Learning to Ride Your First Motorcycle

by A Manly Guest Contributor on June 2, 2011 · 131 comments

in Cars, Manly Skills

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.

Head protection: A fedora doesn't count.

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?

{ 131 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Jonathan June 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

Lot’s of good comments here.

1. ALWAYS know how to check the bike over, do it when you buy it and do it before you ride. There’s nothing worse than having some tiny issue that could have been fixed cheaply, but it causes an accident because you didn’t look.

2. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation course is awesome. Gets you out of doing a road test and covers some very important aspects of riding safety. There is much more of a focus on technique in the advanced rider course though. If you have the time and inclination I highly recommend taking that as well.

3. Practice makes perfect! Get out and ride! For the record… riding in the rain isn’t that big of a deal. Better to know what to do, than to just be a fair weather rider and panic when you get caught in a storm

102 George June 21, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I love the idea of riding a motorbike. Sadly, I also love living and with there being a 35x chance of death it’s not for me. Sorry to bring the tone down guys!

Can anyone here convince me that it is worth the risk?

103 Colin June 24, 2011 at 6:32 am

Sorry, George–there’s no reason to convince you. If you’re not comfortable with the risk, then you’re better off not wasting your time not thinking about it. If you’re curious, take an MSF course and see how it feels.

104 Cris June 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

The disparaging comments about riders who choose not to wear helmets are amusing. Here’s some info from a “stupid” rider:

1) Motorcycles accidents AND fatalities actually increase in states that have enacted helmet laws, in the immediate years following enactment of the new statutes (they later taper off to previous levels). Do the research yourselves.

2) Full/large/bulky helmet have their drawbacks as well in that neck injury chances are significatly increased.

3) There’s no such thing as a “DOT Approved” helmet. Call the Dept. of Transportation and ask them to provide you a list of all helmets they have approved – see what they tell you. The DOT does not approve anything. The NHTSA has created guidelines, which manufacturers can follow (or not) and determine, ON THEIR OWN, whether it is “DOT Approved”. I wonder how many people have blindly accepted that little “DOT Approved” sticker as a safety blanket.

If choosing to ride without a helmet makes one stupid, then so should driving a car, crossing the street, smoking, laying out in the sun, walking in the rain, eating anything fried, eating anything processed, eating meat, flying in an airplane….

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1775

105 fuchikoma June 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Good point, especially on the helmet – they don’t protect from a lot. At highway speeds, there is very little protection at all, though it’s very unlikely you’d ever fall on a straight highway. A good test I read about is a thought exercise to evaluate your gear. Suit up like you’re riding. Now imagine a psychopath with a belt sander attacking you anywhere and everywhere. If that sounds bad, you’re not wearing enough gear. Also, blue jeans last about 1m skidding on pavement. Flesh isn’t so tough. Riding pants aren’t magic, but they do put more between you and the road. Surprisingly, 1.2-1.4mm leather is still better than space-age fabrics for this.

Where you look is where you go (WYLIWYG) – the best advice I can give someone in a vehicle. See that pothole? Good – now look at the path past it, so you don’t ram right over it while “spotting” it.

You never “have to lay it down.” If you lay it down, you crashed. If you don’t, you may not even crash at all. If you’re trying to avoid flying over a car, try to imagine flying under/into one. All laying your bike down does is take you off it and into whatever you happen to hit.

If you do fall at speed – skid. Apparently the best formation to get into is sliding on your back, feet first, with your hands behind your head – you take a low profile, have your arms tucked in, and have something between your head and whatever you’ll hit. Don’t dig your feet in or try to slow down – sliding will make you hot, but flipping will break bones. Personally, for crashing, I’m most afraid of wrapping around a pole or something because my nice comprehensive armor doesn’t guard against THAT. My bones wouldn’t shatter from the impact, but they’d still break if two parts of me picked opposite sides of a post to streak past.

If you come into a corner too hot, but still have your wits about you… use the road between you and the outside (IF there is no oncoming traffic waiting to flatten you) to straighten your bike up – yes, you’ll run a tangent to the curve and be aiming straight at your doom – then brake HARD, and lean back into the corner, give it some gas and escape. I’ve pulled this off a few times, and never failed it… I credit Tourist Trophy for the PS2 for that – it showed me how much you can’t get away with on a motorbike. Also, riding a bicycle in the winter is a good training exercise since if you brake while leaned, you go down. If you brake too hard while straight, you may go down. If you pedal too hard while leaned, you may go down, etc.

