Passionate about motorcycles from a young age—a talented rider and mechanically gifted—when a devastating medical condition affected his memory and information processing, it challenged Robbie’s dream of becoming a motorcycle technician.
My father encouraged my interest in motorcycles. He got his first motorcycle, a Yamaha DT100 when he was 12 or 13; he was riding and working on bikes before I was born. When I was 4, my parents bought me a Trials motorcycle—a 50cc GasGas Trials Motorcycle. My dad put me on it, and I took off. I practiced riding all the time and began competing in motorcycle trials. My dad had his bike in the shed and 4 feet to the right was my bike. We tinkered with them before and after events.
Observed Trials or MotoTrials are non-speed events, in which competitors are scored on their technique and ability to balance, as they ride over rocks and logs. Riders lose points anytime they put their foot down. At the end of the day, the rider with the lowest score wins the trial. My father had begun participating in observed trials after breaking his leg, while competing in a motocross competition as a teenager.
My dad and I along with several others in the New England Trials Community flew to Sequatchie, TN to attend a World Round for the best Observed Motorcycle Trials riders in the world. It was mid-July and very hot. After the event we went back to the hotel and showered. I sat down on the bed and had a seizure—my first. At the hospital, no one knew why I had had the seizure; we thought it was brought on by the heat. Weeks later, when I had a second seizure, I was diagnosed with having refractory epilepsy, a type that isn’t completely controlled by medication.
I’d fall down and be unconscious for 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes I’d hit and gash my head. I would always feel ‘foggy’ and exhausted afterwards. At 10, unable to ride because of the danger of having a seizure, I was forced to give up riding. It would be 10 years before I could get on a motorcycle again.
During 2013 I had surgery to implant a Vagus Nerve Stimulator or VNS that the doctors told me had a high success rate. It is often called a pacemaker for the brain. The VNS device is implanted under the skin in the upper left chest. It has wires that stimulate the left vagus nerve in the neck. Every couple of minutes, the device delivers a mild shock along the vagus nerve to the brainstem, which then sends signals that interrupt the unusual brain activity that would cause seizures.
When I was finally able to take the written test at the DMV, it took me extra studying time in order to pass. I got my permit while I was a student at MTTI. Two months after graduating I got my driver’s license—I passed the driving test first shot.
But the seizures I had in the past damaged my long-term memory and ability to process information. When I first began having seizures, I would remember how to do every-day tasks, but couldn’t recall people from the past. I’d eat breakfast in the morning, but 3 hours later, I couldn’t remember what I had eaten. Now I am able to recall parts of my life before I had epilepsy—the house, my room, the shed. I can only remember some of what my home environment looked like after I had the seizures; the mulch and dirt in the garden, for example—but not the flowers growing there.
After my family moved to Massachusetts, we would be driving on Route 6 and we’d see MTTI’s building. On the school’s website, I read about the subjects we would learn in the motorcycle program. I felt something like awe when I visited the school and saw all the engines on shelves in the shop. I was excited that I would be working hands-on with bikes in a school.
I told them that they would need to explain things to me 3 and 4 times for me to get it. Gary and Billy were patient with me and explained things well. I wrote out the steps of the major tasks I needed to do. I had a notepad with me on which I had written ‘how to change a tubeless tire’ and ‘how to disconnect a battery’. I kept all my work orders in a binder from MTTI, including work I did for my uncle and for a friend. I can remember doing the tire changes at MTTI and once I was hired at Brockton Cycle Center, I was able to repeat those steps at my job.
Everyone was nice to work with. You wouldn’t find that at many schools. If Gary and Billy were helping other students, I would ask one of them for help. By the end of the course, we felt like brothers. Since graduating, I’ve remained in touch with some of the friends I made.
In high school, you do an assignment for homework, and then a week later have a test. Then you move on to a whole different area of study. At MTTI, when you learn about 4-stroke engines, you’ll first be in the classroom with Gary at the whiteboard and that afternoon you’ll be in the shop, adjusting the cam chain. We each had our own engines in the shop to work on. I was able to do each skill 2-3 times. Repetition is the only way that learning works for me.
