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Motorcycle Riding for Beginners

Added April 3, 2020
A man diving instructions to someone riding a motorcycle

Whether it’s a cross country journey on a touring bike or riding a motorcycle through traffic on the highway, we’ve all seen bikers enjoying their rides. If it looks like fun to you it probably will be fun for you.

“But can I do it?” The answer is yes!

Is it hard to learn to ride a motorcycle?

Anyone can learn to ride a motorcycle, especially if they start by participating in a motorcycle safety course (more on that later). Motorcycles are not difficult to ride but you should familiarize yourself with the controls and proper riding techniques before starting out.

How long does it take to learn to ride a motorcycle?

How long it takes to get comfortable varies from person to person, but if you’re already experienced on a bicycle or dirt bike, you will likely get up to speed quicker. It also varies from bike to bike, however, if you start with a small bike it will be easier.

What riding gear do I need?

You’ll want the best riding gear and for it to cover your body from head to toe. Luckily, motorcycle gear  is designed to improve your riding experience by keeping you comfortable in all weather. It also looks cool.

-Get a helmet

A helmet is indispensable for riders. Ideally, you'll have your helmet fitted for you by a professional so that you have the best fitting helmet. A full-face helmet provides the most protection.

-Get a jacket

Your jacket should be made out of either leather or abrasion-resistant textile. Motorcycle gear is different from regular clothing in several ways. Seams are double or tripled to reinforce the stitching and to increase strength. Motorcycle gear is meant to fit tightly so that it doesn't flap around in the wind. You'll want to try out your jacket by sitting in the position that you sit in while riding. Make sure you’re comfortable and if there's body armor, that it's not digging into your body or moving around.

-Motorcycle boots and gloves

Your boots should be sturdy, oil-resistant, with non-slip soles, provide proper ankle support and cover your ankles. Look for boots with strong toe boxes, too.

Gloves are also very important because protecting your hands from the elements is key. There are many options available for all riding styles and weather conditions including wind, rain and cold. Look for strong materials and those that cover your whole hand.

What motorcycle insurance do I need?

The sort of bike insurance you will need can vary from state to state. At a minimum, you'll want liability insurance to provide coverage for the property and well-being of another rider. You will want collision insurance for yourself to cover damage to your bike .

And if you're going on a long trip, you'll want roadside assistance to bail you out of a jam. This can be particularly useful if your bike just needs minor repairs so your whole trip doesn't need to be scrapped.

What are the best beginner motorcycles?

The Harley-Davidson Street® 500 is an ideal bike to start with once you've completed your first motorcycle safety course. You can use it for daily commuting or weekend excursions. It comes with an anti-lock brake option, which is great for beginners who may over-apply the brakes if panicked. Another great choice is the Harley-Davidson® Superlow®, which is ergonomically designed to easily ride hundreds of miles a day without getting cramped. Of course, you can just ride it to the grocery store, too.

-Engine size less than 600cc

Most beginners start with a bike that's got a 600cc engine or less. A bike with such an engine may be too small for a bigger rider or too big for a smaller rider, so it's important to choose a bike that fits you. Overall, within the range of 600cc is a good place for a first-time rider to get a handle on things.

-Anti-lock braking system (ABS)

As a newer rider, you risk over-applying brakes. For this reason, an anti-lock braking system is a useful feature because it will keep your tires and brakes from locking and skidding if you hit the brakes too hard.

-Windscreen/Fairing

A windscreen or fairing can be very useful to have on the front of your bike because you can just tuck behind them to protect yourself from wind and weather. Without a windscreen, you may end up getting fatigued from the effort it takes to fight against the force of the wind as you ride. A windscreen may also deflect road grime and insects.

-Seat height

Proper riding ergonomics  is paramount. To feel comfortable stopping and standing you're going to need to find a seat height that more or less matches your inseam. Too high of a seat will mean standing on your tippy-toes, while too low of a seat will make it too easy to touch the ground. Figure out your happy medium and you'll feel just right.

-Handlebar height

A handlebar set to the wrong height will just contribute fatigue and discomfort to your ride. Ideally, your elbows should be just slightly bent when you're on your bike to reach the controls. Handlebar height is regulated in many locations. Ensure your motorcycle meets applicable regulations.

How do I mount a motorcycle?

You'll get the handle of getting on your bike even though it can be awkward the first couple times you do it. Stand on the left side of your bike. Bend your knees somewhat, and center your weight over your legs. Take the right handle into your right hand and the left handle into your left hand. Put your weight on your left leg and then kick your right leg up and over the bike. Make sure it's a high kick so that your leg doesn't get caught on the bike before your leg completes its journey.

