Breaking into the Motorcycle World

By Dani Garcia

As a kid, I remember staring out the passenger window of my mom’s sedan as we passed by the corner Yamaha lot of my home town, Indio California.  I would often day dream about when I was old enough to buy one off the lot and ride away into the sunset.  My parents thought it was just a phase that I would grow out of, but my love for motorcycles grew as I grew.

I had five brothers and we lived on the outskirts of town, right in front of a desert, where we rode three-wheelers and quads all the time.  We made our very own track, complete with dips, jumps, ramps and obstacles.  Riding ATVs was one of my favorite pastimes, so naturally, that gave way to my curiosity about street bikes.  Much to my dismay, my family would have none of it.  My mom had the notion that street bikes were far too dangerous.

Each of my older brothers got a car when they turned sixteen.  When I came of age, my parents agreed to buy me a car as well.  But I didn’t want a car, I wanted a bright green 1993 Kawasaki Ninja 250R.  I remember it was a Sunday morning when my dad and I went down to the corner motorcycle lot to check out the bikes there.  After talking to the sales guy, my dad turned to me and asked, “Are you sure this is what you really want?”  I replied with a confident “Yes, this is what I have wanted my whole life!”   He said, “Okay, as long as your mother is onboard with it, we’ll get you that bike.”

And that is when my heart sank.  I knew she would never agree to it.  I felt like the air was sucked out of my chest as he made the phone call to my mother.  I could hear her say “Esta loca!” on the other end of the line, which translates to “She is crazy!”  My dad could see that the wind had been taken out of my sails.  I walked out of there in tears.

Later that week, my dad convinced me that a car would be better for me anyway, pointing out that I would need the cargo space when I went away to college.  I ended up getting a white hardtop ’94 Mustang.  The name of the game in that car was FAST!  I called it my GO-CAR-GO!  That car made it a bit easier to accept the fact that my dream of getting a street bike would have to wait a little longer.

Several chapters in my life would come to pass before I would again think of getting on a bike.  It was well after college when a shiny black Harley-Davidson motorcycle caught the corner of my eye.  It was a woman, zooming down the I-5 freeway.  I thought, “Man, aw man! That should be me!”  The motorcycle bug had struck again!  I started checking out local Harley stores in Northern California, where I lived.  But I soon found that Harleys were still a bit out of my price range, so I decided to go with something a little more sporty.  I also decided to broaden my horizons when it came to marketplaces.

This time around, I would have nothing to stop me from getting what I wanted.  I went in head first and started researching the best starter bike for a new rider to learn on.  I started out with a myriad of options that included bikes like the Harley Sportster, Honda Grom, Yamaha Virago 535, Kawasaki Ninja 300, and the list goes on.  After doing a budget analysis and a lot of feature comparisons, my choices were narrowed down to the Honda CBR 300 or the Suzuki 500.  I chose to go used on my first bike because I knew I would inevitably drop it and make foolish new rider mistakes.  It is much less painful to drop a used bike than it is to drop a brand new bike.

Now that I knew what I wanted (and could afford), I just had to keep my eyes peeled for a good deal on either of those bikes.  For months I scoured Craigslist (multiple regions) and various trader magazines.  Then one day, while visiting a friend in Ukiah, I came across an ad for a Suzuki GS500F for sale in Redding.  I contacted the seller right away and talked my friends into coming up with me to pick it up.

I had finally purchased a bike!  I couldn’t believe it!  I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real, and not just a dream!  I made a conscious decision to do things the right way when it came to the bike and legal paperwork.  With my cars, I would always inadvertently wait till I was the unfortunate recipient of a ticket before I would renew my registration.  With the bike, I thought, “This is a clean slate, a chance to do this right!”

First things first!  I decided to take the Motorcycle Training Course!  I had been talking to many riders throughout my search, and they all had the same advice for a new rider like me: Take the safety course!  So I enrolled in a weekend course in Newark in early September 2017.  There were about thirteen to fifteen students, only two of whom were women; another lady in her early 30s and me.  The course had two instructors, a woman from the Bay Area, and a man from Los Angeles.  Like most riding courses, it was broken up into classroom instruction and field exercises.  I, like everybody else, gravitated towards the field exercises.

But I did learn many valuable lessons in both sessions.  I learned that I did not like to go slow and I had to constantly remind myself that this was a safety course, not a race track.  More importantly, I learned how and when to counter-steer.  In the classroom, I was taught about the 15-second, 30-second, and 45-second rule and that a safe rider should always be looking for an out in any and all precarious situations.   All in all, I was super glad that I invested the time and energy to take the safety course.

