It’s an early spring Sunday in March where a harsh, Scandinavian winter is still stubbornly clinging to its own existence. You can taste the frost in the air and breathing it in stings your nostrils. Were it any other typical Sunday I would be at home in my cave, burrito’d in a blanket and lost in a computer game. But it isn’t a typical Sunday at all — far from it.
A handful of people are gathered at a driving practice track clad from top to toe in thick clothing; sporting big, heavy boots and helmets. I stand among them, shaking uncontrollably, though I can’t blame it entirely on the cold. As the driving instructor demonstrates the basics of motorcycling I begin feeling nauseous and dizzy. Like I’m slipping out of reality’s grip. Somewhere at the back of my mind a voice tells me to get hell out of there before it’s too late. It grows even more insistent as I stiffly crawl onto a big, red Honda. I turn it on and my hammering heart skips a beat as the machine roars to life beneath me. I kick it into first gear and slowly release the clutch.
Completely convinced this is the day I’m going to die.
As alarming as that may sound it isn’t the first time I’ve had this type of reaction at all. I’ve had anxiety ever since I was fifteen years old — Generalised Anxiety Disorder to put it in a more official term — which just means there are very few things I haven’t been afraid of. Sometimes I’m afraid of falling asleep in fear of dying in the still hours of the night. I can get panic attacks in public, when I’m home alone or at a family event for no immediate reason. I’ve feared specific routs, places and people to the point of completely avoiding them.
But above all I fear death. Death and its horrible, empty finality.
As a constant through the past decade of my life where courage has lacked; fear and worry has been aplenty.
So back on the practice tracks on the now moving, red Honda I feel as if I’m going to faint. I’m caught in the clutches of panic while riding a motorcycle. I tell myself this is by far the worst fucking idea I’ve ever had.
Suddenly the other girl from our group takes a turn with too much speed and ends up in the bushes. I rush to help her and together we manage to get her bike up to standing even though my legs feel like overcooked spaghetti. She quickly gets back on while shooting me a wide grin and it hits me then. She’s the wild girl who’s been driving motor-cross on dirt-tracks while I was toddling around in first gear on my dad’s old BSA C15 in his driveway. In stark contrast to her and that crazy spark in her eyes I’m the scared nerd-girl.
I’m not fooling anybody.
As the girl races straight into the next turn completely unaffected by her fall; I’m still standing there soft-legged and googly-eyed wishing I could be her.
I get to eat a lot of dirt that day; falling down more than I care to admit and each time terrifies me more. I also have to get help lifting the 250kilos of bike every time because I’m too weak to do it alone. Our instructor pressures me into practising counter steers and when I foolishly tell him about my worries he looks at me with deep concern. When the four hours are finally over and the others are given their papers back with fresh stamps on them he lingers and steals long, doubtful looks at me. He’s going to fail me. I’m going to fail the very first practice lesson. What the fuck am I even doing here?
I can’t do this.
Too Awful for Driving School
The instructor instead convinces me it would be best to take another round at the practice track before we move on to riding in real traffic.
The following week I go to yet another practice lesson where I manage to do somewhat average. But just as I think I’ve gotten the hang of it — bam! — I fall down again only this time I’m prepared for it. The day before I’d searched for “small girl picking up big motorcycle” and found this video:
The technique seemed somewhat simple; butt up against the seat, one hand on the steer, the other on the seat and push with your leg muscles. The tiny size of the girl in the video gave me a faint spark of hope.
As I stare at the downed bike before me I’m replaying the video in my head; butt against the seat, lift with your legs. Don’t forget the kickstand. The guys rush to my aid and I tell them off because of course I can lift my own bike. I’m a strong, independent woman. So I crouch down and this is the moment of truth. They’re all standing still, staring at me; bikes idle — the instructor as well still with that concerned look on his face, lips pressed tightly together. I get my ass in place and I start to sweat heavily, wishing for some of the early spring chill from the week before. My heart is already pounding. I try to lift once and absolutely nothing happens — not even the slightest fucking budge.
I can’t do this.
“Sure you don’t want some help?” Someone asks and now I get straight up pissed, not at them, but at myself for being such a stereotypic girl. “Fuck it” I hiss and lift with everything I’ve got. Something snaps in my back and I clench my teeth at a sudden stab of pain. A trickle of sweat runs down my chest but the bike finally moves up, up, up — to standing. Phew. I feel the wave of relief wash over myself and everyone around me. But the feeling of victory lasts only a few seconds before I realise: Fuck!
I forgot the kickstand.
When I get the call from the instructor saying they can’t let me continue at their school I’m not surprised, just hurt and disappointed in myself. I’m not just afraid of riding — I’m scared shitless of it and my insecurity is obvious. I start to consider quitting altogether, I mean, when a driving school breaks up with you maybe it’s just not meant to be? I can take a hint when it literally slaps me in the face. Despairing, I ask my boyfriend if he believes I can do it and his answer takes me completely by surprise:
“Of course you can do it,” he says. “Of course you can learn to ride a bike — even the big one. If Pernille can do it, so can you.”
