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One Month at a Time: Finishing up lessons on riding a motorcycle

HUNTINGTON — The box confounded me. I couldn’t stay within the lines. Even moving at a snail’s pace, I couldn’t keep the motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson Street 500, within the confines of the roughly 20-by-40-foot square.

I couldn’t navigate the teardrop maneuver the instructor, Austin Allen, had shown us. The tight turn thwarted me. More than once, my boot had come down to stop the bike from dropping over.

As I became more and more frustrated, I began to make more mistakes. My movements became jerky. I didn’t provide enough throttle, stalled the bike and almost dropped it. A few minutes later, I nervously gave the motorcycle too much throttle and shot across the lot abruptly, while the rest of the class watched.

It seemed a wonder to me that I hadn’t crashed into anyone.

This was day three of the motorcycle training, and it was going about as well as expected.

The back of my head ached.

A sinking feeling ...

A cold rain had been falling through the murky Sunday morning sky since I left my house. It had drizzled and then dripped all the way from Charleston to Kenna and the Black Sheep Harley-Davidson Riding Academy training course at Tri-County Regional Airport.

I’d half hoped Austin would call it all off — that we’d reschedule — and maybe in that time, maybe a week or two, I’d find some way to get a little practice. Not that it seemed likely.

A couple of friends had been kind enough to offer me the loan of a helmet, but no one seemed all that interested in handing over a bike for me to practice on.

Those things cost real money.

Austin had told us that — barring some real hazardous weather — it was better to accept the conditions as they were. While we might very well intend to be the kind of motorcycle riders who only rode when the sun was shining, the wind was calm and the temperatures were no less than 60 degrees, he assured us that there was a good chance that we’d have to ride in the cold, the wind and the rain someday.

It was good to be cautious, but we didn’t need to be afraid of it.

A lot of my anxiety was because of the test. As part of our last day on the course, we’d get about half a day’s worth of instruction and then be tested.

If we passed, we could get our motorcycle endorsement through the DMV without any further testing.

Really, the people at the Kanawha City Department of Motor Vehicles have always been nice to me — encouraging and even emotionally supportive, which isn’t something you expect when dealing with a government office — but I wasn’t in a hurry to take another test there.

Also, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t own a motorcycle. I had no idea how I was supposed to take a road test without one.

Provided I passed the test, the dealership said all I had to do was take my card with my learner’s permit to the DMV. They’d re-shoot the picture for my driver’s license and poof, mint me a new and improved card suitable for display at traffic stops and liquor stores.

With the class under my belt, I might even be eligible for a discount on motorcycle insurance. I checked on that and after calling the wrong insurance office first and learning a little more about the differences in insurance agencies, I spoke with someone from the office that insured my house and car.

The short answer was no, the company I was insured through did not offer a discount.

The agent then explained that some of the secondary insurance companies the agency worked with did offer a discount on coverage if you took a class.

“But they’re typically more expensive to begin with, so ...”

Making peace with not being good at something

The problem with the course was that while I was making progress, going from no experience and no idea to somewhere in the vicinity of legal competence as a rider, I didn’t think I was making a lot of progress.

I’d struggled from the beginning, and the exercises were only getting more complicated.

As I drove from Charleston, I repeated the “One Month at a Time” mantra.

Success is not guaranteed. Success is not even necessary. You’re just here to learn. Get over being good.

Learning was good enough. Besides, before this weekend, I’d barely been on a motorcycle. I had only been a passenger on a moving motorcycle once or twice several decades ago, and I had never been in control of one.

While I might not be very good at it, I’d learned to start and put the bike into gear. I could make it go forward and steer it, just not very well.

Luckily, I got to be pretty good at braking.

The box continued to give me fits, and I cursed it for being impossible and improbable. When was I ever going to need to make a turn that sharp in a space that tight, I wondered?

They don’t let you bring motorcycles into grocery stores to shop, just those little scooter things.

Finally, Austin took me aside and told me to calm down. Making those very tight turns in that small of a space was only a part of the test and didn’t represent a lot of points.

I could screw it up some and still be OK.

“Besides,” he said. “If I had my bike in a tight space, I don’t have a problem with just pushing it out if I needed to.”

I managed to dial down my anxiety and got a little better. I never could keep the bike inside the rectangle, but at least I didn’t go zipping across the lot toward the chain-link fence again, and I didn’t kill the engine.

I was able to complete the pattern, just not entirely inside the space preferred.

The results are in

Finally, we were graded on our efforts on the course and then we took a 25-question quiz on basic safety and motorcycle knowledge.

I missed three questions, which was still passing. Austin didn’t tell me what my score was on the course, but I cleared that, too.

We all passed. Austin told us we’d done well. We’d increased what we knew, and he’d seen real improvement. He was satisfied that we’d generally accomplished what we’d set out to do.

I thanked him for his training and his patience.

Talking with Todd Clay from Black Sheep Harley-Davidson at the end of the class, he told me how he thought getting on a motorcycle could change your life. He said some people see a motorcycle as an alternative to a car or as just another toy for grown-ups, but that it didn’t have to be.

“It can give you peace,” he said. “You get out on the open road, by yourself, and everything sort of opens up.”

There’s a meditative quality to riding, Todd said.

Then he asked me what I thought.

I told him I’d been anxious, but exhilarated. In between the parts where I’d been frustrated, frightened or angry, I felt free, like I could go anywhere.

It didn’t matter that I was only cruising around in a lumpy, weedy, paved lot next to an abandoned Cessna.

I’d been stressed, but I had fun and kind of wished I could take my training bike home. I wasn’t the only one in the class who wondered about that.

Gary Neck, the hardware salesman who was probably at the top of our class, asked what would happen to the motorcycles we trained on.

Gary already had a motorcycle, but he’d done well on the Harley-Davidson Street 500.

Todd said the dealership would use them for classes like this for a while, for about a thousand miles. They’d be taken care of throughout the program, but eventually offered for sale.

“How much?” Gary asked.

Todd shrugged and said, “About $6,000.”

It seemed like a pretty fair price, a lot less than I thought it would be, but still quite beyond my means.

Just the same, I added the motorcycle to the long list of things I’d like to have the money to buy one day, which currently includes a fully functional laundry room, a vacation to someplace more exotic than Pinch, West Virginia, and a tiller for my garden.


The last thing I did before I turned the key to “Off” and climbed off the motorcycle for the last time was to look at the mileage. When we’d started Saturday morning, the odometer read 40 miles. The motorcycle was almost brand-new.

Now, it read 60.

A thousand miles wouldn’t happen overnight. I might have some time to save up, I thought.

Reach Bill Lynch at, 304-348-5195 or follow @lostHwys on Twitter. He’s also on Instagram at and read his blog at

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