She’ll never forget her first time

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In an empty parking lot, late last night, my girlfriend and I had a little fun. Using my XR100, I taught her how to ride a motorcycle. We all know motorcycles are fun, but ride them for years and you just might forget how truly awesome they can be. The feeling of total control and freedom of movement doesn’t go away, we just get used to it. Watching someone, who’s never done it before, use all their power of concentration to slowly let out the clutch on a minibike and jerkily take off on their first wobbly 7mph ride through a deserted parking lot is pretty special.

Ashlee has been bike-curious for a long time. Ever since buying a second suit and taking her for a few knee-dragging two-up rides, she’s been hooked on speed. When I told her that for less than $500 bucks we could put my old Ninja 250 back together, she was determined to learn to ride. Also there was our friend David who’s been itching to learn for months. It’s the XR100′s combination of light weight and no power that makes for a care-free racing machine, and the same qualities make a great platform for first time riders. This bike is utterly un-intimidating.

The actual technical aspects of riding aren’t hard to teach, especially if you are familiar with them yourself. Clutch, shifter, throttle, brakes and steering. Really the only intimidating thing is learning how a clutch works. If you’ve taken an MSF course, great. Copy what they teach. Start by explaining where all the controls are, their functions and how to operate them. Explain, as clearly as you can, to pull in the clutch, click down into gear, look where you want to go, and slowly let the clutch out. I’ve taught a few people to ride and telling someone to add a little throttle while they’re letting out the clutch can end badly. Add that in later after your new rider is more familiar with throttle response. If the bike you’re teaching on needs a little gas to avoid stalling, temporarily turn the idle up. A finicky herky-jerky bike is no good to learn on.

After you cover how to make it go, tell them how to make it stop. This should be a no brainer for anyone that’s ridden a bicycle. Squeeze the lever and the bike slows down. Explain where the back brake is, but advise against using it, at least for now. You want them to be able to put both feet down. It’s also a good idea to explain how the clutch works again and remind them to pull in the lever to avoid stalling the bike. Once they feel comfortable, let them start the bike, put it in gear, and play with the clutch. Have them get a feel for where the engagement point is and if they get it, let them idle the bike forward in a straight line. Assuming that goes well, tell them to ride around a bit in first gear. A quick talk about looking where you want to go and not making any sudden control inputs is usually all it takes to avoid a crash. Top speed on my XR in first gear is something like 9 mph. Once they demonstrate competence putting around in first gear, teach them how to shift. I tell new riders to close the throttle while they click up on the shifter and as soon as they feel it shift, to get back on the gas. I’ve never been a fan of using the clutch for up-shifts and I think it’s easier to teach this way. When they eventually come back, explain the more complicated process of downshifting. They probably won’t get it and their first attempts at downshifting will be awkward at best, but with a little practice most people figure out the clutch, rev, downshift dance. At this point, they’ll be grinning ear to ear. If you’re in a big enough space, let them ride around a bit and have fun. After all, that’s what motorcycles are all about. I talked to our friend David today and he told me that he’s useless at work because all he can think about is riding motorcycles.

New riders are what we need. Want to see bikes designed and marketed to young people? Wish the general public’s perception of a motorcyclist was less pirate and more cool? Do your part as a motorcyclist and teach someone to ride. Cheap underpowered bikes are easy to get your hands on. Your friend with the YSR, XR or other hard to kill mini-bike would have no problem loaning it to you for a few hours to teach someone the basics. There are a lot of people that want to ride and understand the benefits of gas mileage, reduced stress and easy parking anywhere, but the idea of spending $250 on an MSF course where they will possibly embarrass themselves in front of a group of strangers isn’t so appealing.

Teach a person how to ride a motorcycle and you’ll forever be a hero in their eyes. A new rider won’t be able to wipe the mile-wide grin off their face for days, and it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll go out and buy a bike as soon as possible.

  • mugget

    Haha – awesome. I was thinking it was going to be about your girlfriend having her first time knee down though. :P

    I’m gonna do something similar – taking a couple of mates out to a parking lot tomorrow night with my XR400 motard and gonna teach them how it all goes.

    Motards are dead easy to ride. When I get a chance one sunny day I’m going out to a quiet industrial area and I reckon I’ll get my knee down (that will be a first for me).

  • NickP

    Great article! I have just one question, how the hell did she manage to change gears while wearing high-heel boots?? :)

    This is one of the reasons why I have kept my old Yamaha trailway around for so long. So far my sister and 3 or 4 of my friends have learned to ride on it, both on the street and on trails.