Next it was time to get my M1 license endorsement.  Since the course had satisfied the riding part of the DMV test, all I had to do was pass the written part of the DMV exam.  Much like my regular class C license exam, I was given a 36 question multiple choice test on a computer monitor.   Unlike the class C though, you are only allowed to miss four questions on the written exam, not six as with the class C.  Had I known this, I would have chosen my answers a bit more carefully.  Surprisingly, I failed the first exam, missing five. The next time I took it I actually studied, and I passed with 100%!  Advice for the new rider: study first! It will save you some time!

Now with insurance, registration, and M1 in line, there was only one thing left to do, ride!!  For the next few months, I rode as much as I could. I rode to meetings, I rode to the store, I took scenic rides all by myself.  There is nothing more exhilarating than riding through a redwood-lined scenic road on a beautiful day!  With the coast at my shoulder and the wind in my hair, I had not a care in the world!  I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my long anticipated experience of riding!  In the evenings, when I got off the motorcycle, I learned the hard way that the wind in my hair had created knots that took forever to detangle.  Note to self: learn to braid my hair.

Once the honeymoon stage was over, I felt like there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  At that same time, I moved from an apartment in San Jose to a triplex in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It wasn’t long before I noticed that my new neighbor had a Harley.  I introduced myself and we became fast friends!  He introduced me to riding in a group.  That’s when I had another “Aha moment!”  It is true that riding with better riders makes you a better rider.  This was by far, the most growth that I have experienced as a new rider.  I started going on group rides as much as I could, paying close attention to the riders in front of me.  I noted how they lean in for a turn, what lane position they were in and how they rode in city traffic versus country roads.  The timing of it all was spot on, and it proved to be very educational.

One day, I set out for my Sunday ride, and I noticed that the engine on my bike sounded a bit different.  At first, I thought nothing of it, but it kept getting louder and louder.  It became the most horrible grinding noise I had ever heard!  It sounded like my cam tensioner chain had broken.  I had to pull to the side and figure out what was wrong.  I checked the oil, and sure enough, there was no oil in it!  I turned around and tried to slowly ride it back to my house.  Needless to say, I didn’t make it very far!  It had gone kaput!

Luckily, my neighbor recognized me on the side of the road and helped me stash the bike out of the way of traffic.  I knew there was no easy fix.  Distraught, I hopped on the back of my neighbors Sport Glide and we rode fifty miles to the West Coast Harley dealership in Salinas, Ca.  Before too long, I was riding away on a brand spanking new Sportster Iron 883 with denim pearl paint.  It was a happy ending to a crappy day!  Note to self:  learn to check the oil!  Dipsticks are there for a reason.

This new bike handled very differently and there were some things I needed to acclimate myself to.  For instance, the RPMs are a bit different on a Harley.  My Suzuki went to 11,000 RPMs.  The Harley lives between 2,500 and 5,000 RPMs.  That took some getting used to.  It also felt very solid on the road and cornering was a cinch!  I was also glad to know that the new bike had a low fuel light.  No more running out of gas on my ride!  Yay!

In retrospect, it was other riders who were instrumental in putting my sometimes ridiculous fears into rational perspective.  Other riders, like my neighbor, Dana, who helped me get over my fear of riding in the wind, my fear of stopping on a hill, and the most ridiculous fear of all, my unfounded fear of slipping in pine needles on my sloped driveway.  Other riders like Curtis, who gave me advice like, “Try not to ride in the middle of the lane, as that tends to be the slickest part of the road.”  And Kevin, who advised me to “keep a close distance to the pack when lane splitting.  That way, the gap doesn’t close on you.” Or Chuck, who told me to “go slow, do what feels right, and don’t forget to check your oil.”

I keep an open mind and I learn something new every time I get on my bike.  I have been riding to Monterey Bay, Comanche River, Calaveras River, Chesbro Reservoir, Fort Bragg, Eureka, and Redding, to name a few places.  I have learned first-hand, why people come to California for the view!  I have met some of the nicest people on my rides.  Meeting other women riders is a real treat!  Like Sean in San Francisco, with the BMW 650, who emphasized safety over everything else.  Or Janice in Willits, with the twin Evel Knievel anniversary model Harley, who told me a story about riding cross country.  Or Grace, from Oregon, who braided my hair in Redding so that it wouldn’t get all knotted up.

The biker community is a diverse group of people with a sense of comradery unmatched by any other group.  Riding truly is about the journey and about the people you meet along the way that help you create the greatest memories of your life.