Tamela on her BMW motorcycle on a windy road

Six years ago this month I decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. Since then I’ve traveled 47 states and 5 provinces on my trusty BMW G 650 GS—often solo.

They’ve been six of the best years of my life.

Here, I share my journey to two wheels and give some advice if you’re thinking about taking up motorcycling and long-distance touring.

Motorcycling gave me a new lease on life

What made me decide to take up motorcycling? In 2010 I was in emotional recovery after a devastating business failure. For some reason, it came to me that learning to ride a motorcycle was just what I needed to help me gain self-confidence and create a new story for myself.

I think part of the allure of riding a motorcycle is that I needed to succeed at something physical after so many years up in my head during my working life.

I tell the story in my TEDx Charlotte talk.

I began with an MSF class at the community college

The first hurdle to my two-wheeled lifestyle was getting a motorcycle endorsement to my driver’s license. To do this I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) class at my local community college, which provided the bikes and instruction.

States vary in their motorcycle training and licensing requirements, but in North Carolina, when you pass the MSF class, you only have to pass the written exam to get your endorsement.

Here I am making the required “quick stop” for my final exam. You wouldn’t know from watching it in this video how spooked I was when applying the brakes fairly aggressively on wet tarmac. It had sprinkled throughout that entire day. Oh well, as the saying goes, “calm seas make poor sailors.”

Choosing a motorcycle

Properly licensed, I decided to set off on a 19-state round trip from North Carolina to Oregon and back, leaving three months after that “quick stop.”

To do it properly I needed a lot of training. And a bike.

My brother kindly “risked” his BMW Dakar to help me reach my goal. I say “risked” because every motorcyclist knows you’ll damage your first bike…in my case it was his! Although I dropped it a couple of times, I only had to replace the brake handle; my brother overlooked the scratches.

I loved his BMW so much that I ended up with essentially the same bike…but lowered for my 5’2″ frame.

A word about “tall” bikes: very few motorcycles are low enough that I can get both my feet on the ground. My friend and fellow shortie Joanne Donn (aka “GearChic”) wrote a great blog post about this. Bottom line: if you rely on always being able to reach both feet to the ground you won’t be a safe rider.

Lots of motorcycle training professionals recommend learning to ride a dirt bike before a street bike. I can vouch for that. The days I spent with my brother riding his bike in his two-acre back yard taught me a lot, including how to ride off road by standing on the pegs. Dirt and dual sport bikes have “pegs” the size of bicycle pedals (or smaller) instead of the floorboards found on bigger touring bikes.

Here’s a quick video from the back yard, with me on the pegs, taking progressively smaller circles around my brother, himself an accomplished dirt rider!

I love riding a dual sport bike. I can go to a lot of interesting places without worrying about running out of tarmac or ruining a fancy paint job or chrome! It’s light and nimble. Perfect for me.

Training for a 19-state road trip

After riding with my brother I took a two-day class at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina. This video is from the second time I took the class in 2011—because you can never practice enough in my book!

I took another course from MotoMark1, emphasizing the slow maneuvers that are not only difficult, but essential to safely operating a bike. It’s much easier to throttle up than to slow down and make maneuvers like these.

Advice for taking on a big road trip as a noob

If you want to take a big road trip but don’t have a lot of “seat time” or mileage on a bike, here’s some advice.

Get professional training. Lots of it. It’s easier to learn good habits than to break bad ones.

Take one day at a time. It’s not a big deal to ride 200 miles in a day. Do that for five days and you have 1,000 more miles to call your own!

Promise yourself to turn back, quit, or take a day off the bike if you lose your nerve. If you lack confidence, being on a motorcycle isn’t safe.

Choose your traveling companions wisely. Don’t let someone else bully you into riding faster or longer than you feel confident doing. Pushing the envelope is one thing, foolhardiness is another.

I got my mojo back

I found that learning to ride a motorcycle, then taking a big solo road trip helped me re-launch my life, as I explained in an interview shortly after my trip to Oregon. If you’re interested in a similar adventure, and want to chat, get in touch!