Not So Easy Rider: Motorcycle School on a Ducati Monster

The price of filling up is getting painful, but where some see a problem, others find opportunity. If you’ve ever harbored a desire to learn to ride a motorcycle, for instance, now could be your chance. “With gas prices today we’re getting a lot of people coming in,” says Chris Kirkness, of Cliff’s Cycle Revolution in Connecticut. “It’s a great excuse for the spouse. ‘Honey, I’m going to save so much in gas.'”

Personally, I’ve always been a dedicated car person. When I got my driver’s permit, I threw down my ten-speed and embraced four-wheeled transportation. Although I have admired the design of various motorcycles, I never saw myself as a motorcyclist – the leather, the tattoos, the danger, none of it was for me.

But when I received an invitation to learn to ride a motorcycle, I was intrigued. Why not, I thought? How hard could it be?

Harder than you think, based on the DVD I watched beforehand. A companion piece to Christine Firehock’s Kickstart Motorcycle Training Series, it’s narrated by Ms. Firehock, a fourth-generation biker chick (her great grandma rode in 1913!) with big blond hair and a distinct New York accent. She’s been teaching motorcycle riding for years, but I can’t say she makes it sound easy. Just getting on the bike, for instance, is a multi-step process. “Common injuries would be to dislocate your knee or break you ankle,” advises Christine. And that’s just mounting and dismounting the bike.

Nonetheless, two days later I was in Lime Rock, Connecticut, ready to go from motorcycle virgin to easy rider – or, perhaps, to traction, followed by several months of recuperation.

The first thing you learn as a novice motorcyclist is that there’s a reason biker dudes walk the way that they do – it’s because they can hardly move. The leather jacket fits like a girdle, the motorcycle boots barely flex, and the stiff leather gloves come complete with pointed knuckles. I haven’t even gotten on the bike and I already look completely ridiculous.

The bike, by the way, is a Ducati Monster, so at least my steed looks cool even if I don’t. Despite its name, the Monster is relatively light at 355 pounds (dry), but that’s at least ten times heavier than the last two-wheeler I rode. Therefore, our first exercise is to straddle the motorcycle and just sort of tip it from side to side to get a feel for how far it can lean before it reaches the “pivotal point,” or the point at which it’s going to lay over and make some unfortunate modifications to its handsome bodywork, and some painful modifications to your own. We also walk the bike forward and back, and it’s a laborious exercise.

We try out the controls, and nearly everything is the opposite of a car’s. You clutch with your hand; shift with your foot; throttle with your hand; and brake with one hand and one foot. Got all that? Great, time to push the starter button and fire ‘er up.

Over the course of the day, I will start the motorcycle maybe a hundred times, although I’ll try to start it many more. In the process, I’ll confirm – repeatedly – that: the motorcycle will not start if the key isn’t turned on; the motorcycle will not start if the kill switch is in the off position; the motorcycle will not start if it’s in gear unless the clutch is engaged; the motorcycle will not start if the kickstand is down.

Ah, but if all the conditions are met, the engine jumps to life with a push of that button and it’s a sweet moment indeed. It sounds great; it smells great; and it gets the blood pumping. We’re finally ready to get the bike moving, and it takes some finesse. If you’ve seen people pantomime motorcycle riding, holding their hands out in front of them on imaginary handlebars and twisting their right wrist (possibly while making WaaWaaWaaa noises) their actions reflect actual motorcycle riding about as accurately as playing air guitar mimics playing guitar. The throttle is super sensitive, so you’re really making only tiny motions with your wrist. Slipping the clutch – something that’s done a lot more on a bike than when driving a car – also takes practice to master, as all the action happens in the last inch or so of travel, with the lever just at your fingertips.

Naturally, this leads to a lot of stalling. Christine’s advice: “If you stall, keep your head up; act like you’re checking for traffic; clutch in; hit the starter. The most important thing is to look cool.” If the most important thing is to look cool, I’m going to have to sign up for another whole course of study.

Actually, Christine’s enthusiasm is infectious. When we finally shift up into second gear, she lets out a big whoop of excitement. Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time in first, learning to feather the throttle, slip the clutch, and drag the rear brake. As Christine says, “Going fast is easy; going fast is fun. Going slow is hard work.” It is indeed, but that’s also where you need real skill. We practice pause-and-go, slow-speed cone weaving, stopping on a hill, and stopping and turning. During breaks, she discusses issues such as lane positioning (she favors the center of the lane); signaling your intentions; protecting your space; among other things that are of specific concern to motorcyclists.

When we finally progress beyond walking speeds, the real seduction begins: listening to the revs climb, leaning into the turns, swerving the bike by swinging your hips. As we develop the muscle memory for the motorcycle’s unique controls, it frees the mind to take in the sensations. By the end of the day, we reach third gear and maybe 30 mph, which I’d say is the adrenaline equivalent of about 80 mph in a car.

Motorcycles aren’t EPA rated for fuel economy, but the Ducati people estimate that the bikes we drove should return mileage somewhere in the 40s. That may not be reason enough to trade in your four wheels for two. But saving gas isn’t really why people take up motorcycling anyway. “We ride motorcycles to look cool and to have fun,” says Christine. For me, at least, it was a lot more about the latter than the former. As an absolute beginner, I can’t say riding a motorcycle is easy, but it’s definitely cool.

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