How-To: Teach a Woman…

You have asked and I shall answer, to the best of my ability.

This one goes out to all the men out there who are lucky enough to have a lady in their lives who is either riding her own motorcycle, is learning to ride her own, or is thinking about learning to ride. Maybe she’s your wife, your girlfriend, a family member, or just a woman who is in your social circle and for some reason or another has “adopted” you to be her mentor for her two-wheeled adventures.

These are the “rules of engagement” as I have come to understand them in my journey as a biker chick to become the best skilled rider I can possibly be. Look at these “rules” as a general guideline, as an inside peek at how us girls roll.

Biker Babes

If the woman in question is already riding her own motorcycle, there are only two points you need to be clear on:

  1. More likely, a woman will ask for advice when she wants it and ask it of whom she trusts. Do not offer uninvited advice, unless you see her doing something repeatedly that could endanger her and others. In this case, be tactful, respectful and don’t get personal. And please don’t dress her down in front of the entire crowd. Think of how you would want this to be handled. This is not the time to trash talk, poke fun or be condescending. The message will only be heard if it is delivered appropriately. Any other time, keep it to yourself. Men are protectors, they want to fix things that they deem to be broken in some form or another. You’re wired that way, but please rise above your biology and resist the urge to “fix it” or “save her from herself”. Uninvited critique on technique or style will come across as patronizing, sexist, sometimes belittling, and even disrespectful. Again, a girl will ask if she wants to know.
  2. When you overhear a woman, usually in quite an animated fashion, critiquing her own screw-ups, please don’t take this to be an open invitation for a riding lesson. We’re not exasperated or unsure of ourselves. It isn’t a sign of being helpless. When a girl goes on about how she totally blew a corner, or how she was a complete idiot for doing this, or not doing something else, she is processing. She knew she’s messed up; and that should be the key to understanding that she isn’t asking for help or trying to elicit your advice on the sly, but rather is engaging in an “after-action review”, to relive an event so she can do better next time. She is aware of her boundaries and where her skill development needs further attention. She’s got it under control and is handling her affairs.

Biker Babes in Training

If the woman is a beginning rider or is thinking about learning to ride a motorcycle, here is a list of things to keep in mind to understand how our learning experiences differ from that of the men, and how best to deal with gender-specific issues that may not even cross your mind as it is a non-issue for most guys.

  1. If she has asked you to teach her how to ride and you have agreed, you should sit down first and talk about the expectations you have of each other. Make your own ground rules to ensure a pleasant and fun experience, for both student and teacher.
  2. Implore her to take a basic riding course either before or after you begin teaching her. I cannot overemphasize the importance of formal practical training. She can learn the fundamentals of motorcycle operation in a safe and controlled environment with a relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere. A foundation which I personally found to be of huge benefit to my further education and skill training. Two of the most common courses are the Basic RiderCourse offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and the Rider’s Edge Course offered by a lot of Harley Davidson dealers. Taking a riding course will also help those women who are unsure, to figure out if riding a motorcycle is something they would enjoy, before they take the plunge and buy a motorcycle, which is a sort-of big deal for a lot of us financially.
  3. If at all possible, hook her up with an experienced female rider who rides the same type of motorcycle that she does. Women riders understand the obstacles a girl faces when first starting out and are for the most part very supportive of each other and a lot of women will feel more comfortable asking certain questions of another female rider.
  4. Be patient and let her take each lesson at her own pace. A woman’s learning curve differs from that of a man’s. Generally speaking, a woman will learn at a slower pace, but will peak their skill set above that of the average man. I’m not saying this to be sexist, it has to do with how most of us girls approach new experiences and how we work through problems and our anxieties. We place more emphasis on education and prevention to keep us out of potential trouble. Men are more apt to wing it and learn as they go. “One down, five up? Ok, see ya.” That’s how my husband learned to ride; that was the question-statement he posed to the dude he bought his first bike from, gave him the cash and rode off into the sunset.
  5. Do not pressure her about her speed. If you constantly nag her about “being slow” you may inadvertently destroy the confidence she is building in herself and her bike’s capabilities and turn it into frustration. In other words, don’t push her too far too fast. Girls don’t have the need to keep up with their buddies for worry of embarrassing themselves or being called slow; for the most part. Her speed will pick up on its own as her skills mature and her confidence increases.
  6. Don’t try and talk her into something or out of something. Ride your own ride, let her do the same.
  7. Let her buy her own ride. Period. She is the one who has to ride it, not you. Give her pointers, if she asks for your opinion, but give them objectively and without putting a spin on things. Also implore her to do her own research. The more she knows about motorcycle basics, the better the position she’ll be in to make an informed decision.
  8. Don’t let her wimp out. This is a toughie, though. When we have a bad experience and we aren’t reliant on our motorcycle for daily transportation, we have the option to take the Chicken Exit rather than working through it and conquering our fear. This can manifest itself in several ways, and not necessarily where you would think. That is what makes this one so difficult to pinpoint, even to ourselves. Be supportive, listen, and gently encourage her to keep on trying. How do you do this? That is something I cannot answer. It’s probably easier for another female rider to accomplish, because girls are more apt to say “if she can do it, so can I” when she can’t find the motivation on her own. Left to her own devices, a woman usually will either work through her discomfort and keep pushing herself in an effort to overcome the obstacle in her path or she will eventually quit. It all depends on how much importance she places on conquering the perceived setback. Not all women will become avid motorcyclists, some will find that it’s not for them after all and some will turn it into a lifestyle and sell their cars. Some will be content with riding pillion and others won’t stop until they have their racing license and have proven to themselves that they can do it. Again, whatever she decides, it is not a failure on her part or yours as her mentor.
  9. Realize that women riders face a slightly different set of difficulties when learning to ride a motorcycle. Things most men find a non-issue and have never really given it much thought. Things such as: seat height, rider position, weight of the motorcycle, upper body strength, physical endurance, inseam, body shape, etc. These all have an impact to one degree or another of how we approach riding and the kind of bikes we find “agreeable” to us when we first start out. Even finding properly fitting motorcycle gear can be a real chore for girls.
  10. And last, but not least, don’t ever append “…for a girl” at the end of a statement; unless you want to carry your balls home in a jar.

