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.

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