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Introduction to Motorcycles

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Interested in riding a motorcycle? This will give you an overview of the sport, and tell you a lot about how to get started. My two teenage sons recently started riding, and I wrote this for them. I originally wrote this course in April '07 for Richard; then in June '07 I revised it based on our experiences for Steven. Read and practice carefully, there will be a pop quiz. It will be administered by a sleep-deprived mom driving a minivan containing six bags of groceries, three screaming kids, a barking dog and a ringing cell phone.

A great place to start is to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course, an intensive two or three day classroom and riding course supervised by expert riders. After taking the course, buy a bike. I recommend you get a 125cc to 400cc dual sport, or a 250cc to 500cc standard or cruiser street bike. If you have at least the sense of self-preservation that God granted to sea cucumbers, you will not get any race replica of 600ccs or more or any bike with 800ccs or more until you have at least 5,000 miles of experience. These bikes have the highest profit margins, so of course the salesman will be happy to tell you that I'm wrong and you can handle it. His shop manager will be happy a few days later to give you your $1800 repair estimate - if you live. To put this into perspective, I had 50,000 miles of experience before I got a bike with more than 450ccs.

My sons started by taking this course and practicing in my parking lot; then taking the MSF course and practicing in their parking lot. Then I allowed them to ride on the street. Since the two courses are roughly equivalent in practice hours, I effectively required them to do double the legal requirements. I also routinely ride with them and if I think they're taking unnecessary or blind chances, I'm not at all shy about pulling them over and having a discussion.

Later in this article I'll describe practice maneuvers. To put these into perspective, at the time of this writing I have 38 years of riding experience and have gone over 535,000 miles on motorcycles, and I still do these practices most every week.

Why do we practice? Because two-thirds of all motorcycle accidents happen to beginners, people riding for their first year. Anything that improves your odds of getting through your first year without an accident is a good thing. This course is about trying to improve your chances of survival.

Types of Motorcycles

In the US, there are about 1 million new motorcycles sold every year. There are as many uses for these motorcycles as there are riders, however most motorcycles fall into a category. The basic types of motorcycles are:

silverwing scooter

Scooters

have low seats, step-through frames, and floor boards for your feet so that your legs are in front of you. Some of these are very small and suitable only for short trips in a city, but get 60-80 mpg and can park anywhere a bicycle can. The larger models are powerful and comfortable enough to take on a cross-country trip, while still getting 50mpg. The larger scooters also have large storage compartments under the seat, and can be fit with additional trunks for more storage. Because of the small wheels they don't handle or stop as well as the best motorcycles. Scooters weigh from 200 pounds to 500 pounds, and cost from $2000 to $8000. Shown: Honda Silverwing

boulevard cruiser

Cruisers

have low seats, pull back handlebars, and forward foot pegs so that your legs are stretched out in front of you. Some people will tell you these are the most comfortable bikes, however you never see them on long rides far from home. They are only comfortable for about 45 minutes at a time. Although these bikes are perfectly safe, they do not handle nearly as well as other bikes in corners or in emergency situations. They come in all sizes and prices, from small beginner bikes for about $3000 up to fully custom bikes for as much as you want to spend. They weigh from 300 pounds to 850 pounds. Shown: Suzuki Boulevard

SV650 standard

Standards

or Naked Bikes are simple inexpensive motorcycles. The foot pegs place your feet under your hips, which gives you the best control of a motorcycle. These bikes weigh from 300 pounds up to about 550 pounds, and cost from $3000 to $10,000. Some of them go very fast. These can be good beginner bikes, however, some of them, sometimes called "hooligan bikes" are nearly as fast as the sport bikes below. The Suzuki and Kawasaki 650 twins are excellent beginning to intermediate bikes. Beginners should stay away from four cylinder engines. Shown: Suzuki SV650

R1 sport

Sport

bikes or "crotch rockets" are replicas of race bikes. These bikes weigh between 400 and 500 pounds, make 100hp to 200hp, and have a top speed of 150 mph to 185 mph. Any of these bikes can make a Corvette look like it's in reverse. These bikes are uncomfortable to ride for long distances, due to the forward lean in the riding position and the high foot pegs that fold up your legs. These bikes are death for a beginning rider. They cost $10,000 to $20,000. I used to ride these, but Jesus had a message just for me. . . Shown: Yamaha YZF R1

FJR1300 Sport-Touring

Sport-Touring

bikes have very powerful motors, comfortable seats, fairings and windshields, and normally come with saddlebags. These bikes are made to do everything on the road - ride around town in traffic, go fast on mountain roads, or cross the country in a few days of riding. They cost $10,000 to $20,000, and weigh 600 to 750 pounds. Sport-touring bikes with four cylinder engines are not very appropriate bikes for a beginner. The current record for Prudhoe Bay AK to Key West FL was set on one of these type of bikes (5,645 miles in 3 days 14 hours 31 minutes). I enjoy these bikes quite a bit. Shown: Yamaha FJR 1300, the record setting bike.

