As my fourth season of riding motorcycles is nearing an end here in Central Alberta, it is hard to imagine a time when I was so terrified of motorcycles it made me physically ill.
Riding was not always the pleasure it is today, far from it really.
When the idea of learning to ride was presented to me, I didn’t really see it as something I wanted to learn. I have always enjoyed drag racing and other sports involving cars; but motorcycles did not appeal to me much.
At that time I spent much of my spare time around horses. They were my relaxation and therapy. I also think that part of my reluctance has to do with my false perception at the time of the type of people that rode motorcycles. Yes I know this type of thinking is outdated and uninformed but the image that readily came up in my mind when the word “bikers” was mentioned was negative. My thoughts as I write this article are very different.
It occurs to me now that I can add another positive thing to what motorcycles have taught me—don’t pre-judge anyone based on appearances. That statement can be added as a sub-category to “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
The Motorcycle Safety Training Course
When I finally did agree to take the Motorcycle Safety Course in the spring of 2006 I was confident I would do well. “How hard could it be?” I thought. I could ride a bicycle, a horse; drive a manual transmission car and operate a snowmobile and various forms of farm equipment after all. I thought the progression to a motorcycle would be a matter of learning a few new skills and getting used to the wind in my face. I had decided taking the course would, if nothing else, help me to decide if I wanted to pursue the sport any further. I did balk at the cost of the two day course, somewhere in the neighbourhood of $400, but did agree to give it a try. At the end of two days instruction I did not see any reason I would not leave with license in hand. This was not what happened.
I do not want to go into detail now on what I thought of the course, I have it marked as something to explore in another post sometime in the future, as this is a story in itself. What happened was I crashed. Three times.
The first time the instructor told half of us to mount the bikes, without starting the engine, and get pushed from one end of the parking lot to the other by another student. I still don’t quite get the reasoning behind this exercise but I was there to learn. The lady that was assigned to push me decided to take a run at it from behind and knocked me clean off the bike. Not as funny as it may have looked.
Later in the day with engines running now, we were instructed to reach a certain speed and apply both brakes as hard as we could. We were assured we would NOT go over the handlebars. They were wrong.
The third crash ended with me tangled in the bike and I was injured beyond scrapes and bruises. I tried my best to shake it off and did manage to get back on and ride another half hour or so but the physical injury was severe enough to require medical attention. It took me many months to completely recover from the damage to my leg. The psychological damage was worse, as I would later discover. For the record I was not the only one to come off my bike that day, but I believe I was the only one to receive injury severe enough to knock me out of the rest of the course.
Buying a Bike
A few weeks later I went shopping for a motorcycle that was going to be my bike but would be shared with my husband until he bought his own the following year. I decided on a new Yamaha V-Star 650 Custom. I almost went with the 1100 model but there was some concern it may have been a bit too big for a beginner. My plan was to heal from my injury and continue riding. (See article “Choosing Your First Motorcycle”)
The Fear Begins to Take Hold
For the rest of the season as I was healing, I ended up being a passenger on that bike more then a rider. Here is where the fear became a problem. Even when my husband went out to ride on his own, I was consumed with thoughts of something happening to him. He purchased a cell phone at my request so he could call me at regular intervals to try and ease my mind. I would get physically sick when I saw him leave. Later I tried riding with him as a passenger hoping I would get used to the bike and have a better understanding of what it was like to ride on my own one day.
Those few months included some of the worst times of my life. My fear was overtaking me and I didn’t like what was happening to me emotionally. It was changing me in a negative way and that was not acceptable. I wasn’t even sure why it was affecting me that way.
Being A Passenger
As soon as I would throw my leg over the seat I would take a death hold on the tiny strap provided for the passenger. I used both hands wedged in there and would not move or let go for anything. My shoulders would ache and my head would pound. I would try to relax my grip and let my shoulders down a bit, but in less then 30 seconds I would be in such a tense state that my body would cramp and ache.
