Top 10 Ways to Stay Alive When You're Learning to Ride

John Burns
by John Burns

Kind of when it comes to love, money, work, international diplomacy – everybody has to learn the hard lessons on their own. Some other things, though, it’s good to learn from those more experienced, those who’ve slid around the block a few times on their head. Well, sister, that’s me. There’s a lot to take in and understand when learning how to ride a motorcycle. It all looks so easy and fluid from afar, but there’s a lot that’s all happening at the same time, and it can be somewhat overwhelming. Fortunately, just like anything new, starting will be the hardest part. Here’s our best advice for staying safe while you get your sea legs.

10. Know how to ride before you hit the road

Many states require rider training, which is a big step in the right direction. If yours doesn’t, please don’t just take off on the road without getting some basic instruction first. Even if you know how to operate all the controls from riding a Mini Trail 50 ten years ago, take some time to re-familiarize yourself with how things work. In a perfect world, a day or two at an MSF course or something, or a weekend riding TT-R125s around in the dirt would be optimal.

In our imperfect world, just getting your new bike to a big empty parking lot and gradually working your way up to learning how strong your front brake is, how easy it is to change direction via the miraculous physics of countersteering, and just doing big loops around a couple of cones or tin cans to get an idea how far you can lean is a far better thing than just setting off into traffic.

9. Know thy Bike

I don’t think you’ll even find anything used that approaches the cool-per-$$ ratio of a brand-spanking, $5,299 KTM 390 Duke.

Either consider a new bike, or have a seriously experienced rider or mechanic check out the used one you’re thinking of buying. I remember riding around on my new-to-me Suzuki GS550 circa 1980 for a few days before stopping in at the local Suzuki shop, where somebody pointed out to me the axle clamp that held my front wheel on was missing in action. Do I need that? Only if you don’t want your front wheel to fly off. Don’t ask how I’ve learned about bent triple clamps and fork tubes. I wouldn’t want to experience high-speed tank slappers if I was just learning to ride.

We’re not all about boosting new motorcycle sales here at MO, but if you’re new to the game there’s a lot to be said for knowing everything on your bike is right, including new controls that work as designed, stiction-free and give you optimal, ahh, control. Once you’ve ridden a nice new motorcycle, you’ll at least always know how things are supposed to feel. Thanks to the Great Recession, there are quite a few great new bikes for around $5,000.

If you’re going used, either Google up a local independent bike shop or dealer to give your new machine a thorough going-over to make sure all systems are go. Back in the perfect world, you’d have that person or mechanic go with you to look at the bike you’re thinking of buying. Your brakes need to work like new. Your taillight and brake light are life-and-death matters after dark. Etcetera…

8. Be Seen

We teased him for it, but longtime Motorcyclist magazine EiC Art Friedman wouldn’t ride in anything other than a bright orange day-glo Shoei, size XXL, and it definitely made him easy to spot on a crowded street. Most of us are too fashion-forward at MO or maybe just not that bright, but there is no doubt that a hi-viz helmet and/or hi-viz anything makes you easier to see. The number-one thing that takes motorcyclists out is cars turning in front of us, because their drivers simply don’t see us. Making yourself more visible is an easy thing you can do to prevent that, and especially a good idea when you’re still developing your motorcycling sixth sense.

As you gain experience it’s still a great idea to wear fluorescent, but it’s even more important while you’re learning how not to be a statistic. Google up hi-viz motorcycle gear and you’ll find a ton of options.

7. Go at your own speed

The great temptation when you go out riding with a group, be it on dirt, pavement, or whathaveyou, is that just because you can see the guy ahead of you riding along at that pace, you can ride that pace too. What makes motorcycle racing so continuously entertaining is trying to figure out how one person, under the same conditions and even sometimes on the exact same equipment, can go faster than the other person. Think of learning to ride as a sport, because it is one. You wouldn’t walk onto a tennis court and think you could take on Rafael Nadal because you have the same racket and Nikes.

Don’t try to keep up with people when you begin to feel like you’re riding over your head. Believe me when I tell you, everyone in your group would much rather wait for you at the next intersection than have to go back and pull you out of a ditch. Much better to sit down with the person whose riding you admired after the ride, and ask how she learned to ride so well? That person will be more than happy to spill.

6. Be Proactive, not Reactive

There are at least two camps: I’m in the one that likes to always go a bit faster than the flow of traffic on multi-lane roads, because I feel safer coming up behind cars than having them come up behind me. Most of us sportybike people would, for whatever reason, prefer to deal with things ahead of us instead of behind: What’s passed is past.

Lots of other riders prefer to “cruise” at a more sedate pace – a thing we MOrons also do sometimes on smaller motorcycles or any bike that’s happier at a slower pace. When you’re riding slower than most traffic, please stay in the right lane, and please pay even more attention to your mirrors than you usually do – which should always be a lot. Whether you tend to ride faster or at a more relaxing pace, the goal is to never be surprised. Some things will always be out of your control. Others, like being rear-ended on your motorcycle, is something you should never allow to happen to you. Because you saw that truck coming in your mirrors and had an escape route (between the lines of cars, for those who don’t live in California).

