My bike for the entirety of the training weekend was numbered 421.
Not to be mistaken for Will Ferguson’s Giller award winning 419, which refers to “the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretences.” The only way I was going to obtain my M2 would be to earn it, learning to ride a motorcycle for the first time and passing the minimum skills test at the end of 2 1/2 days of training.
The first part was a COVID meeting, online using Zoom, while a thunderstorm rolled through cottage country knocking out my internet and others , everyone scrambling to reconnect (I hotspotted to my phone, feeling like a tech wizard) to watch videos extolling the virtues of bike riding but mostly focusing on safety measures and defensive driving. Instructors reviewed and emphasized the key points, sharing anecdotes and tips and sage guidance. The theory made sense which was largely a visual representation of the MTO motorcycle guide accompanied by little animated scenarios designed to help you make good decisions and avoid accidents. I understood everything.
Saturday was the big day when we would begin learning to ride. I spent Friday night making sure the preparations were in order: all the required protective outer wear was laid out, extra clothes for any rain, plenty of water, lunch and snacks, finally setting the alarm to wake-up with enough time to embark on the 50 minute trek south to Peterborough.
Upon my arrival, I strode across the college parking lot, black leather jacket on, zipper half open; blue jeans covering the top of ankle high boots; a snugly fit ball cap of the Detroit Tigers over dark sunglasses; and a helmet hanging from my right arm swinging in rhythm to each step. Baby, we were born to run.
The first order of business, however, was to sign waivers against any liability, injuries and COVID, acknowledging the risk, absolving the company of any responsibility, and declaring all accidents are on me. Comforting. Especially since I had never driven a motorcycle before. No worries say the three instructors, as they sent the fifteen of us to select our bike; we love newbies and will have you riding by the end of the weekend.
You have to walk before you can run. And in the case of our training, we did alot of walking. We had to conduct a three point turn without dropping the chariot, push the bike into position so the next person in line can shove you towards the funnel of cones placed in two 90 degree angles, first to the right then to left, before you drag it back for more practice. No roar of an engine, just heavy breathing and heart thumping from all that exertion.
The exercise represented the first, crucial baby steps because success requires balance, yes, but more importantly, trust. Trust that when you turn your head to look in direction of where you want to go, rather than where you are at the moment, your bike will follow. The principle is critical to navigating any curve in the road. Follow this practice and you will be successful, building increased confidence along the way.
I could not avoid rolling over the pylons in the first few times; or putting down my foot to keep from falling. The voices of doubt were calling out in the back of my mind; all the talk of crashing, of injuries, of the danger, of being too old. Turn your head completely to the right, don’t look down, keep your knees together, and let the momentum move you through. Eventually I accomplished the task, still imperfect, with the nagging questions continuing to resonate as we progressed to starting up our motorized wheels.
Mastering the clutch became the next challenge, rolling slowly, in balance, stopping before putting your foot down, back and forth across the parking lot, followed by an instructor leading us in a snake line, never getting out of first. The warm day, made hotter by our gear, had me sweaty and tired and hungry by lunch. We shifted gears after the break, but only into second, with more exercises.
By five o’clock we were all tired. I was frustrated with my perceived lack of significant progress. I had higher expectations of myself. The experience was proving to be very humbling.
Sunday morning brought some of the promised fun into our training. It started with some early conversations with fellow classmates. A couple of us older participants laughed how one beer knocked us out for the night; a conversation about equipment with a young rider decked out in new gladiator wear; and some reassuring extra practice to smooth out earlier difficulties from one of the four women in the group. Our first order of business was to play follow the leader, weaving through cones and around circles at a speed faster than that of a school zone. The driving was thrilling and I felt more confident with each turn.
The odometer on 421 was disengaged, and I had no idea how fast we were travelling during the entire weekend. I don’t know if the speedometer worked because I never looked at it. Even though we were only riding “dirt bikes” in a parking lot, I began to experience the joy of motorcycling by lunch.
The afternoon brought me back to earth as our group, now only fourteen, began a series of exercises which would prepare us specifically for the M2 test. The first was simple enough, swerving left or right of an object to avoid hitting it. My eyes popped out of my head when the instructor tripped me up by signalling to stop instead, which I managed to do, successfully, thank goodness. Then came stopping in a narrow curve, which I accomplished on just the second try.
An exercise simulating entering a rode from your driveway shook my confidence again. The task involved riding the clutch, slowly, around a sharp turn, then accelerating through a curve. Success was not deviating out of the lines and reaching the end in a specified time. I popped the clutch more than once, put my foot down to keep balance, fumbled into second gear and missed the box where we were to bring the bike to a stop. There were several failed attempts and additional runs before I finally met the minimum requirements; but trust in my own abilities were waning which worsened when the class was informed these exercises were the components of the MTO required test.
I was number 13 in line as we inched toward the start of the exiting driveway test, the first of five. Each time I moved up, my bike would stall or I would lose a little balance, till finally it was my turn. I managed to start very slowly and navigate the turn but a clumsy gear shift and I knew my time was too long. Disappointed, I moved to the “slingshot” test where you had to accelerate through a curve. I did not turn my head enough, jerked the machine a little although the speed was probably there. Two down and I already thought I had failed. I managed to complete the sudden stop exercise and to come to a halt in a curve but clipped the cone on the avoidance swerve procedure. The day was over. I was done.
No one was more surprised than me when the instructors congratulated everyone for achieving their M2 as we received our scores and feedback. Yes, I had missed on a couple items, exactly as I had identified. My demerits were average however. Most importantly, I was aware of the mistakes and those related to speed will come with increased confidence, which only grows with more riding. The real test comes on the road.
The training got me able to operate a bike, and most importantly, it increased a healthy awareness of my limitations. I have considerably more admiration for motorcycle driving abilities now, which easily exceed those necessary to drive a car.
My next step is to check into insurance and purchase that first motorcycle. The original vision of a cruiser remains, except now it will be smaller, something I can more easily handle. We were advised, in the training, to be very comfortable with riding before taking on a passenger.
Olga’s first ride is still a long way down the road.