We checked out the new rider experience for ourselves.
We at RideApart support anything that helps people who are interested in motorcycles actually get involved in the sport. We are big fans of the Discover the Ride program at IMS. I first discovered it while attending New York IMS last year. This year, we had the opportunity to participate in the program ourselves, to see what it's like from the perspective of someone who has never taken the handlebars of a motorcycle before.
Nearly everyone knows how to ride a bicycle. There is only a little bit in common between my old Mongoose mountain bike and my Kawasaki KLR 650, but bicycles are something that the average person who doesn't ride motorcycles understands. After putting on bicycle helmets (safety first), we each got on a Yamaha bicycle with electric power assist. Ironically, although I've been riding motorcycles for 20 years and raced bicycles as a teen, I'd never ridden a power-assisted bicycle before. Fortunately, the helpful staff taught me how to turn on the unit and select different levels of assistance. We took the bicycles out for five laps of the simple oval track inside the Javits Center. We started out at a low level of power assistance, similar to a standard unassisted bicycle. During those laps, we were told to gradually increase the level of assist up to maximum. While we still had to pedal, this got us accustomed to the feeling of the bike moving under its own power, something most would-be motorcyclists have never experienced.
Becoming A Real Biker
After the bicycles, it was time to gear up. Even though on private property we were exempt from New York's helmet law, good habits start at the beginning. We were all issued helmets, jackets, and gloves. Then they explained to us the fundamental controls of the specially prepared Zero motorcycles that we would ride. These bikes had much smaller batteries than normal, which made them extremely light for a motorcycle. They didn't need much power because they were electronically limited to a top speed of 11 mph, and also had an extremely gentle throttle response for slow acceleration. I could go faster on the bicycle than I could on this motorcycle, and that's entirely by design.
Discover the Ride will not teach you how to ride a motorcycle. It will only teach you three things: how to accelerate, how to slow down, and how to turn left. Countersteering, body position, and other cornering techniques don't even enter the equation. Discover the Ride is about exactly that, discovering what it feels like to ride a real motorcycle, which, despite their intentional limitations, these Zeros are.
We lined up on the front straightaway. Then, one at a time, we were sent off for five more laps of the course. Instructors from Total Control Training were stationed at the corners and in the middle of the loop to help guide us around the course, tell us to keep our heads up, look through the turn, etc. Again, this was very basic instruction, focused on keeping us safe on the course rather than teaching or practicing any real riding techniques. Throwing all this at someone getting on a motorcycle for the first time would overwhelm them, frustrate them, and turn them off from riding because it's "too hard."
Once I was comfortable on the bike, I intentionally went ham-fisted on the controls, just to see what would happen. I did all the wrong things, but the bike took everything I could throw at it in stride, never putting a tire wrong. It reminded me of the horse I rode in Puerto Rico for a tour through El Junque rain forest. I have had precisely one horseback riding lesson in my entire life, so they gave me an extremely gentle horse that knew what he was doing. He could take the most basic control inputs from me, use his brain to make up for my lack of one, and do what actually needed to be done. Any rider new to motorcycling should be treated exactly the way this horse treated me, and that's exactly what the Zero did.
"Hooked On Motorcycles" Worked For Me
After five laps, we parked the bikes, put our gear away, and felt good about the experience. My group of media people consisted of already experienced riders, but everyone still seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves out there. I know that I did. I can only imagine how pumped someone for whom this was their first riding experience ever must feel.
Part of the idea behind Discover the Ride is to take non-riders who might attend IMS with friends or family who ride and make them "one of us." After the Discover the Ride experience, they have a much better understanding of motorcycles and what they're all about. Even if they never actually learn to ride, they will have a much better appreciation of motorcycling and can enjoy the show more. They can start asking questions such as "What's the difference between a sportbike and a cruiser?" and be able to better understand the answers based on their experience. To that end, IMS provides a convenient display of beginner bikes as soon as you exit Discover the Ride. Selections include the Suzuki Boulevard S40, the Honda Rebel, and pretty much all of our favorite small bikes.
You Don't Have To Take My Word For It
Of course, I'm approaching Discover the Ride as an experienced motorcyclist. While I can appreciate what it offers from that perspective, my opinions are still skewed by my own riding experience. So I spoke to Ken Murphy, newly appointed CEO of Comoto Holdings, the parent company of Revzilla and Cycle Gear. Coming from a mattress retail background, he knew nothing about motorcycles but dedicated himself to learning to ride this year. He did Discover the Ride as part of this learning process.
Fear not, customers. He gets it. Murphy was extremely positive about the Discover the Ride experience. He felt that it was an effective introduction to motorcycling and a gateway toward the MSF course and getting his license. Murphy has already taken and passed the MSF course, and is looking forward to getting his own bike, likely a Triumph of some kind. He picked my brain about the Bonneville, and I suggested he check out the Street Twin as well, a bike I thoroughly enjoyed.
This is exactly what IMS is looking to accomplish with Discover the Ride. It gives non-riders just enough of a taste for motorcycling to enable them to connect with experienced riders better and start conversations exactly like mine with Ken Murphy. They now have just enough context for motorcycling to know what questions to ask, which is where we can come in, help them, and share our enthusiasm for motorcycling.