On Her Own

But first, I had to duck walk

One of the most frustrating things about picking up a new skill or hobby is that there is almost inevitably a period where everything is hard and nothing goes right. Back at the end of April, I told you about how I struggled at my motorcycle Basic RiderCourse, and how it was so difficult for me that I nearly wanted to give up. I also committed to myself and to you that I would get back on the bike and try again, because that’s what we do when we get in over our heads. Starting that very weekend, I did. Let me tell you how it’s been going.

If you remember back to then, I left that class not able to work the clutch lever on a motorcycle in any meaningful way. The “friction” zone on the class loaner bike’s clutch being physically out of reach for me meant that I couldn’t “feather” the lever to slowly start moving from a stop, the first step in learning how to operate the machine. Without being able to feather the clutch, you can’t maneuver at low speeds and you can’t change gears to go faster than a few miles per hour, so it’s a pretty key piece of the puzzle. My learner motorcycle at home, a Honda Rebel 250, is fortunately a better fit so getting a feel for the clutch was actually possible. More importantly, I was able to work on that micro skill in much lower pressure environment and instead of sharing an instructor’s attention with a half-dozen other students, I had several tutors focused just on me. It could have been overwhelming, but they worked hard to lessen the pressure and work at a pace that made me comfortable. A high learner to teacher ratio and standard class pacing might work for most people, but sometimes you need more individual attention. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you don’t fall into the average student mold many classes are built for. Many physical skills require intensive personal coaching, after all, like the music lessons I took as a child.

It’s rare that we start something we’ve never done before and are instantly good at it. That’s especially true when we are learning new ways of moving our bodies, or figuring out new wiring between our heads and our bodies. It can take a certain amount of time and a certain number of repetitions for that newness to really settle into something you can call on. We could dig deep into neuroscience and learning theory but the important takeaways? Sometimes, you do need to take breaks and even sleep while you are learning something new, so that your brain can process the new information and really get to know it on a deeper level where it actually becomes available for action. When you get started again, it might take a bit of time to get back up to the same competency level you were at before, but you probably won’t start from zero again if the break hasn’t been too long. You also need to do a new thing many, many times before you myelinate the neural pathways – groove the muscle memory, some might say – and make the movement natural. At first, it will just feel weird. Then it will require focus and concentrate to perform correctly. Only after you’ve practiced it enough will it become natural enough that you can do it without thinking, when a level of unconscious competence is achieved. All of this is normal and none of it can be entirely shortcut around even if the number of repetitions needed for any one individual is debatable.

For me, it turns out that the very beginning steps needed the most rest and practice time. For quite some time, I rode straight lines up and down my street. Some days, I could only manage half an hour or an hour before my hands tired and my brain felt full. My tutors needed patience along with me, and their example of being completely accepting of my learning pace helped me take each progressive step with confidence instead of worrying too much that I wasn’t catching on fast enough. Only two weeks ago, we ventured out to a large parking lot nearby and I finally learned how to turn. Since then, my abilities have skyrocketed, with an exponential leap in improvement every time I find an hour or two to sneak out. It’s like a switch has flipped and I’ve gone from tentatively duck-walking my way around corners to being concerned with how much vibration my motorcycle exhibits when I push it up over the speed limit and lean my way around curves on local back roads. It turns out that sometimes you need to wait a hot moment before everything falls into place. Sometimes, the first steps are a frustrating grind, but then suddenly, you’re sprinting.

In the meantime, I’ve also begun to experience the satisfaction of certain aspects of riding becoming routine, habit, even almost easy. For weeks, somebody else needed to take my bike out of the garage and put it back in. For weeks, putting on my protective gear was awkward and uncomfortable. For weeks, turning my communications system on and off required looking up the right button combination and checking my app. Now? Nobody helps me with getting my bike out and I can ride my bike into the garage (after it’s properly cooled off, of course!). My gear has started to become worn in to fit me and I have “my way” of putting it on and taking it off. Turning my intercom on or off requires a reminder to do it, but not a reminder of how. Those little things are starting to make me feel like a “real” rider, instead of someone just putting on a costume and hoping she can pass. It’s not something I’ve worked on, just something that’s happened because I’ve made incremental steps to do pay attention to how things are done and do a little more for myself every time.

My start was inauspicious and perhaps because of that, every new piece of the puzzle has been a triumph. Experiencing acceleration on my bike both from a skills perspective and from becoming more and more comfortable with twisting the throttle to go faster and faster has been so much the sweeter for having had so much trouble at the beginning. It didn’t feel like it in the aftermath of my class, especially with the expectation that I could spend two days and learn enough to be on my way. It turns out I needed individual attention and no set timelines, along with the determination to continue no matter what. Now that I’ve gotten what I needed to learn, my fire and excitement are back and I can’t wait to show you the next steps of my motorcycling journey.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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