Once you’re on the bike, reacquaint yourself with all the controls. Mind the footpeg position, and where the turn signals, horn, and lights are. Double-check that the mirrors are positioned just how you like them.

What should I know about the motorcycle controls?

How do you make your bike stop and go, and what do you do in between? The answer to this question is found in the controls.

-The dash

What's on the dashboard of a bike differs from bike to bike. What you'll always find, though, is a speedometer, which in most countries also has to be lit in the dark so that you can see your speed during the night. Most dashboards will also have an RPM meter (revolutions per minute). You want to avoid riding in the red zone (it's bad for your engine).

-The mirrors

Mirrors are mandatory on both sides in most countries. They’re your friends, so use them well.

-The turn signals

Modern motorcycles are required to be equipped with turn signals (those manufactured before 1973 do not have this requirement). Turn signals indicate to everyone around you that you’re turning. The controls are either found on the left handlebar or on most H-D motorcycles there are two controls, one on each handlebar switchpack. They’re meant to be activated using the thumb. Most non-H-D bikes don’t self-cancel the turn signals once the turn has been made, so it’s on you to keep things neat.

-The kill switch

This is an emergency off switch located on the right handlebar of most modern bikes. It’s not the only way to turn off your bike, but it can be very useful since you don’t have to look for it to use it. When you’re using your bike, your off switch will be in the run position.

-The starter button

The start button is usually located under the off/run switch. A lot of start buttons have circular arrows with a lightning bolt in the middle so you can identify them.

What should I know about the throttle and brakes?

The left side of your bike controls gears, while the right side controls acceleration and braking. It may seem like a lot to get used to, but with enough practice, the bike will begin to feel like an extension of yourself, and your graceful movements will lead to effortless rides.

-The throttle

The throttle regulates the speed of your ride. On the right end of the handlebar, you'll find the throttle. When you rotate your right wrist toward you, the amount of gas you give the engine increases. Rotating your wrist away from you gives the engine less gas. You always want to start with your wrist in a flat position. With enough practice, your throttle control will allow you to smoothly accelerate and decelerate your ride, as opposed to a herky-jerky ride.

-The front brake lever

On the right side of the handlebar you'll find the front brake.

-The rear brake lever

The rear brake is found on the right side of your bike near your right foot.

What should I know about the clutch?

The clutch is how you change gears. Pulling the clutch in releases the engine from the transmission, which allows you to shift gears. You will also pull in the clutch as you are coming to a stop and slowly release it to begin moving again.

-The clutch lever

Typically located on the left handlebar, the hand clutch lever is used to disengage power from the back wheel as you shift gears.

-The shift lever

While you're pulling the clutch lever you'll be using the gear shifter to shift one gear up or down. The gear shifter is most likely located by your left foot.

How do I start my motorcycle?

Now that you know where the clutch and gear shift are you can finally start your bike. 

Insert the key into the ignition of the motorcycle and pull the choke all the way out unless the motorcycle has been running previously. Turn the key in the ignition to the “on” position and make sure the kill switch is set to “run”.

Check to make sure the motorcycle gear shifter is in neutral and squeeze the motorcycle clutch lever with your left hand all the way to the grip.

Press the start buton with your right thumb and allow the motor to turn over until the engine fires before releasing the start button. Over a period of a few minutes, gradually push the choke in as the motorcycle engine warms up. 

Should I allow the engine to warm up?

Unlike with cars, you actually need to warm up your bike, So, once started, let your bike warm up for about 45 seconds. Don’t rev the engine during this time.

What should I know about the kickstand or center stand?

These days, some bikes are built to automatically turn off if the kickstand is down. If your bike doesn't do that, manually retract your kickstand using your left foot. Just kick it up so the kickstand can fit nearly underneath your bike's underbody.

Center stands, meanwhile, need the bike to be rocked forward. To make this happen, stand to the left of your bike, put your hand on the left handlebar, and straighten out the front tire. With your right foot, check to see that the center stand is on the ground. Next, push the bike gently forward, causing the center stand to click and pop up.

Should I take a motorcycle safety course?

Yes. A motorcycle safety or H-D Riding Academy course is the best way to learn directly from instructors with experience. This is not only a course for new riders, but it is also a great refresher for those who are returning to riding. For some forms of insurance, taking a safety course can also save you money on your insurance policy

Additionally, a safety course may provide you with a training motorcycle to learn on, which is useful if you want to learn but don't yet own a bike. Don't be surprised if there's a classroom portion of the course. Many courses even end with you taking a test to get your motorcycle license or endorsement.

How do I ride and steer my bike?

The engine has been warmed up, you've shifted into first gear, you've let the clutch lever out, and pulled back the throttle at the same time. Now you’re literally moving. 

