Noob In The Box

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Noob In The Box

Looking back on it, it was watching a guy die in a motorcycle crash that made me want to become a biker.

That’s not entirely true. I’m still not sure if the guy actually died. This is what happened: I was a sophomore at San Diego State, and was crossing the bridge across Montezuma Road to get to my dorm when I saw him. He was on a sportbike, the kind that your mom thinks of when she tells you how dangerous “those things” are – and he was coming up the street in a hurry. The road curves under the bridge, and that curve ends at an intersection, and if you’re on a bike that’s whipping through that turn at well over 60 miles per hour and the light – the one you can’t see because it’s around the bend – is red, your instinct, assuming you’re not an experienced rider, is to pull the front brake. Hard. A Panic Stop. An experienced rider would squeeze the front brake (right hand) while stepping on the rear brake (right foot), and he’d do it smoothly and slowly because as has been proven time and again, if applied correctly motorcycle brakes do a really good job at stopping a motorcycle without flinging the rider from the seat.

Perhaps the guy was an experienced rider. Maybe he’d done this particular curve at 90 many times over. Or maybe he’d never done it that fast but was in a hurry – late for a final, on his way to the frat house for an important meeting. The bike was a beast – I didn’t know anything about motorcycles at the time, but the scream of the engine told me that Fast was relative, that this was a machine that with just the slightest flick of the wrist would go from zero to 120 in a matter of seconds. 60 miles per hour wasn’t particularly fast for this bike, in the great grand scheme of things. It was built for speed. It was also built for riders who knew how to handle such speed. He saw the line of cars stopped at the light, and got the first part of a hard brake in a turn right: he straightened the bike, which was at a wicked angle, leaning as it was into the turn. Then he made his mistake: he pulled that front brake hard, the front end of his bike dove as the suspension collapsed under the enormous stress of G’s, and off he flew.

He actually flew. Through the air, in a straight line about three feet off of the ground, as his bike slid down the road. I remember it was a quiet thing to watch; lovely, in a way. There was no sound; my brain had simply stopped processing everything but the sight of him. He flew through the air, head first, looking like a hero from a Marvel comic book in his red leathers and matching red helmet. Then he arrowed head first into the side of a parked car. There was a loud crunch. I gagged down a mouthful of vomit. The bridge ended at the dorm parking lot; there was a SDSU Campus Police car parked there. The officer inside was reading a copy of the Daily Aztec. “Excuse me”, I said. “There’s been an accident right under the bridge. Bad one. Guy on a motorcycle…” And that was all I got out, because there must be something reflexive when one is a police officer or paramedic and the words “motorcycle” and “accident” are heard. The cop hit his lights and sirens and rolled. I walked back to the dorm, shaken by what I’d seen. I never found what happened to the guy.

Some twenty years later, I’m astride a Kawasaki Eliminator 125 on a hot summer day. I’ve been a motorcycle rider for exactly one hour and 35 minutes. The bike looks beefier than it actually is; the “125” refers to the bike’s engine, a 125cc air-cooled, four-stroke single-cylinder powerplant that’s perfect for beginning riders. It’s a little after noon on a February; the Costa Mesa sun is out, and I’m thanking God that I’m not doing this in, say, June. I’m in jeans, high workboots, an Under Armour long-sleeved compression top worn beneath a heavy flannel shirt, armored motorcycle gloves, and (of course) a helmet. My iPhone tells me it’s 70 degrees. I’m sweating like an overweight offensive linemen on the first day of practice. The heat isn’t overwhelming, but it’s enough to be a distraction, and distractions are not good when learning the nuances of riding a 320 pound motorcycle. And nuance is what this particular part of my first day of motorcycle riding lessons is all about.

My next task sounds simple enough: there is a rectangle painted on the tarmac, it’s 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, and to pass the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course I and everyone else my class have to execute two linked U-turns within it.  The instructors refer to it as The Box, and if it sounds like something that Steve McQueen would find himself sweating away in after yet another attempt to escape from Stalag Luft III…well. There are five other riders in my BRC class, some noobs, some with years of experience, and after a few rounds of slow, counterweighted turns, fidgeting with our throttles and clutches to maintain enough speed to keep ourselves from dropping our bikes while swearing under our breath, we’re all thinking the same thing.

“I HATE The f____ing Box.”

