Motorcycle Beginner: Rider Training

The Newbie goes to school

story by Dennis Chung, Photograph by Michael Nardi, Created Jun. 02, 2011
The first thing I noticed after I hit the ground was the sound of raindrops hitting the back of my helmet.

My visor had popped loose from bouncing off the hard knuckle protectors on the back of my gloves after I had raised my hands to cushion the landing. Cool air blew into the opening while a drop of sweat dripped from my nose and landed on the rain-soaked pavement.

My arms and legs felt relaxed and comfortable, as lying face down on the wet parking lot pavement gave my strained muscles a rare opportunity to rest after two long days of riding. A dull throbbing, however, alerted that something was wrong with my right ankle.

I then heard the footsteps of the instructors rushing over to me, followed by shouts telling me not to try to move.

But one thought remained clear in my head, like a flashing neon sign in my mind’s eye: I had just failed my rider training course exam. The worst part of it was I knew exactly what I did wrong. In fact, one of the first things the instructors warned us against doing.

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Three Days Earlier …

“Remember, be gentle with the front brake,” said Lenny Mammoliti, a coordinating instructor of the Humber College Motorcycle Rider Training Program. “Don’t grab it. Gently squeeze the brake lever.”

Mammoliti held his arm up in front of him and demonstrated how to slowly curl your fingers when applying the front brake. He was speaking to a roomful of about 60 students enrolled in the school’s Gearing Up training course. Certified by the Canada Safety Council, the program is designed for new riders with little or no experience on a motorcycle, similar to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse.

Almost all of the students in the class, myself included, have what is called an M1 class license in Ontario. Earned by passing a motorcycle and road knowledge test, the M1 license lets someone ride a motorcycle or scooter under certain conditions. M1 license holders must have a blood alcohol level of zero when riding, they may only ride during daylight hours, they are not allowed on most highways with a speed limit over 80 kph (50 mph) and they may not carry passengers.

Passing the Gearing Up course means you are exempted from the government’s M1 road test and can upgrade to an M2 license 60 days after earning your M1. More importantly perhaps, you also get a certificate that can help you receive discounts on insurance.


The students represented a wide mix of age groups and ethnicities, though the gender balance was noticeably swaying more towards the men. Andy Hertel, program manager and chief instructor tells me women usually make up about 25% of students, still a minority, but a growing one. A lot of students are also what Hertel calls “returning riders,” those who have ridden motorcycles in the past, but haven’t ridden in quite some time and wanted a refresher.

The program sees about 2,100 to 2,200 students enroll each year. About 90% of the students in the Humber College Motorcycle Rider Training Course complete the test and pass the program. Another 5% decide part way in that motorcycle riding isn’t for them, and walk away. The rest? Andy doesn’t like to use the word “fail.”

“Even if they don’t pass the test, they still come away knowing more about riding than they did before,” Hertel said. “They may not have passed the test, but I’d still call that a success.”

The classroom session took place on a Thursday evening with two days of riding over the ensuing weekend. The classroom time provided an overview of the program, a discussion about riding gear and a couple of videos produced by the MSF. The information covered was pretty straight-forward and reinforced what I read in preparing for the knowledge test. Lenny’s instruction gave that knowledge some added context and he was able to answer any questions students raised. More importantly, Lenny set a positive, upbeat tone to help settle everyone’s nerves.

A lot of other students had questions about what riding gear they needed for the program, but I knew I was prepared thanks to my shopping spree earlier. A bigger concern for me was the weather forecast calling for rain over the weekend.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Within every mistake is a lesson to be learned. In this series of sidebars, the staff shares stories about our early two-wheel blunders and what we learned from them.

This exercise in poor judgment happened during the early years of my motorcycling career when the thrill of riding muddied clear thinking.

Tim, on his 1987 Suzuki GSX-R1100, easily passed the slow moving car in the short distance before the approaching right turn. I, on my 1981 Honda CX500 Custom, did not. By the time I got around the front of the automobile I was practically in the corner.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next, whether I grabbed too much front brake or simply laid the bike down from scared inexperience, but the result was me and the bike in a heap on the ground. Because the driver of the automobile came to a quick stop and there was no on-coming traffic, the result of my foolhardy pass was nothing more than a slow-speed crash from which I walked away from with nary a scratch.

