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Introduction to Motorcycles

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Basic Motorcycle Operation

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.

Most motorcycles have manual transmissions, so you have to work a clutch and shift them yourself. Small children learn to do this, you can too. Scooters and some very small motorcycles have automatic clutches. Some very large and expensive motorcycles have electronic shifting, but beginners have no business on one of these motorcycles. It's good to have an experienced rider around to help as an instructor. Experienced means several years and several thousand miles, it doesn't mean your buddy Joe who started riding last week and knows just how you feel.

Many of these exercises are used by MSF instructors. They have a more elaborate setup, and use other more complicated exercises too. They also have a detailed classroom course that is good training. MSF instructors have several years and many thousands of miles of experience; in addition they must take an instructor's course, and then they join an MSF team as the junior member for several classes.

Starting your motorcycle

Smaller bikes have carburetors and manual chokes. If your motorcycle is cold, pull out the choke. This is most likely a knob about a half inch across (1cm) on the left side of the carburetor. Your instructor can help you find it if you're lost. Then hit the starter button. As soon as the engine fires, release the starter button. Running the starter while the engine is running can damage the starter clutch. It will take about three minutes for your engine to completely warm up. Most chokes have a middle position; after about 1 minute you can push the choke halfway in. After about three minu

tes you can push it all the way in. Some bikes have the choke lever on the handlebars near the clutch lever.

Larger bikes have fuel injection, and the choke function is managed by the engine computer.

Stopping

To stop the motorcycle, pull in the clutch, let the throttle return to idle, and gently pull on the front brake lever while pushing down on the rear brake pedal. You're just learning, there's no need to make an emergency stop. As you come to a stop, drop one or both feet to the ground to hold the bike up. Trust me, the motorcycle won't balance itself.

Going straight

Always ride with your chin up, looking ahead. You go where you look. Don't slouch, don't look down at the ground immediately in front of your wheel, and don't be looking around to see if everyone is watching you.

Turning

To turn the motorcycle, Slow, Look, Push, Lean:

  1. Slow to a reasonable speed
  2. Look where you want to go
  3. Push on the handlebars
  4. Lean into the curve

Always look where you want to go. You go where you look. If you want to turn to the left, push on the left handlebar. If you want to turn to the right, push on the right handlebar. The motorcycle will naturally lean into the turn. Lean with it.

Practicing with your Motorcycle

OK, you've bought a bike and you have to learn how to ride it. Here's some simple practices you can do. Find a large empty parking lot. If you have a dirt bike or a dual sport and there's an empty field new you, you can also practice on the dirt.

There are ten practices outlined here. It will take about six hours to master all of them. I recommend you work for about 90 minutes, then take a break of about a half hour. After three hours, take an extended break of an hour or two, or better yet over night. I'm sure you're all excited to get out into traffic and show off your new bike. However, spending six hours doing these practices in the privacy of your own large parking lot will hugely increase your chances of riding in traffic without an accident. If you also take a (highly recommend) MSF course, you'll find they do very similar exercises for about four hours per day, two days in a row.

It's good to have an experienced rider available to you to offer a bit of advice. However, you can do these exercises all by yourself with no help or guidance and still learn a tremendous amount. An instructor can only talk to you and tell your conscious mind various things. Your job in these exercises is to train your unconscious mind to control a motorcycle. If your conscious mind could do it alone, there would be a book and DVD, you would read and watch, and you would then be an expert, ready to compete for the World Championship.

traffic cone For these exercises you'll need to have some traffic cones or substitutes. I made some substitutes from five empty one gallon water bottles. I filled them from a garden hose, then added about a teaspoon of red food coloring to each. Red food coloring is available at a restaurant supply store like Smart and Final for about $4 / pint (500ccs). Make a spare or two, you're likely to break one. If you prefer to buy traffic cones, there are most likely some ads from suppliers in the Google box at the upper-right of this page. Expect to pay $5-$15 each. Or, get eight FlexiCones, four for $3.26 at Walmart.

You'll also need a long tape measure, at least 25 feet (8 meters).

Walking the bike - Clutch, Brakes, The Friction Zone

If you've never used a manual transmission before, here's a good way to get started. The clutch has what's called a "friction zone." When you hold the clutch lever all the way into the handlebar, the engine is completely disconnected from the rear wheel. You can twist the throttle and the engine speeds up, but the bike doesn't move. When the clutch lever is completely released and all the way out, the engine is directly connected to the rear wheel - you turn the throttle more, and you move faster. In between there's a region in the movement of the clutch lever where the engine is getting progressively more and more connected to the rear wheel - the friction zone. In this region you can turn the throttle and the engine speeds up, the bike speeds up a little bit. When starting the bike out from a complete stop, you spend about 5 feet of forward motion in this friction zone, getting the bike moving and then matching the rear wheel speed to the engine speed.

When the clutch lever is pulled all the way into the handlebars, the engine is disengaged. For about the first inch as you let the clutch out, nothing happens. Then you hit the friction zone - for about the next inch of lever travel, the clutch will progressively engage the engine to the rear wheel. Finally, for about the last half inch of lever travel the engine is completely engaged. So, there are three regions in the clutch lever travel: close to the handlebars, the engine is disengaged from the rear wheel and moving the clutch lever has no effect. In the middle, the clutch is in the friction zone and the engine is getting progressively more and more attached to the rear wheel. At the end of the lever travel, the clutch and engine are fully engaged and the lever again has no effect. You have to learn about the middle portion, the friction zone, to effectively drive the bike in stop and go traffic.

