Sean MacDonald

I Taught My Whole Family To Ride Motorcycles For Christmas

How Kawasaki's KLX140G made my family understand the thing I love most

While many people assume that my career was born out of a life centered on growing up with motorcycles, I actually didn't start riding until my mid 20's. Growing up, motorcycles were never really around or a part of my family's lives (except for that time I bought one the summer after high school and my mom wouldn't let me ride it). Now that I've had this job a while, my parents (mom and step-dad) have turned their fear of the death machines into support, which meant it was time to push their education by getting them some seat time. I was going to teach them to ride.

I brought home the Yamaha YZ250FX and Kawasaki KLX140G home for ChristmasSean MacDonald

This brilliant idea came about, mind you, over Thanksgiving, when my mom said it would be funny to bring a motorcycle home for the holidays. That sounded like permission to me and I was going to hold her to it.

Back yard
The Lockwood/MacDonald track is open for businessSean MacDonald

To keep my promise, I reached out to Kawasaki about its new KLX140G, an updated version of the KLX140 that has full sized tires. I knew it was just the thing to teach my family to love motorcycles. At the bike's launch, which they for some reason held at an OHV area instead of some random field somewhere, I even told them that the bike wasn't great at being a real dirtbike but would be perfect for having fun with riders of any skill in someone's yard. They must have forgotten, because they found it odd when I asked for a KLX140G for Christmas.

I promised I'd been a good boy this year, and luckily they agreed.

Glenn got real serious, and brought home cones and line paint from the school to mark cornersSean MacDonald

I also took our Yamaha YZ250FX home, because two bikes are better than one and because I'm trying to suck less at wheelies, and I had some hope that I'd find the time to go ride some proper trails somewhere.

My mother had never been on a motorcycle. She's taught elementary school in the small town I grew up in and I don't think sports have ever really been her thing. Glenn, my step dad, was the principal at my elementary school, and we've had a relationship since before he and my mom married. In junior college, we had Sunday morning basketball games with other dads from our town and he would open up the gym late at nights for us to have dodgeball tournaments with our friends. He would also field calls from the police when we got caught playing capture the flag at the school in the wee hours of the morning, or that time I got chased by a police helicopter for bombing hills on my longboard skateboard. He's very athletic, though he's been taking it easy after he had a heart attack while playing basketball earlier this year (don't worry, he's fine now).

My brother Thomas, who'd be joining in on the fun, is a year and a half younger and something like a quieter, more Chuck Norris version of me. He's always spear fishing or snow camping or doing something that sounds cold and miserable and like too much walking to me. Whereas I'm a sissy as soon as I'm uncomfortable in any way, the dude feels no pain and runs half marathons after training on a strict diet of candy, fast food cheeseburgers, and playing video games. The only thing I have on him is that he's terrible at sports that require coordination, and his only experience with a bike was when he dropped my friend's $600 pink Kawasaki Ninja 500 in an alley behind my house a few years ago.

Gabe, my other brother, has never really had much interest in anything physical, and hadn't ridden anything besides the riding lawnmower. I wasn't even sure he'd be excited about the idea, but he said he was in too.

We knew where to find Glenn whenever he went missing from the houseSean MacDonald

I got in mid afternoon on Christmas Eve and mom was out picking up some last minute things, which meant Glenn and I had the bikes off the truck and out in the field less than five minutes after I pulled up. I ran a few laps "to test the course" before handing it over. Glenn had ridden decades ago, but is a quick study and was putting around within seconds. Worried we'd both get in trouble for not waiting to crash before my mom could see riding, we put them away and got to catching up.

You know when someone has been bit, and Glenn was bit bad. He couldn't help himself from asking questions about riding or talking through what he was doing on the bike or explaining his thinking behind the track layout he'd cut or how it could be better. And he couldn't stop smiling.

The bottom of the track was a mud pit by the end of the first few hoursSean MacDonald

Mom finally got home and the groceries were unloaded quickly. Both Glenn and I tried to not rush, but the smile on his face when she asked, "so where are these bikes?" told me he was as anxious as I to go play again. The rain had soaked the ground, which meant the track was turning to mud incredibly quickly. We took most of the afternoon fairly easy as a result, though I had a pretty incredible low side and Glenn tipped over a few times.

That afternoon, we made plans for the next day and thought about ways to re-route the track for less mud before packing the bikes away just as my brother Thomas and his girlfriend Kim arrived from Seattle and the sun set, which meant it was time for dinner.

