If you are going to ride like you have something to prove, please do not ride
One of the biggest problems motorcycling as has faced for a long time is its hooliganistic image. Try walking up to three random people in the mall and ask them what is the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word, “motorcycle.” Chances are it will be Harley (not a bad thing), biker gangs (not a good thing), kids popping wheelies down freeways (really not a good thing), or loud exhaust. Without opening the cans of worms that is exhaust noise, two of those four things are examples of the wrong reasons to ride. It is because some riders allow their ego to overtake their judgment that the American Motorcyclist Association is constantly fighting bike bans (as in you cannot legally ride a motorcycle in a village or city), motorcycle-only checkpoints, and the like. It is because of such riders that myself and countless others get followed around by law enforcement, feel less welcome in some establishments, and have parents usher their kids away from us.
I have has several former co-workers who did not want to buy a bike that was too small to keep up with their friends who rode back roads at 140mph. More on engine size can be found in the next section, but for those individuals, the problems was not that they wanted a big bike. Rather, they had the wrong mentality towards riding. They were too interested in fitting in, and not interested enough in what was safe or what was best for them in the long-term. Riding is your own adventure, not someone else’s. Too many riders get into riding to feel accepted or to prove how brave they are, only to find themselves in traction, in a casket, or back on the couch all weekend. We are all ambassadors of this sport the moment we swing our leg over a motorcycle. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as each other, to not ruin someone else’s time on a motorcycle. This includes not letting our insecurity get the best of us. If you want to get into riding but do not feel comfortable riding with your family or friends, contact the author. I will help you find the right group to ride with. Motorcycle riding can be one of the most positive or destructive forces in one’s life. What makes the difference is the attitude we bring to riding. Just like shouting out the ending before a movie begins, please do not ruin riding for everyone else. Don’t be that person.
Size doesn’t always matter, but you don’t need a big one to have fun
Back to those co-workers of mine who did not want to buy too small of a bike. The truth is even 250cc motorcycles are much higher performance that your average saloon car. A Scion TC averages 6.8-7.3 seconds 0-60 ($21,300 new). A Subaru WRX STi ($38,995 new) is around 5.0 seconds 0-60. A used Kawasaki Ninja 250 (model years 1987-2007) has a 5.75 seconds 0-60 ($1,500-$3,000 on Craigslist). A 1999-2001 Suzuki SV650 has a 3.2 second 0-60 ($2,000-$4,500). As one can see, you do not need a big motorcycle engine to obtain superior performance. If you are worried about riding 140mph, not only are you missing the point of riding, but you will not enjoy it as much. When you highside for the first time and realize just how much power you have between your legs, you may not want to go back to riding. When you have a little less power that you can learn to manage, you will soon leave your friends in the dust when you hit the twisties. Moreover, a new rider needs a bike they feel comfortable maneuvering in an emergency. You cannot power your way through that deer that jumps out in front of you.
Develop your (real) riding skills
Sure, there are the skills that you consciously use to ride a motorcycle. Practicing your steering, braking, and accelerating are all very important (more on these in the next sections). However, there are lots of other skills and senses that riding a motorcycle requires. The sharper those senses are, the faster, smoother, and safer you will be able to ride confidently. Most important among these is what I call “eyework.” Nick Ienatsch has a great chapter on this topic in his book, “Sport Riding Techniques (1).” Some of the following section is borrowed from that book, and it is recommended that new riders read it in its entirety.
The first example of eyework is practicing looking through the corner, and looking as far up the road as possible. This was one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp when I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF)’s Basic Rider Course (BRC). It felt very unnatural at first. Honestly, I did not really understand where the instructors wanted me to look. Why would I want to look at the exit of a corner just as I am turning into it?
But once I got used to it, it was more than worth it. I could navigate corners much more quickly and sharply than when I first started riding. This was because I felt more balanced, and I could better tell exactly where I was in a bend. On long, straight roads, look as far down the road as you can. When there is something lying in the road that could put a gash in your tire, it will give you the most time to react to it. This is not to say a rider should ignore what else is going on in front of them. A safe rider keeps their eyes moving, constantly scanning for threats in the road and alongside it. That said, looking down the road helps you “slow down” what you are seeing, giving you a feeling of even more time to react. When you come over that crest and there is a critter in the middle of the road, you need all the reaction time you can get.