What I do remember is the embarrassment of having to pick up and remount the motorcycle while the folks in the car I had just precariously passed waited and glared. We never spoke, but their facial expressions said everything: “What were you thinking!?!”

The moral this event illustrates is to “Ride Your Own Ride,” and it should be a lesson you don’t need to crash to learn. Be patient, your riding buddies will wait for you to catch up.

- Tom Roderick, Content Editor


First Ride

The skies were clear when I arrived at the Humber College parking lot for the first day of riding. Like me, most students drove to the campus, but there were quite a few who rode their own motorcycles. Some students have obviously had some experience riding, but as Lenny had told us earlier, we should focus on learning at our own pace and not worry about how other students are doing.

The morning air was soon filled with the roar of V-Twin engines as instructors rolled out a fleet of training bikes. The Humber College program uses modified Yamaha Virago 250 cruisers. Now known as the V-Star 250, the Virago 250 is a lightweight cruiser with a low 27-inch seat height and feet forward riding position. The bikes had some modifications: lights, mirrors and speedometers had been removed and some were equipped with straight dirt bike style handlebars instead of the stock handlebars.


After a brief introduction, students were broken up into groups of ten, each group led by two or three instructors. Once the groups were organized, we headed to a row of training bikes lined up along a curb. I climbed onto my Virago and got a sense of the controls. At six-feet tall, I found the Virago to be a little uncomfortable at first as my knees and elbows seemed awfully close to each other. I started getting used to it after a while, though smaller riders probably found it easier.

The first few exercises involved a lot of pushing as we took turns “riding” while other students pushed us along. Under human-powered propulsion, we practiced balancing on the bikes and making low-speed turns. Just as we started to get tired of all the pushing, it was finally time to get the motors running and start riding for real.

My first few attempts were rather tentative. We rode at very slow speeds as we focused on controlling the clutch and modulating its friction zone. I stalled a couple of times before I understood it was okay to rev the engine more if I used the clutch to control my speed.

Staying at low speeds, we practiced turning, weaving around pylons and coming to a stop. By the time we stopped for a break, I could feel my left forearm cramping from squeezing the clutch lever most of the morning.

As the day continued, we moved on to higher speed exercises and shifting up to second and sometimes third gear. The instructors maintained a positive attitude, celebrating our successes and cheering us on while keeping an eye out for bad habits like not checking over your shoulder before you start to move or forgetting to downshift to first gear after coming to a stop.

One of my bad habits was not keeping my eyes up high enough. I was used to keeping my vision at a certain level when driving in my car, and I thought I was doing a good job of keeping my eyes up, but the instructors helped me realize I wasn’t looking high enough.


The first day ended and I was physically spent. After spending more than seven hours on a motorcycle, my body ached from performing exercises my muscles weren’t used to yet. Before we left, Lenny gathered all the students together for a pep talk and we were told to go home and get a good night’s sleep because we had another long day ahead of us.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

The first time I hit the ground on a motorcycle I was 19 and had only been riding less than six months. A group of my riding buddies decided to go to the local canyons, and having just purchased my dream bike — a Suzuki SV650S — I was eager to see how it would perform. Having just purchased my first set of leathers, I felt I was finally ready to get a little more aggressive.

We went up the canyon road a few times but I felt I could go faster, so as the group took a rest at a turnout, I decided to do a few more passes. Coming down the hill, as I came to the bend where my friends were waiting, one of them waved their hands to warn me of trouble ahead — right as I started turning in.

At that point I panicked, picked the bike up and ran off the road through a big turnout. But I was scared to use the front brake for fear of locking it up, and I instead jammed the rear brake and locked it. I stayed upright with the rear skidding down the road, but when the edge of the cliff came approaching fast, I decided to abandon ship and lay her down. Thankfully the bike stopped in time and the frame sliders took most the damage.

When I explained why I didn’t use the front brake, one of my more experienced friends showed me just how much stopping power is available in the front by doing multiple panic stops. Then he had me do some. At that point I realized I could have easily stopped my bike in time if I had just practiced panic stops before and felt comfortable utilizing the front brake. Now that I commute regularly in Los Angeles on two wheels, that lesson has proven to be invaluable.

