Ask RideApart: How Do I Start Riding a Motorcycle

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You ask, we answer, it’s Ask Rideapart. This week: How do I start riding a motorcycle and what will it cost?

This one comes from Sam in Los Angeles, who asks: “I live in LA and drive a Corolla. I see my friends get around much quicker and much easier than I do and I want some of that for myself. How do I start riding? Also, I’m going to law school, I’m on a budget. How much is it going to cost? I’ve never seen a full, step-by-step breakdown. Just make it easy for me. What bike should I buy, from who? What do I need to buy to ride it? How do I get my license? Thanks!”

Can you guys help him out? Where and how can Sam get started in becoming a rider like us? How much do you think he needs to budget?

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  • Wes Siler

    Sam, the first step is to apply for your learner’s permit at the DMV. You’ll have to take a little test about stop signs and whatnot on a computer there.

    Once you have your permit, sign up for an MSF class: IIRC, they’re ~$240 and it’s a two day class you do over a weekend and they provide the bikes. That counts as your practical exam. Take the certificate they give you to the DMV and you’ll get your license.

    Next, pick up something small, light and cheap on Craigslist. Expect to spend about $1,000. Seriously, the smaller and lighter it is, the better. Make sure it has plates and tags and there are no liens against its title. Ride that around your neighborhood for a few weeks getting comfortable. Get your crashing out of the way on it, then start shopping for something a little better, new or used, but again small and light. Budget $4,000. You should be able to quickly and easily unload that learner bike again, through Craigslist.

    For riding gear, start here:

    Good luck!

    • Rameses the 2nd

      $240 for a MSF class? I took it last year in IL and paid $15 and they gave me an option to get my $15 back at the end or donate it. At least my state is better at one thing. Also, we just pay flat $25 sales tax on all used motorcycles from private sellers.

      Other than that, pretty solid advice.

      • Goons

        Not in Cook County, actually. There is a new sales tax as of 2012 where you pay an additional $90 for the private sale of used motorcycles.

        But that University of IL MSF class is a real bargain for sure!

        • Piglet2010

          Hey, I know the people that train the U of I MSF instructors!

      • nick2ny

        Yup, they are between free and ~$350, depending on the state. Mostly ~$250.

        • mustangGT90210

          Yep, some states pay for it, some states you have to pay for it. Florida runs about $200 as of 18 months ago when I got my endorsement

  • APG7

    1) Definitely find an MSF course and sign up first before you go spend money on anything else.
    2) Check your ego and get a small manageable bike. It’s way easier to kill yourself on an R1 than something in the 250-500 range. ($3000-4000 for bike + insurance + DMV + inspection)
    3) Always always wear all your gear (~$600ish)

    • Alpha_Geek_Mk2

      Ditto to all of the above. You can save a bit more with a used Ninja 250 or 500 for ~$2k in most places, that’ll be in good mechanical condition. Maybe less so cosmetically, but that’s okay, because you’re going to drop your first bike at least once.

      • APG7

        Forgot to add: find a mechanic you trust. This took me three different shops, but I ended up with a place that does its work on time, for as much as they say it will cost up front, and with precision and care.

        • Vitor Santos

          Yup, this is also true. After all its your baby we are talking about. Its like going to the doctor. My mechanic is 60 miles from my home and i don’t even care… Its a great and upfront guy that loves bikes and to work on them. Plus its another excuse to ride a little more than usual xD

          • Piglet2010

            For me it is a 450 mile round trip to take my Bonnie in for service – good thing I enjoy the ride.

    • Mary

      Totally agree! I’d also like to add that your first bike should be used. I know so many people that want to get into riding but want to get the coolest bike on the outset. I keep telling them that it’s not a matter of if you’ll drop your bike, it’s when, and you’re going to cry if you dent/scratch your brand new bike.

  • Andy

    Go here: Disclaimer: I work for them.

  • jefflev

    And the new Hyper with the Termis in the photo is NOT a starter bike!

  • FastPatrick

    Any thoughts about recommending a dual-sport and some time riding off-road? Sam, would that kind of bike work for you?

  • Kr Tong

    I can’t answer this question for someone in LA. Traffic’s too nutty for me. For anyone else, especially if you live in a rural area, I always recommend getting into cycling first.

    • Piglet2010

      One of the prerequisites for taking the MSF BRC is knowing how to ride a bicycle.

      • Kr Tong

        There’s knowing how to ride a bicycle, and knowing how to ride a bicycle. Im talking about really getting into cycling. Trail riding, maybe long-distance riding, getting used to riding in traffic and around town. All that sort of stuff is a good way to learn whether you should be a motorcyclist before you’re a motorcyclist.

        • Piglet2010

          Except that upright bicycles are torture devices, and ‘bents handle nothing like a motorcycle.

          • ben

            agreed, but I think this guy’s right. There’s some benefit in understanding the physics of speed, by having at least experienced it in some form other than from the cabin of a car.