For cornering, I will look down the road in the direction of my braking marker, then look to the apex of the corner (what I am turning toward) as I initiate my turn-in. As I begin to tip in, I quickly change my glance to where I want to exit the corner, or as far ahead in the corner as I can see. As I progress my eyes through the corner, I scan the road surface for anything that could cause an issue (gravel, dead animals, crack sealer, etc.). The hardest part is learning to not overreact if you do see something in the corner. Our instinct is to look at the obstacle and try to maneuver around it. Motorcycles are so sensitive to their riders, that such a reaction will often result in a collision. To practice avoiding such hazards, focus your eyes on the solution (a path around the obstacle) and not the obstacle itself. Go to a parking lot and practice turning. As you are turning, start changing only your gauze and see how the motorcycle reacts. Then pick a couple points in the parking lot (maybe where parking lines cross) and pretend they are objects. Start turning toward them, then change your focus to a line around them. Vary your speed to get a better idea of how your particular motorcycle will react to different inputs at different speeds and lean angles.
In addition to making sure you are focused on the right points on the road, it is just as important to “see” what you are not focusing on. If all obstacles were immobile like gravel or a dead animal, motorcycle safety would be orders of magnitude easier to achieve. Sadly, inattentive drivers, live animals, falling debris, and the like do not always cross out direct line of sight or stay in one place. In order to deal with such hazards, one must practice keeping their eyes moving when riding, as well as strengthen their peripheral and other visual skills. Our peripheral vision is probably the most important of these skills. Just because a rider is focused on the path around a hazard does not mean he or she does not need to be able to see what the hazard is doing. If a deer suddenly starts crossing the road, one needs to both focus on a path around the deer as well as be able to see what the deer is doing. If the deer suddenly turns around, a rider will want to see that and adjust their line and speed through a corner. To develop this skill, try watching TV while looking only at one of the four corners of the screen. You do not have to miss your entire favorite show while doing this. However, you will be impressed with how much of the show you will be able to “see” the more you do it. For more techniques and information on this issue, see Ienatsch’s book referenced above (1).
Go back to the course, and often
As you begin to master the vision skills discussed above, apply them to the same drills that you did during your MSF BRC. While some ranges are not open to the public, many of them are located in parking lots at community colleges, career centers, motorcycle dealers and the like. Here in Columbus, Ohio, the Iron Pony has a range painted in the outer part of its parking lot. You may not find yourself using all of the skills that the BRC emphasized in your everyday riding. However, those techniques are like tools when your bike is broke down on the side of the road: Better to have them and not need them, than need them and not have them. If you do not have a range around you, use an empty parking lot. Parking spaces are usually 18’x8′. Use this links to practice guides prepared by the Idaho STAR Motorcycle Safety Program to see some of the ways a rider can use a parking lot like an MSF range:
New riders are statistically predisposed to crashing at a much higher rate than more experienced riders. While no rational rider plans to crash their bike, new riders all too often find themselves doing some soil sampling due to entering a corner with too much speed. Another common accident is a car driver turning left in front of a motorcycle. In light of the probability of a crash and the severe injuries that can result from one, it is best to be prepared for the worst. As a lot of veteran riders told me when I started riding, “Dress for the crash.”
Even though I am an “all the gear, all the time” (ATGATT) rider, I am not here to tell you what to wear when you ride. As long as you do not take me out if/when you crash, it is not my skin and bones on the line. If you want to ride in a t-shirt, gym shorts, and flip flops just like your riding buddies, just do a quick Google image search for “motorcycle road rash” before you do. It is hard to conceptualize what it feels like to slide on hot asphalt. You are tough, right? You will get right up, rub some dirt in it, and feel fine. Unfortunately it is not that simple. If you would not want to run an electric belt sander over your skin, riding without gear might not be for you.