When I ask John Leahy, one of my Rider Coaches at Mission Viejo’s Saddleback Rider Training school, which part of the course riders have the most trouble with, he laughs, because he knows what I’m thinking. “The U-Turn Box makes new riders crazy. And a lot of experienced riders find it tough.” As he tells me this, Chuck – an older, bald Harley rider with a Sam Elliot mustache begins arguing with one of the MSF instructors. “This ain’t how I learned to do a U-turn, and I been ridin’ for twenty years”, he grumbles. The instructor politely reminds Chuck that the methods the MSF teachers use are time-tested, and are used at every MSF school in the country. Chuck remains unconvinced, even after he drops his bike attempting to make his turns inside The Box.

I roll up to the starting point as Chuck exits The Box in defeat. Oddly – or perhaps not – I’m thinking of the guy from that crash I witnessed. I think about what’ll happen to me if I twist the throttle just a bit too hard, or if I forget that that the clutch is on the left and the brake is on the right. I’m twice as old as the youngest student in the group, and I’m learning how to ride a motorcycle. What I won’t know yet – what I will experience soon enough – is not only how much fun it is, but how oddly relaxing riding feels, how quiet everything becomes, when every sense is focused on the tasks at hand, shifting, turning, braking.  It occurs to me that I want to not merely learn how to operate a motorcycle – I want to become a motorcyclist, to not just do those things that bikers do, but to do them exceptionally well. To not end up like the guy I saw crash those twenty years ago.

The instructor tells me to go. I twist the throttle, and ride.

What was your noob experience like?

  • Campisi

    I cheated in my MSF course. While everyone else was mulling over the Nighthawk 250s and Eliminator 125s on the first ride day, I all but tackled the single KLR 250 sitting near the back of the pack. My father taught me well; when he had to take a riding test to renew his defunct motorbike license, he did the whole exercise on an old Honda SL70, 265 pounds of corn-fed American in tow.

    • Reid

      When I took my test we also used the Eliminator, which is, I’m almost positive, the crappiest machine ever created by the hand of man. Why in the world I didn’t DEMAND to use one of the two Yamaha 250 dirtbikes with street tires, I will never know. The whole thing could have been pleasurable and easy instead of terrible and frustrating.

      • Campisi

        You, sir, have never ridden a Daelim.

        • Afonso Mata

          Hey! My friend owned a Daelim Superlight 125 and it was quite a confortable piece of crap.

          • Campisi

            My Daelim Daystar 150 was quite the uncomfortable piece of crap. I loved it to death, of course.

            • Afonso Mata

              Sorry, I meant to say Keeway Superlight, the direct competitor of your Daelim Daystar.

              • Campisi

                In China, perhaps. The Daystar’s biggest competiton in Korea is the Hyosung Mirage 125, though once they get cheap enough for foreigners to ride they’re in such poor shape that condition trumps engineering.

                • Afonso Mata

                  I was talking about Portugal and Spain (and other countries in Europe). If you want cheap cruiser-styled bikes, you either get a Daystar or a Superlight. Hyosung isn’t that big around here. Less than €2000 will get you riding a brand new almost-badass cruiser. ;)

      • Piglet2010

        Kawasaki Eliminator 125 – the motorcycle designed to eliminate the fun of riding.

        When I got back into riding, I snagged a Suzuki TU250X out of the BRC fleet – 250cc class cruisers make me feel like a circus bear (but may be just fine for short people).

    • Dan

      Agreed! As the tallest member in my MSF class I got to ride a brand-new Yamaha 250 dirtbike, made the box easy and fun.

  • Robon Hood

    I took my safety course in Cowtown Ft. Worth under the instruction of a Ft. Worth Motorcycle Officer in December of last year. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of partaking in, I think the part that did it for me was doing the entry and exit turns successfully on the Suzuki 250′s we were on and feeling the bike lean and come through the turn. That was it, I was hooked! I now own a 2013 CB500F that I received in Feb. with just shy of 5300 miles on the clock and I look forward to putting quadruple that before I even consider swapping rides.

  • William Connor

    After riding for a few years I have really come to appreciate the box, when I first started I was not a fan. I have worked with some new riders and taught them how to beat the box so that they enjoyed it when they took their test.

  • Nemosufu Namecheck

    The box is sort of a right of passage – like if you can do this you probably have balance enough not to fall over. After riding for year after year I don’t think I have ever had to accomplish this turn in real life, let alone the sequence of turns. Off road I use a much sharper turn than this which I wish I would have known how to do before my MSF text.

    • carbureted

      I guess it depends on where you live. I reside in a large city with tons of traffic where lane splitting is legal, and I use this maneuver every day in stopped traffic. In the States though, you’re right–it’s a right of passage.

