Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Learning how to ride a motorcycle

...without a doubt the most humbling thing I have ever undertaken...

Spending three Tuesday nights sitting a cubicle in a Granby strip mall designed for ten with sixteen other eager students — eager, that is, to be done with the theory and on the road. Needless to say I am in no way a reflection of the demographic of the class. A portly farmer, a dozen young tattooed bucks in baseball caps and wifebeaters, a young blonde woman keeping her husband company and one other woman my age. The 60ish teacher has been at it for a very long time. Every colourful anecdote about a student failing to master some obvious skill invariably ends with him rolling his eyes and a sideways comment about the student being a woman. Loud guffaws usually ensue. I cruelly make myself feel better by telling myself that while I only have to spend three evenings of my life in this claustrophobic “classroom”, this poor guy is trapped here for eternity. (insert evil cackle).

The written test is laughable. When I sit down in front of the computer and realize I can do the exam in English and can ignore the subtleties of road vocab that no québécois would be caught using my nerves settle. I am done with the whole thing in 6 minutes. Back to the school to schedule the twenty-plus hours of practical lessons.

Approaching the bike for the first time reminded me of going home from the hospital with my firstborn. The theory classes were great and everything but I am SO not ready to actually control one of these beasts. Impostor alert! Impostor alert! I suck it up and get on. In the end, I was no better or worse than the other two women and guy in my class. The outdoor classroom is a parking lot on Granby’s main drag. I was so nervous I spent the first half-hour running back and forth to the Johnny on the Spot. The classes are actually very cleverly designed. Just when you start to feel comfortable with a skill they kick it up a notch and make you start the bike (just kidding). The little orange cones scattered about the parking lot represent torture of all varieties; the 90 right-hand turn, the figure 8, the shoelace, the slalom. There are also a series of starts and stops designed to make you stall the bike as often as possible. If you’re very talented you may also drop the bike. Yes, I am very talented. Fortunately the bikes are equipped with roll bars, big white plastic dildos that protrude from the sides of the bike to prevent them from being dented by the likes of me.

The culmination of all this stalling and dropping the bike in the parking lot is the closed circuit test. I was less nervous before childbirth. Seriously. Days and days of butterflies and anxiety and colonic irritation ended with me driving the 45 minutes to the SAAQ in Granby and then being turned around because it was raining too hard. The test was rescheduled three days of torture later. I got into the car to drive to the test and the engine didn’t turn over. Dead battery. In car number two, five minutes up the road I ran over a cute little field mouse bolting across the road. I am not normally a superstitious person but the stars were not feeling aligned.

A very smiley SAAQ employee with a cube strapped to his side walked nine other testers and me through the course, showing us the ten exercises we would have to perform without losing more than 17 points. 1 point for every second over the prescribed time, three points if you touch the line, five points if you go over the line and so on. If you don’t manage to perform at least one of the two emergency braking exercises, instant fail. If you accumulate more than 17 points before the end of the test, you are not allowed to finish. If you drop the bike, the exam is over. The butterflies were more than intense. I had the shakes and was surrounded by nine equally nervous adults. It made me realize just how much energy I have spent in my life avoiding situations like this, situations where there is a chance I could fail. I just kept thinking “I really, really want this”. In fact I want this more than anything, I thought, since I fell for my husband. And I might not happen. Did I mention I had butterflies? Of course, I got the last slot so everyone went before me — my nervousness growing exponentially with each passing test. In the end, I suppose it was a blessing as the guy who rented me the bike I was riding and the inspector were the only two to witness my not-so-graceful premature ejection. The first exercise— a ninety-degree turn with a quick acceleration in a curve followed by stopping with the front wheel in a four-foot square box went swimmingly. The tight turn to return to the box facing in the other direction, on the other hand, proved too much for me. Unfamiliar clutch, the classic beginner error of fixating on the object you are desperately trying to avoid, which in this case was a chain link fence keeping me from plunging into the Home Depot parking lot and I stalled the bike. Stalling with a thump with the front wheel turned equals one small woman dropping a four-hundred pound bike. I dropped it slowly but dropping is dropping. Exam over. Humiliating doesn’t even begin to cover it. I was so grateful to be mostly alone and also relieved that the lump in my throat didn’t turn into hot tears ‘til I was back in my car. The long walk of shame back into the SAAQ to reschedule another test was a real test in self-control.

Step in supportive husband.
Thank god for supportive husband. Bike shopping began in earnest. I was determined to do the test on a bike I knew. Riding his was never an option. Picture a two-year-old in a high chair with toes dangling far above the ground and you get the picture. We went to try a couple on for size and found just the ticket at Lester’s in Essex Centre. Wil cut a trail through the field and I spent a half hour every day going back and forth, zigzagging through the high grass, getting to know my clutch and brakes, also learning how to lift a four-hundred pound bike out of the dirt without getting a hernia. The track to the field is grass covered in loose pine needles so the lessons also involved getting used to the sensation of the back wheel fishtailing and, after a rainy night or two, the front end shimmying back and forth as well. It was very satisfying to improve and amazingly satisfying to get back on asphalt and realize how much easier pavement is on a bike (as long as it stays upright!)

I was NOT going to fail the exam again. Fortunately, supportive husband drove me back and forth to Granby so I could try out the test on my own time and figure out how I was going to navigate the transitions between exercises. More anxiety and butterflies and off we went one morning to the test. The drive was mostly pep talk. Breathe, relax, take your time, repeat. I drew the second slot this time. I was on my own bike so I was not going to be had by an unfamiliar clutch. Look left, look right, deep breath, go. I totally botched the counter-steering portion of the exam but kicked butt on the rest. When the inspector let me drive over to the final exercise of the test I knew it was going to be okay. I lost seven points in all but it sure sounded like a perfect score to me. I couldn’t keep myself from jumping up and down once I got off the bike. Woohoo!!!

Thanks Wally for helping me do this.

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