Learning to Ride

So far, learning to ride has been the easiest and most fun part of the motorcycle experience. I have neither a bike nor a license, so the only real option for riding legally is motorcycle school.

Fortunately, there’s several options in NYC for learning how to ride. Motorcycle Safety School has classes in all five boroughs and the surrounding counties. Their offerings include the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourses, which are the USA industry-standard and also earn graduates a discount on motorcycle insurance.

A Honda Rebel 250, my ride for Motorcycling 101.

Motorcycling 101

In September 2020, I took the two-hour Motorcycling 101 class from MSS at CUNY Lehman College in the north Bronx. This was a very relaxed and fun experience, completely suitable for those without any experience at all in motorcycles or even driving a car. The only requirements other than wearing a helmet and being over 16 is knowing how to ride a bike.

The class consists of an hour or so of review and discussion about motorcycle and riding basics. Then you get to pick a bike (I got a Honda Rebel 250) and spend an hour riding back-and-forth in a straight line at very low speeds between cones that are approximately 100 yards apart.

The riding was extremely basic — and fun as hell. The first time I started up the bike and felt the rumble beneath me I immediately understood why so many people love motorcycling. Straddling an engine and feeling the power beneath you as you take off is sublime. I knew right away I’d be signing up for the Basic RiderCourse next.

The north parking lot at Lehman College in The Bronx, set up for MSS classes.

MSF Basic RiderCourse

Two months later, I was back at the north parking lot of Lehman College for the two-day Basic RiderCourse. This class consists of a three hour online course that’s done before the in-person classes, several hours of review and written testing onsite, and several hours of riding.

The riding was a lot more comprehensive and challenging than Motorcycling 101 while still feeling completely supported and safe. We were trained and tested on stopping, changing gears, cornering, avoiding obstacles, riding over obstacles, and turning at slow speeds.

Our main instructor, who goes by “Yoda,” was easy-going and strict in equal parts — exactly what you want from a motorcycle trainer. The instructors were all male, as were 95% of the students but the entire experience was refreshingly free of machismo.

If anything, the vibe was actually sort of nerdy. Could it be that motorcyclists have been cultivating the tough guy/gal image all these years simply to hide the fact that they’re actually just geeks?

A Harley-Davidson Street 500, my ride for the Basic RiderCourse.

The bikes that were available consisted mostly of Hondas (Groms, Rebels, and an adventure-style bike). There were also a few Harley Street 500s, which is what I rode. The Harley was very comfortable but also a little heavy for me, despite being one of the smallest bikes that Harley makes.

In retrospect, I think I should have learned on one of the little Groms, which looked fun as heck and is probably closer to the style of bike I’m actually going to buy. But the Harley served me well regardless and by the second day I had gotten used to the weight and greatly appreciated how the hot engine keeping my bottom parts warm on a windy, chilly day.

The absolute highlight of the training was learning how to corner during the second day — specifically, the act of countersteering. It was completely befuddling and frustrating at first because the idea of steering against the direction of the turn is so counterintuitive. It’s not something I’ve ever consciously done in all my years of riding a bicycle.

But after I did it once, it completely made sense and I realized then why so many photographs of motorcyclists show them leaning hard into a turn, inches off the pavement. It’s one of the most awesome things you can do on a bike.

The well-worn bikes are stored in a shipping container in a corner of the lot.

Towards the end of the second day came the road tests. Each of us were tested on a variety of riding skills and I gotta admit I was more than a little worried that I wasn’t going to pass. But fortunately all of us made the cut and nobody needed to be “counseled out” to return for a retry at a later date.

Would I recommend this class? Absolutely. I will be a far safer motorcyclist having received this training than if I had tried to learn on my own. It was well worth the money to me and a good value, considering all you get with the class.

My only complaint is that I wish we had more time riding. Our afternoon class often had to wait for the morning class to finish with the shared bikes and riding space. I don’t know if this is something that happens all the time or was specific to our weekend, but it’s something to keep in mind. Taking the earlier class might be a way to avoid this situation.

Our graduating class. Main teacher Yoda is at front left.

Next stop: the DMV

Graduates of the Basic RiderCourse get a road-test waiver card that can be turned in at the DMV for a motorcycle permit upon completion of the onsite written test. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused severe waits for DMV test appointments, so I can’t take the written test until my appointment in March.

It’s possible I’ve done this process a little backwards — several others in the class had taken the written test first, so now all they have to do is turn in the road test waiver to get their motorcycle permit.

While I wait for my appointment, I’m doing a lot of research into what bike to get. Shopping is proving to be a lot harder than the classes were, which I’ll detail in future posts.

Not quite a licensed motorcyclist yet, but at least a card-carrying road-test passer.