“… Who’s Pernille?” I — fortunately — asked.
When my boyfriend took his motorcycle license a few years back they were a team of six guys and one girl. Her name is Pernille.
Pernille’s own dad has been riding for most of his life; he’s also the founder of a very large motorcycle group in their local area. I imagine motorcycles were as natural a part of Pernille’s childhood as barbie dolls and coloured crayons. She signs up to take the motorcycle license as soon as she’s old enough. But despite her history, riding just doesn’t come naturally and the guys from her team quickly exceed her. She falls down a lot on the practise track — but for each time she falls instead of losing hope Pernilles persistence grows. She becomes even more determined to one day be able to ride beside her dad and the extended family from the motorcycle club. And in that stubborn determination she also gradually, slowly, becomes better.
On the day of her exam Pernille is a nervous wreck. She practises the exercises right before it’s her turn but suddenly in the middle of a tricky manoeuvre — bam! — she falls down with the bike. Perhaps in this very moment she’s gripped by fear, maybe even doubting herself and her chances of getting the license at all. And then, somehow, she finds it in herself to get back up and brush the dust off (I like to imagine her cursing and looking around to see if anyone noticed.) Just a few minutes after having had to recover from that fall Pernille drives out into her exam.
She passes and gets her motorcycle license.
“So if Pernille can do it — so can you,” my boyfriend adds again at the end of telling me the story.
Third time’s a Charm
Once again I find myself in the seat of a bike as it roars to life and awakens every inch of my fear. When I’d signed up to the second driving school the woman on the phone told me she too, even as a full-blooded motorcyclist, had fallen down a few times herself. And the new driving instructor is a big and energetic, no-nonsense kind of guy who solemnly swears he will teach me how to ride a motorcycle. Both were shocked at my experience with the previous driving school and together they give me the faintest renewed hope.
I’m now in a team of three from the new class; another girl and a guy who are on the practice track for the very first time. But as I’m sitting there, trembling, in the seat of a black Honda I also realise… This isn’t my first time. However intimidating it almost feels familiar now. It’s easier for me to find that sweet spot with the clutch and gas while the others choke their bikes as I did before. For once I’m actually the most “experienced” rider of the three of us having already been two times on the practice track. I’d had already gone through all the mistakes and fallen down many, many times —and survived it.
After a while I’m tossing the bike from left to right finally understanding its balance and gravity’s natural pull. Instead of seeing the bike as 250kilos of a crash and back-pain about to happen, it feels… light. Tilting to the side in turns, something which really gets my heart hammering, feels just a tiny bit less frightening and because of it I’m able to push myself to drive faster, go further. Under the cover of my helmet I laugh manically at my own, sudden zealousness. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe this is me.
Could I actually do this?
For the first time since embarking on the mission my fear falls into the background. I’m allowed to finally have fun, and holy shit it is fun driving fast, driving slalom, making a sharp turn and getting a rush of adrenaline when the foot rest suddenly scrapes against the asphalt. I suddenly remember from all my years of gaming how there’s just nothing more frustrating than constantly losing which was what I’d been doing the past few weeks.
Becoming good at something and positively slaying it, while still feeling you’re being challenged and learning something new, is the best kind of fun there is.
I pass the practice track that day with compliments from my new driving instructor and I realise he thinks I’m a natural. Third time’s a charm. But while I was excited that riding suddenly could feel fun instead of just terrifying being qualified for the next round also meant entirely new fears.
Now I’d have to practice my riding out in the real world.
Death on Two Wheels
It takes every inch of my self control to ride in traffic for the first time without shitting my pants.
The school’s bike — a Yamaha MT-07 — is mean-looking, black as death and holy hell it can kick as one of the other students from our class discovered. Like a wild horse it went up on its rear wheel and threw him off for tugging the gas-handle too hard. It terrifies me.
Despite looking like Death on Two Wheels there’s a sort of “ease” to the machine or at least so my new instructor stubbornly insists. It was the reason he had chosen it for students and in particular female students. Looking at it for the first time I thought him some form of deranged. But as I found myself suddenly in the seat of it I had to admit the weight is well distributed; it doesn’t feel heavy or bulky like the bikes from the practice track at all. The riding position is comfortable and despite it being a powerful machine (and the ad for it is positively nightmarish with snakes and ninjas and shit) it’s not… angry. At least not when you’re not trying to beat it off.
The anxiety before a ride is there every time sometimes building up several hours before the lesson. My heart is hammering away beneath a sweaty chest threatening to give up at any moment. Meanwhile, I’m not entirely sure it is the real reality I’m currently in and not just a dream. My hands tremble, my head feels light and disoriented and my stomach is a tight knot. It’s only slightly better after the ride since I’m already worrying about when I’d have to do it again.
But my symptoms subside when I’m out on the road. When there’s nothing else than me, my thoughts, my fear, the wheel against the ground — floating. For the briefest of moments I feel free. The difference before and after a ride is not only strikingly obvious — for each time I come back alive I feel just a bit more certain. Maybe I could really do it? I mean, I was actually doing it!
