By September 26, 2005

MSF Course Day 3: "I thought you were hauling ass"

Yesterday was my final day in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginner’s course. We were such a good class during day two that we jumped ahead in the timetable and did an extra drill on Saturday. That gave us more time to practice for the riding skills test at the end of our Sunday’s session.

We did some really neat, practical drills. One of them was starting to make a turn, and then having to suddenly stop. Braking while turning is a big no-no on a bike. Your tires are already being used for cornering, which results in a reduced contact area on the tires for braking. If you brake during a turn you stand a decent chance of eating shit. In order to stop during a turn, you have to straighten the bike up and then jam on your brakes. Another useful drill was sudden swerving. My friend Bond told me about this one, so I was ready for it. You cruise towards the instructor at about 15 mph. There are three cones side by side that simulate the back of a stopped truck. You head towards the back of the truck, and you have to swerve to avoid it. The instructor stood about five feet behind the “truck line” and would direct you to swerve left or right. You were not allowed to slow the bike at all, even by letting off the throttle, until the instructor directed you to swerve. You were then required to stop as quickly as you could next to the instructor.

The last time I did the drill, the instructor stood silently for a moment, cried out “perfect!” and did a little dance. Righteous.

We finished up the emergency evasion drills and then started practicing for our riding skills exam. One of the skills we were tested on was The Box, which I had a very hard time with yesterday. You have to make two U-turns and a figure 8 within a 20′ by 20′ box. The box is plenty big, but completing the exercise is a binary activity; either you could do it and only need half the box, or you couldn’t do it, and no matter how big the box was you’d mess up. I fell into the latter group.

The riding exam started with The Box, then a straightaway acceleration drill, followed by the swerve-and-stop drill I mentioned above. We were required to swerve to the right only and make a sudden stop. The Box wasn’t timed, but as soon as you straightened out from the second U-Turn the other two drills were on a timer. Move too slowly and you were penalized. Brake too early and you were penalized. Take too long to break and you were penalized.

So, I knew I was going to fuck up The Box. You were penalized 3 points for putting your foot down in The Box once, and 5 points if you put your foot down more than once. You were penalized 3 points for going outside the lines the first time, and 5 points for going outside more than once. Laying the bike down during this or any drill resulted in an automatic disqualification.

We all lined up one behind each other. I was about in the middle of the group. Everyone’s eyes were on you while you did your thing. I eased towards The Box and started to make my first U-turn. No problem! It was the first initial U-turn I’d completed in two days without putting my foot down or going outside the line. I smiled to myself. Hey, this isn’t so bad! I completed my figure 8 and then started to make the right-hand U-turn. I don’t know if it was my overconfidence or what, but I rolled completely over the line. Shit. So, I straightened out and rocketed towards the swerve exercise. I dogged the bike a little to the right and came to a stop. Oh well, three points down.

The next test was a straightaway acceleration drill followed by an emergency stop. We had to hit 15 – 20 mph before the stop zone. We were penalized for anticipating the cue cones by slowing down. We were to use the front brake, back brake, grab the clutch, and downshift into first. We had to stop within a certain distance without suffering a penalty. I screamed towards the stop zone, grabbed the clutch, the front brake level, and eased on the back brake pedal. Great technique! Except that I forgot to downshift into first. John, the instructor that evaluated me during the practice version of this drill, slowly walked around to the left side of my bike. I had a choice: should I downshift now before he got there, or just take the penalty? My conscience got the best of me and I took a 5 point deduction for not downshifting. Ugh. I also took too long to bring the bike to a perfect stop, and lost some points there.

The last drill of the day was also my favorite to execute. It involved making a slow 90 degree turn, then hitting a straightaway, braking before you enter a wide 135 degree turn, making the sweeping turn, and then another straight line until you hit the stop area, where you braked as fast and as hard as you can. The target speed was between 15 and 20 miles per hour. You were penalized for not braking at the start of the sweeping turn, for slowing down in the curve, for taking too long to complete the braking-turning portion of the test, for taking too long to make it to the finish line, for anticipating the stop, for not braking hard enough, and for not downshifting into first. That’s a lot of shit to remember, but it was a very practical test.

I knew I was at least eight points down on my exam — 3 for the box, and 5 for the 1st gear mishap. I could only lose 13 more points before scrubbing the test. The penalties for this part of the test were severe. For example, if you were too slow in the approach you were penalized 5 points and sent back. If you were too slow the second time you were penalized 15 points. I figured that it was better to go fast and mess up on the braking section than to go slow and suffer the larger point penalty.

It was my turn. I easily navigated the first, smaller turn. I straightened out and quickly shifted into second gear on the straightaway. I leaned close to the tank and was up to 25 mph before the beginning of the turn. I rolled off the throttle, and used both brakes. I slowed way down because of that, and then I started my sweeping turn. I rolled on the throttle hard, cleanly exited the curve, crouched down, and sped off towards the finish point. I screeched to a halt, and made a perfect stop (remembering to downshift this time). I got the thumbs-up from my instructors and putt-putted to the garage and turned my bike off.

The rest of the class finished and we were called in one by one for our test results. Remember, you can only lose 21 points before they fail you. I have to say, I was not proud of my score. -3 for going outside the line in The Box. -3 for putting my foot down inside The Box — I apparently wasn’t even aware I did this. -5 for not downshifting into 1st. -3 for not coming to a complete stop soon enough on the straightaway. -1 for looking down before I entered the turn on the big turn. -3 for not going fast enough through the turn on the final exercise. -18 overall. Bummer. I wasn’t the “worst” in the class, but I was damn close. Instructor John said my score didn’t accurately represent my level of safety and riding that they’d seen over the last two days. The downshift mistake and the slow entry into the curve skewed my score a bit. Subtract those points and we’re at -10 — still pretty bad. Subtract The Box, which I’ll probably never do in real life, and I’m at -4 for not braking fast enough and looking down while I rode.

I shared my results with some of my riding buddies. “Too slow [during the turning test]?” one fellow said. “I thought you were hauling ass. You were easily the fastest person.” Oh well, at least I know I can roll on the throttle during a turn 🙂

All in all, the instructors’ critiques were spot on. I left the course feeling that I needed a lot more riding time. We were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the course, and I noted that I would rather have a third day of riding instead of one day of classroom. My biggest complaint about the course isn’t related to the course itself at all. It’s with the general motorcycle education system and the complete lack of a defined training process beyond the MSF course. If, and this is a big if — a motorcycle rider takes the MSF course, they only have two days of riding experience before they’re thrown out on the roads with all sorts of traffic. Unlike my automobile training course (still only a short week), we had no drive time in traffic. As one MSF instructor put it flatly, “congratulations. You are now qualified to drive on an empty parking lot.” The MSF course revealed gaps in my abilities, and instead of having a safe(r) environment to practice them in, I must now improve them on the street. No wonder so many riders turf it within their first six months. The course was great, but I really wish we had more ride time.

Some of you have asked me if/when I plan on getting a bike. In an ideal situation, I’d like to buy a bike before the end of the month so I get some ride time in before the end of the season. If I can get another two months or so of riding in I’d feel much better about picking up again in the spring. I have my eyes on Kyle’s FZ6, even though it’s very close to the original retail price. The FZ6 isn’t a common bike in the Richmond area, and I’d rather not have to deal with buying the bike in NoVA or Charlottesville and then having to drive it on the freeway.

Here’s to keeping the shiny side up and the dirty side down. Good luck to my fellow classmates, and ride safely.

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