In Washington State, you have two options for becoming "street legal" with a motorcycle. 1) You can drop by the DMV to take a written knowledge test and arrange a physical skills evaluation, or 2) You can take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's "Basic Rider Course." Passing either option will enable you to get an endorsement for your license to legally operate your motorcycle on public roads and highways. Since I haven't touched a motorcycle in 14 years, the last thing I wanted to do was use my new bike to take the skills test at the DMV, so the MSF BRC was pretty much my only choice (they provide motorcycles for you). Unfortunately, the MSF courses are always full-up months in advance, so it is no easy chore to actually get into a class. The $50 state-subsidized classes were booked well into October, so I ended up paying for the "unsubsidized" course instead (no big deal, since my $368 was reimbursable with my new bike purchase), which only required a month's wait.
The 12-person course itself is a bizarre mixture of classroom learning and hands-on skills building set over a Thursday evening and an entire weekend. As I understand it, the MSF recently did a complete overhaul of the BRC which made for some interesting times as our "Rider Coaches" were struggling to teach a new version of the class for the first time. The classroom stuff is pretty basic, and could have easily been a sleeper except for the great lengths they've gone to in making it entertaining with games, competitions, videos, and such. A different type of learning to be sure, but it does promote retention of the information for today's MTV non-book-reading generation. The multiple-choice a-b-c test itself (given on Saturday evening after an exhausting first day on the riding range) was really simple if you take the time to read the questions carefully (some of them are worded in a tricky manor). I breezed through the test with a perfect score (as did most of the class).
The physical skills training is where the real challenge is. Even though I had ridden before (albeit briefly several years ago) I can honestly say that a good 90% of the skills taught to us were ones I had never even considered doing in "the real world." Being able to make a figure-eight in a single lane of travel is just one of the odd challenges awaiting you in a series of fairly difficult lessons. Now, ultimately, none of the exercises are impossible, but the way you move from one to the other is what makes them harder than they should be. For example, you don't practice making a few low-speed sharp turns before you start in on the figure-eight stuff... you just jump right on into it. Also, you go from an almost straight-line cone-weave to a harsh staggered cone-weave with nothing in-between to prepare you. It seems as though the skills aren't really built from one lesson to another, but are instead forced upon you in rapid succession. To make matters worse, I honestly feel that the class size is too big to promote good learning of the physical skills. Simply riding around the range perimeter to practice shifting gears is made difficult because, with twelve riders, you are almost bumper-to-bumper (so to speak) and if the person ahead of you is slow or having trouble, a domino effect ensues that makes it hard for anybody to get a good practice in. Even worse, for some lessons, I only got one or two attempts at the skill being taught. This makes it impossible to figure out what you might have done wrong your first go-round and practice a correction. There should be a bare-minimum of three (preferably at least five) run-throughs for each rider of each lesson.
Despite my feeling that the physical training left me a bit unprepared for the actual evaluation at the end, I did pass the test (along with seven others in the class). I lost points for 1) crossing a boundary in the figure-eight test, 2) starting my braking before the allowance-line in the "quick-stop" test (they let you try this one again, and I did it right the second time), and 3) not going fast enough into my 135-degree turn test (which, in my defense, I only got to practice once from the left and just twice from the right... a few more practices, and I could have nailed this one easy).
The upshot of taking the MSF BRC is that I learned a heck of a lot. I was not a very experienced rider to begin with (made worse by the 14-year gap since I last rode!), and I can honestly say that the MSF has given me life-saving riding knowledge that I hope I never use, but am awfully glad I now have. I took a lot of notes each night for the skills they taught on the range, and fully plan to practice them every chance I get, knowing that I will be a much better rider because of it. I may even take the course again in the Spring to be sure that I've not picked up any bad habits since passing. With very few reservations, I highly recommend the program to anybody considering riding motorcycles, current riders wanting to improve their skills, or just about anybody looking for a fun (albeit challenging) way to kill a weekend. If you are in the Seattle area, you can take the course from the fine folks at the Evergreen Safety Council.