I compressed the clutch and pressed the button, all my senses await the thrummed start; the vibrating feeling of the 185cc glorified lawnmower engine starting and the smell of too much gasoline being burnt.
Yet there is no response from the bike.
“Try turning the key to the Start position,” the man says again, pointing with his pen.
The bike finally comes to life; its engine joins the chorus of those around it.
“Sorry, my bike at home is a little different,” I said through my teeth, the lie hangs in the air like a bad smell.
“Mhmm,” the instructor says and jots something down on his clipboard.
Clutch left, brake right…
The man with the clipboard is talking to us all now. Saying something about bike safety and what the course entails but I’m not listening. My hands and eyes are exploring every feature on the bike.
“Since this is the intermediate course,” the man says, “and all of you have experience, we will not go over how to actually ride.” His eyes meet mine when he says the last part, though I’m not certain on how intentional it was.
“Just get the smallest bike you can,” my brother-in-law, Jason told me, “don’t drop the bike and you’ll be fine.” Sage advice. He’d make a brilliant military tactician: “don’t get shot. Shoot enemy. Repeat.”
I signed up for the intermediate course, instead of the beginner. A decision I was starting to regret around the time we entered the classroom that Saturday morning. When it comes to testing, there is no ddifference between the intermediate course and the beginners.
The only difference is how they prepare you. In the beginner course, it’s a three day escapade where they teach you everything about riding the bike. The intermediate course simply teaches you road safety and applies the same test in one day. The important part being the one day instead of three.
“It’s easy,” Jason told me. “You’ll be fine.”
Yet as we sat in the classroom, I couldn’t help but notice the worried looks he gave me. He shook his head and eyed me as if something tragic was about to happen.
“So clutch left, brake right?” I asked him during our lunch break before the ride.
“Ohh boy…” he said shaking his head, “yeah, clutch left brake right.”
Clutch left, brake right…. The bike hummed and coughed beneath me. Christ, I should have taken the beginner’s course.
He sat three bikes behind me and gave me a halfhearted thumbs up when I turned back to find him. The first half of the day was spent in a classroom devoid of air conditioning. We spent four hours going over bike safety and skipping over portions of our class booklet entitled How to ride a motorcycle.
“Since we’re all experienced here,” the instructor reasoned, “we don’t need to go over this stuff.” I spent the rest of class half listening to him and half devouring the bird’s eye diagram of the motorcycle.
Clutch left, brake right, clutch left…
I found the smallest bike, it looked used. It’s gas tank was riddled with dents and scrapes. I had to be careful where I put my hands and feet as the sandpaper-like damaged metal was sharp in places. I couldn’t help but feel like I picked the blind, lame, handicapped track horse. But I did as I was told, get the smallest bike you can find.
The only problem was it was up front. It was the very first bike in the pack.
“Ok,” the man armed with clipboard and pen says, “do a warm-up lap and meet back here in the same order.”
For most it was that, a warm-up. For me, it was a crash course on riding a motorcycle. I started slow and continued the slow pace around the parking lot. In my mind, I figured I had about 75 yards to learn how to drive this machine. I started violently, the tiny engine through both of us forward, the bike wobbled but I gained control.
Cruising at a safe 8mph I went around the parking lot. Shifting up and down—from first to second, from second to first—my head and body jerked back and forth like I was on a mechanical bull with a drunk as an operator.
The line of motorcycles trailed behind me like a precession, several bikers impatient with my speed swerved left and right to appease their growing boredom. One man in full leathers and his own bike threw his head back in exasperation. But I paid no heed; I had no idea what I was doing. We finally reached the start, both of the instructors eyed me as I moved to my spot at a steady 2mph.
Compress clutch, downshift to second. Brake with right hand, brake with right foot. Stop. Shift to neutral. Idle.
My face contorted with the painful concentration required to bring a motorcycle from a snail’s pace to stationary.
“First things first,” the second instructor begins, “get up to 25mph, brake when you reach the line and stop the motorcycle before the cone.”
I did the first part just great. From the start, my bike jerked me forward and brought me to a cruising speed of 25 mph. I eyed the instructor and the line he stood next to and ran through the scenario.
Clutch, brake, downshift, stop, idle.
My bike shuttered and shook. It rattled beneath my legs and feet as it reached top speed. I made it to the line at a solid 26 mph.
And I shot right past the instructor at a solid 26 mph.
I started pressing the brakes ten or fifteen yards beyond the line. Completing the shill, I killed the bike when I forgot to hold the clutch down. The second instructor walked up to me, “So the key is to brake, when you hit the line.”
