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Teaching rookies the right way to ride a motorcycle

Todd Wilson teaches new motorcyclists how to stay safe in a world that doesn’t always look out for them.
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel.
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published May 4

Todd Wilson, owner of two big Harley-Davidsons, has been riding motorcycles since he was a boy.

“Freedom.’’ That’s what he likes about it. “It’s probably as close to owning my own roller-coaster as I’ll ever be, and I can change the route every day.”

He knows full well the dangers involved, and as an instructor at Tampa Motorcycle Training in Wesley Chapel, he teaches beginners how to safely enjoy that freedom. He is a Florida Rider Safety Program RiderCoach certified by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Wilson, 41, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the course he teaches and the lessons he imparts on new riders.

• • •

Do beginners have trouble learning to ride?

Yeah, it’s a process. The more times they try it the more inclined they are to get it. But we get everything under the sun. There are some people that are never going to get it. They’re ... scared of the machine. There’s a certain level of that fear that if we go over that threshold — we can’t be in that state mentally and also develop our coordination. … We get some people that sit on a motorcycle and they’re in that state mentally, and they’re not successful.

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• • •

Do they buy a motorcycle without realizing they may not be able to operate it?

I get a little bit of that. We’ll have guys show up with $1,000 worth of … gear on and have their money down on a bike and don’t even watch the YouTube video to figure out what a clutch is. They see somebody else doing it and it looks real easy, but they really haven’t done their homework to figure out what’s involved or if they can even do it.

• • •
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel.
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

How do they learn?

Basically anything we want to do at real road scenarios, road speed, we don’t start out at road speed. Slower, milder, gentler and get your confidence up and skills up and then speed can always come later. But if your technique isn’t right, the more speed you give, the more exaggerated those mistakes will be.

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Same with braking. We’re not looking for them to stop on a dime. Learning to get the most out of your brakes without locking them up requires you to just brake normally and then once they’re working then gradually and gently add a little more pressure until it stops. If you do it enough times then you start to develop a feel for it. … What we’re trying to introduce to them out there (is) not to slam on the brakes. That’s what gets a lot of people in trouble. ...

From what I’ve seen... their fear or nerves will tell them to cover the front brake, leave their fingers over it because that way their hand is ready to apply it. And it’s one of those things that our instincts betray us. Because if my fingers are on that, I’m human, so if I get startled I’m going to clinch up, and if clinch up on my brake that’s all it takes to go down on a motorcycle.

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• • •

A lot of riders wear tennis shoes and shorts (which can be risky.) Do you talk to students about the proper gear?

Absolutely, we hammer it home. Especially if they’re out in traffic, they should always dress for the crash because there’s no taking it back. … (If) I go down, there’s nothing I can hit or … slide it against that’s going to be less durable than the human body, whether it’s the ground or another car. So if they’re not prepared for sliding or impact when they leave the house, they’re in trouble.

• • •
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel.
Todd Wilson, a safety instructor with Tampa Motorcycle Training, poses for a portrait on April 26 in Wesley Chapel. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

What should they wear?

We tell them full-fingered gloves, something durable that’s going to stand up in a slide, something made for motorcycling. And this applies to everything. Sturdy footwear that’s going to protect their ankle. A lot of riders … don’t really think things through. If I’m only wearing sneakers, even high-tops, say at interstate speed and a car runs over a two-by-four and that two-by-four flies up and hits my ankle at 70 miles an hour, I don’t even have to leave my bike or hit anything and I could easily have a broken ankle.

I try and push them to wear full-face (helmet protection). I realize the (state) says you don’t necessarily have to be in full-face, but you only get one face in life and if it’s not protected from an impact, it’s going to be subject to an impact.

• • •

What do you think of so-called “crotch rockets’' — sports bikes — zooming along the interstate at 100 mph or more?

There is this sense when we’re young … that invincibility of youth: bad things happen in the world, they just don’t happen to me. And we feel like we’re special, we know better, we’re better, it’ll only happen to others. I think some of us grow up at different ages in regards to that and then at some point in our lives we realize we’re not special and that those things will happen, and are the consequences of that something you’re willing to deal with?

I think it gives a lot of regular riders a bad name. ... It makes people that don’t know anything about motorcycles assume that we’re all that way.

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• • •

A lot of motorcycle crashes happen because a vehicle driver turned in front of them. Why does that keep happening?

There’s different theories on it. I’d say one thing is that drivers are less attentive now than they used to be. Whether it’s their cell phone or the “quote-unquote” safety aids that they’re putting in cars now... I think a lot of people rely on those sensors and kind of tune out having better driving skills.

The other thing is they just don’t see us. … We train our students that you’re invisible, even when you’re looking at them and they’re looking at you and you see that their eyes are blue, you’re still invisible and you should ride like no one ever sees you. …

I think the other thing is even when they do see us, it’s hard to gauge our speed because all we are is a little tiny dot on the horizon.

I think that’s what gets a lot of us in trouble. But …the rider should expect it and already have a plan for it. If we don’t plan for them to do that, then we find ourselves in the accident, so it’s not completely the other driver’s fault in my opinion.

• • •

For more information

To learn more about the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, visit msf-usa.org

For more information about Tampa Motorcycle Training, visit tampamotorcycleclasses.com

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