A Few Words on the Team Oregon Motorcycle Safety Course

September 23rd, 2017  |  Published in this mortal coil  |  1 Comment

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I don’t remember why I got it into my head that some sort of motorized, two-wheeled conveyance seemed like a good thing to have. I mean, I already have one, but it requires pedaling. I’m pretty sure I was irked that I needed a bag of dogfood, the car wasn’t available, and I didn’t want to go get it on a bike.

What I do remember is that as I sat around wondering what sort of motorized conveyance I might want I did a quick search on electric scooters to see what the state of the art was looking like since I bought the Felt. That took me to the Genze page, where a few concepts became clear:

  • If you operate anything with a motor without any help from human power, the law has an interest in its performance parameters and opinions about where you should operate it.
  • If you want to go faster than 30 miles per hour, or operate something with a motor with a higher displacement than 50cc, you need a motorcycle permit.
  • If you want to go on a freeway, you need something with a displacement of at least 150cc.

I walked down to the local Genze showroom and talked to a pretty helpful guy who made a few more things clear, including that the 30 mph top speed might be sort of optimistic. Going home and tracing a few commute routes out told me the Genze—or any vehicle I could operate without a motorcycle permit—might not be my best option: My eight-mile commute takes me through a few places where being held to 30 mph or less could feel sort of fraught.

So, I spent a week poking around online forums learning about ways you can derestrict a 50cc motor to get more speed and sneakily dodge the need for a motorcycle endorsement. I learned a few things there, too:

  • Some brands are more amenable to DIY derestriction than others.
  • Fines can be pretty hefty if you’re caught doing that.
  • It’s worth considering the wisdom of taking something whose brakes and other systems are engineered to go no faster than a certain speed and helping it go half again as fast.

On that last point, I’ve got a bit of familiarity owing to a terrifying childhood incident involving a fairly steep slope on a coal road in the Allegheny mountains and a Korean touring bicycle I’d bought with saved Christmas and birthday money. Its wheels seemed so smooth and its braking so effective when used to swan around the church parking lot next door. Similarly, a really rash incident involving a ’73 Dodge Polara with a sweet Chrysler 360, about 120 mph of built up speed, and a screaming, spinning panic stop wherein I slid across SR15 during morning rush hour taught me everything has its limits.

Anyhow …

All that thinking led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to go faster than 30 mph on a two-wheeled vehicle of some kind, it’d need to be on something bigger than a 50cc scooter, and that I’d need to go get my motorcycle endorsement.

In Oregon, you get one of those a few ways:

  1. You can go get a learner permit, practice for a while, then go take a knowledge and riding test at the DMV when you’re ready. Unlike some states, where learner permits allow you to ride solo during daylight hours, Oregon requires you to have a motorcycle-endorsed adult riding alongside.
  2. You can enroll in a Team Oregon motorcycle safety class, attend classroom sessions and a two-day riding course in a community college parking lot, and then take your graduation certificate to the DMV and get your endorsement on the spot.
  3. You can enroll in the e-learning version of the Team Oregon class, do all the classroom stuff online, then do two days of training in a community college parking lot, in which case the state will waive the DMV driving test and require you to take the knowledge test.

I picked the third option. Even though there’s an option for scooter-specific training and to ride a scooter during the hands-on parts, it seemed like a better idea to just learn how to operate a motorcycle with a clutch instead of learning just a subset of the two-wheeled world.

Maybe less rationally, the more I thought about learning how to ride a motorcycle, the more I realized that I’ve always sort of pushed aside the thought that I’d really like to ride a motorcycle as an impractical one. So there was something atavistic going on in there, too, since that thought has been with me for longer than I’ve counted myself a reasonable grownup.

The e-learning experience

It’s pretty good, really.

The course is broken into six chapters that use videos of motorcycles out in the real world or instructors to teach you about proper gear, riding technique, and assorted edge cases (e.g. carrying people or lots of things on your motorcycle. Each unit is pretty substantial, and five of them took north of 30 minutes to complete, with mid-chapter quizzes and lots of interactive exercises.

From a design point of view, it’s all a little bit “bulbous plastic UI” looking, but it’s a very responsive site (in the sense of speed, not flexibility for mobile devices, even if it does support use of a tablet) and the touch interface works pretty well.

