Friday, July 27, 2007

Bike Review: Harley-Davidson Road King

The first thing I thought when I approached this bike was, “Wow. That’s pretty big.” I had ridden, to date: dirt bikes, my Sportster, another loaner Sportster while mine was in the shop, a Dyna Street Bob, and the Buell Blast I used for my training class. I wanted to ride something with bags, as I haven’t buckled and installed saddlebags on my own bike yet, and I needed something that would be able to carry all of my work stuff.

The gleaming white-and-black machine crouched there, full tank of gas, freshly cleaned, and ready to go. Just my luck, the local HOG chapter was meeting that night as well, so I was trying my first large bike out with tons of people standing around to watch if I happened to tank it.

The first issue I ran into was simply unfamiliarity with the layout of the bike. In all the bikes I’d ridden before, you put the key in, turn it, and leave it there. With this 2007 Road King, you actually just use the key to lock and unlock the forks and ignition. Then you take the key out of the slot, and stick it in your pocket – otherwise you run the risk of having it rattle off and get lost on the road while you’re riding.

When I sat on the bike, I noticed immediately that my feet didn’t reach the ground as easily as they did on my Sportster. It takes a little shuffling to figure out how to put your foot down comfortably, though after a few tries, it’s actually pretty easy to reach the ground. I’m about 5’9” and could flat-foot with little trouble.

A small tip for shorter, less muscular people when lifting the bike from its lean on the kickstand: turn the front wheel all the way to the right while it’s leaning, then nudge the bike up with your legs instead of just trying to muscle it up from its resting position. This uses the natural leverage of the bike to put it into a position where it has a shorter distance to travel to get upright.

Those used to the top-heavy Sportster will find this bike shockingly easy to handle. The lower center of gravity makes the bike more agile when negotiating curves and turns, and the fat front tire makes for an exceedingly smooth ride. I was shocked as I pulled out of the parking lot – I literally felt like I was riding air. The intimidation I felt at riding something I thought was so huge melted away, and I was able to smile and enjoy the ride.

The icing on the cake was the looks I got as I passed others on the road – both fellow riders and those in cars. Men on smaller bikes would look at my bike, then down at their own, then back at mine, obviously having a slight existential crisis. Guys in cars craned their heads around their lady passengers to double-check and see if I actually was a woman. If I get looks when I’m on my Sportster, I get gapers when I’m on a Road King.

I was very thankful for the large, bright headlamp when I got stuck out after dark from getting lost on my way home (I went to an unfamiliar area to go out to eat with a friend, and we got a little turned around). The seat was a little wider than I liked, adding to the whole foot placement issue, but Harley has several options available in both solo and two-up seats to alleviate that problem.

All-in-all, I really enjoyed my experience on the 2007 Road King and would suggest it to anyone with a little experience looking for a nice, smooth ride.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Women Ride

Why Women Ride

More than a decade ago, only about 3% of the motorcycles owned in the US were owned by women. That number has since changed drastically to as much as 12% in 2004! Women are no longer content to cling onto the back anymore and are finding their own enjoyment in being in the driver’s seat. There’s also been a huge increase in the number of women enrolling in motorcycle training classes, such as Rider’s Edge or those sponsored by the MSF(Motorcycle Safety Foundation). So who are these motorcycle women, and why are they riding?

Speaking as one of the many in this emerging trend, I can only guess at all the reasons a woman might have to get in the saddle, but I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in a few of mine!

When I’m on the road, and I pull up next to a car at a stoplight and sit there, nonchalant and unassuming, it is extremely amusing to notice the reactions of the men around me, often looking on with envy and a little bit of disbelief. If they are with their wives, I often see them look over, gesture, and make a comment, probably something along the lines of “if SHE has a motorcycle, why can’t I have one?” or “see, you’d look good on one of those too, honey.” It makes me a little proud, really – here I am, doing something that most other women don’t really do.

I love doing “the wave!” Call me nerdy, geeky, or a bit of a dork, I don’t care – when I see another biker put their hand out in a gesture of acknowledgement, it just makes me grin. Most of them probably don’t have time to notice that I’m female, and that’s OK. We’re out on the road together, we’re riding, and therefore we’re family.

Aside from the acknowledgement and shock effect, I find it extremely valuable to have time that is, in essence, mine. Even when I’m riding with other people, I am an island on the road. I can acknowledge who I want, when I want. I can take my time. I can pick where I want to go, and how I want to get there. As women of the 21st century, we tend to have a lot of expectation put upon us – we are supposed to juggle being both a career woman and a homemaker, and do both without flaw or complaint. On the road, the only expectation is that you should ride safely.

