Continuing Your Motorcycle Education

Hell For Leather, HFL, Skills -



Some years ago I decided to go back to school as I felt there was a lot I could do to improve myself. I’m not talking about going to college or doing night classes to study for a business degree. Instead I felt that I really should learn some basics again about how to properly ride. This was about continuing my motorcycle education.

Over the years, since I first began to ride, I knew I had developed some pretty bad habits. The problem was that I wasn’t precisely sure what I was doing wrong and what I really needed to work on. The easiest option was for me to go out and buy some books and watch some DVDs from the comfort of home and then see where I was falling down (no pun intended).

But my wife decided she wanted to start riding too, so it was with a heavy heart I reluctantly agreed that I would join her on a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Beginner’s Course, here in Southern California. MSF offers a whole range of motorcycle instruction across the U.S. that caters to absolute beginners ready to learn the basics, also to advanced riders, who need a refresher course – like me.

My wife was a complete novice and in the interests of marital bliss and to give her some support I agreed to join her in the newbie course. I was fairly sure that it was going to be a walk in the park. I’d ridden for a long time, knew what I was doing and felt I would probably have to sit it out while the learner riders got to grips with the Buell 500s loaners, which the MSF course provided to students.

MSF Basic Ride Course attendees practicing “friction zone” drills.

As it turned out I really am an arrogant SOB, as my wife ran circles around me and was a natural on a bike. I on the other hand caused our MSF instructor a major headache. Not only did I demonstrate to everyone else in our group how not to ride a motorcycle but ended the final day in a heap on the parking lot after dropping the Buell. There’s no fixing stupid.

But if I step back a bit I can honestly say that MSF course was one of the best and also one of the toughest things I have ever done on two wheels. There were two evenings of intensive classroom tuition to bring everyone up to speed on California road laws. This was also where they taught you all the practical things you should know when riding a bike. Simple stuff and most of which I’d forgotten or chosen to ignore. Some basic motorcycle riding theory was also thrown in and I had a hard time paying attention, as all I wanted to do was the physical stuff. Over the next two days we would be riding from 9:00am in the morning until late in the afternoon on a vast, empty parking lot under the watchful eye of our MSF instructor.

It’s probably at the point I should describe Mac, our MSF instructor, to you. This guy was of indeterminate age, softly spoken but came across as a tough, absolute, no-nonsense USMC drill sergeant type, who had seen it all and done it all on a motorcycle. He made it very clear to all of us that he was not to be messed with. He was there to help us but if we didn’t listen he’d send us home.

An MSF coach explaining proper clutch operation.

What Mac said went. If you followed his instructions he’d leave you alone. If you asked sensible questions he’d give you excellent feedback and advice. If you messed about he was going to be on your back for the next two days.

Mac could also ride like nobody I’ve ever met or seen before. He’d come up every day on his bike from some obscure town in Southern California before sunrise and spent the entire day with us, instructing and demonstrating the finer points of riding. He’d answer all of our questions, explain clearly and well where he thought we were going wrong. The when we finished, he’d clean up the parking lot, park the Buells and disappear into the twilight on his bike telling us to be punctual the following day or we’d be out of his class. No argument.

Mac told me from the outset he’d have his eye on me for those two days of practical riding. We never went above 20 mph the entire time and we rode and rode until we got to the levels of competency he expected from us. There was no lea way to stop and rest – except to grab something to eat at lunch time – and Mac drove the six of us in that class hard all day, but particularly me.

At the end of two days of riding around a parking lot my brain was frazzled from concentrating and making sure I followed Mac’s instructions to the letter. My legs and arms ached as I had been in the saddle for almost a continuous eight hours. But then for some reason, which still escapes me today, I just dropped that bike on its side and lay there with the Buell on top of me, while the engine revved furiously and I stared up at a bright blue sky while lying on my back.

Mac walked across to me. Turned off the bike’s ignition and then squatted down to look me in the eye. He told me: “You really screwed that up didn’t you? You cannot afford ever to lose a moment’s concentration on a bike. Do you know why?”

MSF Basic Rider Course participants receiving instruction.

