A Taste Of The Inevitable: First Blood
The only experience I’ve had on two wheels was in 1989, when I practiced figure-eights in first gear on my boyfriend’s Kawasaki 900R, the very first generation Ninja. In retrospect, I cannot believe he actually let me ride it at all, let alone practice going around in tight little circles. His bike had this awesome midnight-blue metallic custom paint job with an airbrushed tank graphic. It was a warrior’s muscular forearm holding some sort of weapon. Also, I am surprised I didn’t lay it down. He apparently taught me clutch and throttle control and counterbalancing first. Don’t know. I rode bitch with him a lot; and boy, let me tell you, he was a giant squid with a capital S (not that I knew what a ‘squid’ was back in the day.) He rode pretty much like he drove his Mazda 929: Like a freakin’ maniac. I had nightmares about his driving. He was bad, but on the bike, I kind of enjoyed the rush (most of the time) of his obvious aggression. My dad didn’t like me riding on his bike at all, but when he found out about me trying to get my motorcycle license while I was still in driving school for the car, he told me in no uncertain terms he’d rather kill me himself than see me getting hurt on a motorcycle. That was the end of it. I wanted to learn how to ride, but I didn’t have the money to continue pursuing this particular venue. Licensing in Germany is rigorous and hugely expensive. The motorcycle license is also graduated, so I wouldn’t have been able to ride my boyfriend’s 900 anyway. I don’t know why I thought I could keep this a secret from the parental unit. Doh! I was mad at him for a while. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me do this, since he owned and ridden motorcycles when he was younger.
Fast-forward 20 years…
A Lifelong Dream Fulfilled: Owning An American Legend
Today is my first riding anniversary. One year as a biker chica. Today a year ago I bought my first bike: a 2008 Harley Davidson Sportster 1200 Low. Hubby and I were running around town and I told him that I wanted to go back to the Harley dealership to sit on the bikes again. I didn’t dream I would be the proud owner of a motorcycle a short four hours later. Hubby rode it home for me after we sealed the deal, because I had no clue whatsoever about how to ride one of these things. There was only one thing I was certain of: having the feet stretched out before my body made me cringe. It was explained that I prefer ‘mid-controls’ and a ‘standard riding position’. Our sales person was awesome. He listened to me talk and carry on about this and that while I parked my bum on pretty much most everything they had sitting on the floor and helped me figure out what bike would be right for me. They had just gotten the 1200L Sporty in, and when I sat on it, I knew this was the one. It felt right to this clueless newbie’s body.
Lessons Learned: To Teach A Wife
When we got home I parked the car, put on my helmet and insisted on a ride. Joe rode to a mostly empty grocery store parking lot, found a quiet, well-lit section and parked the bike. He had me sit behind the bars and explained the controls to me. Then he made me promise that I would follow his instructions to the letter, pay attention to every detail and not get mad at him, no matter what. I have a bit of a reputation of getting impatient, getting sidetracked, and taking admonitions personally. A few years ago he tried to teach me how to back in a semi-truck with a 53-foot trailer. Let’s just say, that ended in me refusing to drive backwards, stating that ‘this girl and reverse don’t get along’. I blocked four lanes of traffic for 45 minutes in downtown Chicago once all in the name of backing up.
But I digress, after I promised various behaviors to his satisfaction, he walked me through starting the bike. I did as I was told. My first lesson was focused on ‘finding neutral’. He had me pull in the clutch, push the shifter with my left foot and then lift it to put it back in neutral. No go. Couldn’t do it. I finally told hubby that I thought I was wearing the wrong kind of boots, that the chunky three-inch heels aren’t making this any easier. Defeated, I went back home. It was getting late anyway.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to go out and play. He pulled the bike alongside the curb in front of our house and parked it for me. Equipped with better footwear the lesson continued where we had left off the previous evening. By the time I could find neutral about 50% of the time my clutch hand was cramping from holding the lever so tight. I told Joe as much and we took a quick break.
The next lesson had to do with the ‘friction zone’. He instructed me to squeeze the front brake lever, put it in gear and then had me slowly release the clutch lever up to the point where I felt the engine engaging, emphasizing that I was not to let go of the brake lever under any circumstances. After playing around with the clutch for a few minutes, he said it was now time to actually start moving forward. Another round of instructions from hubby followed. Now I was getting a little nervous. I slowly released the clutch and gave it a little gas and started inching forward. OMG! I pulled the clutch back in and applied the front brake to stop, then started again. I did that a few times. Hubby told me to put my feet on the pegs. I didn’t want to. I refused, the feet refused. I tried. I couldn’t. I was scared. It took me a few minutes, but I finally took off and willed my feet up onto the pegs.
Woohoo! I’m riding! Awesome. Look Mom, no feet! My husband was walking next to me until I shifted into second gear and twisted the throttle a little more. By the time I reached the end of our street, I did 25mph. w00t! I slowly stopped the bike, turned it off and waited for a breathless hubby to catch up. Now what? He turned it around for me. I did that a few more times and then we had to take a break, because I had killed the battery with turning the bike on and off after each run down the street and he needed to jump it and let it charge. Doh!
