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Car Insurance
Costs How Much?

Why I Taught Myself to Ride a Motorcycle

By Karen Ward Francisco

I lived on Guam back in 1989, but I decided it was time to live my dream of moving to San Francisco. So, in 1990, I arrived in the Bay Area city of Orinda, Calif., moved in with three housemates and began navigating this new-to-me fun community.

You might say the Bay Area is a great place to live without transportation. And, yes, Bay Area Rapid Transit is one of the best subway systems in the United States. But I wanted more independence to explore my surroundings without being on someone else’s timetable.

Well, to my surprise, purchasing a car was not in my budget.

Who knew car insurance was so expensive—for a used vehicle, not to mention a new one—in California?

One day, I was sitting outside a restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., and heard the loud sound of a motorcycle. A light bulb went off. I said to myself, “Self, find out how much it would cost to own a motorcycle.” I always liked motorcycles growing up. And one of my childhood friends owned a Yamaha. I would get in line and wait my turn, riding on the back when I was a kid.

I discovered that, in California, owning a motorcycle was affordable, and insurance did not cost as much as the monthly rent for a studio apartment.

Buying my first motorcycle was easy. I looked in the paper under the “For Sale” area, and there it was: a 1970 Triumph Trophy 250. It was perfect for me, except for one thing. I had no clue how to operate a motorcycle.

I was determined to learn. So I taught myself how to ride this machine.

Was it easy? Heck, no.

I can’t tell you the number of times I fell off the bike, most times standing still, not moving and mainly because I forgot to put down the kickstand. Or trying to figure out how to go from first to second gear without stopping in neutral. And I don’t even want to mention the kick starter.

Remember, I’m learning to ride a motorcycle on the streets of San Francisco.

Yes, I bumped a few car bumpers waiting for the light to turn green while stopped on a hill, rolling backward and waving my hand to say, “Sorry,” to the driver. I must have hit all the nice car drivers, because they never yelled back. Or maybe they saw this woman trying to operate a motorcycle on a hill and felt sorry for me, wondering if I would make it back home that day.

Once I got the hang of riding straight, the next challenge was turning—learning to lean without falling off the bike. This was 1990, and there were no YouTube instructional videos.
Finally, after many weeks of riding almost every day (It doesn’t rain in California. Isn’t that a song?), it became easier and easier to navigate, turn, lean, give it the gas, hold in the clutch and coordinate it all so that it felt normal without thought.

Just when it felt great, someone stole my Triumph while it was parked in front of my house. I was sad, but went right back to the “For Sale” ads and purchased a 400cc Honda Hawk and, finally, a 500cc Honda Shadow. I was now an official “biker.” My love of motorcycles came out of the need to have basic transportation in a very expensive city.

It seems San Francisco will always be in the top five of the most expensive cities to live in, and that was true even back in 1990. But San Francisco will always be a great memory for me, because that is where I learned to love and operate a motorcycle.

Fast forward to 2020, and it’s been 30 years of loving and riding motorcycles.

My largest bike was a 1500cc Kawasaki Vulcan. I now own a 2000 Kawasaki Drifter. And, yes, when I first got her, I forgot to put the kickstand down. You know what happened.

Karen Ward Francisco is an AMA member from Tampa, Fla.

▲ Karen Ward Francisco taught herself to ride to escape the high cost of car insurance.
Photo by Stephanie Muther