Jun 14, 2011

What It Isn't

This month's Geezer column was my 100th, since beginning the first Letter to the Editor/Geezer Debut called What Are We Riding For? in April of 1999. I'm still asking that question, too. As I work through this season, I'm working on my 10th year as a Minnesota MSF instructor, too. That really brings up that original question after a couple weekends teaching both BRC (Basic Rider Course) and ERC (Experienced Rider Courses) that were experiences in the best and the worst in what motorcycles bring out in Americans.

The first ERC was pretty interesting. The first range exercise in the ERC is a large rectangle around the course. It's an attempt to get riders to break their lazy riding habits and use both brakes before the entrance of curves, look and accelerate through the turn, and knowingly counter-steer. After about 5 minutes of watching the cruiser characters use their engines to decelerate and, when that failed, hold on desperately through the corner until they either made the corner (they all did) or crashed into the adjoining BRC class (none did), I stopped the group. After getting them to shut off their racket-makers, I told them they made me feel like the kid in The Sixth Sense. The only thing I could say about their cornering ability was "I see dead people." I went through the procedure for turns again and restarted the exercise. The only people, out of 11 riders, who used their front brakes consistently were a lady on a Buell Blast, a guy on an old Suzuki GS, another guy on a beat up Triumph triple sportbike, a guy on a huge Victory who was a new rider and had taken the BRC the previous weekend, and a guy who was taking the course with his wife riding passenger. The rest either ignored me or wiggled their fingers at their brake lever without actually using the brake.

And so the day went. They got better, but I felt that most of them would return to their old habits within a week or so. No wonder motorcycle training doesn't seem to improve motorcycle crash and fatality statistics.

The BRC was one of the most frustrating in my MSF career. Of 11 "students" (to moderately abuse the word), 5 dropped out or failed. One, who already owned some kind of Sportster, started badly after telling us that she had been riding for several years and ended early the 2nd day by telling us she didn't need to put up with this crap (negotiating tight turns) and would get her license from the Harley folks. In 10 years of teaching MSF classes, only two students have seriously scared me and this woman was Number Two. Every time she came my way, I planned out my fake and my escape route and I had to use those tactics at least a dozen times in the first day. In retrospect, we should have removed her from the class earlier to protect the other students, but I think we were both just trying to survive the day. Even two of our better riders failed the license test and everyone ended the day frustrated.

The next week, I had another ERC with the same coach I worked with on the BRC from Hell. He's a good guy, an excellent rider, and we usually run a fast, efficient class together. This ERC was a totally different kind of people; generally the same style of bikes, same age group, but completely focused on the purpose of the class. Right from the start, these "students" tried to do everything we suggested. I think we could have just handed them the course book and they'd have done pretty well teaching themselves. They politely thanked us for every correction we offered and continued to exponentially get better with every repetition. I felt pretty good about being part of this program at the end, but I have to wonder if the major contribution was made by the practice space and the students. Regardless, I was there to set out the cones and pick 'em up again as the day progressed.

The next BRC was equally different from the previous. This was a young group with the oldest in the class at 44 and the youngest at 15 (the youngest I've ever taught), so it should have been easy and it was. There were two scooter riders in the group and, otherwise, no motorcycling experience among the bunch. We went from basics to some pretty advanced riding demonstrations in four days (counting the classroom) and the whole group passed the license skills test. We even had three perfect scores and a couple of one-pointers. In fact, the cumulative skills test points of all 11 students didn't add up to a failing score for a single student (21 points is a failing score). Again, managing this class was so easy it didn't seem like I was making much of a contribution. My co-coach even mentioned that if every class was this easy it wouldn't be right to accept payment for doing the work.

On the other hand, the two earlier and opposite classes deserved hazard pay. Seriously. You could be killed or maimed standing any where near our Student from Harley Hell. The only skill she demonstrated was an ability to crank on the throttle at exactly the wrong times, every time. I will never forget her swinging her bike in a circle and rolling out-of-control towards another student while I shouted "stop" and she kept saying, "I am stopped." The only thing that kept her from slamming into the other student's bike was me hitting the kill switch. Then she said, "What did you do that for? I was stopped."

When blessed with meeting a motorcyclist like this, I have to wonder if the guy who sold her that shiny new Harley should be prosecuted for attempted murder or given a Medal of Freedom. Know what I mean?


  1. Having never taken the MSF or the ERC I can't really comment on the quality of the program, but to me it doesn't seem like the ideal learning situation: pressure, being watched closely by strangers, limited time, costs money that you don't want to lose, etc. I'm glad I had a long apprenticeship riding around on dirt tracks and field on a small 125cc bike, and then gradually working my way up to parking lots and streets while following my dad around. I probably had hundreds of hours of practice time before I got my license and I was reasonably safe when I headed out. Not sure a short MSF gives folks enough saddle time to get the experience they need to be safe.

  2. You are, of course, right. I tell friends who want to ride "Get good enough to get out of some racing program's novice class before you ride the streets." Too many people want short cuts to "experience" and too many companies/organizations are willing to pretent to provide it.

  3. Actually, I think the best way to learn would be a combination of good instruction and practice offroad and on pavement where you won't encounter traffic. Sort of like Drivers Ed at school, now that I think of it. Unfortunately, how much you get out of these courses is very dependent on the quality of the instructor. I had to take a boating safety class to get a ridiculous certificate, despite having been boating for around 40 years, and I knew a lot more than the instructor who actually made some mistakes in what he taught. At least the booklet they provided was excellent. Does the MSF provide you with any written material to study on your own?

