In a show of hands, how many of you were able to just hop on your bike, push the start button and take off? That many? I am not one of you, apparently. After years of chickening out whenever the opportunity arose, I decided to try learning how to ride. On a warm June evening, my friend and chauffeur, Don, brought his Honda Rebel 250 and we began my lessons on how to ride. I have a very long way to go.
The First Day
My first mistake was in knowing the lever on the right is the brake. It became my panic button and I stalled out probably four times as soon as I felt I wasn’t in control. So a change in strategy was in order: keep the fingers away from that lever and stop and go with the clutch only. This would also have me feeling for the “friction zone,” that moment in clutch release that lets the bike start to move. I went so slow that I think I rolled into the day before, but I was moving.
My second mistake, also borne of panic, was not controlling the steer. If the bike veered, I would stop instead of attempting to keep it straight. I was allowing the bike to control me instead of the opposite. I think much of it has to do with confidence. Being afraid of falling over is looking like a surefire way to do so. It also did not help that I was going so slow. I was not aware until later that the law of physics was in play along with that particular bike’s low center of gravity combined with its “top heaviness,” and that the speed, or lack thereof, that I was doing on the bike was why it wouldn’t go straight.
I am a very impatient person by nature. I always want it yesterday and I want it perfectly. It doesn’t help when I hear remarks like my brother made: “Yeah, I took the bike around the block to see how it would be to ride.” I couldn’t make the length of the parking lot we were using! Here I am trying to just go straight without falling over and doing it in a slow first gear and little brother hops on his girlfriend’s Harley to take a virgin spin around the block.
Thank goodness the park we were in was mostly empty. After that half hour and about 200 feet away from my car, I handed the bike back to its owner. His offer of having me ride it back had me thinking I would be using my car as a brake. I’d just had it cleaned and waxed and, visualizing the imprint of the front of that Honda in its shiny green side, I decided to walk to it instead.
The Second Day
Discussions with both Don and my other friend, Eric, convinced me that perhaps learning in a parking lot was working against me. They suggested trying on grass, perhaps my backyard. My yard is small so that wouldn’t have worked; visions of me crashing into the fence were not conducive to good learning. However, across the road was Don’s former employer and behind that building, a huge open field belonging to a cemetery. Perfect.
We went over a few details about starting in Neutral (I decided that for extra measure, I would create the habit of holding in the clutch as well) and about this time having to use the throttle to be able to move across the field. It is not completely flat, so it provided a great way to get the feel of how much throttle is needed and the one tree was off to the right, so avoiding it would be easy.
I think controlling the throttle is the second “hurdle” to overcome when starting out. They are touchy, probably for a reason, but the slightest move of the wrist can give it too much rev for the movement needed. My car is a five-speed and I have driven manuals since I was 16 (so a very, very long time). The balance of clutch to gas is natural to me there, but this was a whole new game. Another friend who rides and has been doing so for over 30 years kept reminding me that because I drive a manual, the transition to learning a bike would be easier for me. I found that not to be entirely correct.
Bike pointing straight, I put it in first and slowly released my death grip on the clutch while being careful not to give it too much gas. The field looked daunting but I knew that, should I go over, it would be forgiving. It was now or never.
A little more throttle, a little less clutch and I was moving. Ever so slightly I twisted the throttle and began going faster. When I say “faster,” I mean not rolling into yesterday. Let’s not get crazy here. The field inclines, so more throttle was necessary. This was where that discussion about physics and center of gravity came to light. The bike no longer wanted to go over, and I no longer was afraid that it would. Once over the incline, I attempted a left U-turn to get back to my starting point and it didn’t protest. Don said I was beaming when I got back. I think it was more relief. My klutzy nature had taken the day off.
For the next half hour, I went back and forth over that field, attempting turns, trying to go just a little bit faster than the time before. Left turns seemed very easy, but right turns seemed almost impossible. I am not sure why this is. I was sure, however, that I had to avoid that tree. A couple of times it became necessary to brake/clutch very quickly but I only stalled it once or twice. The tree remained standing and the bike remained unharmed.
We took a lunch break and went back later that afternoon. I continued just going back and forth a few times until a van pulled up. A man got out and released his five Husky dogs. That ended that day’s lesson. A tree is one thing, five dogs running around? I don’t think so.