I worked on an engine that belongs to my father. I had taken the engine apart of a 45-year-old bike I bought, a ’75 Yamaha DT 100, that I worked on for my 2-stroke project. On the weekends, the two of us ripped that thing down to the bare bones. My dad had all of the metal sand blasted and powder coated, and then had it painted. My dad went on Yamaha’s website and bought all new parts for bike and engine that we needed to restore them, so it would work better. We got a new seat cover, lights, tire rims—everything. To finish the whole motor, we did all the measurements. We put in new nuts and bolts, new pistons and piston rings, crank shaft and push rod.
I completed 5 weeks of internship at New England Golf Carts. It was a good experience, but different than working on motorcycles. And unlike the engines I was used to. I just wanted to be and only be, a motorcycle mechanic. I began searching for positions at motorcycle shops and dealerships. I applied to a Harley dealership, but the position was filled while I waited for my interview. The company would have had to fly me to Florida to train for a week and I would have needed to pass the course. Harley-Davidson motorcycles can be complex and the faster pace at that particular dealership may have been too much for me.
Even before I got my driver’s permit, my parents called a friend that sells Trials bikes and they bought a bike for me, a Sherco 290. I started practicing in the woods, and in Exeter, RI where we have event. After 2 months of practicing, I decided it was time to compete in an event that was coming up in Exeter. I competed in the Novice class. When the event was over and I saw the scoreboard, I was surprised to see that I had placed second. My dad said, “After 10 years you still have it—you haven’t lost it.”
I clicked on the ad, selected the position I wanted to fill and sent them my application electronically. I was contacted by Jim and scheduled an interview for the following Monday. At Brockton Cycle Center, I interviewed with the owner, Alex, and with Jim. Jim walked me through the shop and asked if I could do tire changes, oil changes and other basic tasks. I said I could.
He asked me to take out the old lights and install the new lights on a bike. He said, “Write out the work order and tell me how many hours you worked.” New techs are typically paid by the hour. Their ad had stated: “flat rate” where you are paid for the work you do, not the hours you have worked. I’m building hours. I have progressed from changing headlights to changing plastics, to doing oil changes, new tires and adjusting chains and now I am replacing brakes.
I can keep up with him now, not as a rider…I’m not even close to him in riding, but as a mechanic. He has an extra 40 or so years of experience as a rider. One day, after I’ve worked long enough, I’ll be able to help him out with something he doesn’t know how to do.
All of those guys are ProMaster mechanics who know how to do their work to the highest standards. They have top-of-the-line tools. As a mechanic, my goal is to get motorcycles to the standard where it is safe and passes inspection. I tell myself to treat each bike as if it were my own. You don’t want the ‘check engine’ light to come on 10 minutes down the road after leaving the cycle shop!
On the job, doing 2-3 oil changes in one day, I can still remember how to do it a few days later. I’ve been slowly increasing my speed and getting more work done. More work means more stress and is more tiring, but you also make more money. Working at Brockton Cycle Center is a good foot in the door to the industry—it’s a perfect fit for me. I am gaining a lot of experience.
I remember the good memories better than the bad. I can recall what we did at MTTI because I had a great experience there. I had confidence in what I had learned and kept believing I could be a Motorcycle Technician even when I wasn’t hired right away. It’s taken me a little longer, but I’ve gotten to where everybody who graduated with me is, gainfully employed!
Robbie has been the co-chair of the Rhode Island Walk for Epilepsy multiple times since 2013.
During 2013, Robbie was one of 47 teens chosen by the National Epilepsy Foundation from across the country to participate in the Kids Speak Up! Conference in Washington, D.C., where he gained the skills necessary to become a teen advocate for those living with epilepsy. He has participated in The Adolescent Leadership Council of Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and has been a camp counselor for TALC Jr. Robbie has been a founding member of the Adolescent Action Committee with Brown University, and has worked with The Matty Fund.
During 2016, Robbie was selected as one of Rhode Island’s Distinguished Finalists in the 21st Annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards Program.