To Ride or Not to Ride - My Motorcycle Adventure

Blog Post created by SarahP on Jul 25, 2011

I’ve been debating whether to post this… it’s a long one and I don’t want to monopolize the screen. But it was important to me to write this for myself, even if no one reads it. Hopefully a few of you will be willing to take the journey with me.


Despite the title, this blog is NOT about learning to ride a motorcycle. Read closely.


For the last 5 days, I have been learning to ride a motorcycle, taking the “new riders” class at a local Harley dealership. My husband has been riding since he was a kid, and I’ve logged a lot of miles as his passenger. He clearly loves it, thrives on it, is so happy being a motorcyclist that I decided to give it a try myself. (that was metaphor point #1; are you with me?)


Was I nervous? Of course. Fearful, even? Yes. But I decided to read the Illinois DOT Motorcycle Guide and take a formal class, rather than go to a parking lot and mess around until I figured it out on my own (as was suggested to me, shockingly, by more than one person). In other words, rather than wing it, I chose to educate myself and seek help. (still with me?)


The Thursday and Friday evening sessions were in the classroom, discussing various topics and learning the controls and basic theories of riding. I was cocky. This stuff was so easy, I had it down stone cold. No worries. In the classroom, I was a superstar.


On Saturday morning, I had to… actually… ride… a motorcycle. Gasp. All my worst fears and nightmares came true. I couldn’t get my balance, I was afraid to pick my feet up, I couldn’t remember even the most basic stuff I had learned in the classroom. I was in pure white-knuckle teeth-clenched panic, desperately trying to keep from falling over. (sounds a bit like the first three days of a quit, doesn’t it?)


By lunchtime Saturday I was ready to give up. I was in tears, telling the instructor through my sobs that I was holding back the entire class because I can’t ride a friggin’ motorcycle. He looked at me, folded his arms, and said “did you just use the word CAN’T? Because if you use that word, you are giving yourself permission to fail.”  (ah-ha moment number one)


The afternoon went much better. I let go of a tiny bit of my fear, just a tiny bit, and allowed myself to find just a tiny bit of trust. Trust in myself that I could do this, trust in the bike that it would respond to me, and trust in the instructors that they knew what they were talking about. They could do it, after all – they rode those bikes around like it was second nature. They were living proof that it was possible, if I would just listen to the advice those elder, veteran riders were giving. (hmmm, sounds familiar)


Before I knew it, I was keeping my head up, keeping my eyes forward, and guess what – I could pick my feet up and NOT fall off the bike! Forward motion is what keeps bikes upright – if you go too slow and look down, you lose your balance. But give it some gas and look forward and suddenly it all clicks into place.


Then we learned how to turn. How do you turn a motorcycle? Turn the front wheel, you might assume? Nope. You turn your head and look where you want to go. Not where you are, but where you want to go. This naturally makes you lean, and the bike follows. If you don’t look where you want to go, if you look down at the bike or the cone you’re trying not to hit or whatever, you don’t turn. Look where you WANT to go, not where you ARE right now. (ah-ha number two)


By the end of Saturday I was exhausted. Physically and emotionally. Even though I had managed to ride reasonably well, doing all the drills as well as anyone else in the class, I still didn’t feel good about it. My fear was still there, still holding me back. (sounds a bit like the first 2 weeks of a quit, doesn’t it?)


When I woke up on Sunday morning, my left wrist and hand hurt terribly from all the clutch use on Saturday. Six hours of low-speed clutch work – those of you who ride know what I’m talking about. I already have carpal tunnel in both wrists and this new soreness was very bad news. On the drive to class I was making plans to tell the instructor about my concerns, and how bad my wrist felt. The imaginary conversation in my head ended with the instructor saying “gee, I guess you won’t be able to ride today.” Giving me permission to give up. I then realized that what he would actually do would be look at me, fold his arms, and say “your wrist is sore, okay. So what are you going to do?”


So I dropped the (junkie) excuse and made my decision that I was going to continue the class, sore wrist or no sore wrist.


I arrived at class. It was raining. Yay! I thought, surely they’ll cancel class! The instructor said “we ride rain or shine.” Only lightening would cause a delay. So, we went to our bikes for the first lesson of the day, me still struggling with whether my wrist issue was legitimate, and fighting down the general doubts and fears that had re-rooted themselves overnight, as well as the new anxiety blooming in my gut because of the light rain. And desperately searching the sky for lightening.


