Maybe you’ve been thinking about riding a motorcycle for a while. Perhaps you rode years ago, before the kids came along and now that they’re about grown you’re thinking of going back to two wheels. In my own experience as a rider I have only one regret, that I didn’t start doing it 20 years earlier. It is one of the most pleasurable experiences you can have.
As much fun as it is though, it does require a good deal of thought before you jump into it. Like any new endeavor there’s a learning curve. So before you throw a leg over that shiny new ride and motor off for adventure allow me to share a few things you should know before you ride.
If you plan on riding your motorcycle on public roads then you need to be licensed. All states require a special motorcycle license or endorsement to operate a bike on public roadways. To get your license you’ll need to pass (in most cases) a two-part test, written and driving, just like you had to do to get your automobile driver’s license.
Most states will issue a motorcycle learner’s permit after you pass the written test. The permit will allow you to ride your motorcycle with certain restrictions, like no riding after dark, no Interstate travel, and no transporting a passenger.
You may ask, “Why go to the trouble and expense of getting licensed, isn’t my regular driver’s license good enough?” No. There are a number of reasons to get your motorcycle license before you venture out on two wheels. The first is that it’s the law. If you get pulled over driving a motorcycle without a license you run the danger of not only a ticket but in some states jail. And many states have passed laws authorizing police to have your bike towed and impounded on the spot if you’re caught riding without a license.
Chances are that if you’re not licensed you’re also not insured. After all, most insurance companies require proof that you’re a licensed rider before they’ll issue a policy. And since most states require that you be licensed and carry insurance to ride on public roads, if you’re pulled over without a license and without insurance you’re looking at even steeper fines.
Now imagine you get into an accident without a license or insurance. If you’re at fault you’ll be liable for all the damages. “Well, I’ll just be extra careful so I don’t get pulled over or have an accident,” you might be saying. That brings us to what may be the best argument for getting your motorcycle license, to minimize your risk. Unlicensed riders are significantly more likely to be involved in an accident. According to some studies they are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident than those riders who are licensed.
Does that little piece of laminated paper with your picture on it make you a better, safer rider? Well, not exactly, not in and of itself anyway. But the fact that you have to demonstrate some basic knowledge and mastery of rudimentary skills to get the license does mean that those riders who are licensed tend to be better trained, more experienced and better skilled than those without a license.
There is a way you can get a head start on the skills you’ll need, get your license and save some money all at the same time. Take a state-approved training course. Most states have some sort of program that is directly related to, or makes extensive use of the training materials and philosophy of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). Depending on where you live and where you take it, the course will take place over a weekend or several weeknights. It includes some classroom time and supervised on-bike time.
States that offer the program usually waive all or part of the license testing, so if you pass the class you’ll get your license without waiting in line at the DMV. An added benefit is that many insurance companies will give you a discount for successfully completing an approved training course.
Taking a training course will also give you an opportunity to decide if motorcycling is really something you want to do without going to the expense of buying a motorcycle only to discover that you don’t care for it. These courses provide the motorcycles that you’ll be learning on. And taking and passing the course will give you a sense of confidence when you finally get your own bike.
You’ll Need A Whole New Skill Set
Riding a motorcycle is a little like a lot of things and a lot like nothing else you’ll ever do. Have you ever ridden a bicycle? It’s a little like that. Driven a manual transmission car, ridden in a convertible or flown a jet? Yeah, it’s a little like all of those things too. Only way different.
Piloting your bike takes hand-eye-foot coordination, balance, and the ability to think three steps ahead. It’s extremely physical while requiring your total concentration.
The basic controls are standard on all motorcycles, but the placement of others vary depending on the make or type of bike. Brakes, throttle, clutch, shifter and starter are all going to be in the same place on all bikes, unless you happen to have a restored classic.
Stop and go controls, the brakes and throttle, are all on the right side of the motorcycle. Your right hand controls the throttle (accelerator) and the front brake lever. Your right foot controls the rear brake pedal. Yes, on a motorcycle you have a separate control for the brake of each wheel. Some bikes do have a unified or linked braking system that apply some pressure on both brakes when you engage either of them, but those systems are not the norm.
On the left side of the bike you’ll find the clutch lever and the shifter pedal. On a motorcycle you clutch with your hand and shift with your foot, the opposite of a manual transmission car. One of the toughest things for new riders to learn is how to start out smoothly, applying enough but not too much throttle while letting out or engaging the clutch smoothly but not too slowly. It helps to think of the clutch more like the slide on a dimmer light than an on-off switch. You squeeze the clutch all the way in (or disengage it) before starting the motorcycle and then slowly let it out (engage it) until you hit the friction zone. The friction zone is where the clutch begins to send power to the rear wheel. Once you get into the friction zone you need to slowly apply the throttle as you fully engage the clutch. Don’t worry. Very few riders get this on their first try, and many take weeks to fully master it. You’re going to stall your bike at stop signs and traffic lights, on inclines and pulling out of the driveway. But you’ll get the hang of it.