The Third Day
It would be four days before we were able to go back to the cemetery. Going back and forth, working the throttle and not stalling out every time I stopped gave me the confidence to remark that perhaps we could try the asphalt paths later that day. But first, I had to get turning down. Going up the field I glanced down at the speedometer and noted that I was only doing 15mph. I still couldn’t turn right so I changed course and turned left. I stopped midway and shut it off, not being able to find Neutral. Don ran up, asking me why I didn’t complete the turn and I replied that the turning didn’t “feel right” to me so I felt I should stop. My friend Eric had told me “look to where you want to go and the bike will get you there,” but it wasn’t working too well. Don and I talked and decided that I would practice “weaving,” a maneuver that is done in the New Jersey road test in which you have to “weave” through a series of cones. Of course, I would not be doing this as tightly as required, but we felt it would get me to understand the lean and how much is needed to get where I want to be.
From the far end of the field, I started up and began a slow weave back and forth, left and right. I stopped right where I should have, in front of my car and where Don had been standing.
We were talking about how I did and that’s when it happened. In less time than it takes to say “oops,” the bike lurched, toppled over and took me with it. I screamed in agony as Don lifted the bike off my leg. It was obvious as soon as I looked. There at the bottom of my left leg was my foot, pointed true west, the leg above it blowing up as fast as a balloon on a helium tank. The pain was the worst I had ever felt; burning and yet a numbness and just plain hurt. Someone from a neighboring house came running, asking if he could help. All I could think of was to say, “Get my cell phone and call my husband.” Don wanted to drive me to the ER, but I insisted he call 911. I ripped off my helmet and writhed and cried and yelled and grunted.
First to arrive was a police officer. He asked us what happened and we were truthful. He thought it over and, although he could have done so, issued no tickets. Unlicensed driver, unlicensed instructor, riding on private property, he didn’t want to add to an already obviously bad situation. My husband went to the cemetery entrance to guide in the ambulance, which whizzed right past him. They finally arrived and cut off my shoe and sock to reveal the ugly that was facing them. The woman EMT copped an attitude about “riding on grass” and didn’t want to hear that, in fact, I hadn’t been riding at all when this happened. My hell was just beginning.
The attending orthopedist in the ER was a nice young doctor who didn’t mind my guttural sounds. An IV was put into my right arm unsuccessfully so the left arm would be the way to go. A drug to ease my pain was injected into it and before long I was in the clouds. Of course, that is the time they decide to ask you the important questions: What am I allergic to? Any medications? Any health issues? I think I answered them. Dr. Nice had to put a cast on my ankle before taking me to X-ray. All the drugs in the world would not have stopped the agony as he pushed, pulled and molded my ankle so that everything would be as close as it should be had it not broken. Still in a stupor and now bound up, I was wheeled off to Radiology.
The results were less than stellar. My ankle was broken in three places with one fracture clean off and lodged against muscle tissue. This was that burning I was having.
The second bit of bad news: He had to recast the leg and the drugs were wearing off. They were not wearing off well, either, so he handed me his supply bucket and went to work.
The next morning I went into surgery. A plate and several screws, all permanent, were put in place to get the ankle healed. Dr. Nice remarked that I must have the start of osteoporosis as the bones were very soft. My own doctor would later dispute this as I passed all my pertinent tests with flying colors. She stated that she is pretty sure that dropping 300 pounds of metal on one’s ankle would tend to shatter it, regardless of how strong or weak it was.
I will be in a cast for six to eight weeks, followed by physical therapy.
Why did this happen? It happened due to sheer stupidity on my part. My first mistake: Not wearing protective boots. Perhaps they would not have helped, but they would have been better than the sneakers I had on. My second mistake, the one that got me to this was that I did not put the bike in Neutral as soon as I stopped. By not doing so, I left myself open to this event. My left hand left the clutch, right hand was still on the brake, causing the bike to lurch. Finally, had I remembered to use a wide stance upon stopping instead of simply standing erect, my ankle would have been clear. It may have gotten scraped or sprained but the bike would not have landed on it and twisted it.
If ever there was a poster child for taking the motorcycle safety courses, it would be me. Although I had it in my head what I should do, one second of not doing it cost me a summer of riding, a lot of pain, and months of inconvenience to myself and my family.
I hope we have all learned something from this. I have.
The pictures below of my injury are not for the faint of heart.
By Louise Reeves