Making A Rider: Teaching Your Kid To Ride

Evans Brasfield
by Evans Brasfield

Surmounting the learning curve successfully

Every motorcycling parent dreams of their child expressing interest in the sport. For me it started with a request to be taken for rides on the back of my bike, but then one magnificent day, she asked, “Can I learn to ride?” I’ve always wanted my kids to be interested in riding, but I was not going to pressure them. I’ve supported them in their interests (from ballet for my oldest to competitive gymnastics for my youngest) and tried to avoid pushing them into mine. So, when my 13 year old asked me, I sprung into action. What I didn’t know is that I would end up learning almost as much about myself and my daughter as she did about riding motorcycles.

Go to School, Learn to Ride

I’m a product of Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider education and a former instructor, so naturally, I turned to motorcycle training. Honda sponsors an MSF-certified program out of the Colton Rider Education Center, providing everything a new rider needs. Show up in shorts, a t-shirt, and socks, Honda provides everything else. (I, in my boundless enthusiasm, had already gotten my daughter set up with Alpinestars gear before the class.) When we arrived at the Colton facility, we were both excited to learn that there was another teenaged girl in the class as well as a female instructor, who among her credentials listed motocross and supercross/arenacross as her skills. How cool is that?

Motorcycles are assigned based on the rider’s size.

The class consisted of six riders, ranging from 12 to 50-something in age, while the bikes available cover the gamut of Hondas novice off-roaders could physically fit. After the class is geared up, each student is assigned an appropriately-sized dirt bike that would be theirs for the duration of the class. My daughter ended up on a Honda CRF125F.

With those necessities taken care of, class begins in earnest. The curriculum is based on riders who have never, ever thrown a leg over a motorcycle. “Classroom” sessions take place at a picnic table just off the riding range, and students are given a tour of the parts of a motorcycle, from the petcock to all the hand and foot controls. Time is spent discussing the clutch lever’s friction zone, but the class is moved to working with the bikes surprisingly quickly.

The class ranges from age 12 to 50s, and all students start in the same place, basic controls on a motorcycle.

Learn by Doing

Out on the range, the real learning takes place. All the riders learn to start their bikes and then each gets individual coaching on the proper use of the friction zone and how it moves power from the engine to the rear wheel. Next comes walking the bike across the range and back using just the friction zone. Before long, all six students are riding slowly across the range. Without missing a beat, the coach has the students riding around the range in a large oval, learning how speed stabilizes a motorcycle.

All motorcycle control begins with an understanding of the friction zone. Each student gets individual coaching on its proper use.

Proper braking technique is the next skill addressed, and after the students receive instruction and a quick demonstration from the coach, they are back out at it, stopping at cones placed at intervals around an oval laid out on the range. At this point, you may be wondering why turning hasn’t been covered. The curves on the short sides of the oval are gentle enough for anyone who knows how to ride a bicycle to be able to negotiate. The initial emphasis of the exercises is to familiarize the students with the four basic controls. Once they understand them, the real, dirt-focused learning begins.

The rider coach demonstrates each exercise for the class before they mount their bikes.

Street riders will be shocked to learn that you don’t turn dirt bikes with your hands but rather your feet on the pegs. So, when actual turns enter the curriculum, the students learn about leaning the bike underneath them and counterweighting it. Then it’s back on the range for weaving – both sitting and standing – followed by some fairly tight turns that require the riders to really lean the bike underneath them. All of this takes place under the rider coach’s watchful eye, which is backed up by supportive shouts and gestures for refining technique.

Here the coach helps with proper body position for turning.

The culmination of the class is a trail ride through a wooded section of the facility – complete with a bridge and a small water crossing. Here the students get the feeling of an actual ride while they put all the skills they learned in the class together. Unfortunately, during this ride, my daughter hit a metaphorical wall, crashed twice, and collected her first broken clutch lever. (Regular MO readers won’t be surprised. She is my daughter, after all.) Ending the class this way is a bitter pill for a 13 year old, but again, the instructor again showed her empathy and skill by consoling my daughter and telling about all the crashes she’s had racing.

On just about any weekend, the Honda Rider Education Center has both street and dirt classes going on simultaneously. Photo credit: Apple Maps

Kids bounce back quickly, and before we got home she was talking about the ride we had planned for the next weekend.

