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Life Lessons from a Motorcycle Safety Course

1. Don’t look down

In a moment, motorcycles, but first a hypothesis: A midlife crisis can be a good thing. Follow the logic — what if it’s really a preemptive emotional turmoil meant to warn you of a dangerous stagnation in your mind, body, soul, marriage or career? A kind of idiot light blinking just before things start to seize up and you get, you know, old?

Not persuaded? Fine. Go fill out your AARP membership or look up osteoporosis on WebMD; go gently into that good night, ear hair endlessly tufting. Me, I prefer to think of midlife chaos as the psyche’s way of saying, We’ve only got a few good years left, and Law & Order will still be on when you’re old. Let’s do something.

Too often, of course, the something that men do is a 22-year-old dental hygenist not their wife. I chose a Kawasaki Ninja 250 instead; the sex isn’t as good, but I don’t have to buy it jewelry. Picked it up two years ago, not long after I turned 40. It’s a crotch rocket, so sleek and lethal and beautiful you grasp its youth-rejuvenating powers before you even ride it. Which is good, because other than a couple of tentative spins, during which I did the worst thing imaginable — rode ineptly enough to embarrass myself in full view of complete strangers speeding past me in cars — I haven’t ridden it. Never really learned how. Apparently, owning a sleek, beautiful death machine was enough to clear the fog of my midlife crisis.

However, for some reason, a motorcycle sitting unused in the garage for two years begins to seem like a bad investment to one’s wife. So it was that I recently found myself enrolled in the two-and-a-half-day motorcycle safety course offered through the community college. My goal: get licensed. I joined eight other novices, four men and four women, at the Henderson campus for two-and-a-half days of classroom learning and riding exercises.

Let’s skip the classroom stuff and instead picture me straddling a Ninja 250 (not mine, one provided for the course), wearing the mandatory long-sleeved shirt to protect me should a breeze threaten to take the edge off the broiling heat. My head is sweat-sealed into a steaming black helmet, and maybe it’s the heat, but I’m marveling at the way there’s so much more to cycling than learning to shift with your foot and brake with your hand — it’s about the big, recurring questions of life.

“Do you know what you did wrong?” Guy Miller Jr. asked once I’d herky-jerked the Ninja to a stop beside him. Guy was one of our two instructors, a bony dude with a black cap riding backward on his shaved head. He arched an eyebrow over shades so tiny and round they couldn’t help but be cool.

Do I know what I did wrong? At the moment, the list seemed 42 years long, but I think Guy was less interested in answers like “Date that crazy girl in college” or “Get into journalism instead of mortuary cosmetics” than in an explanation for the graceless swoop I’d just made through the curved course.

“Looked down?” I asked.

He nodded wisely as the sun continued burning a half dome onto his forehead, above his hat strap. See, the key to riding curves is to not look down at your immediate path but well ahead — where you’re going. You will want to look down, of course. Gotta make sure the wheels are going where they should. It’s the novice in you, giving in to your lack of confidence. But this is a motorcycle, easy rider, and while you’re looking down, it’ll quickly overrun your peripheral vision’s ability to gauge what’s coming. Next thing you know, you’ll shoot off the course, and Guy might be posing questions of a somewhat harder nature.

I toed the bike into first and eased it toward the line for another go at the curves.

2. Trust your head, not your instinct

Motorcycling, like so much in life, is a process of translating what your head has learned into what your body does unthinkingly. The middleman here is your gut, which insists that when you’re deep into a slow, tight U-turn, it’s wrong to press the bike toward the ground, wrong to lean your body away, and to hell with your brain.

So I put my foot down during the U-turn exercise, a big mistake, and wobbled my bike outside the boundaries, another one.

Yeah, I know what I did! Looked down. The foot-touch was only a symptom of my wrong-headedness.

In a tight turn, as you’re leaning the motorcycle toward the ground and your torso away, you’re supposed to crank your head all the way around in the direction you’re turning. Me, I shot a glance downward. Had to make sure the front tire was going where it should, and thus it didn’t.

It took a bit more toe-scuffing, but I finally managed a decent sequence of U-ies. Press down, lean back, crank head. I showed more wobble than a Downtown full of drunks, but damn if it didn’t actually work. Roger Fox, the other instructor, gave me a thumbs up.

So here’s the real lesson of the U-turn exercise: go with it. No matter how awkward it feels, trust that things that are supposed to work will work. That’s an idea disproven in certain obvious ways — by Florida in 2000, instant replay in the NFL — that we forget how frequently it holds true. Things that are supposed to work usually do. We couldn’t get through a day if they didn’t.

3. Accelerate through the curves

I am cautious. When in doubt, I ease up. Take stock. Get the lay of the land. That’s a wise strategy for investing in mutual funds or choosing from an IHOP menu, but not so much when you’re piloting a hunk of wheeled metal through a curve at 18 hair-raising miles per hour.

When you slow down, the bike wants to straighten up, get vertical. But it needs to lean through a turn. That’s how it turns. Which means you’ve got to crank it on a little. Here’s the tricky part: How much? Goose it too hard and you overshoot the turn. Not enough and you bog down, and suddenly, you don’t have enough traction to move smartly through the curve to your objective, and you don’t need me to tell you how this applies elsewhere.

4. Abandon preconceptions

Not once during the weekend did I hum “Born to Be Wild.”

5. Have fun

“We’re here to have FUN,” Guy wrote on the board when the class first assembled. Easy for him to say; he was already licensed. No test for him to pass.

But somewhere between the distress of not knowing what I was doing and the test anxiety, there was some fun. I mean, it’s not like I was learning to broker the Dayton Accords, although I’m now reasonably confident I could do so if it involved a series of low-speed U-turns. (Talk about the need to keep your head up!) Once you stop panicking at every hop and jiggle the bike makes, you begin to enjoy the physical kick of swinging around orange cones and leaning through turns.

I think it was somewhere between the quick-stop drills and the swerve test that I had my little insight for the weekend: Maybe all this midlife-crisis business amounts to is a need to learn. That’s how you shake off stasis, right? Pick up a new skill, reactivate areas of the brain that power had been shut down to for years. I’d risen to a point in my life and career where I had to think a lot but wasn’t actually learning much. Thought without learning is perilous, Confucius said, and with that in mind, I can’t wait for my obvious next step: learning to pop wheelies. Head up, Dickensheets!

This piece originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

Scott Dickensheets


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One Comment »

  1. Great read, I really enjoyed the tips!

    I wish I knew everything I know now, it would have prevented me from getting into a pretty serious accident a few years ago.

    Like yourself I took a training class (after my accident) and it really made a huge difference.

    Happy safe riding!

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