Lately, I’ve been sick of riding on the back of my boyfriend’s motorcycle— he’s obsessed with everything moto. I figured since he proposed, maybe I should try to get more involved in his interests.
I’ve dedicated my life to teaching students with disabilities, and I’m currently teaching 7th and 8th grade special needs. By being a teacher, I’m naturally the worst student. Teaching someone how to ride can be a daunting task, plain and simple. So how in the world do you teach the most difficult student in your class? Here’s what helped me get out on and ride a bike myself!
Safety: The Bike & Gear
Motorcycles can be a dangerous machine if you're not properly geared and trained. Of course you know this, but does your girlfriend? Don’t scare the bejesus out of her with stories of what could happen, but take time to inform her to take motorcycle riding seriously. The first thing I learned was to never mount a motorcycle without the proper gear, on the front or back.
Before I even jumped on the bike for the first time I was given a basic run-down of the bike’s features. I was asked about my previous knowledge of motorcycles and learned from there.
Word to the wise old instructor: don’t be condescending and don’t give too much information too soon. You may not even know you’re doing it, but be wary of how you’re explaining the information. Your attitude can elate or deflate her confidence and understanding. Furthermore, she doesn’t need a full-on speech about how each part is connected and controlled. To top it off, please don’t share the life story about how you held the clutch and front brake while revving, and how it reminds you of “this time I was chasing down girls, and I did a burn out to impress them, and then I…” Less is more. And if she’s got some jealousy issues, there’s never a good time to tell those stories. Naming the part and its function will suffice. If your girl wants to know how things work, she can do research at a later time or she will specifically ask you. Your goal is to get her riding smoothly, not to become an expert, just yet.
Once she feels confident with the bike’s basic functions, you can practice safety by properly gearing her up. At the very minimum, give her a helmet, gloves, boots, long pants and a long-sleeve shirt- if you're simply riding the front yard, that is. (For street riding, she’ll need armored pants and a jacket, and any dirt riding requires an armored vest and knee pads.) The first helmet I put on was too big; it was uncomfortable, and therefore distracting. Make sure the gear is fitted and she’s comfortable. We'll have more pieces on how to find that proper gear the first time.
Let her acclimate to the way it feels to hold the clutch with gloves- remember, you haven't even cranked the motorcycle at this point. She needs to check out her surroundings with the helmet on and get used to the feeling of it on her head— it’s weird and stiffening to the novice.
Once she begins riding on the roads, let her go on a shopping frenzy for elbow pads, vertebrae protector, etc. You want your girlfriend in one piece, right? The helmet I’ve enjoyed using is the Jafrum Stealth Phantom from Motorcycle Superstore since it’s very easy to hear directions and it’s super stylish. I’ve had so much attention from strangers complimenting the helmet and asking what kind of bike I have- mostly men, shocker -so it's definitely a confidence booster! Since writing this, I've moved onto a legit full face Icon helmet, as the Jafrum has a removable chin piece that lacks in-front face protection.
Lastly, let her move the bike between her thighs, feeling the bike’s weight. Take your time with this part. I felt like this was essential when it came time to start moving because I knew what to expect in weight when I stalled or made a hard stop.
Yes, having patience seems obvious doesn’t it? I’m not saying baby her or let her get away with stupid mistakes (like dropping the clutch in first gear while on the brakes), but allow learning to happen slowly and assuredly. This patience can create a more beneficial learning environment, and develop a lifelong rider. Remember, you’re not in a rush! You want her to ride because she loves it, not because she’s trying to impress you. Be calm and supportive, time after time. Patience is quiet and steady perseverance!
Drill this into your girlfriend’s brain: “Clutch, then ___________.” If you want to stop, “clutch, then brake.” If you want to change gears, “clutch, then gear.” My left wrist and thumb were ridiculously sore after the first day of training.
Finding the friction point on the clutch, while giving some gas and walking the bike was a great exercise to get comfortable with the clutch. Note: Don’t assume your girlfriend can “feel” it. Generally, we beginners won’t have the intuition that you have developed over many years of riding.
Fortunately, girlfriends are persistent when we care about something, so failing is ok, but that “feeling” comes after a while of training. Tell her confidently that it gets easier and becomes second nature. It took me two weeks to start feeling anything remotely familiar. Each rider and learner is different, let them learn at their most comfortable pace.
Laugh, Giggle, and Smile!
Learning should be fun. Yes, there are moments that need to be serious. Nearly dropping a 600lb bike is not fun (a Harley-Davidson SuperLow 1200T)! Throughout the day, however, you need to be able to laugh— so yes, basically, you need to be a comedian. Think about it: Many of your fondest moments include a good hearty laugh. If your girlfriend is not laughing, or smiling, she’s not into it.
I remember grabbing the front brake full-fisted, lunging forward and thinking, “holy crap!” The initial response from my boyfriend was, “DON’T DO THAT!” Honestly, I didn’t even know what I did in the moment. I’m still trying to figure out why I stalled so many times that first day.
Remember, everything is happening very quickly for a new learner. When another instructor taught me, I did the same thing, grabbed a full-fist of front brake, and then he says, “Make sure you go easy on that front brake, BUT YOU GOTTA TRY IT!” With a huge smile on his face and giggling to follow. I didn’t feel as insecure with the second response and wasn’t afraid to “try it” again when I needed too. If you provide clear expectations immediately after the mistake, and let her know testing the bike out is okay, she won’t be so nervous to make more mistakes- and she will -to learn from.
Here are some useful exercises I enjoyed:
-Building confidence and skill
-Name game and function: basics bike knowledge
-Body rocking: Feeling the bike’s weight between her thighs
-Clutch work: Finding the friction point, don’t move!
-Walking the bike: Get comfortable braking and getting into first without stalling!
-Shift work: Parking-lot ovals, downshifting on the curves, upshifting on the straights.
Photography by Jesse Kiser at the Kawasaki Learn to Ride Day.