I mumbled some pretty lame response. Mac in turn pulled up the right leg of his jeans and showed me a prosthetic leg. I had no idea until that point he only had one leg. I’d watched him with the rest of the class riding a motorcycle, demonstrating how to ride, better than anyone I have ever seen.

Mac got even closer to me and said: ”This is why. I was coming home late one afternoon on my bike and I wasn’t paying attention. I hit a dog at 30 mph. I lost most of my right leg. The dog didn’t do much better. You want to ride a bike? Pay attention all the time.”

The MSF beginner class was an eye-opener for me. It made me stop, revaluate the way I ride and I learned what I had been doing wrong, why I was doing it and how I could improve. I needed to keep my head up, cover the brake properly and I rode better in those two days than I have ever done in my life. That is until I dropped the Buell.

Thanks to Mac, every time I swing my leg over my bike and head off down the road I make a point of concentrating on what I am doing every single second I’m on two wheels.

I’m also considering taking the MSF’s Advanced Rider course in the near future. I’ll let you know how I get on. I’m just hoping that Mac is up to dealing with me again.

Would you ever go back and re-take your MSF training? What do you do to continue to improve your riding skills? We want to know.

Related Links:
Ask RideApart: How Do I Start Riding a Motorcycle
HFL: The Importance Of Talking To Yourself
How To: Get a Motorcycle License

  • eddi

    I never took a course like that. In 1970 I had not heard of the MSF. Did they even exist at that time? A friendly sales guy showed me the controls and let me wobble around their parking for a while. They threw a helmet in for free (Euro-scooter style beanie). No special license needed, insurance not required though I got minimal coverage at a rate a college-bound kid could afford. Oh, the bike? Honda C70 in red. It’s low power is probably a main reason I survived those first years accident-free.
    A bikeless stint in the Air Force then home to a CB 360 in 1976. Since then my rider training has been out of books and lots of practice. Now a days Ride Apart’s aticles have also been of use.

    Here in Oregon, Team Oregon does the training courses. They are MSF style as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s time for this old dog to go learn some new/old tricks.

    • E Brown

      I recommend doing so – I took a course after 25 years of riding and was blown away how some of my basic skills had eroded, simply because experience (both with my bike and my riding environment) meant I rarely used them much anymore. Since then, I make it a point to drill on those skills about once a month. It’s actually pretty hilarious to find yourself wobbling thru low-speed drills after decades of riding. :)

    • Tim Watson

      It’s really worth doing. You’ve got nothing to lose and you maybe surprise what you learn. I did.

      • Piglet2010

        Here they sometimes offer the MSF ERC for free – better choice if you already have a license and know how the controls work.

        The Lee Parks/Total Control and Eric Trow/Stayin’ Safe classes are excellent for someone who does not need to go over the very basics, but would benefit from help in vision, body position, and overall smoothness. The Total Control classes will also help a rider get more out a track class if taken first.

        • eddi

          Total Control sounds excellent if sports bike riding is what you love. I’d be more interested in street survival like Stayin’ Safe and some not so fast off-roading advice.

          • Piglet2010

            In the Total Control classes I have taken, riders have been on everything including cruisers, touring bikes, dual sports, AT bikes, sport touring bikes, supermotos, and yes, even a few sportbikes. Street riding techniques are covered too.

            Eric Trow being interviewed about Total Control classes:

    • eddi

      Financially, I’ll have to wait for June/July. But it’s on my to-do list now.

  • Ben W

    This is a great read, Tim. When I took the MSF basic course, once in WI about 10 years ago and once in Texas about 7 years back, both times it was the experienced riders that really struggled with bad habits. It’s tough in the ego, particularly in a “Basic” course, but the lessons are way more important than pride. Good on you for sharing that.

    My MSF coach in TX could maneuver his huge touring Harley better than I could work the 250 Nighthawk in any given exercise.

    • Ben W

      Should say “tough on the ego” but I can’t get my dang phone to edit the post.

  • Justin McClintock

    I remember when I was looking to get into riding. A friend of mine who rode pretty much all the time gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding a motorcycle: Take the MSF course first. I’d probably be a road stain by now if I hadn’t.

