I’ve always wanted to ride motorcycles. It hasn’t been a burning passion, more like an interest that I never had time to indulge in. When I was a kid, one of my friends had a dirt bike. I only rode it once that I can remember, and it didn’t go well. I don’t think I got it out of first gear, and I’m pretty sure I stalled it a least once. So for the next 20+ years, I never attempted to get on a motorcycle again, thinking that while I liked them, I just wasn’t cut out for them. And if I hadn’t moved home, I may have left it at that.
When you drive around central Illinois in the summer, motorcycles are everywhere. Harleys seem to be the standard, but there are plenty of others as well, including big cruisers as well as gangs of 20 something Ninja riders screaming through downtown Peoria at night. For me, there seems to be a dearth of things to do around here, but I’m beginning to realize that if you live here, you need to make your own fun. Boating, dirt bikes and street bikes are all popular choices.
Last summer I started thinking about getting my license, but I didn’t get around to it. At the local community college, they offer a subsidized class to learn to ride. They even give you the actual test at the end of the class, so you can get your license without any further hoops to jump through. The problem is that the class is such a good deal that all the spots fill up many months in advance. If you don’t sign up for one by the beginning of May, odds are you might not get in one. My schedule is so hard to predict, that it was close to impossible to pick a weekend to take the class.
I kept thinking to myself, there must be a place where you can sign up for basic riding classes a week or two before. Sure, you will probably pay considerably more for private classes, but there has got to be a market for people like me who find themselves in the middle of the riding season and can’t get into the ones held at community colleges. Sure enough there are two such places in Chicago, Motorcycle Riding School and Ride Chicago. There may be more. I went with Motorcycle Riding School mainly because their class fit into my schedule (the whole thing takes place over a weekend) and because they had decent reviews on yelp.
Once I had decided to go however, there was a lot to do. Step one was getting my permit. In illinois, getting your class M license (for motorcycles 150cc or bigger), requires two tests. First you take a written test (actually a test via computer terminal). When you complete that, you have a permit where you can ride in the company of someone who has had their class M license for a year or more. The second exam would be an actual riding exam. This is the one that happens at the end of a basic riding class typically. You don’t have to take a class, you can have a state examiner give you the test right at the DMV if you choose. If you have some experience, you might choose that route, but if you want a break on your insurance rates or you are like me and have next to no experience riding, a basic class is the way to go.
Next I had to get some gear. For the class, they want you to have over the ankle boots, gloves, eye protection, long pants at least a long sleeve shirt to cover all your skin. Before the class, I also got a leather jacket. I didn’t end up using the jacket much in class however. It was hot and the ratio to standing around to riding was too much for a heavy coat. As you can imagine, this turned out to be a little more expensive than I first thought. If you decide to get a motorcycle, you may end up spending several hundreds of dollars on riding gear. It’s probably easy to spend well over a thousand dollars just on a helmet, boots, leather pants and jacket and gloves. Please note that the helmet isn’t necessary for the class. They provide those. They also told us to bring something to protect our eyes, but most of the helmets had a visor so that wasn’t strictly necessary.
The class began at 8am at their office on Halsted Street. There were a few tables set up and most of the students were there when I arrived. The participants were there for different reasons. One young guy had bought a Ninja that spring, but hadn’t learned how to ride it on his own. Another guy had bought a Harley and was taking the class with his dad. One woman was there because she was tired of riding on the back of her husband’s bike and wanted one of her own. Another wanted to ride, but her friends refused to let her until she had taken the class.
Why was I there? I still have a little trouble with that question. I wanted to learn something new, develop a new skill. Motorcycles scare me a bit, and I like facing fears. Having a bike, might provide me with a much needed pastime for the many days and nights still ahead of me here. Perhaps I bought into the idea of being a biker and screaming down the road with a girl holding on tight behind me. Whatever the reason, I was here, and already several hundred dollars invested in this new activity. I intended to follow through, take the class and get a bike.
The first day started out slow. We watched some videos and read through a booklet. The teaching method seemed to be, assign some questions from the booklet and have us look up the answers. Then go over the questions and answers together. Then after every section, we would watch a video. Some of the information was helpful, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. There didn’t seem to be much actual teaching going on. We forged through the questions, trying to get done as fast as possible, so we could end up on the range with the bikes.
Once we got out on the actual riding area, the class picked up. They took us in baby steps at first, learning how to ease out on the clutch, finding the friction zone, power walking the bike and finally getting it into first gear and riding it across the parking lot. Very soon after that, we were riding and turning, shifting into 2nd and then 3rd gear, practicing stopping, slowing before curves, and more. The exercises in the first day were all quite easy to accomplish and by the end I was quite confident that I would soon be riding the streets of Peoria on my new bike.
The second day was a little bumpier. The classroom instruction was stronger. We had two instructors and the more experienced one was in the classroom. The material was more involved and practical the second day, but also the guy was a better teacher, actually going over the material more carefully than the previous day. When we got out on the range is when things started to get a little rough for me.
The first exercise of day two consisted mainly of doing figure eights in a small boxed area. I had a real tough time with this. The first few times, I couldn’t do it without putting my foot down. And the last few times, I couldn’t stay in the box. It ended up cutting into my confidence a bit and I started musing once again, “What am I doing here? Do I really want to do this? Or am I going to spend a couple thousand on a bike that I only use a few times? Or worse am I going to get myself run over by a minivan the first time I’m out on the actual road?”
By the third exercise, I was quite distracted and in my head. We were practicing stopping in a curve. We had to start from a dead stop, shift up to 2nd gear almost immediately, go into a curve after about 20 feet, then straighten up, hit both breaks and downshift back to 1 simultaneously. It was too many balls in the air for me. After the third rather choppy attempt, the teacher asked me if I was alright. I nodded and lied, “No, I’m fine,” and headed for the back of the line.
I’m not sure if quitting actually crossed my mind (one woman quit at the end of day 1, despite doing quite well in the class), but I quickly got a hold of myself. I reminded myself about how well I had done the day before, that I really wanted to succeed and become a skilled and safe rider. I quickly went through the steps of completing the task in my head and got myself to the starting box. The teacher signaled to me to go and I nailed it, completing the task perfectly. From that point on, I did quite well, completing all of the exercises easily. It was a good lesson on how important it is to be focused and confident while riding.
The last part of the day was going over the actual riding test. We couldn’t take it right that afternoon. Instead, they arrange for a state inspector to do tests every Friday. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to return to Chicago to take the test or not. Anyway, the test doesn’t look very difficult. The cone weaving is a little tight and they want you to do a u-turn in a 20 foot space, the thing that gave me the most trouble from the class. I’ll want to practice that some more for sure. Still it looks like you can make several small mistakes and still pass. The most important things seem to be, don’t put your foot down, don’t stall the bike and whatever we do, don’t drop it. That’s an automatic fail. In two days no one dropped their bike, so I’m not too nervous about that.
So now I’m stuck in a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma. It will be easier to get my license if I had my bike already, and it will be easier to get my bike when I have my license. And it would be easier to do both if I had a schedule with more time available during the day. It might be weeks before I can take the test. In the mean time, I’m looking for a bike.
My goal is to get a small street bike for under $2000, a used Rebel, GZ 250 or similar. I’ll ride that for a year or so and if I like it, I’ll get a bigger bike for longer rides.
UPDATE 8/6: I’m officially over the Honda Rebel. I took another one out yesterday for a test and I didn’t like it all. I think that I’d get a bit annoyed with it very quickly. It’s a bit too small for me, my legs feel cramped on it, and I’m skeptical that it will feel good when I get close to highway speeds on it.