Friday, October 1, 2010

Motorcycle Failure

At eight in the morning, I sit with dad in the car. Today is the day we go for our motorcycle licenses. The test finishes at eleven-thirty,
"It'll be fine," he says, climbing out the driver's side door, "We'll be done before you know it."
"Yeah, I hope so," the sky above me is grey and overcast.
Standing in front of the gates to the motor registry is a youth a bit taller and older than me, shaved head, plugs in his earlobes, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The kind of youth that stereotypes tell you will stab you if you cross them,
"You lot here for the motorcycle course?" a man in a neon yellow sweatshirt walks out of the gated registry area. The bunch of us nod, two more applicants arriving in their own cars, "Right, in ya get."

We make our way past a small, hanger-like building and towards another hanger where the offices and motorcycles are kept, "Help yourselves," says the instructor, motioning to tea and coffee on a small, dirty table at one side of the room.
Sam - the instructor - lines up some chairs for us and offers us a seat, "I'm Sam," he says, pulling out a clipboard, "James?"
"Yeah," said two voices, who look at each other.
"James Fentway and James Warton?"
The voices' owners nod.
Sam splits us up into the groups we're in. I'm with the two James', my dad and a guy named Sam. The six of us are led by Sam into the small office area within the hanger and we each take a seat,
"Now, do you any of you have any experience?" my dad and James - the other one is Jimmy - put their hands up, "Right. Well, this course is designed for people who've never touched a bike before, so the rest o' ya shouldn't worry." I let myself exhale.

After a brief, but necessary, introduction from his instruction manual ("The instructors here are fully licensed to teach motorcycle riding and this program is sponsored by New South Wales Government. You as riders take unto yourselves full responsibility for anything that happens to yourself or your belongings during the course of this course") Sam hands us our helmets and gloves,
"Now, let's go meet your bikes."
We walk out, gloves and helmets hanging from our hands, towards the paved course-track. I feel hot, but comfortable, in my leather jacket - the sun has poked through the cloud layer for a moment, and the breeze is relaxing,
"That one's yours," he said, looking at me, pointing to a small, burgundy bike sitting in the middle of the row of black and burgundy motorcycles, "That's yours," he looked at Jimmy and pointed at the last bike in the row; a beige motor-scooter. Jimmy looked at Sam and back to the scooter, "You said you wanted to do automatic, not manual, yeah?"
"Right." And we all lined up at our bikes.

"Right, now take the standard position on the bike. Don't forget, front brake, head turn, side stand." Sam looked at us with hawk eyes to make sure we'd remembered the various steps to take into the Standard Position of motorcycle riding.
I kicked my leg over the back and straddled the large, metal beast. It was much heavier than I had anticipated and my balance was thrown with the necessity to remain upright, whilst pressing down firmly on the foot-brake.
The bike wobbled some, but eventually I got the hand of sitting up straight with it,
"Okay," Sam said, "Now turn your bikes on, and take yourself to fast idle." Fast idle was, in a sense, prepping yourself at speed while remaining in brake; the idea being, that as soon as you release the clutch and the brake, you'd speed off into the distance like an urban cowboy. But for now, we were going at measly speeds to get used to it all.
I prepped the very delicate throttle into position and the engine revved. With soft, slow hands, I lifted the clutch to get it into the Traction Zone and--
Stalled. I stalled the motorcycle. Considering I never learned to drive a manual car, I guess I can't be too mad at myself, but I was. Restarting the bike, I again lifted the throttle slowly and eased off on the brake. Unsteady, but in the right direction, I drove the bike to a steady stop near the others, "Careful to keep your head up," Sam said, "you wanna look at where you're goin'."
"Oh, sure."
"Alright, turn the bikes around, do it again."
After a few of these, I continued to be wobbly. Stalled. For some reason, I couldn't balance the bike in the right direction and ended up flooding the engine a lot - almost losing control of the acceleration and clutch at one point,
"Don’t worry about it, don't be so hard on yourself," Sam said, walking over, "it's alright. It's your first time."
"Okay, drive it back to the line."
Stall. Start. Wobble.
"Alright, you guys, can you go line up your bikes over there next to mine?" The others nodded and moved off. I went to move, but Sam stopped me, "I'm sorry, mate, but I can't let you continue the course. Don't worry, it happens to a lot of people. I'll give you a slip at the end for a free remedial lesson. Go hang out in the hanger for the rest of this, or by the fence if you want to watch."
I nodded, my shoulders slumped. I looked over at the others, who felt sheepish in themselves for me.
With helmet and gloves in hand, I took the walk of shame over the grass and paved course to the hanger and took a seat, the anger at myself growing.

Sitting in the chair in the hanger, I watched the others circling the course, practicing turning. So many things to remember - look, clutch, gears, throttle, brakes, balance, weight, sit. Cars I got, cars I understood. Bikes were a different machine, a different beast altogether.
Noticeable also was the lack of that particular feeling of safety one has in a car. Completely open to the air, the elements, the road.
"You got change for a two-dollar coin?" I looked up and saw a dark-skinned man in full leathers holding out the coin. I nodded and dug into my wallet, pulling out two one-dollar coins. He thanked me and bought a coke from the vending machine.
I looked around me at the people getting their licenses. Muscles, height, facial hair - all men except for one woman out on the course getting her provisional license.
This wasn't me - I'm not the motorcycle type. I'd never felt it more than in that one moment, sitting in a dirty, white, plastic chair in the middle of an open hanger, surrounding by motorcyclists and cycles.

Soon enough the others came over, having finished - and passed - the course. We did some wrap up paperwork and, finally, dad and I left,
"You didn't enjoy that, did you?" he leaned over as we got in the car.
"Can't say I did all that much."
"Not your fault."
"You can do the remedial lesson?"
I grunted something in response.
"We probably should have done you on an automatic, not a manual, shouldn't we?"
"Next time."
"Sure." My tone indicated my doubt of a next time.
"I hated those helmets we had to wear. So uncomfortable."
"Yeah, but it's that or die in a crash."
"I guess, but the fun of a motorcycle is the feeling of freedom on the road, the open air."
"That may be so, but I'd rather you felt mildly uncomfortable than get in a crash and feel dead."
"I suppose."
"Also, you totally lack a feeling of safety on those things."
"Yeah, it's great."
"No, not great. You feel free, I feel dead."
Dad smiled and we went to pick up some croissants for breakfast before driving home.

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