I also love how riding makes me feel. Every day out on the road is an adventure, because you aren’t blocked by windows or a steel cage. You are interacting with your surroundings and the road. You’re putting your foot down where most people only put their tires. You’re feeling the wind where most people just see the sky through their windshields. You’re noticing the deer frolicking through the field next to you where most people just idle past and see nothing.

I’d love to hear other reasons why you ride – feel free to post a comment and let everyone know what’s important to you about being a motorcycle woman!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Your Friendly Illinois DMV Exam: M-Class

Please note: this is specific to Illinois exams only. Other states have different exams, although this exam has become increasingly popular. Please check the manuals and guides for your specific state before going to take your M-class exam.

Before taking your M-class road test, you are required to have your learner’s permit for at least the day beforehand. If you’ve driven a car, you know how to prepare for a permit test – pick up one of their manuals, study it, then go in for a pen-and-paper test. Some places may administer this test through electronic testing stations. You can actually download a copy of the Illinois manual here.

So you’ve taken the written test, and you’ve finished whatever instruction you need – whether you’re self-taught, had a friend teach you, or took a class. Note that some classes, especially those sponsored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, culminate in you getting your license. If it doesn’t, you will have to head to the DMV to take their road test.

Some people say it is not possible to pass the DMV test on a large motorcycle. If you don’t feel comfortable passing the test on your own bike, many dealerships offer the use of a smaller motorcycle to their customers to go and take the DMV test – usually a Honda Rebel 250 or something similar. They may or may not charge a fee for this service. I personally do not recommend going this route, as you should be able to perform the maneuvers in the road test on your own motorcycle – that is what you will be riding day-to-day, after all. I managed to pass this test on my Sportster, which is 1200cc’s, and I witnessed another man passing the exam on a Road King while I was waiting for my turn.

When you go to take your exam, make sure you bring your permit, as well as a copy of your insurance papers for your motorcycle. You need to demonstrate proof of insurance before they will let you take the test.

When it’s your turn, they will tell you which area of the parking lot to take your bike to, and they will administer the test. One overall warning: except for the maximum controlled braking exercise, DO NOT use your front brake during this exam! You will be performing all of these exercises at a slow speed, and using your front brake will give you less control over your motorcycle while you are going slow. Use only your rear brake!

Exercise 1: Make two sharp left turns and stop in the stop box.

This is pretty self-explanatory, and most people do not have a problem here. Note that you will be driving between very small cones, make sure you don’t run over them or they will deduct points from your overall score. Take your time and go slow, do not over-think it! A trick for doing the sharp left turns – as you are approaching the cones, turn your head and look left before performing the actual turn. Look where you are going, and your bike will go there. Don’t look at the ground or get fixated straight ahead. Stop with your tire directly in the stop box using your rear brake.

You will be asked to perform a U-turn so you can face the range again, this time with your tire starting in the stop box.

Exercise 2: The cone weave and right U-turn.

This one can be somewhat tricky. Most people have a hard time not putting their foot down – note that you can only put your foot down once and still pass the exam. This is easy as long as you use your torque method – hold your clutch at the friction point, give yourself enough throttle to keep your bike moving, and control your acceleration with your rear brake only. Keep your eyes on the cones ahead, not the ones that you are currently passing. As long as you do not get fixated on the nearest cone, you won’t hit it!

You’ll then do a right U-turn - that is just a warm up. When you complete that, hug the left hand side of the range while you prepare to make your real right U-turn. Again, use your torque method, and give yourself enough room to make the U-turn. When in doubt, turn early to avoid going outside the yellow lines! If you are on a larger bike, they give you about 24 feet to complete this turn. Otherwise, you have to complete it within about 21.

Exercise 3: Maximum controlled braking.

This is the only time in the test you should apply your front brake. Get up to speed quickly, you should be at 15 MPH. You will go straight down a chute of cones, and when you reach the last one, apply your brakes and come to a stop before the designated line. They will time you on this to make sure you are stopping within a certain range. Piece of cake!

Exercise 4: Evasive maneuvers.

Some people find this exercise a little scary, but it is extremely important to know how to do this! You need to be able to go around an object that has just pulled in front of you if you are unable to stop in time to avoid hitting it. You will go down the cone chute again, and this time you will have to swerve either to the left or to the right of a line on the ground. I have heard they sometimes let you pick your own side, but when I went, the lady set up two cones and told me I had to go between them to the right. Most people feel more comfortable going left, so if you have the choice, feel free to pick that side instead.