Lesson Three: U-turns. More practice using the friction zone and trying not to give it too much throttle. Overall, my turns really stank, but at least I kept the bike rubberized side down. After a few turns that were assisted by power-walking the bike around, I finally managed to do them without putting my feet down, but there was a whole lot of wobbling going on.
Hubby decided we needed a longer road to practice on, so we went to John Deere Parkway on the edge of town, which is pretty deserted. He made me ride up and down it, practicing shifting and u-turns. By round number two I was going 55 in a 45, surely a sign of things to come; not that I knew it yet. My turns still sucked, but I was getting a little better. The only time I got nervous is when there was a car sharing the road with me, but I handled my business well enough.
The next lesson consisted on attempting a u-turn through the traffic light at the end of the street. Hubby explained that it’s nothing different from what we’ve been doing, but he wants me to get used to traffic. I flat-out refused, initially. But then my competitive side won over the argument and I told hubby that I was ready to do it. I didn’t want fear holding me back, but scared I was. I pulled up to the stop line and waited anxiously for the light to change to green. When it finally did, I already had an audience lined up on both sides of the red light. I eased out onto the road and executed my u-turn using the entire width of the intersecting road. After returning from my stint down the parkway, hubby had me do it again. This time I didn’t turn at all, for whatever reason. It’s an offset intersection, I just ended up going straight and ran off the road, cut across the dirt and grass and finally came to a nervous stop on the other side, back on the asphalt. Then I just sat there, not really understanding what just happened. Hubby came running up behind me, wondering what the hell just happened and that I was to never ever drag my feet along the ground like I did halfway through the intersection and that I am to stay on the pavement. I had had enough. We went home. Hubby later decided that I must have been fatigued and that tired hands and lack of concentration contributed to my first adventure on two wheels.
The next day we started on my private driving range again with the same exercises. Then he told me I should go and play in traffic, that I’ll have to get used to it eventually. I flat-out refused again. And it took a lot of coaxing for me to finally get the nerve up. I made him promise that he’d follow behind me in the Prius, so I didn’t have to worry about the cars to my rear. So it was agreed and I went and played in traffic. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, but it was stressful enough. The added security of someone protecting my six definitely helped a lot. I was free to concentrate on the traffic to the front and on my take-offs, which sucked about as bad as my u-turns did, but I never stalled it. I got the hang of left turns pretty quickly. Right turns gave me more of a problem and I had a tendency to run wide at tighter residential intersections.
My heart was in my throat every time I had to come to a stop. Going slow wasn’t my bag. At every light I prayed for it to stay green until I got there or to turn green before I got there, whichever, so I wouldn’t have to stop. Intersections were potential places of public embarrassment. Stalling, falling over, looking like an ass, rolling back, all those were things that were on my brain. Surprisingly, the fear of getting run over or rear-ended never really entered the equation.
(Recommended) Lessons Learned: The MSF Basic Rider Course
There were two conditions that I had to meet for hubby to give me the OK for purchasing a motorcycle in lieu of a second car:
- I had to buy the best protective gear we could afford and wear it at all times, and
- I had to enroll in a safety course.
As luck would have it, three cancellations happened and I got bumped up progressively from a December spot to a class in mid-October. The course was awesome. Our rider coaches were knowledgeable peeps who showed their love for the ride. They were friendly, engaging and made you feel at ease. They made us think for ourselves and take charge rather than drone on about this and that and risk putting the class to sleep. It was a great experience and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to learn how to ride. It’s invaluable and a great confidence builder.
I passed the course! I was their best student overall. I missed one question on the written exam and got docked one point on the practical test. I mention this, because I was so nervous during the hands-on, that I was shaking, was nauseous and light-headed. That stupid fear of public humiliation and embarrassment again. The bane of my existence: Stage fright with a healthy dose of performance anxiety. One of the rider coaches apparently noticed my ‘issue’ and kept me preoccupied by talking to me and joking around while I was waiting for my turn in the box. I aced the figure-eight (the first test and the most dreaded) on the verge of what felt like a panic attack. I have no problems with academics, no test anxiety whatsoever; but give me a man holding a clipboard looking over my shoulder while I’m expected to perform some manual skill, I’ll promptly turn into a quivering mass of Jell-O. My freakin’ hands go numb! Public speaking: same thing. Martial arts tournament: ditto. Dance competition: forget it. Final round in a table tennis tourney: sure to bomb.
Pushing Forward: Zen And The Art Of Working Through Fear
The first time I had to ride to work on my bike, must have been a terrifying experience. I apparently blocked it out, since I can’t even recall it. I do remember that I was scared every time I put my gear on. I was nauseated and felt like throwing up in my mouth. My nerves didn’t calm until I turned onto the main road from my street. Once I got through that, I was pretty much OK.
I remember planning my routes to avoid left turns across traffic without lights at all costs. I remember running the planned route mentally once while putting on my gear. I remember avoiding the scariest street in all of Augusta: Washington Road. I eventually braved that street due to necessity.
