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MSF Basic Rider Course: Unsafe At Any Speed

What follows is a recount from reader Cheesebeast of his experience in an MSF course. The tale is very entertaining and well written. And very, very lengthy if nothing else. Great job Cheesebeast and welcome to motorcycling.--Pete

The desire to take up motorcycling had been festering in my mind for quite a while. Motorcycles looked like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, everyone I communicated my motorcycle lust to felt required to gravely inform me that, “those things are dangerous, you know”. I felt like Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun. Unfortunately I had zero motorcycle riding experience, so I turned to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation for help.





The State of New Hampshire’s (MSF) Basic Rider Courses fill up quickly with applicants. I signed up in February, and was amazed that there were more than 3,000 names on the list by the time I got to ride my course in mid-April. A quick note about the weather- these classes run regardless of the weather. That meant in our case temperatures in the mid-forties and one day of riding in the rain/sleet. Luckily we all had Hardy Northern Constitutions, bolstered by diets of raw turnips, moose meat, and the juice of fermented root vegetables. We are not So.Cal. softies!



I arrived at the first part of the course- the significant classroom session- at 6:00 PM after work on a Friday. After the expected introductions, the twelve of us were separated into small groups and we were told to pick a name for our group. I was teamed with a husband and wife, who both happen to be air traffic controllers. These very nice people own a 50cc scooter, which they share (or fight over?). The die was cast. Two scooter riding air traffic controllers and a token nerd can only have one proper name: Hells Angels. The other group names are irrelevant. We H.A.’s took a vote and we decided to allow the other groups to continue living.



Who takes a basic rider class? If you have a mind for demographics, this was about as varied as it gets. We had two young whippersnappers whom it would not be surprising if they were present due to a court order. Perhaps for squidly crimes of yore? The ratio of women to men was 1:2, and our ages spanned from roughly 18 to 55. Some people already owned motorcycles and had riding experience, which surprised me. I was getting nervous about tomorrow. Would I dump the bike? Fail? Be…uncool?



We set our minds to schoolin’ at the capable command of our two-man team of instructors. Bob, who had been teaching MSF courses for more than 15 years, and Peter, a man of much riding experience but a new apprentice instructor in the MSF family. I know you at MO are all too cool for sissy book learnin’, but I learned I did not know much about motorcycles. The bottom line of the classroom session was to hammer home that you have to have a strategy- and the skills to implement it- to cover the various wild scenarios which life will throw at us on the road. We innocents were released at 9:00 PM, and our first riding session would begin at 7:59 AM (don’t ask) the following morning.



Time: 7:59AM

Place: anonymous parking lot, partitioned by orange cones

Present: 11 riders (don’t ask),12 state owned motorcycles, and two instructors.

Weather: cloudy and cold.



Instructor hand signals and range safety issues were first discussed. Then we were instructed on how to properly pre-ride inspect and ultimately fire up a motorcycle. I learned some things. For one, there is a fuel shut-off valve underneath the tank on some of the motorcycles. I did not know this. You will hear that mantra a lot.



We were assigned motorcycles. Life can be unfair. It wasn’t that I expected brand new Triumph Speed Triples, but that would have been nice. No, no Triple for me. I got a mid-90s Honda Nighthawk CB250. It had led a hard life. In fact, this motorcycle was state owned. That “state owned” should tell you something. The first thing I noticed about my bike was the front brake. It was weird. The other types of bikes- Suzuki 250cc, etc. didn’t have the kind of front brake my Honda did. Then it occurred to me that it was a drum brake. I know a bit about drum brakes. I had 70’s cars with drum brakes. Sponge city!



The next surprise was when I mounted the beast. The suspension sagged under me like a funky couch I owned in my college days. It just collapsed, really. I only weigh 155 pounds soaking drunk! The riding position was upright, but the bike was meant for someone at least five inches shorter than I am. The position of the pegs put me in a yoga riding position that I termed: The Speedy Frog.



Next I discovered a note taped to the top of the gas tank. It read:

Finding Neutral Very Difficult. Turn bike off, Then place in Neutral.



