There’s a mystical quality to motorcycling. Whether you’re weaving through urban traffic or blasting through some bucolic landscape, it’s not uncommon to experience the sensation that you’re one with your surroundings. Free of the constraints of a typical vehicle, wind blasting, you feel both exposed and invulnerable. And it’s cool. Really, really cool.
But you can’t just hop on a bike and go. Trust me. I was 18 the first time I attempted to drive a motorcycle… which I promptly crashed. I didn’t give it another go for 15 years. But when I finally hopped on a little semi-auto Honda to get around Vietnam, it kickstarted a still-burning love affair with biking.
Out of necessity, I had to train myself to ride through trial and error. But my addiction to two-wheel travel would have gone a lot smoother had I followed some basic steps and eased into motorcycles. Now, with more and more people hitting the road, learning the basics — from getting certified to gearing up and choosing the right roads — is more important than ever. For a primer, we spoke with expert road warriors to figure out how to go from newbie to one with the road in no time.
First up: Learn to ride and get certified
Before you consider going full Peter Fonda, Jennifer Hoyer from the Harley-Davidson Riding Academy suggests starting small by asking yourself: When was the last time you rode a two-wheeled bicycle?
“If it has been a few years, grab a bicycle and re-familiarize yourself with riding on two wheels,” she says. “Not just straight line riding, but small circles and figure eights. When you are comfortable looking around and even looking back over your shoulder while riding in a circle on a bicycle, you are ready.”
Once you’re ready to get motorized, take a training course. In fact, you more or less have to take such a class, with the two-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse being the standard. That said, not all states use the MSF curriculum, so check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles to see what training is offered and what is required to earn your license. Visit the MSF website to find and sign up for an MSF RiderCourse near you.
“You will be taught by professional MSF-certified RiderCoaches on a closed range, and you will learn the basics of motorcycle operation,” says Andria Yu, director of communications and certified RiderCoach for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. “Training sites also have small-displacement motorcycles that students use to learn on. We always recommend that people take a formal training course and get their license before buying their motorcycle.”
Why take the course before you buy a bike? Not only does it ensure that you actually know how to ride the thing, but it allows you to get the M license and license plates necessary to drive it legally.
“Avoid learning from a friend or by watching videos online,” advises Hoyer. “Structured courses are built on proven learning methods and a progression. You’ll learn more in a weekend motorcycle class than in a year of trying it on your own.”
Choose the right bike for you
There is an understandable temptation to get the biggest, most badass bike you can from day one. This is a mistake.
“Choose a bike that is the right size and fit for you, especially as a beginner,” says Yu. “You want to make sure that the motorcycle controls are within easy reach of your hands and feet. For new riders, when seated on the bike and stopped, you want to be able to put your feet down and reach the ground to support the motorcycle.”
You also need to consider what you’ll be using the bike for.
“There are many different motorcycle types,” Yu explains, “such as standard or naked bikes; dual-sports, which can be used on pavement and on off-pavement trails; cruisers; cafe racers; sport bikes; adventure bikes; touring bikes; dirt and trail bikes, for off-road use only; scooters; custom bikes, and more.
“It’s important to know what type of riding you’ll want to be doing when choosing a motorcycle,” she continues. “For example, if you’re mostly riding in the city and using the motorcycle for around-town trips, a smaller displacement, standard motorcycle or a scooter could be a great option. If you are looking to do longer trips, a touring bike or cruiser with bags might be the choice for you.”
According to motorcycle journalist Janelle Kaz, who has spent six years living on a bike and has traversed some 130,000 kilometers, “The most important (thing) is choosing one you love. There is magic that happens out on the road where you gain an incredible bond with your bike. I’ve found that when I didn’t love my bike from the start, I had a harder time throughout the journey. If you find a bike you love, you feel like a solid team and like there’s nothing you can’t get through together.”
The right bike is, of course, the most essential component of your biker kit, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. All the experts I spoke with agreed that you should acquire the following:
- Helmet: Make sure that it’s Department of Transportation-compliant, and the more coverage the better. Full-face coverage is your best bet.
