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Learning to Ride a Motorcycle in Laos

by Tara

With a twist of the wrist, I jolt suddenly backwards, certain that the motorcycle beneath me is about to go screaming forward, throwing me off like a bucking bronco. Terrified, I release the throttle and come to a jarring halt, lurching forward, hands shaking from fright. This learning to ride a motorcycle thing is just not going to happen right now.

Me "Tyler, no, I'm not going to do this, I need a lesson!"
Tyler "You're getting a lesson right now!"
Me "No, no, a real lesson! A class!
Tyler"Oh relaaax, you're doing great! It'll be easy.

I take a few breaths in and out, shaking my head, smiling at his cavalier confidence, marveling at how many times we've had this exact conversation about any number of his presumably crazy ideas.

Tyler "Just let the clutch out slowly, don't worry about the throttle yet. Once you feel the bike start to pull forward, pull the clutch in again. Keep doing that until you get used to where it starts to catch—that is the only part that matters. It's just like I showed you in the car!"

I try this a few times, getting the hang of it, all the while having flashbacks to years ago when Tyler would drive down to visit me in Illinois, and any time we'd go somewhere, he'd make me drive his stick shift. We'd practice in parking lots, and then on the road, and I'd freak out every time I killed the engine at an inopportune time.

When all the cars behind me would start honking at me angrily, and I couldn't for the life of me remember what to do, he'd just smile patiently and say "It's okay, don't worry about them, they'll get over it. Now, turn the car back on, clutch out, gas in, let's go."

I am jogged from my memories by Tyler's persistent instruction and my current driving lesson. I can't help by smile as I think about how my driving has improved since then, and how far we've come together, and how here we are in Laos, still together, and he's as confident as ever in my ability to do things that scare me. I should probably pay closer attention to what he's saying:

Tyler "Okay, this time, when it starts to catch, don't pull it in, just give it a little throttle until you're rolling. Then let it out the rest of the way. When in doubt, grab the clutch and you'll be coasting! The front brake is on the right, just like our bicycles.

Once I've regained my composure, I try again, letting the clutch out slowly, turning the throttle gently. Away I go, remembering in the nick of time to get my feet off the ground and onto the pegs.

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride

I wobble my way forwards, over the gravelly parking lot we're in, terrified and exhilarated. My nervous "AaAAAaaaAahhhh…!!" trails off behind me, and I'm really moving now! Onwards I go, following the gravel path slowly, then faster and faster and faster.

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride Tyler's Note: "Faster and faster" being like… 5 miles per hour.

I've gone pretty far and I'd like to turn around now (or I'll start heading out of town!) but the surface on which I'm riding is rocky and uneven, and I don't feel comfortable executing a sharp turn for fear of wiping out. Not knowing what else to do, I just keep going and going and going and going.

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride

Terror mounts when I notice how far I'm getting from where Tyler, Pete, and Natasha are waiting. I can't think straight enough to figure out how to stop the hulking beast beneath me. I can barely touch the ground with my tiptoes, what will happen if I lose my balance and the crazy contraption crushes me? "I don't know how to turn aroooooooouuuuuuund!" I wail, my voice trailing off behind me.

Laughing, Tyler is chasing me through the woods, running as fast as he can to catch me. Eventually, I remember to pull in the clutch and let out the throttle. I'm hyperventilating when Tyler catches me, and then Pete and Natasha come zooming over to meet us with his helmet and our backpack in tow, ready to begin a new day of motorcycling in Laos.

Tyler thanks them, throws the helmet on his head, and swings a leg over the bike, hopping on behind me. Now that we're out of the curvy mountains, it's time for me to learn to ride a motorcycle. Oh lord help me, here we go!

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride (By Natasha)

Leading the way, I nervously head out of our guest-house parking lot. I manage to slow down at a stop sign, and then pick up speed again as I make a left turn onto the main road. With Tyler squeezing his arms around me encouragingly, and Pete and Natasha behind us, cheering me on, I execute a bit of lamaze-style breathing and manage to keep myself focused on safely moving forwards.

Us During Tara's First Motorcycle Ride (By Natasha)

Once I've gotten the hang of things, successfully avoiding a few chickens, children, and a lady on a scooter who pulls out right in front of me, it's time to go a bit faster. I'd really like to stay in first gear forever, but unfortunately, the motor sounds like it's going to blow up.

So, while Pete and Natasha zoom all around us to take pictures, I listen as Tyler explains how the use the clutch.

Tyler "It is a single, opposing motion: the clutch comes in, the throttle goes out, just like when you're driving. You, shift with your fo.."
Tara "UP OR DOWN?! UP OR DOWN?! Which way do I click!?"
Tyler "…lift up. There you go, now you're in second. The clutch goes out, the throttle goes back on. That's all there is to it!"

Tara's First Riding Lesson: Clutch & Throttle (By Natasha) Tara's First Riding Lesson: Clutch & Throttle (By Natasha)

A simple hand maneuver and a click of my toes, and I've settled into second. Once I've gotten the hang of that, I shift from second to third. Now we're really cooking with gas! My nervousness has finally dissipated, and my feelings quickly morph from "hey this is sort of fun" to "mannnn this is fun" to "boy I could really get used to this!"

