Taming the beast: How I learned to ride my powerful Wing

It is said that it takes a big man to own up to his dark past, so this is my shot at greatness. Though it pains me to admit this, I confess … it took a long time to get used to riding a Gold Wing. Yes, it’s true! Some – maybe even a majority – of Gold Wing pilots want others to believe they climbed into the soft comfort of their heated saddles as if they were born to it. But if they were completely honest, they would admit that there was a certain amount of “adjustment” they had to make before they were entirely comfortable with handling their half-ton steel steed. I make no such pretenses. I absolutely had to conquer a host of biking demons before I truly felt at home on my big bike.

My first experience with a Gold Wing was a complete surprise. My older brother, Jim Bob, showed up at my house one evening and unexpectedly tossed me a set of keys. They were to a beautiful Silver and Black Gold Wing he had just brought home from the dealership. “Take it for a ride!” he said, grinning. “Just don’t wreck it!”

That’s when my learning curve started. In all truth, it really began much earlier – about three decades earlier – when my brother and I rode our bikes together in North Central Texas. He had a brand-new Honda CX500 and I had a CB750, and we had a blast learning about motorcycles and riding. That came to a screeching halt, though. Wives and children quickly absorbed both our time and money, and riding was put off for a very long time.

As I motored out-of-town on Bob’s big new machine, I noticed some things had changed. For one, even though the day was cool and brisk, heat radiated up from the seat and I noticed that the palms of my hands were toasty warm. Heated seats and handlebars? Awesome! I started reading the buttons on the dash … CB radio, AM/FM, cruise control, and a host of other mysterious controls told me this was a vastly different machine. Reverse? Are you kidding me? I was on the cusp of a whole new world.

Bob’s world expanded more quickly. Soon, he was making epic treks to places such as New Mexico, Colorado and extreme south Texas. He racked up thousands of miles and brought back terrific stories of roads filled with S-turns and out-of-the-way diners and spectacular vistas. I had to admit, I was envious.

Then one day, Tami, my loving wife, asked me a pointed question completely out of the blue. “Well, are you going to get a bike or not?” I thought a moment. Though my heart skipped a beat and I had to work at controlling my breathing, I answered in the most nonchalant tone I could muster, “It’s on the bucket list.”

“Well, that bucket’s getting pretty full, and you’re sorta running out of time.” That was my beautiful wife’s charming way of implying I was no longer a spring chicken, but I shrugged off the insinuation. However, that’s how only a couple of weeks later, I found myself at a Honda dealership about 75 miles from my home staring at a big Blue gleaming Gold Wing, which had just become my very own. I caressed its polished finish, threw a leg over the seat and settled in. I can still remember the thought that hit me at that very moment.

“Oh, crap! I’ve gotta ride this thing home!” The next thought was equally panic inducing considering I was going to have to ride through rush hour traffic in a major city and Tami would be following in our SUV. “Please, God, don’t let me die in front of my wife.” That would be extremely embarrassing.

The trip home might have been uncomfortable – at least psychologically – but it was uneventful. Indeed, I began to sense something stir in me, perhaps a pride in ownership of what is arguably the best touring bike on the planet. It’s that pride, I suspect, that most Gold Wing owners recognize and savor, but it can also lead us to be unexpectedly humbled.

One of my first rides around my little hometown bolstered that pride. Friends and neighbors recognized me and waved as I happily cruised the streets. The learning curve intervened abruptly, though, when I paused my maiden voyage at the local Dairy Queen. I confidently slipped into a clear spot in front of the local eatery, wondering who might be staring out the big plate glass windows and observing me as I hung my helmet on the handlebars – Joe Cool on two wheels. It was then I learned one of the most basic rules of motorcycling: Thou shalt put your kickstand down before dismounting. Yes, I started to climb off the bike, it started to list, and I learned just how heavy a Gold Wing could be. Slowly, and despite my most heroic hernia inducing best efforts, the bike leaned over onto its roll bars. Suddenly, I was terrified of who might be looking out those windows.

Mean ol’ Mr. Gravity – lesson two came immediately on the heels of the first. I learned just how quickly adrenaline kicks in and how fast one can pick up a 960-pound bike when he doesn’t want to be embarrassed in public. It appears that the old adage is correct … pride does, indeed, cometh before the fall. A bonus lesson: Don’t worry about what you look like on your bike. Pay attention and tend to business. Dang, this learning curve is steep!

