Blazing Saddles

“It used to be tennis or golf, but that’s become so common. Everybody does that,” says Rich Freeman, director of the retail group at Salomon Smith Barney. Freeman, who owns five motorcycles, confirms that more and more Wall Streeters are dropping their bonus checks on Harleys and Ducati sport bikes. “These days, if you come across a banker who rides a motorcycle,” says Freeman, “that warrants a conversation.”

For some, a motorcycle represents freedom from the gilded-office grind. It can renew flagging machismo. Or it can serve as a mobile dating service – women readily jump on for a ride. Then they spend the better part of the relationship begging you to get rid of it.

My shiny red-and-black Kawasaki GPZ 550 was the 400-pound symptom of a romance gone south. The ultimatum was delivered on a hot spring afternoon: My next big purchase would be her engagement ring – or else. The choice seemed clear. I bought a motorcycle and said good-bye to the girl.

Learning to ride a motorcycle is scarier than learning to drive a car, primarily because you can’t fall off a car. In 1981, Professor Harry Hurt of the University of Southern California’s Traffic Safety Center issued the “Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures” report, now popularly known as “The Hurt Study.” According to Hurt, more than half the accidents studied involved riders who had had less than five months’ experience; 92 percent of the riders were self-taught or had learned from family or friends. A significant number did not have licenses.

My own accident was a statistical marvel: It would have been difficult to cram more mistakes into the 5,760 minutes I spent astride my bike before I found myself skidding through traffic on my back. The little sport bike’s entire front end was staved in, the lights and clocks between the handlebars obliterated by the collision with the curb. Luckily, my injuries were also primarily cosmetic – my legs were stiff and bruised, and the epidermis was neatly sanded off my entire left buttock and shoulder. After soaking in the tub and downing a six-pack with a half bottle of Motrin, I wheeled the Kawasaki into the living room, where it saw action as a coat rack for two years. I had no interest in repairing it, despite the most earnest entreaties of all my male friends to get back in the saddle.

Recommended by the folks at American Dream Machine – a dealer of Harley-Davidsons in SoHo – and Redline Motor Sports in Chelsea, Trama’s Auto School (718-847-2483 or -2105) provides a three-day course for beginners, culminating in a rigorous road test, for $370. The course is now held in the giant parking lot at SUNY’s Farmingdale campus. (Take the LIRR to Farmingdale, and grab a cab at the station for the mile-and-a half ride to campus.) Get a license, along with a 10 percent insurance waiver for having taken a defensive-driving course. Dealers sometimes offer rebates to those who pass.

You don’t need any license whatsoever to buy or register a motorcycle. In the past, riders skipped taking the road test for a license altogether, opting instead to hop from one yearlong learner’s permit to the next. But the profusion of white-collar bikers who stand to lose their shirts if they get sued as the result of an accident has changed all this. And why not live to see another year-end bonus? Why not learn how to really ride a motorcycle, even if it’s only to commute to the Bridgehampton beach house?

Gasper Trama, 54, a compact man with more salt than pepper in his hair and a significant mustache, has been riding so long that he is slightly bowlegged. With 30 years’ teaching experience behind him, he seems more at home atop a bike than on his feet.

Half a dozen students this Sunday morning are sitting at chair-and-desk units, sipping deli coffee. Trama launches into a get-to-know-me shtick. It’s not long before he’s got the whole class clutching disembodied handlebars and creating their own sound effects to simulate riding motorcycles. Trama induces everyone to repeat numerous mnemonic devices. SIPDE means Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute. He also screens dreadful circa-1971 Super-8 footage of a racially correct cross-section of happy motorcyclists enjoying safe riding when they obey the rules of the road.

By and large, we’re a white-collar bunch. There’s a successful New York restaurateur, a downtown hipster studiously vague about his employment, an NYPD forensics expert, and two high-tech entrepreneurs from the Island. Still, the class occasionally feels like the kind of program funded by the Children’s Television Workshop. That suits me fine, as I’m still dreading getting back on a bike. Trama reveals that the “secret” to safe motorcycle riding is looking far ahead of the bike – a seemingly obvious point unless you have ever stared, transfixed, at the odometer, traveling 40 miles an hour as you try to remember how to downshift.

