When I wanted to get a bigger scooter (i.e., a bike without a clutch), I had to get an M-Class license (i.e., prove that I can ride a machine with a clutch). Kinda like how we require drivers who want a bigger car to first get their pilot’s license (oh, wait, no we don’t)…
After getting over the initial illogic of having to prove that I am proficient at doing something that is not related to the thing that I actually wanted to do, I was excited to get an M-Class license. I figured that once I had it, I would go from looking like this:
To looking like this:
I counted the minutes until I could go up to someone and at long last say: “I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.” (And then actually know how to ride the damn thing away, as I flee for my life.)
(Unfortunately, even with an M-Class license, the only resemblance that I bear to the Terminator is the one that I’ve always had (according to ex-boyfriends), i.e., I can’t be bargained with; I can’t be reasoned with. I don’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And I absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. (My exes always seemed to imply that this was a bad thing, but as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”))
So I signed up for the Motorcycle Safety Course, which would teach me how to ride a machine with a clutch (one of their old 250cc Kawasaki beaters), and give me my M-Class license (assuming I did not ride into an instructor or drop the bike during the final test). Now, make no mistake, as snarky as I am and as much as I mock just about everything, I do not mock the concept of taking the rider safety course. It teaches many valuable skills (as I would soon learn, the hard way).
Wait, My Feet Have To Do Something Now?
Friends had told me that I’d have an “advantage” going into the motorcycle course, because I had some two-wheeled experience from riding my scooter. True (sort-of-ish). On a 50cc scooter, my feet had enjoyed lazy carefree unemployment. Other than steadying the bike at red lights and stop signs, there wasn’t a lot for them to worry about.
Not so with a motorcycle. The first day of the course felt like an audition for Cirque du Soleil. Figuring out the subtle love-hate relationship between releasing the clutch and engaging the throttle was bad enough. (Let’s just say, I have excellent restarting-a-stalled-motorcycle skills now.) But pressing my feet into service – with really important shit like shifting and braking — the all-important rear brake? Jesus. I never learned how to drive a standard transmission because I couldn’t handle gear shifting with my dominant hand – and now I had to learn to shift with my non-dominant foot. (No wonder motorcyclists are so fucking bad-ass; they earned it.)
Close to the end of Day One, the instructor pulled me aside and said, “You know, I can let you take the test on your scooter. I’d just have to stamp your license ‘Scooter-Only.’”
A person governed by the sound counsel of Logic and Reason would have taken him up on that offer. Me? (The one who can’t be bargained with or reasoned with?) I said, “I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather fail on a motorcycle than pass on a scooter.” Alea iacta est. I rode home from the course that night pretending my little pink 50cc scooter was a 1600cc Harley Softail Duece. At every stop sign and red light, I air-down-shifted with my left foot and air-rear-braked with my right foot. As I took off from stops, I gently released “the clutch” (in reality, the rear drum-brake control), slowly engaged the throttle (which on a 50cc means that you go about 2 mph off the line), and I air-up-shifted. I looked like a jackass, but I wasn’t going to be beaten.
Stopping Short (Nearly Stopped Me)
Almost as important as the ability to go (see, e.g., that damn clutch-throttle mess), is the ability to stop. Stopping quickly due to unexpected stimuli is a particularly important skill. On Day Two, I was able to handle the motorcycle much better – right up until five minutes before the final test. The last thing we practiced before going into the riding exam was short-stopping. I went in too hot, and approached the stop at 20-25 mph rather than the recommended 15mph. (What a difference 10 mph makes.) And then I slammed on the brakes and pulled in the clutch.
Any experienced rider knows what happened next. (Skid.) I had never skidded before. And I did the one thing you should never, ever do on a bike: I panicked. Somewhere in the midst of my panic, I must have jerked the front wheel. Experienced riders can imagine what happened next: low-side fall.
An instructor rushed over. (It must have looked worse than it felt, as I was in a fully armored jacket and gloves, despite the 12,000-degree heat that day. PSA: ‘Tis better to sweat than bleed, my friends.)
“Oh my God, are you OK?”
“Did I fail? I dropped the bike. Did I fail?”
“No. This isn’t the test yet.”
“Then I’m OK.”
“Um, you’re bleeding.”
I looked down. My jeans were torn and my left knee was bleeding.
“I’m fine. I’ve been hurt worse than this.”
He lifted the bike off its side and put back the parts that had been shorn off. After checking to make sure the old Kawasaki was ride-able, he gave it back and told me to queue up for the test.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
I already knew that I was going to have to walk the bike during the figure-8 test. I was never going to use a bike to execute figure-skating moves or otherwise try to pirouette the damn thing – so this was a skill I felt OK sacrificing to minimize point-deduction. I made a half-assed attempt to do the double-circle pattern in the too-small box before putting a foot down and duck-walking. (Best decision I made that day.) The other skills, whatever they were, passed without incident. And then came the short-stop. Having seen what happens when I hit the brakes too hard, I thought it prudent to ease up on the juice. Result: I didn’t hit the brakes hard enough. The bike didn’t skid, but it didn’t really stop either – certainly not shortly. Maximum deduction – and it was a lot. Nearly enough to fail me. (Did I mention that stopping is really important?) But since I had walked the bike in the figure-8 and didn’t cross outside the box (I can control a bike when I’m walking it), I squeaked by…
Later, while completing the “incident report” for the low-side fall, the instructor smiled at me and said, “You know what I call people like you? ‘Skin.’ ‘Cuz you passed by the skin of your teeth.”
“That’s fine. You know what they call the person with the lowest passing Bar Exam score? Esquire.”
He laughed. “Just don’t buy a new Harley and take it on I-95 tomorrow.”