Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Becoming a biker chick tougher than it looks

Harley's sinister swagger spoke to my inner hooligan

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OK, so I failed my first attempt to become a biker chick.

Out of my dozen classmates, I was the only person to fail the M1 exit exam; I, the editor of Post Driving, couldn't ride a motorcycle. My goal to become the ultimate badass hit a major snag, and I thought I was doomed to be on four wheels for the rest of my life. I was depressed by the thought I'd never be able to ride that sexy matte black Harley-Davidson Softail Slim that inspired me to take up riding in the first place.

When I first saw that Harley, I knew I needed to ride it. Retro-looking with a sinister swagger, it spoke to my inner hooligan. Besides, although there are more and more female riders with each passing season, motorcycle riding is still quite male-dominated. I was hoping if I learned to ride, other women may be inspired to follow suit. There had to be more real women riding, not high-heeled, bikini-clad models posing on choppers.

I was so excited, even going to a mini garage party at a Harley-Davidson dealership where they taught me (all 110-pounds of me) how to lift a 700-lb. bike should it tip over. It inspired a lot of confidence. The Harley people seemed genuinely interested in helping me achieve my riding goals. I even got a Harley shirt in preparation for my new life as a biker chick.

After my initial confidence wore off and my weekend motorcycle-beginner-basics course came to an unceremonious end by me failing my exit exam, my chest-beating, "I am woman, watch me ride" attitude was diminished and I felt like I had failed girls everywhere.

Looking back at my defeat, I know exactly what went wrong. I let my nervousness control me. I was scared, I panicked, I put too much pressure on myself and made stupid mistakes. My instructors had to fill out three "incident reports" (when anything but the bike's tires touch the ground), and I was scared that these minor crashes were a sign of things to come.

By the end of the course, I was exhausted. We were in the middle of a heat wave, and I hadn't sweated that much since I was travelling the Egyptian desert. My entire body was aching and the emotional roller coaster of coming to terms with my failure had a huge toll on my mental state. I gained a whole new respect for riders; learning to ride is mentally and physically taxing. I thought I'd never get on a bike again.

After the course, I wasn't sure if motorcycling wasn't for me, or if I just didn't like it because I wasn't good at it. Motorcycling seemed to come naturally to many of the new riders in my class, and I was hurt to be left behind learning at a much slower pace. But, as that annoying old saying goes, practice makes perfect, so I picked up my skirt, and was determined to become a better rider -- here I was beating my chest again; I had to get better for women everywhere.

And I did. I passed the M1 exit exam on my "victory lap" with zero incident reports. Going into my private lesson and re-test, a wave of fear and doubt again took control, but sensing my nervousness, my instructor, Marlon Pollock, told me to take a few deep breaths (this actually works) and remember why I was doing this in the first place: to have fun, and you can't have fun on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

"The best way to make this easier is to relax and look where you want to go," Pollock said, making me repeat "look where you want to go" for full effect.

The best way isn't always the most intuitive, though. New riders always feel the need to look at the handlebars, or in my case, at the pylons on the ground that I was trying to avoid. But the thing is, if you're looking at the pylons, you're going to run into the pylons. If your eyes are on the fence, you're going to hit that fence. One of the most difficult things to do was learning to trust my body -- if I looked where I wanted to go, the bike would magically make it so.

Everyone understands riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, but it didn't really sink in until I got on a bike. I quickly learned that it required your full attention, because if you lose focus -- even for a second -- it could be the end of your riding career. Also, if you maintain your focus and look ahead, you can see what's coming so you won't panic and make a bad decision or hasty reaction.

After passing my test, a wave of relief and confidence came over me. The next day, I caught myself checking out prices for my very own helmet and prices for a used bike. All I want to do now is ride.

It still scares me a fair bit, but the more I ride, the more comfortable I will become. A colleague told me, however, that some fear is healthy for riders -- it will keep you alive.

My dear sinister-looking Harley-Davidson Softail Slim, wait for me. I'm not ready for you just yet, but you'll be mine soon enough.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 F6

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