Accelerate a little and put your feet onto the pegs. As you let out the clutch and roll the throttle to pick up speed, continue to ride. When you want to take a break, pull in the clutch lever and slowly engage both the front and rear brakes at the same time. Your left foot is used to steady the bike as it stops, and once you've come to a complete halt you can put your right foot on the ground too.

Turning is easier to do than it is to explain, so trust yourself once you're actually riding. The way steering works is that once you've hit 10 mph, you lean slightly in the direction you want to turn while pushing the corresponding handgrip away from you. So, if you want to go right you lean right and push the right handgrip away from you.

How do I shift gears?

To shift gears you'll be using your left foot. It takes practice to cycle through the gears, and in particular to find neutral. You'll know you're in neutral, though, when the green "N" lights up on your gauge. 

Some motorcycles can be shifted without using the clutch, but it's a good idea to use the clutch every time you shift. Pull the clutch lever in, shift gears, and then slowly release the clutch lever. This way shifting will be a smooth transition. Don't over-rev in each gear, and don't shift before the engine starts to work too hard.

What are other good riding habits?

The best way to have a fun ride is by having a safe ride. That’s because riding safely improves the quality of your ride and makes you feel better riding. Follow these best practices to get the most out of your trips.

-Keep heels in

If your bike is a sport bike then you'll see little metal plates shaped like diamonds near the foot pegs. They're there so you can press your heels in. Doing so should make you feel more confident and in control. If you really wanna test this go a week with your heels in and then ride without your heels in. You'll feel like your feet are just hanging.

-Loose on top, tight on bottom

When you're riding, you want to be gripping the bike with your thighs and ankles. This will keep you more glued to your bike in the event that you hit a large bump or pothole. Meanwhile, you don't want to grip the top of your bike so hard that you can't properly control it. Instead, be loose enough to wiggle your elbows. Remember, bike riding should be graceful and effortless.

-Don’t brake in a turn / accelerate through turn

You don't want to brake while doing a turn because your bike will start to straighten up. Instead, begin to brake before even getting to a turn. As you are finalizing the turn, slowly begin to accelerate to resume your speed.

-Look through turns

When taking a turn, look as far ahead as you can, as opposed to only right in front of you. This will make turning less scary and will allow you to see what is up ahead and make your turns more efficiently.

-Keep visor closed

This is worth repeating over and over again: protect your eyes. Harmful UV rays, debris flying into your face, and being affected by the sun's light are all avoided if you wear a visor. If you really need some ventilation, you can raise it an inch.

-Assume you’re invisible

Motorcycles are hard for others to interact with, so just assume no one can see you so that you are riding as safely as possible. The speed and maneuverability of your bike can get you out of a lot of jams, but you will keep yourself out of jams as well by assuming they will happen.

Other common questions:

We’re just scratching the surface of learning how to ride a bike. Here are some things you find out when you dig a little deeper.

-Can you skip gears on a motorcycle?

Don't skip gears. Plain and simple.

-Are heavy motorcycles hard to ride?

At a high speed, heavy bikes are no different from any other type of bike. Heavy bikes present a challenge, however, when they're ridden at slow speeds and in tight spots. But, like riding any bike, a heavier bike can be mastered with practice.

-Which foot to put down when stopping a motorcycle?

Put your left foot down. This way your right foot still has control over the rear brake.

-How do you balance a motorcycle?

You can practice balancing your bike by putting your kick stand up and simply standing on the pegs. When you feel the bike falling in a particular direction, put your foot down in the direction the bike is falling to catch it. Repeat until you’ve mastered balancing your bike.

-Why is the first gear down on a motorcycle?

First gear is primarily used for getting your bike from rest to start. You will not normally ride in first gear. 

There are reasons why manufacturers place neutral between first gear and the other gears. This is particularly important when going up or down hills. If you are going down a hill and realize that your brakes are not working, you'll need to start downshifting to allow the engine to assist you in slowing down. If the last gear was neutral, you'd be unable to engage your engine. 

Meanwhile, if you're going up a hill and want tostop, you need your bike in 1st gear to resume moving and not neutral or another gear. So, in both cases, having first gear last makes it possible for you to engage your engine quickly and take appropriate measures. 

-Do you need to be strong to ride a motorcycle?

No, the only time your strength will come into play is if your bike falls over and you need to pick it up.

Bottom Line on Learning to Ride a Motorcycle

You can do it. 

There’s so much joy that comes from motorcycling that the effort necessary to learn is itself joyful. Sure, you may be worried and you may struggle, but since the challenge is part of the reward, you’ll be grateful every step of the way that you chose to pursue your dream.

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