Wanted a motorcycle lesson, learned life lesson instead

I wanted to try something new — and learned with the astonishing abruptness of a smack in the face that I am old.

The something new was a motorcycle training course.

My only experience with a motorized two-wheeler was cruising around Bermuda on a scooter for a week with a girlfriend's arms around my waist 22 years ago, when I was 48. I turned the sharp corner of 70 in March.

The two-day course started innocuously enough with a 21/2 -hour classroom session that consisted mostly of videotapes of motorcycle riders in various scenarios depicting accidents about to happen and how to avoid them.

But I had had nightmarish worries between when I signed up for the course and the day it began of not being able to follow through with it. There were fears I wouldn't wake up early enough for the 7:45 a.m. start of the class; of having to excuse myself repeatedly to empty an overactive bladder; and that I wouldn't pass the written and driving tests. So I went to class with a sleepless night behind me.

The imagined problems wouldn't come to pass. Instead, the major difficulties were of a different nature.

The Japanese-made bikes were small, with engines no bigger than 250cc. I first picked a blue Kawasaki but later switched to a black Yamaha because I had difficulty shifting into gear with a lever operated by my left foot; it was an omen of worse to come.

The weight of the bike came as the first surprise and was to be my downfall. Its heaviness became apparent at the outset when I mounted the bike and, as instructed, rocked it from side to side to get the "feel" of it.

After learning the controls and how to start the engine, the first exercise was a "rolling walk" in which I straddled the black leather seat and dangled my legs and walked the bike ahead of me. Almost immediately, my legs ached where they were joined at the hip, and I was winded.

It did not occur to me during my anxieties about overcoming imaginary logistic hurdles that the real obstacle would be physical. I'd thought that handling a motorcycle would be like riding a bicycle because of my previous experience with the Vespa — which went without incident — and my having driven stick-shift cars all my life. Wrong.

I couldn't get the hang of coordinating the controls, downshifting with my left foot and simultaneously braking with my right hand and right foot, which affected my balance on the bike; it weaved jerkily. I couldn't maintain steady acceleration with the right-hand throttle, or I would speed up when I really meant to slow down by squeezing the clutch with my left hand. My two hands weren't working together.

I couldn't keep the bike going at a steady pace. My driving was not smooth. I would speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down and couldn't go in a straight line. What I needed was training wheels, or lots of practice — maybe both.

After three hours of this, I was tired, physically strained by the exertion of persevering in a losing cause, and emotionally drained by the realization that this was for someone in a younger man's clothes. The end came toward the close of one exercise, when I stopped abruptly behind another bike and mine fell to the left and I nearly went down.

The instructor came over, brusquely told me to remove my helmet and informed me that the course was all about safety and that I was a danger both to myself and other riders; I would have to leave. I shook his hand, thanked him and felt relief and disappointment at the same time. Who could feel good about failing?

I wanted a challenge at a time of life when golf should be the activity of choice and when the armchair loomed as a refuge. Afterward, I was struck as never before — not by the cataracts, the creeping hearing loss, the nagging prostate or drug prescriptions — that poor coordination and a loss of physical stamina is the true measure of getting old.

At least I forsook the armchair.

Richard C. Gross, a former op-ed editor at The Baltimore Sun, lives in Santa Fe, N.M. His e-mail is rcg51@comcast.net.

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