Finally, it’s good to think that you can stop faster than cars when you’re ahead of them. It’s not always the case though – in sportbike vs sports car showdowns, you’ll often see the bike take the straights, and the car take the corners. You have a fraction of the weight, but also a fraction as much rubber on the road. Personally, I can slam my car to a halt so fast, I’d be thrown off my bike if it could manage that. It can’t – I’ve skidded to a halt many times as a beginner. (It’s also notable that I have summer-only performance tires and Brembo Gran Turismo brakes on my car… but I’m just saying it’s not a given that a bike will stop faster! I haven’t upgraded anything on either… Actually that’s not quite true – I replaced my bike’s Bridgestone Exedras with a set of sport-touring BT-45s, but haven’t tested their limits yet.)

106 Lemming October 9, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I know that riding a bike is a risk, but besides clothing as armour, is there anything else I should invest in when being safe.
And also, are there automatic bikes or are all the fastest and better bikes all manual, I’m not complaining, just asking a question to see what I should buy if I decide that a bike is what I’m looking for

107 Evan November 16, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Big ups for promoting the MSF course. They do a pretty good job on the basics.

I’d add a few things. For the look ahead part I would also say to be careful about target fixation. Try to see with fill range of peripheral vision and avoid focusing on a specific point.

There’s one essential thing they don’t teach that may save your life. A bike is not a car so don’t rely too much on your brakes. Gear selection and engine breaking is much more effective if you’re performance riding. Breaking is good as a backup of you find yourself dragging to the outside of a turn but if learn how to choose a good line going into a turn you shouldn’t have to break at all once you start to lean.

For helmets, DOT only guarantees safety based on certifying the design. If you want one that has been physically crash tested to spec, get one with a Snell cert.

Maintenance is half the fun of owning a bike (and a good excuse for some ‘man time’ in the garage). If you don’t have the minerals to get your hands dirty from time to time, you probably shouldn’t own a bike.

The first thing I’d suggest is, buy a service manual and a torque wrench. Your life depends on you not screwing up so it’s worth the $10 investment. I use a PDF on my phone.

If you have a Harley, there isn’t much room for adjustment and your bike will probably include some sort of service plan. Oil, tires and battery maintenance are probably your major concerns.

For something more barebones like a sportbike, expect to do a lot more. Chains need to be regularly cleaned and coated with either spray wax or special lubricants. Oil changes are easy but high performance bikes usually share motor oil with the clutch so do some research to buy the right stuff. Learn how to detach/attach both tires as well as adjust the chain tension. You should also learn to properly adjust the suspension. At the least your bike suspension should be adjusted to your height/weight, and may need to be adjusted differently if you plan to carry passengers. Batteries are expensive, if you don’t know what a ‘battery tender’ is, go find out now, it’ll save you in the long run.

And, ignore anything that guy Chris said. He’s clearly an idiot. I have encountered multiple performance riders who have made it through 2-3 crashes and usually their leathers/helmet save them from severe injury. Ironically, it’s usually contact with guard rails that does the most injury (including decapitation and severed limbs).

108 Ares November 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

”There are no seatbelts or airbags on motorcycles.”
FYI, if I recall correctly the Honda Goldwing has airbags,but that’s more of a two wheeled sofa then a motorcycle.

To all the fellows here advocating not wearing a helmet: Ever been in a crash wihtout one? Or without your gear? Then shut up already.
Now that that’s done, and we have about 10% of you left, I’ll have to make one thing clear: yes, riding around without a helmet at low speeds(think 20-30mph) is fun. Not fun when you hit the pavement/a cager, but still. And yes, you’re probably from America or somewhere you don’t have to wear safety gear, so go right ahead and don’t.

Let me just reming you that with all the speed and everything involved in MotoGP, the superfast turns, the crazy lean angles, the only guy to have died in the last years was the guy who lost his helmet.
You need a complete suit to protect yourself, either wear it all the time, or be well prepared for the consequences it’ll have for you and your loved ones.