    It really is an incredible feeling, seeing the huge grin on their face, watching them wipe out and get right back up to try again. Some of them even still have the scars they acquired on that first ride. I like to know that I helped leave a permanent reminder. :)

    • Sean Smith

      Ha, she actually had a little bit of trouble with that. She’s got a two-piece suit, some decent gloves (the SP-8s we’re giving away), a nice helmet with both dark and clear w/pinlock shields, but no boots. Those are coming before I let her loose on the ninja 250.

    • pinkyracer

      shifting in heels is no different than in flats. It’s platforms you need to work a little harder with. Anything thicker than 1 1/2″ is quite cumbersome. Maybe I’ll do a video tutorial, I’m amazed by how amazed people are. If you think shifting in heels is hard, try kick-starting. Or even worse, WALKING. ;-)

      • NickP

        Haha good point.

  • Darren

    Guess I’ll be the first (only?) grumpy commenter to point out that statistically the least safe rider on the road is one taught to ride by a friend. Less safe than self taught even. I’m all for helping someone get comfortable on a bike, but to imply that this somehow replaces an MSF course is downright silly.

    All good teachers are good riders, not all good riders are good teachers.

    • Myles

      I’m with you, and wish the article would have ended with, “now that they’re more comfortable with the absolute basics, they’ll get even more out of the BSF course that you’re fucking MAKING them take”.

      Overall, great piece and great message. Teaching someone to ride is great – but IMO it should just be the first step needed to nudge them into taking the full MSF BRC.

      • Sean Smith

        She’s taking the MSF course.

        What I said is true though. She didn’t take it (and plenty of other people too) because she didn’t want to look like an idiot or crash. Notice how I didn’t say anything bad about the course, just that she was uncomfortable.

        The point of this story isn’t to tell people that the MSF course is bs and unnecessary, but instead to tell people to get their friends into motorcycling.

    • David

      I don’t think the intention was to imply that it replaces the MSF course at all but merely to encourage us to share motorcycling with others. It could change their lives. Hopefully in a positive way. For a greater chance of success though, definitely take a proper course with proper instructors and full gear.

      I wish I could encourage my friends to start riding but knowing my friends, I know it’d be irresponsible. Some too stupid, some too stubborn, some too reckless. I love them all however, so I wouldn’t want them getting injured.

      • Myles

        The only time “MSF” returns a result in a search is either:

        -In the comments
        -Discussing how to use the clutch
        -and, my favorite, “but the idea of spending $250 on an MSF course where they will possibly embarrass themselves in front of a group of strangers isn’t so appealing.”

        I would have felt a lot better if they added, “so now that your buddy has shown you the basics, sack up and get some real lessons”

    • pinkyracer

      agreed. I didn’t know about the MSF course back in 1985, and took the ERC in 1990 when I learned about it. I tell EVERYONE to take the MSF course, even though I am a great teacher, I never took the basic course, so I’d hate to miss something. The course is designed based on massive amounts of shared experiences and hard data. My solitary personal experience from 25 years on 2 wheels is not enough to replace MSF.

      I would love to teach MSF, but dude. Those lunatics are up long before daylight to prep the course. Nothing is worth getting up that early.

      Plus riders get a discount on their insurance for taking the MSF course. 10% off a $2,500 premium= the class pays for itself in the 1st year. Or longer, if it’s a female rider over 25 on a cheaper bike.

      • noone1569

        I have talked two of my good friends and my girlfriend into starting to ride. I’ve familiarized them with motorcycles via my bike, but haven’t let them ride it (XB12R, for obvious reasons), but I think Sean hit the nail on the head here. He’s not telling people to not take the course, he is merely conveying the thought a lot of beginner riders have (that if they take the class and fall, they will look like idiots). Thus, this sort of familiarization is important, then move on to the class.

        • Jason

          Primarily people are just pointing out that at first glance while Sean is not saying anything negative the lack of saying anything specifically positive does not encourage people toward the formal training.

          I took the MSF course after having already been riding motorcycles in the dirt for years and was very familiar with how they operate and I still learned a lot

          There was a girl in my class who could not even ride a bicycle and she managed to pass. Amazingly because she also rode one of the bikes into a lightpost at one point. In fact the instructor told her boyfriend (who was a repeat offender of the I will ride on my permit with a sportbike guy) that while she did pass the test she needed to get a bike and ride it and learn better balance before ever considering a motorcycle of her own

    • Wes Siler

      I think the point is that, by taking the initiative and lowering the barrier to entry, you can share motorcycling with people in a very powerful way by giving them a lesson. No one’s saying anything bad about the MSF, we’re simply stating that a personal touch is more powerful than an organizational message.

