Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Yermo Method: Learning to Ride a Motorcycle, Practice Session 1

A couple of weeks ago, I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Course. I passed and the following week I got my M Class license. I am now street legal to ride a motorcycle (according to Maryland). What that means is that the instructors trained me to know what to do as a basic rider on the mean streets of the DC Metro area. Was I excited to have my license? You bet! Did I feel ready to go riding out there with all the traffic and nutty DC drivers? No freakin' way. And I had another fear. The fear had been that in the two weeks since I took the class and test that I'd forgotten every darn thing about riding the bike.

Luckily, I have a couple of excellent riders in my corner (Yermo Lamers and Duncan Sterling) who have both graciously consented to be my guides as I enter this incredible new world of seeing things while riding on two wheels (and with an engine).

Today, I started what I feel will be the actual training I need to feel like I can ride on the road. My friend Yermo Lamers of Miles By Motorcycle took me to a parking lot and started training me in what I am going to call the Yermo Method (YM).

Yermo has found a lot that remains largely empty in the middle of College Park, on a weekday afternoon, and that is where he has trained a number of his friends in riding. Before we got there, though, we started in his garage. Mind you, I don't own my own motorcycle. A friend, Robert, who has his bike stored at Yermo's graciously consented to allow me to use his bike while Yermo trains me. While I learn, while I determine the sort of rider I am going to be, I will use Robert's motorcycle for as long as he is willing to let me. Oh, and by the way, per the motorcyclist's code, anything I break while I am borrowing the bike, I will pay for. To me, that goes without saying, but it bears repeating here just so I have it written down.

Before we did any riding at all, I met Yermo at his place and he told me the two main things I absolutely must check before heading out to ride. First, before you ride, you must check the tire pressure (look for the pressure psi listing on the chain guard) and you must make sure there is oil in the little viewfinder (circular hole on the right side). On this bike, the tire pressure differs from the front to the back and we had to add a good bit of air. Then, I checked to make sure there was oil in the viewfinder. I asked to see one that didn't have oil in the viewfinder so I could tell the difference. When it has oil, there is viscous-looking liquid through the viewfinder. When it doesn't, it looks like a small, cicular view of a chrome sink.

Next, I drove my car and Yermo rode the bike to the lot. And then we prepared to get started. By that I mean, that I donned the borrowed jacket and helmet (and my own gloves and boots) and approached the bike.

The next thing you do in the YM is to sit on the bike. Yermo had me sit on it, and I familiarized myself with how the clutch and throttle felt and also where the turn signals and horn were.

I spent a bit of time feeling the actual push/release of the clutch and brake. Previously, I had only felt the Suzuki GZ250 from my riding class and it was a very different sensation. I can say the same thing for the gear shift. The GZ250 was almost impossible to get into Neutral. I kept jumping too far up or too far down. With the Kawasaki, Neutral felt easy to locate with my foot. And the little Green N lit up nicely to tell me it was in Neutral. However, according to Yermo, the little green light sometimes lies, so you ought to always check by releasing the clutch a bit and seeing if the darn thing starts moving forward at all. If it does, the N was lying. If it doesn't you're in Neutral and can go about your business.

Once I was familiar with the controls, Yermo asked me to lean the bike to one side and then the other. He wanted me to feel how far I could lean it and still get it back up to standing. Then, he held it and I leaned it past where I'd be able to get it back up to straight. "I want you to feel where those two zones are," he said. His logic? If I am leaning over and I can still straighten the bike, I ought to do that. If I am leaning over far enough that I can no longer straighten, then I ought to let it drop and get myself out of the way.

As much as I remember, here is what we actually did: 
I spent time feeling for the friction zone. I released the clutch a little and let the bike move forward about a foot. Then, he had me immediately engage the clutch and let the bike roll back to starting. Then, he asked me to let it move forward a couple more feet. Then, move about ten-fifteen feet and come to a controlled stop. We did this for a good while so I could get the feel of the friction zone in my hand and body. To be honest, this part is not a problem for me. I spent years driving a stick-shift car and I have a pretty good idea of how to engage the clutch. Still, the motorcycle is different in that you are doing it with your hand and not your foot so the skill still needs to be built.