109 Ken December 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Avoid riding with others until you’re comfortable riding by yourself. If someone ahead of you in a pack makes a quick lane change and you follow without looking first, you might end up a hood ornament. You’ll also be protecting your fellow rider as new riders can be unsteady, inexperienced, and not capable of maneuvering effectively in a pack.

110 Aryn January 14, 2013 at 1:28 am

Great article. Although I must say, a little sexist. Chick rider here :P

111 Aryn January 14, 2013 at 1:29 am

Then again, I suppose I AM on artofMANlieness.com :P

112 Mark the Cigar-Chomping Biker January 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Helmets are ALWAYS a good idea. I was in a nasty little crash a few years ago when some 16 year old kid in a pickup decided to pull a U-turn right in front of me at 40mph. I was wearing a half helmet at the time due to cold weather, but I usually rode bare. Long story short; I took the side mirror off with my face and was rendered unconscious with a minor concussion. So helmets; yes.
Just bear in mind one thing: every cager out there is a stark, raving lunatic who will try to kill you. If you cannot handle the risk then don’t ride.

113 Todd March 14, 2013 at 11:40 am

Not wearing a helmet? Cruising around town, sure. It is fun and relaxing. You also have less vision problems and can turn your head easier. Course, you could get a half-helmet and glasses and that would give you roughly the same freedom, but for highway travel? Forget about it. It’s not even about safety for me. I can’t count the number of rocks, dirt, mud, bird crap and bugs that have slammed into my face at 70mph, or *would* have, if I hadn’t been wearing a full face shield.

114 Joel April 11, 2013 at 8:41 am

I don’t necessarily wear a helmet to save my life, I know they can only do so much. But I always wear a full-face in case I actually DO survive. I would like to keep my jaw, it goes a long way toward my quality of life.

115 Kevin April 25, 2013 at 4:46 pm

At the very least, I would encourage all riders to wear some form of eye protection. Taking a bug to the eye, even at slow speeds, can greatly diminish your vision which has obvious safety implications.

116 Mar'Taja May 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I am a girl. I have my motorcycle license. How do I learn to ride a bike to get to the safety course?

I checked MSF.com. They said the safety course is not designed to teach one to ride. NOW what do I do?

117 bs barbie June 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm

To the last comment, congrats too you. may 30th was my bday and finally got a bike – now just need to learn to ride and im gone! maybe us chicks need to start our own artofwomanliness – first blog will be how to ride a crotch rocket :)

118 The Dude July 11, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Two words: long dirt road and a friend that can help you get comfortable with the clutch. If you can ride a bicycle and understand the basics of driving a manual, then you should be good.

119 bogdan July 30, 2013 at 3:43 am

Hello there! is it possible to learn to ride a motorcycle with out knowing how to ride a bicycle? Please do not laugh

120 alex August 1, 2013 at 11:55 am


Ive only been riding for 2 years but this is what ive learned. 1. Dont try to steer the bike. Lean into corners. At speed counter steer. 2. never ride too fast to stop at no notice (people WILL pull out on you) 3. always leave enough room between you and the car in front as you would need if you were driving a pickup. Just because you can stop on a dime doesnt meant that the hummer behind you can. 4. Look where you want to go. The bike will go wherever your eyes are pointing. Having driven cars for 20+ years this did not come naturally as i was constantly looking around as though i was surrounded by a large metal cage. Don`t. Just glance, then look at where you want to go and open the throttle. Appropriately. 5. Always wear your boots. Even a tiny 125 bike can sever tendons in your feet or ankles if you find yourself underneath it. I have the scars to prove it. Wear decent bike boots or army boots and you wont have the horribly disfigured feet of this overly sunburnt englishman.

121 Joe Hoyt August 8, 2013 at 8:03 am

Getting back to the helmet conversation….you also need to look at significant head injury vs. death. None of us want to die in a motorcycle crash, but there is also great risk in traumatic brain injury while not wearing a helmet. I work in the medical field…I’ve seen it plenty of times, medical intervention can help you survive a crash, but you may be left with the inability to walk, talk and feed yourself……..sound fun?

122 Glenn Holmes August 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I’m a rank beginner. The biggest problem I’m having isn’t mentioned although they are all good points, points which I recognize. My bike is just too heavy for an amateur and it’s a small cruiser. I bought it new and I’ve done ~$5000 damage, I’ve dropped it twice. I could easily kiill myself. I’m not that small 5’10″. When you’r concentrating on throttle control, foot position, shifting etc the weight can hit you suddenly and give you a bad spill, of course this only applies to amateurs. There must be a smaller bike that non-riders should be steered toward.