5. Don’t drink and ride

This needs no explanation, and of course it includes any mind-altering substance. The statistics linking impairment and motorcycle crashes are painfully predictable. In the era of Uber and couchsurfing, there’s really no excuse.

4. Let it go

If somebody does you a dirty on the road, it’s best to just let it go and turn the other cheek. In car-on-motorcycle violence, the motorcycle almost always loses. Personally, rather than flipping the birdie, I’ll get in view of that person and give them a friendly wave and a big smile as I flip up my modular, maybe blow them a kiss. Angry, mean people hate it more than anything when you’re nice to them and they know exactly what they’re guilty of. Kill them with kindness. Then, since I’m on a motorcycle and they’re not, I leave them for dead stuck in traffic.

In the same vein, just because the light is green doesn’t mean go. It means look both ways and make sure it’s clear before proceeding: People race to make it through yellow and even red lights all the time, and you don’t want to become their hood ornament. Angry, insistent and self-righteous is no way to ride a motorcycle. What might be a fender bender in an automobile can kill or maim you on a motorcycle. Don’t think the rules of the road are going to protect you. You have to keep your blast shields up at all times, a thing that quickly becomes automatic and even empowering. The price for your motorcycle super powers is constantly forgiving the poor mortals stuck in cars. Heck, after a while you’re anticipating bonehead moves and not surprised.

3. Position yourself

Don’t follow so close that when the car ahead of you runs over the ladder that just fell off the gardener’s truck it hits you in the face shield. Stay back so you have time to react, and even if you live in a non-lane-sharing state, stay to one side of the lane you’re in so you can see farther up the road, between the rows of cars. That way, you saw that ladder working its way loose and had already moved two lanes over by the time it fell and scattered traffic. If somebody wants to ride on your back tire (you’re out of habit glancing in your mirrors every 5 or 10 seconds), move to the right and and encourage them to go past. Better yet, move constantly ahead through gaps in traffic, when the gaps are there, like a shark in a school of Toyotas. Drivers can’t help but see you when you’ve just passed them only a few feet away. But check your mirrors again to be sure you didn’t just pass an enraged psychopath with a motorcycle phobia.

Basically, always try to position your bike so you can see as far ahead as you can, watching for swerves (another ladder or possibly a weed whacker), gradual lane meanderings (texting) and brake lights (spilled my drink!). At night, don’t outrun your headlights – (another possible reason to look at a new bike with a nice bright one).

2. Embrace your invisibility

Don’t ride in blind spots? HELLO, they’re ALL blind spots! You’re a ghost. No one can see you. Accept that fact, and expect cars to turn left in front of you, to pull out in front of you, to pull into your lane, to empty soft drinks into your lap, flick cigarette butts in your face… In exchange for agreeing to have all that happen to you, you get to experience the joy of groundbound flight whenever you need to go somewhere.

But yeah, don’t ride in obvious blind spots. Slow down at intersections and try to glance both ways. After a while, you’ll learn to read subtle signals in drivers and their cars, and you’ll know which ones to literally steer clear of, or at least keep a sharp eye upon. After a while you’ll feel like you’re not as invisible as you once were. But it’s not the world that’s changed, it’s your ability to predict and deal with it. After a while, you feel invincible instead of invisible. Don’t believe yourself!

1. Helmet, gloves, ankle protection

HOLD IT RIGHT THERE SISTER! Where are your helmet and gloves?!

And are those boots CE-approved? Sometimes no matter how hard you try and how careful you are, weird things happen. A deer jumps in your lap. A bungee cord breaks and your bedroll locks up your back wheel. A meteorite takes out your front tire. It could happen. At that point, you’ll want to minimize the damage.

Some say All The Gear All The Time (ATGATT) and good for them. But that’s not always practical all the time for everybody, and all of us aren’t saintly. I insist you wear a good helmet, though – only because I cracked my head on the road when I was first learning, and as a rebellious 20-year old moron I doubt I’d have been wearing a helmet if the law hadn’t made me. I can still hear the crack and the skriiiish as I slid along the icy pavement. I wouldn’t be here today. In the ensuing years, helmets have saved my noggin at least, well there’s no time to count right now, a bunch of times.

As long as you’re dragging a helmet around, you might as well carry gloves too. There are 27 bones and 8,032 tendons and ligaments in each hand, and when you jack them up or just scrape them up and wait for the scabs to heal, you’ll be surprised how hard it is to do things you used to not even think about. And while we’re on the subject, ask anybody who’s ever blown up an ankle as a result of a motorcycle accident if they wished they’d been wearing, if not boots, at least high-top sneakers with some ankle protection. Those are the minimum requirements. Leather or good textile jacket, even better. Kevlar jeans, excellent idea. Now go forth and motorply, my people.

John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 33 comments
  • Phillip Phillip on Aug 12, 2018

    As a new rider I'd like to say it's a lot harder to ride a motorcycle than anyone could prepare you for really, even after my MSF course. It's truly daunting the number of things you have to be aware of and doing in any given second.

  • Eddie Eddie on Nov 05, 2018

    Harley and Indian only offer ABS, sadly. Traction control, stability control and driver modes are offered by other brands. KTM is working this list through all their bikes as fast as they can.