The poor beast only had 5,000 on the odometer. Five thousand, half of which was probably lying on its state owned side, spinning the rear wheel while the hapless student begged for a medi-vac helicopter flight to the nearest burn ward.



OK, OK, I know. A poor workman blames his tools. Let’s fire her up and see what she has! We started our bikes on signal, and then I couldn’t find neutral. Oh, right. The note. Turn the bike off using….Engine cut off switch, great. Fiddle with left foot for a click, turn the bike back on, good good good…no. Not neutral. OK, try again. At this point I could feel the stares boring through the sides of my freshly minted Scorpion EXO 400 helmet. Come on, damn you…got it! Right, ready to roll!



The next instructor hand signal was to put the bike into first gear, which I had already been in more than a few times, but when I let out the clutch I discovered another quirk of my machine. When you applied throttle…nothing…nothing…surge of gas..nothing. Some weird grinding noise was emanating beneath me as I rolled along. I discovered that my throttle control sucked. The bike’s throttle was not easy to moderate- lots of surging events. I think the grinding noise and the lag in forward motion were due to the chain being way loose..or perhaps driveline lash? In the end we were off. We snailed across the parking lot in first gear.



A few exercises we worked on the first day:

Slow speed cone weaves. Cones can be an intimidating shape.

“Quick” stops from a mighty speed of 10 MPH.

Introduction to the Look, Press, Lean, Roll technique for cornering.

The dreaded U-TURN BOX.

Jousting and jumping over sharks.



Things I learned the first day:

Don’t trust the Foul Temptress Neutral light! She lies!

A bit of speed helps, but throttle control is a learned Jedi skill.

This stuff is harder than it looks.

This stuff is as fun as it looks.

Adjust your speed prior to entering a curve.

Pressing on the handlebars/countersteering is very subtle at low speeds. More subtle than I thought it would be.

Look where you want to go. Don’t look where you definitely most certainly don’t want to go…Damn. I squished another cone!

Confined space U-Turns are not easy, especially if you are ham fisted with the throttle.

The exhaust fumes of 250cc Suzukis has a nice piquant flavor to it.

The rear brake on my bike is next to useless. Even when I apply full sponge not much happens. The front brake is similar, but at least it makes a screeching sound, so that is entertaining.



I was tired at 3:00 PM, when we turned the keys off on our fly rides and trudged back to the classroom. Nobody- yours truly included- dumped their bikes. Sorry, you trauma junkies will have to wait until tomorrow. In class we learned about some street strategies using short video clips presenting us with the problem d’jour. We worked on tips to develop our spidey senses- lane positioning, etc.



That night I had a dream I was flogging my bike while being closely followed by the evil truck from the Spielberg low budget classic “The Duel”. I was stuck in second gear…



Day 2:

Weather: Cold and rain/sleet

Mood: BOOYAH!



A quick note about rain gear and gear in general. In my rather finite wisdom I discovered that all motorcycling gear isn’t made equal. I was lucky enough to order a set of rain gear online prior to the class, but when it arrived it wasn’t what I expected. The company name is Frogg Toggs (www.froggtoggs.com), and the stuff was touted to be the best thing in rain gear ever. I admit that I was initially disappointed when I took the Pro Action two piece suit out of the shipping box. For one, the material looked remarkably like a paper towel. It even had a pattern of what looks like holes in it! Holes in a rain suit? What the…? This stuff looks like it would absorb water, not shed it. The polypropylene material was about as thick as a paper towel, too. The color I ordered was grey, and it was a nice light grey. OK, stay tuned for the acid rain test!



Today’s skills were more intense:

Quick stops from 15+ mph

Proper swerve techniques

Changing lanes while using directionals (they don’t teach this in Massachusetts. If you use your directionals in Mass. you just confuse the natives)

The infamous quick stop while negotiating a curve technique. Straighten the handlebars, apply full sponge, creak to a stop.

Lots of time in the dreaded U-TURN BOX.

Higher speed cornering techniques (135 degree turn).



