Learning to Ride a Motorcycle: A ‘How To’ Guide for Beginners
Motorcycle culture has grown to reach the souls of people from every walk of life. It can cut through cultural, religious, racial, and sexist barriers like nothing else on earth. I recall one of my grandfather’s stories when he was once road-tripping solo through the mid-west in his late 60’s. He’d been having some bike problems with his Gold Wing, which looked like it was held together with chicken-wire. It had finally come to the point where he would be stranded road-side, trying to sort out the issue.
About thirty-five-minutes into his diagnosis a group of roughly 20-30 Hells Angels rode past on their rumbling Harley’s; each glancing in his direction as they passed. As they rumbled into the distance and disappeared, grandpa thanked his lucky stars that none of them had stopped. Then, he spotted the last two of the group making a turn across the highway and heading back his way. He got a little antsy, as he was alone and unable to actually go anywhere because of his broken-down bike. These two burly men in decorated black vests would approach my five-foot grandfather and inquire about his bike issues. It seemed that at the back of the pack is where the groups’ mechanics usually rode. These two burly ‘Angels’ had grandpa fixed up and back on the road before he had a chance to break a sweat.
It’s More Than Just a Feeling
Motorcycling is a combination of freedom, adrenaline, the look, and the previously mentioned camaraderie that lures in a range of people. From grocery store clerks that race sport bikes on the weekends, to your local Church Pastor on his cruiser. Men, women, and children alike are often unable to shake off the grips of motorcycle addiction once they’ve been given a little taste. It’s certainly easier than you think, yet you are going to want to have a full understanding of the basics before riding off into the sunset. Safety cannot be stressed enough! Even something as simple as not shutting off your turn signal could get you killed. We want to get you started, so we broke down a few things about learning to ride a motorcycle for beginners.
Knowledge Is Power
There is a high possibility that you can’t just pick up a bike and start riding without first obtaining a special licence, or some basic training depending on your local laws. Though some areas allow you to ride close to someone who has a motorcycle licence without actually obtaining your own. Most places however, require that you have a preliminary motorcycle licence that allows you some time to learn prior to obtaining your full licence. To obtain that licence you are going to be required to take a knowledge test that can be studied for from a text book. Next you will be required to take a road test that is scrutinized by an authorized testing agent, who will ultimately decide if you are fit for the road or not.
You can jump right to the stage previously mentioned, however it might be important to note that you can also take a number of organized and often certified motorcycle safety training classes. These classes will take you by the hand, in a comfortable environment where you are free to ask what you might feel are the stupidest of questions. These classes will walk you through the steps to help you feel more at home on a bike. Places like this often have their own smaller practice bikes that are light-weight and have had a couple of spills already, so one more won’t hurt it. You can also watch any number of YouTube videos by people with varying degrees of experience and read a selection of online articles dedicated to the topic. Like most topics in life, you can never have too much education.
Clothing, It’s More Than Just How You Look!
Ask any experienced rider, and they will tell you rides are not always filled with perfect weather and sunny skies. On a bike you will be forever exposed to the elements, temperature fluctuations, heavy rains, side-winds, snow, and even flying debris from other vehicles. Having the right gear for the job is more than just leather and tassels.
The right jacket should fit you with enough room to be comfortable operating the bike, depending on your riding style. Whether you are hunched over on a crotch rocket, laid back on a cruiser, or up right on a dual sport, the jacket needs to fit the job. It should also hold various elements of protection, with anything from extra padded leather, to re-enforced inserts to cover your shoulders, elbows, and back.
Gloves need to be flexible enough to reach clutch and brake leavers, as well strong enough to hold themselves together on a nasty fall. They need to be breathable enough to avoid you from getting sweaty hands that could either lessen your grip, or eventually make them cold.
Riding pants hold similar characteristics to your jacket and should suit the needs of your riding. Be it heavy off-roading or casual rides down the coast line. At the most basic level you can use a sturdy pair of jeans, though we wouldn’t recommend anything less.
Boots, like all riding gear, come in all shapes & sizes, depending on your style and specific bike needs. Some important things to remember are to wear a closed toe shoe and that loose laces are just asking for trouble with your chain, spokes, or any of the other moving bike parts. You will need a certain amount of space to slide the boot down and under the shifter to switch gears as well, so for this you might want to avoid big steel-toed boots.
Lastly, and most importantly, the helmet. Helmets for road use in the United States need to meet a minimum standard and are marked with a “DOT“ certification sticker. To get full details about how your new helmet should fit, talk to your local dealer and perhaps watch some instructional videos online. Helmets range from the most basic of skull-caps that just cover the top of your head and is a slightly safer than a baseball cap. Right up to full face helmets that cover everything from the neck up and include a chain bar. They can be bought in all shapes, sizes, and colors including anything from blue tooth, listening speakers, to a rear-view camera giving you 360-degree vison. A helmet is a fragile thing. You’ll probably notice when shopping for them that there will be a sign posted stating if you drop it, you buy it! We do not have recommend buying a used helmet that you cannot verify the history of.