Fear This! NOT!

Aren’t you afraid? That’s a question I get asked by a lot of people, especially women when the subject of motorcycles comes up. The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no would do the question justice. But trying to explain this to someone who has never been on a motorcycle or has never raced one around a track is not easy. The answer (in its oversimplified form) is usually along the lines of “I was scared to death when I first learned and almost gave up a few times. You just have to work through it if you want to keep riding. It gets easier with time.”

I have met a lot of people on and off the bike who have told me that the only thing holding them back is their fears, that they would love to learn to ride. I tell them to buy used and go for it. And of course to take a formal beginner’s course to learn the basics and assuage their fears to a more manageable level.

Those of you who know me personally, or have known me online for some time, or have read this blog front to back know: I have an almost crippling fear of public embarrassment. Add to that, an almost intolerable case of “performance anxiety” aka stage fright. I’m alright as long as I am by myself, but add an observer with a clip board or a crowd of people for an audience and I freak the hell out, internally. I have learned to cope with these fears. Motorcycling helped me a lot to overcome the “social phobia” aspects of my fear spectrum. It’s made me more confident overall. I don’t know why. Probably because it takes a certain level of cockiness to keep one’s riding confidence up even when something bad happens or almost happens. Another thing experienced riders know: Loss of confidence leads to more mistakes and ramps up the risk; alternatively overconfidence can also garner disastrous results.

Short and simple: Fear can kill. Especially if your instincts kick in. Many of the higher skilled riders know this. And it isn’t something that is a matter of brawn or testicular fortitude or a lack of life-preservation on the individual’s part. “(S)he’s fucking nuts.” isn’t the explanation. Not really. Not for riders who consistently ride on the edge and manage to keep their machines shiny side up. The nut jobs or crazies, the “fearless”, are separated by the skilled by the wrecks-per-mile-ridden ratio, add to that equation: average speed maintained. Simplified (overly), but true in essence.

Crashing is part of the high-speed game. We are human, we will screw up; our machines may experience mechanical failures at the worst possible moment; somebody else’s crash may entangle and cause loss of control. Every time you ease the clutch out you are putting your life on the line. This risk is compounded on the street. The track, even with sometimes insane corner speeds and massive lean angles, is still the safer place to be with less risk of a wreck causing loss of life; also the severity of injuries sustained is usually less than those incurred on the street. It’s a controlled environment, everyone’s going the same direction, there are “rules of engagement”, there are people watching and informing the riders of hazards, and the entire racing surface and surrounding areas are designed and built to minimize risk to rider and machine. Yes, riders still die. Yes, riders still get severely injured. However, more often than not they walk away with nothing but a few bruises and a hurt ego. Different game on the street altogether. But that stuff really is for another blog post.