123 RiskLover August 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Good article. I am buying my first bike on Friday. I have never ridden a bike. I am getting dropped off 3 hours away and I plan on riding it back, mostly 80mph all the way home! Yes I’m wearing a helmet and jacket and boots..not sure if I can afford the pants too! But a safety course isn’t for everyone. Some of us are smarter than others and can understand things quicker and more intuitively and do not need a course. That is a fact. Just like some of us can text and drive or talk on the phone and drive or eat and drive. Some people have better hand eye coordination than others. Some are more intelligent than others. Some think quicker than others. Some don’t need classes as much as others. Fact of nature. Don’t think so, read Rothbard’s “Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature”

124 C-Rex September 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm

RiskLover, I hope you made it home alive. Having never ridden a bike, do you know how to shift? How to brake without going over the handlebars? What happens to your rear wheel if you donwshift too fast?

Great call on the helmet, jacket and boots. Those will save your butt in a crash. But the safety course will teach you to ride, and you can profit from other’s costly, dangerous, and painful mistakes.

Most people think they’re above average, which implies that most people are wrong. You state that you are smarter than other people, and I hope for your sake you are.

Finally, you text and drive? You’re a biker’s worst nightmare.

125 Caleb September 19, 2013 at 2:58 pm

What an awesome time. Learning to ride a motorcycle is so exciting. I highly suggest learning to ride in an empty parking lot. Start by learning how to start slow and stop. Then you can go from there. Learning to ride is so much fun.

126 Steve October 26, 2013 at 8:01 am

I have ridden motorcycles since I could. Starting with dirt bikes and then a countless array of street bikes. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of thirty. I can not imagine my world without one. The only advise I can offer is be perfectly honest with yourself. Ride for yourself not for the people who will see you riding. Pick a bike that matches you, not for brand recognition. Wear practical attire, not the costumes you see at some of these poser gathering points. Ride assertive without being aggressive. And remember you are representing a demographic make an effort not to make the rest of use look like boneheads. Thanks

127 Chace November 6, 2013 at 2:21 am

I’ll be getting my first bike next year after I get ouy of boot camp and etc and I was wondering if anyone could just hit me with the major things I need to know to ride and care for my bike. I plan on taking as many courses as possible but school can’t teach you all the important stuff. If you dont reply here, feel free to email me at Chace618@yahoo.com

128 jackson November 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Start practicing in an empty parking lot and don’t slam on the brakes, especially the front ones that can end “interestingly”. If its a dirt bike finde an open field and go slow

129 david flynt February 17, 2014 at 3:24 am

If you are going to ride a street bike, you need to remember that certain elements are not your friend. Dirt, dry sand, gravel, mud, grass(wet or dry), leaves, straw these are not your friend and can pitch you on your ass if tampered with. Concrete and asphalt are not your friends either, but they will tolerate you more than the others.

130 Dan Pohl March 23, 2014 at 8:58 am

I started my riding career in the dirt, so my preferred place to be is on a trail of some kind. The road is the stuff I ride on to get me to the trails.

131 Hellfire April 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm

I’m taking the MSF course in a week and I am so amped!! Thank you to all of you who took the time to share your experiences and advice.
I’ve been researching about riding (which lead me here) and the general consensus is being fully aware and riding on the defense – as well as WYLIWYG (where you look is where you go).
I think it’s very irresponsible for people to advocate riding without a helmet but if someone is that foolish to listen to them and not find the answer on their own it’s in their head, so to speak :)
I’m a girl and will be an example of good technique and proper training can make anyone a good rider.
I’ll also add that I know how to ride a bike and a manual transmission car. I’ve also got a lot to live for. I know of the risks and how important it is to be able to get out of danger and more importantly, avoid it by foreseeing any and all dangers.
To anyone else learning I urge you to read up. Read others experiences both good and bad. Don’t let others just scare you but then don’t get a false sense of “that won’t happen to me”. YouTube is also really helpful for familiarizing yourself to a bike and what to know, so you’re not over whelmed when it comes time to learn. And if I remember, I’ll come back here to share how my experience went.

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