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Learning To Drive: Motorcycle lesson reawakens my Zen

As I gained confidence weaving through pylons, every part of me was electrified and exhilarated. It's easy to see why motorcycle riders get hooked.

Published July 13, 2012

How do you achieve enlightenment? It starts with first gear.

Learning to ride a motorcycle isn’t that easy, as I learned during a session with the Rider Training Institute, held at the foot of Polson St. in a vacant parking lot next to Lake Ontario.

There was a choice of bikes: a standard bike (Suzuki TU 250, a dirt bike (Yamaha TW 200), a cruiser (Suzuki Marauder) and a sport bike (Honda CBR 125). I went for the sport bike because it’s small and sporty and made me think of Speed Racer.

My 20-minute crash course from senior instructor Barb Piatkowski explained how to start it and use the clutch and just a bit of throttle to move. I’ve used a gear shift before, so kicking down for first gear, up for neutral and up again for second was pretty intuitive for me.

“Did you tell your mother you were doing this?” Barb joked.

“No, I will tell her after,” I said.

Sorry Mom.

There I was all kitted out in a motorcycle jacket, gloves, boots and helmet. It was a warm sunny day, so all the equipment not only weighed me down, it made it very hot — with my nerves compounding my rising heart rate.

But the second I took off, I forgot all that.

Despite the thorough instructions, I soon realized using the clutch and the throttle together is all about feeling. It’s being in tune with the bike and listening to what it is telling you. A good instructor will teach you to be more aware and pick up on the signals, but it’s up to you to feel it.

The moment you stop listening, you run into trouble. In my case, it came with a jolt of being propelled forward, followed by panic — and the bike stalling.

Luckily, Barb was jogging along beside me as I drove — yes, we started off slowly — she reassured me that “everybody stalls it.” So I brushed it off and swallowed my embarrassment.

Steering a motorcycle requires skill, and it’s much different than steering a bicycle.

As a cyclist, my eyes are trained on the road directly in front of me, watching for bumps, potholes and shattered glass on the road.

On a motorcycle, you have to keep your head up. Your gaze has to be trained on where you are headed, not just what is in front of you. This helps keep the bike steady. If you look down, you start moving the wheel all over the place, over-compensating for perceived fluctuations in balance.

As explained in the novel , “You look at where you’re going, and where you are, and it never makes sense. But then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

The focus of the 1974 novel is the conflict between classic knowledge (knowing the nuts and bolts of what makes something work) and more ethereal knowledge (rising above the details to a sensory experience).

Like author Robert Pirsig, I don’t think you should have to choose between the two levels of experience. Indeed, knowing how something works can help you better enjoy what it does. It’s been years since I read the book, but riding the motorcycle brought back it all back: I was feeling the Zen.

When I sped up on the Honda, I was really tuned in, forgetting about everything around me — I just enjoyed the experience of riding. The moment my focus strayed from that connection, I forgot what I should be doing next to keep the bike going. As Barb explains, “It has to be in your heart.”

As I rode the course, weaving through pylons, always conscious of the lake looming at the end of the parking lot, I began to gain the confidence to go faster and lean into the corners more. Every part of me was electrified and exhilarated. It’s easy to see why motorcycle riders get hooked.

The Rider Training Institute has several courses, from the basics of getting your M2 licence to skill development and, for the ultimate enlightenment, motorcycle maintenance.

Although my quick lesson by no means left me street-ready, I could have cruised around the parking lot all day. It was with a heavy heart that I handed back my biker-mama helmet and jacket.

All this without ever moving into second gear.

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