By Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Parr, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety CenterJuly 11, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (July 11, 2013) - In a blink of an eye, the motorcycle was on its side and I was hitting the pavement. There was no life flashing before my eyes and no chance to recover, but there was pain in my left knee and elbow. One second I'm on the bike and the next I'm on the ground next to it. A little shaken and quite embarrassed, I sat there for a minute rattling my brain, trying to think what I could have done wrong. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation RiderCoach then walked over and asked, "What happened?" I honestly had no idea.
This accident, while real, occurred during the two-day MSF Basic RiderCourse, which is required by the Army for all Soldiers who want to ride a motorcycle. It's a controlled environment where novice and experienced Soldier riders must go before riding a motorcycle. The course is part of the progressive Motorcycle Program and is designed to teach the basic skills of riding, as well as ensure you understand the inherent risks associated with a motorcycle.
This was a beta test version of a program currently being developed by the MSF in conjunction with the Army. It starts with an online course designed to introduce inexperienced riders to the basics, including the different types of motorcycles on the road, the location of controls, proper riding gear and how to handle the bike under various road and traffic conditions.
Passing the online segment almost dissuaded me from taking the hands-on portion. Realizing the amount of focus needed to control the bike safely was a little intimidating. Throttle with the right hand, clutch with the left hand, brake with the right foot and hand, and shift gears with the left foot. Oh, and don't forget lane position, braking distance, turn set-up and the fact that you never know if the driver of the car next to you is aware you're there!
However, I made it through the course and felt I was ready to learn how to ride. I didn't have any plans of buying a bike just yet, but I wanted to see what all was involved. I arrived at the class and after about 10 minutes of introductions to the course and a quick review of what we had learned in the online portion, it was time to get on the bike. A little surprised at how quickly we were tackling the bikes, I realized this was the hands-on portion of the course, so I grabbed a helmet and gloves and headed out to the range.
After the rest of the students and I each found a motorcycle that fit us well, we went over some basics of the bike, such as location of the ignition switch, fuel switch, clutch, gearshift and brakes. As the class progressed, I began to feel a few butterflies in my stomach and realized we were going to be riding very soon.
As the trainers, who are referred to as RiderCoaches, talked us through the exercise we were about to perform, the nervousness changed to excitement. When I turned the key and flipped the switch for the ignition and the bike roared to life, I began to understand why so many bikers enjoy riding. Unlike a car, where the engine is in front of you, a rider practically sits on the engine of a motorcycle, and that rumble translates into power. The thought that I could control that power and make it do what I wanted further fueled my excitement.
The first few exercises were simple, designed for the rider to understand the relationship between the clutch and the engine. We "power walked" our bikes, making sure to never fully engage the gear but learned where the "friction zone" was on the clutch. The friction zone is that magical place where the gear engages and the bike begins to move forward under power from the throttle. We were also instructed that if the bike feels like it is getting out of control, squeeze the clutch. This will disengage the power to the rear wheel and begin to slow you down. So, I kept thinking, "Clutch equals no power." But what about the brakes? Won't they stop me?
After 25 years of driving various sizes of cars and trucks with manual and automatic transmissions, I feel comfortable with braking. However, when you brake on a motorcycle, you have to remember there is a front brake and back brake, just like most bicycles nowadays. The two should be worked together to brake in the safest manner. Applying just one can be dangerous ... I repeat,
After several exercises and a few hours, we were ready for our first opportunity to change gears while riding. This entailed driving down the long side of the course, changing gears and then slowing slightly to make the turn into the short side of the course, then making another turn to the opposite long side of the course, changing gears again, and then slowing into the second short end of the course. Basically, we were doing laps. I started out well enough, accelerating and changing gears. I approached the turn, backed off the throttle and then looked ahead in the turn to where I wanted to go, just as I was taught. I continued to do this for a few laps and realized I wanted to go a little faster and work on changing gears a little more. As I came out of the turn for the long, straight stretch, I rolled on the throttle, picked up speed, changed gears and accelerated a little more. That's when it happened.
I realized the extra speed had carried me to my destination - the next turn - a little too quickly, and I hadn't downshifted yet. I wasn't going to make the turn at my current speed. So, did I grab the clutch and remove power from my rear wheel like I was taught? Nope. Did I ease in on the front and rear brakes at the same time to control my speed and slow down gradually but with control like I had learned? Nope. I did exactly what I would have done in that situation if I were in a car - I hit the brake. In fact, I grabbed the front brake and only the front brake. I grabbed it hard too. When I did, the power in the back wheel kept pushing while the front wheel stopped. I ended up on the ground with the bike beside me, my shirt and pants torn and my elbow and knee hurting. Yeah, I was only going between 10 and 15 mph, but I still ended up with road rash on my elbow and knee.
The RiderCoach came over and asked how I was and if I knew what happened. When I told him I wasn't sure, his experience and observation pinpointed exactly what I had done wrong. I took a breather and began to analyze what had happened. As Soldiers, it's instinctive for us to perform a quick after-action review to learn how we can do things better in the future. I concluded motorcycle riding was not for me.
Later, I thought about what I had experienced. First, my injuries - road rash from going just 10 to 15 mph. I never imagined. Yes, it hurts. I now know why the Army requires Soldiers to follow ATGATT - All the Gear, All the Time. Helmets, gloves, eye protection, sturdy over-the-ankle footwear, long-sleeved shirts and pants will help with surviving the crash. However, your goal should be to do more than survive. You should want to walk away from a crash thinking the gear saved you from any injuries. Invest in riding jackets and pants made to save your skin ... literally.
Then I thought about training. What if this course didn't exist and one of my buddies had convinced me to ride his bike? I could have ended up dead or seriously injured. The Army leadership provides the course free of charge to all Soldiers. This is why the course is required. Get the training before you start riding. Find out if you really want to ride before you invest thousands of dollars into a bike and equipment. It could also save you on medical expenses.
Finally, if you take the course and decide riding is for you, make sure you go back and take follow-up courses through the Progressive Motorcycle Program. You will learn more about riding safely and maybe even be reminded of some things you forgot from the basic course. Learning these lessons on the road in real traffic can lead to an epic failure. Don't want to take my advice? Don't worry; it will all be over in a blink of an eye.