From a content point of view, I sometimes felt my attention drifting a little, but the quizzes served to snap me back to. The UI offers ample opportunity to go back and re-watch a section, and accessibility options make it possible to simply display the text and read it for yourself instead of enduring the stately cadences of the narrator.

The content is also very good at impressing on you that you’re considering doing something with potentially severe consequences for yourself and others. I pretty quickly shifted from an attitude of antsy impatience to a more receptive attitude as the courseware nudged my internal movie from “hop on a bike, ride away, maybe tackle 205 during rush hour in a month and not a day” to “consider the many ways in which a slow ride around your neighborhood could cause you to break bones or flay skin.”

For instance: I already knew in principle how to operate a motorcycle. I lived a few years in rural Pennsylvania where it seemed like all the children of coal miners and farmers had a bike of some kind, ranging from tiny mini bikes with lawnmower engine bolted on to 125cc dirt bikes to 250cc standards, so I had some memory of how to do it. I can also drive stick. When I got to the chapter about getting underway, which teaches the basic controls (brakes, clutch, shifting lever, accessory buttons, and the processes for using all of them to start riding) I was given the option to take the test up front and skip the chapter. I did take the test and missed a few questions. The software said I was welcome to proceed, but that I might want to go ahead and sit through the instruction anyhow for my own good. I took the hint, learned a few things, and was in substantially better shape when it came time to do the hands-on part.

Similarly, the section about what gear to buy was useful on a few levels.

First, it educated me about things that seem like reasonable ideas that are not (e.g. denim jackets instead of armored leather or sturdier fabrics), things that look cool that are dangerous (e.g. black helmets, or any helmet that’s not full-faced), and things that you might tolerate as a hardy bicyclist (e.g. taking a soaking in your riding kit rather than sweating up a soaking in your rain gear) that will probably make you miserable and unsafe on a motorcycle.

Second, the interactive exercise to choose the best gear reinforced those lessons, and also quietly reminded me that my investment in anything—a scooter or motorcycle—wouldn’t stop at the cost of the bike alone. I mean, I knew that intellectually, but now it’s part of my time and money planning in a way it wasn’t before.

So, it was a good learning experience. Way better than online courses I’ve done in the past. By the time I finished I felt much more mentally prepared to be a motorcyclist (or scooter drive) than I did going in.

Motorcycle Training

The hands-on part of Team Oregon’s course involves two morning sessions in a local community college parking lot. You can ask for either a scooter or a standard motorcycle, and they provide a helmet.

The instructors I had showed a lot of presence on the first day. They stuck to the clock and politely but firmly sent a late student packing, exactly as threatened in the confirmation email sent out at enrollment. They projected the sort of “don’t fuck around” gravitas I don’t think anyone in my group really required, but that some surely must.

I mean, motorcycles are one of those things out on the same end of the spectrum as guns: Most of the population doesn’t spend much time thinking about them, the complexity and risk of operating them are poorly represented in the media, and there’s a portion of the population that learned about them informally before being forced to satisfy Johnny Law by enduring a safety course and applying for state sanction.

It’s been a long while, but I remember range week in basic training. The boys in my platoon from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia—bothered and frustrated by three weeks of drill and ceremony and constant reminders of their own incompetence at soldiering—adopted a certain swagger when the unit armorer pressed an M16-A2 into their grasp.

“I know I can shoot. This part’s gonna be cake!” said one private.

The drill sergeants just smirked, and after a few days of being reprogrammed and unlearning bad habits, he was crying and miserable, suddenly unsure of his ability to put down even a 150-meter target. It was another one of those times I was glad to be a mostly blank slate. Breathe in, exhale, squeeeeeze when you hit the bottom of the breath. After a week, I knew when I’d missed before the bullet could kick up dirt by the target. Private Kentucky was still jerking and swearing, and none of those boys did better than 37 of 40 exposures in the final range (to my 39, which was the highlight of basic training for me in an otherwise tedious eight weeks).

Similarly, though, a quick look down the line of a dozen or so riders in our class suggested that we had a few folks who’d been riding dirt bikes most of their lives and were fully expecting to just hop on a bike and go. One already had a Harley at home, and he didn’t let us forget it, even as he struggled through some of the riding exercises, trying hard to unlearn bad habits he’d picked up in years of buzzing through back pastures and maybe even bombing down streets without his permit.

