We’ve all been there. Really. We were new riders once. We understand where you’re at: You’ve just bought your first motorcycle. You’re all excited to be riding your new (or new-to-you) bike home, you park your bike and stand back to admire it – and then it hits you: Now what do I do?
Here we’re offering some ideas for how to change from a newbie to a seasoned motorcyclist with a minimum of mistakes and a maximum dose of fun. As we thought about the hurdles we had to surmount as new riders, we decided that since some of our memories had faded with hindsight, we should enlist an actual new rider to give us his/her experience. You know, the view from the trenches.
After weeks of searching, we found Giovanny Olivares, who at 25 is the proud owner of his first motorcycle, a 2015 Honda CBR300R. We’ve taken him under our wing to travel the road of a new motorcyclist and offer advice about life on two wheels. Together with Giovanny, we’ve broken new ridership down into four categories: gear, wrenching, community, and education.
Saddle up, and let’s hit the road.
Giovanny says: Back in 2009, I saw a Harley-Davidson Iron 883, and the first time I saw that bike, I thought, man, I’ve got to get into motorcycles. On forums, people were saying that it was better to start on something small. You know, less expensive and light. I decided to go with a smaller sportbike because I wanted to test the waters to see if I liked riding. When I first looked, one of the things that stood out, as a starter bike, was the Kawasaki Ninja 300. I also saw the Honda CBR300R and liked the looks of it. Since my car is a 2009 Honda Civic and it never gave me any issues, I knew the Honda was reliable which is the main reason I decided to go with the CBR300R.
Immediately after you purchase your first motorcycle, a new task follows: acquiring proper riding gear. In fact, having riding gear is so important that you should include it in your budget when buying a bike since first-time riders often spend everything they’ve got on just the bike.
You don’t need to spend top dollar to protect yourself in a crash. You just need to make sure you’re properly protected for a mishap. Additionally, riding gear will actually make your rides more comfortable. So, we’ll take a look at what you should get and in the order you should get it.
Your local motorcycle dealership is a tremendous asset to have. The well-run ones will have a variety of riding gear available for you to try on. For a new rider, this is of primary importance since you don’t yet have the experience to make good buying decisions without checking the items for correct fit. This is also a good time to start building a relationship with your dealer’s parts guy. They can help you through many problems, so it’s good to be on friendly terms with them. In these days of internet discounts, remember that if you try on the gear at the dealership and decide to buy it, you really should buy it there, too. Yes, you can save a few bucks online, but a web store isn’t going to be there to hand you a part you suddenly realize you need late on the day before you leave for a big ride. So, help them stay in business. It’s in your self-interest as a motorcyclist.
If you’re in one of the 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have universal helmet laws, you’ve probably already purchased a helmet when you picked up your bike. If you live in one of the 28 states that have limited use helmet laws that require only some motorcyclists to use helmets or one of the three states with no helmet law, we’re going to risk offending some of you by saying that your first gear purchase should be a DOT-legal (U.S. Dept. of Transportation) helmet. Really. The statistics are in, and those who wear helmets fare far better in crashes.
When dealing with helmets, the truism of buying the best riding gear you can afford is a major factor. Since you’re only considering DOT-legal helmets, the extra money you spend on premium brands/models might not provide extra protection. Instead, it gets you more comfort features, like a softer liner, lessened wind noise or better ventilation. Eight hours into a 10-hour ride, you’ll understand the importance of comfort in your gear. Although the racer graphics may appeal to you, the plain white helmet offers just as much protection. Also, we recommend sticking to the major helmet brands which have a reputation to protect.
The next item to purchase may seem counter-intuitive, but you need a set of gloves. In a crash, humans stick out their paws to absorb the impact. Since that’s hardwired into our systems, the only logical thing to do is wear gloves when we ride. Gloves can be had for less than $50 and are worth their weight in gold should you hit the pavement. The rest of the time on a motorcycle, they’ll be offering you better grip and control of your bike’s levers. Oh, and they’ll make you look like a rider.
The key features to look for are leather construction with additional layers (plus padding) in the heel of the palm – the primary impact point. Leather construction throughout offers better protection than those featuring textile components. Gloves with hard armor over the knuckles offer better protection than those without. Some gloves combine finger protection with active vents, allowing air to flow over a rider’s hands. A strong wrist closure is important – as is a fit that is not too loose – to prevent the gloves from being flung off in a crash. Shorty gloves offer less protection than one with gauntlets that cover jacket sleeves. However, shorty gloves can allow a cooling breeze to flow up your sleeves on a hot summer day. So, consider your compromises. Finally, avoid gloves with metal components in the palms because they can get hot enough in a slide to give a serious burn.