      And there’s a link to the MSF at the bottom of every page on HFL.

    • Gregory


      Oregon has a very good organisation, Team Oregon, which has more or less replaced the MSF here. It’s indigenous, uses similar-to-MSF materials & practices and then adds some better stuff of its own. It offers beginner, intermediate and advanced courses. It offers spring “polish your skills after the winter” courses. It’s wonderful.

      Motorcycling is the greatest quality of life improvement I ever made. I share it with everyone possible.

      Portland, OR
      2008 KLR 650 w. milkcrate

  • T Diver

    I thought this was cool. Sorry you grumpy pants are all, “blah blah blah MSF course blah blah.” Someone new learned to ride. Don’t get me wrong; those courses are great. They teach you all kinds of safety stuff and they take care of the riding portion of the DMV test. But in reality, I think most people learn from friends in a similar experience. He should have included more pics of his chick though. This is the internet after all.

    • Kirill

      Seconding this. I’m all for everyone taking the BRC when they start out to ride. I’d never been on a bike prior to taking it, and didn’t really want to risk binning a friend’s bike learning anyway, but some people have bikes and spaces available that are suitable for getting the ultra-basics down for the self-conscious. No need to get ATGATT-style fascist about it.

  • Mr.Paynter

    There is no real riding safety course where I live, this is how you will learn to ride if you’re lucky!

    If not, you buy a VFR 400 against everyone’s advice for a first bike, push it out in to the road on your own instead of waiting til someone’s got time to come direct you, try pull-off, dump the clutch and wheelie 150m through a stop street in to a parked car! Guy-who-lives-in-my-flats with all the flashy new gear for that Power Ranger image has never touched the bike again, it lives under a tarp in the car-park.

    Basically, this is what is available to some people and I think it’s still better than nothing! As much as I like the idea of safe riders, I think survival of the fittest still needs to apply to humanity!

    • Scott-jay

      Yep… throttle control.
      Watch a learn-to-rider accelerate away, arms straight & locked, out of control. Just watch ‘em go! Wonder: end of session, need doctor?
      MSF entry course was good-stuff, twice, for this old dog.

      • T Diver

        Word. In order to show people how sensitive the controls on a bike are, I like to twist the throttle. On most bikes you can max out the RPMs without even noticing any movement of your hand. Thus, controls on bikes are sensitive.

  • Robbo B

    At work, when people see me carrying a helmet and wearing my jacket, the conversation always gets to how they can learn to ride. I’ll happily talk and tell them where they can do a course to get their permit. I’ll also tell them about the gear they are going to need and what they need to spend. That’s the best thing I can do as an ambassador and get more people riding.

  • karinajean

    I’m with the other MSF nerds – and this from the perspective of a girlfriend whose boyfriend WOULDN’T teach her, because he wanted me to get a good foundation via the MSF course. Honestly I was less concerned about making a fool of myself in front of a small group of strangers who had ALSO never sat on the bike, and more concerned about smashing up the plastics on my dude’s SV650.

    it was a huge drag to have to wait for a spot in the course and pay for it when I was (at that time) just curious about riding – and I understand that in other states it’s far less $$ than it is in NY and NJ – but I’m so glad I went into that course totally blind and without any preconceptions, bad habits, fears, and other ugly baggage to overcome.

    • Restless Lip Syndrome

      I was 18 and I asked my b/f to teach me how to ride, instead he pointed me to an MSF course here in San Diego. Awesome experience, very helpful and due to my age it was only $150.00.

      I’ve learned way more about throttle and clutch control by riding dirt bikes though…

  • pj134

    Or tell your friend to move to PA. PAMSP is free to residents.

    • Roman

      One of the few things my state does right. Just don’t try to buy liquor and beer in the same location, you will be disappointed.

  • Bronson

    Great article. I too have gotten tons of enjoyment over the years of teaching people how to ride.

    Not sure about other states, but I took a MSF course in Delaware. It was only $50 for residents and they provided the bikes. I’ve recommended it to many of my friends.

