the bike and shut it off.
That certainly won't cut it at Roadcraft, an advanced riding school in Richmond, B.C., that specifically offers an advanced, non-government curriculum in the fine art of handling a motorcycle. While most of the instructors are ex-safety council alumni, the course(s) are designed to provide an all-encompassing riding experience. "We look at Roadcraft as a multi-level skills enhanced training program," explains head instructor Graham Street.
Quite a mouthful, but essentially, it breaks down into three programs: basic and advanced low-speed handling and manoeuvring, and traffic skills.
I registered for the first, which focuses on manhandling your bike at various speeds, through various obstructions, without dropping it. While safe riding is the overriding focus of the course, emphasis is placed on learning the handling limits of your bike, and the dynamics of weight transfer, traction control, braking, and low-speed balance.
Roadcraft breaks it down into three classroom sessions with two full days of riding exercises. This is a serious advanced rider training course, and not for newbies. If you're looking for an escorted joyride through the countryside, don't sign up. As it turned out, it also rained heavily, which added to the challenge, to put it mildly.
But before the cone-dodging starts, the first thing riders have to deal with is getting past bad habits. What Street and his colleagues call "riding on autopilot." In other words, you've been riding this way for years and it's gotten you this far, so you must be doing it right, right?
Not necessarily. Among other things, we learned that:
- At least 60 per cent of all motorcycle head injuries occur in the face. Ergo, if you ride with an open-face helmet, you're taking your chances.
- The conventional wisdom that motorcycles have better braking than cars, thus allowing you to ride and stop faster, is not true. That might have been the case 20 years ago, but not today.
- Eye-protection doesn't mean shades. It means proper safety glasses.
- Black leather jackets offer little in the way of protection if you go down. Ditto with chaps, leather pants, and gloves with no fingers.
- The last five metres of a panic stop is when most of the deceleration happens. It takes most people at least one full second to react to a crisis situation and, by then, it could be too late.
- In a crisis situation, one-third of all riders will do absolutely nothing and simply hope for the best. One in five will do something useful.
- Riding just 10 km/h over the speed limit can mean the difference between walking away or sustaining injuries if you're involved in an accident.
- Road rash can kill you. Painfully.
- The old saw about "laying the bike down" if things get hairy is pure Hollywood bull.
- Old habits die hard and it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks.
This last bit applied to me in spades, I'm afraid, and I found myself second-guessing my instructors on a regular basis. For example, the hardest thing I had to learn was to keep my head up while executing low-speed turns. It's quite simple, really: find a focal point somewhere, aim the bike at it, apply throttle, and don't look down. Easy to say, hard to do consistently.
One of the instructors, Steve McKenna, brought his Goldwing and demonstrated over and over again, that if you do all of the above, you will never get into trouble. McKenna has won handling competitions on his Goldwing and his bike control has to be seen to be believed. "I don't have any special bike-handling abilities," he says, "I just figured it out and practise all the time."
Riding a motorcycle is not what it used to be. For one thing, there are a lot more automobiles on the road than there were 45 years ago. And there are a lot more stupid motorists than there used to be. Roads are more crowded, people drive faster, bikes are much quicker, and the potential for disaster is greater. It's a jungle out there.
But at least courses like those offered at Roadcraft will teach you how to protect yourself.
To find a course in your area, go to: ridertraining.org.