            I used to ride the tight twisties of the back country on skis and snowboards long before I took to the road on a bicycle and even longer before i realized bicycles are supposed to have motors and I think, as a result, it’s been extremely easy to get on a motorcycle and feel comfortable at speed. I was doing road trips within a few months of owning a motorcycle… I’m used to gritting my teeth and “going for it”, and I think that goes a long way.

            • Piglet2010

              I have ridden so much on ‘bents that handle poorly at low speeds that it hurt my ability to ride a motorcycle at low speed when I got back into riding motos, because I was expecting the bike to go over with no warning – no confidence = too much upper body tension = poor riding results. (Did not matter much on the ‘bents – how much can it hurt to fall when your are starting out with your butt less than a foot above the ground?)

              • Kr Tong

                I dont even know what “‘bents” are. You mean dropout handlebars? In either case, just like a motorcycle you’re not meant to have weight on the bars. Your bike was a bad fit for you.

                • Piglet2010

                  Riding an upwrong bicycle is like riding a motorcycle that combines the seat of a KTM dirt bike, the riding position of a Desmosedici RR, and the suspension of a H-D 883 Iron.

                • Kr Tong

                  Yes thats why you see recumbents winning all the bicycle events.

                  And why doctors suggest that you do all activities laying down for your health.

                • Piglet2010

                  Kr Tong – “Yes thats why you see recumbents winning all the bicycle events.”

                  The UCI banned recumbent bicycles on April 1, 1934, and most of the lower level organizations followed suit. Learn some history instead of displaying your ignorance.

                  Kr Tong – “And why doctors suggest that you do all activities laying down for your health.”

                  Oh, and some doctors have advised against extensive riding of upright bicycles.

                • Kr Tong

                  Recumbents are banned from some events where aerodynamics are regulated. Also lots of great cyclists dying isnt great. And sitting down can give you hemmrhoids too. It can also give you 100% more chance of dying from everything.

                  Spoiler alert: he falls down a lot on easy stuff.

                  Its a horrible design and does not aid in motorcycling one bit. Ride a NORMAL bike if you want to boost motorcycling skills.

                • Piglet2010

                  Motorcyclists have phases – new one for me?

                  And here in the US, recumbent bicycles are banned from USCF sanctioned events, and from the events of most regional racing organizations (a few let them run in their own class during time trials, since money is money).

                  And please post a citation for riding a recumbent bicycle causing hemorrhoids, or being more dangerous – or are you just making crap up?

                • Kr Tong

                  Uhhh did you read the “unbiased” article you sent me to? Fairings + deaths = banned. Also, this:

                  Now please stop. Even you said recumbents have nothing to do with motorcycles, which means talking about recumbents is off topic.

                • Piglet2010

                  I merely brought up the point that knowing how to ride a bicycle is a requirement to take the MSF BRC class – certainly on-topic for this article. *You* are the one who first further expanded the pedal cycling topic.

                  And I will stop when asked by someone who works for RideApart, not you. :)

  • Piglet2010

    Consider getting something like a Honda PCX150 if you value practicality over coolness.

  • Johnny Sailor

    The starter course with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is a great place to learn. I went in at 31 years of age having never sat on a motorcycle, and learned there. With the certificate, I was able to skip the riding portion of the test (In Texas YMMV).

    As for a good starter bike, I picked a Triumph Bonneville and love it.

    • Piglet2010

      Well, a Bonnie is not something I would want to be crashing often – now that I have said this, I will probably go down the next time I ride mine. ;)

      A dual-sport or something like a TU250X will not sustain much damage in a low-speed fall (our local community college TU250Xs survive BRC crashes quite well).

  • El Isbani

    Take the course, visit dealerships and just sit on bikes. Figure out the most you would spend, lower that because you’re in school. Grab an uncle or cousin or someone that gives a hoot about you and loves bikes and take that person bike window shopping, show them what you like and listen to their advice and why. Go home, grab your cash and execute sale. Ride out homie and understand that you will want to ride more bikes.

  • Khali

    As a lawyer you are going to wear a suit as your second skin. Look for a good oversuit such as Aerostich Roadcrafter as your main gear piece.

    Choose a motorcyle with good loading capacity, maybe a scooter. If you are not into scooters, find a motorcycle that looks good with a big top case, to store your helmet and oversuit, maybe even with panniers, to carry all your stuff..

    A workmate commutes in a BWM F800R with bmw panniers and shad 50L top case. BMW side panniers are small, but enough to store a full face helmet or maybe even an aerostich suit, and are fixed really close to the chassis. The whole setup is narrower than the bike’s handlebars so when filtering, if your hands pass, your panniers pass. And it’s got huge storage capacity on a quite light, quite sporty, with good power and quite economical to run motorcyle. F800ST would do a great job too, with the added benefit of the belt drive and a protective fairing.

    This would be a nice motorcycle after you have learned on a cheap, learner-friendly bike.

    • Jesse

      I’ve got a GIVI e45 topcase on my old 98 Honda F3. Bought the bike for $2k, spend another $300 on ebay for the mount and box. Instant highway commuter / sport touring / moto camping bike.