Now, we finally arrive at motorcycle-specific jackets, pants, and/or suits. Many riders begin just wearing a jean jacket, sweatshirt, external plastic spine protector, or even just a t-shirt for the first few months of riding. After all, the down payment on a new bike plus a helmet and gloves can tax the resources of many first-time motorcycle buyers. That’s okay. However, you will ultimately want to purchase some riding gear that features armor and higher abrasion resistance than your Levis. The good news is that many textile jackets are equipped with quality armor and other features, like breathable mesh, at reasonable prices. If you think you’ll want to buy riding pants other than riding jeans, look for jackets that offer attachments for pants that can be purchased at a later date. The advent of riding jeans has made it possible for you to go to the grocery store after a ride without looking like a leather fetishist.
When looking for jackets and pants, pay special attention to whether the armor is CE-approved or similar. Also, look for reflective piping, panels, or strips to make you more visible at night – particularly if you buy black riding gear. Options to consider, if you can afford them, are zip-out liners to extend the amount of the year your gear can be comfortably used. Also, if you’re planning on commuting on your bike, consider buying waterproof gear or a rain suit to cover your riding gear. Some jackets come with back protectors, and some only have a zippered pocket for an optional back pad. Consider buying one.
The last piece of motorcycle-specific gear to buy is a pair of riding boots. Why last? Simply, many people already own boots or high-topped sneakers that can work in a pinch while saving for a pair of dedicated riding boots. If you own a pair of boots that cover your ankles, like work boots, hiking shoes, or cowboy boots, (padding is a nice extra), you’ve got footwear that offers basic protection. The type of riding you do will tell you which path to follow for your first boots. Over the years, that style may change. Many riders start with a nice basic boot and add other options over the years.
When you are ready for motorcycle boots, look for ones that offer protection for your ankle bones and shins. Extra-cost items, like Gore-tex or venting, are nice but not necessary if you’re struggling to afford them. As you move up the cost spectrum, boots will gain adjustable fit and replaceable components. While the MO staff love these features, we all started with more basic boots and moved up as our riding experience – and the content of our wallets – increased.
Giovanny says: I never really looked in to gloves before. I thought I should just put something on. I didn’t really see gauntlets and things like that. I’ve never seen anything like that webbed pinkie finger, either.
Motorcycles depend on us for more than just keeping from falling over. They are a good bit more maintenance intensive than other vehicles. So, an integral part of becoming a motorcyclist is learning how to wrench on your machine. Whether it is performing maintenance on your bike or bolting on performance or dress-up parts, the satisfaction and self-confidence that come from wielding your own tools can’t be overstated. Most new riders, unless they’re already experienced mechanics, begin with easy, low-risk tasks, like changing oil or adjusting a chain. Eventually, it moves on to replacing bent levers or scratched bodywork. Ultimately, you may find yourself venturing into the realm of valve adjustment and clutch replacement – or more.
Traveling by motorcycle involves its own set of mechanical challenges, from setting up your bike to accommodate extra weight of luggage or a passenger, to roadside maintenance (like lubing/adjusting your chain), to repairs from tip-overs or equipment failure. If you have no previous experience in wrenching on your bike, a campground 60 miles from the nearest shop isn’t the place to start. Why not learn in the comfort of your own garage with the help of an experienced friend (or Youtube)?
The place to start with your mechanical education is your bike’s owner’s manual and its list of periodic maintenance items. If your bike has a chain, you’ll quickly become familiar with measuring its slack – if not the actual adjustment. Second in line will be the routine oil change. This simple chore can be a real confidence builder for a neophyte mechanic. Adjusting throttle free play and shifter/brake pedal height will go a long way towards making your bike fit you better. Lubing the pivot points on your bike (shifter, brake pedal, clutch/brake levers, and sidestand) will help you become intimate with the condition of your motorcycle while providing an often overlooked form of upkeep.
At some point, you’ll probably want to move on to modifying your bike. Many riders start with an aftermarket exhaust system. Unfortunately, many are simply way too loud, reflecting poorly on all motorcyclists. Another issue that often appears with a pipe is that, while it may increase top-end power (then again, it may not), it can also cause dead spots in other places in the rpm range – quite possibly at an engine speed you use frequently. So, perhaps try something else as your first modification.
Cruiser riders have a wealth of dress-up items available from the manufacturers and the aftermarket. Sport riders usually go for more performance-oriented modifications, like braided stainless steel brake lines. For those feeling less adventurous, a fender-eliminator kit or aftermarket turn signals are a great place to start modifying your bike. However, beware of changes that radically alter an important function of street bikes. (We’re looking at you, tiny billet or bar-end mirrors.)
Giovanny says: Wrenching is a skill I’d like to learn. One day, I definitely want to build my own bike. That’s something I would like to do. Once I’m a little more settled and have looked into the designs, I’d probably take on a project. Wrenching is something I would definitely like to do. It’s something I’m really interested in.
New riders, today, are blessed to live in an era where information about riding and motorcycles is so easy to gather. Have an obscure question about your particular model of bike and nobody in your town that owns one? Well, odds are that there’s a web forum inhabited by knowledgeable riders devoted to that bike. All you have to do is log in. Now, opinions are as common as avatars on the web, so a modicum of caution is recommended. If you’re unfamiliar with a particular forum, take the first advice you get with a grain of salt until you hear from other users, or you can check the person’s profile to read their previous posts to see if their suggestions are coming from some actual knowledge or just being pulled out of their posterior orifice.
