I was a sponge. I'd been crashing motorcycles from a very early age. My first crash was, oddly enough, the first day I climbed up onto a motorcycle that was way too big for me. But nothing my mother or uncle could do would deter me. I fumbled and stumbled and crunched gears and landed in the dirt. If I was lucky. When I wasn't, I landed on logs or giant thistle bushes.
But time and time again, I snuck out to the barn and piled up bricks so I could reach the controls of that motorcycle, then put on the helmet my grandmother made me promise I would wear no matter what, then start the bike in the hope that no one would hear. I was too small to push the heavy beast off the center stand so I would rev the motor, put it in gear then rock it back and forth until the rear dug in hard enough to shoot me forward and off the stand. And I was off. I had to be aggressive because if I wasnt the stand wouldnt fold up all the way and would catch on the first thing it could. And I wasnt big enough to pick the bike up when it fell. And it fell a lot. And sometimes it didn't fall on me!
Looking back I feel fortunate that the injuries I suffered during this learning period weren't worse. A few times my family thought I'd broken a bone or three, but each time, when the swelling went down, they would know I would be alright when the bike went missing again.
Needless to say, this is about the worst way to learn to ride a motorcycle.
When I hear stories like this from students I cringe. Whats worse is when I hear stories like this, from adults, about what happened the previous week! In traffic!
While I was teaching MSF I heard many stories like mine, the worst was from a student who turned up late for class and watched his classmates riding their bikes and receiving their graduation certificates. After class was over I started to ask him why he was late but the cast on his wrist was answer enough. Apparently he'd taken his brand new Ducati out the night before and succeeded only in learning what not to do!
I recognize the vulnerability in new riders. This can be an inherently dangerous activity. Like riding down a water slide to an empty pool. Not pleasant. Or it can be as benign as walking on a sidewalk by a busy road. There are risks involved in both activities but its a lot harder to get hurt on the sidewalk than the waterslide of broken bones. Of course tragedy can happen in both cases but tragedy can also be avoided in both cases.
When I was racing 2-strokes I learned more about motorcycle control and dynamics than I thought was possible. I had heard the fast guys talk about what they did, but they never talked about how they did it. They would often boast about how they escaped serious injury or pulled off that last lap maneuver but it was always a way of explaining their incredible talent. Their egos were always responsible for their exploits, the skills were misunderstood, or hidden, because of course no racer wants to teach another racer how to be as good as they are. So the racer ecosystem took the new recruits, beat them up for a while to see who enjoyed racing enough to tolerate the abuse, and the survivors either learned the lessons the hard way, or continued losing skin.
This culture appalled me. I knew there had to be a better way. I loved racing, but after a while I realised I loved learning more. I would spend my time at a race weekend focussed not on how to win a race but how to ride smoother, with less lean angle or less bar effort. If I also happened to win a race that was incidental. I realised I had to quit racing when I won three races in one day but felt no particular sense of achievement because I did so without fixing the problems of lean angle and carb tuning that I had worked so hard to overcome.
Fortunately for me, the emerging culture of track days was the ideal avenue for me to focus my interests. And the time I would have spent racing I instead spent on a dirtbike which I also found to be an amazing tool for learning about riding. After all, I knew how to ride a bike fast and in a controlled manner, but I couldnt explain much of what was going on - I just knew what felt bad, and how to adjust what I was doing to make it feel good. But I had no idea how to explain this to myself, let alone to others.
So there I was, spending roughly 1 weekend a month at a track day and 1 or 2 weekends a month on a dirtbike.
I was never a crasher when I was racing, I crashed more at track days and in practise for races. But all this changed when I climbed onto that KTM dirtbike. I started crashing that within the first 10 minutes. But that was the revelation. I could try a new technique and if it didnt work I could push the bike off me, and start all over again with those lessons fresh in my mind. One time I found a slick, muddy lake bed and rejoiced - so many ways to crash!
After several hours of doggedly trying to ride a big circle with the rear sliding sideways, I finally managed my goal. But not until I had crashed in more ways than I knew how. One time I even managed to find myself sliding on my stomach, backwards, with the bike on top of me, pushing my helmet into the mud in such a way that it was scraping up mud and forcing it into my face!
But I honestly had more fun that day than I ever had racing. I learned more in one day than I had in dozens of races and it cost next to nothing. The poor little XR250 tolerated the abuse pretty well, with only minor repairs needed...
The problem is, not everyone has the opportunities to learn these lessons like I did. Not everyone is willing to risk falling into the thistles in order to learn a new skill. And I dont blame them.
But thats where I can help. As I say in class every chance I get, I have lost more skin and broken more bones than I care to admit, and I will do everything I can to prevent other riders from making the same mistakes I made.
I get more joy from seeing a student fix deeply ingrained bad habits than I ever got from collecting trophies.
When I tell a student what to do to fix a problem they've been coping with for years, I know I just prevented them from crashing while trying to go faster - perhaps on the track, more likely on the street.
What greater satisfaction can there be?