Even though I’d been thinking about my first ride a long time, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of actually leaving the parking lot for parts unknown. It’s an exhilarating experience; one that changed my perspective of being on the road. On two wheels you’re entirely engrossed in the moment, watching the minutia of the pavement intently for sight of potential hazards while keeping a running score of what’s coming up ahead, noticing the unique character of every turn to find the perfect line. A far cry from the slight attention paid during my car commute on stick-straight Interstate 5 to and from work.
Of course, I was awkward the first time out on a bike, leery of leaning too far into a turn and often forgetting to roll off the throttle when I pulled the clutch for a gear shift, to name just a few of my missteps. But by the end though I was literally speechless, unable to respond for a prolonged moment when asked how it went. It was beautiful.
Actual preparations for the ride started a few months earlier after I got my motorcycle endorsement through safety training with Team Oregon, a state-sponsored class, though I hadn’t been on a bike since. Those two days riding in the parking lot were useful, don’t get me wrong, but this was a whole new ballgame.
Those two intervening months between training and my first ride were spent patiently waiting the end of winter, getting a bike in the shop that would forgive my inevitable mistakes and aligning schedules so I wouldn’t be flying solo right off the bat. On April 29, 2013 the stars finally aligned. We had the Honda CRF250L from our 2013 250 Dual Sport Shootout resting safely in the garage and added the 2013 Star Bolt, 2013 Triumph Bonneville and 2013 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 to the fleet for our 2013 Urban Cruiser Shootout. Managing Editor Bart Madson and Cruiser Editor Bryan Harley would each take one of the bigger bikes out for some initial riding impressions while I’d pilot the CRF250. The weather was ideal, as we were in the midst of one of the first warm spells of spring, with air temp close to 80 degrees and no cloud in sight.
After gearing up we decided I should get acclimated to the bike in the empty parking outside the MotoUSA garage. The lot is in an industrial park down a lonely side street and is uneven, unmaintained and chock-full of potential hazards, as I’d soon find out. I started by riding out to one end, making a wide turn to practice looking through the corner then driving straight back toward Bart and Bryan to practice emergency stops. I did this a few times without any issue, so decided to try some figure-eights next.
The first pass went stunningly, in my mind at least; I felt in control and confident on the CRF250 so kept my momentum and went for another. I never saw the patch of loose gravel coming. At the crest of my first turn I felt my rear tire kick-out wide and the next thing I know I’m on the ground. I landed directly on my left side and, while not in any significant pain, was definitely out of sorts. I stood up quickly as the others made their way to see if I was ok and it took a little while to catch my breath, but soon I was back on the bike and ready to go.
I did a few more passes to regain some confidence and we were off. There’s a fantastic spot for photos a few miles outside of Medford in Jacksonville, Oregon, so we headed there. The ride from the garage has a few turns, mostly from stop lights and signs, but is predominated by 40-55 mph straights until you get up into the hills. I settled in between Bart, who led our little biker gang, and Bryan, who pulled-up the rear. The strategy being that Bart would regulate the pace and alert me to upcoming hazards while Bryan would take note of my form so he could give me pointers at the end of the day.
Just outside Jacksonville the road gets twisty and is full of elevation changes. I maintained a comfortable 45 mph, the speed limit in those parts, and did my best to flow in and out of the curves with grace, but Bryan later informed me that I looked tense. I found it takes a significant amount of trust, not only in yourself, but in your machine, to really dip into a turn at speed, a skill I’m still working to develop.
Jacksonville is a throw-back to days past, with an antique main street lined by brick buildings, some still proudly displaying the signs of their original inhabitants. This was my first taste of “urban congestion,” a misnomer to anyone actually living in a populous area, to be sure, but a reality-check for me as I feathered the clutch behind a car that had slipped between Bart and me.
After three, possibly four blocks, we were on our way further into the hills. The quaint, tree-lined residential area gave way to an ascent up a windy, two-lane road that requires a fair amount of vigilance. Loose gravel lines the center lane in many areas, pot holes seemingly spring up out of nowhere and debris from trees litter parts of the roadway. It was everything I’d been warned about in safety training coming at me in lock-step, with a new obstacle every few hundred feet.
We made it to the photo-op spot and pulled to the side of the road, regrouped and decided the next leg of our jaunt would continue on the less traveled country roads in a long circle back to the garage. It’s a gorgeous part of the world, full of locally owned wineries and farms all brimming with color and life in the spring and as we continued to ride I found myself less concerned with keeping a white-knuckle grip on the handlebars and more overcome by the experience. I got more comfortable with how the CRF250 responded to my input. I felt the butterflies return when we ran into a stretch of twisty road spider-webbed with lines of sealant, but made it through without any issue and gave the throttle a nice hard twist when we descended down a long straight into the sunshine.
I think the original plan was to turn down another backroad that would have brought us back to the garage, but we missed it. I continued to follow Bart in my blissful stupor and before I knew it we were turning right onto the onramp for I-5. I had an oh s%^& moment, but then started pulling through gears to get up to speed and quickly noticed I was coming up directly alongside a semi-truck that was holding steady in the right lane. Grabbing another handful, I made it deep into fifth gear, holding on for dear life as I hovered around 67 mph, easily getting ahead of the big-rig and settling into traffic.
After a few miles of uneventful highway travel, we turned off and made the short trip back to the garage. Bart asked me how things went, and I just stared stupidly, knowing I should answer but unable to find words to describe what I was feeling. “It was awesome” eventually came out.
Some things I learned my first time out:
1. Look out for gravel and other potential hazards. They teach this to you from hour one in safety training but if you have limited riding experience, like me, the whole experience can be a little overwhelming. Don’t get caught off guard focusing too much on running the controls and forget to prepare for the things coming at you in the road. Keep your eyes and head up and plan for hazards because they will inevitably be there and can change a fun ride to a not-so-fun one real quick.
2. Don’t get cocky. I hadn’t been on the bike for 20 minutes before I thought I had it down. Respect the machine and your limits as a rider. Start slow and ease into the process at a comfortable pace.
3. Wear the right gear. If I hadn’t been wearing an armored jacket and pants, helmet, gloves and boots my low speed slide in the parking lot would have been a whole lot worse. As it is, my shoulder hurt pretty good for a few days, but there were no broken bones, no injuries to my head and no scratches to speak of. Concrete is hard, and it’s not getting softer any time soon.
4. Keep an eye on the center of the lane. Another basic from safety training, but one I continually found myself forgetting during the ride. Many of the back roads we took had lines of gravel down the center, but were clear on either side where cars’ tires generally run. The center of the lane is also where the majority of fluids deposit, leaking oil and other slippery stuff. Be aware of this and plan your line appropriately for the conditions.
5. Try to stay loose. When we first pulled out I was tense, rigid and awkward. It didn’t improve much over the course of the day, but once I loosened my iron grip on the handles and relaxed my body a bit, the ride became much more fun and I was able to respond quicker and more accurately in corners.
6. If you can, ride with an experienced rider the first few times out. I was fortunate that Bart and Bryan were there with me, giving pointers along the way, teaching some fundamental parts of riding in a group and making sure I didn’t get myself into a bad situation.
7. Remember to check your mirrors and look to the sides in traffic. It’s a practice that’s habit while I’m in my car, but I noticed that I neglected to look in my side view mirrors as often as I should during that first ride. When making a lane change, I went through the process, but it’s a good practice to remain continually conscious about what’s coming up behind you.
8. Check your machine before going out. Make sure the tire pressure is right, all the instruments and controls are operating as they should and that your fluids at the right levels. A little preparation can save a lot of trouble down the road.