Design and content © 2004
By Steve Manes.
If you ask the average experienced motorcyclist how skilled a rider he is, you'll usually hear how many years he's been riding, how many bikes he's owned, how long he's ridden without an accident, or how many accidents he's walked away from. You'll get a more direct answer from a wet-behind-the-ears novice.
While there is no replacement for experience, an untrained motorcyclist is like an untrained musician: time and talent may mold him into a fine blues player but some day someone's going to put a piece of sheet music in front of him and unless he's prepared for it he's going to perform no better than a kid at his first guitar lesson. Translated to the world of motorcycling, you may ride for years on sheer dumb luck before you are suddenly, in the blink of an eye, or the flash of a deer's tail, or the appearance of a 4x4 cutting across your bow, called upon to perform. Will you know what to do, or will you be telling tales from your hospital bed about how you "laid it down"?
Forensic researcher, Harry Hurt, studied the causes and effects of motorcycle accidents. There are some controversial findings in his report but the facts are these: 92% of riders involved in accidents are self-trained and, contrary to popular opinion, most of them aren't new riders. Another interesting fact is that dirt riders, who learn early on how to control a motorcycle in "unusual attitudes" with benefit of soft terra firma on which to land their butts, are significantly under-represented in street accident statistics. Is there a correlation?
Learning the performance limits of your motorcycle... how it steers, how it reacts to braking and acceleration, how it handles on less-than perfect surfaces... is crucial to controlling a motorcycle under challenging circumstances. You will typically have less than two seconds to react to a perceived emergency, to intentionally toss your motorcycle into an "unusual attitude" and bring it back. That's simply not enough time to practice evasive skills you haven't learned or commit yourself to a response without complete confidence. Just as important is learning how not to get yourself into such a predicament in the first place.
That's the purpose of motorcycle skills training - to learn those skills before you need them.
In the US, many states require three-hour "motorcycle training" courses as a prerequisite for a motorcycle license so there are a lot of commercial driving schools only too happy to take your money. 99% of them are 100% worthless. With few exceptions, the only motorcycle training courses worth a dime are endorsed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), a non-profit organization sponsored by most of the larger motorcycle manufacturers whose interest it is to keep you alive and a future customer.
MSF teaches two courses: the Beginning RiderCourse (BRC) and the Experienced RiderCourse (ERC). The BRC is typically a three-day school using school-owned motorcycles. In many states, graduation from an MSF BRC is a waiver of DMV-mandated skills testing. ERC is a one-day, skills refresher program using your own motorcycle so you can learn how your bike behaves. Graduation from either course usually rewards you with at least a 10% discount on your insurance premium. MSF will teach you the techniques of swerving, cornering, panic braking and accident avoidance. It's a very cheap investment on your life and it will increase your confidence as a rider. It's also a helluva lot of fun. (1)
To find an MSF course near you, contact your local motorcycle dealer or motor vehicle office. Other countries offer similar programs. MSF also publishes a primer manual, Motorcycling Excellence, ISBN 1-884313-01-9.
MSF is the benchmark motorcycle training course in the US but there are some post-graduate riding schools which are also very worthwhile. Most are race track-oriented, and in fact are held on closed tracks, but many of the techniques you learn will enhance your skill as a street rider. All are traveling schools so you will need to book in advance. Many are also regional.
Of these, CLASS is probably the most popular. CLASS is operated by retired professional motorcycle racer, Reg Pridmore. It is hosted on a race track but focuses mainly on street riding skills using your own motorcycle (2). While MSF focuses mainly on low-speed maneuvers, where most motorcycle accidents generally occur, CLASS takes the classwork at speed under the controlled, safe environment of a race track. CLASS travels from California to New York.
Keith Code's California Superbike School is the next level. Code is also an ex-racer. The school is more race oriented than CLASS, although it also offers a limited Harley-oriented "super twins" school at selected locations. Code is also the author/producer of the Twist of the Wrist instruction book and video, reviewed elsewhere in the FAQ.
Jerry Wood's Penguin School is my personal favorite. Penguin is a balls-on racing school sponsored by a two-generation racing family with lots of guest instructors from the professional world like Dale Quarterly and Randy Renfro. The skills are more geared for the track. Indeed, if you manage to finish the school and complete the mandatory "rookie race" without throwing your bike down the track, you'll earn a CCS race license. But most of what you'll learn is applicable to street riding, especially the braking drills and the focus on picking a line and keeping your attention in front of you. Unfortunately, at the performance level of this school you'll want to rent one of their Kawasaki EX500s and spare your Harley the abuse. Penguin is an east coast school only.
You can also read my review of Penguin's Basic/Advanced school.
There are several other motorcycle skills schools: Ed Bargy, Dave Aldana's Suzuki Endurance School, and some high-quality local schools too. But MSF should be your first stop.
(2) Most race tracks have motorcycle preparation rules requiring removal of side/centerstands, mirrors, etc. Check with the school to learn what you must do. Most street-oriented schools will require minimal prep work, especially for air-cooled motors.