One MSF Beginner Rider CourseI arrive at the classroom for the beginner class about 15 minutes before the scheduled start. A few early arrivals are talking in the parking lot. I open the classroom and get set up, then go outside to say hello. I watch for people who look nervous and make a point of reassuring them that the course is designed for people who've never sat on a motorcycle before in their lives, not for the experienced riders who are there just to get the license or the insurance discount. We chat as more students arrive, and shortly before 9 we go inside to get started. We take care of the paperwork and start the course sharp at the scheduled hour.
I have 11 students, one fewer than the maximum. There's only one woman, which is unusual; generally it's about 40% women. The age mix is a little wider than normal, with several late teens and early 20s and there are two students older than I am (at 54). About a third say they've never ridden before.
I introduce myself and explain how the course will be organized. We'll be in the classroom for 2 or 3 hours, then go to lunch and assemble at the range. We'll ride for about 5 hours in the afternoon, and then do the same thing again tomorrow. To pass the course you have to pass a written test and a riding test. Often a student, after two afternoons of riding, hasn't developed his skills sufficiently to pass the riding test. Nothing to worry about, happens all the time. When that happens he contacts the office and schedules a retest for a small fee. At the retest he'll get another hour or two of practice and then the same test is administered. Most pass it handily the second time.
The preliminaries over, we get started. We discuss the risks of riding, ways to keep the risks to an acceptable level, the various items of riding gear which are required on the range (and recommended on the road), the location and operation of the motorcycle's controls, and the way the exercises will be conducted on the range. We take a break every hour or so, and at the end, near noon, we break for lunch with instructions to assemble at the range at 1PM. I remind them to bring water, which is not available at this range.
I stop at a McDonald's on the way (others may compromise, but only the best for me) and eat with a couple of students. One is nervous but excited about the riding, and I josh with him about the exercise with the Flaming Wall of Death, and the one where we jump over the line of trucks. He laughs and says he's eagerly awaiting my demonstrations.
I'm one of the last to arrive at the range, and the other coach, Larry, has set up the first exercise already. He's already struck up a conversation with some of the students but I introduce him to everyone and we get started. In exercise 1 we just sit on the motorcycles and use all the controls that we discussed; remember that for some of the students, this is the first time they've been on a motorcycle. Then we ride slowly across the range, stop, paddle around to face back the way we came, and repeat. Gradually the students pick up speed, and with the speed, pick up stability as well. In exercise 4 we introduce shifting, and with that all the basic skills needed to ride around the range are present.
So now it gets more fun. We ride around and enjoy the breeze in our faces, we weave around small cones, we introduce cornering technique. The last exercise is an emergency stopping drill, where most students find that they can stop a lot quicker than they thought. When they leave for the day, all the beginners have made progress that astonishes them, and even those who've been riding on a permit for years will quickly admit that being self-taught can leave a lot of gaps in one's knowledge and skill.
The second day is a copy of the first, except that nervousness is replaced by eagerness. The first half of the classroom discussion involves handling oneself in traffic. One student notices something interesting: "This doesn't involve motorcycling at all; this is just defensive driving." But later we do discuss aspects specific to motorcycling, like going over obstacles and carrying passengers. We wrap up with a written test, which everyone passes handily, and proceed once more to lunch and riding.
On the range we warm up for a few minutes, then launch into a low-speed drill that gives fits to some, though they know that they shouldn't worry about it; nobody ever gets killed doing a u-turn at the end of a dead-end road. We do a drill designed to make people conscious of the feel of countersteering, which everyone has been doing all along — there's no other way to steer a single-track vehicle like a motorcycle — but it's usually so subtle that it's easy to miss. We work a lot on cornering, since about half of motorcycle fatalities involve losing control in curves (according to this report from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration). We work hard on the emergency skills of braking and swerving.
As the day progresses the students ask about the riding evaluation. It's easy to figure out what is on it: Just ask yourself what's crucial. Cornering is crucial, and so are swerving and emergency braking, so those skills have to be demonstrated. In addition, there's a low-speed exercise which doesn't count much on the street (you can always put your feet down and paddle) and so it doesn't count much on the evaluation either. Larry and I reassure everyone that minor flaws won't prevent anyone from passing. We strive for perfection always but we achieve it never, so you don't have to be flawless to pass.
After one last break we set up the evaluation and then we let everyone practice it for 20 minutes. When the actual test comes, everyone rides the first part and lines up for the second. There's much cheering for each rider. Often the novices surprise themselves by breezing through without a problem, and sometimes a good rider makes a minor mistake that he's never made before and joins the line shaking his head. Depending on his personality, his classmates either reassure him or tell him he has to turn in his learner's permit and start over.
The three parts to the evaluation zip by quickly, and in this class, as frequently happens, everyone passes. We hand out the completion cards, and remind everyone that until the license arrives in the mail they're still riding on a permit and subject to the permit's restrictions. There are hearty congratulations all around. Many of the students exchange email addresses and promise to get together for a ride. Everyone leaves, Larry and I put the motorcycles away, and the paperwork for another MSF class is handed over to the bureaucrats.
There will be many minor variations to the course. At SM Motorcycle School there's a full-sized range so there'll be up to 12 riders with 2 coaches. At the Central Massachusetts Safety Council we have two smaller ranges with a maximum of 6 riders and one coach on each.
At some sites the classroom is adjacent to the range, at others they could be several miles apart. Sometimes several groups will take the classroom portion together, so there could be more students in the classroom than will be together on the range. The schedule can vary considerably, though the time spent in the classroom and on the range will be much the same. We might ride before doing the classroom portions, especially if doing so will let us avoid bad weather on the range. Some sites offer classes on weekdays; the waiting time is generally considerably shorter for those than for the weekend classes. Sometimes the course is spread over three days instead of two.
However it's arranged, if you go to a class with the attitude that you'll learn something about motorcycling, your time and money won't be wasted. It's a good way to learn to ride. And if you already know how to ride, consider the MSF's experienced rider course. In Massachusetts (and some other states) you get the same insurance benefits that accrue from the beginner class, plus you get your license without a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. (It's amazing how many people in Massachusetts have been driving on a permit for years, sometimes decades.) And who knows? It's even possible that you don't know everything there is to know about motorcycling, and might pick up something that'll make riding safer. Give it a try.