By Randy Twells
Photos by Kevin Wing, Ken Turner, Barry Hathaway and CaliforniaMotorcyclist.com
It was 1998, I was 48, and we had signed up our eighteen-year-old son to take the CHP Motorcycle Training Course as a present. His Dad had recently bought a 1992 Harley Dyna Daytona 50th Anniversary Edition. So the idea was, our son could ride it too.
I meanwhile, just rode on the back behind my hubby. It never occurred to me…
Then, our son compression-fractured three vertebrae in a hard landing while snowboarding. So I called and canceled his CHP riding course. A short time later as I stood at the bathroom sink brushing my teeth and looking back at myself in the mirror, a lightning bolt hit me. I could take that course! What a revelation.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect to actually be able to ride a motorcycle; but I would just learn what you’re supposed to do to ride a bike. Like in case my hubby would have some situation, being unable to ride, and I could just move the bike off the road maybe. This is literally what I thought. Low expectations indeed.
So I called back to the course administrator to see if I could just change that course slot to my name; not! It had already been snapped up by another more eager taker. So, I settled for a class a few weeks later.
Per www.CaliforniaMotorcyclist.com, they offer “Two Ways To Be Safe & Learn The Latest Skills:
The Motorcyclist Training Course (MTC) is a 15 hour course which includes 5 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours of actual riding. The MTC is mandatory for those under the age of 21, but is also recommended to those 21 and older who are seeking to obtain a motorcycle endorsement on their California driver license.
The CMSP also offers the Premier Program which is an extended MTC consisting of 7.5-hours of classroom and 13.5-hours of riding. The CHP and its partners encourage all riders to be life-long learners and seek additional training beyond the MTC and Premier programs.”
And once you’ve passed the course:
•Upon completion you’ll get a skills waiver that allows you to skip the riding skills test at the DMV
•Passing the class could result in insurance breaks”
The course is taught by a private contractor, and the one I attended was held at a San Diego County owned property.
When the time came, if memory serves, it was to be two classroom sessions and two range sessions. It added up to the total hours shown above for the standard course. In the classroom, we had “chalk talk”- lots of instruction on the basic principles of managing a motorcycle, with visual aids and a workbook. Questions were welcomed and answered completely.
Now I digress for a moment. I may have at the time been a mild mannered mom with an office job. But as a kid in Ohio having often ridden a bicycle down the hill on my country road, standing on the seat, hands on the handlebars with one leg stretched out behind me, I was somewhat of a daredevil in my youth.
Then much later, with two very young children in tow, we joined the Porsche Club of America and competed in autocross and time trials– timed solo laps on courses at a stadium, an airstrip, and SCCA sanctioned road course race tracks such as Laguna Seca at Monterey, CA and Willow Springs Intl. Raceway at Rosamond, CA. To do this well required in-car on-track sessions with seasoned qualified instructors. Five-point harness, a helmet, gloves, and onboard fire extinguisher. We learned how to find the optimal line (racing line) through a given course, braking, finding and executing the correct apex in turns, how to handle weight transfer at speed and much more. All in our 1973 Porsche 911S. I was thrilled when I earned my PCA Time Trial Competition Permit and achieved a #4 in Top Ten Times ranking in autocross.
Even with this background, I approached the Motorcyclist Training Course with zero expectations. Motorcycles, I figured, were a whole different animal. Right? I arrived with maybe ten to fifteen other students for the classroom sessions, most of whom had experience riding, and maybe some had a prior license endorsement that they hadn’t renewed for a while. I ate up the classroom sessions; then it was time to apply the classroom learning to real life riding, on the range course.
So the first thing we did was just sit on the bikes, my steed was a Honda 125 supplied by the class. (They had many different makes and models of bikes to choose from; I picked the smallest, lightest bike they had, as the other bigger bikes intimidated me.) Engine off, we just sat on the bike, putting the kickstand down, learning the controls, shifting, etc. Then, we each paired up with another student, and one sat on the bike while the other pushed them from behind, about fifty yards. Then we switched, and the rider became the pusher. Amazing. I could do this.
Later, we did figure 8’s; cones were set up in the shape of a giant 8. Riders did continuous loops. The trick was, at the crossing point you have to gauge your timing so you don’t hit the rider crossing the other way.
Another bit of instruction was: to turn, pull down hard on the handlebar on the side you’re turning. As in, if turning left, pull down hard on the left handlebar. I made lots of mental notes.
Then we did emergency stopping practice. Cones were set up to weave through too. But after several passes where you think you’ve got this, the instructors crammed the cones together and said, “OK, now do it! Ugh… But amazingly, by following all the counsel and instructions given so far, I succeeded.
After all the range practice, it was time for the final riding skills test on the bikes. So they give you like twenty points to start with. A point would be deducted for any mistakes made. Importantly, there was no instance during the skills test that would require a stop and thus to put your foot down, til you completed the skills test. So if you did put your foot down while riding in the test, they deducted one point each time. If you dumped the bike during this test, it was automatic failure. That would require, but also allow, a course do-over.