When looking for forums, your favorite search engine is your friend, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that MO’s parent company VerticalScope owns a ton of motorcycle forums. A thorough, but by no means complete, listing can be found here. Once you’ve found a forum that fits your needs, introduce yourself in the new members section, but the best way to learn from these sites is to search their archives. Unless you’re unusual, your questions have probably been asked before. After you’re familiar with the topics, you can start a new thread with a basis on the previous discussions. Also, many forums have regional sections that might allow you to meet up with some local members, allowing you to start building your group of riding buddies.
Join a brand-specific club. Many manufacturers either offer their own sanctioned clubs, like Desmo Owners Club, Honda Riders Club of America, Riders Association of Triumph, Riders of Kawasaki, and STAR. Facebook is also a great place to look for brand/location/model-specific motorcycle groups.
Bike nights are a good way to meet other riders. Ask your local dealership if they know of any. If all else fails, call the local Harley dealer, they seem to have mastered the art of social interaction as a means of selling motorcycles. Once at a bike night, don’t be shy. People at these events want to hang out with other riders and show off any modifications they’ve made to their bikes. Don’t let brusque exteriors fool you; many riders love to help newbies out.
Many areas also have a popular destination for the Sunday ride. Find out where the nearest one to you is and go by yourself a few times. Even if you don’t know anyone, this environment is a great place to watch motorcyclists in their natural habitat. Sooner or later you’re going to click with a few people, and you’ll have someone to meet when you get there – or possibly ride with beforehand. This is how most of us found our riding buddies.
Giovanny says: Meeting other riders has been the most challenging thing about getting my bike. I use it to commute. I don’t know anyone else who rides motorcycles.
School of (Avoiding) Hard Knocks
Humans learn from making mistakes, but when the stakes are as high as they are when riding a motorcycle, we want to maximize the learning while minimizing the risk associated with miscues. Riding schools offer a controlled environment with expert instruction to help riders improve their technique. For riders who have never ridden a motorcycle before or those with very few miles, it’s hard to beat a MSF Basic RiderCourse. While nothing can beat logging miles on a motorcycle, a MSF course gives many new motorcyclists the tools to use in their journey to become proficient street riders. More experienced riders can move up to the Advanced RiderCourse, which expands on the basic rider skills and delves deeper into crash avoidance techniques. MSF courses are taught nationwide. Go to the MSF website to find the location nearest you.
Filling in the gap between the MSF courses and the more race track-focused, high-speed riding schools, riders can look to Lee Parks’ Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic (ARC). Combining classroom discussions ranging from vehicle dynamics to suspension setup to riding techniques with step-by-step instruction in a parking lot riding range, the ARC builds rider’s skills and confidence incrementally without the need for a high-speed venue. With an emphasis on cornering skills and how different styles of bikes (cruiser vs. sportbike vs. tourer) require slightly different techniques, students can begin practicing their skills as soon as they ride home from the class.
Streetmasters Motorcycle Workshops, which has previously run on Willow Springs Raceway’s street-modeled race track, the Horsethief Mile, has moved to actually riding on the street with their students. Unlike many track schools, Streetmasters has always focused on developing skills for riding on the street regardless of the type of bike ridden.
Then there are the more sportbike-focused track riding schools. While the net benefit of taking one of these schools is that the students become more proficient riders in the controlled environment of the track and carry those skills over to the street, these schools are primarily directed towards sportbike riders who want to explore their bike’s capabilities in the environment for which it was designed. Still, most track-based schools are very newbie friendly (in addition to welcoming bikes other than the sporty ones) in their structure and content. Here is a sampling of options: American Supercamp, California Superbike School, CLASS Motorcycle Schools, Keigwins @ The Track, STAR Motorcycle School, and Yamaha Champions School.
Giovanny says: I learned a lot in my motorcycle safety class. Most of the stuff I learned, I wouldn’t have figured out on my own. Maybe in the future I might go to a more advanced riding school. That’s something I’ve been looking in to. It’s definitely an experience I want to have.
Becoming a motorcyclist is a tremendous adventure. Many safety instructors mention the contact high they get from new riders as they feel the skills start to come together in the riding portion of a class. Revel in your newness. While more experienced riders may have a broader skill set and more tall tales to share, we’re all a little jealous of new riders because they’re in the early days of riding when everything is new and exciting. Just like a relationship, there’s a level of infatuation that comes with the unfamiliarity before the comfort – and maybe even a bit of complacency – that can settle in over the long-term.
As a new rider, you’re at the steep part of the bell curve – where the new experiences are coming at you at a phenomenal rate. You’re acquiring the basic skills that you spend the rest of your riding years refining, and you’re beginning to make the riding buddies with whom you’ll share many an adventure. Yeah, experienced riders may smile when you ask them a question. They’re not mocking you (well, maybe a little). So, look closely, and you might see a little envy. We were all novices once, and it was that feeling that’s kept us coming back all these years.
This article was made possible through the generous support of Honda.