The dreaded U-TURN BOX was pretty simple. You must make a figure 8 in a 20 foot square box. If you drive over the lines in the pavement/put your foot down you will be forced to commit seppaku. I performed one good one, but the rest were frankly crap. I put my foot down once, I weaved over the LINE OF DEATH twice, I had poor throttle control…I was not the only one having trouble. I heard a bang coming from the other side of the parking lot. Rider down! It was an understandable mistake. The front hand covered the brake during the swerve technique, there was some squeezing involved, and down the bike went. The rider was brave. The bike was picked up, the rider remounted, life went on. The embarrassing thing that everyone feared…had happened. This rider went on to ace the riding test, incidentally.



Yes, pay attention as there will soon be a test.



More about gear- the weather was pretty tough. I saw people’s face shields fogging. Thanks to my Scorpion EXO 400, this was not a problem for me (I read a review in a dubious online rag called Motorcycle Anonymous. No, that wasn’t it… bah, close enough). The other rider’s had conventional rain suits on. One person had one meant for riding, and it had neat little straps that went over the bottom of the boots to keep them in place. The Frogg Toggs I was wearing did not have these straps, and slinkyitis had taken hold. While riding the bike/flailing about the legs on the rain suit snuck up and the top of my ankle-high boots were exposed. This area was wet, but I didn’t much care. I state this as this is the only place for improvement that I could see the Frogg Toggs needed. If you have calf length boots, then this would not be an issue. The rest of me was absolutely bone dry, and this was no gentle southern California peace-love-happiness rain either. Man rain! Wait, no, that doesn’t sound right. Anyway, the best part of all was I was not hot at any time during the riding. Most rain suits I have owned in the past quickly became sweat producing swelter factories. Not the Frogg Toggs- the stuff breathes. Bottom line: it works as advertised, and is a bargain at 40ish bucks. You can’t trust me though. I can’t even do a proper figure 8 in a confined space.



The big test began after lunch. I was feeling pretty confident, except for a certain one letter exercise. The test consisted of four basic skills:

1. Quick stops

2. Swerving

3. Cornering

4. U-Turns(DAMN)



Quick stops were first. I accelerated to about 18 mph or so, applied progressive sponge power/brakes, and downshifted to first. Fourteen feet was my stopping distance, and the speed was timed. Next came u-turns. I went over the line once and lost 3 points. I am not worthy. Mat Mladin sleeps at ease tonight.



The cornering exercise presented me with no issues. I found that going around curves is just simply awesome on a bike. When a curve is ridden correctly- with the bike pulling smoothly through…great stuff. On one test corner I tried putting my leg out while I was cornering and leaning, like I see on authorized MO review pictures/Speedvision channel. It worked, but I didn’t have a knee puck to really try it out. Bob, the instructor, was not impressed by my leg stunt- it must not have been too impressive at 20MPH... He just shook his head and spit out a few sunflower seed husks. I think he thinks I have an inner squid waiting to be unleashed from my nerd shell. I fear he is right. Did I mention that I snuck into third gear at one point?



To round out the riding skills test I am pleased to announce that swerving also didn’t present any issues. No one hit the mythical school bus, so many theoretical children were saved by our skills.



The test ended, we lined up our bikes and dismounted. I snuck a last look at the old tired Honda. You know, I take back some of the things I said about her. I think I passed the riding skills test, and that bike was a part of it. A man could do worse. Not much worse, but still. Did I mention she was cherry red in color?



We went back into the classroom for a written test. This was a nerd’s habitat, so I did just fine. In fact, the entire group of us Hells Angels aced it! The riding test was finally scored, and people were nervous. I was nervous. I didn’t know if I passed, I was pretty sure, but I wasn’t a 100% certain. The entire class passed, and we were given cards we can present to the local DMV to get our Motorcycle endorsements.



The Basic Rider Course is worth multiples of the measly $110.00 they charged me. This is a smokin’ good deal when you consider the time of the excellent instructors, the brand new Aprilia Mille Rs we got to use as range bikes, and the real skills we developed. I am going to take the Intermediate Rider class next. I am not sure I am ready for the open road yet, but I hear the siren song of fourth gear and new challenges awaiting me. For someone who had never ridden a motorcycle before, not taking this class would have been a big mistake.



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