I wish someone had explained to me how much work it takes to become a good rider. I mean, a truly good rider who is adequately prepared for any situation they might encounter on the road. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but all anyone ever said was that I needed “practice” — not what to practice or for how long — and I assumed that this “practice” would come just by spending time on the road.
And for awhile, it did. When I first got on the road, there was so much to learn that with every mile I built new skills and became a better rider. But after a few months, I became proficient at riding my little scooter around town, and at some point I more or less stopped learning.
I didn’t realize what had happened until I got back on a motorcycle this year and found I still had a lot of the weaknesses I’d started out with. For example, turning. It has always been hard for me to trust my bike in turns. And despite nearly two years on two wheels, I haven’t gotten much better at it.
I soon realized that to become a better rider and be prepared for all the crazy shit this world might send my way, I didn’t just need to “practice,” I needed to actually challenge myself.
Wait, challenge myself? I mean, I’m still fairly inexperienced, and there’s a lot I don’t feel comfortable doing yet on a bike, so now I’m supposed to CHALLENGE myself? How am I supposed to figure out which challenges will help me grow, not end up on the side of the road? This stressed me out for awhile, until I found myself falling back on a concept from my years of yoga practice that I call “finding comfortable challenges.”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all yoga-crazy on you (though I know there are other moto-yogis out there!), I’ve just found that a lot of the mindsets yoga encourages are valuable when riding a motorcycle as well. After all, they aren’t totally dissimilar: they both require and inspire focus.
In this case, the “comfortable challenges” concept came from a phrase my yoga teachers often use to encourage students to modify their practice. When they’re giving cues for a pose, they’ll say to take the pose “if it’s part of your practice today.”
I love that phrase, because it does two things. One, it reminds you that it’s your practice (on a motorcycle or a mat), and your practice can and most likely should be unique. After all, everyone has a different history, a different body, a different motorcycle… And all of those things add up to completely different contexts that require different practice. Just because someone you know is working up to bike surfing doesn’t mean that’s where you need to be. You’re different riders at different stages of your riding journey.
Then, it reminds you that you need to choose a practice that fits the person you are today. Not the person you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. Some days, you might be tired, stressed out, anxious, and all you need to do is take it easy. Or maybe you feel fine, but your bike isn’t at its best — your treads are worn down, your engine sounds funny… whatever it is, pay attention to those clues, because they let you know that today’s probably not the right day to take it to the next level.
But if something DOES feel right, if you DO have energy and you’re ready to move on to the next level, then bring it on! Just remember that if at any point you start to feel something going wrong, you can always back off and try it another day.
I think this mindset is really valuable, because it helps us strip away some of the emotions that might otherwise cloud our judgement. For example, you might be out with friends and feeling really good about that, but you also know your bike was acting strange earlier or the roads are wet. Remembering to do what’s best for your practice today will help you feel okay about maybe not pushing it as hard as you would otherwise, instead of worrying about keeping up with your friends.
Alternatively, maybe you’ve been holding yourself back, letting your fear and anxiety determine whether or not you can do something rather than listening to your body and bike. That’s where I found myself recently, with learning to ride on the highway.
Until about a month ago, I had never ridden a two-wheeled vehicle on the highway. After all, I’m pretty sure taking my scooter on the highway is actually illegal — the engine’s too small.
Riding on the highway has always intimidated me — especially here in Texas, where highways are often full of potholes and drivers aren’t always very nice. But after I registered for Babes Ride Out and booked my ticket and rental bike, I knew I was going to need some practice. Some challenging practice.
Unfortunately, I only got 15 minutes of practice on a nearly deserted (by Dallas standards) highway before the big trip. But to be honest, I realize now that it was my own fault that I didn’t get more practice: my friend Crystal and her husband offered to let me borrow their Shadow to practice anytime I wanted, but the one time I took them up on it, I stayed off the highway. I was just too nervous.
Instead of practicing and overcoming my fear, I spent the entire week before Babes Ride Out mired in anxiety about the 160-mile highway ride from LA to Joshua Tree. I kept telling myself that I could always go it alone at my own speed, or ride on the access roads if I needed, but that didn’t do much to help me sleep at night.
And then, out of nowhere it seemed, I found myself halfway across the country, sitting on a Fat Boy. And I knew I couldn’t make any more excuses, that this was it, and I was either going to do it or I wasn’t.
But then I remembered my comfortable challenges concept, and I started taking stock of how I felt — how I really felt. And sitting on the Fat Boy, lifting it and rolling it back and forth, I felt alright. I rode a bit around the parking lot, and I still felt alright.
Once we got out on the highway, I kept my speed at about 65, and guess what — it felt alright. Even kind of fun.
Looking back, it’s strange to realize that what I was doing at exactly that moment had been ruining my sleep for the past week. I had built up my fear of highway riding SO MUCH — but when I did it, I realized I was capable of a lot more than I had been giving myself credit for.
If I had let my fear dictate my behavior, there’s a good chance I would have been driving a car to BRO — especially after I found out I had to ride that Fat Boy. But instead, I paid attention to myself and only did what I felt ready for, which turned out to be a lot more than I anticipated.
I still have a long way to go before I consider myself a truly “experienced” rider, but now I’m much more comfortable testing my limits, and I think I’m well on my way to building habits that will keep me safe (well, as safe as possible) for a lifetime of riding. When I get my bike back, I’m planning to spend an hour or so every week trying new skills and honing my current skills, but I’m always going to remember when I’m on my bike to do only what I need at that moment. Sometimes I’ll need to be challenged, sometimes I’ll just need to take it easy, but wherever I am, I’m just going to be happy that I’m able to ride.
As always, thank you so much for reading! I can’t tell you how awesome it is to know you’re on the other side of the screen <3 If you have any stories about challenges or facing your fears riding, or suggestions/resources for riding practice, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
[Photos by Crystal Batiste, who has been generous enough to let me ride TWO of her bikes 😉 ]