Should you take a Motorcycle Rider's Course?

Motorcycle rider's courses have grown in popularity in recent decades yet, many people question whether they are really necessary or if they even teach correctly. I worked in motorcycle safety training for a decade, under two different programs and curricula, and the most significant thing that I've learned is that there is a lot to learn! After teaching beginners and advanced courses and having participated in track-day events, I've seen all different types of riders and skill levels. This document includes information for beginners; experienced and advanced riders.

You don't know what you don't know until you know that you don't know it.

Most people who sign up for a beginner's riding course have never ridden a motorcycle at all. Those who ride a bicycle regularly, typically have a good sense of balance and understand how a two-wheeled vehicle leans into turns. Those who know how to drive a car with a stick-shift and clutch, usually adapt easily to moving the clutch from the left foot to the left hand, and moving the shifter from the right hand to the left foot. I have successfully taught motorcycle riding to beginning students who had never driven a car with a stick and who hadn't ridden a bicycle in a very long time. It's challenging but, with patience, it can be done. I have also seen many experienced riders show up for a beginner's course. Every student I have ever encountered said that by the end of the course they had learned something new that they hadn't known before.

You may have heard the cliche "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach". I've learned that teaching is a specific skill, and that being an expert motorcyclist does not automatically qualify a person to be a teacher. When I was in my late teens, after several years of experience skiing (nearly all of my life, in a teenager's view) I attempted to teach my girlfriend how to ski. What came so easy to me turned out to be nearly impossible to communicate to her. She became very frustrated, told me to do things with my body that are not physically possible, and went in to the lodge for a Spanish Coffee. The next time we went skiing, I happily paid for her lessons with a professional instructor. I learned that I was not a trained ski-instructor.

When I joined up with the motorcycle training program, the first thing we did as a group was to go through our instructor's training. This was a 10-day course spread out over five weekends. It was intense and grueling. The most important skills we were trained in was How To Teach. This included how to explain instructions in ways the students could understand, how to start with teaching a foundation of riding skills, and build upon those skills, one layer at a time, and how to analyze mistakes, and how to advise for corrections.

Most states use the curriculum developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Most states' beginning-rider courses are about 16 to 20 hours, and include both on-bike training and classroom time. Even before sitting on the bikes, we teach that the bike tends to do what your head is doing and go where your eyes are looking. If you want the bike to stay upright, you must keep your head upright. If you want the bike to go forward in a straight line, you must hold your head up and look straight ahead, as far as possible. If you want the bike to turn, you should turn your head and look to where you want the bike to go. If you look down at the ground, the bike tends to follow. I once had a student in our beginner's course who had some riding experience. He had previously crashed into a sign-post and didn't know why his bike went directly to it and not to one side or the other. Looking back at the incident, and comparing what he had learned in class, he remembered that he was trying to go around a corner and then suddenly saw the sign-post. He thought to himself "Oh, NO! There's a sign-post!" and his eyes locked-on to it. By doing this, his bike aimed for the sign-post is if pulled by a magnet. He learned what target-fixation is and that we must look to where we want to go, because the bike tends to go where we look.

One of the first skills we teach, even before getting the bike moving, is how to stop. Simply, both hands and both feet all reach for the controls at the same time; the right hand squeezes the brake lever and the left hand squeezes the clutch. The right foot presses on the brake pedal and the left foot down-shifts to first-gear. The right hand and right foot are both braking. The left hand and the left foot are both handling the down-shift. With practice, students develop the skills to brake smoothly and gradually, so that the bike doesn't make any drastic changes. They also learn about weight shift; that when we accelerate, much of the weight of the bike and rider shifts towards the rear and, when we slow and brake, the weight shifts towards the front. With practice, they learn to manage weight-shift so that transitions are smooth and not startling.

For turning, the students learn that, when a bike is leaned-over, it needs momentum to prevent falling over. Just as we can swing a bucket of water all the way around without spilling on our heads, a motorcycle can be leaned-over without falling so long as the momentum is not disrupted. Attempting to stop a bike while leaned over will result in the bike falling down. There's a lot more involved with proper turning but, this column is not intended to be a training source.

Sometimes, an experienced rider might show up for a beginner's class and question why we're not teaching advanced riding skills, like two-finger-braking, and trail-braking. Those experienced riders need to accept that a beginner's course is for beginners. It's much easier to learn that the throttle and the brake are two separate controls and to use either one or the other; not both at the same time. After learning how to operate the controls, to brake smoothly without skidding, to lean into turns and stay on the throttle, and to shift gears, the students learn basic skills to prepare for riding in the street. They learn to brake firmly from higher speeds, to swerve around obstacles, proper lane-positioning for setting up turns most effectively and safely, to perform u-turns, and to accelerate through turns. They also learn emergency stopping maneuvers from a turn. In the classroom, they study the importance of good following distance, scanning to analyze potential hazards and the importance of riding free of impairments.

Aside from being trained by a qualified instructor, there are other benefits for the beginner taking a course with a group. The student will have an opportunity to observe good examples and bad examples, and to learn from them. Most classes have a dozen students. There are portions of the course in which half the group will ride an exercise and the other half will watch. At this time, the group watching will see who is riding well and who is not. They will discuss what the good rider is doing correctly. They will discuss what mistakes the weak rider is making and how to correct for them. This is not available in a one-on-one session with your significant-other.

The course is wrapped up with a test. This test is similar to the test a rider might take at their local DMV or licensing entity. The test includes a demonstration of skills that were practiced in the course and everything is fresh in the student's mind. Although, most students pass the test on the first attempt, not everyone does. After eight hours of riding, some people are quite tired, stressed-out, or overwhelmed. On days that are very hot, or rainy, or very cold, the weather can be fatiguing. These factors play a significant part for those who do not pass the test on their first attempt. But, it's okay. Most programs will give the student the opportunity to take the test again, another day.

After passing the test, the graduate earns a certificate. In most states, the certificate automatically qualifies the graduate for the motorcycle endorsement on the driver's license and, most insurance companies offer discounts to graduates. Passing the test and earning the motorcycle endorsement qualifies a new rider to legally ride in the streets. This does not make the new rider an experienced rider. The new rider should try to ride in ideal conditions considering light traffic, moderate speeds, and good weather.

Experienced and advanced riders should read Part 2 of this column.