…And then the accident happened.
It’s early in the morning around 8am when a young man who’s taking motorcycle lessons is driving around the practice track at the top of a hill. He’s there with the school’s instructor and a handful of other students.
Allegedly something goes wrong as he’s practising an exercise. Instead of breaking he accelerates his speed and drives out over the practice track. Very soon he’s going so fast man and motorcycle both fly out over the edge and crash at the foot of the hill where he collides with a rock. The fall is fatal.
He was 27 years old.
Suddenly the reality of the dangers involved with riding came very close — too damn close. In fact, it had been sitting right next to us all along laughing at our instructor’s bad jokes and looking forward to a warm summer of riding. The young man from the terrible accident was from our class and the instructor at the scene was our instructor. The practice track where it happened was where most of us would very soon take our riding exams, myself included.
Again, I considered quitting. This time, while I still had my life. The other girl in the class’s mom is asking her to stop as well.
The day before the exam I’m completely beside myself and accidentally reverse into another car in a parking lot. Though nothing happens and I leave my phone number without hearing anything from it, I’m shaken to my very core. How am I supposed to pass a motorcycle driving exam when I can’t even reverse my fucking car? In the evening I go to bed early but find no peace, not even in the soft comfort of the blankets. I’m tossing and turning in my bed, heart pounding, trying very hard not to think about my imminent death.
Terrified of tomorrow.
Before I know it, I’m standing at that exact same spot of the accident.
It’s the 5th of June and the weather has matured into early summer; mild and sunny — perfect for riding. I’ve even met the policeman who’s going to supervise our exams before; he’s a nice fellow, nice and fair. Just a few years past he qualified me for the driver’s licence for the car. Somehow, it seems all the conditions surrounding the exam are… optimal. Good, even. Perfect.
But on the inside I’m falling apart. Crumbling like the ruins of old.
I try to keep a mask in place but it feels impossible. I admit to my nervousness and actually learn I’m not entirely alone about it. Even those who don’t say it outright are displaying some signs of their own. But I don’t tell them my entire body is totally alert, wired up; ready to fight, freeze or flee. I don’t tell them I can’t tell if I’m going to throw up, involuntarily shit my pants or just completely pass out. I just stand there like a scared animal waiting while the minutes slowly go by. I don’t tell them I don’t expect to survive this.
There’s that voice again, telling me to run while I still have the chance.
My name gets called and I’m up.
The Final Test
Combining the vague details from the accident with lying awake the entire night I (unwillingly) developed a theory.
A counter steer to the left is somewhat easy. You gently “push” the left handle on the steer which disrupts the motorcycle’s balance making it “jump” to the left side. It’s a manoeuvre for quickly avoiding sudden obstacles in your path such as someone opening the door of a parked car just as you’re about to pass.
Counter steering to the right is trickier because on the right is the gas-handle.
When pushing for a counter steer to the right you could accidentally pull the gas handle as well. If you pull hard enough on a powerful bike you accelerate very fast and gravity pulls you back in the seat. Reaching the front break, clutch or even just removing your pull from the gas handle again becomes an impossible task. A terrible situation where instead of controlling the bike you’re barely holding onto it and in doing so you’re also accelerating speed.
So as I’m sitting there in the seat of Death on Two Wheels waiting for the policeman to signal a go-ahead on the last test, the counter steer exercise, I’m sweating like a fountain and my heart feels like it’s about to burst. I tell myself this is definitely the worst fucking idea I’ve ever had. My instructor comes up to me, looks me straight in the eye and says; “Do not get too close to the edge. Break before the edge.” Sweet Cheesus, I don’t want to die.
I want to live.
But then I’m reminded of the past few months. Of fighting to become not just a motorcyclist but also a more confident person while suffering from crippling self-doubt, anxiety and panic attacks. I didn’t even believe I’d ever make it this far yet here I am, now, thanks to what I suspect must be temporary insanity and the unwavering support from the people around me — some of them complete strangers, even. Sure, I can drop it all on the ground and go back to hiding. I can appease my anxiety for the rest of my life and in doing so, prove it right. Or… I can move forward from here.
With the clutch pulled in, I rev the bike once and it roars. It’s eager to go. Saying I’ve never been so afraid in my life would be straight up lying, because I have — several times.
And that’s why I have to do it. Because I want to live — not just survive.
I have to fall down so I can get back up again a hundred times if need be to disprove the fear. I have to do the things I want to do the most even if they’re what I fear the most — especially when they’re what I fear the most. Every time I do it and survive the anxiety lessens just a tiny bit and gives way for enjoyment and life. I’ll never be rid of it entirely because it’s a natural part of being human — it’s supposed to be there, but as the quiet passenger rather than in the driver’s seat. Who knows; one day that fear might even end up saving me when shit really hits the fan.
But that’s not today.
Instead of giving up I can accelerate and perform a counter steer. I can pass the driving test and get my motorcycle license.
I can prove myself wrong about myself.
I can ride to the other side of fear.
And if Pernille and me both can do it — so can you.
Thank you so much for reading.