Electra Glide Touring

Touring

bikes come with all the options - radio, stereo, GPS, intercom, cruise control, heated seats, fairing, windshield, saddlebags and trunk. These bikes are heavy, typically 800 to 950 pounds, and expensive, about $15,000 to $25,000. They can be a real joy to ride if you want to cross the continent. Loaded with luggage and a passenger, these bikes weigh 1200 pounds or more. If you put a foot wrong at a stop sign, they will tip over and break your leg. Even if you're Arnold. Shown: Harley Davidson Screamin' Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide

R1200GS Adventure Touring

Adventure Touring

bikes are made for riding anywhere - on or off road, high or low speed, short or long trips. They weigh 450 to 600 pounds, and cost $7,000 to $18,000. They are reasonably comfortable, handle reasonably well on mountain roads, and are reasonably powerful. They are able to travel long distances off-road, although not as fast as a dirt bike. Due to the long travel suspension they tend to have rather high seats that make them a bit clumsy for beginners. These bikes are great for crossing mountains on unpaved roads or riding through Moab. I enjoy these bikes a lot. Shown: BMW R1200GS

KLR Dual Sport

Dual Sport

bikes or Enduros are street legal dirt bikes. These are probably the best choice for a beginner, due to the light weight and the ability to practice off road, where falling is no big deal and you can learn to handle poor traction conditions. These bikes weigh 250 to 350 pounds, and cost $3,000 to $10,000. My sons started on these. A 62 y/o friend of mine and his dog rode one of these from Orlando FL to Prudhoe Bay AK to Ushuaia Argentina to Rio de Janeiro Brazil, and got married in the process to a Peruvian girl that is 'way too young and cute for him. You must be very careful on long rides, you can find yourself coming home with more baggage than you had when you left. Shown: Kawasaki KLR650, the bike my friend rode.

CRF450 Dirt

Dirt

Bikes are made for off road only. They are not legal to ride on the streets. These are also good bikes for beginners, except you can't learn how to ride in traffic. They weigh from 200 to 300 pounds, and cost from $2,500 to $10,000. They are nearly indestructible - when you're carried off the race track with 4 broken bones and a concussion, someone else will casually ride your bike back to your truck. Shown: Honda CRF450

Motorcycle Safety

When you learned to ride a bicycle, you fell down a few times. When you learn to ride a motorcycle, you're going to tip over a couple of times. Trust me, this will happen. If you get a brand new $20,000 motorcycle and tip over on it, the chances are excellent that you're going to have a repair bill of $1000 or more. It's far better to get a smaller inexpensive bike and ride that for the first six months.

More than half of all motorcycle accidents involve riders with less than 5 months or 500 miles of experience. The USC Hurt Report found that two-thirds of all motorcycle accidents involved riders who were unlicensed, or riding a borrowed motorcycle, or riding during their first 12 months. It's very easy to get over-confident with your riding abilities after a couple months. Don't. Motorcycles are reasonably safe to ride, but very dangerous to learn.

If you take a passenger for a ride within your first 6 months, you are just asking for some very bad karma.

Riding a motorcycle is about managing risk. Motorcycles must be balanced, or they tip over. In a crash you have far less protection than in a car. Other drivers are looking for things that can hurt them, and so they mostly don't even see motorcycles. In a survey in California, it was found that 85% of all drivers rank themselves as above average, and 50% rank themselves as in the top 10% of all drivers. No one thinks they're an inexperienced or below average driver, yet half of everyone is below average: that's what average means. No one expects to crash, but the reality is that there are over a hundred thousand traffic accidents every year. Most beginners say "I won't fall down, I'm going to be careful," then they fall down anyway.

When riding a motorcycle you are far more connected to your environment than in a car. There's no heat or air conditioning. If it rains, you're going to get wet. If it snows you can be in real trouble. If you fall down, you're going to get scraped up. There is special motorcycle riding gear to help with these problems - armored jackets with vents that open and seal and removable liners, pants with knee and hip protection, electrically heated clothing; boots, gloves; earplugs, and most important of all, helmets. There are sections in this web site devoted to each of these.

Most motorcycle accidents happen within 5 miles of home. One out of five motorcycle accidents result in head or neck injuries. It's important to wear a helmet essentially all of the time, especially when you're just going down to the store for some milk. In most crashes, most of the damage to your head comes from the fall, not from any sliding. People have died from tipping over motorcycles while at a complete stop, by hitting their head on the pavement or on a nearby car, truck, or curb.

