- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Those of us who remember the movie “Easy Rider” know that actor Peter Fonda was born to ride. That classic cinema depicted a free-spirited life on the road, journeying across America. Today, visions of riding off into the sunset astride a thundering two-wheeled steed carry with them a romantic and adventurous image — wind in the face, communing with nature, free from the pressures and responsibilities of the everyday rat race that our society has become.

Sounds great, right? Well, things have taken a dramatic turn since “Easy Rider.” The open road simply isn’t as open as it used to be. It’s a jungle out there on those ribbons of asphalt. Riding a two-wheeled vehicle now requires a greater level of focus. Motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are more sophisticated, more powerful, and more complicated, necessitating a higher degree of responsibility for safe operation.

In most states, new riders under 21 years of age who want to take to the open road must satisfactorily complete an approved motorcycle rider training course, and pass both a written exam and riding test, before obtaining a motorcycle operator’s license, which is required in order to legally operate any motorcycle or motor-driven cycle.

Some 30 years ago I rode bikes that would now be considered vintage. I felt that after such an absence from riding taking an approved riding course would be prudent. I chose a course approved by the state Highway Patrol in California. It provided motorcycles, helmets, a student workbook, and offered a program in my hometown for only $200 (often less for minors). The certificate awarded upon satisfactory completion of both written and riding tests precludes the need to take the State Division of Motor Vehicles’ riding test.

The course offered equal portions of classroom and riding range time. Levels of class riding experience ran the gamut from zero to several thousand miles; the reasons for taking the course were many and sundry.

Some students, like myself, wanted a refresher; others wanted to join friends in recreational riding; some planned on a motorcycle as transportation, and more than a few were simply tired of being passengers.

Course instructors are experienced riders who are trained and certified. The course began with an enlightening and complete overview of what the course would help us to accomplish and how. The balance of classroom sessions covered the challenges of motorcycle riding and how best to meet them. Various motorcycle types and their basic controls were covered in depth, as were mental and physical preparation for the ride, and selecting proper protective riding gear — i.e. clothing, footwear and helmets.

Basic riding skills were interactively taught through classroom discussion, physical exercises, and instructional videos. Vehicle inspection, review of controls, correct mounting procedure, riding posture, engine starting, turning, shifting, stopping, engine shutoff, and dismounting are all driven home with repetitive drills.

Special riding situations — such as road conditions, unique handling issues, and carrying passengers and other types of loads — followed.

The effect of alcohol and drugs on motorcycle operation was the final topic.

An equal amount of time was devoted to range riding exercises, with practice concentrating on successfully demonstrating the riding skills required to pass the final evaluation.

A couple of students inadvertently spilled while doing practice maneuvers.

Fortunately, the final test was yet to come, and only their pride suffered injury.

During my final evaluation, I lost points for killing a couple of cones on the slalom course, losing my balance during a couple of tight turns at slow speed, and putting my foot down to regain my composure (but not my pride) — a definite “No. No.”

When I met with the range instructor for my final score, he informed me that I had managed to pass despite my errors.

The only thing remaining was to wait for my certification form to arrive by mail so I could then take my written DMV test. I may not be Peter Fonda, but I’m “ready to ride.”

To tell the truth, motorcycle riding is 90 percent mental and only 10 percent physical.

Check with your state’s Highway Patrol office for information on the best rider’s course in your area. It pays to shop around because some dealers offer reimbursement upon certification of course completion when you purchase a motorcycle from them. Keep in mind that these courses are in high demand and that waiting lists can be lengthy, so be patient and persistent.

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