  • Disqusdmnj

    I took my course last July, knowing that my first “bike” would be Honda’s PCX150 scooter. I had screwed up the practice run by entering the box incorrectly, then proceeded to miraculously mismatch the clutch, throttle, and brake all at once. I’m not sure any part of the turns were inside the box. But the next round was the test, and the guy ahead of me – “Big Al” – weighed 400 pounds and was on one of the dirtbikes… and watching him perform the test was grace incarnate. It was a gorgeous display of balance. (I expected as much from the instructors, but not him.) He sailed out, I approached, had one quick toe tap on the ground in the first turn, then glided through the next. It was truly one of those moments of, “oh, NOW I get it.”

    Even now on my scooter, when I’m back home for a ride, I’ll do a couple turns in the street.

    • Strafer

      scooter can probably tear up turns like that

      • Michael Howard

        Automatic clutches can actually make low-speed maneuvers MORE difficult.

        • Disqusdmnj

          I haven’t found that to be the case yet, but I think I know what you’re talking about. There’s a certain punchiness of the transmission when it first engages, noticeable when I’m trying to turn in a parking space or the like. Still though, two wheels is way more fun than four!

        • daveinva

          This. A CVT is “always on” in a way that a manual isn’t. Feathering a clutch really helps in low-speed maneuvers.

          • Afonso Mata

            The real problem with the CVT and low-speed maneuvers is actually when you’re so slow that the CVT disengages. And when you feather the throttle there’s a little punch that kinda takes you “by surprise” and can unbalance the whole system.

            • Piglet2010

              The “brake torque” or “torque triangle” technique most police riding schools teach also works very well on a CVT scooter, and eliminates the problem you just described.

        • Decline Finletter

          If you find that to be true, there is something wrong.

          I’ve test ridden probably 40 scooters for people before, from 50cc to 350 and the only time I ever found it difficult to perform a low speed S turn or very tight circle was because the front wheel was severely out of alignment with the handlebars, and even then it was doable.

          • Michael Howard

            Yeah, having manual control over the clutch’s friction point is of absolutely no benefit whatsoever in full-lock U-turns. Especially on the 470 lb 400cc maxi-scooter that I’ve ridden daily for almost six years. I defer to your test riding experience.

      • hunkyleepickle

        yeah…no.

    • Afonso Mata

      Don’t put those quotes on the word bike. A scooter is a bike. Period.

      • Disqusdmnj

        Appreciate that. The only reason I have one to start is because of space. Already done a few group motorcycle rides and have received no negative comments about it, as long as I can maintain speeds (which can be difficult depending on the route). Admittedly though, while I loved the feeling of control with a clutch, there’s something to be said about grabbing both brakes like a bicycle and stopping where I need to!

        • Afonso Mata

          Also, nothing beats riding a scooter in town. Lane splitting, traffic ligths, tight intersections. All of those situations when using the clutch not to stall the engine, downshifting to 1st to negotiate tight spaces, etc etc would interfere with your quickness :P

          I just don’t like those skinny tires on the PCX.
          My best friend had one and it took me a little while to get used to it.
          I’m used to throwing the weight of the bike to get some lean angle and negotiate a corner. On those skinny tires you just have to shift your body weight and the bike leans by itself. One can say it’s fun because it’s effortless, but on the other hand sometimes it feels like you’re riding a fast bycicle :P

          • Disqusdmnj

            No question… at times it feels like a sleeker moped. But for a starter bike, it’s great. I would have gone for the Forza for something a bit more substantial, but at this time even that was a little too big for our garage space (honestly, filled with crap we don’t need and toys my son doesn’t play with… but that’s another story). But while the Forza would be a great upgrade, the Honda CTX700 DCT with ABS. It’s essentially an automatic scooter masquerading as a motorcycle.

            Either way, as long as I’m out on the road! ;)

          • Piglet2010

            I often “butt steer” my Elite 110 just for the heck of it.

  • http://www.bikething.co.uk/ Jonathan Ward

    On the practical road riding part of the compulsory basic training course (like the MSF thing, but in the UK), at the front of a queue of traffic waiting for the lights to change. When they changed…… *stall* *stall* *stall* *stall* *stall* *stall* *stall* *stall* [lights back to red with horns blaring] – repeat x2.

    One of the most embarrassing moments of my life. But, looking back, also pretty amusing. I’ve now been riding for almost 5 years, with a full category A licence and two large capacity motorcycles. So it didn’t turn out all bad!

    • Piglet2010

      I stall at intersections on my Ninja 250R, unless the bike has been running at least 10 minutes. I hate *&^@^# carburetors.

