So now that you’ve chosen which starter steel horse suits you best, you’ve got to figure out just how to ride this thing safely — the only thing uglier than a bike confined to a garage is one on its side. Getting out with your knees in the breeze is the best way we know to decompress and let the work week wash away, but before you swing a leg over and head out on the highway on your first bike you need to understand a couple guiding principles.
There are almost more ways for you to develop and hone your skills than there are reasons to ride, and that’s saying something. Knowing when to act counter-intuitively will someday save your ass; well-trained reflexes are the only things sometimes quicker than luck. To keep your eyes on the horizon and your bike shiny-side up, we’re offering up some sound advice to help you learn how to ride. After all, you’re about to enter into a brotherhood, and as you’ll learn, we take care of our own.
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All of the technique in the world won’t help you if you don’t ride protected, both mentally and physically. First of all, you need to be more than alert — we’re talking Spidey-sense levels of awareness. Sensitivity to pedestrians and cyclists (who can cut you off just as easily as a car), tar-snakes and other pavement irregularities (which can upset your balance mid-corner), and intersections is absolutely crucial. Most motorcyclists meet their maker at a crossroads, so always approach them with caution and take every advantage of lane positioning to increase your chances of seeing what’s coming and allowing others to see you. Also, always — always — know your escape route. Look for it first, so that you know it already when you see an obstacle or a driver who’s cutting you off. The same rules apply when stopped: always leave enough room in front to get out of dodge when objects in your mirror become larger than you want them to appear.
Always — always — know your escape route.
Unfortunately for us, the odds are that every rider will encounter a spill of some sort. Fortunately, we have an ever-improving catalogue of gear to keep us protected when our time comes. Jeans and a t-shirt won’t cut it here bub. We’re talking reinforced jackets and pants, dedicated riding gloves, a full face helmet and a pair of actual motorcycle boots. If you think it’s too hot outside to warrant suiting up, go try using the street as a slip ‘n’ slide and discover what melting really feels like. Your gear is your only protection when things go wrong, and it can’t help you if it’s in the closet at home.
The number of rider fatalities has more than doubled in the last decade. During a Pilot Study of the causes of motorcycle crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) discovered that, in 23 investigated accidents, almost half (11) of the riders had less than a year experience with the bike they were on, and seven of them were new riders. The most alarming discovery was that only a dozen of the downed riders had received some form of rider training. Unlike your early trials and tribulations behind the wheel — jumping from gas to brake, making abrupt directional changes and jerky gear shifts — riding requires smoothness. While on-road experience will refine your actions, understanding the basic physics at play before that first twist of the wrist could save you some skin.
As with most things is life, a good place to glom some essential knowledge is buried in the pages of a book. David L. Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide ($20) is one of the best. A collection of intelligence and techniques gathered from over forty years on bikes, Hough’s book covers topics ranging from the underlying dynamics of two-wheeled turn-in to why dogs will always try to chase you down (and yes, they will) to save you from surprises out there. In 2009 Hough was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame, and he’s received numerous other safety awards as recognition for the lives his writing has undoubtedly saved. Even if you’ve got Iron Butt levels of mileage under your belt, we recommend a rainy afternoon nose deep to curb any nasty habits you’ve developed.
Read David L. Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide and sign up for a motorcycle training course.
With your grey matter suitably saturated, it’s time put theory in to practice — air things out a bit. If you’ve signed up for a certified motorcycle training course, pat yourself on the back — it’s a great way to spend a weekend and hammer home some riding essentials. Plus, if you do happen to dump the wheels, at least they aren’t yours. Most courses can be tackled over a weekend and offer an excellent outlet to put your newly found knowledge to the test and while picking up priceless pointers, all within the confines of a parking lot devoid of asshats texting and eating in their 4-wheeled murder machines. That being said, your bike is probably larger and faster than those classroom cruisers, and you need to know how it will respond to your input.
Most motorcycles have a power to weight ratio that rivals any supercar on the road — hell, even Milwaukee’s heaviest hogs can keep with a porker from Zuffenhaus these days. Putting that power to the pavement in a fluid and controlled manner will save you and your bike unnecessary embarrassment and, in a worst-case scenario, road rash. While wet clutches are generally more forgiving than their cable controlled counterparts, both are built to handle some abuse. Find an empty parking lot and experiment gently rolling on and off the throttle to find the sweet spot on your left lever, developing your southpaw’s kung-fu grip. It’ll pay off on those long, damp evening commutes. The goal here is to always leave the lights in a linear fashion, and to leave the lurching to the cabbies.
1. Practice smoothly transitioning from standstill to first gear. Hit an empty parking lot and find the sweet spot on your clutch. Muscle memory is your friend.
2. Upshifting is easy, downshifting is hard. When doing the latter, pull in the clutch and give some throttle to rev match so you don’t lock up your back wheel.
3. Practice hard braking before you actually need it. Apply initial pressure to the brakes quickly but delicately and increase your pull while the forks bottom out.
4. When negotiating tight spaces at low speed, ride your rear brake to keep power under control and maintain balance.
5. Cornering: (1) Reduce speed and downshift before the corner. (2) Get off the brakes. (3) Push on the side of the handlebars that’s the inside of the turn (right side for right turns, left side for left turns). (4) Follow the natural lean. (5) When you reach the apex, evenly roll on the throttle.
On the road, upshifts are quick and easy and can be fired off with a sniper’s precision right from the start — slowing it down is a different story. Some bikes will spoil you with a slipper clutch (or similar technology) to keep your back wheel from locking up during ill-timed downshifts, but are unnecessary if you can blipshift with the best of them. Just like in your car (you drive stick right?) pull in the clutch and twist the throttle to rev match as you downshift. If you’ve done it right, you’ll barely notice. As always, practice this in a safe environment before you get crazy on the road.
It’s the same story with braking. Dive on the binders too fast and too hard and you run the risk of locking things up. With 70% of the stopping power coming from that skinny front tire, it doesn’t take much to overwhelm its contact patch. In an emergency situation you want to apply initial pressure to the brakes quickly but delicately and increase your pull while the forks bottom out. Transferring your weight will happen naturally, but try and stay centered so the rear end doesn’t wash out. It sounds more complicated than it is, but threshold braking can be a lifesaver, so try it out a few times to get the feel before you truly need it.
When negotiating tight spaces at low speed, ride your rear brake to keep power under control and learn how doing so can mechanically center the balance of your bike — you’ll be balancing your beast at a dead stop in no time with this under your belt. Not only will this keep things composed in commuter traffic, but uphill starts and dirt roads will be infinitely easier.
Corners are where things get tricky — and fun. Come in too quick, and any corrections could make things messy. Do it too slow and watch your stability wash right out from under you, literally. The key to cornering correctly is in combining the elements you’ve learned already. Get on the brakes (both of them) and gear down in the straight leading into the turn to settle on a comfortable speed before you even think of leaning in. Next, get off those brakes, stabilize your throttle and push on the opposite side of the handle bar that you’d think makes sense (right side for right turns, left side for left turns). Your body follow the natural lean induced from the bars; don’t fight it. Once you hit the apex and can see the corner exit, roll on the throttle to add speed and the bike will bring itself back into alignment. Now do it again, faster. When you park your baby after a corner-carving adventure, check the wear marks on your tires: when you lose the “chicken strips”, start booking some track days. Oh, and don’t forget to wave back, brother.