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Learning to Ride: Commuting

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Commuting to work is a great way to get comfortable on two wheels.
Commuting to work has been a great way for me to get comfortable on two wheels.
Summer in Southern Oregon is ideal for motorcycle riding. On most days there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, temperatures waver between the mid-80s and low 100s and the breeze (if there is one) hardly ever develops into a strong wind. Roads are, for the most part, well maintained and traffic is light. This past spring and summer I’ve used a motorcycle to get to work, navigating the trusty Honda CRF250L through the streets of downtown Medford and exploring alternate routes to help break the ennui of stop-and-go straight-line traffic.

Seasoned commuters may have numerous ways to get to work on time, but often the route in a car is the quickest way between points A and B. It was for me at least, and having only lived in the area for two years, my knowledge of alternative paths to the office was somewhat limited.

Depending on the roads used, I live anywhere from eight to 11 miles from work and in a car the easiest way to go is by way of Interstate 5, which gives me a commuting time of about 15 minutes total from my door to the office desk. The first thing I had to confront was the fact that as a new rider, I wasn’t all that comfortable taking the CRF250L five miles down the interstate at 70 mph. I’d been on I-5 once with the bike and it was nerve-wracking. Perhaps it was just a matter of inexperience or a realization that the machine wasn’t built for that type of high-speed riding but it was enough to convince me I needed to find a different way to work.

The first option I tried was a relatively straight line down the old highway through the center of Medford. Top speed on that option is 45 mph, traffic is much denser and there are stop lights at almost every block. Stop-and-go traffic didn’t bother me much at first, since I was still getting my bearings on the basics, but after a while it became tedious and somewhat frustrating. There’s also tremendous opportunity for accidents as cars are constantly changing lanes, entering from side streets and coming up from behind. What I’ve found helpful in this type of situation is to flash the brakes well ahead of a stop so those behind you know what’s coming and to do my best to stay in sight of the cars around me. I’ve been lucky so far, but I shudder every time I pass the proverbial “teen” staring down at a phone as I throttle past.

Multiple-lane stop lights haven’t given me much issue since there are usually other cars to trigger the green, or they’re on timers and I simply have to wait. But I’ve already been stuck at a number of left-turn lights for two or more cycles, not so silently cursing the antiquated technology under the pavement that can’t sense I’m at the end of my patience. In these cases I’ve waited until the through lanes to my right are green and no traffic is coming, going past the intersection to try another path somewhere else down the line. Some states now allow motorcyclists to run red lights if they fail to turn green, so check your state’s traffic laws to see if that’s a viable option. Any choice here can be risky, so triple check that nothing is coming your way before making the move.

Situations like this mean you’ll have to plan a new route on the fly, so getting to know the broader area has helped making these decisions easier. I was exploring an alternate way into town once and came up on the turn I’d planned to take much too fast, thinking it was further down the road. I was fortunate there wasn’t someone right up behind me as I grabbed a handful of brake.

So I took some time after work hours or on a day off to ride new commuting routes. It helped me to clock them so I had a general sense of the time I needed to be in before the boss fires me for tardiness. Learning the side-streets and short-cuts I can take if something goes amiss also proved beneficial, plus allowed me to find a route that was a joy to ride. I settled on a back road that sweeps well outside the city through local farm land and vineyards because traffic is generally negligible, there are some fun twists and turns and only one traffic light. It only added about ten minutes to my commute and a few extra miles but I enjoy every minute.

For me, the CRF250L has been a great learner bike. It’s lightweight, forgiving of a thoughtless clutch hand or under heavy breaking and feels like it’s really cooking when hauling at 55 mph. It always fired right to life at any time of day and did so even after sitting unused for a week while I was out on vacation. The simple instrumentation, a speedo, clock, fuel level and tripmeter, gave me the chance to feel when to shift and the little 250 Single gives a high-wound growl when it’s time to move up a gear. Then only thing I was ever leery about were the knobby tires and grip levels on the pavement, but that only helped to remind me to slow well before a turn and take it at a comfortable, controllable speed. They helped to keep me from riding over my head, so were likely more a blessing than a curse.

The bike gets up to interstate speeds in sixth gear, but was close to its max and didn’t inspire a lot of confidence as a noob, so I kept it within limits that felt comfortable. If you’ve got a 650 with street tires, windscreen and nice wide fairings then it’s a different story. Getting to know your bike is a crucial part of learning to ride and the commute to work gives me daily experience with the machine and bolsters my own prowess on two wheels.

Having a good, sturdy backpack made life much easier for me as well. Entry-level learner bikes often don’t have much room, if any at all, to store or transport things (unless you’re on a scooter). I cart a laptop and sometimes a lunch, so my needs are pretty minimal but having a way to get essentials from home to work and back was a necessity.

The most important thing is to have fun. Traffic sucks and stoplights can be frustrating, but in the end you’re on a motorcycle, the happiest place on earth. Take your time, ride smart and stay safe.
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RENDELL   December 19, 2013 09:59 AM
Great article. I've noticed one of the biggest dangers are exit ramps or exit lanes. Cars will forget to take their exit then jump over 2 or 3 lanes at once and attempt to exit. I've seen this too many times. I warned my friends about this. And... one of my friends was hit like this riding his GSXR in the exit lane in San Marcos, CA. The car did not stop...
neo1piv014   December 18, 2013 06:14 AM
I've been commuting on a motorcycle for a year and a half now, and the last line of this article couldn't be more true. After a rough day at the office, walking out and seeing your bike waiting for you is better than a stiff drink.
Kelethaar   December 17, 2013 12:17 PM
Nice. A good column with lots of sound advice and practical experiences. I got started on an '81 Suzuki GN400 that I've been restoring. couldn't be happier (at least 'till I can wrap my hands around the throttle of a V-Strom).