So I thought fast. If I ‘spend’ a point in putting my foot down to avoid dumping the bike, that works, as long as I spend wisely. Somehow I ended up losing just sixteen points by the conclusion of the test! I gratefully accepted the signed form indicating I had passed. Now to visit the DMV to get my permit!
The next time I could, I walked into the DMV, and finally was at the window. With a bit of secret pride, I informed the clerk that I was there to get my motorcycle permit. The clerk looked at my paperwork and said, “Oh, you’re all set, we’ll just give you your license (endorsement).” I almost fell over.
Next, was either buying a bike I felt I could ride, or riding the one in our garage. Yep, the 1992 Dyna with Daytona 50th Anniversary paint. In other words, don’t dump this bike. I asked hubby what he thought. We were standing there looking at the Daytona, and he said, “It’s all balance.” Hmmm. I decided to give the Daytona a try.
He rode the bike to a vacant school parking lot and I followed in the car. We started out just like the CHP course; I sat on the bike, engine off, while he pushed from behind, all 617.3 pounds of bike, plus yours truly. After a few times of this, he says, “I can’t push you any more. You’re just gonna have to ride the bike.” Oh man! So I hit the starter, shifted into first and took off gingerly around the parking lot. No, I didn’t drop it. Thumbs up.
In the weeks following, I rode a pre-planned route on the relatively vacant streets in our neighborhood. I used a wide cul-de-sac to practice u-turns. I repeated the same route over and over til the moves were grooved in my brain and reflexes. I didn’t dump the bike.
Then I decided it was time to ride to work. So I practiced the five-mile route several times over the weekend when there was less traffic. The hardest part was the sharp right turn over the low little gutter bump at the entrance of the parking lot. But one morning several weeks later, after many times going over this obstacle, I was about fifty yards in and suddenly realized, I didn’t stress this time going over it! I had won the battle of the bump!
The months following were marked by many other small milestones. Yes I did finally drop the bike, but luckily no paint damage. And I realized that my track time in the Porsche was instructive for riding a motorcycle after all. About a year later, hubby was on an ‘85 Lowrider and I was now on a ‘99 Softail Springer. We had joined a HOG chapter and went on group rides. I found that on long winding roads, my track time driving the racing line, which was the shortest and smoothest route through a turn or series of turns, actually helped me do the same thing on a bike. Hubby even remarked to another rider, “She’s so smooth through the turns, I just follow her.” Wow!
In the years since, I rode to Laughlin, Reno and other places, still honing my skills. I got to where I could come to a complete stop, then make a sharp right turn, all without putting my foot down. Yes I’ve had a couple drops and accidents otherwise, but I walked away from them. In 2009 I participated in a state tourism department’s guided press tour on the Selkirk Loop, starting in Spokane, through Idaho, up into British Columbia and back south into Washington State. I got a taste for really long road trips!
In 2010 I undertook the biggest thing yet– riding from a press ride location at Gateway, Colorado to Sturgis Rally, part of the way with the press group, meeting up with them again at Fort Collins, and thereafter solo. I had a plan and maps to get me there. Once at Sturgis, I stayed in town til sunset, then headed for the Spur Campground, 35 miles away in Piedmont, where I had shipped my gear for the week’s stay. When I got to the turnoff for the unlit country road to the Spur, it was very dark. Unfamiliar with the area, I mistook a distant light for a street light straight ahead.
The next thing I knew, out of the dark my headlight suddenly illuminated a yellow sign with a black arrow pointing left. My riding instructor’s words shouted in my brain, “Pull down hard left!” …I got through the turn and escaped the disaster of going off the embankment beyond the sign. After a great week of tent camping in a shady grove and covering the rally, the press team offered to let me ride the bike home to California. But I was not ready for that undertaking, so I flew home according to my original plan.
In 2011, I again did the press ride, this time at Park City, Utah. From there I then set out alone, again on the press fleet bike, for Sturgis Rally. I took a roundabout route through Afton, Wyoming to meet up with the Fryed Brothers Band at their gig there. From there I zigzagged east across the state. Riding into Spearfish, I felt exhilarated, never more alive than at this moment. This time I stayed at a hotel, and had planned ahead to ride the bike back to California. This time, I was ready. I had prepared well, with maps, a daily mileage plan and stops in mind.
My ride back was memorable, too many experiences for this article. But I do recall the final leg heading down the Cajon Pass on I-15 at Victorville. I would soon drop off the press bike at the fleet warehouse in Orange County. I had a feeling of profound sadness that my trip was coming to an end. But as it turned out, I would have many more miles and adventures on the road in the years since.
My CHP Motorcyclist Training Course was the basis for all of this. I HIGHLY recommend it to everyone, and especially anyone thinking of getting their first bike or driver’s license motorcycle endorsement. Find out more and what classes are available near you at www.CaliforniaMotorcyclist.com.