HUNTINGTON — The clouds looked heavy when I pulled into the lot of Black Sheep Harley-Davidson in Huntington — like at any second, the rain was going to start pouring in buckets.
After a while, it did.
I felt lucky to be inside for my class learning to ride a motorcycle, but I felt lucky to be doing this at all.
Month-long project lifetime in the making
I’ve wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle since as far back as I can remember but never gotten around to it. I’ve never pursued it, really.
Here was where I started, and it had everything I could have hoped for: a teacher, a closed course where there wasn’t much I could crash into and a real motorcycle.
Black Sheep even promised to throw in lunch. I could have a barbecue, two hot dogs or chicken salad.
That all sounded pretty good.
All I had to do was come up with a learner’s permit, a helmet and a couple of pieces of riding gear, including a long sleeve shirt, a pair of gloves and some boots.
The gloves didn’t have to be anything fancy. I didn’t have to go out and spend $50 on brand new, leather riding gloves. Plain, old work gloves or gardening gloves would work, but the boots needed to come over the ankle, and I wasn’t so sure if that’s what I had.
My preferred boot is Doc Martens’ “Fynn,” size 10.
I bought my first pair of the hiking boot about 10 years ago on clearance. They were the most comfortable boots I’d ever owned.
I’m on my fourth pair, but I couldn’t say for sure if they strictly fit what the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and Black Sheep Harley-Davidson had in mind.
The boots barely covered my ankle, if at all. I didn’t want to chance showing up with the wrong boot and being told to take a seat, so I went looking for cheap footwear that fit the class requirements.
Actual motorcycle boots look cool but cost somewhere between $100 and a house payment.
I had $20 and change.
What I found was a second-hand pair of over-sized, generic work boots, which felt like walking in flower pots, but that was fine. I wasn’t going to be walking.
Day one at the Riding Academy
Friday evening, I joined five other Riding Academy students in Black Sheep’s conference room, along with our instructor, Austin Allen.
Other than being all white men, we didn’t seem to belong to any one particular background.
A couple of the guys were in their 20s, including the class instructor, who was a 22-year-old pharmacy student from Kentucky.
A couple of guys were in their early 30s. The rest of us were in our 40s or early 50s.
Among us, we had a fireman, a nursing student, a mining engineer and a hardware salesman. Most of the class owned some kind of motorcycle. A few of them owned a Harley.
Ronald Hooser told us, “I inherited mine from my grandfather.”
Almost everybody had motorcycle riding experience, but none of us were there for the same reason.
Ryan Hitt rode street bikes, but his new wife wanted to ride on something a little more substantial.
After years away, Gary Keck had been riding again over the past year or so and wanted to improve what he knew and was thinking about getting a new bike.
Kyle Arms said he’d rode dirt bikes when he was 13 but hadn’t been on a bike in decades. Some of his friends from the mines got together and took trips on motorcycles.
“It looks like fun, but I’m not sure if it’s for me,” he said.
Kyle thought it was a relatively cheap way to test the water before spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on a new motorcycle.
The Riding Academy class usually costs $325, but Harley Davidson periodically runs promotions with discounts for the program.
Kyle and some of the others in the group paid about half for the Riding Academy.
Dealerships, like Black Sheep, also sometimes offer rebates or discounts to take the class if you buy a motorcycle through them. In May, I was told, they were running a special with the dealership’s used motorcycles.
In the group, I was the lone exception when it came to experience riding a motorcycle.
My only experience had been as a passenger 25 years ago. I wasn’t sure if I could sit properly on a bike, let alone make it move forward. Changing gears with my left foot, while breaking with my right foot and right hand, plus using both hands to control direction and speed seemed like an awful lot of juggling.
I was half-convinced that during this training, somewhere, I’d flip over the handlebars and run myself over or steer the motorcycle headlong into a solid wall.
But I wanted to do this. I wanted to try.
I told the group I’d always wanted to ride a motorcycle because I thought it was somewhere in my blood. My father’s family had lived in lower Michigan. I’d grown up listening to far too many Bob Seger records, which were filled with songs about men jumping on motorcycles and hitting the road.
It sounded silly as I said it, like I’d announced to the class that when I grew up, I wanted to be a pirate or a German shepherd, but no one laughed.
Whatever. It was fine.
Coursework before work on the course
In the first class we covered a lot of the same material found on the DMV’s learner’s test, which I’d taken a few weeks before.
The class was Harley-Davidson centric; to be expected since it was sponsored by and being held inside a Harley-Davidson dealership, where the logo and company colors covered virtually every square inch of available surface.
But Austin said we weren’t going to be hit over the head by a lot of sales talk. At least, he wasn’t going to do it.
“There are a lot of great bikes out there,” he said. “They’re all awesome.”
The general belief was that creating more trained motorcyclists was, basically, good all around.
We knocked off a bit early that first night.
Austin said, “We could keep going through the book, but I think you’re going to learn more on a bike — and you’re going to need your sleep.”
I couldn’t agree more.
So, as the rain outside tapered off, we went home but agreed to meet the next morning at 7:30 in the parking lot of the Taco Bell in Kenova. We would go as a group to the secured training space at Tri-State Airport.
Austin suggested that we might consider bringing rain gear, if we had it.
“I ride rain or shine,” he said, though he acknowledged he had a threshold. A sprinkle or a gentle rain was one thing. A deluge was another, but Austin said riding competently in less-than-perfect conditions was an important thing to master.
That night, I slept like a log, then got up and out the door before first light, but still managed to be the last person to arrive at the Taco Bell.
We drove as a caravan to the practice space, which was just down the road from the site of the Marshall football team plane crash. It was off from the rest of the airport, looked neglected and half-forgotten. Weeds grew unchecked through cracks in the pavement.
On the far end of the lot, an old, twin-engine airplane rested on flat tires.
Austin warned us not to hit it.
To the right of the lot was a hanger for private aircraft.
We were advised not to hit the building either.
To the left, we could see the rest of the airport a couple of hundred yards away.
We should avoid that, too.
As we stood there, we watched a bushy-tailed coyote hunting for breakfast in the grass around the airfield — probably rabbits and birds.
For us, Black Sheep Harley-Davidson had set out a couple of boxes of donuts, an iced cooler of bottled water and six motorcycles.
These were Harley-Davidson Street 500s, just plain black.
They weren’t nearly as colorful or as stylish as some of the models in Black Sheep’s showroom, but they looked perfect to me, like the kind of motorcycle I’d buy, if I had money for such things.
After we’d settled into being there, Austin told us each to pick out a bike. This would be the bike we’d use for the weekend.
I chose bike number two.
The bikes were modified for learning riders, equipped with “Power Limit Calibration,” which kept the speed from getting too high. There was also a vehicle protection system set up around the bike. It didn’t seem to affect riding but kept us from dumping the bike flat on its side.
The bars were scuffed from use, but the bikes seemed fine, which was good. The dealership intended to eventually sell them.
After a few ground rules were given, most of which was simply listening to instruction and behaving like we weren’t completely insane, we put on our helmets and got on our bikes.
Austin had us walk the motorcycles away from where they’d been lined up. They were heavy to push and moving them was awkward.
I hated how my feet felt in my boots.
Finally, after a quick run-through of where things were on the bike again, the instructor said, “OK. Let’s fire them up.”
We turned the key, open the fuel switch, pressed the clutch and pushed the start button.
I held my breath for a second and then started my motorcycle.