I remember being terrified of rain. I checked the weather report every night before I had to go to work and I got lucky for quite some time and stayed dry. When it looked like I would finally get caught out in the rain, I went online to research rain riding skills. That eased my mind but also ramped up the anxiety, if that makes sense. The first time I had the misfortune of having to ride in rain happened to be at night. I couldn’t see anything. I was scared shitless and prayed to whatever higher power chose to listen in. At one point, I think I started singing some stupid sing-along kiddie song to keep myself from freaking the hell out. Those were the scariest seven miles I ever had the displeasure of riding. Period.
There were other things that really got my heart rate up, some of which I didn’t even attempt until I was absolutely forced to. Making tight right turns from a stop, starting on a hill, riding on gravel or in sand, or backing into a parking space, just to name a few. I had a tendency to avoid situations that forced me into maneuvers I wasn’t confident of.
I spent a few sleepless nights wondering why I had done such a stupid thing as getting a motorcycle. Why in the hell had I spent over $10K, getting myself in debt for the next five years, and not have a damn car to show for it? There were plenty of nights I doubted the sanity of my decision and admonished myself: “You’ve done it now, girlfriend. More than you can handle and past the point of no return.” I never told my husband how deeply these doubts really ran. I kept most of my fears to myself.
One day, it may have been three months after buying the bike, it finally clicked. It clicked so hard it was almost audible. That’s how I refer to it, anyway. Hubby, his best friend Larry and I were out for a ride. I was bringing up the rear, as I preferred hanging out in the back (I still do, as a matter of fact.) We were sitting at a traffic light and it finally occurred to me that I hadn’t really been praying to the ‘Green Light Gods’ lately and following on the heel of that thought was another realization: I hadn’t really been feeling all that scared lately either. When the light changed to green I took off more confident than ever and that was the first time I recall that I actually enjoyed, thoroughly enjoyed, being on two wheels. The first time I felt proud of myself for being out there riding my own. The first time I really didn’t care what other people thought, because I knew I wasn’t going to do anything dramatic.
This freed up massive amounts of concentration and attention and left me able to enjoy the ride rather than being preoccupied with what-ifs and how-tos. My skills improved at an accelerated rate from that point forward. Sixteen weeks later I had my husband talked into letting me buy that Suzuki Hayabusa, which I absolutely fell in love with at the IMS (International Motorcycle Show) in Greenville, SC and been dreaming about ever since. We rode up there so I could test ride a Yamaha FJR1300 sport-tourer, which was a no-show. While I was drooling over the FJR and secretly planning an affair with a certain white Hayabusa, my husband was busy courting a red Kawaski Concours 14. The rest — as they say — is history.
The Meaning Of Life: “I Created A Monster” –Joe, ‘Busa Widower
I cannot believe how far I’ve come in the past year and how my riding has evolved into something that I honestly didn’t see coming. 13828 miles ago I was a clueless, frightened but motivated girl who wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Now I am a confident, safety-minded (yet sometimes squiddy) biker chica who is focused on mastering the ride, evolving her skill set and refuses to ever become an ‘experienced’ rider. I’m a second-year n00b. I will never stop learning. I haven’t seen the inside of a car in quite some time. I get restless when I can’t ride for a day. I ride rain or shine, year around. I commute back and forth to work. My life is centered on motorcycles. I live it. I breathe it. I’m a gear whore. I want to go to racing school and start participating in regular track days and compare my lap times to those of the pros. I want to break the land-speed record and be the fastest woman on two wheels. I want to drag knee, do wheelies and learn how to drift. I probably annoy people, because that is all I ever talk about anymore. I have a reputation.
Joe has watched me in the twisty bits, almost dragging tail pipe. He asked me if I had no fear. He said I made this stuff look easy and that this scared him. I told him that I did, but I choose to work through it and use it to my advantage rather than let it keep me from something I want. He normally doesn’t want to hear about my ‘escapades’ on two wheels, he’s a little scared. But I know he’s proud of me, he brags to his friends behind my back.
Fear (in its various manifestations) has ruled my life for far too long. Through motorcycling I have conquered it. Motorcycling, much like Karate, has helped me learn about myself, who I am, what I’m capable of and made me a stronger, more confident individual who knows what she wants and goes for it. I haven’t been depressed in 365 days, not really. I am finally at peace with myself and the world around me. I have overcome adversity. I am a survivor. I don’t stress over stuff anymore. When I need to find my inner balance or clear my head, I go for a ride. I don’t keep stuff bottled up anymore. I deal. I cope. I ride. I handle my business. Not a small feat for me (as those of you, who are close to me can attest.) When I’m on my ‘Busa, I feel in control. I am in control. The Fat Lady and I are one. Woman and machine. I am the master of my circumstances: Good or bad, it is I who caused it, nobody but myself to blame. Total control. Total personal responsibility. For a perfectionistic moderately control-freaked geek with a slight tendency towards the obsessive-compulsive, this is heaven on earth. At that moment, nothing else matters.
There is nothing quite like it.
Yes. It’s that good.
Life is good.