Easy Riding = Lots of practice

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By Jenna McKenna

Wondering what the new mandatory motorcycle safety courses are like, but not yet ready enough to leap in?

As your guinea pig, I recently went to class at Gainesville Motorcycle Safety Training and received my motorcycle endorsement. Here's how it works:

My husband and I found a Basic Rider Safety Course provider from the website for Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motorvehicles (www.flhsmv.gov), then went to that provider's website and signed up for the class. Most of the providers are private businesses, although some public community colleges offer the course as well, and the costs range from a little under $200 to up around $300.

Once you get signed up - we used email and PayPal to reserve our spot - your provider will notify you of your class schedule and remind you of what you'll need for class: ankle-high boots, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, full-finger gloves and eye protection (either glasses or goggles). If you have a helmet, bring it; otherwise, the provider will lend you one.

I didn't know what to expect from the three-day session. The classroom portion was held on a Thursday evening in a conference room upstairs at Gainesville Harley-Davidson Buell, and was a lot like the drivers-ed classes I remember from high school. We read the manual aloud and answered the test preparation questions together. Halfway through the class, we took a break to go down into the closed showroom, which had thoughtfully been staffed for our after-hours presence. Many of our classmates, I'm sure, were making mental shopping lists. Some safety course partners (dealerships) offer a coupon for the cost of the class against the purchase of a bike.

The riding portion took place at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday in the football parking lot at Hawthorne High School. We had to wait for the sun to come up before actually getting on the bikes. Over the next two days, we would go from non-riders to riders.

If you haven't taken any kind of intensive class recently, it's amazing to discover all over again how brilliantly the human brain and body work together. Whereas in a car or truck it's important to understand the physics of vehicle travel, gravity and braking, on a motorcycle, it's a matter of life or death. If you lock the brakes on your car, you might get away with a pounding heart and a sense of embarrassment. If you lock the brakes on your bike, a new set of bruises is one of the lighter consequences.

The object of the Basic RiderCourse is to teach you how your bike works, and to establish good habits at low speed that they hope you'll retain at road speed. We practiced low-speed clutch and throttle work, the better to make tight turns in small areas. We practiced leaning and pushing the handlebars through a curve at road speed, as well as the very quick, upright swerve used for evading obstacles at speed. We did low-speed u-turns inside a painted box the size of a school bus, a skill I can't say I've truly mastered yet.

We did a lot of practice at braking, slowing and stopping. It's astonishing how difficult it can be to perfect the most basic, most important skills. I'm not just saying that because I locked up my front brake and rolled like an armadillo away from my sliding bike - it was hard for everybody in the class.

After that adventure, I was really glad I hadn't locked up my rear brake - the safety handbook says if you do that, you'd better keep it locked until you come to a stop, because if the back wheel regains traction, you can be flung into, approximately, Arkansas. That would hurt even more than my armadillo maneuver.

Now I'm looking forward to buying a bike so I can actually practice everything I learned in class. For learning complex skills, there is no substitute for practice. I can legally do that now, because after I passed the written test and skills test (u-turns, swerving, braking and cornering), the riding school transmitted my score to the DMV, and I had my license updated the next day.

That's how easy (and complicated) it is to comply with the new motorcycle endorsement law: just free up about three days in the same week, including two weekend half days, bring all your attention and focus to class, go to license office and get new picture taken. The rest of the practice and perfection - just like before - is all up to you.