Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rockmoto Blog #8 - "The Course" -

March 1, 2009

Yesterday went well. I didn’t know how many exercises we were doing in total, but we got a break every hour and usually did 2 per shift. I didn’t and don’t know what’s coming next and that’s a good thing. Not because there was anything scary, just because I could stay more focused.

We’re riding around an empty parking lot at the W. LA VA hospital. There are lampposts in the middle of the lot which luckily aren’t hard to avoid. And the light is most appreciated when the sun goes down.

We got talked through each exercise before we did it but it, was hard for me to follow the detailed explanation because my mind works better with visuals. I would have appreciated a large eagle’s eye of map for each pattern we were about to do. Instead they provided one small 4x8” drawing for us all to crowd around and peek at before the demo. But once they did a demo ride exactly as we were supposed to do it, everything became pretty clear. And if anything still seemed vague, Jess and Amanda made it an easy going atmosphere where people felt free to pipe up with questions. More important than the path we were taking were a slew of factors from whether we’d be in 1st or 2nd to how and when to ride the friction zone on the clutch (as opposed to downshifting or braking).

Over the two days, we practiced shifting between 1st, 2nd and neutral, basic curves, tight U-Turns, swerves, quick-stops, slaloming between cones and a few others things. Nothing was incredibly difficult (except the tight U-Turns), but it was all a matter of getting our co-ordination down. I might know that I’m supposed to hit the clutch a split second before I downshift and at the same time brake with my right foot and right hand, but to get everything going at the exact right time and not squeeze too hard or too softly is challenging. It’s like learning to play the organ (including foot pedals) or sing while tap dancing. I did my first quick-stop perfectly and then wasn’t able to replicate it the entire rest of the first day.

Sometimes I’d improve as we repeated exercises, but as the evening wore on, I generally performed less well. That’s partially because of fatigue from sitting on a bike for 5 hours, but it’s also because the sun went down around 6:20pm and we rode til 9pm. Those last 2-1/2 hours in the dark were frustrating. It was harder to see the cones, so I was more tentative and I wanted to be confident enough to enjoy the riding.

Honestly, the most fun thing was getting to the end of an exercise and having to circle back into line. It was only then that I could crank it up to almost 20mph. (And no one was really watching me get back in line, so I felt less pressure when I tried my quick stops.)

They usually split the class in half, but there was still a lot of ‘waiting your turn to go’ with a dozen students. We could have gotten a lot more practice with fewer students, but it would have cost more and really it was nothing unbearable - with the exception of my clutch hand. You see, they wanted us to keep it in 1st gear while in line and you have to keep the clutch in with your left hand or you’ll stall out. I cheated sometimes and put it into neutral, but getting that bike into neutral was the hardest thing to do the entire weekend. Apparently, Nighthawks are notorious for being difficult to get back into neutral, but I still felt inept when it took me 5 tries to get it in there.

Neutral, for reasons unclear to me, lies halfway between 1st and 2nd gears. And worse, because you control your gear shifting with your foot, you can’t see what gear you’re in the way you can, say on any modern mountain bike. A light comes on when you’re in neutral, but there’s no gearshift indicator telling you you’re in 3rd gear. You just have to know or be able to feel it. Only on the high end bikes do they have electronic read outs of what gear you’re in.

Before pulling back into line, our coaches would often signal us to come over to get notes after we attempted a maneuver. The notes included things like: “You were in first the whole way, try it in second and just ride the friction zone. It’ll be smoother.” After the note, they’d wave us on. Since the class was usually split in two, half the time I’d get comments from Jess and the other half from Amanda. The sign they gave to stop was to raise both their arms to the sides with slightly bent elbows – palms facing me. When I executed an exercise sufficiently, they’d wave me through after a thumbs up or an affirmative nod.

Though I wanted to give a thumbs up back, it seemed like a bad idea to take even one hand off the bike. And even though when I did something well, Jess would sometimes sneak a secret little smile that made me feel like she was a proud mother, I’d keep a cool face and give a perfunctory nod as if to say “Exercise #7? Check.” I didn’t want to be familiar in a way that would threaten, weaken or transgress her coach status. We didn’t talk about this beforehand, I just thought it was the considerate thing to do in order to ensure that I didn’t compromise her professional authority.