  • Brett Lewis

    During my course, one of the 2 individuals that fell was an experienced rider, attending with his wife. The other was a young lady that ran into the back of me – there was a checkpoint after a turn at which everyone had to stop and speak with the instructor and bikes were stacking up in line and we were all near-panic braking… now I wonder if that was a curve the instructor threw at us.

  • Rameses the 2nd

    Just when I thought this whole Mac rant was going on for too long, dun… dun… dunnnn….. plot twist.

    In all seriousness, if you have already taken a beginners MSF course, go take intermediate MSF course and needless to say, if you have already taken intermediate MSF course, go take advance rider course. MSF basic course is nice, but it is a little too long and quite boring (classroom part).

    • Piglet2010

      The power-walking drills with duck-walking U-turns at the end are quite annoying to a returning rider, or a younger rider with dirt riding experience. Thankfully in our class of 12, they sent the 6 of us who had ridden before to sit in the shade, while the complete newbies got the extra practice they needed.

      • Chris Cope

        No powerwalking allowed in UK rider courses. Your feet go off the pegs for anything other than a full stop and you fail.

        • Piglet2010

          This is the very first range drill, intended for people who have never been on a motorcycle before and therefore need to develop muscle memory on how the clutch and throttle work – you are told *not* to pick up your feet.

  • mrniceguy715

    I took the basic rider course, I did much better than the experienced riders since I didn’t have the bad habits to break. Iam looking forward taking the passenger course and advanced rider course.

  • Sjef

    While your instructor was right about never losing your concentration on a bike. It’s not a surprise you did after riding for almost 8 hours straight. There aren’t many people who can perform/learn/ride on their best for such a long time. When I took lessons for my license they where 2 hours max. after those 2 hours I was completely spent and tired of all the new knowledge and experiences I just had. So 8 hours might be a bit too much

    • SteveNextDoor

      When I took the MSF course this summer, I recall we took a 10-15 minute break after each exercise or set of exercises (some were short enough they could be combined); these usually took 30-45 minutes to complete, I believe there were something like 15 exercises in total, give or take a couple. Note that each day was also 100+ degrees (yay, Texas summer) with the only shade being where we took breaks, so it was a bit grueling but not horrible.

      I recommend anyone worried about fatigue checking to see if any MSF course offered in your area is the 3-day version rather than the normal 2-day. Instead of cramming all of the classroom + riding (including tests for each) into 2 days, the 3 day starts in the evening on the first day and covers only classroom material. You’re finished with the entire course by mid-day on the 3rd day (for example, my course started on a Friday evening for something like 4 hours classroom, resumed Saturday morning with riding and ended Saturday afternoon with more classroom + Written Test, resumed Sunday morning with riding, ending with the Driving Test; course complete, certificates handed out by midday). I couldn’t image cramming all of the classroom + riding material into just two days, I could see that being a bit mind numbing.

      • Piglet2010

        Here in Iowa the BRC is either 4 hours every evening for a week, or 4 hours on Friday night and 8 hours each on Saturday and Sunday as you described.

    • Piglet2010

      I have pulled in early on the last session of a track day school, since my concentration and reflexes were going, and I likely would have crashed if I had ridden another lap.

  • Jay

    The first time I ever even touched a motorcycle was at an MSF basic course. There were new people and 25 year veterans in the class. It was a really great experience. The feeling of going from completely clueless to fairly competent in 2 days was great, and it set up riding for me not as just as a purchase / toy, but as a set of skills to always be working on and improving. Totally worthwhile way to spend a weekend.

  • Dan

    Highly recommend the Lee Parks riding class as well. It’s more challenging than the Basic+Experienced MSF classes, but is still oriented towards street riding (unlike things like California Superbike School). I took LP level 1 in CA and level 2 and a skills day in NY, and had a great time at each.

    • Piglet2010

      Total Control TC-1 is even more fun, if you can get to one of courses when it is offered (ARC-1 is a prerequisite). Six or less students at a time on a supermoto track, with instructors at several corners radioing back their observations to Lee and another highly experienced instructor. After a few laps, you get flagged into the hot pit for feedback, then sent back out. Speeds are higher than the parking lot drills, but for most under 60 mph on the straights and 1st gear in the corners, so not as intimidating as a full-size track to relative newbies.