That’s it! You get your license! Note that if you drop your bike at any time during the test, it is an automatic failure and you must wait until the next day to try the test again.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Police Motorcycle Training Tailored to the Civilian Rider

Location: Woodstock Harley-Davidson & Buell Illinois; sponsored by Michigan State University, they also have classes in Michigan
Price: $395
Times: Thursday: 6-10 PM, mandatory classroom session; Friday: 5-9 PM, riding; Saturday, Sunday, & Monday: 8 AM to 4 PM, riding
Equipment: Beginners will be assigned a Buell Blast, more experienced riders may use a Road King; must use a school bike for this course if taken in the Illinois location
Students Per Class: Approx. 12
Instructors per Class: 2-3 Certified Police Instructors, 2-3 Range Aides

Taking this class was probably one of the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve done recently. I came in as almost a complete beginner, having only a little experience on dirt bikes and a few tries on my own Sportster last season. The limited practice I’d had before did little to prepare me for the four grueling days my classmates and I spent in the saddle, clutch hands aching, at times wondering exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into. The experience of my classmates ranged from people who had never sat on a motorcycle before to those who were instructors for other motorcycle courses.

We spent the first evening with the instructors giving us a list of caveats: do not expect to be treated gently in this class - these officers take their teaching very seriously and will tell you if they think you are driving dangerously or stupidly. Never even sit on your bike without a helmet on. And if you even touch your front brake during the first two days of riding, consider yourself done.

That said, this didn’t mean we couldn’t still have some fun. The first evening out on the range, the interesting gender dynamics in our class began to show, which was a point of amusing commentary for the rest of the weekend. The class consisted of slightly more women than men, a common trend these days as most women seek proper instruction before setting out on their own personal motorcycle experience.

Our first lesson was how to pick up a motorcycle if it tips over – something nearly everyone experiences at least once in this class, including the 12-year veterans. The women were all eager to do this and immediately volunteered for their turns, waving off any help if the instructors attempted to intercede. The men stood back, observing with arms folded, nodding sagely as if to say, “Oh, sure, I can do this, no problem.” Regardless of whether you were on a Blast or a Road King, everyone got to practice on the larger bikes in order to simulate the worst case scenario.

We spent the rest of the evening and the next day learning slow-speed maneuvers and the so-called “Torque Package” – a combination of throttle, clutch, and rear brake that places your bike into the most stable position possible when performing slow turn negotiations. We practiced the usual cone-weave and figure-8, as well as a tight U-turn which, frankly, most riders who have 20 years experience would have trouble with on a smaller-CC bike, let alone a Road King. In addition to these standard exercises, we also practiced sharp turns and pulling out of tight parking conditions without having to paddle-walk. The overall philosophy of this course: unless you’re backing up, there’s really no reason to use your feet to move your motorcycle.

The following days consisted of road-speed exercises – reaching up to 30 MPH, twice the speed of most other classes. We spent Sunday morning skidding through the gravel, learning how to control a fishtailing motorcycle with the rear wheel locked up, then performing the same exercise on pavement, all of us nervously chattering between runs to keep our minds off of the possibility of going into a high-side.

As if that were not enough to keep us on our toes, we were then introduced to something called “The Brake and Escape.” To us beginners, it seemed like a frightful combination of things to remember. Get up to 30 MPH, perform maximum controlled braking at the exact time you reached a line of cones, down-shift and get into torque, then perform a 90-degree turn around an obstacle without nudging any cones. All without putting your feet down.

Other useful maneuvers: braking while in a curve – with the instructors sacrificing their dignity and exposing themselves to the possibility of being the fatality of some errant student by throwing themselves in front of our nervous wheels – road-speed evasive maneuvers, driving over a 4x4 wooden obstacle, all culminating in a final exam that left little room for error.

We were nervous, we were tired, and at times it felt like it was us versus the instructors, who have been doing these things for so long they are second-nature. On occasion, they seemed to forget what we didn’t know, simply because of their long years of experience that can sometimes make people forget what it is like to be a beginner. All of this created a strong sense of camaraderie, however, and we celebrated each others’ victories and encouraged each other when the going got rough. One of my favorite memories was at the end of our final exam, I was the last one left to perform a make-or-break it maneuver that would decide if I passed the class or not. I set up for my run, got up to speed, hit the brakes, down-shifted, pulled into torque – and I made it. All of my classmates were honking their horns and cheering me on as I did a victory lap, pumping my fist in the air as we sang “Stacy’s mom has got it going on!” at the top of our voices (which had become my theme song for performing difficult maneuvers when I was nervous).

Just a few warnings about this class: it helps to at least know how to shift gears, even conceptually, before you come in, as they tend to gloss over these items before setting you to task. There is also no such thing as a stupid question, no matter how the instructors might act – this class is for you, you paid for it, get what you need out of it. Prepare to have a tough skin, because these guys do not hold back. You may not pass – only 8 of 12 did in my class, and I’ve seen cases where only 4 passed total. Even if you know you are going to fail, stick around, because you will still learn something. This class does not culminate in getting your license, but the DMV test will seem easy after you’ve done everything I’ve described here. And most of all, have fun.