So I’m guessing the instructors have their share of know-it-alls to contend with, and our pair seemed politely but firmly able to cope with that, should it have reared its head.

Anyhow, we all got to pick a bike from a selection that included a few standards, a few dual-sports, a few cruisers, and a pair of tiny Honda Groms. I picked a Suzuki TU250X, a little standard bike that sat low enough for me to easily plant both feet, and that felt pretty easy to manage. At one point, when I lost my balance turning to listen to an instructor walking up behind me, it was easy to keep it upright.

We started the course by learning to put our motorcycles into gear, putting our feet down, and waddling in a straight line across the parking lot. After a few repetitions, we were welcome to put our feet up and actually ride in a straight line if we felt comfortable doing so.

From there we learned to shift, and then how to to handle curves, and then how to weave through cones. By the end of the first of the two weekend morning sessions we’d probably put about three miles on the bike, all within a parking lot and seldom driving riding for longer than three minutes at a time.

Not everybody had the coordination needed to ride a motorcycle. Several students lurched and weaved around while trying to operate the clutch. Others simply couldn’t get the clutch to work consistently. The student who arrived in a brand new set of full motorcycle kit — armored pants, jacket, boots, gauntlets, and her own helmet — struggled to avoid cones. Another was too tall for his bike and struggled to apply both brakes, clutch, and shifter at the same time. Still, no motorcycles were dropped and nobody spilled.

By the end of the first of those two mornings, I was pretty tired. The classroom material had done its job of putting me in a more cautious, vigilant state. Nearly five hours of paying close attention to the instructors and managing a motorcycle was draining.

Day two involved more complex stuff: weaving through offset cones, sudden stops, swerving, and sharp turns. As with a lot of physical learning, I could tell a night’s sleep had helped a lot: I could manage the clutch more smoothly, it was more instinctive to look at the exits on the curves on the course, and felt a lot better running the bike up to 20 mph to get back into line after completing an exercise.

Some folks were still having a hard time, and the instructors got a lot more aggressive about pulling people aside and talking them through where they were going wrong.

Personally, I found a few things helped me:

I already knew how to operate a clutch, and understood that I needed to develop a feel for the friction zone on my particular bike, and to figure out how much throttle to feed it to operate it at slow speeds.

A few years on an electric bike taught me a lot about counter-steering and budgeting traction in a curve.

I also realized that I routinely operate my bicycle faster than we were usually allowed to go in that parking lot. There’s something bracing about the power of a motorcycle even at slow speeds because you can feel all that potential under your throttle hand, but once I realized I was going about 25 percent slower than I manage on actual streets mixed with real traffic, the sense of peril abated and I sort of internalized the difference between speed and torque. That has affected how I’m looking at my first motorcycle purchase.

By the end of the second morning, we’d put on close to ten miles in a couple of hours, and then we lined up and started the skills test.

The Skills Test

It was hard not to be anxious about this.

Prior to taking the course, I did as much reading on online forums as I could about the course and the test. Some people claimed that their classes had 75-percent fail rates. Others claimed that the instructors were merciless and rigid in their grading, penalizing people for minor things. Folks who claimed they’d been riding for years said they had to retake the test after an initial failure. Some of that I wrote off to people rationalizing a failing score or failing to unlearn bad habits, but a 75-percent failure rate suggested a level of rigor that surpassed the sour grapes I might have been seeing.

So, I went in a little nervous and unsure what to expect. I was way more proficient than I had been the morning before, but I’d also radically adjusted my expectations about what I’d do if I passed. I stopped imagining commuting to work on week 1 and started thinking in terms of developing more proficiency in the confines of my neighborhood, and at a nearby park-and-ride parking lot that’s vacant on weekends. I’d been vacillating between getting a small motorcycle and a large scooter, and I was thinking more in terms of a scooter, just to see if I could get to a safe level of proficiency on two motorized wheels at all.

We got tested on five things:

  • Sudden stops
  • Swerving
  • Sharp turns
  • Curves
  • Weaving through offset cones

If someone messed up (e.g. braked too soon or slid on their back wheel for the sudden stop exercise, put a foot down while doing the low-speed weaving, or failed to get up to correct speed for an exercise) the instructors would allow them to repeat the test once.