- Troy Siahaan, Associate Editor


Next Page ... Test Day

Test Day

Test Day

The second day of riding introduced more advanced skills including quick braking and emergency swerving. I was starting to feel more confident in my riding and I could see other students were making good progress as well.

The weather, however, took a turn for the worse as clouds rolled in and a light rain began to fall. The lessons however continued, and the instructors took the opportunity to talk about riding in wet conditions. The school’s policy is to continue with lessons rain or shine unless conditions get too dangerous. It was better to learn to ride in the rain under their watch, the instructors told us, than to do it for the first time by ourselves.

“Once the student realizes the motorcycle still handles in the rain, it boosts their confidence,” Hertel told me later.

The rain stopped after about an hour and the ground began to dry, but the rain started up again later in the afternoon. Just in time for the test.


The test consisted of a number of exercises using the skills we learned through the two days of riding. The instructors walked us through the different parts of the test with one teacher demonstrating the exercises.

The first segment involved a slow-speed right turn followed by acceleration through a curved path painted onto the pavement before coming to stop within a marked box. We then had to turn the motorcycle around and repeat the same curved path in the opposite direction. The timed exercise tested our ability to control the motorcycle at slow speeds, accelerate and come to a stop.

The second portion of the test is nicknamed the “boomerang” for the shape of the curve painted on the ground. Starting from one end, we had to accelerate and countersteer through a turn while remaining inside the painted lines. The exercise was timed so we needed to maintain a good speed through the curve. I knew from practicing that I tended to run wide while exiting turns so I reminded myself to push the inside handlebar out more when I go through the curve.

The next part of the test was the quick stop. Accelerating from a standstill, we had to ride through two pairs of pylons while keeping an eye on an instructor standing farther down the course. When the instructor raised his hands, we had to bring the motorcycle to a stop before reaching a third set of pylons. The trick was we had to ride fast enough to pass through the first two sets of pylons under a certain time limit so there was no cheating by riding too slow or braking early.

Following the quick stop was the obstacle turn, also known as the emergency swerve. The exercise was similar to the quick stop only instead of signaling us to stop, the instructor would randomly point left or right and we had to swerve around him in the indicated direction.


The final part of the test was the quick stop on a curve. Students had to accelerate along a straight path before making a left turn along a painted path. Sometime during the turn, an instructor will signal for a stop. The rider has to straighten the motorcycle and come to a smooth stop along the curve.

Errors such as straying outside marked lines or taking too long for the timed elements earned demerit points. To pass the test, you need to have 11 points or less. Dropping the bike, doing something reckless or refusing to attempt any part of the test will end the examination.

I knew from practicing I had the final three parts down pat. I had no problems with emergency braking or swerving, while the final curve provided plenty of room for a smooth, controlled stop.

Which made it all the more disappointing when I low-sided during the first exercise.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Within every mistake is a lesson to be learned. We on the staff share our personal stories about our early two-wheel blunders and what we learned from them.

The most helpful attitude any rider should learn to embrace is found in an old proverb: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. When riding a motorcycle, it often seems like the world is out to get you. And by the world, I mean other vehicles, the elements, creatures of the natural world, man-made infrastructure, etc.

I wish I'd understood this better when I was new to riding. Indeed, I've kissed pavement a few times in the past, sometimes as a result of my own ignorance, or negligence, or by that of others.

I've learned to look into other vehicle's mirrors to see what the driver's eyes are telling me while I’m riding alongside. Sometimes you'll see that the driver has already seen you and is prepared for you to pass them. Sometimes they’re oblivious.

Also, be wary that the road surface ahead could be covered by some contaminant, like oil, diesel fuel, or sand and small gravel. Or, worse, water mixed in with one of the others.

Finally, wear the most and best riding gear you can afford. You needn't always wear a full leather suit each time you saddle up. But having had spills with and without full gear, trust my knees when they tell, more gear is better.

- Pete Brissette, Senior Editor


Next Page ... Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

I was brought to a local hospital where a doctor determined I had an ankle sprain and thankfully not a fracture. I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could get on a bike again, but a fracture would have meant a much longer recovery time. To be safe, I gave myself a couple of weeks before returning for my re-test.