My brother was ecstatic when I showed up at his house on my motorcycle. Only a couple of days later, he invited me to accompany him on a relatively short ride on some local roads he said were full of fun “twisties”… whatever the heck those were. It didn’t take long to nd out. We motored for a while on a wide interstate highway and then Bob turned off on a smaller farm-to-market byway. Soon, the term “twisty” made perfect sense and I found myself leaning harder into curves than I ever remembered. Bob is, if anything else, a rather aggressive rider. Nothing seemed especially difficult or hazardous, so the next lesson in the learning curve was a complete surprise. There I was, just following Bob as he carved a tight right-handed turn, when suddenly the curve seemed to get a lot tighter. I mean, one moment I was right where I thought I should be and the next I was over the yellow line and centered in the oncoming lane! Worse, the right-handed turn immediately morphed into a left-handed turn and I was way, way out of position. That’s the moment I discovered “power braking,” and a phrase I remembered reading someplace, something about “riding within your envelope,” branded itself into my brain. Thankfully, there had been no oncoming traffic. But I was well aware that if there had been, someone would have been sporting a huge new hood ornament, and a humiliated one at that.

I started to try to learn my new machine in earnest. I desperately desired to get the hang of my bike and determined the best way might be to practice regimens of agility and handling exercises on vacant lots. Before fellow GWRRA Members blast me, understand I was a newbie to riding a Wing. I had no idea there was an organization dedicated specifically to riding these machines, with courses and classes to help people such as me adjust and sharpen my skills. I thought I was on my own. I chose a parking lot almost always empty after hours, but that had ample lights, set up lines of cones, and started putting my bike … and myself … through the paces.

One of my drills was to weave through a line of cones, then make a tight 180 turn in a fairly confined parking area in order to go back through the cones. I was fairly satisfied with my ability to get through the cones efficiently, but the learning curve has a way of catching up with you. On one pass, as I swung into the about face, I found myself a little wide, and my eyes riveted on the standard curb that ringed the parking zone. That’s when my brain opened a dialog with the rest of my body that went something like this:

Brain: “That’s a curb up ahead.” Eyes: “I see it.”

Brain: “Well, if you see it, do something about it!”

Eyes: “Not my job. Tell it to the arms. They have the handlebars.”

Arms: “Umm ….”

Brain: “Arms? You there?”

Eyes: “Hey, guys? There’s a light pole on the other side of that curb.”

Brain: “ARMS! Move it!”

Arms: “Ahhhhhhhh!”

Eyes: “Oh, man … I can’t look!”

Brain: “But that IS your jo- … AIYEEEEE!”

And that’s how I discovered the phenomenon known as “hazard fixation,” in which a rider so rivets his attention upon a perceived danger that he can do nothing but steer directly toward it like a homing missile. Yes, it’s real … and it’s really humiliating to succumb to it.

Fortunately, my front wheel was nearly perpendicular to the curb so that my bike jumped it cleanly. I did have the presence of mind to hit the turf on the other side braking heavily (at least I had retained that lesson from before). So I just barely impacted the light pole, but the bike still went over on its side, though undamaged.

After I had paced for a few minutes to calm down, I collected my cones, my helmet and gloves (so I had thrown a few things … call it a temper tantrum) and remounted my bike. I drove straight to Bob’s house where I poured out my troubles and confided in him that I was seriously afraid that I had bought more bike than I could handle. “It’s like this bike has its own laws of physics,” I lamented, and that’s a pretty big admission since I teach physics. Bob listened patiently and compassionately, and then he admitted something startling.

“I felt the same way at first,” he said. “These bikes are a lot bigger and more powerful than what we rode years ago. It’s going to take some time to get used to that. Don’t worry. Take it slow. Don’t push the envelope too hard, and be patient. It’ll come.”

This led me to perhaps the greatest revelation of all: Find a mentor. Better yet, find more than one. Ride with them. Watch closely. Ask questions and truly listen to their answers. Above all, don’t be afraid to explain the difficulties you might be experiencing and be open to suggestions. Nothing drove this point home more than when my brother gave me advice on how to overcome the hazard fixation syndrome. “Point your nose where you want the bike to go,” he said. “If you don’t aim your face directly at the path you want to take, that bike will not turn!”

It sounded too simple. However, on my next foray to the parking lot, I did exactly as Bob suggested. As I began to negotiate a tight turn, I made a special effort to lock my eyes forward and turn my head to x my vision on the tightest path I could take. To my astonishment, the bike rolled itself into the turn readily. My turn radius shrank by nearly 50 percent! It was as if sunshine had burst through the haze of a perpetually cloudy day. The light continued to grow brighter the more I rode with my more experienced friends.

The true test came when Bob and I made a five-day trip through Arkansas. We sought out every convoluted line on the map, every roadway that was considered iconic and was spoken of in hushed, reverent tones when riders gathered to compare stories. Were there still moments when I backed off, slowed down and withdrew back into the safe confines of my envelope? Sure, but there were also times when I twisted the throttle, leaned until the pegs scraped, and stretched that envelope farther than it had ever been expanded before.

The final lesson is that the learning curve might level out somewhat, but it should never go completely at. In reality, there is no final lesson. No matter how experienced one might become, there is always more to know, more to experience. The curve should continue upwards for all of us, and we shouldn’t hesitate to share what we learn with others. If you benefited from being mentored, pay it forward by mentoring another new rider. After all, we’re told confession is good for us, and it might just be a Gold Wing rider’s true path to greatness.

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