For someone that writes a lot about motorcycles and motorcycle gear, it might come as a surprise to you that I actually have not been riding all that long. What started out as a goal to achieve before life gave me a swift kick in the butt in 2018 was finally realized three years later in 2021, and since I have started riding, I’ve already put 10,000+ kilometers on my 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650. I’ve experienced a lot in two seasons of riding so far. I’ve had those moments of perfect riding when everything comes together and you carve that corner just as you wanted to. I’ve also had moments of embarrassment, such as stalling when pulling away from a stop. It’s part of always learning!
I know that the title of this article may come off as a bit arrogant, but it is not meant that way. Of all the staff members working for BestBeginnerMotorcycles, I am by far the most junior in terms of real-world riding experience, and despite those 10,000+ kilometers, I still consider myself a beginner. I myself have asked some of the same questions that get asked of us, and I feel that in a very, very remote way, I represent the beginner rider community within the staff of BBM.
As such, I now bare my soul to you, our readers, and let you get to know the writer and rider that is Simon Bertram.
Why Did I Start Riding at 39 Years Old?
The flat out answer is that that was not what was supposed to happen.
To go into a bit more depth, I’ve been interested in motorcycles for quite a while, since about 2010 when I was in my late 20s. Throughout my entire life, I’ve loved riding my mountain bike, often going for half-day rides around the city to enjoy the weather, the summer breezes, and to just have fun. It seemed only natural to me that moving up to motorcycles was a step I wanted to take.
The downside to setting that goal here in Calgary is that for 5 to 6 months of the year, from the end of October to the middle of March, you can’t get out on the bike. Canada likes to have cold, long winters, and honestly, having a car was much more convenient for the distances I needed to travel for work.
Before I knew it, I was already in my mid-30s and I still hadn’t even taken a training course, let alone looked at getting a bike or the gear I needed to protect myself. I had just bought the car that I had wanted for years, a Ford Fiesta ST, and was happily working until April of 2018. I had been saving bits and pieces of my paycheque in a savings account, growing a small nest egg of money to allow me to take a training course, buy a used bike, afford the insurance, and finally swing my leg over.
Until I was laid off.
That nest egg became my money for rent, food, and bills, and as I watched the account dwindle with each passing month, I kept promising myself I would never give up on my goal. I just had to move the goalposts to a realistic distance and climb the hill to get there. In a strange, comedic bit of irony, it was actually writing about motorcycles for our sister sites such as webBikeWorld and MotorBikeWriter that allowed me to build out the nest egg again, and I signed up for a training course in June of 2020. I was finally going to pass the goalpost and get riding!
Until a virus decided that April and May of 2020 would be a lovely time to cause the entire world to go into lockdown. My course was canceled, I got my money back, and at this point, I wondered if I had accidentally pissed off some supernatural entity in a previous life!
Thankfully, 2021 proved to be a year that fate decided to be nice to me, and at the start of the riding season here in Calgary, I was trained, insured, and had a solid bike that suited me in the garage!
My Greatest Failure: A Wake Up Call that I Hope You Never Experience
Of course, there were adjustments that needed to be made in my outlook on life. I was suddenly thrust into the reality that I was legally allowed to ride my bike anywhere and everywhere, and I needed to learn how to ride it responsibly so I would be around the next day to keep learning. But the sense of freedom that it gave me that first week was intense, so I went for a ride out to the mountains West of Calgary to celebrate.
It was during that celebratory ride that I nearly lost everything. I was feeling proud, riding a wave of good vibes, feeling the road and the bike under me, and while cruising down the arrow-straight secondary highway that leads to the Highwood Pass—a very popular motorcycle day ride destination—I let my mind wander. I was enjoying life, singing one of my favorite songs inside of my helmet louder than I sang it in the shower, imagining all the riding I would be doing over the summer… until I realized that there was a truck coming towards me in my lane, and it was only about 200 meters away!
In what can only be described as the single biggest “oh shit” moment of my life, I snapped back to focus quickly but gradually applied both brakes while also maneuvering out to the extreme edge of the road, my front wheel mere millimeters from gravel and grass.
The oncoming pickup truck driver looked up from his phone as I laid on the horn, and jerked the wheel back over to the correct lane. Without a word of a lie, his left rear view wing mirror missed my head by about a foot.
I lost focus for about 5 seconds, and in those 5 seconds, I nearly lost my life.
That remains, at the moment, my greatest failure in my short riding career. I let myself drop my focus, I stopped actively looking down the road and scanning the horizon with my eyes, and I was traveling at 100 KPH while doing so. I pride myself on how I drive my car, always scanning, always focusing on the actual task of driving, feeling the car through the wheel and my back and posterior, listening to what it’s telling me.
But I lost focus on my bike and it nearly killed me.
Nowadays, whenever I gear up to ride, I always follow the same routine: helmet on, strap done up, left glove first, right glove second, and then I tap the left side of my helmet twice before swinging a leg over. This is to remind me of that day, the one time I lost focus so completely and utterly that I didn’t even register a pickup truck, in the hands of a distracted driver, roaring down the road towards me.
