Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Bike School
Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes
throughout Missouri teach riding skills
and a mindset of safety

by Bob McEowen
(photos courtesy of Bootheel Motorcycle Training)

Participants in a Basic Rider Course at Bootheel Motorcycle Training practice weaving in and out of cones set on a closed section of Malden Airport runway that serves as the school's training ground.

The temperature nears 100 degrees as the sun beats down on a closed runway at the Malden Airport. Despite the oppressive heat, a group of eight men and women stand waiting, each clad in long-sleeved shirts, boots and gloves.

It’s the beginning of the riding portion of a two-day motorcycle safety class conducted by Bootheel Motorcycle Training, a twice-a-month school operated by Lynn Sullenger and Rick Earnheart. In addition to riding motorcycles, students will sit through five hours of classroom instruction and training videos. One of the first lessons they learn is the need for appropriate riding wear — which includes long sleeves, regardless of the weather.

The curriculum for the Basic Rider Course was developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, or MSF, an international organization based in California. The same course is taught around the nation and is widely accepted by the motorcycle industry and state license bureaus as the standard for motorcycle instruction.

Instructor Rick Earnheart provides individual instruction to a student during a Basic Rider Course conducted by Bootheel Motorcycle Training. The private school, held at the Malden Airport, is one of 18 sites in Missouri where motorcyclists can take safety courses developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

“An entry-level rider who’s never sat on a motorcycle can do it,” says Lynn, who works at Associated Electric Cooperative’s New Madrid Power Plant. “If you can ride a bicycle, and have average coordination, you should be able to do the course.”

At least a couple of the students hope Lynn is right. Two have never ridden a motorcycle. Several more can count their total day’s experience on their fingers and toes. The rest have spent decades off the bike. By the end of the next day, all will have learned the fundamentals of riding a motorcycle safely through a series of carefully scripted exercises.

The Basic Riders Course is one of two rider classes offered through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. A one-day Experienced Riders Course is also available, though much less popular. On the statewide level, the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program, headquartered at the Missouri Safety Center in Warrensburg, administers the program.

The statewide program promotes the courses, trains instructors and provides motorcycles for use during the class. Currently, the MSF class is taught at about 18 locations around the state. “The goal is that nobody has to drive more than 50 miles to get training,” says Neil Meyers, state coordinator for the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program.

Intended for begining and returning riders, the Basic Rider Course begins with fundamentals. Students start the riding portion operating the motorcycle’s controls and getting a feel for its weight.

The classes are offered at community colleges, motorcycle dealerships, private schools and local chapters of the Freedom of the Road Riders organization. Each school sets its own price but MSF caps fees at $210 per person. The price for the 15-hour course includes instruction materials, a loaner helmet and the use of a motorcycle.

Upon completion of the course, riders receive a certification card that exempts them from taking an additional riding exam before receiving a license. With the MSF card, a Missouri rider needs only to take a written test to obtain a motorcycle endorsement. In addition, many insurance companies offer discounts to course graduates. The card is required to operate a motorcycle on a military base.

While the tangible benefits are attractive, most riders come simply to learn.

“I had never ridden a bike until two weeks ago,” says Jay Wallis of Dexter, who signed up for a Bootheel Motorcycle Training course after purchasing an 1100cc Honda Shadow motorcycle.

“When I was shopping for a bike, the two dealers I went to, they both said, ‘You need to take a riding course.’ Even people I know who ride a bike said the same thing,” Jay says. “I’ve been excited about this ever since we signed up. I wanted to learn.”

Instructor Lynn Sullenger explains a riding exercise to a student enrolled in a MSF class.

While the class teaches the basics of motorcycle handling and operation, the emphasis is on safety and avoiding crashes.

“We teach overall control of the motorcycle,” says Rick, a motorcyclist with decades of experience. “If you know how to make a bike swerve to miss objects and can stop it quickly, stuff like that can save your life.”

The riding portion of the class begins with absolute fundamentals. Each student is assigned a motorcycle — usually a small 250cc street bike — and begins to get comfortable with the machine. They lift the kickstand and sway the bike from side to side, getting a feel for its weight. They operate the horn and turn signals and learn to stop and start the motor.

“We start off familiarizing people with the controls of the motorcycle and then, with the bike in gear and engine running, we show them how to use the clutch,” Rick says. “We build from there.”

The process begins with riders shuffling their feet on the ground as the bike motors forward barely faster than an idle. Soon they’re are riding with their feet on the pegs and shifting gears as they go.

The author, Bob McEowen, took the MSF course at Bootheel Motorcycle Training in preparation for this story.

Before the course is over students will practice emergency stops, perform rapid lane changes, weave in and out of cones and ride over obstacles in the road.

“We teach the basic physical skills necessary to ride a motorcycle but we also provide them with a mental strategy on staying safe,” Meyers says. “We teach folks how to look ahead and what to look for.”

About 5,000 Missourians took the Basic Rider Course last year. Although literature promoting the courses is available at almost any motorcycle dealer, many riders don’t know about it or believe they don’t need training. Others though, embrace the program as an essential part of the motorcycle experience — as necessary as a helmet and proper riding clothes.

“I thought it was great,” Wallis says. “The main thing that I’m more confident with now is taking curves. Now I’ve got all the confidence in the world.”

Danny Tumbleson of Minor’s Harley-Davidson in Cape Girardeau says that with the increasing popularity of motorcycling and the trend toward ever-larger bikes, his customers increasingly are asking for training. “It’s definitely something that the customers have wanted for years,” he says.

Tumbleson’s dealership supplies Suzuki motorcycles to Lynn and Rick’s school, as well as another class in Cape Girardeau. He sends his own employees to the course and says he eagerly suggests training to his customers.

“There’s so many people that are getting into biking,” Tumbleson says. “The more training we can give people, the better off they’re going to be and the more we can cut down on accidents.”

To find a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course near you, call 1-800-801-3588 or log onto www.mmsp.org. For information about Bootheel Motorcycle Training, phone (573) 748-5756 or visit their Web site at www.geocities.com/b_m_training/bmt/index.html.

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