Motorcycling is a tremendous activity. It’s something I recommend to just about everyone. If riding is something you’ve been thinking about taking up there are a few things you can do to make sure you get off to a good start. Get a book on basic motorcycling, talk to riders you know. If possible, take a basic rider’s course offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF).
According to some studies that I’ve seen you’re actually better off teaching yourself how to ride than you are having a friend teach you. Unless off course that friend is a certified instructor. Whichever way to decide to learn how to ride, this article will give you some of the basics. I’ve written it as if I was discussing the topic with a friend who had never ridden.
Let me also suggest you read a couple of other articles here on PowerSportsTV.com, Motorcycle Safety And How To Ride Safely, 5 Things You Should Know Before You Ride and What To Look For When Buying A New Motorcycle all contain some great information for riders of any experience level.
Get To Know Your Bike
Most motorcycles have a lot in common, but each model is a little different. Once you get your new ride home spend a little time familiarizing yourself with it. Take out the owner’s manual and read it. Then take the manual with you outside to the bike. Stand on the left hand side of the motorcycle facing the seat with your left hand on the left handlebar. Throw your right leg over the seat and sit down. Grab the right handlebar with your right hand and look straight ahead. This is a view you’ll come to love.
Put your feet up on the pegs (or floorboards if that’s what’s on your motorcycle) and move around on the seat a little to get an idea of how much room you have to adjust your sitting position. Get both feet back on the ground and straighten the bike so that it’s off the kick stand. You may need to stand up to do this. Once the motorcycle is up, sit back down and rock it gently from side to side to get a feel for how heavy it is.
Now while still sitting on the bike and with it resting on the kick stand, open your owner’s manual and identify all of the controls and instruments located on the handlebars and/or tank. The grip on the right handlebar is the throttle or accelerator. You twist that toward you to increase the amount of fuel going to the engine and thereby increasing your speed. Also on the right handlebar you’ll find the lever that operates the front brake, squeeze it to get a feel for how much play it has. You’ll also see a red rocker switch on the right handlebar, that’s the kill switch. To be able to start the motorcycle that switch must be in the “on” or lower position. Directly below the kill switch is the starter button. With the key in the ignition, the kill switch in the “on” position and the clutch in or disengaged, all you have to do to start the bike is push the starter button. But we’re not there yet.
Since we mentioned the clutch, let’s move to the left handlebar. The lever over there is the clutch. Go ahead, squeeze it and then let it out slowly. That motion is one you’re going to spend a lot of time practicing. On most motorcycles you’ll also find your turn indicator switch on the left handlebar. Very few bikes have self-canceling turn signals, unlike cars. So chances are your switch has three positions, the center or “off” position, and then left and right. To signal a turn simply slide the switch to the left or the right. You’ll notice that (on most bikes) the switch will return to the center position after you’ve released it. To cancel your signal (or to turn off the blinker) you have to press in on the switch. There may be several other controls on your left handlebar. Usually you’ll find the horn button, the headlight dimmer switch and, if your bike is so equipped, the emergency hazard flasher switch.
Somewhere in the center of your field of view you’ll find an instrument cluster. Some bikes have these mounted on the tank, others on the handlebars. Common instruments include a speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge and tachometer. Not all motorcycles are going to have all of these. Many will include a digital display that allows you to select between the clock, trip meters and other readouts. There will likely also be indicator lights for neutral, high beams and turn indicators. You’ll probably also find either gauges or warning lights for oil temperature and/or pressure and the fuel injection system, if your bike is so equipped. The cap for the gas tank is located on top of the tank itself on most bikes and usually locks and unlocks with the ignition key.
