Sunday, January 25, 2009

The next step -- a REAL motorcycle

I began to get more serious about riding a motorcycle when our son neared his senior year in college. He had been away at school, and I needed a new hobby. I bought a few motorcycle magazines, and lurked on motorcycle forums for several months. I asked a guy at work who used to ride a motorcycle whether he thought I could learn to ride one. Once he closed his mouth -- it having fallen open at the question -- he thought for a minute and said, "Sure, why not?" I must tell you that he is a raging optimist, but I believed him nonetheless. Jeff has my thanks for his advice and vote of confidence.

I knew I wanted a sporty bike. My search of the Internet, the forums, and magazines had pointed me toward a Kawasaki Ninja 650R. It looked good and was said to be beginner-friendly. I searched the Internet, and ran across one for sale on CraigsList, about forty miles away. I e-mailed the seller, and found that he still had it. I asked him to let me know if he found another buyer.

Now I had to figure out how to learn to ride such a beast. As it happens, my wife helped me out on this. ...inadvertently, to be sure, however. She had received a flyer from the local community college, and spotted a class on stained glass she wanted to take. I told her that that was fine with me, and that I would like to take it as well. We took the class and made some nice projects. About the time we took the classes, I had also found that the college offered the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Riders Class.

I casually mentioned to my wife that I would like to take the class. After her mouth came closed -- it having fallen open at the question -- she quizzed me about why I would want to do something so stupid and dangerous at my advanced age. I explained that I had always been interested in motorcycles, and wanted to see if I could do it. She asked our son whether he knew that I was interested in riding a motorcycle, and he said, "Sure mom, didn't you know that?" I guess I had hidden it rather well. Anyway, I further explained that you didn't have to own a motorcycle to take the class, and if I couldn't learn, I would only be out the cost of the instruction. She resigned herself with a sigh, and I signed up.

The prerequisite for taking the class was that you had ridden a two-wheel bicycle. Well, I had done that, certainly. Quite a bit in fact in my earlier years, though my last ride had been at Thanksgiving 1997 on a seashore vacation where I had arranged for our son and I to ride with two groups -- first one about twenty miles, second one thirty miles. I could still manage to maneuver a bicycle, so I met the MSF prerequisite. Fortunately, the MSF class did not say anything about the amount of wind needed to sign up, as that has become a little less available over the years. (No windbag comments, please.)

The basic class was booked up until late September 2007. I studied the on-line materials, and showed up for the class. The Friday evening was classroom instruction. I am bookish, so that was easy for me. Come Saturday, it was a stiflingly hot day, and I had dressed in leathers to protect me from skinning myself up in case I fell off the powerful and menacing machine provided for the class. If I lost any of my hide, my wife might dig in her heels on agreeing to let me ride. By the way, the leathers came from a pawn shop some years back. (I told you I had been thinking about this for a long time.)

The little Honda Nighthawk they paired me with was a cute thing, and it fit my tall, gangly frame reasonably well. Incidentally, the Basic Rider Class is a must for anyone considering riding. They cover the key things that you must know how to do to get started. Despite the fact that this is only a beginning, it lays the foundation for riding experience and for further classes a rider should take later on.

The class went fairly well for me. At least I was not the oldest one there. That was a good sign. Unfortunately the woman who was older was not doing so well. I envisioned myself doing that poorly, and ending my riding career before it started. The instructors were very good at describing and demonstrating the techniques to be taught. They were also firm when we didn't do what they told us to do.

I found that I could perform most of the exercises with a little practice. I also found myself using a little speed, and actually getting into second gear at times. Confidence builds quickly -- much faster than competence, they say. I was feeling pretty good about myself when it happened: I diligently parked the bike when flagged in, hit the cutoff switch, turned off the ignition, closed the fuel petcock, and began to dismount, promptly dropping the bike onto my leg. I had not put down the kickstand. As the instructor ran toward me, I wrenched my leg from beneath the behemoth. He looked me over and asked if I was hurt. Luckily, my leather pants came in handy, protecting me from the protruding controls and hot exhaust pipe. He made the best of it, demonstrating how to get the bike up on its wheels again, then asking me to fill out the required accident report. The shifter was bent and had to be straightened before continuing. My pride was hurt. I was embarrassed to be the only one to drop a bike over the whole weekend. I considered dropping out and never riding again.

I did succeed in getting through the final riding exam with a mediocre score, and I aced the written exam. After some thought, I decided to persevere. I called the guy with the 650R for sale and set up a time to see it. I took a friend with me who is a Highway Patrol motorcycle officer. He looked over the bike, rode it, and pronounced it fit. It looked new and there was not a scratch on it. It had about a thousand miles on it, and was being sold to help make ends meet for a young man whose wife was to have their third child. I struck up a deal with the owner and arranged with a fellow I work with to ride it home for me. Remember, I had not even sat on another motorcycle besides the little Nighthawk at this point.

The fellow, Aaron, who rode it home is a skilled sportbike rider who has a Ninja 636 that is a few years old but looks like new. Based on the ride home, he said the 650R is comfortable and possesses good torque for acceleration without gear changes.

I was now the owner of a sport motorcycle. All I had to do was learn to ride it.

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