Near the end of the second day though, I’d begun to feel confident on the bike and our interactions had gone so well I’d finally relaxed about all that and realized I was perhaps erring too far on the side of caution – veering into a pseudo military seriousness. So as the sun went down, I completed a swerve with aplomb and instead of giving me the stop sign, Jessica raised just one arm – on the side facing me. Barely thinking, I indulged in a bit of unmasked enthusiasm and gave her a High 5. I thought instead of a mere thumbs up, she was giving me an offer for some serious props. I couldn’t leave her hanging. I was psyched that I was able to glide right past her - perfect arm distance away - and lay on some serious palm without slowing a bit.

The moment I passed, however, she whipped around and gave the stop signal. I did a quick-stop and found, to my utter embarrassment, that I’d mis-read her first signal. She did in fact want me to stop to begin with. Apparently, there was something I didn’t do correctly. At that point though I was so flustered that I gave her the high 5 that I have no recollection of what she said. I couldn’t believe after being so careful, I just gave the coach, my girlfriend, a fucking high five. Idiot. Later, she said no one’s every done that to her before. Luckily, she found it amusing.

Speaking of things I screwed up, I had one consistent problem which was that when I pulled on the hand brake, my wrist naturally shifted down which meant my engine revved. If I didn’t have my hand on the clutch that’d be a problem, but I had it in every time. I just made a revving noise and occasionally turn the head of a coach to see what I was doing. Jess suggested first that I had poor wrist positioning, then the mentioned the problem could be that the bike was a little small for me. I’d like to try riding a larger bike to see if that really made a difference, because this is something very basic, I need to get worked out.

But, all in all, I did pretty well. Enough to enjoy many of the exercises while doing them. Not that we were graded (other than Pass/Fail), but I’d give myself a solid B. There was one guy who’d been riding for 3 years on a permit and was there because didn’t want to deal with the DMV test, so he was the best in the class – (He’d have gotten an A+ if he hadn’t piped up a few times not to ask a question, but to give a comment as though he were a coach as well). Two or three other guys were as strong a rider as I was. Six or so were slower to pick things up and rode with less self-assurance, but there were only two who were a lagging behind in a problematic way. There was some concern that both might fail. And it’s gotta be a hard thing to tell an adult that they spent $250 and 15 hours only to fail at the course like this. I was nervous for them ‘til the end, but they both ended up squeaking through. They weren’t given any special treatment and hopefully they’ll learn to ride better, but I’m glad they passed.

I passed too. And when it was clear the course was almost over I really wanted to ride more, and faster, and on big open roads instead of in little circles all the time. Our parking lot course was only about 50x80 yards and it felt quite confining after a while.

In all, it was a success. By the end of the second day I was wondering how I’d do out in the real world. Going 60mph on an open road doesn’t scare me that much. Going 0-40mph through traffic though is nearly terrifying. So I’m not sure how I’ll get myself out there. There aren’t too many places to rent bikes from however and it’s much more expensive than cars. A little Honda Rebel will run you $100 a day not including insurance. And that’s the cheapest I’ve found.

My reticence to get out there isn’t because the course wasn’t good or complete. It was both, but I think I’ll just need to log hundreds of hours surrounded by 4-wheeled idiots before I start to feel comfortable.

One aspect of the weekend I’m disappointed is that I didn’t get a chance to get to know many of the other participants. That was my fault however. There were plenty of breaks for socializing, but I didn’t get to much because I walked the dog every free moment I had. It’s a long time for the pooch to spend in the car in his crate. But I did speak with Jack and Ali a little and they seem like a sweet couple. He’s a screenwriter as well. I also talked with Isaac who was sporting a seriously cool matching helmet and jacket. The latter featured a skull with the bold text ICON MOTO. The black, white and red color scheme even matched the Ninja he was riding. I commented on his fashion choice and he confessed it all belonged to a friend and he had no idea what he was doing. This made me feel better, cause he looked badass from the get go in that get-up.

I also got to know the instructors better and that was a good thing. Jessica and Amanda were both great coaches. Jessica told me she was relieved I didn’t suck or have attitude because that would have been difficult. And I was happy that she gave me no special treatment. She was neither easier, nor harder on me and I was truly grateful for that. I also felt privileged to experience first-hand something she loved to do and excelled at.

What’s next?

I plan to finish my license at some point (I still have to take the stupid written DMV test), but I’m not sure if I’ll go out and get bike any time too soon. Also, having half the course at night taught me I really don’t want to ride in the dark, which means I’m not really looking at using it for commuting, just for day trips and joy-riding. That said, I have been checking out some modern, classic-style Bonneville Triumphs on Craigslist, but I’m not quite prepared to throw down $5000 on a machine just yet.

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