is where I'll chronicle my adventures in motorcycling.

This includes:

Virginia Motorcycle Road Skills Test

Before the Virginia Motorcycle Tests

I used to ride a 250cc, 4-stroke Kawasaki dirt bike that my friend had. We'd fly through the woods, over big dirt jumps, and have a great time. We would ride at a place called City Mission. (I'll have to look into the origin of that name. E-mail me if you have any clues.) This was back home in North Branford, CT.

We learned to ride the bike in his back yard, getting our shifting and turning down. It was a really big bike for us at that age, so the worst was when you laid the bike down and had to pick it up again. But after we got it down, we took off for the trails and had a blast.

I never thought too much about bikes during college. Afterwards, my apartment roommate really liked bikes, though he didn't have one. One day we were sitting out the balcony of our apartment, and saw a lot of bikes go by, enjoying the beautiful weather. We kinda longed for being able to join them. Instead, we popped the top of my Bronco and went cruising around. This was good enough for then. Also, during my college years and post-college years, I had a girlfriend that forbade the idea of a motorcycle. And if she wasn't buying into it, I didn't have much interest.

Once or twice, a buddy of mine would be at a party with his bike, and he's let me take it for a spin. Those short rides were great, but were tempered by my worrying I'd screw up and mess up his bike. Even those rides caught the ire of my girlfriend. (Note that this was about the only 'imperfection' in this diamond of a woman.)

One of the things that kept me from getting my motorcycle license in Virginia was the fact that the waiting list for classes is so long. I wouldn't be surprised if they are book through the end of the year right now. If I'm wrong in this impression, the Virginia Community College system should make some efforts to get the word out. The classes are often not at convenient times, and they cost a pretty penny. I always figured that I'd get around to taking a class, some day.

I was on the Virginia/Washington DC-area of, posting an old car I had laying around for free. It was a great little Ford Escort, over 200,000 miles (maybe 300,000, who knows) but the transmission was blown and the windshield was cracked. It had been sitting for a while, and I wanted it gone. I got done putting up the ad, and decided to browse around a bit. That's when I saw her. My bike. A 1997 Honda Shadow. It was a just what I was looking for. Big enough, but not too big. It had been customized some, so it certainly doesn't look like a stock Honda. But I don't think it tries too hard to be a Harley, either. The guy was in a hurry to sell it, because he was getting deployed for training in the Army. I went to take a look at it, listened to it run, but I didn't dare ride it then, as it had been a while and the last thing I wanted to do was ding up this guy's motorcycle. My impulse was to buy it right then and there. But I just left and thought about it some at home. I talked to a couple of good friends who failed to talk me out of it (hence they are *good* friends) and got on the phone with the guy. I tried to offer a bit under what he was asking, but he had a bunch of people lined up to look at it and didn't want to accept under his asking price until others had seen it. I though this was fair, and said I'd give him his asking price. He was wonderfully helpful and delivered the bike to me in the back of his pickup. He gave me a tour of it, told me what he knew of its history, and I paid the man.

I was dark by the time we got done talking, and the battery was low from all the sitting it had been doing. I tucked the Honda in the garage and hooked up the battery tender he gave me with it. The next day the light was green, indicating the battery was charged. I started off by putting around the yard a bit. I think riding around my yard should be the Virginia motorcycle road skills test. I have a ton of trees and few straight path that you can follow. I got the hang of it quickly, even though the bike was a bit heavier than I had ridden before.

This is about when I started looking into getting my motorcycle learners permit from Virginia DMV. I visited the VA DMV website, and quickly found the Virginia Motorcycle Operator Manual in Adobe PDF form. I read up on the steps to getting a motorcycle license in Virginia on the site too. I studied the motorcycle test manual and went to DMV to take my written test to get my permit. As DMV visits go, it wasn't too painful, even on a Saturday. The people at my DMV customer service center are great. The written test is mostly right out of the book. Some questions didn't really ring a bell, and when I tried to apply common sense, I got a few right and a few wrong. I passed though, with the test ending a couple of questions early because I had already reached the required score. At the same time, I renewed my regular Virginia driver's licence because it was expiring soon. It was my poor assumption that my learners permit designation would just be something on my regular license record with DMV. I was only given my new drivers license, and nobody gave me the motorcycle learners permit. I only found out about this later.