  • Dutchvon

    Great post! I also completed my MSF class at SRT in Mission Viejo about 7 months ago and really appreciated the way the instructors were firm but understanding in the way they ran things. I didn’t manage to successfully complete the box once, UNTIL the test when I some how came through under pressure.
    Since then I’ve ridden at least 5 days a week, all over So Cal. I put over 7,000 miles on a ’82 Honda CM450C before purchasing a Bonneville a few weeks ago. The way you describe riding towards the end is exactly why I know I’ll be doing it as long as I am able, and also something I didn’t know going in, I just thought I’d save a some time in traffic and some gas money.

    • JasonAvant

      Thanks, @dutchvon:disqus – glad you enjoyed it. The feeling I get is very similar to how I am when doing one of my other “crazy” and/or “foolish” activities – rock climbing. As with riding, when I climb, that focus is key to drowning out whatever fears I might have. I’m looking forward to getting more of that as my riding develops.

      Next up: some offroad training, and hopefully some time at a track school. Followed by, of course, an article asking readers what type of bike I should ultimately ride – cruiser? Sportbike? ADV? (And if that isn’t comment-bait, I don’t know what is.)

  • zion

    So…. as an MSF instructor, let me tell you about the “box”. Do you remember the S turn you made right after exiting it? Same damn thing. People just get in their head about being in a “box”. As for the skill, is it life saving? No. Is it a convenience that allows you to show you have control of your bike? yes. Ultimately, being able to do a tight U-turn (assuming your bikes geometry will allow it), is just proof that you have good clutch control/friction zone talent. It’s a good tool to be able to handle your bike at low speed and prevent a tip over….that’s what it’s all about control….the friction zone helps with smooth starts from a stand still and low speed maneuvers. In turn making “noobs” into more proficient riders.

    But, hey don’t tell anyone any of this….I don’t want anyone figuring this out on their own….. You know, wanting students and all.

    • JasonAvant

      You guys do great work. By the end of the course, I felt really comfortable on the bike, and I’d recommend the MSF program to anyone who wants to learn or improve their skills. (First time I did The Box, I put a foot down; second time, passed with flying colors, thanks to my instructor’s feedback.) Like I said, there were some veteran riders in my group, and they came away having learned stuff that they didn’t know.

    • Afonso Mata

      I don’t want to brag about it, because I suck at it, but there in Portugal, we don’t do that S shaped U turn inside a box. We must do a complete figure of 8 on a “narrow enough” street. We all hate it and don’t do that ever again on “real riding” :P

    • Decline Finletter

      I’d say you are exactly right about people just freaking out because there is a box.
      I breezed through it every time during the course. The four or five people in front of me had a horrible time with it. I must have been getting noticeably psyched out about it cause the instructor looked over at me but just said, “Don’t over think it, it’s just two U-turns which you already did.” And he was right. Of course to offset that it might sound like I’m bragging about breezing through the box, I will admit I had a much worse time with the probably more practical swerve and brake portion. Though I think the swerve is easier in real life as you don’t sit there in a line building up anxiety over it, you just think “oh ^%&#! You dumb@$$!” and swerve. The scare comes afterwards when your realize how close you were to having a wreck, not before, lol.

    • Piglet2010

      Watching two teenage girls who had never ridden before coming to grips with the clutch on a TW200 on a grass field was entertaining – someone at Yamaha a few decades ago designed a clutch with practically no friction zone – even as a TW200 owner I still have issues with it I do not on other bikes.

      Now if anyone wants a bike easy to ride at low speed, get a base or SE model Bonnie.

    • mustangGT90210

      I thought the MSF course I took was extremely helpful for confidence building. I live in Florida, so a BRC is mandatory to get a license. I had no idea about the whole “look where you want to go” thing, keeping the head up, not locking my arms out on the bars and some other totally basic things like that. Here I am, 2 years and 20,000 motorcycle miles later (damn… and my boss says I don’t ride lol) consistently using what the course taught.

      I have noticed though, with each bike I’ve owmed, the box gets harder.. GS500, then a 94 GSX-R750, followed by a 02 SV650. Not sure if it’s lack of practice or how much more the faster bikes aren’t as friendly in the friction zone

      • zion

        It’s the steering geometry more than likely. Sportier bikes make the tighter U-turns tougher. Pressure on the outside peg with a little extra counterweight may help. Don’t worry though if it doesn’t come as easy, again it’s typically harder to do on a sport bike.