Honda CBR600RR

The CBR and I do not get along: I had an incident in a corner that made the rear step out on me and I almost lost the bike, but was able to save it. However, it robbed me of my confidence and I couldn't bring myself to trust the bike, but made myself ride it for two more sessions anyway in an effort to overcome this silly fear that was robbing me of my confidence in my riding skills and hence killing my speed and introducing more rider errors in the process.

Let’s refocus on fear. Aren’t you afraid? Yes, sometimes. When I first started learning I was so nauseous every time I put on my gear to ride, I was on the verge of vomiting. My whole body felt like it was shaking on the inside and I seemed to be slightly short of breath. But I managed. I had to work through it, because I had to get to work and the motorcycle was my ticket. I had no excuse to chicken out and take the car. Not a luxury I had at my disposal. And I’m glad for it, because I probably would have quit on several occasions had the bike been just a choice. Eventually my skills progressed through constant education and skill training that the fear became less and less until one day I noticed that I wasn’t afraid at all anymore. Riding had become like driving was for me. Nothing but a thing, until something happened, of course. And that’s where all that skill practice paid off, in emergency situations. Yes, I had to pull over after some close call and calm my after-incidence nerves and racing heart to be able to safely continue on my way a few minutes later, after my blood pressure normalized. Now, I don’t even stop anymore. I process and deal with the aftermath of close calls as I keep on going down the road. I am now usually more angry than I am afraid. Sometimes, especially when riding fast or practicing cornering, trying something new or screwing something up which I then have to correct, I still feel the bile of fear rising inside, but I suppress it. I know I can’t afford to lock up. I postpone it until later. That is something I have learned from my own crash. Instead of being more afraid to ride, I am actually more in control of my natural responses that come with fear. I can recognize it sooner and halt the process before my brain tells my body to do something stupid, like getting on the brakes hard while leaned over in a corner already close to the edges of my traction envelope; or snapping the throttle shut, or staring at the very thing that I’d like to avoid. All these are normal human reactions to the stress caused by imminent danger (perceived or real). Our survival instincts kick in and our brain wants to do what it thinks will preserve our life, running purely on instinct; but on a motorcycle all those intuitive reactions are mostly wrong.

Overcoming fear and doing the right thing to keep the motorcycle from crashing is an acquired skill. It is learned behavior. It is muscle memory and applicable knowledge overriding our fears to enable us to give the machine what it needs to do its thing to keep us out of trouble. It takes knowledge in the physics involved in the sport and it takes repetitive training to overcome our natural impulses to save our skin.

My husband once told me, after seeing me run through some twisties on my Hayabusa in northern Georgia, that I make it look so easy and that this is the very fact that scares the hell out of him. He said I looked fearless. He said that sometimes I was leaning so hard he thought I’d drag tailpipe (a sign of things to come?) He said I was so fast he couldn’t even comprehend it and he’d been riding for seven years. I laughed and told him that I almost crapped myself on several occasions when I screwed something up or thought I was going in too fast, was too hard on the brakes, going off line, or forgetting to look through the turn, or simply fixating on one of my reference markers for far too long.

Fear is inevitable in motorcycling. To one degree or another we all experience it on more or less frequent occasion. The only thing you can do to combat your fears and minimize the effect they have on the probability to get yourself out of trouble unharmed: Work through them, armed with knowledge and application of skill. There are plenty of good books on the subject and formal skill training is also available for different skill levels.

Suzuki GSX-R600

I'm a Gixxer girl. The GSX-R600 is but a baby Hayabusa. I'm used to it, I put over 17K miles on the clock riding a Hayabusa. I trust this machine, I know what it needs, know what it is telling me. I'm much more confident here, as is evident by my body position. Not as tentative, more focused on the task, rather than the machine.

Fear should not be crippling, fear should be a tool you use to gauge your progress, pinpoint your weaknesses, and let it be the governor to modulate the inherent human tendency to engage in squidly (unsafe, ill-advised but oh-so-fun) behaviors. Does “let’s see what she can do?” sound familiar? Fear can lead to a definite savings in road rash and touch-up paint if you can manage it properly and use it to your advantage.