As the students ride, they get supportive feedback from the instructor.

Out in the World

Although Kawasaki was nice enough to loan me a KLX140R, we discovered that the seat was a smidge too high, leaving me to scramble to find a smaller bike on short notice. A fellow motojournalist came through with a KLX110 with an automatic clutch that we could use for a couple of weeks. (Thank you, Don!) Although my daughter is probably a tad big for the bike, being able to flat foot at a standstill is paramount for a new rider. So, while she couldn’t practice her clutch skills, all the other techniques would get some valuable reinforcement in the flatlands of California City.

Both confidence and speed increase throughout the day.

Our two weekend rides reinforced what I already knew about parenting, but it’s never too late for a refresher. As she was in her gymnastics career, my daughter builds new skills methodically, taking incremental risks until she is confident in her ability, and no amount of cheerleading on my part can accelerate the process. The good news is that the rider training had given her the tools to build on.

We started our day with big ovals in the desert until she was comfortable with the KLX110. One of the things that makes California City such a great riding area is that it is criss-crossed with graded roads. So next, we set out to explore – her on the KLX110 and me on the KLX140R. By the time we had ridden a half hour or so, my daughter was begging me to take her on some trails. (An aside: Having a set of Cardo communicators so we could talk while riding proved invaluable. I could warn her about any hazards we encountered, and I could hear when she tipped over.)

Flat, wide open spaces offer a great environment for upping a new rider’s confidence.

If you have a cautiously adventurous child, like I do, you’re going to face the “I can’ts” and the “I’m afraids.” Patience is necessary when you know they can do something, but fear prevents them from trying. I believe that the best learning takes place when the student is having fun, so I didn’t push or get demanding. I let her play within her comfort level on our first time in the desert, having her leave with fond memories. Then, I brought a secret weapon for our next weekend in the dirt.

Since my daughter responded well to the gentle firmness of the rider coach during the class, I brought a friend who has lots of experience teaching kids to ride in the dirt for our second trip to California City. Under his gentle assertion that the motorcycle can handle anything she is willing to try, the training progressed in leaps and bounds.

By the end of the first day in the desert, we were riding on easy trails.

Shifting became almost second nature instead of a challenge. Riding through small washes with their sections of sand was approached without stops at the top to get psyched out before trying. In fact, by the end of the day, an exercise that initially had my daughter terrified, became her favorite activity. She’d ride down an embankment, cross a graded road, ride up the other embankment, circle around, and do it all again, looking for the steepest place to try.

My reward was seeing her smile and having her say – unprompted on the drive home – that she had a great day and wanted to thank me for bringing her up for the day. That was music to my ears.

We’re already planning our next trip out into the desert for a ride. Is the hook set? Only time will tell.

A rider is born (hopefully).

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Evans Brasfield
Evans Brasfield

Like most of the best happenings in his life, Evans stumbled into his motojournalism career. While on his way to a planned life in academia, he applied for a job at a motorcycle magazine, thinking he’d get the opportunity to write some freelance articles. Instead, he was offered a full-time job in which he discovered he could actually get paid to ride other people’s motorcycles – and he’s never looked back. Over the 25 years he’s been in the motorcycle industry, Evans has written two books, 101 Sportbike Performance Projects and How to Modify Your Metric Cruiser, and has ridden just about every production motorcycle manufactured. Evans has a deep love of motorcycles and believes they are a force for good in the world.

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2 of 9 comments
  • Campi the Bat Campi the Bat on Apr 28, 2021

    Been thinking long and hard about gifting a very close friend's five-year-old daughter something like a Stacyc. He says he'll kill me if I give her such a thing, but what does he know? Good luck catching her once she's on the throttle.

  • Wilbur Wilbur on Apr 30, 2021

    My son learned about riding on a Bicycle as thats all we had when I/he was younger. Then I bought my son a PW 50. He thought it was fun but could almost out-do it on his bicycle. Then came the KX 60/80, Suzuki 80, CR 80 and then a CR 125, KTM 125.
    Oh the memories. Then we got into racing. CR 80 won the Amateur GNC Championship with the Suzuki front forks....Saw him Tuesday night at Village Creek. He was on the 450. 36 years old. Man how time flies! Gotta Love the father son and dirt bikes. I would do it Again in a heartbeat.