By Sue Carpenter
Digital journalist at Spectrum News 1
My first experience on a motorcycle was riding pillion on an ancient Suzuki. My boyfriend had found a 1983 GS400 in the classified ads section of our local newspaper and arranged for a test ride, having decided, without my consent, that I should be getting around on “a real bike.” My pedal bicycle had just been stolen from where I’d locked it while I was hanging out at a dive bar called the Zeitgeist, where Motorhead was in heavy rotation on the jukebox and MotoGP played Sundays on the TV, so maybe it was meant to be.
The year was 1992, the city was San Francisco, and my boyfriend was in charge, jerkily testing the throttle and brakes and weaving between cars as I hung on for life. Fifteen minutes and $600 later, the bike was mine. Six months later, said boyfriend was no longer in the picture, but motorcycles have remained a constant.
As terrifying as that first ride was, it unlocked something in me that I never even knew was there — a boldness, a bravery, a sense of adventure that had largely been suppressed when I was growing up in suburbia and doing everything my parents asked. Part of my attraction to motorcycles was cheap and easy transportation, but there was also the taboo nature of grabbing the controls and seeing where they took me.
Nothing in my life has been as confidence-inspiring and transformative as overcoming my initial trepidation toward motorcycles and learning how to ride. No one in my family was a motorcyclist. I barely knew how to drive a car when I bought the bike I nicknamed Sue’s Uki. I credit the Motorcycle Safety Foundation with providing me that foundation through its Basic RiderCourse, which at the time was known as the Motorcycle RiderCourse: Riding And Street Skills.
I’ll admit the only reason I signed up to take it was to avoid the dreaded keyhole test with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Little did I know when I took that class that I would be teaching it myself a few years later. I really enjoyed helping new riders, who were as skittish as I had once been, develop the skills that would carry them beyond a parking lot and cone exercises to the real world and its many potential hazards.
The only reason I gave up teaching motorcycle safety was to take a full-time feature-writing job at the Los Angeles Times. To celebrate, I bought a Ducati Monster. I did not have a car. I commuted to work on two wheels, rain or shine. It was the late ’90s by then, and the helmet I tucked under my elbow as I walked through the office must have left an impression, because a few years later, the paper asked me to be its first motorcycle critic.
For the next 10 years, I tested everything from Aprilia sport bikes to Harley cruisers to Zero electrics. I rode with Peter Fonda, Keanu Reeves and Sonny Barger. I wheeled across the Isle of Man and the Silk Road. My street-riding skills had never been sharper, thanks to the skills I first learned through MSF.
But dirt? I had no idea, so I made contact with the MSF yet again and took its DirtBike School. For a street rider, there’s nothing quite like doing figure eights in the dirt, performing K-turns on sand dunes, and learning to loft a bike over wood 4x4s. If anyone had told me that’s what I’d be doing before signing up for the class, I would have grabbed a Hayabusa and sped 100 miles in the other direction.
But just like the Basic RiderCourse, DirtBike School was structured with building blocks so when you get to the end of class, you’re doing things you never thought possible. Once again, learning how to ride dirt bikes took my skills and self-confidence to another level, inspiring me to take up dirt biking with my son when he was nine years old and beginning to disappear down the rabbit hole of video games. The second time I went to MSF DirtBike School was with my kid, which inspired years of trips to the state OHV park in Gorman, California.
That kid is now in college, and guess what? He wants to get a street bike. I have just one word of advice for him: Take the MSF Basic RiderCourse. It’s entirely possible it won’t just save his life but change it in unexpected ways.