Needless to say, I was counting the days till I could take my road test. In Virginia you have to wait 30 days after you take your written test to take the motorcycle road skills test. I searched around on the web and the Virginia DMV website looking for information about what the skills test was like. My search was in vein. Nothing about the road test was linked on the main motorcycle license page on the VA DMV site. The jumble of lines painted on the parking lot at DMV could have been an alien landing strip for all I could tell. And most of my friends with bike (which isn't too many) had taken the motorcycle riders safety course, so they didn't know exactly what the test was like. In Virginia, if you take a motorcycle safety course, you are exempted from having to take the skills test at DMV.

So I focused on getting better at riding, doing my shifting, down-shifting, braking, turn signals, etc.. I was feeling very comfortable riding by the time my 30 days was up.

The night before the test, I found out from a guy at a party that the motorcycle skills test is tough. He told me about how he had failed a few times because it was so hard to do. He told me about how you had to do lots of slow riding and tight turns. The next day I searched on the DMV website for the motorcycle drivers licence application form so that I could have that filled out ahead of time. By total chance, when I searched the Forms section for 'motorcycle' I came across an Adobe PDF of the road skills exam layout. This got me a bit more apprehensive about my ability to pass.

The 30th day landed on a Sunday, so I took off early from work on the following Monday. I had the bike loaded up on my neighbor's trailer, waiting for me at home. I got changed, hooked the trailer up to my truck, and headed to my DMV. There the girl who was manning the front desk told me that they were not doing any more road tests that day, because they already had 7 people waiting. This was at about 4:00 PM. Discouraged, I left. I was upset that I had gotten there before closing time, but wasn't allowed to take my test. Before leaving work I had noticed on the DMV website that one of the near-by DMV locations had a very long wait time. I figured I wouldn't have any better luck there, but I said a prayer and gave it a shot. It was a long drive because I didn't want to go too fast with the Honda on the trailer. I made it there, and found a spot to temporarily leave the truck and trailer. I went inside and was lucky enough to get a number. They assured me it would be while before I was called, so I went outside to unload the bike. I got the bike off the trailer, and then slid the trailer into a spot that I had to wait for. I then parked the bike in front of the trailer in the same spot. After a bit more of a wait I was able to find a spot to park my Bronco. I wanted to tryout riding around on the test area, but I didn't want to miss my number or name being called. So I settled for walking through the course steps on foot. It didn't look too bad, but I wasn't over confident either.

It got very late, and when my number was finally called, there was talk about if it was even light out enough to administer the test. I just played it cool, and finally went out with the tester. There was another brother-to-be there for his test as well. He had a very large fuel injected Harley Davidson that looked brand new. I let him choose to go first, so that I could watch how things were done. The tester took us both through what we had to do for the first exercise. The brother-to-be looked like he did rather well. But when he stopped the bike with his tire in the white box, the tester came over, put his foot on one of the lines, and raised it straight up, coming in contact with the tire. As best I can figure, this was to show that he wasn't entirely in the box with his tire and that that counted against him. Next it was my turn. I may have touched the lines during the sharp left turn, and I got the same tire kicking treatment when I stopped with my tire in the box. We were both then walked through the second test step. The tester explained the cone weave and how we had to do a U-turn at the end. He said we had to turn within the inner line that was painted, until we corrected him that that was the "under 500cc" line. We even had to get out the copy of the test from the DMV website to show him. And then he asked the brother-to-be on the Harley battleship how many cc's it was, when it was clearly at least an 1100cc hog. He conceded that since both our bikes were over 500cc, we could make our U-turn within the outer line. Brother-to-be went first, but had an impossible time weaving that battleship of a bike through he cones. He didn't do it successfully, and I can't remember how his U-turn went, if he even got there. I had the same luck, even though my bike was a bit smaller. I had trouble going slowly, stalled out the bike, and put my feet down. The tester didn't actually say I failed, but he asked if I wanted to practice and come back another time. I knew I had no chance, so I accepted defeat. He suggested that next time we bring smaller bikes perhaps.