Other controls with a standard location are the starter and kill switch, which are both mounted on the right handlebar. The kill switch is usually a red rocker switch that must be in the “on” or lower position in order for the bike to start. The starter is a button, usually directly below the kill switch. Simply push it to start the bike. Newer street legal motorcycles no longer require you to “kick start” them.
But before the bike will start you’ll need to put the key in the “ignition” position. The key slot is going to be in different places depending on your motorcycle. Other controls you’ll need to access on a regular basis include your turn signals, horn and high beams, all of which are usually on the left handlebar. If your bike is equipped with a carburetor and/or a reserve fuel tank these controls will often be under the fuel tank on the left hand side.
Steering, or perhaps more accurately, guiding your motorcycle has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. Many refer to it as “counter steering.” I think this term is a little misleading as it’s often explained as pushing on the handlebars in the opposite direction of the way you want to turn. To get your bike to turn, or lean, to the right you simply apply downward pressure to the right handlebar. To turn left, push down on the left handlebar. The bike will lean in the direction of the turn as long as you apply pressure. The sharper you want to turn the harder you push. To allow the bike to right itself and resume traveling in a straight line you simply let up on the pressure. The gyro effect of the tires will bring the motorcycle upright.
Budget For More Than The Motorcycle
Once you’ve decided that motorcycling is something you really want to do, and you’ve gotten your license and taken a training course you’re ready to purchase your first motorcycle. We’ve provided some tips on buying a motorcycle in the article “What To Look For When Buying A New Motorcycle”. You can spend anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $25,000 on a new ride. While the motorcycle itself will be the most expensive part of your new passion, it won’t be the only expenditure you’ll need to budget for. There are things you absolutely have to buy, things you should buy and things you’ll want to buy to go along with that shiny new set of two wheels.
As I mentioned earlier, if you plan on riding on public roads you’re going to need insurance. If you’ve financed your motorcycle the lien holder may require that you carry a certain amount or type of insurance and may even dictate the maximum deductible you can choose. Shop around for insurance. Some companies specialize in motorcycle insurance. The company you have your auto and/or home owner’s policies with probably also offers motorcycle insurance and may offer a discount if you have one or more policies with them already. And be sure to ask about a discount for that training course you’ve taken.
There’s also some must have and should have gear. Many states have laws that require that you wear a helmet. Even if you live in state without a helmet law you want to buy a good DOT-approved helmet. And wear it every time you ride. I happen to subscribe to the ATGATT theory. That stands for All The Gear All The Time. What it means is that you wear protective gear every time you ride. That would include motorcycle-specific jacket with armor, boots, gloves, sturdy pants and hearing protection. Yes, you read that right, hearing protection. It’s not the noise coming from your engine or exhaust that’s going to cause you problems. It’s the wind noise. Prolonged exposure to the sound of the wind whipping past your ears is going to cause hearing loss. Wearing simple foam earplugs will greatly reduce that noise while still allowing you to hear the lower pitched sounds coming from your engine and other traffic.
After you’ve bought insurance and picked up all of the safety gear you’ll still have lots of things you want to buy. Rain gear, saddlebags, backrests, custom seats, custom pipes, windshield, GPS, bike-to-bike and/or rider-to-passenger intercom system, the list is almost endless. Choose the accessories you’ll most likely need or use most often first, like saddlebags if you plan on using your bike for commuting or running to the store or doing multi-day trips. Rain gear is another item I’d put at or near the top of the list. Once you’ve been caught on the bike in a downpour you’ll understand why.
You don’t have to buy everything right away. Ride for a few months with the barest of necessities to get a better feel for what you really need or want. It may turn out that the seat your bike came with is more than adequate for the length of your normal rides and what you really need is a windshield. Or maybe you went with a half helmet and after being pelted with gnats and road debris on your nose and chin you decide to go back to the dealership for a full-face model. Part of the joy of owning and riding a motorcycle is shopping for, buying and trying out new gear.
You Have A New Superpower, Invisibility
In the vast majority of accidents between a motorcycle and another type of vehicle one of the first things the driver of the other vehicle says is, “I didn’t see him.” The short, narrow profile of your motorcycle makes you hard to see. Add to that the number of people who drive cars while distracted, whether they’re on a cell phone, eating, texting or just not paying attention and it can seem like other motorists are out to get you.
This is a fact that you must be aware of whenever you’re on your bike. Ride defensively. Make sure to keep as large a cushion of space around you as possible. Don’t follow other vehicles too closely. The MSF recommends the two-second follow rule. When you’re behind another vehicle wait for it to pass a stationary object, like a telephone pole. As the rear end of the car passes the pole begin counting. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two. If you pass the pole before you’ve counted to two, you’re following too closely.
Bright colored clothing can help you be more conspicuous, so keep that in mind when you’re buying new gear. But you can’t count on other drivers seeing you, so you have to be aware of where they are and anticipate what they’re going to do. Areas that demand extra caution include intersections and the entrances-exits of parking lots and driveways.
We’ve covered just a few basic ideas here, some of the things you should know before start riding a motorcycle. But the most important thing I can tell you is that you’re going to have a blast cruising around on a motorcycle. So get your license, take a course, practice your skills, buy some gear, be careful and have a great time chewing up the miles.