Throttle Jockey: 10 tips for new motorcycle riders

Ducati

So, you want to ride a motorcycle. How hard can it be, right? The truth is, at a basic level, especially with today’s modern bikes, it’s pretty easy. But therein lies the danger. If you think you can just saddle up, go slow, and be safe, you’re wrong. So before you invest in the wrong bike, buy the wrong gear and ride the wrong—and perhaps fatal—way, take these ten tips for new riders into consideration.

1. Know what you are getting into.

If you are thinking about riding because you have a genuine interest and curiosity about it, bravo and keep reading. If you’re thinking about getting a bike because your friends are riding or for some supposed “cool” factor, those are the wrong reasons to start riding. That may sound harsh, but unless you really, truly want to ride motorcycles and are willing to work at becoming a proficient rider, you have no business on a bike and it could end badly for you. You’re free to do what you like of course, just keep in mind that this is a potentially high-risk activity that should not be undertaken lightly. If that little voice in your head is saying, “This does not seem like the thing for me,” it’s probably a good idea to heed that advice and just save yourself a bunch of money and hassle.

2. Go to school.

Riding a motorcycle is not like riding a powered bicycle–do not be fooled. Yes, the basic bits and physics are the same (two wheels, handlebars, brakes), but riding a motorcycle compared to a bicycle is like piloting a Cessna compared to flying a jumbo jet. You need to know how to do one to do the other, but once you get past that, there’s a ton more to learn. Take an MSF beginner course to learn the basics. They supply the bike (typically an easy-to-ride 250cc model) and some gear. You’ll need a weekend to complete the course. They even have online courses now. Your neighbor/friend/uncle/significant other who offers to “teach you how to ride” will most likely not be able to supply the same holistic level of correct information and instruction as the MSF, so kindly decline.

3. Get a bike that fits.

Anyone who’s gotten into motorcycling usually did it because they had a strong desire and a clear vision of themselves riding. But what to ride? A key decision will be what kind of bike you get. Typically, a giant, heavy bike is not a good first bike, but again, it depends on you, your size, your desires and what kind of riding you want to do. Talk to a dealer or a veteran rider who can steer you towards the right bike. Remember, there is no such thing as a “safe motorcycle” (or car or boat or plane or bicycle, etc.), it’s how you operate and maintain the machine that keeps you safe – or not.

4. Gear up.

There’s an old saying in motorcycling: if you’ve got a ten dollar head, wear a ten dollar helmet. It’s as true today as it ever was. Buying the bike is just one aspect of riding; choosing the correct gear is another. Not to state the obvious, but your motorcycle isn’t going to have doors, a roll cage, or the general safety cocoon we now have with cars. You are small and vulnerable in traffic, traffic that is now filled with distracted drivers sending text messages and other nimrods who can’t be trusted to see you – or even care if they see you, sadly. So gear up: that means a quality full-face DOT/Snell-certified helmet, a jacket with armor, riding pants (widely available as jeans or even as an undergarment), riding boots, reinforced gloves and even additional upper body armor and neck protection if you want. Modern motorcycle gear is awesome: it both looks and performs great. Go to a bike shop and tell the clerk you need to gear up. Don’t skimp. And then when it’s time to ride, wear the gear, every time. It can most definitely save your life. And you’ll look and feel bad-ass with it on.

5. Ride to learn.

Want to be a better rider? Then get out there and ride. Practice makes… well, better, at least. Commute on your bike. Find some riding buddies and map out some weekend rides – or go solo. The more you ride, the more you learn about moving with traffic, improve your “riding vision” and how your bike behaves under different circumstances. Make riding a learning opportunity, every time. Some rides will teach you little things, some days are breakthroughs. You’ll only find out if you put in the miles. And besides, riding is fun. If you find it isn’t, stop riding, sell the bike and find another hobby. Seriously.

6. Keep your bike in tip-top shape.

Cars are so maintenance-free now we tend to neglect them until some kind of warning light comes on. This is not a good strategy for motorcycles. Your motorcycle is an essential part of your safety gear (and in reality, the same goes for cars), so keep it in the best shape you can. That doesn’t mean a wash and wax, that means checking brake pad levels, tire tread levels, tire air pressure, oil condition, engine tune and things like steering bearings, lights and so forth. Get to know your bike inside and out.

