It was 2001. My wife at the time and I had just gotten a house, which, at my insistence, included a garage. I got it for car tinkering and storage, but when an old friend and new neighbor told me he would give me his 1982 Suzuki GS650L for free, it became home to that as well. It had sat in his yard for three years, unused since the kids arrived, and he wanted to see me get some use out of it. He even re-registered it for no other reason than to hand me a registration and a bill of sale that I could use to register and title it in Massachusetts. (While he lived in the next town over, he was across the border in New Hampshire, where the rules on titling older vehicles are far more lax.) With a new battery, a bit of work, and a desperate need for a carburetor cleaning, I had my very first motorcycle.
I read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Motorcycles, because when it came to motorcycles I was… well, a complete idiot. Since I didn’t grow up with bikes (my dad sold his Honda 450 while I was still very young) what baffled me most was how the controls worked. Though all my cars had manual transmissions, I didn’t know how to shift a bike. The book taught me the basics, and included a nice diagram of what controls were where and did what. That took a lot of the mystery away, which was a good thing.
I got my motorcycle learner’s permit, and successfully registered and insured the bike. I already had a suitable helmet from my car racing. My wife insisted on buying me a good thick leather jacket, which I certainly didn’t object to. (I still have it to this day, though since my textile gear is warmer, cooler, and weighs less, I don’t use it much.) But what I really needed was the MSF Basic RiderCourse. They say you should take this before you even ride a bike at all, ever, so that you don’t build up any bad habits that the course will have to break. I admit to not entirely following this advice, because I couldn’t resist playing with my new toy. It also takes a while to actually get into a class, since they’re very popular – no doubt, in part, because if you walk into the class with a learner’s permit and pass, you automatically get your license. No separate trip to the RMV or anything. This is the case in a number of states these days. Fortunately, a friend of mine was also interested in taking the class, so we signed up to take it together through Ironstone Ventures.
The first step was an evening in the classroom, where we learned the controls, the rules of the road as they apply to motorcycles, and riding strategies. Some of it, like the controls, I already knew. Other parts, like what wind gusts affect you from what directions while passing an 18-wheeler, I previously had no idea. I learn best by doing, not sitting in a classroom, yet I knew and absorbed enough of it that I had no problem passing the written portion of the test.
From there, it was on to the riding range. This was a small parking lot at the old Fort Devens – ironically, within earshot of an autocross event taking place that I would have been attending that very same day if I had not signed up for the class before the autocross was even scheduled. It was cool and rained on and off most of the day, ensuring that we had a nice wet surface to practice on. The school supplied the bikes – little 125s and 250s that even the smallest riders were able to handle.
The class assumed we had absolutely no prior experience, and everyone did every exercise, no matter how basic. After learning how to properly start and shut off the bike, we practiced clutch control and walked the bikes from one end of the lot to the other and back. This did nothing for me, personally, except cramp up my left hand, but I agree with keeping everyone on the same page like that, so I got through it. We worked our way up to riding in a straight line, stopping, and turning properly. We learned to countersteer through the corners rather than simply turning the handlebars as we would on a bicycle, or at low speeds. And we learned how to maneuver at low speeds as well, shifting our butts from one side of the seat to the other to help balance.
As the class went on, we got to more advanced exercises. Braking before the turn, maintaining speed through it, and accelerating out of it. Emergency lane change exercises. Look where you want to go, not at the obstacle. The concepts of the advanced exercises were familiar to me, because I learned exactly the same stuff from car racing. The application is different on a motorcycle, but the theory is identical. Best of all, they were teaching me this stuff in the beginning. Unlike typical driver’s education for a car, they actually taught me how to ride and control the bike, and do it well. It’s a far cry from parallel parking and a three point turn, that’s for sure. If I ruled the world, a course like this would be required for cars, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.
The final exercise was a low speed figure 8 in a box painted on the pavement. It was a pretty small box, and it took a lot of balance and clutch control to get it right. I struggled a little with the low speed stuff, but with a little practice I got OK at this. Then they shrank the box to the size we’d actually use on the test. We must’ve been running out of time, because I got just one pass through the smaller box before it was test time. I’d already calibrated myself to the larger box, and it wasn’t enough time for me to recalibrate. I kind of wish we’d just stuck to the smaller box all along.
So the test began, with the low speed figure 8 in a box, since we were already there. I did pretty badly through it – I’m sure I put a foot down, and I probably crossed the painted lines. I was off to a bad start, but I was pretty good with the rest of the exercises, so I’d be fine, right? Wrong. The stress of the test and blowing the figure 8 got to me, and I started making mistakes on the other parts of the test as well. I even made mistakes on exercises I got perfect the first time and every time after that. Each mistake piled on more stress, since I HAD to get the next one right, and then I didn’t, and, and, and…
The test ended, and I awaited my turn to meet with the head instructor to learn whether I passed or not. I didn’t have my hopes up, and was quite frustrated with myself for doing so badly. My turn came, and I made the long walk to the trailer to learn my fate. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I know you’re a good rider. But a miss is as good as a mile.” I scored 19 points on the test, one point for every mistake I made. A failing grade was 20. I passed by the skin of my teeth. My friend also passed, but to my knowledge has never operated a motorcycle again – just rode on the back with other people.
I enjoyed that GS650L for a year or so. I never got the carbs cleaned – I just ran with the choke on. I kept noticing an oil spot under the back of the engine in the garage, so I just kept adding oil and called it good. What I didn’t know was that the transmission end of the driveshaft had its own separate lubricant, and that, rather than engine oil, was what was leaking out. In the end, I ran out of lube entirely, and chewed up the teeth on the shaft and the transmission so much that it was cheaper to replace the bike. So I scored a 1980 Suzuki GS550E from across town for cheap, swapped the newer parts I’d replaced on the 650 over to the 550, parted out the 650, turned a PROFIT on the whole deal, and then gave what was left to a friend who wanted to learn motorcycle mechanics.