First make sure the kick stand is up. If you've never used a clutch before, the first thing to do is feel what the clutch does. Pull in the clutch all the way to the handlebars, and snick the shift lever down with your foot to put the bike into 1st gear. Now slowly let the clutch out. When it's about half way out, you'll feel the bike start to pull forwards a bit. This is the beginning of the friction zone. Push the bike backwards with your feet, and letting the clutch out a little bit let the engine pull you forwards. Then pull the clutch in a bit until you can pull the bike backwards with your legs again. Rock the bike back and forth like this using the clutch and your legs until you have a feel for the friction zone.

To start moving on your motorcycle, pull in the clutch and snick the transmission into 1st gear. Now, with both feet on the ground, slowly release the clutch until the bike starts to pull you forwards a bit. Now let the clutch out just a tiny bit more, and walk the bike around the parking lot. Using the engine to pull you and your feet only for balance, walk the bike forwards about 100 feet. Keep the clutch only partially out - if you let the clutch all the way out the engine will stall. This exercise will get you used to using the clutch.

Don't use any throttle - leave the engine at idle. Don't let the clutch all the way out, keep the clutch in the friction zone. Every 30 feet (10 meters) or so, pull in the clutch and use the brakes to stop the bike. This practice is to get used to being on a moving motorcycle, to learn about slipping the clutch and the clutch friction zone, and to learn to use the brakes.

If you stall the bike doing this, you let the clutch out too fast. This indicates you haven't learned to use the friction zone to slip the clutch yet. If you use your legs and feet to stop the bike, then you haven't learned to use the brakes yet. You're not ready to actually ride until you can reliably slip the clutch to start and reliably use the brakes to stop.

Some people who have experience with manual transmissions get this part in five minutes. Some people who have never driven a manual or are afraid of motorcycles need an hour to master these steps. Take your time and keep doing this exercise until you are comfortable. There's no need to rush at this stage: you have the rest of your life to scare the devil out of yourself and get religion.

Riding in ovals

Now we're going to actually ride the bike. In a flat area, place two of your traffic cones about 100 feet (30 meters) apart. We're going to ride the bike around these cones in a big oval. Start on one side of the oval.

First make sure the kick stand is up. To start moving on your motorcycle, pull in the clutch and snick the transmission into 1st gear. Turn the throttle slightly to get the engine RPM up a bit. If you have a tachometer, the engine RPM should be between 2500 and 3000rpm. Next slowly release the clutch lever until the clutch starts to drag and the motorcycle starts to slightly pull forwards. Now slowly release the clutch while slightly rolling on the throttle. It should take you about four to six feet (1.5 to 2 meters) to completely release the clutch. If you let go the clutch abruptly, the engine will stall.

If you are having trouble slipping the clutch, you can have your instructor stand about five feet in front of the handlebars and hold out their hand to lightly slap your clutch hand as you go by. You should just be completely releasing the clutch as your hand gets slapped.

Ride to the far traffic cone, and slow for the corner. Look, push, lean to go around the traffic cone. Now repeat everything around the other traffic cone. Stop in the middle of the straight part to get used to stopping and starting the bike. Ride in ovals for about five to ten minutes until you're comfortable starting, stopping, and turning. Remember to reverse the ovals after a while so that you practice both left and right turns.

Remember to ride with good posture, don't slouch. Keep your chin up, eyes straight ahead. You go where you look. To turn, slow, look, push, lean. You go where you look. Don't look down at your front wheel, don't look around to see who's watching you and what they're doing. Concentrate on driving the motorcycle.

Shifting and Braking

Place four traffic cones in a rectangle 120 feet (35 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) wide. Stop the bike at one side of the rectangle. With the bike in first gear, start moving. Get up to a speed of 15mph (25kph), and shift into second gear. Then pull in the clutch, down shift to first gear and stop the bike at the far end of the rectangle. You should use the entire length of the rectangle to get up to speed, shift, then down shift and stop - no more, no less. This is practice for accelerating, shifting, and braking. Now turn around the outside of the rectangle, stop at the beginning, and repeat the practice going back.

shifting practice shifting practice shifting practice
Shifting and Braking practice by my son Richard, a 4th generation Green Bay Packers owner.

Riding in circles

Pick one of the traffic cones and ride in circles around it for a while. Practice making smaller and smaller circles. If you have to put a foot down to stabilize the bike, knock a point off your score. Ride in both left hand and right hand circles.

Eventually, after several weeks of practice, you should be able to turn the handlebars to full lock and ride around in circles without ever moving the handlebars. To turn with the handlebars at full lock you'll need to use the rear brake, the clutch, and the throttle all at the same time. I still do this exercise. This is a very useful skill in parking lots.

Figure 8

Place two traffic cones about 30 feet (10 meters) apart, and ride around them in a figure 8. You don't need to reverse your direction, as in a figure 8 you will turn to the left on one side and to the right on the other. After about a dozen laps, move the traffic cones together so that they're about 25 feet (7.5 meters) apart. After another dozen or so laps, move the traffic cones to within 20 feet (6 meters) of each other. Remember, it's not a race. Beginners often go faster and faster around the figure 8 as they become more comfortable. You can fall down doing this exercise if you go too fast. It's harder to go slow than to go fast and you learn more going slow, so going fast is being lazy.


Figure 8 practice by Richard on his first day of riding. He's on his Suzuki DR200E Dual Sport.

End of Day One

These five exercises should have been about three to four hours of work. This is a good place to break for the day. Sleep is a very important part of learning - it's good to sleep on what you have learned so far, and come back tomorrow to finish the rest of the exercises. You'll find that you're better tomorrow after sleeping than you are right now.

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