“Two-wheel and Three-wheeled motorcycle”

[Originally published March 12, 2011]

On a typical summer morning, my kids will ask to be driven to the bus stop on the motorcycle. It’s a half mile from the house, and jealousy often dictates that I give one a ride to the bus stop, and then return with the helmet and pick up the next for their ride. It takes extra time, but is a worthwhile reason to be late to morning meetings at work. I’ve been noodling on the idea of getting a sidecar rig so that I can haul both of them, like an Ural. It would also be fun to take the dog in it.

This year I started thinking even more seriously about it, since my Dad is having double knee replacement surgery. I figured he might need to either ride in a sidecar or perhaps switch from two to three wheels for a while — like one of those Harley trikes. When I went into the dealership to look at them, I learned that I couldn’t even take one out on a test ride because they require a completely different driver’s license endorsement than a two-wheeled motorcycle. I don’t think that I’d ever own a trike, but the fact that I couldn’t even ride one if I wanted to was… unacceptable. Plus, I just might want a sidecar one day, and they are classified the same, as “three wheeled motorcycles,” from a licensing perspective. So I decided I’d get endorsed, just so that I can ride any damned vehicle that I please.

The goal was to go from category 3 endorsement (any two-wheeled vehicle) to a category 7 endorsement (any two- or three-wheeled vehicle). Category 5 is for only three-wheeled riders.

There are two ways to get endorsed. The first is much like any driver does to get their license: go to the Department of Licensing (DOL) and take a written/computerized exam to get a learner’s permit, practice on a three-wheeled vehicle, and then return for a riding skills test. The second way is to take and pass a state-approved course, bring your certification to the DOL, and they’ll issue the endorsement. The most common courses are sponsored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, or MSF. I have taken both a beginning riders’ and the advanced riders’ MSF courses for motorcycles, and I cannot recommend them highly enough to any rider regardless of skill level or experience. The instructors are knowledgeable, they care about your safety, and you will learn very practical skills. The beginners’ course is for people who have never touched a motorcycle; the advanced is for truly advanced skills. Many insurance companies will discount a rider’s rates upon successful completion of an MSF course.

So for my 3-wheeled endorsement, it was an easy decision to take the introductory three-wheeled course put on by the Evergreen Safety Council. Like most of MSF courses, it ran a full weekend on Friday from 6–9p, Saturday 7:45a-5p, and Sunday 7:45a-4p. The class is a mix of classroom education and written exam, and on-range drills and a final skills test. They provide both sidecars and trikes for students, but some people brought their own. I used this as an opportunity to try both sidecars and trikes just for fun, and it’s always fun to experiment on someone else’s rides!

Friday was pretty straightforward, with 3 hours of textbook work in a classroom, old-style transparencies projected, and some Q&A time. Saturday morning was when the fun began with the on-range riding. The only drawback was that the entire weekend was raining and cold. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, either. Every minute that we were out riding, it ranged from drizzling to pouring rain while the temperatures hovered in the low 40s. Here are the rigs that we got introduced to on Saturday morning:

I spent most of my time on the white Honda with the orange sidecar. It was an air-cooled 200 twin very similar to the bike I rode in high school and college. They’re wonderful little motorcycles that are very easy and fun to ride. With the cold rain, Saturday was a long morning. We were out continuously from 8a-1p with just a couple of breaks. The range skills work was pretty straight forward. In fact, the morning was downright boring for a few of us experienced riders while the new riders got introduced to the basics (throttle, brake, etc.). It quickly became clear that a sidecar handles completely differently than a motorcycle. On a motorcycle, you countersteer to enter a turn a speed. Countersteering means that you actually flick the front wheel away from the turn, to cause the bike to fall, or lean, into the turn. Countersteering becomes unconscious over time. Until you get on a 3-wheeled vehicle, which doesn’t allow for counter steering!

With a sidecar, you have to turn the front wheel into the turn, just like you would a car. It feels like someone turned a motorcycle into a slow, sluggish, heavy tank. I hated it. We did basic accelerating, shifting, and turning exercises. It was infuriating to have to lean into turns, and weight-shift, without the vehicle responding. On a bike, when you pitch into a turn, the vehicle and rider lean together. You can lean until the bike won’t lean anymore, and still need to shift your weight in order to keep the tires on the asphalt. Eventually, one’s knee will even drag:

Photo “2 Inches From Crazy” by Edward Lacayo on Flickr. Used with Edward’s permission.

Not so with a sidecar! You do lean, and you do shift your weight, but the vehicle stays straight up and down. By the time 1pm rolled around and it was time to return to the classroom, I was quite certain that I would never own nor ride a three-wheeled vehicle. All of the artistry that is motorcycling… the pitching through curves… the unity of rider and machine… it was gone on these contraptions.

