Gridlock Guy: Motorcycle lessons provide valuable context for the roads

Motorcycle riders riding for the Combat Vets Association try and stay warm during The Georgia Veterans Day Parade in downtown Atlanta Saturday, November 11, 2017.

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Motorcycle riders riding for the Combat Vets Association try and stay warm during The Georgia Veterans Day Parade in downtown Atlanta Saturday, November 11, 2017.

In November of last year, I wrote about the basic tenets of motorcycle safety and the challenges that bikers face on the roads. It was a crash course (pun intended) on the steps riders take with their gear and driving tactics to remain safe — aided by self-described “biker-nerd” Andria Yu from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Yu promised me then that I could take one of the MSF’s rider courses to better appreciate the lengths riders go to be safe and the intricacies of two-wheeled commuting.

Last week, I finally got this chance at the Honda Rider Education Center in Alpharetta, one of several rider schools Honda manages nationwide. The MSF helps manage Honda’s local school and Yu signed me up for a beginner dirt bike class.

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The Honda Rider Education School offers both road and dirt bike classes for riders of various experience levels.

Credit: Doug Turnbull/WSB Skycopter

The Honda Rider Education School offers both road and dirt bike classes for riders of various experience levels.

Credit: Doug Turnbull/WSB Skycopter

Combined ShapeCaption
The Honda Rider Education School offers both road and dirt bike classes for riders of various experience levels.

Credit: Doug Turnbull/WSB Skycopter

Credit: Doug Turnbull/WSB Skycopter

I have never ridden a motorcycle — only on the back of one, once, in a cul de sac. I have certainly never driven or ridden on one in dirt. And I do not know how to drive a stick shift; motorcycles most often have clutches and kick-shifters. Oh, and the only other student in the class was fellow journalist Michael Franks, who has ridden for several years and writes about cycling and motorcycles. This was going to be great.

Pro-am biker Austin Guest leads classes like these full-time. He walked us through gearing up (Honda provides full gear for students) and mounting the bikes (they provide those too). Guest walked us through multiple steps of starting the bike and walking it across the course with the clutch barely held in, showing the power of that left handle. Guest also showed us the proper shifting pattern on the left kick peg and the sensitivity and location of the brakes and throttle.

Riders are often using all four limbs differently and at once to operate the brakes, throttle, clutch and steering, and can only operate the bike properly with a correct, forward posture. Whether standing or sitting, shifting or braking, keeping the knees hugging the bike is one of the rider’s greatest strengths — and challenges.

Guest said that many people seeking thrills will go to dealerships and get talked into buying more bike than they can handle. That often puts riders in dangerous situations or simply discourages them from learning. He highly recommends new riders start with a cheaper, slower bike and then upgrade from there, as their experience grows.

Starting motorcycling on a cheaper ride also means there is less financial risk when a novice lays down and damages that bike.

Starting biking on dirt is also a good idea, Guest said.

“DirtBike School is also perfect for people who have never ridden a motorcycle before. Because you’re on dirt, the experience can be less intimidating,” Guest told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 95.5 WSB. Guest explained that starting on dirt versus pavement is a bit harder, meaning the transition to road biking is easier. It’s like taking a doughnut weight off of a baseball bat, he said. Since dirt biking requires no street licensing, riders as young as six years old can take dirt bike classes.

Guest demonstrated each maneuver — riding simple laps standing and sitting, starting and stopping, shifting up to second gear, weaving and turning, and even accelerating over course obstacles — before letting us take the controls.

I was very shaky and stiff and embarrassingly kept struggling to get the bike into first gear. But Guest stayed patient with me and gave both praise and constructive criticism as I completed the course. We took plenty of breaks and broke things down and I learned a lot from both Guest and Franks, who both noticed I accidentally popped a front wheelie one time while trying to lurch my bike into gear. I also managed to lay down the bike twice, though at a very slow speed. That throttle is so tricky.

Guest has interacted with hundreds of riders over the years. “The vast majority of motorcyclists ride responsibly and follow the rules of the road,” he said. And he wants surrounding drivers to know the dangers they face, “Motorcyclists have a much smaller profile making them harder to see.” Bikers need to wear bright gear and motorists on four wheels need to double check blind spots and use turn signals.

And, of course, distracted driving is a huge danger in these interactions.

There definitely are bad apples exorcizing their speed demons on the roads. Track days are at places like Michelin Raceway at Road Atlanta are the preferred environments for daredevil riding.

Bikers of any variety can take an array of classes via the MSF on Honda’s Alpharetta campus. The road class actually certifies drivers for their specialized Georgia road motorcycle license. Classes typically run $145.

Having been through one of these classes myself, I have even more respect for both the dangers motorcyclists face and the acuity needed to even put the bike in gear and make a slow turn. The DirtBike School would be a great exercise for a new or even an experienced four-wheel driver to spend half a day learning to appreciate their new environment, even if they never get on two wheels again.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.