- Eye protection: If your helmet has a visor then you’re already covered. If not, get a pair of goggles or protective sunglasses.
- Full-fingered gloves: Motorcycle-specific are recommended because they provide extra protection around the knuckles and palms.
- Riding jacket: Motorcycle-specific jackets tend to have protection around vulnerable areas like the shoulders, elbows, and back, and are usually made of abrasion-resistant materials.
- Riding pants: Again, motorcycle-specific pants offer added protection at the knees and are abrasion-resistant.
- Over-the-ankle boots or shoes: Make sure they’re made out of sturdy material.
Kaz advises that riders looking for more adventurous trips taking their packing a few steps further.
“Obviously you’re going to need climate-specific gear, basic tools, flat-tire repair kit, maps and compass if technology fails, and an efficient way to carry it all,” says Kaz. “I’ve been using soft motorcycle luggage bags for years, bags which fit on any bike that can carry a passenger. I love them because they’re collapsible, weigh almost nothing when empty, are easy to take off and put on, and are adventure proof.
Oh, and always carry water.
“I learned this the hard way,” Kaz says.
Ease into life on the road
Once you’ve learned how to get the bike up and moving, your first inclination might be to hit the road Easy Rider style and cruise the country. This isn’t necessarily the greatest idea.
“New riders should take things slow and easy and start out on slower-speed roads such as residential streets,” says Yu. “They can also look online or on maps to find nice back roads with speed limits of around 35-45 mph. Local riding clubs and groups are also a good place to check for riding routes.”
Once you are ready for the open road, your options are endless and exciting.
“Depending on your riding interest, there are many adventures that await,” says Yu. “Whether you are into day trips, moto-camping, exploring the backcountry, or exploring different cities, every single state — Alaska to Florida, Hawaii to Maine, and all the states in between — offer wonderful riding opportunities.”
And Kaz learned from personal experience that, for longer trips, the right equipment can be essential, and that sometimes you need to pull off the main road and take it easy.
“My first trip across the US, I didn’t have a wind fairing on the front of my bike, which made the interstate speeds and winds painful,” she says. “There was one day when my neck muscles were so sore from fighting the wind that I felt like I couldn’t even hold my head up anymore. Still with a ways to go, it became a dangerous situation and I was suffering a great deal. This led me to taking smaller highways for the rest of the trip across the country — historic highways which revealed the ‘old America’ that is so easily missed when taking the interstate. This aspect ended up being the best part of the trip.”
Learn from your mistakes and adapt to the road
Once you’ve got your bike, gear, and training, you might feel like you’ve got everything you need, but your education doesn’t stop there. It’s an ongoing process that comes with experience, so be flexible, learn from your mistakes, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get some aspect of biking right away.
“If you’re a beginning rider and are out riding with more experienced friends, remember to always ride your own ride — that is, don’t give in to peer pressure. Ride within your skill level,” says Yu. “One of the greatest things about motorcycling is that you can do it with your friends, but also have an experience completely your own.”
According to Kaz, “The biggest lesson I had to learn was to not try to control it like a bicycle but rather use the engine and the brakes. Sometimes I would try to use my legs to hold up the bike coming to a stop and that just doesn’t work with a heavy machine.”
After speaking about a crash she experienced on her first day of riding, Kaz went on to advise that you “recognize the consequences. Don’t let them scare you away from riding but be very aware of what can go wrong. Most often that means being hyper vigilant for other drivers. A distracted mom in a station wagon could be your worst enemy. Assume everyone is going to do the dumbest thing possible to endanger your life.”
And Hoyer has some solid advice for your actual training day: Once you’ve designated a weekend to learning to ride, don’t make other plans.
“Trying to cram in a date, party or family gathering can add extra stress and cut into the rest you will need to complete the course,” Hoyer says. “It is not unusual to clock 22-25 miles on the motorcycle in the training course, all in a parking lot. You’ll be physically and mentally spent… if the weather is less than perfect that will add to the additional rest you may require.”
Finally, as Yu explains, “The motorcycling community is awesome! The majority of motorcyclists are always happy to help and encourage new riders. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone was a new rider at some point.”