I realize riding gear is not inexpensive. Plus, it does get hot outside in some parts of the U.S.. However, personally, I would rather be soaked in sweat for an afternoon than covered in skin grafts for the rest of my life. Just ask yourself before you ride if it is worth blowing your entire health insurance deductible on something that could be prevented with $300-400 in riding gear and drinking a couple extra bottles of water? Skin grafts are not exactly easy on the eyes, and quite painful to have done. Do yourself a favor and Google image search those too. From experience seeing several people crash without riding gear, it is hardly worth risking so much to “fit in.” The most memorable of these was watching my best friend crash in front of me. We went over a set of train tracks and he tucked the front. He was coming past me to lead us back to his house, and instead almost took my bike out. He is an Iraq veteran who was in a number of firefights and hand-to-hand combat scenarios. Even after all of that, he confided in me that the most painful thing he has ever experienced was scrubbing the polyester out of his road rash wounds. His shirt had literally melted into his skin. Think about your family, friends, and significant other, and ask yourself if it is worth the risk. If you still think it is, I will not do anything to stop you or change your mind.
For those of you who have decided to change your mind, there are plenty of options for sturdy and relatively inexpensive riding gear. Start with a good helmet. While a full-face helmet offers the best protection, a number of three-quarters helmets with face shields also offer a strong level of protection for the entire head. While some brands are of a higher quality than others, it is more important to make sure the helmet has the proper safety certifications. All on-road riding helmets must have a DOT-approval sticker on them (usually on the back of the helmet). A Snell 2010 or later rating is also highly recommended, as it means the helmet has passed another rigorous set of safety tests. Also, if you do happen to have an unfortunate crash, be sure to get yourself a new helmet before swinging a leg back over a bike. Chances are the helmet is fine, but is it really worth the risk? For more information on helmet technology and fitment, please visit The Service Pavillion’s website: http://www.theservicepavilion.com/
In addition to a helmet, a riding jacket, pants, gloves, and boots complete the riding wardrobe. The jacket and pants can be made of leather or a motorcycle-specific textile material. What is important is that it is an abrasion-resistant material. Denim-based garments like jeans and denim jackets are really just plain cotton. While they may seem study on a work site, they shred very easily in high-abrasion situation like a motorcycle crash. While a great many riders wear riding jackets, far fewer wear riding pants. In reality, the legs are far more susceptible to injury in a motorcycle crash. Between contact with the road surface to the motorcycle coming down on top of them, a rider’s legs are in great peril when the shiny side goes down. Motorcycle-specific riding pants are usually equipped with armor and/or padding to protect the legs in a crash, and sometimes have extra padding in the rear for those longer rides. Similarly, motorcycle-specific gloves have curved fingers for gripping the handlebars and have extra protection in the parts of the hand the usually make contact with the road during a crash. While racing style motorcycle boots generally are not necessary for the street, and sturdy set of over-the-ankle work boots will help keep your foot attached to your body if you should go down. If you have more specific questions about riding gear, please do not hesitate to ask the author.
Don’t be afraid to get wet
When I was a graduate student, I used to ride my motorcycle to my part-time job rain or shine. When my co-workers would ask me if I had lost my sanity, I would respond, “There are only three ways to improve at riding in the wet: Practice, practice, and practice.” When I first got into motorcycle riding, I was a fair weather rider. That all changed after I got stuck in the rain a few times. Meteorology, despite its name, is not exactly an exact science. Like other riding skills, it is far better to have strong wet weather riding skills you never have to use than to put yourself and your bike at risk in wet conditions. Sitting under a bridge on an interstate highway is actually quite a scary experience.
When I decided to get into long-distance riding in 2009, I knew this was an area I needed to improve on. So I rode every chance I got in the rain. Today, riding in the rain really does not phase me at all. In reality, riding in the rain is great training for all sorts of low-traction conditions. Whether it is rain, gravel, sand, crack sealer, or a combination of the above, riding in the rain will improve your chances of successfully navigating any less-than-perfect riding surface. A lot of motorcycle riding gear (which is discussed in the previous section) is waterproof (or relatively close to it). Riding gloves tend to be the exception to this. However, rain gloves are relatively inexpensive, and easily double as cold-weather gloves.