How Not to Test Ride a Motorcycle: Five Mistakes People Make

John Burns
by John Burns

Online rentals make it easy; here's how to screw it up anyway

It seems like most non-Japanese dealers are up for offering at least short test rides, which are way better than no ride at all. But the advent of more motorcycle rental services means you have the opportunity now to give nearly any motorcycle you’re interested in a more thorough shakedown before you pull the ownership trigger. Ride-sharing companies like Twisted Road and Riders Share give you the chance to rent all kinds of bikes from their owners for a day or three. And now even Hertz is branching out into motorcycles (just BMWs for now), like EagleRider has been doing for years with Harleys – but now also a smattering of BMW, Ducati, Yamaha, etc… Having test-ridden more than our share over the years, here’s our best advice about how not to do it.

Mistake #1: Don’t do your research before you book your ride

Sometimes a shiny motorcycle that attracts your attention distracts you from things that are incompatible with your needs. If you live in the urban jungle, a 3.4-gallon gas tank might work, but if you live out in the sticks, filling up every day will get old. If you’re 5-feet-2, well, we’ve seen plenty of short people ride the wheels off huge adventure bikes – but a KTM 1290 Adventure with a 34-inch seat might not be your ideal everyday bike, if that’s what you’re after. Given that life is short even if you aren’t, and that renting a bike ain’t exactly cheap (ones you’d want to buy, anyway), go ahead and be honest with yourself about what will work for your intended purpose before you even book that rental. Road tests like the ones we do are a start; reading comparison tests that include the bike you’re interested in might lead you down a different path you hadn’t considered. It’s called research. In the internet age, it’s kind of foolish not to check the forums, Facebook groups, etc., to see what actual owners think after living with the object of your affection for a while. Perform due diligence. Eliminate the no-gos before you go.

Mistake #2: Don’t take a minute to familiarize yourself and make the bike fit you

When you show up to pick up your rental, while you’re doing a safety walk-around – a thing you definitely want to do especially if it’s a private-party bike – have a quick sit and make sure all the levers and controls are where your feet and hands want them to be.

Ask the renter if the manufacturer will still be in business when you get back?

While you’re squeezing those brake levers, make sure the brake light works! Can you get the gas cap open? (I forget which bike we were riding a while ago that had a hidden button that needed pressing. Hmmmm.) If the seat has an up/down adjustment, put it where you want it. If you’ve got a bunch of electronics to deal with, familiarize yourself with how they all work, and if there’s not time for that, make sure the owner’s manual is under the seat so you can figure it out when you stop for coffee. Or, have the best Youtube vid cued up and ready to watch. Give the motorcycle the chance to put its best wheel forward.

Mistake #3: Don’t have a pre-planned route

Nothing screws up a MO multi-bike test like not knowing where the hell we’re going/getting lost. That’s probably not a problem for you since you’re not making videos or any fun time-consuming things like that. And it’s also not a problem if you’re sampling a bike in your own locale. But if you’re travelling into a major metropolis (where the pickings seem to be most prolific for rentals), know where you want to ride before you get there. Maybe get the renter to help you lay out where the locals go, or figure it out yourself with a Butler map or whathaveyou ahead of time. Following your nose is great when you’re out in the boonies and have plenty of time. But when you’re all set for a spirited ride on a fresh steed out into the country, making a wrong turn into the Holland Tunnel at rush hour when you meant to head to Hackensack can really put a kibosh on the fun.

Renting a BMW from Hertz in Europe could be a dream vacation, but it can turn challenging in a hurry if you overshoot the autobahn into Czechoslovakia as the sun’s going down. Then again, your chances of getting shot are way less than if you take the wrong exit in some parts of the land of the free. Basically, if you’re planning a big ride in unfamiliar territory, get your navigation in place before you go. Bring a phone mount maybe. You want to be paying attention to the motorcycle, not trying to figure out where the hell are we?