A healthy number of people had to repeat one part of the test or another. Personally, I used the wrong cone for the outside of the curve exercise and had to go back through the correct pair even though my form was good.

The experience reminded me again of basic training with its “go/no-go” testing, which involves a quick demonstration, a little repetition, then a quick test you can spot-retake if you fail the first time. I’m not an instructional designer, but it seems like the stress of “getting tested” has its instructional benefit.

We also did the tests in reverse order of how we learned them, so we were freshest on the hardest tasks, and got them out of the way first, and coasted to completion on the easiest task.

At the end of the test, the instructors had us all line up, then set up a little course for a final exercise that simulated a few four-way intersections. We were free to ride around inside the course and practice stopping, lane changes, cornering, etc. We weren’t being graded, but the instructors were paying close attention and offering help. After ten minutes or so of that, we all lined back up, got off our bikes, and helped pick up all the cones while the instructors compiled our grades.

They were pretty respectful about how they delivered the pass or fail news to each student, standing apart from the group and keeping their voices low. Everyone got the same manilla envelope with a few brochures, a motorcycle map of Oregon, and a Team Oregon sticker, so there was no way to see, like, a diploma exchanging hands. It occurred to me, as I stood around waiting to be called, that I had no idea how people knew how many people in their course had failed or passed and wouldn’t know how any of the tales of 75 percent carnage could be told with any certainty. I overheard one instructor say to someone “you didn’t make it,” but it was the least surprising person in the class. I couldn’t tell with any of the others, and my own passing score was delivered with a quiet “congratulations” I doubt anyone could have heard.

So, I’ve got no idea what the passing rate was. I just know I did pass. I got my certificate in the mail a few days ago and need to go down to the DMV to take the knowledge test to get my endorsement, then I’ll feel free to go talk to motorcycle or scooter dealers.

What’s Next

I’m still on the fence about what to get once I have my motorcycle endorsement.

The Team Oregon course was pretty sobering: The online portion sensitized me to a lot of the risks, but also did a pretty good job of explaining how to mitigate them. The hands-on riding section left me confident I could ride a small bike competently at neighborhood speeds, but also convinced me I wouldn’t want to go out on some of the faster arterials nearby for a little while. But when I think about it, I still want to get there, and I think I want to do it on a motorcycle, not a scooter, because I want to get proficient enough to tackle highways and longer trips. We live in a beautiful state, and I’d love to see it on the back of a bike. Between signing up for the course and taking it, we took a trip down the coast and I was so envious of the motorcyclists out on the curves of 101.

My current candidates for motorcycles are the new Honda Rebel 300 or 500, and the TU250X I rode in the course. All are low-slung, small bikes with mild engines, manageable levels of low-end torque, and strong reputations as get-around commuter/starter bikes that could handle some quick exit-to-exit on the local freeways and more relaxed backroads trips, but not lengthy cruises. The TU250X was so easy to handle that I want to climb on the Rebel 500 and see how it feels: It’s the same dimensions as the 300, just heavier due to the larger engine (which is still reportedly quite manageable for beginners).

I’m also looking at a few scooters in the 200-300cc range, less out of a concern for being able to operate a motorcycle, and more because scooters are simply the more practical city machine: More onboard storage, a bit more nimble, and no clutching to deal with on congested, stop-and-go streets. There are even some scooters that could handle that ride down 101 I want to work up to, but they’re big and bulbous things that’ll be a squeeze in the garage.

Responses

  1. Jerome Comeau says:

    September 24th, 2017 at 10:41 pm (#)

    Your experience exactly mirrors mine in that class, though I did the classroom part in an actual classroom rather than online. It wouldn’t surprise me if their pass/fail was actually 75%; the rigor of the instruction is such that I imagine that’s actually a target — riding a motorcycle is extremely dangerous if not done correctly (and arguably even if done correctly) and the instructors in my class had no illusions about it.

    My path to success was recognizing that the instructors were both subject matter experts and voices of authority, whom I could trust implicitly to tell me exactly what they wanted and exactly how to give them what they wanted, and at that point passing seemed accomplishable, if not easy. And I, too, had to retake one part of the test. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have to retake at least one part.

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