  • Ryan Kiefer

    The box was the only place I lost points during my MSF course (Yamaha V-star 250). We had a particularly nasty version here at the Kansas City Kansas Community College (yup, KCKCC), wherein the parking lot into which the course was marked out was on the side of a hill. The hill was not very steep, but enough that you could coast through one half of the box with no throttle or clutch work at all, and the other required greater-than-normal friction-zone control.

    I put a toe down during that bit, and screamed bloody murder at myself because I’d had it down earlier, but choked under the pressure of the instructor and all other classmates present, who expected me to be the best because I was the only one who showed up to take the course already riding (though I only had a few hundred miles under my belt by that point).

  • Max Chen

    The Box was the only part of the MSF course I struggled with. The old janky Nighthawk 250 I was on would stall when I turned the bars all the way to the left, so I had to put my foot down..

  • James

    That last paragraph just summed me up perfectly – even down to the age. So brilliant I am going to paste it word for word to describe my experience learning to ride a bike.

    “I’m twice as old as the youngest student in the group, and I’m learning how to ride a motorcycle. What I won’t know yet – what I will experience soon enough – is not only how much fun it is, but how oddly relaxing riding feels, how quiet everything becomes, when every sense is focused on the tasks at hand, shifting, turning, braking. It occurs to me that I want to not merely learn how to operate a motorcycle – I want to become a motorcyclist, to not just do those things that bikers do, but to do them exceptionally well.”

    P.S I hate the box.

    • JasonAvant

      Thanks for reading, James; glad you enjoyed it!

  • Mr.Paynter

    In South Africa: Written test, and if you’;re 18, any capacity bike you can afford, and off you go!

    My romantic ideas of motorcycling were all but cemented after my first crash, a too-fast-around-the-bend on the way to my girlfriends’ house, in the middle of which found a miraculous new patch of sand and subsequently, me on my back in the middle of the road.

    As I picked myself up and dusted myself off, I realised I wasn’t made of glass, and neither was my little Honda CD100, and that the fun and freedom I found on my bike was worth the risk regardless. I cannot begin to imagine living life without a motorcycle to ride.

    I am 29 now and have only had a licecnce for a car for 3 months, because I inherited a car and thought, “May as well get that sorted.”

  • Michael Howard

    Full-lock, low-speed, feet-up U-turns is one of my riding skills I’m most proud of — almost certainly because the vast majority of riders suck at it. ;) But it’s really not that difficult. You simply have to become comfortable with it. The “Holy crap! How can you do that?!” look on people’s faces is priceless.

    Don’t be a foot-dragger.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKu8GUNntwU

    • zion

      Ah, yes. Jerry “Motorman” Palladino. Bringing cop riding to the masses.

  • daveinva

    Curiously enough, I too started riding late in life (36) because of a death. Walking out of a convenience store that winter, a co-worker of mine slipped on some ice, hit his head on the sidewalk, and lapsed into a coma. A week later, his wife and two young kids are at the funeral home.

    I had NEVER been interested in riding before– older brother’s ridden his entire life, but I never saw the appeal. But after the above event, it hit me that any random thing, no matter how dumb or minor, can end your life in a heartbeat. For some reason, the way I dealt with that realization was taking the MSF, buying a bike(s), and falling in love with (safely) riding.

    If you can die of anything, why not live for something?

  • Piglet2010

    “…on his way to the frat house for an important meeting”

    So the story has a happy ending.

  • Mr. White

    A decade of racing mountain bikes was a huge help when I made the leap to motorcycles last year. The box posed little challenge. For me, it was getting used to the clutch and the friction zone from a dead stop. I was crowned “Captain Stall” by the instructors. A year later and I can’t believe what a dork I was.

  • Justin McClintock

    I remember the BRC. I too, was saddled with an Eliminator 125. At 6’2″ and all arms and legs, I didn’t fit it so well. During turns, the instructor kept getting aggravated with me because I would hang my inside leg out. Then I finally stopped and pointed out to them that if I didn’t, the bars would hit my leg.

    I managed to crash the bike during the offset slalom, but both it was fine, as was I. I did manage to negotiate the box with it without too much trouble.

    These days I still sometimes practice some of those maneuvers, including the U-turns. My driveway has expansion joints cut in it 8′ apart. I can do a U-turn in that 8′ now….on a 1978 DT175. Certainly isn’t easy, but the DT makes it possible. I don’t think my DRZSM would do it and I KNOW my SV1000 wouldn’t. I keep thinking I need to fine a BRC training ground to go run the DT around. Using something like that would be so simple it would be like cheating!