The 11-Month Itch

'How sweet, he's smiling.  He must be dreaming about me.' (Man is dreaming about a motorbike).

It’s been 11 days, 12 hours, and 13 minutes since I last rode my bike. It sits in the shed, and once in a while I take it out and poke about with it, then put it back. Yesterday I got as far as putting my biking pants on and fetching my helmet before prudence caught up to me at the front door. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather, and there was nothing wrong with my bike. Why, you ask? Because here in Quebec, for the first 11 months after obtaining a learner’s licence, you have to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, and the few people I know who ride have been busy. I’m in biker purgatory, limbo-land, the 11-month itch.

Obtaining your motorcycle licence here in Quebec is a complicated and expensive process. There are three separate exams—theory, closed circuit, and road—and you must take a course with a certified training school. There are theory classes, closed circuit practice, road practice with an instructor, accompanied riding—the whole process takes at least 12 months before you catch sight of the holy grail. It looks something like this:

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I’ve got no problem with the theory test or taking a course. Such courses have been around for some time but are usually optional. Apparently they give you the equivalent of two years of experience, and as a teacher, I’m all for learning from more experienced people. I found the course extremely helpful in developing both the skills and road awareness necessary to stay safe, and I believe it foolhardy for anyone to ride a motorcycle without taking such a course.

Motorcycles are powerful, dangerous machines. Search YouTube for “newbie motorcycle fail” and you’ll see videos of people climbing on sport bikes before they barely know how to change gears and heading off on the road. You just know that’s not going to end well. Having an instructor take you through that learning curve will save you a lot of road rash. But the 11 months of accompanied riding does not make sense and here’s why.

I understand the rationale. According to statistics, a rider is almost twice as likely to have an accident in the first six months of riding as someone with over four years of experience. And many fatal accidents result from someone coming into a corner too hot and swinging wide into oncoming traffic. An experienced rider knows how fast to take a corner and has a better awareness of road hazards. He or she rides in front and can alert the newbie to potential dangers, as best as one can from the seat of another bike.

But there are several problems with this aspect of Quebec’s motorcycle licensing law. For one, it assumes that your escort is responsible, which is not always the case. A newbie could be peer-pressured into keeping up with a group of canyon carvers, which could actually cause a crash, and often does. What if, like me, you don’t have any (or many) friends that ride? Then the bike sits in the garage and you don’t get in much practice while muscle memory deteriorates. Then when you do get on the bike you are even more at risk until you regain familiarity with the controls. And what about after the 11 month period? According to the same statistics, a rider with 2-3 years of experience is even more likely to crash than someone who’s been riding for less than 6 months. Who’s going to save the “newbie” then?

The law groups all motorcyclists into one camp, but I’m not an 18-year-old with little or no experience with defensive driving. I’ve been driving a car for 35 years without even a fender-bender. Sure, I did some joy-riding in my youth; who hasn’t driven country highways at 100 mph with ski goggles on? But that was a long time ago, before that thing called “the internet” existed and smoking was fashionable. I think that clean driving record of 35 years should count for something. Surely it shows I can anticipate potential accidents and avoid the risks of sharing the road with unaware and aggressive idiots.

My dad was self-taught. When he went to buy the bike, the owner basically showed him how to change gears and brake. He said he drove home practically the entire way in 2nd gear. Then in the evenings, when traffic on his road dropped off, he’d drive up and down practicing. For his test, he had to drive around the block. When he returned, the evaluator stepped off the curb in front of him to test his emergency braking. And that was that. The next day he and my mom set off for Cornwall.

He only came off once, when a boy ran out from between parked cars in front of him. While I wouldn’t recommend this method of learning as the norm, it shows I think that, after you master the technical aspect of riding—an aspect I don’t mean to belittle—the rest is a matter of maturity and attitude. The same could be said for learning to drive a car; the only difference is that on a bike, the consequences are higher.

As for the technical aspect, what makes most sense to me is the stepped system used in the EU, where licensing is restricted by age, experience, and engine size. Roughly speaking, 16-18 year-olds can ride mopeds and 125cc bikes; 18-20 year-olds 250-400cc bikes (technically speaking, it’s restricted by horse power and power-to-weight ratio); then after 2 years of experience, one can get a full-power bike. As I understand it, if you start riding over 20, you still have to ride the smaller bike for two years before you can graduate up to a full-power bike.