Mistake #4: Let your Preconceptions take over

Obviously, you’re into this motorcycle if you’re going to the trouble to test ride it, but don’t let confirmation bias cloud your judgment. Maybe you’re so enthralled with the 150-horsepower performance you block out that your hands are numb from vibration, or that the power delivery is like a lightswitch. Or that your butt is also numb and your lower back already hurts even though you’ve only been riding for ten minutes. Some bikes are so outstanding in the performance department on paper, they get a pass on everything else. If you’re planning on testing more than one motorcycle, start a note on your phone like we do. When you stop for gas or whatever, write down the things you like and don’t like to jog your memory later. Things that bug you are easy to forget in the afterglow of a new relationship.

With a basic machine like the H-D Roadster, you can just enjoy your café au lait.

While you’re doing your pre-ride research, it’s not a bad idea at all to learn what modifications people like to make, and how successful they are. Seats, handlebars, windshields and suspension can be easy enough to adjust or swap out if they’re not quite right, but other more intrinsic things aren’t. The gas tank that interfaces your crotch the wrong way isn’t going to work. The footpeg mounts that splay your size-12 heels out aren’t going to get less annoying. The younger you are, the longer the infatuation can last. But like in all unhealthy relationships, everything else bobs to the surface sooner than you’d think.

Mistake #5: When the motorcycle tells you who it is, don’t believe it

I think Maya Angelou said that about human beings, but it applies: When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time. Just because every road test you’ve read is full of glowing praise, that doesn’t mean this motorcycle is right for you. Though it’s actually true that “there are no more bad motorcycles,” the corollary is that there are wrong motorcycles for every individual. Just because 75,000 Youtube viewers prefer the Z900 Kawasaki over the BMW F900R, that doesn’t mean Troy Siahaan has to.

Troy performs pregnant nun routine here.

But seriously, some people are always going to prefer a Four-cylinder, some like Twins. Or Triples. And horsepower isn’t the only measuring stick. It’s all about the vibe, sometimes literally. Some people are way more sensitive to engine vibration than others, and nearly every motorcycle vibrates somewhere, sometime. Some people would rather look at traditional round speedo and tachometer than a computer screen, and you’ll be looking there a lot. If you’re just not feeling the love after an hour, it’s probably not going to get any better with time though sometimes it does. When we think back on our favorite motorcycles over the years, they’ve all been a bundle of joy from sidestand-up to redline. It’s our job to objectively uncover the positive attributes of all of them, along with their weaknesses, but we all have our favorites.

If they gave me the boot from MO tomorrow, I’d probably get myself a Honda NC750X, which would not be the choice of anybody else here.

I did not know I was truly in love with Jenny Smith, ex of Rider magazine, until she moved back to the midwest and posted a pic of her new bike. She’s a rugged individualist like myself.

The whole point of the test ride is to find out what works for you, and in the grand scheme it really doesn’t matter what others think of your ride if you love it. Unless you really want to join HOG. In the words of the great Nigel Gale, there’s an ass for every seat. Be thankful that you’re in a place where you’re plotting to get a new motorcycle, and happy hunting.

*Harley-Davidson Street Rod is the exception

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 16 comments
  • Jim L Jim L on Sep 01, 2020

    I think one mistake people make is that they test ride a bike like they ride their bike. Let me explain. I've heard this complaint from HD riders that will try a BMW and say, it has no power. Well, did you take it over 3k RPM? No, why should I? Really...And so it goes. Bikes have to be ridden in the engine's tessatura.

  • Greybeard1 Greybeard1 on Sep 02, 2020

    I stepped on my dick by selling a much beloved R1150R for the sensual lines and husky voice of a V11 Sport.
    Not difficult at all to step on my dick normally as I'm a rather abbreviated individual
    but I paid no attention to the ballerina like pose as I listened to the Termignoni cans saying "ride me, you beast!".
    Yup, I was blind to my chubby.
    A chiropractor couldn't get me to stretch as far as needed to reach the bars, but I made it!
    Moral is, after about 2 months of dropping the poor thing just backing out of the garage, we both decided to end the relationship.
    Do as Mr. Burns says and eat before grocery shopping.