Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Michael Reid.
So you’ve already read up on how to buy your first motorcycle. What about learning to ride it?
If you’re like most men, you may be thinking, “How hard can it be? I’ve had that two-wheeled thing down since, what, age 6?” But a motorcycle does not suffer fools. Most motorcycles will go from zero to 60 faster than you can read this sentence. There are no seatbelts or airbags on motorcycles. If cars are more and more about being protected in a cocoon, motorcycles are about being out there in the wind. With a motorcycle, you wear your protection. Screw up in a car and you might bend some sheet metal; screw up on a bike and you might die. Riding a motorcycle will always include an element of danger; there’s no way around that. But there are ways to minimize your risk and put the odds more in your favor.
Get some training. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has training programs all over the country. Find out where by going to www.msf-usa.org. Many of these programs are official parts of state programs. Some, like those in Ohio for example, even provide the bike for beginning students. They’ve trained close to 6 million students since 1974. They’ll teach you the techniques of throttle, clutch and brake control, and more. And they don’t stop there. As you get better, you can also take their Experienced and Advanced courses.
Ride like you’re invisible and everybody else is drunk. Car drivers, at least the ones who aren’t texting, fighting with their spouse on the phone, applying make-up, or messing with their iPods, are looking for moving objects the size of cars and trucks. A motorcycle is a much smaller thing and might not even register with a driver. And since so many cars are wired to have their lights on all the time, even the bike’s headlight doesn’t make it stand out in traffic. Never assume that the car driver sees you. Always assume that the car driver will do something dumb. Be ready for it. Plan accordingly.
Look as far down the road as possible. This is a corollary to the previous paragraph. The best riders don’t want to be surprised, so they anticipate. They see a truck on an entrance ramp and move left long before the truck merges. They see cars waiting at an intersection, so they slow down and put the first two fingers of their right hand on the front brake lever so they can reduce reaction time if they have to get on the brakes. They ride a little faster than average traffic to stay out of blind spots. In short, they anticipate the dumb things a driver might do and position themselves to avoid the consequences if the driver does, indeed, do that dumb thing. The best riders are the smoothest riders, constantly moving their machines to the least risky place.
Wear a helmet. A helmet won’t protect your head if you hit a tree at 60 mph. Nothing will. A helmet is designed to protect your head in a fall from ride height (4 or 5 feet) to the ground and the ensuing scrapage. You’ve seen riders whose only head protection is a bandana. These people aren’t cool; they’re stupid. Years ago, Bell Helmets had an advertising campaign that said, “If you have a $10 head, buy a $10 helmet.” What does it say about the value of your head if you don’t even wear one?
Always wear your gear. Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Guess what happens to your skin if you fall off your bike. Experienced riders call it road rash. So protect your body’s largest organ with a jacket, pants, and gloves every time you ride. There are jackets on the market that pass air almost as well as a t-shirt, yet protect well in a crash. Jeans aren’t the best in a crash, but they protect better than shorts. Shoes that lace up will stay on your feet; loafers or flip-flops won’t.
Practice, practice, practice. Given a good surface, a motorcycle will stop faster than any car. But it won’t if you’re timid about using the brakes. Go find an empty parking lot and practice a series of stops from 25 or so, squeezing the brakes a little harder each time you stop until you get used to maximum braking. Some motorcycles have ABS, most don’t, so practice is valuable when it comes to stopping as quickly as possible. Get used to the fact that the front brake contributes far more to a fast stop than the rear brake.
Learn to maintain your machine. We’re not talking about rebuilding the engine — we’re talking about the really simple stuff. Make sure your tires are properly inflated and have enough tread. Check your oil. Make sure your lights aren’t burned out. Ask your dealer’s service department to teach you how to adjust your chain. Here’s why all of this is important: If your tires are underinflated, or even overinflated, your bike won’t handle properly. If your lights are burned out, it’s harder for cars to see you. If your chain isn’t adjusted properly, well, chains are expensive and you don’t want to replace one if you don’t have to.
Don’t scare your girlfriend. Don’t ride with your significant other on the back until you’re thoroughly comfortable riding by yourself. Adding a passenger drastically changes the riding characteristics of the bike. Do some short distances at lower speeds with a passenger to get used to how the bike handles. And don’t give in to the temptation to show your passenger how quick your bike is. Scaring the crap out of your passenger is not manly, just dumb.
Riding a motorcycle will never be as safe as driving a car. But, as Helen Keller once wrote:
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Get out there and ride.
Are you a veteran rider? What other tips do you have for guys who are learning to ride their first motorcycle?