In the Beginning

Driving a car, your relationship with the road is like that with a friend. Bumps are softened. On a motorcycle, the relationship is much more intimate, like that with a lover. You feel every small bump and dip.

Me, November 2011

This is the unfolding story of motorcycling and me. While I'd toyed with the idea of riding for several years, I'd never thrown a leg over a motorcycle until I was 51. Then the time seemed right. My youngest kid had finished high school so I considered myself expendable. I'd just spent two years with every waking moment was consumed writing a book. With it completed, I again owned my life and was looking for a new obsession.

My driving force in life has always been pushing myself, taking on new challenges and mastering new skills. I thrive on exploring new places and always prefer to be outside with the wind on me as much as possible. So I gravitated to riding.

As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was that riding a motorcycle would save money given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was that royalties from the book would pay for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed that having put in thousands of miles on road racing and mountain bicycles, and manual transmission cars for years, I'd pick up motorcycle riding easily.

These assumptions all turned out to be wrong. What I spent on motorcycling far exceeded any savings from higher gas mileage. I didn't sell enough books to cover the costs. And learning to ride was much, much more difficult than I expected. But it was also much more fulfilling. In life, I've always wanted to be where I'm not. And I'm rushing to get there.

In the few years since I began riding, I've fallen passionately in love with it. The average American motorcyclist rides 1800 miles per year. I did 16,000 my first year, 18,000 the second, and over 20,000 in the third. I've continued to average 15,000 to 16,000 miles per year even when I began writing a weekly column that eats up much of my Sundays. At night I often dream of squiggly lines on a map. Seriously.

When everything is clicking--I'm alone on a winding country road, I've got my "A" game, the music is in a groove--I sometimes forget the motorcycle is there and feel like I'm simply flying. If you don't want to take my word for it, trust Alton Brown.

Luckily, I live close to some fine riding, with twisty roads over mountain ridges, large state forests, miles of farmland (which often requires dodging Amish buggies), charming little towns (each different from all the others), and lots of historic sites. There's always somewhere new to see. (Here's a map of my favorite routes and road food). I particularly like combining riding with photography--one of my other passions.

When I began this blog I was riding a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike was a "hexhead" (named because the engine cylinder covers are hexagonal). So these are the "Hexhead Diaries." I'll update them regularly with stories and pictures. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Steep Learning Curve

I got the bike on a steaming hot Saturday morning in June and set out to ride around my neighborhood.  While I've always been an autodidact--someone who teaches themselves--I now realize that was my second major stupid decision.  I should have taken the state sponsored beginning rider's course offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation first.

As I set out through the neighborhood (which, unfortunately was crowded with yard sale traffic that day), my immediate problem was stalling.  Every time I stopped, I stalled multiple times before I'd get moving.  I was also struck by the strangeness of motorcycle controls: the right hand controls the front brake, the right foot controls the rear brake, the left hand controls the clutch, and the left foot shifts gears.

I did make it around the block a few times.  Then on about the fifth circuit, I had what remains my closest encounter with a serious wreck.  I had to make a left turn up hill from a stop light, and stalled several times.  This frustrated me so I vowed I wouldn't stall the next time, and gunned the throttle.

The bike took off.  Of course, all I needed to do was either let go of the throttle or pull in the clutch.  But in my panic, all I did was squeeze tighter.  I careened toward a parked SUV and was already becoming angry with myself for wrecking the bike after owning it for an hour.   As I flinched for impact, I instinctively leaned away from the SUV.  This was just enough to steer me slightly away from it.  I skirted the vehicle so closely that I felt it brush my hand.  But I made it.  Barely.

I then began a rigorous skill development program.  I rode every day, only moving on to the next level of difficulty when I felt comfortable with the previous one.  First was riding around my neighborhood at 15-20 MPH.  Then short forays on to 35 MPH back roads at low traffic times.   Then trips into town at low traffic times and trips on roads with a 40-45 MPH speed limit.  Then rides at higher traffic times and trips over the mountain ridges on a few of the less challenging roads.  Then major roads and interstates during low traffic times.  Eventually, busy interstates, rides into cities, a few rides at night, a few rides in the rain, and mountain crossings on the twistier routes.

After about a month, I had 600 miles under my belt and was able to get into the basic rider's safety course.  This lasts four days, with two days in the classroom and two days doing coached exercises in a parking lot using 250 cc beginner bikes.  At the end, there is a four part skill test.  Passing this gives the ride a full fledged M class license and was a requirement to ride on a military installation.

To my utter amazement, I failed.  The instructor said I went too slowly through the tests.  I was shocked and angry.  I jumped back on my bike, popped back on the interstate, and came home.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I continued to practice, including parking lot sessions doing the exercises from the course.  I also went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take the test there for my M class license.  It was a disaster.  I got shook and just stopped half way through.  Another flunk.

But I was determined to both pass the safety course and get my license so I could ride to work.  I didn't want to go through the entire four day beginner's course again so registered for the advanced riders course.  This is basically a one day session using the rider's own bike rather than low power loaners.  The end of course test is the same as for the beginner course.

I expected to fail but figured the additional coaching would help me.  I dropped my bike during one of the exercises and had to have it lifted off of my foot, but felt more and more in control as the day went on.

There were six people in the course.  After the coach compiled the test results he said, "Unfortunately, not everyone passed."  Since I was expecting that, I began to walk away.  Then to my surprise, I heard him call my name.  I'd somehow passed.

I then went back to the Department of Motor Vehicles and took the licensing test there again.  As I did, it was beginning to rain.  Since I'd never ridden in the rain before, that wasn't helpful.  But after hours of practicing riding figure 8s over the summer (which is the gist of the licensing exam), I nailed it.

So at summer's end, I had a couple of thousand miles under my belt (which is more than the average motorcyclist rides in a year).  I had my safety course card, and my M class license.  I'd also accumulated a mountain of gear as I searched for the perfect helmet, gloves, jacket, boots, and pants.  But I was, sort of, a rider.  Then it was time to explore.

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