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!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stayin Alive, Staying Alive

I made a firm commitment to riding safety when I took up motorcycling exactly five years ago.  I always wear high quality protective gear.  (Well, almost always--I do ride the three miles to and from work in khakis or dress pants, and sometimes wear regular jeans when riding a local errand).  I read
every motorcycle safety book I can get my hands on.  I regularly go out on an isolated road and practice safety skills, particularly swerves and quick stops in order to sustain muscle memory.  And I regularly take safety courses with trained coaches.

I took the Basic Rider Course which was developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) a month after getting my first bike.  Over the years I've taken what used to be called the Experienced Rider Course and is now called the Basic Rider Course II four different times.  Last year I signed up for a new Advanced Rider Course (ARC) that Pennsylvania was offering but got sick and wasn't able to make it.  So I registered again for this year.

The course was four hours of classroom instruction and discussion (which, ironically, fell on my fifth year riding anniversary) and four hours on the riding course.  I was a bit disappointed because I'd hoped that this one would involve actual riding on a road with coaches, but it was more exercises in a large parking lot.  The difference from the earlier courses was the complexity of the exercises and the speed with which they were done--the earlier courses were mostly under 20 MPH and in the ARC we were often going 25-30 MPH.

A lot of people take the basic courses either to get an insurance discount or because it's required to ride on military installations.  Since anyone taking the ARC has already take the BRC and BRC II, the only motivation is a personal commitment to safety.  So it's like safe riding grad school.  That means the classes are pretty small.  The BRC and BRC II classes are often 12 riders; my ARC had me and three others.  But since we had two coaches, that was a good thing.

During the first classroom session we took a number of self assessments including our propensity for risky behavior.  We had to rate our overall riding skills level.  Then, to my surprise, the instructor wrote  everyone's numbers on the board.  I had given myself the highest skill level rating within the group so I figured I had self created pressure to perform the next day when we got out on the range.  But that was OK since I need pressure to be at my best.  (Plus, I still think my rating was right: I have myself an 8 out of 10.  Since my annual mileage is in the top 5-10% for all motorcyclists and I do things that the vast majority of motorcycles don't, specifically take a training course every year and go out on isolated roads and practice skills like fast stops and swerves, I really think I'm in the top 20% of all riders).

I did stumble a bit on the risk assessment we did.  One of the questions was "Have you recently ridden over 100 MPH?"  I put my and up and said, "Define 'recently'."  The instructor said, "This riding season."  I said, "OK, that's good" and moved on.

But as it turns out, that self assessment was fairly accurate.  We would break into groups of two to ride the various exercises.  When I was paired with one of the two guys in the group, they really held me up because they were so slow going through the complex exercises (which involves as many as 8 or 10 different maneuvers in a single exercise, including very tight descending curves and S turns).  One held me up so much that the coaches put me in front of him on subsequent runs and I would lap him and still end up behind him.

In their defense, both were riding big bikes--one a one a Kawasaki Vulcan 900 and the other a Kawasaki Concours.  And they weren't bad, just slow.  I did one exercise behind the guy on the Vulcan and he must have scraped his floorboards ten times.  The coach started calling him "Sparky" after that.  But the course was derived from the U.S. military's sports bike safety course.  That means the exercises emphasize quick maneuvers and hence are much easier on sports style bikes.  That's the reason that the two of us in the course with sportier bikes had a much easier time than the two guys on larger rides.

On one exercise I was paired with the fourth rider--a lady.  During the introductions during the classroom session she had said she'd only been riding a few years and had about 14,000 miles total, so I was expected her to hold me up.  Wrong.  She was very skilled.  She actually was increasing the distance from me in a few of the exercises (but I was pushing her in some).  I later found out she was a MSF coach who teaches the basic courses, so she'd been through coach training and done the exercises hundreds of times.  And she was on a Kawasaki Ninja 250 which is one of the most agile bikes out there (with an engine 1/5 the size of mine).  But she was just darned skilled, particularly on the exercises that were like the ones in the basic course.

Anyhow, there were no accidents throughout the day and, since there's not a test at the end, no failures.  So count is as a win.  The weather forecast had been for clouds and it turned out sunny so I was overdressed and physically exhausted at the end.  But it was worthwhile--I could sense things I'd learned in earlier classes but forgotten coming back.

Next year I'm going to enroll in something like the Lee Parks Total Control Course.  I'm very interested in a getting a critique of my actual, non-parking lot riding style.

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