  4. The MSF sends students home, after the classroom, with a pretty decent pamphlet. For some people, reasonable athletes and good students, I think the basic program is a good start. For the old characters who already bought their dresser Hardly, it's a push into the void. Like our cage driving license testing procedure, the certification portion of the program is designed to get you on the road and moving money from your pocket into some dealer's. Long term safety is not a concern and the fact that "trained" riders do not demonstrate better crash statistics is proof enough. The MSF constantly cautions training organizations to avoid trying to link training with improved safety statistics because the link isn't there.

  5. "Long term safety is not a concern and the fact that "trained" riders do not demonstrate better crash statistics is proof enough."

    It is hard to teach judgment, which is a lot of staying safe. I see a lot of very skilled riders do stuff on the highway that is dangerous to the point of endangering others on the road.

  6. Unfortunately, for most of us the quality of "judgment" comes from bad experiences. You just have to pass through the hooligan/bandit/idiot stage to get to the other side. For most men, including me, there doesn't seem to be an education-path to strategic rational thinking.

    However, not all motorcycle crashes are caused by simple judgment failures. There are a lot of situations where basic skills will be the difference between life and death and basic skills can be taught if enough time for the teaching is allowed. 5 hours of classroom and 10 hours of riding on a closed course would be pushing the bottom limit for most people.

    The public endangering skills I suspect you're talking about are high speed lane splitting, wheelies and stoppies on public roads, and the usual street racing games. Most of the people I see doing these things are only skilled enough to intermittently pull off stunts, but they would be in the tail end of any intermediate (or even novice) closed course race. None of that crap belongs on public roads, but if you don't have the balls to go to the track, the only place left to imagine yourself a "rider" is with a captive and hostile public audience.

  7. Sorry to hear about your bad students. Do you think there is some positive in that these people at least made the decision to take a class, rather than saying "I don't need to take a class" ? Particularly true for the ERC Harley riders. Taking an ERC is optional in life, so I figure, what the heck, at least they signed up for a class. It is always easy to say 'look at the stupid Harley riders, riding their stupid Harleys, riding stupidly.' At least they signed up for the class which I *suppose* means they were hoping to learn something or gain experience. Or do you think they had different motivations?

  8. NOSYS,

    Thanks for your comments. Of course, you're right. Taking a class is far better than not working on skills and becoming a statistic. Honestly, the first weekend wore me out. Between the general attitude that seemed to be preventing that class from actually being willing to try new skills (several of the class got over that by the end of the class, but it was a wrestling match for 5 hours) and the constant noise, I was left with no good memories of the event at the time I wrote that blog entry.

    It is easy, and probably a cheap shot, to get down on the crowd that creates such animosity toward motorcyclists in general. I'll work on getting past that, but I have a long history with that bunch and a good memory.

    There are always two parts of a learning situation and I get reminded of that several times a day in my regular teaching job. The most important part is on the students' end. Motivation is something you either bring with you or not. Teachers can stifle motivation, but they can't create or inspire it. The fact that some people teach themselves high level skills while others fail to learn basic skills in highly structured educational situations proves that, repeatedly. In motorcycle training, the first step in learning to be a rider is the motivation for becoming a motorcyclist. If the goal is to look cool and disguise personal defects, the likelihood that serious learning will occur is minimal. That's a reason I really enjoy younger classes, because people under 35 or so are more inclined to look at a motorcycle as transportation rather than a lifestyle game changer.

    There are all sorts of motivations for taking a motorcycle class and the big one appears to be that people buy motorcycles unsuited to their skills and they take the class to get through the licensing test. While the class will improve their skills, it won't magically make them capable of manipulating their new hippobike. The DMV's test isn't particularly difficult and if you can't ride that course on your motorcycle you should consider getting a motorcycle that fits your skills.

  9. daGeezer,

    I definitely see what you're saying. They made a decision to take a class, which is good, but at the same time many consider it to be a necessary evil to get a license or they believe that a 2 hour session will make them into masters level riders. As a sometimes adjunct prof, I see the latter attitude all the time.

    We live in a society where if you pass a 40 question common sense quiz and show us how to parallel park we'll let you hurl whatever tonnage of machinery you want down the highway. We don't create an environment that instills the belief that good driving or riding is a continual learning process.

  10. Hey Geezer,
    The first class is exactly why safety coaches are needed. In fact, so was the excellent class. That fact still doesn't make getting through the hard classes any easier. I felt bad the first couple times that I let someone go as a new coach. Now, I have it down and don't feel a bit guilty in telling them that they are not safe for a closed parking lot and certainly not ready for traffic. In fact, with a bit of talking with them they make that statement instead of me... thank heavens.

  11. Chris,

    Unfortunately, that won't always be true. A few weeks back, I flunked a rider who already owned a new hippobike and who had absolutely no riding skills at the beginning or at the end of the class. His concentration was AADD at best and his ability to use the bike's controls was totally haphazard. This weekend, he tried to sneak into a Skills Retest class, pretending that we'd "forgotten" to give him a retest card. He's convinced he's a great rider who has an impossibly difficult task in passing the DMV test on his hippo. He'd fail on a scooter or a real moped. He was insulted that we thought he wasn't a safe rider. That happens often. Get ready for it. Guilt isn't a thing for me. My kids wouldn't get away with that behavior or get special treatment if they were unable to pass the course, so some stranger has no chance at all if applying guilt is the only tool they have.


    You are dead on. We give out drivers' licenses in Cracker Jack boxes and people imagine they have a Constitutional right to pilot a 4-wheel murder weapon. Fortunately for genetics, nature doesn't give a crap who you mommy was and momentum, gravitational forces, and friction will act on you as the laws of physics dictates.

  12. "Fortunately for genetics, nature doesn't give a crap who you mommy was and momentum, gravitational forces, and friction will act on you as the laws of physics dictates."

    Unfortunately, the laws of physics also act on the rest of us who have to share the roadway with these folks.


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