You’re going to have to use both feet to control your bike. So let’s get you feet back on the pegs, with the bike still resting on the kick stand. Your right foot will operate the rear brake pedal. Go ahead and depress it. You should be able to operate the rear brake with your foot remaining on the peg. Your left foot shifts gears. Pull in the clutch with your left hand and push down on the shift pedal. If your bike was in neutral this will put it in first gear. Most bikes have a shift pattern of one down and four or five up, depending on how many gears. Between first and second gear is neutral. Neutral is usually indicated by a green light on your instrument panel, but it only lights up when the bike is running. Like the brake pedal, you should be able to operate the shift pedal with your foot remaining on the peg.
Starting Your Motorcycle
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic controls, let’s fire up the bike. Take your key and put it in the ignition switch. This is one of those components that doesn’t have a standardized location. Some bikes have the ignition switch on the fuel tank, others are mounted on the frame and some are under the seat. Before turning the key to the “on” position make sure that you’re in neutral. Many motorcycles will not start if the bike is in gear and the kickstand is down. And if you put the kickstand down while the bike is in gear it will, on many bikes, stop the engine.
Flip the kill switch into the “on” position and then turn the key to the “on” position. Your speedometer will probably peg and then return to zero and your warning lights will come on. Your bike is doing a self-test, making sure everything’s good to go. Once that’s compete, usually just a few seconds, squeeze in on the clutch, disengaging it and then push the starter button. If the bike doesn’t start you’re probably not in neutral. Shift up or down with your left foot until the green neutral indicator light is on and then push the starter again.
You can go ahead and let the clutch out, since we’re not going anywhere just let. If the bike’s been sitting for a while and the engine is cold you’ll want to let it up warm up for a minute. Go ahead and twist the throttle slightly and listen for how the engine responds. Now lift the bike off the kickstand and flip the kickstand up. Let go of the throttle and pull the clutch lever in all the way. Push the shift lever down into first. Now slide your toe under the shift lever and lift up to put the bike back into neutral. Do this a few times to get used to how much pressure you need to apply and to get familiar with getting your foot into position under the lever. Practice this until you can do it without looking at your foot.
If you’re still sitting on your motorcycle with the engine running and you don’t have your helmet on yet, turn the ignition key to “off”, flip up the kill switch and go get your helmet. It’d be a good idea to put on your gloves and jacket too, we’re finally ready to get the bike moving. Start your motorcycle, flip the kickstand up, pull in the clutch lever and shift into first. Put both feet firmly on the ground. Now start to let out the clutch slowly. You’ll feel the motorcycle start to move forward. You are now in the friction zone, that point where the clutch begins to send power to the rear wheel.
Your clutch is more like the slider on a dimmer switch than an on-off switch. As you let out the clutch slowly it transfers more power to the rear wheel until the clutch is fully engaged (the point where you let go of it) and all available power is now being transferred to the rear wheel. Just like the further you push a dimmer switch the brighter the lights get until you’ve moved the slider all the way open and the lights burn at full power.
As the bike begins to move you’ll need to gradually twist the throttle. Practice this while keeping both feet on the ground, walking the bike forward, as you continue to slowly let out the clutch and open the throttle. Once the clutch is fully engaged put your feet on the pegs and increase throttle gradually. This maneuver sounds pretty simple, but chances are it’s one that you’ll need to practice. I’ve seen people wash out of Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) Basic Rider Courses because they couldn’t master this basic skill. Engage the clutch too quickly and your bike will lurch forward and stall. Give it too little throttle, you’ll stall.
If your bike is in the driveway or parking lot or on a lightly traveled street, practice finding the friction zone and getting your bike up to speed. If you don’t have room to turn around once you’ve reached the end of the driveway, put the bike in neutral and walk it backwards. Practice until you can get the bike up to speed 10 or 20 times in a row without stalling.
You’re going to stall the bike. Don’t let that discourage you. Keep practicing. Once you’ve gained a basic mastery try it on a slight incline. The trick to getting rolling while going up hill is to not roll backwards before you get to the friction zone and begin forward movement. You can apply enough pressure to the rear brake with your right foot to keep you from rolling backwards down hill as you slowly let out the clutch and apply throttle while keeping your left foot on the ground.
