Making It

RIDING ON SAFETY: Jesse Bowman's classes teach the basics.
RIDING ON SAFETY: Jesse Bowman's classes teach the basics. (Copyright Keith Barraclough)
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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, June 22, 2008

As a Fairfax County police officer, Jesse Bowman had witnessed the deadly results of unsafe motorcycle riding -- crashes caused by riders who had applied the brakes incorrectly or lost control on a curve.

If only they had known what he and other police officers had learned during motorcycle training, Jesse thought. And if only he had a side gig that would provide a financial future after he retires from police work.

The two ideas gelled last year, when Jesse and four colleagues launched a motorcycle riding school in Merri-field. Jesse says it's one of the only motorcycle schools in the country owned exclusively by police officers.

"We wanted to raise the bar in motorcycle training," says Jesse, 53, who lives in Fairfax. "We knew what gets people in trouble on the street. We'd seen it, up close and personal."

At Motorcycle Riding Concepts, students pay $375 for 18 hours of instruction from Friday evenings to Sunday afternoons. Three-hour private lessons, offered on weekdays, start at $350, and week-long courses for expert riders cost $2,500.

Kathy Wood, 59, of Vienna, said she took a beginner's course last spring after buying a Harley-Davidson. As a nurse, Wood says, she'd seen plenty of injured motorcycle riders in the intensive care unit.

"My biggest comfort came from the fact that they spent so much time doing things safely," she says of MRC.

Jesse, a 31-year police veteran, says he's ridden for fun since he was 12. He took the 80-hour police course in 2002 so he could ride occasionally with the Fairfax motorcycle squad, which he oversaw as captain of the police department's traffic division.

While he'd considered himself an experienced rider, he says, the training made him realize how many bad habits he'd acquired and how little he'd really known about safety. He says he bet other recreational riders would pay to learn those skills.

So he pitched the idea to two members of the motorcycle squad who he

believed were among the most safety-conscious. When they, in turn, each picked another partner, Jesse had his team: Mark Payton, 50; Jeff Thompson, 49; John Harris, 44; and Mike Nicholson, 41.

For the next two years -- in 2005 and 2006 -- the group met weekly in Jesse's kitchen and garage to draft a business plan. Dubbing it "the great adventure," they divvied up tasks such as scoping out the competition and researching patent issues. They also spent about $50,000 each to buy a fleet of motorcycles, trailers and other equipment while testing their curriculum and teaching skills on friends and relatives, Jesse says.

"We were cops who knew how to ride motorcycles," he recalls, "but we knew nothing about business."

They opened last year and attracted 411 students. This year, he says, they're pulling in about 15 students per class, exceeding their goal of boosting average class size from eight to 12. Last year, Jesse says, the company took in $65,000 and had enough profits to cover expenses.

Jesse plans to retire from police work next summer but says he'll continue working full throttle with his new endeavor. In fact, he just might take his company's slogan to heart. "Saddle-up," it says, "grab life by the handlebars."

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