  • Luis Fernando Ponce

    I began a year ago riding a street bike (Ducati 796), I came since 12 years old from motocross, enduro and trial, but never on a street, in my country took the beginners course but it was just a couple of hours doing theory and some minutes practicing. Soon I began riding with experienced riders trying to catch them up, seeing troubles very close until one day a sunday partner asked to go to Antigua Guatemala, I refused because I wanted to go farther, minutes later as he and others friends departed I followed their path alone, at certain point I found a crowded bend, when I stopped learned that my friend had crashed against a wall, he died an hour later when we were at the hospital with him. Things changed drastically since that moment, now I usually drive alone, at my pace, no one to follow no one tu push me, just me and my quiet and peaceful riding.

  • BillW

    I took the MSF basic course back in the 80s when I got my first bike. I’d done a very little bit of riding on other people’s bikes before that. The instructor was a retired motor cop who demonstrated every single exercise, including slaloms and figure eights, on his Gold Wing Aspencade, without ever dragging parts or putting a foot down. We students, on our various bikes (it was bring your own bike then. I was on a KZ650), struggled, of course. It was really humbling, but hugely educational. I rode for a year or two, and then life intervened.

    After I got back into riding in 2000, having a little more money, I took a track school at now-defunct Freddie Spencer’s. Then I took the MSF Experienced Rider Course to refresh the low-speed stuff. And a few years later, I took a two-day track course at the California Superbike School. That sounds like a lot of training, but at the CSS, I found I had developed a few bad habits since Spencer’s school. These were things that I KNEW were wrong, but that I didn’t realize I was doing. Never underestimate the value of having a coach to watch what you’re doing!

    I try to practice skills every time I ride. But I’m overdue for more training.

  • Davidabl2

    ATTGATT for the MSF would be MX knee and elbow pads…I have always wondered WTF the MSF is thinking by not requiring and providing same for their students For the type of riding done at the class It’s a prime example of when gear makes the difference between injuries and no injuries.. A lesson that riders should learn at the beginning of their riding experience.

  • Chris Cope

    I took a BRC in Minnesota many moons ago. Now I live in the UK, I’ve had to go through the ridiculously stringent training and licensing process they have here, which involved several full days of riding around with an ex-cop shouting obscenities at me through a radio. Now that I have my license, I will occasionally find an empty parking lot and spend an hour or so going through all the low-speed techniques I learned in training. In the spring, though, I plan to take an Enhanced Rider course.

    I don’t like feeling nervous on my bike. Being alert is one thing, but being overly nervous/scared doesn’t do you any real good. I find that most often when I get the fear it is in a situation with which I’m unfamiliar. So I want to get as much training as I can.

    • Piglet2010

      I would not take a course where the instructor yells – a boot camp atmosphere is *not* conducive to learning anything other than obeying orders without question and overcoming inhibitions on hurting other people.

  • Matt S

    I have taken the MSF Basic and Advanced Courses and I am eager to try their Offroading Course next year. I would also like to take the Advanced Course every 1-2 years to stay fresh. I occasionally will practice turns and braking in nearby parking lots and I know I need to do it more (every time I see Bambi…) It would be nice if there was a public area for bikers to practice skills without getting chased away by security guards all worried about liability on private property. DVD’s help as well and have pointers and other things to practice but I feel that having a coach watch you and give feedback is the best.

    • Piglet2010

      Here the local community college kicks people off the MSF range, even though it is taxpayer funded and they have sovereign immunity.

  • Strafer

    I took the 2 day basic course in lieu of the dmv road test
    at the end of the course we finished a little early and the instructor let us know if we hurried we could make it to the dmv and get our motorcycle license
    I rushed down to the dmv and sat down to wait for my # and passed out asleep, missed my # but did wake up in time to still get my license
    I was exhausted
    I try to keep more in shape physically these days as I was out of shape when i did the course

  • Mugget

    To continue to improve my riding skills – California Superbike School, combined with deliberate practice on the streets and track. I can’t speak highly enough of CSS!