Image source: mc508.com
You probably already have a motorcycle style in mind that you are looking for. Maybe the word ’Harley’ has been marketed enough in your mind that you think it will equate to all the freedom you’ve been searching for. It’s possible that you have a need for speed. So nothing short of a Hayabusa will put you on track for an early grave, maybe that’s what you’re after? Whatever your choice, it’s crucial you can handle the bike; it’s weight, controls, your ability to touch the ground, and so on.
I was witness to a very short lady who was given a larger cruiser bike as a gift from her husband. During a motorcycle training course where the students were asked to stop the bike on a ramp, shut it off, then start it to continue riding. As soon as she stopped, she fell over with the bike on her as she could not properly touch the ground or handle the weight of it. This my friends will not encourage you to keep riding. Adjustments can be made to make bikes taller and shorter, though it is usually best to stick to a manufacturers built specific bike, as not to offset other aspects of its design capabilities. A bike that is too small might not be able to safely maintain highway speeds or be heavy enough to keep itself sturdy while passing traffic; a bike that is too heavy, will have you struggling at stop lights to keep it on two-wheels. Not every seller or even new dealer is going to let you test drive a motorcycle, so do a little research and maybe ask a friend to try one of theirs before making your purchase.
Get to Know Your Baby
When you do finally cash in on your dreams and buy a motorcycle, or even if you are borrowing a friend's bike, it’s best to get to know your baby. What makes a motorcycle operate, is not so much different from your regular car. They have brakes, signals, an engine, tires, and so on. What sets them apart is how each of those things operate and remember that each bike might be slightly different. First off, you’ll want to take a walk around the motorcycle to see if you spot any obvious issues or something you didn’t know existed. Maybe the bike has a flat tire, loose chain, or you weren’t aware the location of the rear brake lever.
Sit on your bike and gauge the travel distance from your kickstand to the ground, noting what it might require to park the bike on an up or downhill slope. Sit upright and see if the bike actually feels comfortable while you are on it. No one wants to be riding an uncomfortable bike for very long. Can your feet actually touch the ground and keep you balanced? What if you had a passenger, can you stand stable enough to support the both of you and the bike?
Play with all the controls so you know how the high and low beams operate, where the kill switch is for emergencies, or simply how to turn the bike off. Is the horn easy to operate and working, if at some point you need to make yourself seen? As motorcyclists are often noted as invisible on the roads, this is a very important feature that must be working! You also need to know how the turn signal works. You will usually need to manually push in or shut off your turn signal after turning. Not doing this could communicate the wrong information to people behind you and might get you injured or even killed. The clutch and brake levers are located just in front of your grips and should be played with so you know the exact travel before transmission engagement or disengagement. What is the distance before your front brake starts to be applied? Do your feet sit comfortably on the foot pegs and can you easily access the rear brake and slide your toes under the gear shifter? You will want to play with the gears to understand how to put the bike into neutral as well. This is usually indicated by a green light on the dash; know how many gears you have to work with, usually one down and 4-5 up.
Image source: quadlockcase.ca
Let's Get Moving!
Getting to know the operations and understanding the bike is crucial. This is best done when under the supervision of someone with riding experience when it is time to test the roads. With the key on and kill switch off, you’ll want to find neutral again. Pull in the clutch an as extra safety measure, then hit the starter button. Now is a great opportunity to slowly walk with the bike while working the clutch slowly in and out to understand its point of engagement. Once comfortable, you can slowly ride around with no throttle applied and get a feel for the bikes weight & balance. Now is a good time to learn the brakes and practice applying the front, then apply the front and back simultaneously. Most of the braking power from a motorcycle comes from the front. If you’re feeling comfortable, shift gears and start riding around the empty parking lot of your choice.
The steps to riding a motorcycle can seem overwhelming so take them one at a time. It’s easier and less complex than people perceive it to be in their heads. Safety however cannot be stressed enough, as being on a motorcycle leaves you directly exposed to everything on the open road. This ranges from weather, animals, and of course other vehicles and their drivers. You are not likely to win a crash contest with any other vehicle on the road and despite the bright colors you are wearing, most car drivers involved in a motorcycle accident say they never saw the rider at all. Get to know your gear, your bike, and all of its operations before hitting the open road. It’s best to practice in large open spaces like empty parking lots, and it’s always best to learn with experienced riders who know the answers to your questions. Take it easy, have fun, and be safe. They say there is no such thing as a bad day on a bike!
*Opening photo criedit, SkidBike