Next, he had me practice rolling on the throttle. "Feel that specific spot where the engine engages," he said. A lot of this is done by feel, he said. I agree. I could very much feel when the engine was purring as opposed to when it was choking a little (like when I was going too slowly and not rolling on the throttle). The trick is to know what to do when things start going a little wonky. And that I will have to practice. A lot. Yermo said as much when he indicated that we are going to do these exercises over and over again until they are completely second nature. I like that. It's reassuring.

"We are going to go really slowly," he said. And he wasn't just talking about whether or not I need remedial help. He meant mph. So, he had me ride slowly enough that he could walk alongside me. For the most part, I did okay. It was only when I got jarred and hit the throttle a little too hard that the bike took off and left him walking way behind me.

Then, he had me ride while tapping the clutch. That felt unbelievably uncomfortable. I hate it when things feel choppy and rocky. And boy did this feel like I was lurching around that parking lot. "It's easy to be smooth when you go fast," he said. "The point is to do it while going slowly. At first, it will be choppy. Later on, you aren't going to believe what you'll be able to do."

One thing I'd forgotten from my class to yesterday was looking in the direction of the turn. "I'm noticing that you are looking in front of you," Yermo said. "Now, instead, look at me when you are turning." So, we practiced that. A lot. I turned while looking at him. Then, I straightened and rode and then I found him with my eyes, and turned. Then, I straightened. I didn't quite wear a groove in that lot, but in the moment, it felt like it.

Oh and incidentally, it turns out most riders have a side to which it's easier to turn. I turn more easily to the left. Turning to the right feels like I'm trying to throw a baseball with my right hand (I'm a lefty). It feels vaguely uncomfortable, and I'd like to stop doing it as quickly as possible. "It's uncomfortable," I said. "Sounds like we need to practice it more," Yermo replied.

So, then we practiced riding in an ellipse - turn, straighten, turn, straighten, to the left and to the right. The last exercise of the day, which I admit Yermo had to talk me into a little was to ride around him in an ever tightening circle. I was supposed to only look at him and ride and make the circle tighter and tighter. I faltered a couple of times, but truly as long as I looked in the direction of the turn, the circle remained true and relatively easy to ride. 

I can already see how riding is going to be closely aligned with two of my other loves, aikido and yoga. I will definitely be writing some about how yoga and riding relate and also how they can inform one another (and also which asana can help prepare us for riding and which will help mitigate the soreness that crops up after a ride). The aikido relates in a singular way. You drill. You practice. You go over and over the techniques so that when you need them, they will be in muscle memory. And then, you trust the training and do what you need to do, in the moment, and immediately. 

This is brilliant, and I can't wait to do it again!

A last few thoughts:
Yermo dropped a whole bunch of wisdom on me today. Here are a couple of nuggets.

"Making mistakes and not being afraid to make them is a good thing," he said. "I don't want you to never make mistakes. I want you to be able to recover from them and know what to do in the moment that you do make them."

"When I train high-achievers, we often have to work through their reluctance to make mistakes."

"And by the way, the first bike you buy will be the wrong bike, unless by some coincidence it happens to be the right bike."

Until next time, I'll see you on the road.


  1. Kawasakis have a feature called posi-neutral. If you're standing still and you want to go into neutral, it WILL go into neutral. However, this can also work against you if you shift from 1st to 2nd too soon or if you let too much time/speed go by in that 1st to 2nd shift. You'll wind up in neutral instead and have to shift again. "It's not you, it's the bike." But "Yes, it WAS you for the poorly timed shift."

    1. Yikes. I understand what you're saying. IOW, learn how to shift or you'll be doing extra work.

      The bike I'm using feels a little rough when I shift into first from neutral when standing still. Of course, I haven't yet shifted into second (I'm guessing that will be next lesson in the Yermo Method) so I'll know more when I get to do that. :)

      BTW, I went ahead and started an actual motorcycle blog so as to not confuse things. http://motorcycledaydreams.blogspot.com/

      Thanks, as always, for your great comments. I learn a lot from just reading your perspective. :)