So now you’re actually riding. But eventually you’re going to come to the end of your driveway or street. You can’t spend your entire time on a bike going in a straight line. To change direction, make a turn or go around a curve at speeds above about 10 mph you have to employ a method commonly called counter steering. Personally, I don’t like that term. I think it confuses many new riders. Some instructors explain counter steering as turning the handlebars in the opposite direction of a turn. But unless you’re maneuvering at parking lot speeds you never actually turn the handlebars.
Press or push steering is actually a more accurate description of what you do to make your motorcycle change direction. By applying pressure downward on one of the handlebars you cause the bike to lean into a turn. The term counter steering comes from the initial motion of the tire in the opposite direction of the turn. To turn left you apply pressure to the left handlebar, to turn right you push down on the right handlebar. The more pressure you apply the more dramatically the bike will lean and the more sharply you’ll turn.
Here’s how press or counter steering works on a motorcycle or bicycle or other single track vehicle. The spinning of the tires, above parking lot speeds, creates a gyro effect, much like a gyroscope or spinning top. The gyro effect of the spinning tires keeps the motorcycle upright and stable. Press steering exerts force against the gyro effect, causing the bike to lean. Release the pressure, or stop pushing on the handlebar and the spinning tires will cause the motorcycle to return to its original upright position. The faster you’re going the more pressure you need to exert to counteract the gyro effect and get the motorcycle to change direction.
Before making a turn or rounding a curve reduce your speed by downshifting, reducing throttle and/or braking. Look through the curve or turn to where you want the bike to go. There’s something almost magical about how a motorcycle will follow the rider’s nose. So to maintain control and keep your bike on the road look at where you want to go, not where you are going. Next, press on the handlebar in the direction of the turn or curve. As you enter the turn maintain or slightly increase throttle to keep the bike stable.
Find an empty parking lot to practice your press steering. As you get more proficient and confident try increasing your speed. Remember, you need to be traveling at speeds about 10 mph for press or counter steering to work.
With these basic skills under your belt you’re ready to ride in traffic. But take your time here, don’t jump right onto the Interstate. Plan out a few rides that will include gradually more challenging elements. For you first ride stick to lightly traveled two lane roads with minimal stop signs and traffic signals. Once you’re comfortable with this route incorporate a short stretch on road with two or more lanes traveling in the same direction.
After you’re confident riding in heavier traffic you’re ready to try the Interstate, but let’s keep to stretches of Interstate that don’t take your through major metropolitan areas and ride during non-peak hours. The longer you ride and the more challenging your rides become the more confidence and experience you’ll gain.
You can help ensure that your first motorcycling experiences are fun, safe and not your final motorcycling experiences by avoiding a few common mistakes. First, don’t buy more motorcycle than you’re able to handle. The bigger the engine the more powerful and heavier the motorcycle, and the more difficult it will be control. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a mid sized bike, in the 500 cc to 1000 cc engine range and then, if you absolutely feel it necessary, moving up to a bigger motorcycle once you’ve gained some experience.
Even if you’ve taken an MSF course, you’ll want to build up your skills and experience by riding lightly traveled roads at first. Work up to more complex situations as you gain confidence. And be sure you’re comfortable riding by yourself before you attempt to travel with a passenger or with a group. Both of these activities change the dynamics of operating your motorcycle, so make sure you have adequate solo time on the bike before attempting either.
And remember to cancel to your turn signal once you’ve completed a turn. There’s nothing that screams “I’m a new rider” louder than a motorcycle traveling for miles with it’s left hand blinker flashing.
Get Out And Ride
Nothing can make you a better rider than actually getting out on the road on your bike. So ride, whenever you get the chance. Talk to other bikers and read all you can, but ride. You many just surprise yourself at how quickly your skills improve and how natural it feels to travel on two wheels.