My Suzuki 750 lurched out of the starting lane and whizzed 56.5 feet to the signal line. As the tester's hand dropped, I slammed on front and rear brakes and came to a screeching halt between the thin brown lines 10 feet later -- lying on my side.
"If you hadn't dropped it," said Beth Weaver, licensing director of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in Linthicum, Maryland, "You would have recorded the shortest stopping time in our history. Of course, you were also going too fast."
I had already failed the exam anyway -- called MOST (MOrotcycle Operator's Skill Test) -- for a tiny skid on the second quick stop test coming out of a curve between the white lines. Which only proves that even the experienced motorcyclist -- I had ridden 600 miles in Arizona the week before -- can still use some teaching.
From the air, the foundation's test range just outside BWI airport is a jigsaw puzzler's nightmare or a geometrist's dream. Brown arches, white stop lines and rectangles and yellow circles define the traffic simulations used to teach and test motorcycle tyros -- and instructors -- on the business of staying afleet and alive on two fast wheels.
This Sunday, foundation officials will referee the Prince George's County Police Department's fourth annual motorcycle rodeo, at Andrews Air Force base.
For the non-riders, there will be a skill riding demonstration, a simulated life-saving operation by the police emergency service team and -- the traditional thrill of the day a hair-raising show by "Free Spirit," a precision riding team made up of a policeman and a motorcycle salesman.man.
"We do things like tough tires at 70 miles per hour," Bill Nicols of Clinton Cycle, just around the corner from Andrews. "We also stand up on our bikes, but you'll have to come watch to learn anymore. People call us the 'Blue Angels of motorcycling.'"
The blue Angels, if memory fails you, are the Navy madmen who fly wingtip to wingtip in their jet fighters at places like Andrews Air Force Base all year around.
Motorcycle safety is, of course, nothing to sneeze at, as a rash of motorcycle-related fatalities, mostly in the Maryland suburbs, reminded us all last month. Besides the still-living bike-lover who has had a few close calls of his own, no one is more acutely aware of motorcycling's dangers -- and the concomitant damage to the image of the game -- than the people who sell the bikes.
That's why the Washington Metro Motorcycle Dealer's Association is co-sponsoring the annual September rodeo -- and giving away several motorcycles to boot. That's also why the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, created and supported by the Japanese Big Four (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki) plus tiny Harley-Davidson in America, came into existence seven years ago. And why their educational, public-relations and training departments are the heart of the organization. During my, uh, viscerally instructive visit last Monday, a dozen instructors' instructors (like people who teach lifegaurds to teach lifesaving) were in session for an intensive recertification course.
If you ask the 31 staffers (26 riding bikes almost every day, including 12 women) at the foundation for the three best pieces of safety advice for both beginning and experienced motorcyclists, they will tell you:
"Take some riding instruction, then a riding course, then some riding instruction."
"It's not that the experienced rider doesn't know the fundamental rules, or that riding techniques are not fairly obvious," explains director of research Roger Quane, "but that every rider always need to be reminded of them -- all the time."
The trouble with motorcycling is that one mistake is sometimes one too many. Even light spills at slow speeds can serious, as the human head is a fragile member that tends to bounce and break easily (hence the first rule of safety, always wear a helmet, whether the law requires it or not).
On the other hand, the savvy biker can learn to survive the inevitable tumble quite nicely if he dresses properly and knows how to lay down his bike in a pinch. The key, say the foundation folk, is learning how to brake.
"The single biggest mistake riders make is not using the front brakes properly," says Beth Weaver. "Seventy percent of your braking power is in the front."
It's a myth that the front brakes caneasily lock and throw the rider over the handlebars. My experience on the safety range (and in another experience in gravel) showed that overbraking the front wheel causes a sideways skid and throws the rider clear. (I had the equivalent of a playground raspberry and a severely bruised ego both times.)
The other most important thing to know about motorcycle accidents is that most of the serious and fatal ones involve cars, usually at intersections, and 69 percent of the time it's the fault of the motorist, not the motorcyclist (though we must take responsibility for the other 31 percent). The simple fact is that you must drive defensively.
Cars just don't see motorcyclists. Always drive with your lights on. Favor red, yellow or white clothing over dark colors; a motorcycle presents a very thin profile, so the rider is the main source of color. Make eye contact with any car you see preparing to turn left across your path (the most common single cause of two-vehicle accidents) and don't be shy about using your horn if you don't think the driver sees you. Be especially alert for vehicles entering from the right from driveways, parking spaces and side streets. Keep your eyes moving all the time. Learn to expect the unexpected.
We're moving into one of the great seasons for motorcycling -- tell me what compares with biking through the Blue Ridge during the next two months that does not involve putting your feet on the ground -- but fall has its own peculiar hazards. Beware the sudden rain shower and watch especially carefully for damp leaves fallen on the roadway. Then tank up and ride.