Tears would stream down my face but I would not move to wipe them away under my face shield. It would itch and tickle but I was too afraid to let go of my grip on that strap for anything. I said not one word, I did not scream or wriggle my body or make any movement. I sat frozen in fear while he drove, oblivious to my pain. I made sure I was aware of the route we were going to take and at first just agreed to smaller streets and never more then 70 km/h. Every turn made my stomach tense up so bad I would nearly cry out. Most of the time he drove fine, didn’t do anything too sudden, didn’t take the corners too fast or drive too close to other cars. Still the fear was almost unbearable. Later we would discuss how afraid I was and he would ask if there was anything he could do to make it easier for me. He never forced me to go with him but I did truly want to conquer this fear and so I pressed on in spite of the toll it was taking on me. I wanted this, it didn’t make sense, I did not have to do it and it had clearly become a major stress in my life.
The First Step to Recovery – Preparation
I had purchased my bike with engine guards installed, but quickly replaced them with crash bars that I felt were safer for me and the bike. They were custom made by my husband. I could see how the bike would be protected if it was on its side. Also my leg was less likely to be caught under the bike if I went down. Knowing this helped—a little.
I also purchased leather chaps and a better jacket with padding. In all my years of riding horses I know I could have avoided a lot of bumps and bruises and even broken bones if I had always used proper equipment. So I used this same logic, and also, I decided that if I felt more like I belonged on a bike maybe it would filter through to my brain and give me more confidence. This also helped—a little.
I even toyed with the idea of having a drink (liquid courage I have heard it called) to calm me but quickly thought of this as foolish and better to avoid. I did not want anything, not even one drink to impair my senses. (I rarely drink and one drink would probably be too much anyway.) I did however, a few times take half an ativin when I was riding as a passenger only. This may or may not have helped, I am not really sure.
All of the preparation was good and helped to some extent, but it still comes down to me actually getting on the bike and riding it. Because I have always been able to learn from books and from doing things on my own, I decided to ride my bike around my yard on the grass to get used to how it felt. I live on 12 acres and have a lot of lawn to ride on that would enable me to practice and have something soft to fall on. Well–softer then pavement. Riding on grass is difficult and the lumps and bumps and ridges in my acreage lawn could set me off balance easily if I was not careful, especially at slow speeds. I did master some slow speed manoeuvres over time however, and did learn to use my clutch and rear brake fairly well. I dropped my bike twice during this time. Both times it was much unexpected and at very low speed. Once, I think I was actually stopped.
Dropping the Bike and Living Through It
The first time was the most upsetting. I was alone and had spent about 30 minutes riding before getting ready to put the bike back in the shop. It was one of those days where everything was going so well that I started to think I might actually be able to pull this off. I was happily looking forward to reporting my progress, and in particular, my tightened turns. I had positioned my self to enter the shop and dismounted to open the large overhead door. Once I could see inside I decided to move just a shade to the left at very low speed, barely moving really, when I lost my balance and toppled over. Just like that. I hit the ground harder then I thought I would have and was shocked to realize I had no time to fix this, it had already happened, it was over. My shiny new bike, the first motor vehicle I had ever purchased new, was on its side. I wanted a do-over!
Fortunately my crash bars did their job beautifully and I am thankful to this day I have them. I scrambled up, shut off the fuel and made sure the engine was not running and turned off the key. Then I winced and felt sick seeing my precious motorcycle that I had this love/hate relationship with, down in the grass, disabled. I think I whimpered when I saw the tail light bent over and now running parallel with the bike, I was certain it had to be broken. I had not checked my own body for damage as I was sure I would be reminded of any injury I may have sustained later that evening.
I managed to lift the 500 or so pounds back up and get it on the kickstand so I could assess the damage. There was none! There was some grass stuck to the pegs and the tail light, that I was sure was smashed, sprung back into place. Just as, a few minutes earlier, everything changed, everything changed back. I guess I got my do-over. It was ok, I was ok, and the bike lived. I realized that I had believed prior to this that the bike laying on its side for whatever reason was close to the end of the world. It was not; in fact it was hardly an issue. Hmm, I thought, one of my biggest fears was not bad at all in reality; it was much bigger in my own mind. There must be a lesson here.