  • Jason

    Another thing to remember is if you are military you can get the training for free, and sportbike training also (in fact I think its mandatory now)

  • Mark D

    MSF classes are very helpful, and inevitably full of clowns. During mine, Mr. Bigshot “I ride my Dad’s Fat Boy” went down twice on a dual-sport because he couldn’t grasp the concept that you can’t panic brake and panic swerve at the same time.

    Meanwhile, my 100 lb female friend aced the class, and passed the test with the highest score (beat me!) I certainly don’t think anybody has to worry about making an ass of themselves at the MSF class!

    Also, it helps if you can drive a stick. Understanding how to work a clutch on a car, conceptually and practically, makes learning on a bike much easier.

    • noone1569

      This is one of the reasons I talked (read:forced) my girlfriend into buying a car with a manual transmission. It helps her focus more (which she hardly does anyway) and will help prepare her for motorcycles by understanding how a clutch works. Saturn Ion Redline FTW, thing is fun to flog, almost more fun than my WRX.

  • Dan

    I learned to ride a little here and there as a kid on dirtbikes. Dad showed me the ropes on my first street bike when I was 19 or so. Passed the test and rode for a few years until I moved out of state. When I finally moved to MD and wanted to ride again, the dope at MD MVA neglected to transfer my M-class, and well, “there is nothing we can do, I already shredded your old license”.

    Long-short: I took the MSF basic course to re-get my license and while I had considerable skill, my technique and bad habits were the real problem. I now feel more confident and safer on a bike than ever.

    My dad had almost the exact same experience when he moved to FL, and same reaction.

  • Michael

    “I talked to our friend David today and he told me that he’s useless at work because all he can think about is riding motorcycles.”

    That part doesn’t go away.

    • T Diver

      Nope. It’s like herpes.

      • Sean Smith

        Sometimes you think it’s gone, then you buy a faster bike, do a track day, or go racing.

  • Kevin

    Why does the MSF basic course teach to pull in the clutch to shift up if it is not necessary?

    • BeastIncarnate

      Guesses: That’s what manufacturers say to do. Some people are terrified it will obliterate transmissions. MSF hates fun, too. Don’t forget that.

    • Sean Smith

      I got yelled at for that when I took the MSF. Not to sound like an asshole, but I pulled the instructor aside and explained to him how a transmission works and that it’s completely unnecessary to use the clutch for any kind of shifting so long as you have good throttle control.

      • BMW11GS

        I had been riding for a bit and was used to two-finger braking and when the MSF instructor saw that he said something like, “this is practice, not racing.” I didn’t begrudge the comment because I understand they want you to learn the basics first. From there you can find the technique that is optimal for you/your bike.

        Also while it can be done up-shifting an older BMW twin without a little clutch is a ticket to clunk-city!

  • Stacey

    My fiancee wants to learn to ride. She got a jacket, boots, gloves, a helmet and paid the $100, took the MSF and dumped the bike on her leg. She got back on, but the pain made her quit.
    Now, she plans on taking the course again. I’ve talked to a few female friends that ride and it seems the MAJORITY of folks taking the MSF (at least in our area) have been riding for years and are trying to go legit. This is pretty intimidating to some folks.
    My main squeeze wants some practice time on my old KZ before taking the course again. So we’re going to do some parking lot stuff and then when she’s ready, we’ll go together.

    • BeastIncarnate

      Excellent point. That’s what a past girlfriend of mine went through – a class of experienced riders taking the course for legality. I like the idea of some preliminary training, but I don’t have a bike laying around for the purpose.

      Call me crazy, but tossing someone new up on a Z1000 isn’t a great idea. :P

    • karinajean

      a lot of women have better luck learning in a course that is clearly marked for first-timers or marketed more towards women, too. it helps avoid that chronic permit rider syndrome. it’s hard to be patient waiting for one of those to come around, though!

      and another one of the benefits of having a partner/bf/whatever who rides is that when you do go into the MSF is you know enough to speak up if you get a crappy msf instructor – which does happen, unfortunately, more than it ought to.

  • Terry

    Great article. I wish I had a little dirtbike to goof around on before taking the MSF… I went in having absolutely zero experience with any kind of manual transmission, and suffered for it. My course’s instructor wasn’t much of a help either, mainly because he wasn’t exactly a good teacher, and I was an idiot who was having real trouble communicating with him what my issues were (long story short, among other things, I kept putting the bike in Neutral instead of 2nd).

    There is a gap between “zero experience” and “first time on the bike at the MSF” which could be filled for a lot of people by an afternoon with a small bike and a helpful rider friend. I approve of this article’s message…