Learning to fly

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Today is Ride to Work day so I wanted to share the story of how I started riding a motorcycle.

I have always loved motorcycles and I’ve never felt really comfortable on 4 wheels.  I rode a bicycle everywhere through my teens and most of my 20’s and didn’t really start driving a car until I was 26.  I also tend to let my thoughts wander and get easily distracted by music, passengers, etc.  Let’s just say I’ve never been the best driver.  Knowing that about myself, I always figured I was better off to stick to a car since at least I had a seatbelt, airbags, etc to protect me.  So despite being an avid bike-watcher from a young age, I’ve only recently started riding.

the Can-Am Spyder RS, better in Black.When I saw the Can Am Spyder it seemed ideal.  It was marketed as a safer vehicle – 3 wheel anti-lock brakes and flat tires meant better grip on the road and a (theoretically) reduced stopping distance, no worries about losing traction on a gravel patch, etc.  I bought one within a few months of seeing them for the first time –  some of you may have seen my post about my Can Am Spyder from 2012.

But after a year on the Spyder I found myself more and more envious of people on bikes that could split lanes in the Bay Area’s constant traffic.  The fact that my trike was too big to park in the cheaper motorcycle parking spots didn’t help either.  At the same time my marriage was falling apart and I went through some very low times.  Times where nothing I could encounter on the road would be as scary as the decision I was facing about whether to stay in a dysfunctional marriage or pull the plug.  Without fear to hold me back, I went out and bought my first 2 wheeled bike – a little Honda nighthawk 250.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last few years.

I didn’t have anyone to teach me so I made a lot of mistakes that are obvious in retrospect.  My first time taking the nighthawk out I went over to a parking lot and struggled with it for hours. Getting the hang of the clutch was infuriating and I stalled out over and over until my arms hurt from the bike jerking forward abruptly as I let go of the clutch and the engine stalled.  Online research revealed that I was letting it go too fast and needed to ease it on and off more gently.  It took a while, but eventually I was able to ride it around town without stalling out at every stoplight and blocking traffic.  It was a revelation of the best kind, but I quickly realized how much I didn’t know.  I signed up for a DMV-licensed motorcycle safety course ($250 well spent!) and walked away feeling much more confident.

As I said before, I’ve always loved Motorcycles but was scared that my shortcomings on 4 wheels would mean I was even worse on two.  Instead the opposite happened.   With no distractions I am  far better driver than I’ve ever been in a car (there are people who listen to music or use bluetooth headsets to talk on the phone while on a motorcycle,  I am not one of them).  Riding a motorcycle demands focus and attention to detail and not being able to go on autopilot keeps me more present – even more so than my trike.   I also find myself speeding a lot less because I can feel the force of the wind pushing back on my helmet instead of being insulated from it in a car – if I’m going too fast I can feel it.   Riding a motorcycle is as close to flying as I’ve ever gotten.   I listed the Spyder for sale on Craigslist very soon after getting my license to drive a 2-wheeled motorcycle and don’t want to ever go back.

After about 3 months I realized that although the small size of my nighthawk made it ideal to learn on, the fact that I am almost 6’3″ and (at the time) weighed almost 250lbs meant that the underpowered 250cc engine just wasn’t capable of keeping up on the freeway. With the throttle all the way open in top gear I could just barely hit 65mph if I wasn’t on an up slope.   Since most of my riding is commuting on the freeway, I needed something bigger.

I traded in my nighthawk for a used 1100cc Honda Shadow Saber.  It looked awesome, but from the first time I rode it home I had a nagging feeling I might be in over my head.  Where the Nighthawk  was light and responsive, the Saber was heavy and hard to maneuver – and had a terrifying tendency to skid and fishtail when I braked hard; even at relatively slow surface street speeds.  I’m embarrassed to admit that a big part of the problem was that the dealer had over-inflated the tires and I was too new to realize what the issue was.  Instead, I just chalked it up to my inexperience (which was also partly to blame) and told myself to man up and focus harder.  All the joy went out of my riding – I was scared of this bike.  I rode it for less than a month and went down 3 times – the last time on the freeway when the car in front of me braked hard unexpectedly.  Fortunately, I was wearing a full-face Shoei helmet and truly kick-ass textile jacket that wasn’t even scratched – I had learned enough to buy good safety gear at least.  Thanks to that gear, I was able to pick the bike back up and drive it to a mechanic I knew nearby.   Total damage – a fractured wrist, dented and scratched gas tank, bent handlebars, and a broken rear foot peg.  All in all I was incredibly lucky.

I knew I wasn’t going to stop riding.  I also knew I couldn’t ride that bike any more.  Going big and heavy had been a mistake – after looking at myself long and hard I admitted that I’d bought a cruiser for the image, not functionality, and it was just too much bike for my  skill level.  I needed something light and maneuverable like the nighthawk but with enough power to keep up.  I was also determined to never have my wheels lock up like that again, so I promised myself I’d never again ride a bike without ABS.

2013-Triumph-Street-Triple-And-Street-Triple-R-whiteI read dozens of reviews, went on a bunch of test rides, and ended up buying a Triumph Street Triple (a light weight 675cc naked bike) because it was one of the smallest lightest upright bikes I could find with ABS and I liked the balance and ergonomics better than the Ducati Monster or the Kawasaki Ninja (it’s closest competitor).  The difference was immediate – riding was fun again and my bike felt like an extension of my body instead of a big lumbering beast I needed to keep under control.  I’ve just passed 11k miles on the Street Triple and expect to get many many more out of it.  Look for a detailed review of that bike soon.

I learned a few things along the way.

  • Sometimes very good things can come out of very bad circumstances.
  • It’s important to admit when I’m not prepared for the task at hand and take steps to either get prepared or back down.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions – if I’d asked about my cruiser being so skittish on its wheels maybe someone more experienced would have suggested checking the tire pressure a lot sooner.
  • Being prepared is invaluable – I hate to think about what would have happened if I’d gone down wearing a t-shirt or an open-faced helmet.
  • And sometimes it’s not the goal that’s unrealistic, it’s the method.  I needed to ride,  but I didn’t need to ride that bike.  Admitting I was wrong and swapping the Saber for my Street Triple made all the difference in the world.

All those hard-learned lessons are as applicable to work or any other endeavor as they are to riding.  I figure as long as I’m learning I’m making progress, so I’ve chalked the whole experience up as a win.  That’s doubly true because of all the fun I’m having now that I have a bike that better fits my needs and skill level.   I may not ride forever – one of these days I’d like to have kids and a motorcycle is singularly impractical for dropping the kids off at soccer practice.  But for now at least it’s my favorite way to fly.