This makes sense since the real technical difficulty of riding is a factor of power and weight. You shouldn’t be allowed to have all that power at your fingertips until you’ve mastered how to control it. It’s not just a matter of speed but controlling the throttle on turns so you don’t slide out the back end, and weight of course affects stopping distance. I couldn’t believe my ears when one of my fellow students at the course said he was going to buy a 1,700 cc bike upon graduating. He’d just finished swinging his leg over the school’s Honda CB125. “Dude,” I thought, “all 1700cc’s?” That’s a bigger engine than my son’s Toyota Echo!

I’m glad to read that the SAAQ recommended back in 2013 that the 11-month probation period be scrapped. It’s not working. It’s not enforceable and not effective. There has been considerable interest in the news lately about motorcycle fatalities. Let’s hope the Couillard government acts quickly to bring Quebec’s motorcycle licensing up to date with most other jurisdictions. Such changes would not only save others like me this excruciating waiting period but, more importantly, also save lives.

Review: Proficient Motorcyling by David L. Hough

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I’m out of bookmarks. Now when I start a book, I have to go scrounging from my bookcase for one that remains in a book half-finished. When I started reading Proficient Motorcycling by David L. Hough, the one I happened to grab was a promotional one for Douglas Burnet Smith’s collection of poems titled The Killed. I almost swapped it for another, but didn’t. As disturbing as it was to keep using this one, I was reminded each time I came back to the book why I’m reading it. I’d counter that thought with The Bee Gees song in my head: “Staying alive, staying alive . . . Ha ha ha ha . . . staying alive, staying alive.” It’s a bit macabre to think about it, but that’s exactly what David Hough wants us to do.

Hough was one of the first, if not the first, to break the ice on the subject of motorcycle fatalities. As he says in the introduction, there’s a taboo on talking about the risks: “You won’t hear much about motorcycle fatalities from your local motorcycle dealerships or in mainstream motorcycle magazines. Discussing fatalities has long been a motorcycling taboo. If a rider survives the crash, the experience might provide some bragging rights. But talking about the fatalities tends to take all the fun out of the sport for riders, and for those in the industry it has a chilling effect on sales.” So in the 1970’s, Hough started writing about the risks in an obscure little magazine called Road Rider and then Motorcycle Consumer News. Proficient Motorcycling is the culmination of those articles in one book that has become the top-selling motorcycle book of the decade.

Chapter 1 looks directly at those fatalities, using the Hurt Report, a study of over 9,000 fatalities in the Greater Los Angeles area by Dr. Hugh Hurt. Hough (the other Hough) acknowledges that a regional study will be slanted, but there has been no other major study of this kind, a fact that points to the taboo and a dearth of reliable data on the subject. Hough walks us through the data, looking at types of accidents and when they occur in a rider’s career. For example, we would expect there to be a lot of accidents in the first six months of riding, but one statistic I found interesting is that there’s a spike in the 25-36 month period. We don’t know why, but perhaps over-confidence is to blame. After 36 months, the fatalities drop off dramatically and stay low. So the lesson is to be careful for at least three years and especially during the third year.

Hough also looks at types of accidents (angle collisions, left-turners, driver error, animal strikes, etc.) and their percentages, as well as percentages of impact areas on a helmet. If you’re considering an open-face helmet, note that almost 1/5 of all impacts are on the chin-bar. We learn of other factors such as engine size, age, alcohol, and training. Not surprisingly, you are three times more likely to have an accident if taught by a friend or family member than by a professional at a school. The chapter concludes with a risk assessment questionnaire which gives you a good idea of “how far you’re hanging it out,” as Hough puts it.

Chapter 2 examines the physics of motorcycling—all the forces interacting as you weave through the twisties. There were terms here I’d never heard before, like rake and trail, and others like gyroscopic and inertial stability, centre of gravity, and centrifugal force that I was familiar with but not in as much detail as applied to motorcycling as Hough explains. Fortunately, Hough is by profession a graphic designer, so there are a lot of illustrations and photographs to help the reader through some of this abstract material. The chapter also covers cornering, braking, ergonomics, and includes exercises to practice your cornering and emergency braking. In fact, each chapter includes practical homework to help you apply in your everyday riding the concepts presented in theory. The idea is to be prepared with muscle memory when there is no time to think.

Other chapters cover cornering in more detail, urban traffic survival, booby traps like surface hazards and dealing with deer and dogs among other animals, and a chapter on special situations, like riding in the rain or at night, in extreme heat or cold, and in gusting wind. Of course some of this I’d read about in preparing for my theory test, but Hough goes into much more detail than the SAAQ booklet, and Proficient Motorcycling contains many tips and techniques for dealing with these hazards. Hough draws on his extensive experience to provide concrete examples, and provides case scenarios to show how all this applies in real-life situations.