Afterwards Brother-to-be and I rode around a bit on the test area, remarking how it would be impossible to get our big bikes through the sharp turn and cone weave. While trying the sharp left turn, I noticed that faster speeds tended to make it easier. What I didn't notice was that it was not so much the speed, but the manner in which you make a turn at higher speeds. I tried again, but somehow slowed down too much, and the next the I knew the bike was fallen over on my leg and I was on the ground. The bike didn't hurt me, though I did bang up my elbow when I landed. I scrambled to get the bike turned off and get out from under it. It spilled a bit of gas, but I figured out this was from the carb and thankfully not from a puncture in the tank or anything. I got myself stood up and had to really work to pickup the 450 lbs. Honda. I looked it over and there were only some scratches on the mirror and some scuffs on the left side of the wind shield. I tried to start the bike, but it wasn't having it. The battery was low, and I don't think fuel was pumped as it needed to. I go the bike up onto the trailer by parking the truck downhill from the test area. Took a bit of grunting to get the last bit up and in. I got it strapped on and did the long, slow drive home. I figured out that was riding frustrated, which is never a good thing.

During that week I surfed the web a lot and e-mailed a friend about my problems. I finally found a few bits of information here and there, and my friend's reply was very helpful. My main hang ups were the sharp turn and the cone weave. From what I found out, to make a tight turn on a motorcycle, you have to "push on the handle bar grips on the side you want to turn towards" and "remain upright." This sounds totally counterintuitive, but everything I read sounded to be in agreement. So the next chance I got to ride around, I tried it out. What I found is that to do tight turns on a motorcycle, what you really have to do is push down on the handle bar grip on the side you want to turn towards, thus leaning the bike to that side. At the same time you shift your bodyweight to counter-balance the bike. You don't "remain upright" in relation to the motorcycle, you are staying upright in relation to the ground. You also have to "feather" the clutch a bit, to apply only enough power to keep going along your path and to keep your bike up. If you start to fall over, give it a bit more power (let the clutch out some) and perhaps shift your weight some more. If you are trying this for the first time, just do it a little bit until you can feel what is being described. Exactly what you have to do should click rather quickly, and you be able to learn what the limits of your bike are.

For my practicing, instead of cones I used 2" washers wrapped with masking tape. I placed them about 15' apart in a cul-de-sac and practiced with those at first. Then I moved them a bit closer to 12' apart. Then I started off-setting them like they are on the test. All in all, I got the feel for it down quickly.

I spent a weekend afternoon riding at the actual DMV site. I took plenty of breaks to stay cool and not get fatigued. I did each skill test as best I knew how from the PDF I had. By the time I was done I was confident that I should be able to pass, if I didn't flub the cone weaving. That bit felt a bit hit-or-miss still.

So I cut out of work early again and got the bike on the trailer and got to DMV. Thankfully the wait time was much shorter this time, just under an hour. I got my paperwork filled out and got the bike off the trailer. The test administrator was very nice and she actually read every step of the test to me. This is something my first tester didn't do. She said that the first two exercises you can't repeat, but the second two you can. (This is important later.)

My sharp left turn and stop in the box exercise went fine. Then came the cone weave and U-turn. I thought I may have flubbed the cone weave a little bit, but not enough to automatically disqualify me. Then I came around and did the U-turn. I did the turn fine (I thought) and pulled forward a bit and stopped the bike. The tester said that I had failed because I didn't stop my bike inside the yellow lines. It took me a little be to understand what she was saying, and I asked her to double check the test sheet. The first test step specifically said where to stop the bike, and the third test step was to do a particular kind of stop, but this step did not specifically say where to stop the bike. And she hadn't said "before the end of the yellow lines." She was ready to fail me there, but I asked to speak to a supervisor. She got one of the main testing instructors who train the testers. This lady listened to my explanation, and clarified that the test does not require you to stop before the yellow line ends, only that you complete your turn within the bounds of the line. She found it implausible that anyone could perform the U-turn and stop within the limits of the yellow lines. The tester accepted this correction, and apologized for not understanding.