Perhaps that is when I started to overcome my fears although I did not know it at the time. It was like turning on the light in a darkened room fully expecting all kinds of hideous things to reveal themselves, and then finding there is nothing but the familiar room you left earlier.
The next we rode to a quiet neighbourhood and I spent about 20 minutes on the street. There were no traffic lights and little traffic so I had to pay attention of course, but there was not so much activity that would make me feel overwhelmed.
Experiencing a Bigger Bike
My husband had purchased a Honda Valkyrie Interstate around that time. It was huge and because it is designed for touring, it had a proper seat for the passenger. I felt so secure on the back of this bike I think I only held on with one hand the first day and after that did not feel the need to hang on at all. It has a backrest and the seat kind of wraps around and holds you in, making you feel very secure. This helped a lot and I was starting to calm down. I do however remember going on to a highway for the first time and thought I would be sick. Every single instinct was saying “JUMP”. Of course that is ridiculous and I stayed put, but it was terrifying. Even after I had learned to relax the fear would come back and surprise me from time to time. Now I am happy to report many long rides as a passenger with little or no concern that I would make it home alive and in one piece.
Once I was able to relax and actually enjoy our outings I began to imagine myself in the driver’s seat. When he would shift or brake I would shift and brake in my mind. I would watch the road, squeeze the clutch, slow down or accelerate as though I was operating the bike. I scanned the road looking for traffic and anticipating problem spots. I thought of how to position the bike in the safest place, the safest lane, the safest part of the lane. I reacted when he reacted. I knew and understood the mechanics of riding, now I had to put them to practical use. It started to become second nature to me. During this time, I would take short rides on my own bike but only when I was feeling fresh and confident and I was careful not to get cocky too quickly and take on more then I could handle.
I read the boards on the internet and talked to other women riders, some of whom had to overcome fears in their own journey of learning to ride. It was helpful and encouraging to know others had been where I was, that I wasn’t weird, and that it could be overcome.
I read books, such as
- “The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Guide to Motorcycling Excellence”
- “Proficient Motorcycling” by David L. Hough.
I also purchased the DVD
- “Ride Like A Pro IV” by Jerry Motorman Palladino.
All of these publications are highly recommended for anyone who sits a motorcycle, in my opinion. They helped me to think like a professional and keep myself out of trouble.
I was becoming a biker. I had a thirst for knowledge and a strong desire to not just ride a motorcycle but ride well.
The last thing I will credit with helping me is positive thought. I have been around animals most of my life and trained many dogs, horses and parrots. Cesar Millan and his National Geographic program “The Dog Whisperer” reminded me how positive thought, or energy as Cesar refers to it, can help not only in relationships with dogs, but in life as well. When you learn to lead a pack, you learn to discipline yourself, see clearer and focus on your goals. Its not mystical or new age, its just life and how you choose to walk (or ride) through it. All of these things, the focus, the clarity and leadership are all qualities you want to possess when riding a motorcycle. I also recommend looking into the things Cesar teaches especially if you are a dog owner. It’s not about training a dog to sit; it’s about how you see yourself and the image you project. When I was an active rider on horses I learned how to “see” in a different way that helped me immensely. I would visualize what I wanted to achieve as an aid to using my mind and body to further my goals.
I AM a Biker
I am happy to say that I now ride regularly. I can handle downtown traffic, parking, hills, highways, mountains and tricky parking lots. I have ridden on pavement, gravel and sand, in the rain and during extreme heat. I am not saying nothing bad will ever happen to me, but I am on the right track. I no longer sweat and get sick in anticipation of a ride. Quite the opposite, I ride to relax, to enjoy, to feel connected to life. I always pause to say a prayer before I ride to ask for focus and protection and to give thanks for the day and that I am able to enjoy my life. Just like I check my equipment before I ride, I also check my mental state so I don’t become complacent. I love the sport and am happy to report I am shopping for my next bike, something bigger and I am also considering expanding my horizons into the world of sport bikes.
If you have fear there is hope if you really want to conquer it. I feel proud I faced the fear and now it is behind me, it has given me confidence in riding and in life. Now that I have conquered the fear I can hope I can continue to learn something with every ride.