Bangor Area Motorcycle School instructor Brad Swift watches as Nathaniel Bowden of Bucksport begins a training exercise at BAM's school located in the former Sears parking lot at the Bangor Mall, July 20, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Earlier this month, Ryan Miles of Old Town was riding his motorcycle without a state motorcycle endorsement when he took a corner too slow and his bike slid out from under him. He was wearing a helmet and wasn’t severely injured, but the pavement scraped his arm, and his motorcycle needs to be repaired. 

The following week, he learned exactly what he did wrong when he took a two-day motorcycle training course at a new school in the former Sears parking lot at the Bangor Mall. 

Miles grew up in New Hampshire and received his motorcycle endorsement when he was 17 without taking a training course. His endorsement expired after he moved to Maine, however, and he delayed renewing it because he didn’t own a motorcycle and didn’t think he needed it.

But he later decided to buy a Harley-Davidson and began riding again before getting a Maine motorcycle endorsement. 

“I was foolish for riding before I had my endorsement back and, unfortunately, I learned the hard way,” Miles, 42, said. “I wasn’t hurt and my bike can be fixed, but if I had taken the training course first, I wouldn’t have done that.” 

Miles is one of roughly 100 students who have graduated from the Bangor Area Motorcycle School since Terry Atwood started the business in May. On Wednesday, four students hoping to earn their endorsements took the first of two days of training. Students spent the day alternating between classroom instruction and cruising through a painted course to test their new skills, such as braking quickly but smoothly if the vehicle in front stops short. 

Atwood opened the school at a time when the state has seen a surge in interest in motorcycle riding, with a record number of people taking motorcycle training courses last year. In addition, Maine has seen a spike in fatal crashes involving motorcycles this year, with the state already matching last year’s number of motorcycle fatalities — 21 — just 6 1/2 months into the year.

A man rides a motorcycle during a class at a motorcycle school.
Students from the Bangor Area Motorcycle School practice their skills as part of the school’s two-day basic skills course at the school’s location in the former Sears parking lot at the Bangor Mall, July 20, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Atwood, who has been teaching people how to ride motorcycles for 20 years and riding for more than 50 himself, said he founded the school after seeing a need in Bangor, given that Maine law requires people to complete a hands-on rider education program to earn a motorcycle endorsement. 

“Bangor is the third largest city by population in Maine,” he said. “It’s too bad people have to travel to get to the nearest training school now that the course is mandatory.” 

Atwood said he chose to lease the former Sears parking lot because it’s an accessible and large open space at the Bangor Mall. The motorcycle school is the latest in a handful of non-retail businesses that have opened at the mall in recent years.

Atwood repaved the neglected lot and painted road lanes and markers that meet Motorcycle Safety Foundation standards. Atwood also placed a large construction trailer in the parking lot that he uses as a classroom. 

In his two-day training courses, Atwood teaches everything from how to turn properly to how to stop in an emergency. Students take 10 hours of hands-on training on motorcycles and five hours of classroom instruction, which follows Motorcycle Safety Foundation standards. 

Students then take two exams with Atwood: a skills test on the road and a written exam. If they pass both, Atwood said, students automatically receive their motorcycle endorsement without taking a state examination. 

Both Atwood and Miles said the training course emphasizes safety above everything, which is increasingly important amid Maine’s rise in fatal motorcycle crashes this year. 

Of those who have died in motorcycle crashes so far this year, about two-thirds were not wearing helmets, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shannon Moss.

“Who knows how many of those folks would have lived if they had been wearing a helmet?” Atwood said. “We encourage full riding gear from head to toe because the pavement is like a cheese grater on your skin, and it’s unforgiving on your skull. You hear things like, ‘I don’t want to have helmet hair;’ ‘I want to feel the breeze in my hair;’ ‘I want to look cool.’ It’s jaded.” 

Atwood said he suspects the rising number of fatal motorcycle crashes can be attributed to riders’ poor safety habits coupled with the number of people who ride motorcycles without a motorcycle endorsement and haven’t undergone formal training. 

The state began requiring people to complete a motorcycle safety course to receive a motorcycle endorsement in 2017. The Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, however, doesn’t offer motorcycle safety training courses. Riders must receive the training from schools that partner with the BMV and offer the Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum.

“Maine has really improved in the last few decades in terms of the quality of training and making sure people have some training,” he said. “I just wish we could get more folks to take us up on it.” 

The number of Mainers seeking a motorcycle endorsement has been increasing steadily in recent years. Last year, 123,240 people had a motorcycle endorsement, up from 117,478 in 2017, according to state records. 

Brad Swift, a Bangor Area Motorcycle School instructor who was guiding students through the course on Wednesday, estimated about 40 percent of those who enroll have been riding a motorcycle for years but never obtained an endorsement. 

A teacher at a motorcycle school rides a bike.
Brad Swift, and instructor for the Bangor Area Motorcycle School instructs students July 20, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Atwood said people who are just learning how to ride often do better on the road test because they haven’t developed bad habits like those who have already been riding illegally for years. 

One of the most common bad habits he sees both in his class and on the road is riders braking with only one hand, or with just a few fingers — which deprives the rider of the motorcycle’s full stopping power.

“I hear people say they don’t want to use the front brake because they don’t want to go over the handlebars,” he said. “That’s a bad habit to have because when you don’t use the front brake, you’re missing out on 70 percent of your stopping power.” 

When people use only two fingers to pull the brake, they don’t have the strength of their whole hand if they need to brake quickly. 

Signs are up on a wall at a motorcycle school.
A sign hands inside the classroom space of the Bangor Area Motorcycle School, July 20, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

“When people need to react quickly, they react with their habits,” Atwood said. “If they have bad habits, it’s not going to be good.” 

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...