Suzuki GS450 taught me how not to ride, then helped me test my limits

by Wesley Pestana

The great American philosopher Kenny Rogers once said, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.”

I used to think that meant something about there being a season for everything, but now I believe it means that you need to know and stay within your own limitations. That’s as true for motorcycling as it is for poker, or so I would imagine.

I learned to ride a motorcycle the hard way. I bought my first bike when I found out how much cheap liability insurance was for motorcycles.

Young and impetuous as any teenager, I sold my car and found the cheapest bike I could afford through a friend of a friend.

Eight hundred bucks for a 1984 Suzuki GS450. If you don’t know the bike, just picture any universal Japanese motorcycle from the 1980s, and you’re probably pretty close. The bike was only a decade old at the time, but it was outdated beyond its years.

The seller was kind enough to throw in a mismatched open-face helmet and to deliver the bike to my doorstep. When the day in question arrived, I was as nervous as someone about to tandem skydive for the first time – and probably about as safe. I was a wreck by the time the doorbell rang.

I stood outside and watched the seller and his friend offload my shiny new/old bike off a trailer. He fired it up and I was impressed to hear how smoothly it ran. It wasn’t just that he’d ridden it that day either; it ran that well until I sold it a few months later. At that point, though, I had never ridden a motorcycle before. The car that I’d sold was a stick shift, so at least I had the gears thing down, but honestly I was about as green as the grass in my parents’ yard that day.

Thankfully, the man selling the bike didn’t want blood on his hands. He took pity on me and spent some time going over how the bike operated. All in all, it was a great bike for a beginner. The average Suzuki of that time had a gear indicator, with lights that lit a number telling you what gear you were in. It was also a vertical twin. With its small displacement and nonexistent torque, it was a difficult bike to get in trouble riding. But I found a way.

The seller explained a couple of things that helped a lot. “Lay off the front brake,” he told me, though I didn’t know why at the time. “Shift earlier than you think you need to,” he added, “and stay in a high gear.” All his advice paid dividends in the long run, but then he came up with the bright idea to stay off the road until I could operate the bike.

My parents lived in a neighbourhood in a large city, but they had a comparatively large back yard. It was one third of an acre – all lawn. The seller thought it such a good idea that I spend time riding it around back there that he rode it around the house himself. He counted his cash out loud before he left me in that yard to fend for myself.

Teaching yourself to ride a motorcycle is fraught with peril, but teenagers are immortal. I climbed aboard without delay. The distance across that lawn was maybe 200 feet, and after a minute of playing around with the throttle I was ready to get rolling.

Of course, I dumped the clutch immediately. But I stuck it out, and soon I had that little bike rolling across the yard. I eased it to a stop, then made a return trip. I must have done that four or five times, barely getting the throttle above idle. Then I started to get bored.

I decided to try to kick up a gear. I revved it and eased out the clutch, then I quickly shifted into second. No sooner had I done that than I realized that the wooden privacy fence that surrounded the property was coming up fast. It got larger and larger, the way a fastball does when it’s headed for your noggin. I’d be fine if that happened to me now, but I was in more trouble than I realised then. I panicked – not for the last time on a motorcycle – and did what instinct dictated.

When I stood on the back brake, the traction was gone immediately. Still in gear, the old UJM jumped and shuttered, but I wasn’t even slowing down.

Still on instinct mode, I hucked the bike over to the left the way a kid does when skidding to a stop on a bicycle, just in time to come crashing sideways into the fence.

Were it better constructed, I may have broken my right leg. As it was, the fence gave way just enough to cause some bruising – to my thigh and to my ego.

That was that. I know some others would have gone back to cars, but I never did. I decided grass was a terrible match for street tyres, and I headed out to learn on the street where that bike belonged. I know that may not have been the best idea either, but I survived. When I sold that bike soon after, it was to buy a mid-sized sport tourer, still my preferred type.

If there is a moral to this story, it’s that being afraid to test your limits will eventually cause you to discover them.

And when you do, you might not be able to adjust to the demands of the situation. I pushed that 450 twin little by little until I found its limits, then and only then did I upgrade. I’m still nudging those limits today, bruised but not broken.

I’m Wesley Pestana – the guy behind First Checkpoint.

There’s a good chance I was taken on my first bike ride before I could even walk and so I’ve set up First Checkpoint with the intention of passing on all the knowledge and skills that have been passed down to me to ensure the growth and enjoyment of this amazing lifestyle.