"Tyler, this is awesome!" I shout, and my thrill is met with a hug and a whooping and hollering into the bright crisp air. Through ever gorgeous Lao scenery we go, happily winding our way through empty roads, cruising past crystal blue rivers and bright green hills. I can't wait to ride motorcycles together back home!

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride (By Natasha)

All is going splendidly, and I've even made it up to a whopping 40 kilometers (24 miles) per hour, leaning around turns, safely piloting us through the quiet countryside of Laos, when I see a sign ahead, indicating a curve. I try to slow down, but the turn is sharper than it looks. Suddenly, it feels like I am going way too fast! There's no way I'm going to make this!!

Curve of Death

I seriously think we're about to die; my heart leaps out of my chest and buries itself in my stomach as we go careening towards the ditch. But then, just in time, Tyler gently reaches around me, saying reassuringly, "stay calm", as he puts his hands on top of my frightfully white-knuckled ones. Then, he shifts his weight to the left, leaning us over at what feels like shocking angle, and the two of us go sailing safely and smoothly around the curve.

When we pull to a stop on a bridge just after, my knees are shaking and I'm amazed that we're still alive. I think that's about enough lesson for one day. Tyler gives me a hug and I thank him for saving our lives. He just smiles and asks if it feels like my stomach is on fire, to which I respond, "Yes!" Apparently, he knows the feeling all too well.

As Tyler takes over, I breathe a sigh of relief, muttering about how glad I was that he was there to lean us over. But he just smiles, revs the engine, and says, "You did great!" And then off we go, motoring our way through northern Laos.

Tara's First Motorcycle Ride (By Natasha)

Thank you for my first real motorcycling lesson, Tyler, and thank you Natasha for capturing it in photos!

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Great Story!!! Congrats, Tara!! I love the picture of you both on the bike: Tara=terrified and Tyler=gleefully relishing the moment.
Posted by Karina Lepeley on April 13th, 2011 at 1:54 PM
You are very welcome!!! Love the narration. You did SO well! You are going to do great in the class. Dont worry about passing the test, they go over things over and over again.
Posted by Natasha and Pete on April 13th, 2011 at 3:56 PM
Holy Moly, you're so flippin brave! When we first got Nettle Mike was so serenely confident that I could drive her. I don't know what he was basing that on. I of course, adamantly refused. Hell to the no.
Posted by Katherine on April 13th, 2011 at 9:43 PM
What an awesome narration! It brought me back to when I learned to ride and all those anxious feelings I had. It gets better and better the more you ride :) We will have lots of fun when you get home riding around!
Posted by Amanda on April 14th, 2011 at 2:35 PM
Karina - Thank you! Yeah the "Tara=terrified and Tyler=gleefully relishing the moment" thing is a theme around here sometimes, but the ache of a growing comfort zone is totally worth the resulting fun. :-)

Natasha - Thank you! I am really looking forward to the class, especially now I know it won't be too rough. I can't wait to ride with you, we can be total BAs together. ;p Maybe before you do your South America tour, we can all go on a "practice trip" down Mexico way or something...

Katherine - Thanks! I don't think I'm brave as in fearless, but I do think it's important for me to put myself out there and try new things even if it means I'm terrified.

We're so impressed that you guys climbed Helvellyn-- evidently, by turning back before reaching the official top, we missed out on one hell of an intense climb. I can't say that I mind though!

Amanda - Thank you, it's so nice to know that I'm not the only one with anxious beginner thoughts! I can't wait to ride with you, and learn all the tricks of the trade from a pro. :-) I feel so lucky to be adopted into this family of awesome women riders, and proud that I'll soon be among your ranks. :D
Posted by Tara on April 21st, 2011 at 6:22 AM
I loved your story, Tara! It brought back memories of when I was learning to drive a motorcycle, and unfortunately, over 30 years later, the stories of that day live on...but nobody got hurt and the cycle survived the day!

Great pictures, Natasha, and all of you have done a wonderful job of sharing your journey with the world (and the creepy nuts like me who keep on reading about your travels!)
Posted by Gia Scott on April 23rd, 2011 at 9:21 PM
Gia - Oh no, sounds ominous... Glad to hear that you and the bike managed to escape unscathed from whatever potential disaster occurred!

So glad you're enjoying our journals! :D
Posted by Tara on April 25th, 2011 at 2:58 AM
I love your writing and am learning so much about writing, life, and travel from reading your blog. This is definitely one of my favorite posts. You have a way with words that makes the reader feel like they're the ones driving/riding a motorcycle for the first time. And for the first time ever, I'm now intersted in trying out riding for myself!
Posted by Stacey on June 18th, 2013 at 8:08 PM
Aww thanks so much, Stacey! If you're at all interested in riding, I definitely recommend taking a motorcycle training course. I did it right away when we got back from our trip, and it was fantastic. They train you for exactly what you'll need to know to pass the motorcycle endorsement test, and then the same people conduct the test on the last day of class. It's a great way to go. Check out photos from the class here. Best of luck!
Posted by Tara on June 26th, 2013 at 10:20 AM