You may remember our earlier article on August 23, 2001 about Honda’s Rider Education Center in Colton, California. In that article we discussed the off-road training and environmental aspects of the center, but what we didn’t mention is that they also offer street rider training courses.
My good friend John and I attended a three-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation (“MSF”) street bike course at the Rider Education Center. We are both experienced off-road riders with some street bike experience, and going into the course I wasn’t sure how much I would learn. Contrary to my expectations, I learned quite a bit, both in the classroom and on-bike portions of the course.
The classroom portion of the course concentrates on the basic concepts of motorcycle riding on the street. We started off by covering the main motorcycle controls (handlebars, throttle, clutch, shifter, brakes), as well as appropriate protective clothing, pre-ride inspections to insure your bike is safe, and more. All this material was covered in an MSF guidebook, which was handed out to each student. Of course, handing a student a bunch of reading material is no guarantee that they will read it, much less understand it.
To ensure that the students were familiar with all the information covered in the handout, the instructor separated the class into teams of 4-5 people, with each team choosing a name. Then the class reviewed each section of the handout, with each team assigned several questions to answer from the text. The teams gave their answers out loud to the whole class, and important answers were further explained by the instructor.
We moved quickly into safety issues such as lane positioning, cornering techniques, and of course strategies for dealing with other road users. Most experienced street riders would probably agree that dealing with cars and their drivers is the most important and potentially dangerous aspect of street riding, and appropriately it was on this subject that we spent the most time.
Rather than describing certain situations that a road rider might encounter before outlining an appropriate response, the instructors used videos which were shot from the rider’s perspective to demonstrate a particular circumstance. Then, freeze-framing the video at the moment before the rider responded, the instructor would discuss with the class possible conflicts with other road users and appropriate responses to the situation displayed. I found these videos to be an excellent teaching technique, and I feel that the instructor did a commendable job of covering all of the most common “danger spots” for road riders, while thoroughly explaining how to avoid these situations, or how to respond to them.
The classroom instruction concluded with the students taking a written test covering the information learned from the booklets distributed earlier. I don’t believe that anyone would have difficulty passing the test, provided they paid attention during the class discussion of the handout.
Now to the fun part. We spent the better part of two days on the Honda Center’s instruction course, learning how to ride a motorcycle. Students ride Honda Nighthawk 250s belonging to the school, and I found the Nighthawk to be an excellent bike for riding around at parking lot speeds.
On the first day, we learned to start the bike, and to use the clutch to pull away from a stop. Of course, I didn’t find this very difficult, but from past experience with beginner riders I would say this is often the most difficult part of learning to ride a motorcycle. With the instructors taking the students through a series of well-thought-out exercises, every student in the class was able to confidently get the bike moving after only an hour of work. Very impressive considering many of the students had never ridden a bike at all prior to taking the class.
The rest of the first day was spent developing basic maneuvering skills (at 1st and 2nd gear speeds). Basic braking, acceleration and cornering techniques were practiced, with the small class size allowing the instructors to give students one-on-one instruction if they had any problems. Again, while I didn’t find this part of the course particularly challenging, I was impressed by the quick improvement of the true beginner students in the course.
The second day was devoted to improving on the basic skills learned during day one, as well as practicing the maneuvers required for the riding skills test, which each student would take at the end of the day. The instructors stressed many techniques which are valuable to riders of all skill levels, and this was the day I felt that I learned the most. I was particularly impressed by the emphasis they put on looking ahead during cornering, which is a valuable technique to any rider and something even many experienced riders are deficient in.
The only part of the course I didn’t feel was up to par was the braking instruction. The Honda Nighthawk 250s the students were provided with use a drum brake in the front, a feature I would say is present on very few modern bikes. In fact, before taking this course, I had never ridden a bike with a drum front brake! When practicing emergency stops, students were instructed to use all four fingers to operate the brake lever, and the weak brakes required the rider to squeeze the lever nearly all the way to the bar to gain full stopping power.
Braking this way is a recipe for disaster with nearly any disc-braked modern motorcycle. At best, the rider would lock the front wheel and temporarily lose control. At worst (and this is a likely result on any modern sport bike) the rider would be immediately thrown over the bars as the bike endoed. Since many of the students were first-time riders, it seems likely that reflexes and techniques developed during the class would be carried over to their first experiences on the street. Teaching students to brake this way could definitely put them in danger on the street.
The maneuvers the students performed on the second day (and were scored on during the test) were by no means easy. In fact, I was amazed that many of the students were able to perform some of these maneuvers, especially considering some of them had never ridden a motorcycle until day one of the course. Making two u-turns (one in each direction) in a confined space, without putting your feet down, is particularly difficult. Nevertheless, every student in the class passed the test, which is a substitute for the DMV riding test required to get a motorcycle license in California.
Overall, I felt that the Honda Rider Education Center did an excellent job putting together this course. The instructors were very good at their jobs, and did an excellent job of managing a small area full of inexperienced riders. The course covered every aspect of street riding technique, and aside from the issues I had with their braking style, every skill a beginner learns in this course will help them become a safer, more skilled street rider.
If you ride already and are planning to teach a spouse/sibling/friend to ride, I would definitely recommend you send them to an MSF class like this one rather than attempt to teach them yourself. You may be a good rider, but that doesn’t necessarily imply ability to transfer your skills to a beginner. The MSF-certified instructors at the Honda Rider Education Center, on the other hand, have instructed hundreds of beginners and have developed a series of exercises that had even the most inexperienced students riding confidently after only two days of on-bike instruction.
If you already have a motorcycle license and are an experienced rider, the Honda Rider Education Center also offers an Experienced Rider Course. Dirt bike classes are also available. Check out http://www.msf-usa.org/ and click on “Ridercourse Info” to find a Ridercourse near you, and go to http://www.offroad-training.org/ to find out more about Honda Rider Education Centers around the country.