Oddly, I have the most experience in the group. The restaurateur has just bought 35 grand-worth of BMW and has been on it once. The cop plans to retire to Puerto Rico and has his eye on a modest touring bike. One of the high-techies has a brand-new Ninja waiting for him in his driveway. The other two have been stalking showrooms for months.

We spend half an hour getting accustomed to the practice motorcycles. Straddling them with the ignition off, we goose-step across the asphalt, looking like a hapless marching band. It’s a mangy gaggle of small-engine touring bikes – Hondas, Kawasakis, and Suzukis. You’re prohibited from bringing your own.

By the end of the first day, the baby steps fall into place, and we actually get to turn the motorcycles on and practice starting and stopping. Just mounting and dismounting requires a five-part regimen for safety. Our hearts swell with pride when, by 6:30, we realize we’ve ridden three miles in small rectangles.

Day Two: Class convenes on the macadam at 8:30 in the morning. We complete sharp turns and figure eights, and even shift into second gear, riding thirteen miles before lunch (not included in the fee, but there are plenty of options nearby, since this is a college campus). In the afternoon, we repair to a classroom for the next installment of videos and gallows humor from Trama and his instructors: “An open-face helmet is fine,” says one of his assistants, a road-weary Harley rider with reflective sunglasses wrapped flylike around her face, “but before you wear one, make sure you practice removing cigarette butts from your face.” She was referring, of course, to the lit cigarettes many car drivers chuck out their windows: “It’s going to be even harder when you’re traveling 60 miles an hour.”

Ironically, most of the safety information Trama disseminates comes across as a catalogue of reasons to never, ever hop on a motorcycle. “Did you know that a full 75 percent of all accidents involving motorcycles are head-on or near-head-on collisions?” Trama asks, rhetorically. His anecdotes rarely make complete sense, but they’re compelling: “Five thousand cars a year get hit by trains,” says Trama. “If those car drivers can’t see the train, what makes you think they’re gonna see you on a motorcycle?”

The third day, over morning coffee and doughnuts, we take a 50-question exam required for the state license. A score of at least 80 percent is required to pass, and most of us are nervous. Trama’s confidence that the entire class will pass carries most of us through our rough moments, and, indeed, the lowest score is 87.

In the field, we cover the most valuable information of the course: controlled skids, quick-stop techniques, and emergency braking in a turn. After every botched exercise, I tell and retell chapters from the saga of my accident in hushed tones so the rest of the class won’t hear. Though his eyes begin to glaze, Trama never stops being positive and complimentary. Soon the class takes on the aura of a recovery program, as everybody, seemingly, has a story to tell.

Time for the same-day road test. Trama is allowed to confer license status by the state and asks us to perform all the maneuvers from the previous days. But something is different. Trama is no longer nodding and gesturing with an approving thumbs-up or a pat on the back. Our cheerful mentor is now Torquemada. Some panic. Bikes stall. Every short stop, every slalom is tentative. But I don’t feel any of that anxiety myself. It occurs to me, as I complete my emergency stop in a turn, that I might just know how to operate a motorcycle now. And even though the practice bike never got out of second gear for the entire three-day program, I am feeling like The Man. I receive a perfect score. I am a licensed motorcycle driver.

With the exception of one student, the entire class receives licenses. We say our good-byes and get in our cars, Trama waving happily as we drive away. There’s very little traffic on the Belt Parkway at 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. In the rear-view mirror of my very sensible late-model Nissan Stanza, I glimpse the double headlamp of an 1100-cc. sport bike. It approaches quickly, and in an impressive display of acceleration, whips by on the right – not cool by Trama’s standards but clearly on the fast-track to becoming another Harry Hurt statistic.

Blazing Saddles