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Brother Thomas getting the hang of itSean MacDonald

Christmas day came a little different this year. All of my siblings are older now and there aren't kids around, so the morning has gotten later and more relaxed over the years. This year was different though. This year we were all little kids. This year we all wanted to play with the new toys that had arrived this Christmas.

Gabe had come by sometime late in the night so he could wake up and share the morning with us, only this year he'd come in jeans instead of pajamas in preparation. Presents were opened and breakfast eaten and yada, yada, yada and then it was time to ride. Looking around, this was exciting to Glenn and I, but a little nerve racking to everyone else.

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Little brother Gabe suiting up for his first shotSean MacDonald

The thing about the Kawasaki KLX140G is that it is so incredibly easy to ride. With some ten horsepower, it's pretty much happy whether you release the clutch smoothly or dump it. The larger wheels (18-inch in back and 21-inch up front) meant my brother and I at six-feet-tall or so didn't feel too cramped, while my small mother didn't feel too intimidated (in hindsight, something even shorter would have been better for her). The bike was built to take a bit of a beating, and the transmission works smoothly and the light progressive clutch really made teaching use of the friction zone much easier. Disc brakes both front and rear meant the bike has a nice brake feel, which comes in handy when you have a half dozen riders who struggle to even think about using their feet for anything more than balance.

Glenn was a natural, though knee injuries from playing sports and being an active principal prohibited him from sitting up on the tank or moving easily on the bike. Thomas and Gabe both struggled with letting out the clutch smoothly at first, but Thomas was actually a natural at getting off the seat and toward the top of the bike, and was starting to slide the rear within an hour.

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I've never been more proud of the guySean MacDonald

Gabe also got the hang of things pretty quickly. His preferred method of getting into first and moving was a little less smooth than it could be, but it didn't seem to bother him any to have a little drama getting off the line. He did, however, struggle with target fixation, which sent him into a fence pretty good. Luckily, we're talking about a 200 pound motorcycle at incredibly low speeds in soft, wet dirt. We untangled the front wheel from the fence quickly, and he was back at it in minutes.

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If only he'd gone around the mud like we told him toSean MacDonald

The fastest learner (besides Glenn), was actually my brother's girlfriend Kim, who seemed to be a natural. She doesn't really have the need for adrenaline that kept us boys spinning the rear and putting down the faster laps, but she was incredibly smooth with the clutch and throttle.

Finally, after everyone else had tamed the green beast, my mom worked up the courage to give it a shot. I could tell that by this point, after seeing me throw the bike around and slide into turns, the whole thing seemed more aggressive than she really planned for, but she said she would and she raised us to believe that our words meant something. She was going to give it a shot.

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What could possibly go wrong here?Sean MacDonald

At this point everyone was being a coach and, while I felt pretty confident that I would guide her best, Glenn sort of took over the reins with his thoughts on how best to start out. Seeing as how he'd just learned himself, I thought his insights could likely best mine, at least until she whiskey throttled through the chairs she'd set up to sit in and watch us from, and headed straight for one of the wood piles. Fortunately, she found the front brake before making impact, which tucked the front and sent her to the ground. The video footage is a little too late and a little too shoddy, but we were all relieved to hear her cracking up when the motor stalled. "What happened?!?!" she exclaimed as she pulled herself to her feet. Thank. God.

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The aftermath of my mother's first few feetSean MacDonald

We got her back up and I had her do some drills with getting the bike into gear and riding for a few feet and then stopping, so that she could practice getting through the friction zone and getting the bike stopped (which was now terrifying her). Thirty minutes later she was putting around the yard laughing hysterically. My mom. Of all people. Riding a motorcycle.

That's when Glenn pulled out the whiteboard and the timer. It was time to race. And as comes with racing, it was also time to crash.

I'm not going to lie, Glenn's first big low side in the bottom corner of the track had me a little worried when he didn't get up. I'd made a nine inch deep rut, but he wasn't as able to get on top of the bike as I was and we all watched in half horror as he went down with the bike on top of him. I was relieved when he finally got up and brushed himself off, but a little worried when he rode down the middle of the field back towards the house instead of staying on the track. I really didn't want anyone to have a bad experience.

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This guy continues to be, and has been a hero of mine since I was in the first gradeSean MacDonald

Glenn wasn't bummed, however, just determined, and he rode back to our makeshift start and charged down the first straight at another attempt at our muddy corner. He went down again, this time much more softly, and again charged back up the center of the field for a third attempt. This time he got it, and the look on his face when he pulled back around was the same any of us had the first time we got our knee down. He'd figured something out and conquered this riding obstacle. He was one of us.