    I wonder if people who’ve done these parking lot type drills manage to make any lasting improvements in their riding? Because the facts show that anyone who is trained at 10mph and passes the test will fail at 20mph. Then they need to re-learn. But then they fail at 30mph, and so on… that’s got to be the biggest down side to any type of training that focuses on a specific speed limit.

    • karlInSanDiego

      What facts are you referring to?

      • Mugget

        The fact that “anyone who is trained at 10mph and passes the test will fail at 20mph. Then they need to re-learn. But then they fail at 30mph, and so on… that’s got to be the biggest down side to any type of training that focuses on a specific speed limit.”

        • karlInSanDiego

          If you went from self taught, to superbike school, you have no idea what you are talking about. You learned nothing about common mistakes riding in traffic, the most prevalent contributors to accidents, and good riding form. You learned how to carve a good line when you have the full visibility and predictability of the track conditions where everyone is focused on that clean execution of a single skill. Your Superbike training is only making you a better rider if you’ve already gotten a firm understanding of good road riding first. There is zero logic behind your logic that MSF and its slow speeds, doesn’t prepare you to ride at higher speeds.

        • karlInSanDiego

          Mugget, these facts you keep repeating. Any chance that’s a line from your instructor’s mouth that took as ‘facts’ Because the difference between 10 and 20 is countersteer. And the only difference between 20 and 30 might be how far ahead you’re scanning. The fundamental concept of trained at speed equals good, vs. trained at slow speed requires retraining isn’t anyone’s fact, but it could be your instructor’s theory. Of course on the road training like they require in France, for example, prepares you much better than an MSF starter class, but that doesn’t mean you write off MSF as a bad way to start.

          • Mugget

            The difference between 10 and 20mph is not countersteer – CS is required at anything above walking pace. 10mph is more than walking pace!

            Just calm down and take a few deep breaths and try to understand what I’m saying… I didn’t say that being trained at high speed is better than being trained at low speed – I said that training and testing that is based at specific speeds is not as good as training and testing that is not limited to any one specific speed.

            From your comments I can see that you have taken offence at that statement, perhaps you have taken speed-specific training/testing and feel that it has adequately prepared you to ride at high speeds? But consider this – let’s say a new rider practices on a small figure-8 loop riding at 10mph. Eventually they will become comfortable with that and when the instructor is watching during the test, they’ll complete the loop fine. But then what happens when the rider is moved on to a larger loop at 20, 30mph? Do you think they will be able to complete it just as easily? I really don’t think so… and my own experience, and the experience of many others bears this out.

            I also didn’t say that any particular training is a bad way to start, just that there are unavoidable negatives. Something is better than nothing, but if people have the ability and desire, why not just go straight to the most effective type of training?

            A corner is a corner is a corner. It does’t matter if it’s a corner on your local road or turn 1 at Philip Island, whether someone is a world-class racer or a novice rider – everyone deals with the same type of issues when cornering. It’s interesting that you mention in your comment below that CSS on-track training provides an environment with minimal distractions, full visibility and predictably track conditions. Do you know one of the largest barriers to learning? Distraction. On-track training provides the ideal environment, and since a corner is a corner, the skills you learn aren’t lost when you ride out onto the road – they’re just as effective and make a big difference to a persons riding. Many people have commented that the skills learnt at CSS have literally saved their lives on the road.

            After learning the basics of how to safely and consistently corner, yes a person may need to take a roadcraft/defensive riding type course if they still don’t have the good sense to stay in their own lane and keep themselves safe on the road.

  • Riben Gabriel Salazar

    Riding education….?? sadly this term is unheard of in mexico…. you dont even take a test you just buy your license.

  • atomicalex

    I did this just a couple of weeks ago. After my German training, it was pretty brief. But what a riot. The exercises were fun, and you could tell who had been on a bike and who hadn’t. The coaches were very good, too. They totally singled me out as an experienced rider, though, and I found them to be a little tougher with me. Not rough at all, but they were watching my lines and trying to improve them, rather than just trying to get them to exist. That was really cool. They were also guys who had rode in from who knows where. We had 16°F for both days, too. That sucked, but there they were, teaching riding. Pretty darn cool.

    I treated it like a weekend of coached PLP – which it was for me. For $25 (in MI, it’s state-sponsored), how could you go wrong?