Upgrade Your Riding Skills

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts
January 1 2009

It’s quite apparent that the number of people getting into, or getting back into motorcycling, has skyrocketed over the last number of years for a number of reasons. Television has done a tremendous job to kindle the desire to try two-wheels, making some think it’s kind of a romantic or exciting way to get around town, which it is. There are plenty of people on the road today that shared our two-wheeled passion many years ago, but they stepped aside because of life in general–family and mortgage commitments. Now they have disposable income that helps fund a mid-life crisis. Most recently gas prices have swayed some people that are economically minded to pursue a smaller engine and a nimbler way to navigate congested city streets. Regardless of the reason, and all of them are valid, we as riders need to have the proper training. Whether you have been driving a car for years and you are just beginning your two-wheeled adventure, or you are an experienced rider that never left the sport, we still need to upgrade our skills to be safe on today’s roads. Our cities are more congested with more cars and more bad drivers to be aware of than ever before.

When I was learning to ride, there were no such thing as training centres and my licensing process was a joke. I basically learned to ride like everybody else of that generation and prior–“Here’s the clutch, this is the gas, gear shifter and back brake down there, and whatever you do, don’t use that (front brake) lever or you’ll wipeout. See ya.” The whole concept of learning to ride and respect a motorized vehicle was wrong.

I have been riding for 30-plus years and although I consider myself an excellent driver/rider, everyone picks up bad habits. Other than taking a few dirtbike lessons, a day at Michel Mercier’s Cruiser School and a day at the FAST Riding School, I have never had any formal training. All of those above-mentioned training days were in the past four years and while I did learn a lot at those courses, not one of them touched on the rules of the road and how to interact with daily traffic.

For those of you in other parts of the country that are unaware of Ontario’s graduated licensing system, first you are tested for an M1 by filling in circles on a multiple choice test. If you pass, you are then allowed to take a motorcycle on the street with some limiting rules, but there is no limit to engine size and no one to ask if you know how to operate a motorcycle. The M1 is valid for 90 days and before it expires you must take an M2 test at a Ministry of Transportation office, or take an approved rider training course. Upon passing the test or course, all the limitations are lifted, except the zero tolerance for alcohol. The M2 is valid for a minimum of 18 months to a maximum of 5 years, in which time you must proceed to your M2 Exit. If you pass that you will receive your full M license.

Going Back to School

Since I have been riding consistently for years, winter notwithstanding, I thought it would be interesting to see how I faired in a government authorized training centre. I chose to take the M2 Exit course at Humber College (www.motorcycle.humber.ca ) in Toronto. Humber College has been training motorcycle students since 1982 and claim to be the largest single site motorcycle training facility in North America; teaching approximately 150 students per weekend in the summer. Not that that was the reason for taking the Humber course, but after training for that many years and with that many students, I think they would know a thing or two about communicating what a rider needs to know for passing an M2 Exit road test. In saying that, all government authorized training centres in the country are scrutinized by government bodies to ensure they do their job properly and provide quality training.

My main concern in taking this course, and therefore my first question to them, “If I fail the course, you can’t take my license, right?” As it turns out they cannot take your license so I signed on the dotted line. My thoughts were if I have been riding consistently for the past 30-plus years, how many bad habits have I picked up, and just as important, what is it that I didn’t learn in the first place. I’m not alone in thinking that updating skills is important. In the neighbourhood of 150 riders attend refresher courses annually at Humber, whether that refresher course is the M2 Exit, the ‘Back to Basics’ or the ‘Pro Rider’ courses. The latter two are designed as a refresher course depending of the rider’s skill and experience.

Now I know there are a lot of guys out there that say, “I don’t need to take a training course, I used to ride 20 years ago and I know how to ride”. Testosterone aside, I guarantee you will learn from proper training and will become a better rider because of it.

The training course for the M2 Exit at Humber began on Friday night with a three hour classroom session. Standing at the head of the class for the evening was Chief Instructor Mark Faulkner, a 20-year veteran at Humber College. He began the evening reviewing some basic rules of the road, but soon moved into plenty of rules that apply directly to the motorcycle; like ensuring communication with the driver of the vehicle behind through the use of your brake light. It’s sometimes hard for a car driver to judge the distance between their vehicle and a skinny motorcycle, therefore it’s hard to determine that the bike is reducing its speed by gearing down alone, so it’s a good idea to tell the driver of the vehicle behind that you are slowing down by using the brake light. Simple, but so important.

The course continued on Saturday morning with your own, or a borrowed, insured and roadworthy motorcycle (For the basic rider M1 to M2 course, Yamaha supplies about 140 250 Viragos). I was a little surprised at the age of my fellow students. My class was generally filled with M2 license holders and the average age appeared to be in their 40s. That approximate age group was confirmed by Andy Hertel, Manager of Motorcycle Rider Training at Humber, “The average I would say taking either the Basic or M2 Exit motorcycle course is 35-years-old. And we have seen a huge increase in women riders over just a few short years. We also see a lot of riders enrolling who have not ridden in twenty years but have the desire to get back into the sport.”

Carla Stone, one of my classmates, is a perfect example. “I’m an accountant, I enjoy horseback riding and kayaking, but there was a point in my life at 40 that I said to my husband, I’m going to get a motorcycle. He thought I was crazy but two weeks after I received my M1, he got his license.”

Another classmate, James Drozdiak, I would guess to be 40ish has been riding since he was three years old. “I had a license earlier but let it lapse so I’m going through the process again. I’m getting my full M this weekend and then I’ll be shadowing an instructor and I hope to be helping teach in a few weeks.”