He came back in to talk about it, but I stopped him after his opening statement was "I'm not going as fast as you, but I think I'm figuring some things out." It was then that it hit me that the beauty of riding on a track, regardless of the type of track, wasn't the speed; it was the universality of the experience. I explained it to him like this:

"The thing is, we're having the exact same experience today. Sure, I'm going a little faster than you, but we're both trying to figure out how to go faster, how to get through corners better, how to navigate the same tough parts. We're both pushing our comfort levels the same way, and we're both having a blast. Unless you're a professional, the actual miles per hour matters the least of all of it. We're having the EXACT same experience."

That, there, is the beauty of motorcycles. It's the same whether I'm riding a 9- or 10-hp dirtbike in our family's yard as it is at California Superbike School on 200-hp superbikes with my buddies as it is practicing wheelies in the lake bed at Ocotillo as it is on the trails in the Sierras on dual sports. It's all about chasing progress and fun.

As the sun set and we started to get cleaned up and the Christmas phone calls came in, I heard Glenn recite my explanation to a number of people as he recounted his day. It was as if I'd somehow released him of the pressure of needing to do it perfectly. It didn't matter that he couldn't really sit up on the tank or wasn't doing it like the flat trackers. It was the spirit of riding that mattered. He had an exhausted look of joy on his face that every single person reading these words has had. He was now one of us. He was now a motorcyclist.

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Teaching them to ride doesn't mean taking it easy come race timeSean MacDonald

I left the day after Christmas and stopped by Monterey to see some extended family. I was only going to be there for a night as I was heading to Baja the next day, which normally meant just enough time for some bridge and for my uncle to get the whole family drunk on manhattans, and I fully intended to keep the bikes in the bed of the truck. But curiosity got the better of them, too, and the bikes were in the horse field an hour after I got to the house. One uncle used to ride a decade ago, another two decades ago, and no one else (a newphew and an aunt) had ever been on one. Grandma pulled up a chair and laughed incessantly as everyone fumbled their way through learning. But learn they did. And laugh and love they did too.

The most amazing part was how much this little, now muddy motorcycle connected all of us. My entire family, in which I'm a bit of an alien, finally got it. Every single person (nine total!) who threw a leg over this little KLX140G learned to ride a motorcycle over those three days. Better yet, they finally understood why I loved motorcycles so much, and they began to love them themselves.

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Thomas, Gabe, my mom, and I in our Christmas bestGlenn Lockwood

The hardest part about talking or writing about motorcycles is that so much of the experience, what draws us to the wanting to go faster or go farther, is emotional and hard to capture in words. It's something you just have to feel for yourself. And, for many people, that's where their interest in motorcycles stops. Someone scared them by lane splitting too close or they saw an accident or a video of some bozo looping his bike out. It doesn't matter how much you tell them that those people aren't the norm or that they were being dumb. Those videos look like they hurt and that's enough for people to decide motorcycles aren't for them.

Turns out, more words and videos aren't the answer. The cheapest motorcycles you can find and a back yard though, now that just might be. That's a thing that stirs hearts.

I hadn't made it half way back down south before Glenn text me with ideas to build a berm in one of the turns and a mini table top for a jump next year. I guess I'll have to put in more time on this little thing, as you can bet next year's race will be a whole lot more competitive. Another year or two and we'll be able to open this little Christmas race up for you all to come join.

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The Kawasaki KLX140G was perfect for a crash course in riding motorcyclesSean MacDonald
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The dogs were always in towSean MacDonald
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Naturally, we set up a little shooting range in the center of the trackSean MacDonald
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Gabe after his spill in the mudSean MacDonald
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Gabe got the hang of it quicklySean MacDonald
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I brought home boots, helmets, goggles, and gloves, but Chuck Norris here didn't careSean MacDonald
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Brother Thomas teaching his girlfriend to rideSean MacDonald
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Couples that ride together, stay togetherSean MacDonald
Yamaha YZ250FX
The Yamaha 250FX was way too much bike for the soft ground and small track, but it was great for scaring the crap out of ThomasSean MacDonald
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This thing never missed a beatSean MacDonald
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Used and abused, the Kawasaki KLX140G was an amazing choice for the week's activitiesSean MacDonald