Last Saturday marked my fifth year of riding a motorcycle. Riding is something that I had wanted to do for a very long time. I either lived in an area that would be statistically more dangerous to start riding in (Washington D.C. metro, for example), or didn’t have enough money to spend on a motorcycle and gear. That all changed when I moved to Richmond.
There are few things in my life that have exceeded my expectations, and motorcycling has certainly been one of them.
I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Beginner Riding Course. I highly recommend this course, even though it only covers part of what it takes to motorcycle safely as a commuter. I did learn several important things from the MSF course. Simple things like learning how to “power walk” the bike by using the friction zone of the clutch was a baby step to taking off from a stop. We also learned that acceleration, deceleration, and turning all compete for a tire’s attention. You can cheat in a car by slowing down and turning at the same time, but this can be very dangerous on a bike.
There were a lot of useless things in the class, too. The most useless thing was a maneuver called “The Box.” You have to do two U-turns in a Figure-8 pattern and escape a small area without putting your feet down. I have done many U-turns in my motorcycling life, but never anything like The Box. I didn’t realize then that this maneuver was a precursor to a bunch of other needlessly difficult technical things some riders do because they can, not because they are actually useful (see also: trail braking in street riding).
I spent a lot of time reading about crash statistics, safety gear, and bad rider behaviors online and in Motorcyclist Magazine my first year of riding and the year prior. I learned that while most riders complain about cars turning left in front of them, chances are we hurt ourselves by taking turns too fast and winding up in a ditch. The motorcyclist is the only one involved in the majority of bike accidents. I also learned other things, like common impact points on the human body during a wreck and typical ways to drop your motorcycle.
My BRC training and independent research helped a lot, but the best teacher of all was putting miles on my bikes. Learning things like watching the front wheels of a car or how to back up my motorcycle without dropping it came slowly, but formed the core of how I’ve ridden for five years without incident.
I purchased a 2004 Yamaha FZ6 brand-new from Jarmin’s Motorsports in Charlottesville, VA. The FZ6 is considered a “gray area” bike for new riders. It is bigger and more powerful than the typically-suggested starter bikes such as the Ninja 250, Ninja 500, and Rebel. Like kids with a BB gun (“you’ll shoot your eye out”), most folks said I’d drop or crash my new bike. It didn’t turn out that way, but I appreciated their concern.
The Middle Years
The second and third years of my riding experience were more about finding out my own personal limits and desires in motorcycling, and then shaping the various motorcycles around those expectations.
I originally bought my FZ6 to sort of zoom short distances around by myself. I soon found that it was a lot of fun to use my motorcycle as a car replacement. Hard, plastic, water-tight luggage soon replaced my nylon top bag and side saddlebags. I became more interested in riding longer distances, and the stock windshield gave way to a taller one. As the years ticked on, I added foot pegs, a better seat, and heated grips.
2002 BMW K1200LTE
I went through a soul-searching period with my two-wheeled companions. I picked up Raptor, a 2002 BMW K1200LTE touring bike in the spring of 2008. I wanted to do much longer distance riding, and since I was working from home at the time I thought I might take a month off and tour the USA. I still have the route planned, but I got rid of the K1200. It was much too heavy for my typical motorcycling — commuting — and I dreaded taking it anywhere. Five months later, I replaced Raptor with Raider, a 2004 BMW R1150R.
1980 Honda CB400T
My 1980 Honda CB400T named Adama was originally purchased as a light, ride-around-town bike that I could also tinker on. The bike was a LOT of fun, and I actually enjoyed riding it a lot. That is, until I had to stop. The thing has really poor brakes, and even though the bike was the lightest I’ve ever owned and the engine was the smallest, I also felt it was the most dangerous. The bike really made me re-think the advice typically given to new riders: start small and light. The rear drum brake on the Honda made typical stops nerve-wracking, and nerve-wracking stops a practice in butthole puckering.
I wound up selling it to an ex co-worker after putting about a thousand surface street miles on it. I took it on the highway twice in its entire life, and that was one too many times for me.
2004 BMW R1150R
The R1150R was a really neat bike. It had ABS, heated grips, auxiliary lights, and a nice set of luggage. It was almost double the engine displacement of my FZ6 (which I still owned), so accelerating on the highway or with a passenger was effortless. The R1150R taught me a lot about what I wanted in a bike, but also how a naked bike wasn’t going to fit all of my needs.
Even though the R1150R had factory heated grips and a power supply large enough to run heated clothing, the basic design of the bike — open to the elements — always meant I was playing catch-up with the cold. The R1150R was absolutely rock solid in riding in the rain, but the open design also meant I was blasted by water at highway speeds.
I also hated the frequent and expensive maintenance schedule associated with BMWs. At my rate of riding, I would have the bike into the dealer for up to five scheduled maintenances a year. The going rate at the only BMW dealer in riding distance (over 75 miles away) was $115/hr. That means almost $600 per trip, or up to $3000 a year just on service alone.
The build quality left something to be desired, especially in a motorcycle that retailed for a fair amount of scratch. The bike originally had plastic connectors that hooked the fuel line up, and they were prone to failure. Or, in my case drenching my leg in gasoline. The side stand also was a little too weak and at too sharp of an angle for the bike, resulting in an impromptu side stand dismount in my driveway.
I often looked at my FZ6, which was still in the driveway, and recalled how much I’d spent on regular maintenance in the four years I’d owned it at that time: $500. I also considered how many problems I’d had with the bike: zero. Hrm, maybe it was time to ditch the German bikes and go back to Yamaha. This time, I would be ready for a larger, full-faring bike.
As of Today — 2009 Yamaha FJR1300A
Apollo is my Yamaha FJR1300A. It has been just about everything I wanted out of a motorcycle. It is about as heavy as my R1150R, but has a full faring like the K1200LTE. It has the low-maintenance schedule like my FZ6, but is better suited for longer travel and taking along a passenger. The bike isn’t without its faults, but I’ve put 16,000 miles on it since June of 2009.
I’ve had a few reliability problems with the electrical system, and for some reason the bike shuts off at a very steep angles. However, the bike has been a dream on the road, and I commute 50 – 60 miles a day on it depending on my route. I rode to work recently on a rainy day. I took my rain gear off, and a co-worker said to me, “you know we’re in a tropical depression storm, right?” Hrm. Didn’t notice.
I’ve managed to log about 50,000 miles during my five years of riding. So far I’ve not had a single accident or infraction. If I discount the not-so-well designed sidestand of the R1150R and Raider’s desire to roll off of the side stand, I haven’t dropped a bike, either. I think a lot of my success as a safe rider comes from this maxim, which I read about during my first year of riding:
Every rider has two buckets: a luck bucket, and a skill bucket. Everyone starts out with their luck bucket full, and their skill bucket empty. The object is to fill the skill bucket up before the luck bucket goes empty — but you never know how big your luck bucket is until it’s too late.
There have definitely been some close calls on the bike, mostly dealing with other traffic. However, I credit most of my safe riding to always being on the lookout and spending lots of time on the road.
What’s next for me? Maybe a heated seat for Apollo or a taller windscreen. He’s pretty much perfect as-is. I sure would like to take a month off and do that ride around the country ….
Here’s hoping the next five years are as eventful — and safe — as the last.