Home Life Timid Rider Part 1

Timid Rider Part 1

Dirk Ellingson

Submitted by Columnist Dirk Ellingson

My motorcycle is a 2000 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200. My brother Eric gave it to me in 2016. A fellow with a lifelong interest in guns, cars, and motorcycles, Eric bought a friend’s Cobra convertible and was no longer riding the bike. I figured having extensive experience riding a dirt bike on my parents farm in Harrisburg, Missouri in the mid 1980’s (probably 2 or 3 rides) how difficult can it be?

It is much more difficult. Looking at an old photograph of me on the dirt bike then, I looked so large (I was actually smaller) whereas I appear relatively smaller on the street bike now (I’m actually larger). Yet it’s not the biggest of bikes. I admire the showroom floor motorcycles at the Harley stores in Bossier and Monroe and realize in comparison, my ride is not colossal.

Harley-Davidson started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903. William Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson were working on attaching a small motor to a pedal bicycle.  Their work bloomed into a motorbike empire. If you want to buy American, you ride a Harley or an Indian. Harley-Davidsons are air-cooled and not water-cooled. No radiators unlike cars and most Japanese bikes. Less components to fail but the bike runs and rides hotter. 

I liken owning a motorcycle to being a pharmacy technician. It seemed a good idea at the time but it is actually fraught with peril and heartache. Yet once you have so much invested in it, you can’t discontinue your path. I worked hard to get where I’m at so I want to keep going.  

Before Minden’s motorcycle shop closed in 2016, the proprietor told me one could enroll in a class offered by the Louisiana State Patrol and learn to pilot a motorcycle. The only prerequisites were an enrollment fee, a helmet, and the ability to balance on a bicycle with pedals.

The classes were held an early September weekend at Airline High School in Bossier City. When I moved to Independence, Missouri after college graduation in 1984, my congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives was Alan Wheat, a graduate of Airline High. Of course, I’d never heard of Airline High or Bossier City at the time.

We rode around orange cones and through simple drills on a flat Airline High parking lot north of the football field. The Suzuki 250s were cooperative little motorcycles. The teacher ridiculed my steel toe boots on day one and so on day two I wore waffle stompers once used to shovel Missouri snow.  Still cumbersome but they gave you a much better feel for shifting gears than the Herman Munster footwear. I planned to return the steel toes to the store.

If you could ride the rigors of the test course and pass a written test, you were given a certificate you could take to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get your driver’s license modified to sanction operating a motorbike on the streets of Louisiana. The Airline High lot was kind of challenging albeit deceptively easy compared to what piloting a bike on public streets is really like. Airline High had no competing car traffic, no hills, and no traffic lights. Our class didn’t venture onto busy Airline Drive.

The following includes some excerpt from my motorcycle journal over the next three years in quotations with parenthetical date citations.

“We were riding on the range today, the range being the parking lot of Airline High.  We really needed more space to get the bikes up to speed. I made a good choice in my helmet and a poor choice in my boots. Since I’m driving my clutch car to Bossier with less agility in these monstrosities than in my customary high-top tennis shoes, I know I’m likewise impaired on the motorcycle, particularly finding gears.” (September 10, 2016)

“I felt I’d a little more foot coordination today with waffle stomper boots instead of the steel toe boots.  I’ll beseech Academy Sports for a refund on the Karloffs. Literally worn once.” (September 11, 2016)

In October 2016, I borrowed my father-in-law’s truck and rented a U-Haul trailer in Columbia, Missouri to ferry the bike south. Good thing the ride down was wholly in forward gear. I discovered upon arriving home in Minden with the motorcycle that I can’t back up a trailer.

“The ride down was a harrowing haul of trailer and bike through Ozark and Arkansas mountains. Pretty country I suppose but not when you’re driving 11 hours, much of it on serpentine roads. The bike shifted twice, once pretty soon after my 5 a.m. departure and once around a curvy Arkansas road. Each time I propped it back up after a stop.  The straps kept it secure. The ramp trailer was made to order for such a job.” (October 27, 2016)

It took some weeks of intrigue to clear title from my brother in another state. But then I was off and running. And tipping over.

“The only mishap today for which I’ve no explanation was returning to my driveway with the bike stopped, it collapsed and tumbled to the left. The kickstand side before I had the kickstand down. The Harley Sportster is heavier than me so I went down with it.  I wasn’t hurt and was somehow able to hoist the bike back up on its stand, but the cover of my left rear signal was shattered and the tip of my clutch handle snapped off.  This is why the instructors removed the turn signals from the class Suzukis.” (December 10, 2016)

Off to Bossier Harley for replacement parts.

“The tail light cover isn’t a precise match. My wife Lisa likes it better than the original but next time I’m at Bossier Harley, I’ll try and secure a better twin. This was the first time she’s ever seen me ride and she likened it to if my cautious mother was to ever pilot a motorcycle.” (December 22, 2016)

Embarrassing but a valuable learning experience. My confidence wasn’t terribly rattled until a more dire mishap the following winter month. Tune in next week, same Bat time, same Bat channel.