In that warm drizzling rain, I watched them explain our first drill. Low-speed turns, which terrified me. All that leaning and looking and trusting, plus wet pavement. I felt nausea building low in my stomach, and I went into full-blown panic. Sitting on my bike, unable to catch my breath, feeling my heart racing. I considered pulling my bike out of line and telling the instructor I wasn’t ready. I was obviously unique somehow, a special case, and I just wasn’t ready to do this. Surely he would understand and agree with me. (junnnnnkiiiieeeee…)


Then I realized it was the same (junkie) thinking I had overcome several times already – seeking excuses to give up. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing special or unique about me. There were ten other students around me, who probably felt exactly the same way, but they were calmly sitting on their bikes waiting for the drill to start (the exact same bike I was on, by the way; all the training bikes are the same, no excuses there). So I picked my head up, took some deep breaths, and rode the bike. Did I do the maneuvers perfectly the first time? Hell no, I was all over the place. But I did it. And each time I did it, I got better at it.


The day went on. I was doing some things smoothly and confidently, but they seemed to be exceptions. I was still too heavy on the throttle and would often lurch forward when I started or turned, and as a consequence I also kept stalling the engine. I still had to put my feet down on most of the low-speed turns. And when one thing would go wrong, I would lose my concentration and several other things would go wrong as a result. I would get flustered and frustrated. (sounds a bit like weeks 3-4 of a quit, doesn’t it?)


At the end of one particular drill where a whole string of things had gone wrong and I was in tears again, the instructor said to me… well, what do you think he said? Do you think he said “it’s okay hon, I know this is hard, you take as much time as you need to and screw up as often as you want, with your wrist and everything else it’s no wonder you’re having such a hard time.”


Not even close. He looked at me, folded his arms, and said “Sarah, when are you going to decide whether or not you want to ride? There’s a rider in you, I’ve seen flashes of her, but you’re not letting her out. It’s time for you to decide, right now, whether or not you are going to ride this bike. No more halfway.” (ah-ha, I thought -- ride or don’t ride; you can’t do both)


He was stern but perfectly respectful and polite in stating these simple truths. But the implications underneath were crystal clear -- I was wasting his time, had my head up my @ss, and since the class was 3/4 over it was long past time to sh*t or get off the pot, as my grandfather would have so eloquently put it. (sounds a bit like getting past a severe craving/relapse crisis, doesn’t it?)


So I took that tough love to heart and made my decision. I decided to ride. I decided to stop over-thinking everything. I rode through a series of low-speed turns singing a song in my head instead of fretting over what I was doing. I still had to put my foot down a few times, but I didn’t let it bother me. I still felt anxiety at the introduction of each new maneuver, and oh boy did I screw a lot of things up, but the screw-ups were normal learning rather than fear-based mistakes. And I got through them all. And I passed the riding tests at the end of the day. Not by much, and not without a lot of discussion on the improvements I need before I’ll be truly road-ready, but I did pass. Not everyone in the class did.  


So now I’m in some sort of motorcycle purgatory. I’ve proven I have the basic mechanical skills to ride a motorcycle. I’ve proven I have the mental capability to do it. And I’ve overcome some significant challenges. But I have a lot of work ahead of me, and I still haven’t beaten all of my fears and anxieties. I’ve come a long way, but I still have a long way to go. (Motorcycle No Man’s Land…?)


Here’s where the metaphor ends. Because riding a motorcycle is optional, while quitting smoking is not. All smokers WILL quit eventually, one way or another, whether they want to or not. As for the motorcycle, after some more practice and coaching and actual street-riding, I will be able to make a decision about whether riding is for me (as opposed to being a passenger). An informed, honest decision, not a fear-based, excuse-filled decision.


If you’re still here, thanks for reading. I wrote this as a reminder to myself the next time I’m faced with a challenge and find myself looking for excuses to give up rather than risk failure. I can never let myself forget how I felt at lunchtime Saturday compared to how I felt at the end of Sunday.


The parallels to my quit smoking adventure have been impossible to ignore. Junkie thoughts and junkie excuses aren’t only about overcoming addiction. They are about life in general. I quit smoking – I can do anything!