If you get nothing else out of this post, get this: beginning riders of any bike – from a 49cc scooter on up – will benefit immensely from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) Basic Rider Course. I took a two-day course, ten hours each day, and while it didn’t get me my motorcycle license, I feel so much more comfortable on my Vespa now. The difference is night and day.
The MSF Basic Rider Course I took occurs in partnership with the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program (MMSP). My instructors were MMSP members and certified by MSF to teach the curriculum. Our class began with nine students, with various levels of experience. Some had never ridden or driven a motorcycle. Some had only ridden with another driver. One had experience on dirt bikes. A few of us had bikes at home waiting. We were a mixed bag of ages, from the 17 year old guy up to a woman who I would guess is around 60. We also had another MMSP member in class with us, an experienced rider looking to earn her teaching certification.
Our first day began with a classroom session, working through the excellent course handbook from the beginning. From the anatomy of a motorcycle to the basics of handling, we got a good start.
That afternoon we went to the practice range for the first time. A note here to the scooterist: MSF does offer a basic rider course specifically for scooters. However, it was not available in my area. I was told during registration I could request a scooter for this class, but it was not guaranteed. I was quite tickled to see they had gotten a zippy little Yamaha Zuma for me to work on. The rest of the class had 250cc Suzuki motorcycles. While I wouldn’t have minded learning to ride with a clutch, I was very glad to have the scooter because I could focus more on maneuvers than learning to shift at the same time.
We started slow – this was excellent for the people who had never even been on a bike. How to mount and dismount. How to use our lessons from the morning (T-CLOCS and FINE-C) to do a pre-ride check and get the bike started. We did exercises with the friction zone, which the motorcyclists performed in neutral. Since scooters don’t have neutral or a clutch, I got to work on finding that sweet spot with the throttle where I had just enough juice to manuever the bike, but not so much that it wanted to go. From there we moved on to short jaunts with feet down (power walking), then feet up, and we were on our way.
By the end of the first day, I was aching with muscles I didn’t remember I had. My head was spinning with all the new information, and I was so excited to get back the next day. I had become comfortable with different kinds of turns (both from a stop and continuous) and with driving at speed, estimating stopping distance, and just overall controlling the scooter better. The instructors were really encouraging when any of us would get frustrated or if we were having trouble. One rider dropped her bike once, and about half an hour later left the range and said it wasn’t for her. Another rider dropped his twice, and chose not to return to class the next day.
So we began day 2 with seven students. The morning was another classroom session that covered topics like avoiding and navigating hazards. This part culminated with a written exam. I’m good at written exams and multiple choice, so I blew through that and got a 98%. One student did not pass the exam, so by the time we went to the range for the afternoon, we were down to six.
The second afternoon was a lot harder for me. We started off with really tight double u-turns and I was just struggling for some reason. It was hot out and I was so frustrated with myself, I started feeling kind of short of breath. I was fogging up the bubble shield on my helmet because I was gasping, and I ended up ripping off the shield in the middle of the exercise just to get some air. You can’t leave the range in a middle of an exercise – do that and you just head home. So I handed the shield to an instructor and kept going.
But my confidence was kind of shaken, and I don’t think I fully recovered from that. I really wish we’d started the afternoon just going in circles for a few minutes to kind of loosen us up and recall skills from the day before, before jumping right into new stuff. We had the time to do it, and I think that would have helped me a lot. I spent the afternoon learning to navigate either over or around obstacles (running over 2x4s was fun), practicing lane changes and signaling, sudden braking, weaving in and out of cones, and my new archnemesis, the sudden swerve. This is where the shaken confidence really affected me. When I was having trouble getting it the first two times, I let it get in my head. I was doing fine weaving in and out of cones, why not swerving? It just didn’t stick. And because it didn’t stick, I lost my nerve. At the final evaluation, the first section was the tight u-turns and the sudden swerve. As you might guess, I did NOT nail those, and as a result I was just a mess when it came to the other sections, with skills I knew I could handle.
There’s an important lesson here that goes back to what they taught us on day 1 – you’ve got to be mentally on, 100%, to do this. You can’t be distracted by emotions, you can’t lose focus on your ride or you can die. I guess you could say I learned that the easy way, on the practice range instead of on a busy street. Four of my classmates passed the final skills evaluation, I and another rider did not. I was pretty upset, but I know I didn’t earn it.
I have a lot of practicing to do before I can head to the DMV and get my license – and thanks to the Basic Rider Course, I know what I need to work on. But even though I didn’t pass the final evaluation, I completed the class. I had the benefit of two full days with great instructors teaching me so many practical skills on two wheels, as well as the information I need to make good choices about where, when and how to ride. So it’s back on the bike for me – over to the big parking lot down the street, and time to practice my swerve.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation is a sponsor of the Vespa Club of America‘s annual Amerivespa scooter rally. This post reflects the author’s own experience and opinions, and no compensation was provided for this content. Yes, I paid for my own class. Worth every penny. This content is cross-posted on the VCOA blog here.