I vowed to never ride again on a day when I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep maximum focus. That little ritual lets me know that my brain is in riding mode and nothing else but focus and the ride matters.
The Hard Lessons: Experiences I Can Pass On to You
I’m actually quite happy that my first incident on a motorcycle was the one that nearly killed me. It was a serious blow to my pride and, I will admit honestly, my ego. But because I had that wind immediately blown out of my sails, I doubled down on focusing and awareness, and doing so helped me out in more ways that I could have thought at the time.
Always Have an Escape Route
The first lesson that I want to pass on to you, my fellow beginners, is to always have an escape route. I was riding home one day after a long ride to test some gear, and I was in the middle lane of a three-lane road headed down towards one of the main intersections in the entire North of Calgary: 16th Ave NE and Deerfoot Trail. As I was riding down my lane, in what the MSF likes to call lane position 1, green lights all ahead of me, a Jeep realized he was in the left turn lane to go down to Deerfoot, the closest thing we have in Calgary to a dedicated expressway.
Without signaling or looking, he simply pulled into my lane, when I was about 20 meters behind him. What kept me alive and uninjured that day was that I had been paying attention to the outside lane, making sure every few seconds that there was not a car beside me. Because I had planned the entire time and prepared an escape route, I was able to make an emergency lane change, laying on the horn as I did so, and I will admit, I gave a very emphatic and vehement exclamation of how humans reproduce.
The key takeaway here is to always ensure that you have at least one, if not more, escape route as you ride. Don’t let it distract you from the act of riding, but by making sure there are no cars beside you or in your blind spots, and making sure you ride in view of those driving the cars and not hiding in their blind spots, you can guarantee at least one escape route via an emergency lane change.
Ride Like You’re Invisible
Another experience I want to pass along to you happened just a couple of weeks ago. While making sure you have an escape route at all times is crucial, you also have to ride like you’re invisible at all times. This is exponentially more important in a city like Calgary where half of the vehicles on the road are CUVs, SUVs, and trucks, and a little sport touring bike with a 6-foot-tall rider may not even be high enough to be seen in the mirrors of those vehicles.
I was riding home after lunch with a friend, and doing my normal pattern of 360-degree awareness, making sure I had my escape routes, and making sure that I was not sitting in a blind spot. That last bit is the key experience here.
Riding with the knowledge that a lot of multiple-vehicle motorcycle accidents will have the driver of the car or truck say “I honestly didn’t see him/her,” as well as through my initial training course, I never, ever sit in a blind spot. I will either back off the throttle if it is safe to do so, or I will roll on a little more throttle and move through the blind spot.
I was riding at the speed limit, 80 KPH (just about 50 MPH) Southbound on Crowchild Trail, a three-lane-per-direction major artery road for the NorthWest of Calgary, when I was approaching the blind spot of a larger truck. As there was a car about 20 meters behind me, and a car in the right-hand on/off ramp lane about another 20 meters behind him, I decided the best course of action would be to power through the blind spot.
In about half a second, as I was riding by the rear three-quarter panel of the truck, I noticed in my peripheral and main vision that the side of the truck had suddenly become a lot closer. Instantly, I initiated an emergency lane change to the right, then glanced back over my shoulder at the truck that was now occupying the lane where I had been.
While I could never have predicted the exact moment that the truck driver was going to do a no-look, no-signal lane change, this is the precise reason I both a) always have an escape route and b) never sit in a blind spot. Many drivers will do a quick mirror check before changing lanes, although everyone should also shoulder check. But not everyone does. A motorcycle fits into that little wedge of no visibility much easier than a car does, so it is imperative that you don’t stay in that little wedge.
360 check, is it safe to roll off a little? No cars behind me, okay, rolling off. Build up enough separation to both be visible in the side mirror of the vehicle as well as have an emergency escape to the left or right.
360 check, car behind me at a good following distance, escape routes to the left and right? Okay, roll on throttle and power through the blind spot before gently rolling off to come back down to the speed limit.
I don’t consider the fact that I was not hit or run over to be lucky; I consider it the result of forming positive habits. Two taps to the left of the helmet before I ride means my head is now in riding mode, focusing on the ride and the positive habits.
Don’t race, don’t speed, smooth throttle and clutch, escape routes at all times, and don’t sit in blind spots. Some riders call that being “switched on,” “in the groove,” “at one with the bike,” or any of another dozen or so sayings. Whatever suits you, make sure your head is “in the game” every time you ride.
There is one more experience that I would like to pass along, something that veteran riders will often say is a rite of passage, but don’t listen to them. Basically, when putting your left foot down as you’re coming to a stop, make sure you don’t step on a large piece of gravel so your foot rolls off it, and you suddenly find yourself on your left side with your bike laying on your leg and bursting out in embarrassed laughter as you flip the kill switch.
Yes, fellow beginners… I dropped my bike. Once. So far.
Did I just tempt those supernatural forces to curse me again? Oh boy…