The tester went back inside to get the cones again, and came back out with the main instructor again, to have her observe the rest of the test, and I was fine with this.

The next step was the stopping test. This test requires you to stop within a certain distance, based on a timed computation of your speed. When you cross a line, the tester starts a stopwatch. When you cross a second line, the stopwatch is stopped and this is when you start braking. The distance it takes you to stop is measured, and then looked up on a chart broken down by times between the two lines.

My first time through I was not going fast enough, so I was told to repeat the exercise. I did the exercise again, and still did not go fast enough. At this point I was told I had failed the test. I asked why and was told it was because you only get two attempts. This confused me, because the tester had said that "the first two you can't repeat, but the second two you can." I understood that it would be tough to get an accurate reading by the tester and that it might take multiple tries to get a usable timing. However they were both adamant that only two tries are allowed.

Without getting into all the discussion that followed, the tester was not held to what she had told me about being able to repeat the second two exercises. Even though I was lead to believe multiple chances would be provided to perform the test, they held to only allowing two tries. It was also clearly stated that the test was to measure "your ability to brake quickly and safely in the shortest possible distance. You will be evaluated on stopping distance in relation to speed of travel." (VA DMV Form: DMV 34) I was failed for not getting up to the required speed. Had I known that I could be failed for not attaining the proper speed, I would have taken extra care to peg the speed exactly. But I was relaxed about this because I had been told that this exercise could be repeated. I figured it would be best to keep trying to get the right speed, than focus too much on the speedometer, which is not a safe way to be riding.

After contesting the exam as best I could, I accepted being able to re-test another day without waiting in line. I went back outside to collect my bike.

There I met some other fellows on bikes, and I offered to tell them the tales of my testing. One of the riders said the he too had been failed with similar circumstances. He said that for the U-turn part of exercise two, the tester told him he had to come all the way past the inside part of the red line and then complete his U-turn. This was in direct conflict with what my tester had told me, and I think she even read from the test sheet directly to "ignore the red lines."

As we were all talking, the main instructor stopped by as she was leaving for the day, very kindly asking if we needed anything. We thanked her and said no, and I related that the one rider had a similar bad experience, and I also related to her how my first tester failed to read the test procedures to me. She was very surprised to hear these things and said she would see about getting something done about it. We thanked her again and she left.

Although the testing trainer had scheduled a time to administer a test for me during the following week, all my time waiting made me very anxious to get tested and get on the road. So the following Saturday I loaded up the bike again and headed to the DMV location I had taken the motorcycle test at the first time. Even though I had arrived very early, it was still almost noon before it was my turn. I practiced a bit on the course, and a young lady and her significant other showed up to take the test as well. She was unclear about what the test was like. She had taken her written test and usually just road with her beau. But she finally wanted to take the test. I showed her the different motorcycle test steps and where I had gotten hung up before. She tried sharp left turn and the cones a bit, and she wasn't very comfortable with them.

It was then time for my test, and I had the same tester as had failed me the first time. I made it through each of the steps, and although I don't know if I lost any points along the way, I passed. When I heard this, I actually asked the young lady I had just met if I could hug her, and she was happy to oblige. It took a while longer inside DMV for them to get the license created (they lost it under a keyboard for a time) but I walked out with my Virginia Class M Motorcycle License. It still read Endorsements: None, but they assured me that the Class M means regular cars plus motorcycle. It does say Driver's License at the top like a regular license.

On the following Monday I called the testing supervisor and let her know that had re-taken the test again and had passed. She asked me if I ran into any problems with the tester and I said no. She encouraged me to follow through with getting the problems I ran into fixed, and that's part of where this website came from.

Here is an outline of steps Virginia DMV could take to simplify the motorcycle license testing process:

The rest of this page is to be continued. For now, if you have had any similar experiences, please e-mail me your story, with as many details as possible included. I'm going to work on getting Virginia DMV to improve the entire motorcycle test process so that no other citizens of the Commonwealth have to go through what I and clearly others have.

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