Students from that weekend’s course were completing their test when I arrived. After they were done, it was time for the re-test. There were about 20 other students taking part in the re-test, some I recognized from the weekend I first attempted the course. I could sense they were as anxious as I was to get this over with.

The re-test session was led by instructors Sasha Soloviov, Mario Angers and Anne-Marie Strillec. Sasha was the one who helped me up from my crash and filled out the incident report so he recognized me immediately.

We started with a warm-up exercise to get re-acquainted with the Viragos. The one I selected had the stock handlebars instead of the dirt bike bars I used the first time. The angled bars felt more comfortable which helped. The clutch was a bit more finicky however, with just a touch of the lever putting me in the friction zone.

After a few minutes of riding, we were divided into two groups and were given an hour to practice for the test. The instructors outlined the elements of the test again and we were able to practice each exercise.


Mario was timing us as we practiced to let us know when we were going too slow. I was guilty of that myself. Mario urged me on, telling me I needed to go faster in the exam otherwise I’d get demerit points. I realized I was being too tentative. Though a couple of weeks had passed, my crash was still in the back of my mind. After a while fear gave way to frustration and then anger.

“You can do this,” I scolded myself. “Get over it, Dennis, and just do it.”

And it helped. I felt more comfortable the more I practiced, and comfort soon led to confidence. Our hour was soon up and it was time for the test.

I knew the first exercise would be the hardest. If I could get past this first part, get farther than I did last time, the rest would be easy.

When it was my turn, I lined up at the starting mark and took a deep breath. Engaging the clutch, I shifted out of neutral and into first gear. I did a shoulder check to the left and then to the right. I took another deep breath, rolled the throttle and slowly let out the clutch.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Within every mistake is a lesson to be learned. We on the staff share our personal stories about our early two-wheel blunders and what we learned from them.

Patience is a virtue, and that’s especially true when on a motorcycle. I was once not so virtuous.

Having ridden dirt bikes for years and already with a year of street riding under my belt, I was fairly confident in my ability to handle a motorcycle. After watching a fireworks display with thousands of others, I tossed my girlfriend on the back of my bike and tried to navigate through a glut of car traffic that clogged the park’s grounds. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I spied an alternate route over an unpaved section. I cautiously made my way over the dirt until it dumped out onto a paved road.

I was internally jubilant that I was short-cutting our exit and was anxious to get ahead of more traffic as I turned onto the pavement. In an instant we were down on the ground, as the dimly lit surface obscured some gravel that had been tracked onto the road.

The mild pain I felt from the low-speed spill paled in comparison to my concern over my girlfriend who was an innocent passenger. I was relieved to find out our only injury was some mild road rash on our knees that snuck through our jeans, as we had both been wearing full-coverage protection, but it could’ve turned out much worse. My bike was still rideable, but it suffered $800 worth of cosmetic alteration.

The lessons learned that night still ride with me today. I regularly have to remind myself to remain patient when stuck in traffic, and I am always more cautious at night when visibility is reduced.

- Kevin Duke, Editor-in-Chief



We waited by a trailer as the instructors reviewed our evaluation forms. I remember sitting just outside the trailer door only a few weeks earlier, holding an icepack to my ankle as I waited for the ambulance to arrive. My ankle was still a bit sore, but this time I was standing, having completed the exam.

After a while, Sasha walked over to the waiting crowd.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You all passed!”

Sasha called out our names and gave us our score sheets. When he called my name, he told me to look at my times.

“When you started today, you were going much too slow,” he said. “But look at your times: you got over it.”

I did score three demerit points for straying outside the path on my return trip through the first exercise, but otherwise, I was clean.


Later, when I walked back to my car and tossed my helmet and jacket into the back seat, I heard a small explosion in the distance. The re-test coincided with Victoria Day, a Canadian holiday. Someone had set off fireworks in celebration.

I’d like to think that maybe some of those fireworks were for me.

Tell us about your experience in a motorcycle training course or let us know about your first crash either on our forum at the Reader Feedback link below or by sending an email to

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