“Ohhh, the line. Got it.” I said, as if it completely cleared me of that horrid excuse for a stop. I rounded the course and worked my way back to the line. As I rounded the parking lot, I practiced. I gunned it to 25mph and stopped cold, managing to kill the bike everytime. I probably looked like a high schooler learning to drive a stick shift. Caution: frequent stops should have been plastered on the license plate of the bike.
Clutch left, brake right…
The following tries got better and better. I managed to stop and not kill the bike, a feat suitable for my bucket list as far as I was concerned, though the instructors didn’t quite share my sentiment.
As the day went on, the skill levels came about.
“I’m just here to wipe away a ticket,” the exasperated man clad in biking leathers and boots, “been ridin’ for twelve years, never had an endorsement.” He spat something black from his mouth to finalize the image.
Another man in the class, aged at about sixty years old, looked the part as well. His face was grizzled with years of sun, a beard covered the lower half of his face hiding his emotions and intent. He wore a leather vest and steel toed boots. A black skull bandana was wrapped tightly around his head. The only out of characteristic part of him was his protruding beer belly. Other than that the guy looked like he had spent some time on a motorcycle.
This dude’s legit, I remember thinking.
My opinion changed when I saw him attempt to get on the bike. He took a few steps back and gave himself a pseudo running start, saying it was a ‘running’ start is putting it nicely. I’ve seen penguins run more gracefully. When he reached the bike, he ducked his head, grabbed his pant leg and pulled his leg as high as he could to get it over the bike seat. We all watched, sitting atop our own bikes, as this man rammed his right foot into the seat four, five, six times. It looked like was using his heel as a ram in an attempt to knock the bike over. Finally, after half a dozen times and several hundred calories burned, the man made it on the bike.
This dude’s far from legit.
I concocted a plan when I saw the man struggle. I’m not proud of it, it’s something that’ll linger on my consciousness till my dying day. As the practice tests droned on I weaseled my way away from the front of the pack. By midday I secured my position behind the visual contradiction.
His failures made my sub mediocrity look almost good. When he rolled over fifteen of the sixteen cones, the two I rolled over seemed like a nice improvement. When he tried to throw his leg over his bike for three minutes, simply starting my bike looked adept.
“Why can’t you be more like this young gentleman here?” I imagined the instructors thinking as they eyed him attempt his barely waist-high high kicks.
The day went on and the tests grew more difficult. The instructors put out more cones and instructed us to swerve.
“Swerving is essential for avoiding obstacles,” the clipboard instructor told us, “to swerve left, push with your left hand. Vice versa for right.”
In my spot behind the sham (not much unlike myself), I watched the man attempt to swerve. He raced towards the cones, his bike puttering like a golf cart under his weight to reach 30mph. You could see the concentration in his eyes. As he shot forward from the starting point, it was plain to see this man desperately wanted to swerve.
The glorified gocart crossed the line and the man started his swerve. To his chagrin, it was less of a swerve and more of a dance move. His arms, legs or lower body did not move. Instead, he ducked and weaved his shoulder and head as if dodging some invisible tennis ball shot at him. He bounced over the cones and if you looked at his face, you’d think he swerved perfectly. I think in his mind, he had avoided the obstacle with perfect finesse, the same way a child might think they did something that looked cool. “Did you see that?” I half expected him to say, “I totally swerved”
The clipboard instructor walked over and squashed the man’s childlike confidence. As he lectured, the man simply nodded his head silently, looking somewhere off in the distance. He looked devoid of emotion. Part of me wondered if he was even listening.
“You gotta get this swerve, we can’t pass you if you don’t get it down.”
The man nodded again, as if he had just been told the sky was blue, and found his place back in line.
The sun began to set when the tests finally finished. We completed the course and sat on the curb as we waited for the instructors to call our name to tell us if we passed or not. As the group grew smaller and smaller, my worry began to grow.
The instructors called the big man’s name and he walked over to where they were standing. The two of them took turns telling him pointers, no doubt each had enough notes to fill a novel. His head bobbled up and down as he silently acknowledge the things they told him. A few times they reenacted his mistakes like a game of charades; their heads dodging invisible tennis balls. Finally, the instructor reached out and handed him a piece of paper, but he did no let go when the student grabbed it. Instead he looked him in the eye and said a few more words of wisdom. When he did let go, the big man turned away. He looked at us all and smiled. For the first time in the eight hours of class we had spent together, he displayed emotion. He gave us a thumbs up and walked away a few feet taller.
That’s when I knew I had made it.
“Nice work today,” the man told me as he handed me the paper, “just work on that whole ‘starting the bike’ thing.”
I couldn’t tell who was more relieved with me passing, myself or Jason.
“I was worried,” he told me afterwards.
“Piece of cake,” I lied. “Clutch left, brake right.”