The final chapter covers riding in groups, which has its own set of risks, although I was happy to read that my particular club is doing everything right. For example, we do a pre-ride talk, take regular breaks, ride in formation, use hand signals, and keep less experienced riders near the front. In this chapter, Hough also examines the added issues of riding two-up, and how to load your bike properly for a longer trip. The chapter ends with a section on the merits and addiction of the side-car, something not seen much in North America, and the book concludes with a final section on additional resources and a glossary.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read this book that it should be mandatory reading for all bikers. Yeah, the SAAQ booklet and online sources are a fine start, but when it’s your life at stake, why wouldn’t you want to study a book like this? It can’t replace real-world experience, but it can prepare you better for that experience and the inevitable incidents that will occur. One reason I waited over thirty years to ride is because of the risk. But managing risk is a part of life, not just riding, and a book like this is invaluable in doing that. It’s no wonder there are so many accidents and fatalities when the status quo for years has been to hop on a bike ill-prepared for the risk that riding entails. Proficient Motorcycling will most certainly lower that risk significantly and should be on every rider’s summer reading list.

Safe vs. Cool. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

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The first night of my rider training course, the instructor asked the class: “What colour helmet are you going to buy?” Three-quarters of the class said black. Then he said that’s the worst colour possible because it’s the same colour as asphalt. The most common thing a driver says to a motorcyclist lying on the road after being wiped out is “Sorry, man. I didn’t see you!” When the trick to staying alive is being visible, it would seem a no-brainer, so to speak, to get a colourful helmet.

What colour is the instructor’s helmet? Black, he admitted. What colour is mine? Black.

Yeah, it’s the Cool Factor that draws us to making stupid decisions, like smoking when we were teenagers, or donning no helmet at all when we hop on a bicycle. Something weird happens in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, when we are presented with a safe vs. cool decision. It’s like the neuropathways short-circuit to cool, by-passing all the good reasons for choosing safe.

Let’s admit something. Motorcycles are cool. They’re fun, sure, but they are also pretty cool and part of the attraction of riding is that extra attention we get on the road. Drivers stare, pedestrians turn, dudes nod, kids wave. Suddenly we’re special, and all we had to do was buy and ride this dangerous machine. Now why would we want to pull the red carpet out from underneath our boots by sporting a hi-viz helmet?

But it’s not just about the helmet. On one of my first rides in road practice I saw cruise through my peripheral vision at 120 clicks what appeared to be two naked obese people on a Harley. I did a double-take and it turns out they were wearing swimwear, she rockin’ a string bikini. My imagination flashed to what all that flesh would look like if they ever went down. Don’t they know that the implement for removing gravel from under flesh is a wire brush? Not cool.

Or there are the guys on sport bikes with their T-shirts blowing half up their backs, riders with no gloves (even a tip-over at parking lot speed will take flesh down to the bone), passengers in flip-flops, bare arms, legs, etc. etc. Like being in the Canadian bush in June, any exposed skin is potential disaster. Why do we take such risks in the interests of being cool?

Why did I choose a black helmet? Honestly, because it was 30% off and all the store had in stock, and 30% of $800 is not nothing. I used the store credit to buy kevlar jeans which completed my gear (I already had jacket, gloves and boots) from fingertips to toes, so I know if I do go down I’m at least protected to some degree from road rash. Then I went looking online for hi-viz stickers I could add to the helmet. Not all reflective stickers are the same, I discovered, and the ones I bought comply with NFPA requirements; if they’re good enough to reflect in a dark and smokey building, they’re good enough to illuminate me in a dark tunnel. And being fluorescent yellow-green, they are pretty eye-catching even in daylight. No one is going to have the excuse they didn’t see me.

“You won’t find any stickers on my helmet,” one of the younger riders in my club said. Maybe you have to be over 40, already resigned to the loss of a good portion your coolness, before safety starts to make sense. Maybe it’s because you start to value the years you have left all the more that you want all of them and are willing to trade a little coolness to shift the odds that you will. Maybe it’s how you define “cool” that shifts.

When I see riders in shorts and T-shirts, I can’t help thinking “Amateur Hour”; serious riders wear ATGATT (All the Gear All the Time). Besides, my Joe Rocket leather jacket with its CE approved shoulder pads makes me look like the football player I never was, and the knuckle armour of my Five gloves turns me into James Caan in Rollerball. Now that’s cool!