A great way to start out safely is to take an MSF course, an intensive two or three day classroom and riding course supervised by expert riders.

Motorcycle Riding Gear

In many states, helmets are optional for adults over 21. No matter: buy a helmet and wear it for at least your first year of riding. Then you can choose for yourself. Your helmet should have at least a DOT sticker on it, signifying that it passes the minimum government requirements. Better yet, it should have a SNELL sticker on it, signifying that it passes the much more stringent Snell Foundation requirements. More information on helmets is available here.

You should always wear eye protection. Ask any optometrist and they'll tell you stories of bikers with huge numbers of little tiny rocks embedded in their eyes. Eye protection can be good wrap around sunglasses like bicyclists wear, or protective safety glasses from Home Depot, or a set of stylish WWI aviator goggles. A fairing or windshield does not count as eye protection.

Motorcycle jackets are available in many styles. A good jacket will protect you from abrasion if you fall off, and they can be good in cold weather. You can get good jackets at any motorcycle store, or on-line, or at Ebay. There's more info on jackets here.

Some people like one piece or two piece riding suits. You can dress in normal cloths, including a suit, pop on a riding suit over it, and get to work in perfectly fine shape. The best riding suits are rain and bug proof. More information here.

If you live east of the Rockies, there's this very strange phenomenon you might run into - water somehow collects in the sky and falls down, for no apparent reason. I know, hard to believe. Ask anyone from Ohio, they've seen it. Here in the west, it's illegal for water to just go running around like that without anyone owning it. Anyway, east of the Rockies you'll be wanting a rain suit. Information here.

You might like a pair of gloves. The best gloves are available at Harley and BMW shops, where they sell prestigious gloves at prices prestigious people can afford.

Some people get riding boots. These are a must if you're going to be riding off-road. Street boots are available at any motorcycle shop.

Some people will tell you to wear reflective gear. Perhaps this is a good idea. Me, I'm against it. I figure if a car driver sees me, he's most likely to steer for me. I prefer to be invisible. Of course, this means I have to take full responsibility for watching out for all other traffic. Here's the secret: even if you have flashing lights all over your bike and body, you still have to take full responsibility for all other traffic. If your safety plan is that car drivers are going to see you and make special allowances to save your life, all I can say is I'd love to be a beneficiary on your life insurance.

Buying a Motorcycle

Print out the list of recommended bikes on the next page. Go to a few dealers near you, and sit on the bikes. See what feels good, what strikes your fancy. When the salesman tries to tell you that you should buy something to grow into, something more appropriate for an adult, something bigger, faster, more expensive. . . thank him kindly and ask him if he will pay your first repair bill.

Used motorcycles can be a very good deal for a new rider. For about $1000 - $1500 you can buy something very appropriate, ride it for six to eighteen months, and sell it for almost what you paid for it. Any Japanese motorcycle made after about 1980 has an expected engine life of 40,000 miles or more with just routine maintenance, so if you find a used smaller bike with 10,000 miles or so that's been stored in a garage, it will almost certainly give you no trouble at all.

It's a good idea to ride any used bike before you buy it to make sure everything is in good running condition. Some used bikes were ridden very hard and maintained very poorly and can have significant and expensive problems with the engine, brakes, or suspension. Of course a new rider will have trouble identifying these problems, so it's a good idea to bring along an experienced friend to help check out the bikes.

I recommend you try to buy used bike that's no more than 15-20 years old. When the bikes are very old, there can be damage to tires and various rubber seals from sitting around in our smoggy air. Don't forget, in the 1980s there was a lot more smog in this country.

New motorcycles are clean and shiny and have a warranty. However, you're likely to find the value of the bike used is only about half to two-thirds of what you paid for it new after you ride it a couple of months. You'll also have to suffer the slings and arrows of that first outrageously misfortunate scratch.

I am frequently told of recommendations that people start out on the bike they want to own forever. I consider this nuts on a couple of grounds. 1) As a beginner, you don't even know if you like riding, much less what your favorite type of riding and type of motorcycle will be. 2) Modern race replica motorcycles will kill you. On the plus side, it will definitely be your last motorcycle. 3) The "good" bikes are invariably something that costs more then $10,000, and costs about $800 to repair every time it tips over. 4) When the Navy trains a new pilot, they start you out in a single engine propeller airplane with a top speed of about 100mph. You have to put in a lot of hours before you get to fly the mach 2 jet fighters.

Motorcycle Manufacturers

Used Motorcycles

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