So back to class we went for a few more hours of coursework and a written exam. It was multiple choice, and easy to pass. Everyone in the class made it this far and went home feeling good and hoping for better weather on Sunday.

When I got home, I was thoroughly soaked. My leather boots had leaked early in the day, which was my fault for wearing heavy work boots rather than technical riding boots. My gloves, which are weatherproof, were soaked through. This was all because we were standing around for 90% of the time. At speed on the highway, most of the rain whips by or is deflected by a watertight surface. Just standing there lets more water drip into seams, down my back, into the wrists of my gloves. One upside is that I found a good use for the glass bread-warming shelf that folds out of the fireplace hearth in our kitchen. I turned on the fireplace to dry out the jacket and found that the gloves were just fine on the bread-warmer. In fact, they got so hot that I couldn’t put them on. The were dry and warm and ready for day three.

Sunday brought more rain, and quite a bit more excitement. With the classwork done and out of the way, it was all riding skills. Sunday’s range drills were not introductory in any way. When the instructor described what we’d be expected to do, I got genuinely concerned that it’d be beyond my skill level. A few people left on their own accord after the first drill. A couple more were asked to leave or sit out later in the morning. There were a few highlights for me:

  • Drifting: this is the act of entering a tight turn and slightly braking the front wheel while applying increased power to the rear wheel. This forces the back end to break loose and swing around the outside of the turn, allowing you to radically reduce your cornering radius at the expense of your tire tread. This video has some amazing drifting footage; watch the slow-motion segments to get a great feel for what drifting is. Yes, we drifted sidecar rigs. This skill was not technically required to pass the course, but it would have been much harder to make the timed skills tests without it. Not everyone could drift. But not everyone passed the class, either. It was quite fun. In other news, my car now needs new rear tires.
  • Uncontrolled braking: Put simply, this is locking up the wheels on the bike and skidding to a stop. We also had a controlled quick stop test, but this skill required the rider to freeze all braked wheels. This may sound simple, and for new riders it’s easy. For experienced riders, it’s a lot harder because years of experience have created instincts to avoid locking up wheels if you can (or locking up the rear wheel only, to drag the bike to a stop). On two wheels, a hard skid brings tremendous risk of laying the bike down. Veteran riders have some control over skids, but in everyday circumstances you don’t want to lock up wheels on a bike. ABS has become popular on newer motorcycles, and some of my bikes are ABS-equipped. So I had to really get over my instinct and force myself to lock ’em up. On 3 wheels, it’s much safer because you aren’t going to tip over in the skid. Old habits die hard; it took me a few passes before I forced myself to lock the wheels. The ancient drum brakes on these training bikes didn’t help.
  • “Flying the chair”: This is the act of cornering too tight, forcing oneself to forget the skill just learned about weight-shifting into the turn, and allowing the sidecar to fly up into the air. You then have to balance on the bike’s own two wheels while leaned over and ride with with sidecar sticking up into the air. I still think this should qualify as an advanced class skill. It was very hard, and only two of us in the class were able to do it. It’s hard because you have to instantly switch from steering (on 3 wheels) to countersteering (on 2 wheels) while allowing a bike to lean over 45% despite your panic instinct to keep the bike upright. It is so hard to fight that instinct and actually allow a bike to tip over — balanced by the weight of the sidecar — that most upper body muscles hurt afterward.

After these more advanced skill courses, I was having more fun with the class. This stuff was actually challenging and showed that some of these rigs could be more fun to ride, at least on a closed course. We stuck with it into the afternoon until it was time for the riding skills test. The skills test was a combination of timed course navigation, and demonstrating specific skills. One harder part was a 4-cone course that flowed into a 90 degree turn that had to be navigated in under 14 seconds. This is where drifting was essential: the 4-cone course allowed (and I’d argue required) drifting around the cones with the rear wheel passing no further than 4 feet from the cone. But the 90 degree turn had to be controlled, with no slippage and no veering out of painted lines. It’s hard to go from drifting cones to a perfectly stuck turn. I landed it, but even with drifting all 4 initial cones my time was 13.5 seconds. That’s close. People could still pass the test if they went over time, but too many mistakes will cause them to fail.

After a half hour break to tally test results and do paperwork, we gathered up and heard the bad news: not everyone had passed the skills test. The instructors offered to share results privately with anyone who wanted them, and discuss options for those who needed to take the course again. Fortunately, after standing in the rain for two straight days, disrupted occasionally by three-wheeled stunt riding, I had passed the final skills test and got the certificate of completion…

MSF Sidecar/Trike course completion card

This card can be taken to the DOL and it gets an automatic sidecar endorsement. Coupled with my existing class three motorcycle endorsement, I’m now legally qualified to ride any type of motorcycle. A week later, the new license arrived in the mail with that nice new class “7-Two-wheel and Three-wheeled motorcycle” endorsement.

Done! Endorsed for any kind of motorcycle.
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