Don’t think you can do the maintenance yourself? Then find a good local shop that other riders recommend and have your bike checked out every spring. Tires worn down? Replace them ASAP. Funny sound? Find out what it is. Buying a used bike? Get it thoroughly checked out. Some bike shops offer bike care clinics to teach you the basics like changing oil and other simple tasks. Consider attending as many as you can. Also, a bike in top condition is more fun to ride and confidence-inspiring.

7. Get your carcass into good shape.

If you’ve been letting your physical condition slip a bit, just consider this: the lighter you are, the faster your bike will accelerate. It also takes leg, arm and core strength to ride any kind of motorcycle. The top riders in MotoGP are some of the most highly conditioned athletes in the world. This ain’t NASCAR. Being in good shape improves the riding experience (well, pretty much any experience) and as a side benefit, your gear looks better on you as well. Use your riding habit to improve your fitness habit. We suggest bicycling.

8. Realize the risks.

Always carry insurance on your bike, full coverage if possible. Got a family? Get life and disability insurance, and get your affairs/paperwork/will in order. Every ride (or car trip or plane flight or ski run or sushi fest) could be your last. Be prepared if the worst happens so your loved ones aren’t left with a financial mess.

9. Don’t be an idiot.

Today’s top sport bikes can achieve Indy-car levels of acceleration and top speeds close to 200mph – usually for about $15,000 brand new. Even the most basic middleweight (600cc) bikes can achieve thrilling speeds on par with expensive sports cars. There is a time and place to use those incredible abilities – and most public roadways are not it. That doesn’t mean ride like you’re paralyzed by fear, but do use common sense. Go the speed of traffic, stay out of blind sports and don’t treat corners like a gran prix track. Wanna feed your need for speed? Go to a track day and take your skills to the next level in a legal manner. You’ll find that many experienced riders on the fastest bikes are indeed very fast and skillful at the track, but they ride carefully and way off the power on the street. And don’t be an asshole. That guy riding a wheelie down the freeway may be impressive, but he’s pissing off every car driver on the road. It’s also a good way to end your riding career and life. Ride smart, stay safe, keep the rubber side down.

10. Ride sober.

This may seem like a no-brainer but when we say “ride sober,” we’re talking about much more than alcohol. We also mean don’t ride while high – on anything. Don’t ride after using any prescription medication that alters your attention abilities. And don’t ride angry or after a big emotional incident.

Booze, drugs and prescription meds that take you off your A game are essentially drunk riding (or driving). Making a mistake in a car in traffic results in bent fenders and airbags going off. Doing the same thing on your bike usually results in broken bones or worse. Almost half of all fatal motorcycle crashes involved a rider under the influence of something, usually alcohol. Riding a motorcycle takes 100 percent concentration, especially in town. If you think having “just one drink” and going for a ride is no big deal, consider this: a certain percentage of fatal motorcycle accidents occur when riders, for some reason not completely understood, simply ran off the road when they came to a simple curve. They then hit whatever – an oncoming car, a tree, road sign, fence, cow, etc. Usually, other vehicles weren’t involved.

When tested, the rider’s BAC was often under .08, but, they had a BAC of some level. Researchers looking into the phenomena think that even a small amount of alcohol in a rider’s system somehow mucks up their ability to turn the bike properly when presented with a gradual turn that, when sober, most any rider can negotiate with little effort. I know more than one rider that carries one of those cheap keychain breathalyzers with them to social functions. They don’t get on the bike until it shows .00 BAC. Don’t trust self-diagnosis of your sobriety.

Additionally, studies have shown that riding under the influence of strong emotion may as well be drunk riding. Anger results in aggressive riding and poor decision-making, sadness detracts from attention on the road and also affects decision making. If you’re in doubt about your sobriety, don’t ride. The penalty, be it a DUI, arrest, crash, injury or death, is just not worth it. Make it home alive so you can ride another day.