Watson On: Learning To Ride A Motorcycle

HFL Tags: Editorial,Op/Ed,tim watson

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Dead set on learning to ride a motorcycle? There is, in my opinion, no better way as a teenager than buying a ratty old field bike and heading off-road towards the distant horizon at a slow paced wobble.

Photo: Bjorn Bulthuis

Learning to ride a field bike is a sort of rite of passage into the world of motorcycles. The first time you get on anything with an engine and two wheels you will fall off. It maybe in the first few seconds, or the moment you come across an obstacle, such as a small rock, when you’ll frantically reach for the clutch lever instead of the brake, lose your momentum and end up in a tangled heap of revving motorcycle engine and exhaust smoke wondering what on earth just happened.

You will also hurt yourself. A lot. But, like riding a horse, the only thing to do is get back on and try again. Learning to ride a motorcycle in an open field is definitely the school of hard knocks but, as far as I know, it never really did me any harm.

Faced with the prospect of riding into a single-strand barbed wire fence at 20 mph or learning how to take avoiding action and aiming for the thorn bush instead taught me how to anticipate things better and what to do in an emergency. In hindsight, the barbed wire might have been the better option, as thorns in the face hurt a lot and leave marks that look like you have been peppered by a shotgun.

At this point, I have probably made most motorcycle safety instructors throw up their arms in horror and shake their heads. They will say you’ll do nothing but learn bad habits riding a field bike and do things which will make you a bad rider for the rest of your life. But frankly, I’m sticking by my guns on this one.

Teenage boys, within reason, are indestructible. They tend to bounce and roll better than older guys when they fall off a moving motorcycle. Plus, they get the added benefit of earning some scars to show friends what happens from riding a bike around and around a field at speed.

But it’s not just the art of learning to control a machine on two wheels. You’ll also get to know how things work. The premise of buying an old motorcycle is that it should be easy to work on. Sure things will break and bits will fall off but, if you want to get it moving again, you’re going to have to work out why the clutch cable needs adjusting and what happens if you don’t check the oil.

You get to learn how to take a carburetor to pieces and, when you run out of gas miles from anywhere, you’ll learn how really, really heavy and awkward even the smallest engine motorcycle can be when you’re pushing it uphill in the midday sun.

That very first time you get on a motorcycle is a mixture of nervous anticipation and sheer terror. You’ve been through the controls, got a rough idea what the clutch and the gearbox do, but have no idea how sensitive that throttle can be.

At first, you’ll stall it over and over again until you find the sweet friction spot on the clutch. Then you’re off. It’ll feel like you’re traveling at 100 mph when it’s probably closer to 20. Twisting the throttle too hard makes the front of the bike rear up and no matter where you’d like to go the bike seems to have a mind of its own and is going to fight you until it has deposited you into the nearest hedge.

Braking takes a bit of time to get used to as well. At first, the front brake seems the best option to stick to. But, once you have pulled it too hard too many times and are thrown off at low speeds, you’ll start to discover that using the rear in tandem actually makes sense.

Thereafter, it does get easier. It will take you several hours of getting on and then falling off and then getting back on again and trying to understand what you did wrong. As I said at the outset, I am sure that many of my bad riding habits can be traced back to teaching myself to ride a motorcycle around in a field. I don’t cover the brakes properly and am faster and better at going around right hand corners after hours and hours of going clockwise around and around a field.

Riding a field bike did teach me about cows. I was once confronted by a huge herd of cattle in what I thought I was an empty field. I came to a sudden halt. They looked at me and I looked at them and I decided the best course of action was to turn the bike around and head back in the direction I came from.

The problem was, the cows were up for a challenge and pursued me en masse for the next 10 minutes, gaining on me as I frantically tried to make my old motorcycle go faster than 25 mph. I did finally outrun them by shutting the bike off and hiding in a hedge until the cows swept past me in a thunder of hooves and making that odd snorting noise that angry cows make. It was a close run thing.

That is why learning to ride a bike off-road for me is definitely the way to get started. They would never teach you how to outsmart cows in a motorcycle safety course.

That said, proper gear is always a must and proper instruction goes a long way when you are ready for it. Did I mention I've taken the Basic Rider Course twice?

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