Saturday was a full day that consisted of parking lot skills and road riding. Our group split-up evenly leaving each group of eight riders their own parking lot. This gives the instructors the ability to offer a more personalized instruction due to the smaller group. Chief Instructor Mark is heading up the group I’m in, along with Senior Instructor John Buckley. The morning is spent on various skills based on the MOST (Motorcycle Operator Skills Test) system. MOST uses permanent white lines painted on the parking lot to ensure proper starting procedures and take-off speeds, braking distance tests, lane changing practice, various turn radius’ and many more ‘everyday skill sets’ the motorcycle operator must be proficient at to be safe on the road. An important note: there are still many people riding today that do not use their front brake because of the bad advice they received years ago. A rider must learn to use the front brake since, depending on the style of your bike, your front brake contributes about 80% of the stopping power once your forks compress. While I do use my front brake regularly, I learned at the course that I don’t use it hard enough-one of my bad habits from bad advice.

During the afternoon portion of the day’s course we left the parking lot and were let loose on the roads surrounding the training area where the instructors could keep an eye on the road habits of the riders in traffic. We then left the college area to navigate subdivisions and major highways. The instructors followed behind in cars and communicated with the riders via 2-way radios and an earplug tucked under each of the riders helmets. Thanks to drivers ‘On-Star Dave’ and Sandra for keeping up to us and not getting us lost.

Sunday was test day. Each rider gets tested individually at a specific time. After my test, mistakes were explained to me and I was free to go, short and sweet.

It’s because of this parking lot training as well as the road time and coaching that Humber has such a high success rate. While all training facilities are audited by the government in their testing practices, Humber is said to have one of the toughest courses, yet boasts a 98% pass rate.

Why Take a Training Course?

During the coaching process of the previous days, instructors will see bad habits and mistakes and explain to you how to correct them before Sunday’s road test. You could in fact go directly to the Ministry of Transportation to take your road test for a fraction of the cost, but the big difference is at the Ministry there is no coaching and the testers are not necessarily motorcycle riders. They follow a rulebook with no leniency to the various conditions a rider might face. For instance, a ministry tester sees that you are not in the proper lane position, but because of a danger in the road such as a tree branch or tire carcass, you would normally move over. A ministry tester would probably mark that as an error. All of the instructors and testers at a training facility are riders. If you are in the wrong place in the lane, they will determine why, and if they see a reason for you being there, they won’t mark it as a mistake, but instead appreciate the reason for your move to a safer position. At a training facility you pay more for a weekend course, but that training and coaching makes for a better, safer rider and you finish the weekend with your full M license and additional confidence.

As a point of reference, it cost $75 at the Ministry of Transportation to go for a road test. Humber College’s M2 Exit course costs $395 and after a quick website survey of various colleges, it seems the average course cost hovers in the $420 range.

As an added bonus, in these days of outrageous insurance costs, taking a training course may well save you a pile of cash on your insurance– depending on your insurance company–maybe even enough to cover the cost of the course.

Am I a Believer in Upgrading? You Bet!

So now the moment of truth, how did I do on my M2 Exit course? I knew I made a few mistakes, but I didn’t think any of them were serious. The test consists of 300 markable errors and a rider can fail if only 26 of them are marked.

I passed the course with only five errors and one warning, but if it weren’t for the review and coaching on Friday and Saturday, I’m sure that number would be higher, although I’m sure it wouldn’t be close to a fail. For instance, I know that while I regularly shoulder check while riding, I found there were times I didn’t and should have been. Nobody ever told me I should be shoulder checking while turning from a stop sign or traffic light.

My five mistakes were as follows;

I once stopped with my front wheel on the white stop line; I should have been behind it.

I did not physically take notice of a traffic hazard in an industrial area; this I think was a judgment call of the tester. It was Sunday and there was no other traffic, and unless you physically turn your head, the tester doesn’t really know if you noticed the danger area by just moving your eyes. I trust Mark’s judgment and accept the mistake.

My signal was not on once before merging onto the highway; I know it was on but my self-cancelling signal had turned off by the time I made the move. That isn’t an excuse since I am in control of my signals and I should have been aware of it.

I left my right signal on while stopped at the side of the road; I should have turned it off and turned on my four-way flashers (on bikes so equipped).

I failed to turn my left signal on while leaving a roadside stop; I do remember thumbing the signal button on the road to turn the signal off but instead I turned it on, so I either attempted to turn the signal on while leaving the curb and missed the switch thereby activating it on the road, or just forgot to turn it on (on my bike you activate the signal by thumbing the switch and turn it off by thumbing the switch again). I should have been aware of what my signals were doing.

My single warning was changing to the outside lane a little late after making a left hand turn onto a four lane roadway.

It is evident by watching drivers that every single person who operates a vehicle on the road could use some upgrading, but it is especially imperative for motorcycle riders to tune-up or upgrade their skills. The longer a vehicle operator is on the road, it’s conceivable that more bad driving habits are acquired. On the other side of the coin, those who have gotten back into riding after a hiatus may have forgotten a lot of the safety procedures needed to survive today’s traffic. How many times have you heard that motorcycle riders make better drivers because they drive/ride defensively. If you haven’t been on a bike for many years, are you still a defensive vehicle operator?

Today there are training centres right across the country in all cities and most large towns. Taking a training course is easy and informative for the inexperienced rider, but it’s just as important for the person who has been riding most of their life. I promise you will finish the course a better, more knowledgeable rider.

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