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.
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:
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.
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.
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.