  • Brian

    my .02 for Sam would start with, do you ride a bicycle at all? What kind of bicycle do you like to ride? It may sound silly, but that could be the best way to find direction into what kind of motorcycle to look at when you look at the ergonomics. If he rides a recumbant bike, perhaps a cruiser style. A beach cruiser style bike could go for any number or retro or modernized standards. A mountain bike could pave the way to an enduro type of machine. A road bike/tri bike/race bike could lend itself to a more sporting type of machine. These dynamics apply when you think of the dynamics of being on 2 wheels of any type as the principles of traction, turning, braking and everything else cross over.

    As far as getting your liscence, there are a ton of great suggestions thus far, but I want to add 1 more. While I am not a Harley rider, there is a huge program in place at most Harley dealers called Riders Edge which is also easily accessible to most. They will also teach you the dynamics on a mostly sterile type of either base stripped Sportster or a Buell Blast ( depending on their fleet ). These can be mostly benign machines to learn the basic dynamics as you would on a bicycle, even if they aren’t my personal preference.

    In terms of allocation of $$$, my .02 would be to put as a budget what you want for a bike. Allow about an additional $500-$1000 for gear ( you can certainly outfit yourself head to toe for less, but sometimes you get what you pay for!), and allow yourself in the neighborhood of $400-$1000 for your moto insurance ( which some of them will do installments depending on the machine itself, the age of it, and the company of course) . This last tidbit is the one ugly thing in motorcycling that we all begrudge but do anyway. Between the many things we can control, there are many that are far from your control( especially while you are learning), and it is worthwhile to protect yourself, and if possible your property, because you are not riding/living in an impenetrable bubble.

    I could go on, but this is where I’ll stop for now.

    • Piglet2010

      Uh no, a recumbent bicycle is nothing like a cruiser except for some long-wheelbase models that have a similar riding position to a forward-control cruiser. I teach upright cyclists to ride ‘bents by holding onto the handlebars with just the tips of their thumb and forefinger, otherwise they over-control, which is the complete opposite of cruiser handling.

      One of the bikes I used to own makes a 50cc GP bike feel like a H-D big-twin in comparison – one can almost steer by thought alone:

      • Brian

        primarily, for a beginner motorcyclist, I was getting at ergonomics first. the ergo of relaxed seating position, seated back, legs forward is very much the same. The degree of how much is as individual as the bike ( moto or pedal-since they both can vary greatly-either by initial design or post fabrication modification). In terms of handling though, most recumbants are generally not ridden as aggressively and enthusiastically as say a road bike, so the general handling perception is very similar from most of those users perspective. I know that is not 100% the case, but by enlarged it holds true moreso than not. Longer turn in, less aggressive feel when turning, and generally a longer space needed for braking. I am going this route of analogy for the OP because we are talking about the majority, and not the exceptions to the rule.

        • Piglet2010

          The above is incorrect – due to the lower GC one can brake at the limit of front tire traction on most ‘bents, while upright road bikes are limited by pitch-over to about 0.7G braking force. And turn in on a low ‘bent is much faster than an upright road bike as is roll rate – this is simply a matter of the distance between the tire/road contact points and combined bike/rider center-of-gravity being much shorter.

          Riding a fat tire beach cruiser is much, much, much more like riding a motorcycle cruiser than riding a ‘bent is.

  • el_jefe

    Step one: read the “Bible”:

    Step two: read your state’s handbook.
    Step three: pass test, get permit
    Step four: take and pass MSF class, get full endorsment
    Step five: buy bike and gear
    Step six: read that book again
    Step seven: Spend the rest of your life being awesome.

    It’s a lot of steps, but worth it.

  • HoldenL

    If your MSF basic rider course is like mine, you’ll be one of the only students who doesn’t already own and ride a motorcycle. My class had about 15 other men (every one of whom already rode a motorcycle), three women (none of whom rode motorcycles yet), and me, a man who had no motorcycle experience. What I’m saying is: Be secure in your masculinity (assuming you’re a Samuel and not a Samantha).

    The other riders are likely to have … um … unschooled riding habits, so if they contradict what your instructors say, listen to the instructors.

    During the riding instruction, relax your arms and shoulders. Relax your arms and shoulders. Relax your arms and shoulders.

    Kr Tong is right, it helps immensely if you have plenty of experience riding bicycles in traffic. It’s helpful for a couple of reasons: Thousands of hours of riding a bicycle in traffic gives you a PhD in driver behavior, and if you’re a longtime bicycle rider, you’re probably a person who takes to two wheels like a fish takes to water. But it’s too late to change that; either that describes you or it doesn’t.

  • Piglet2010

    Unfortunately, in many states you have to have a licensed motorcycle rider follow you if you only have a permit. Now if 2-way radio communication was a requirement I could see the point, but otherwise the law is bloody stupid.

  • ben

    You live in LA?… my suggestion: avoid those pretty vintage bikes you see around.

    A 40 year old bike will have tons of little problems that you don’t want to have to worry about while you’re trying to concentrate on avoiding that 5ft deep hole in the middle of Alameda, and attempting to remember the basics of counter steering and proper…braking. Plus, even if its Japanese it’s going to leak oil like it’s British, which your neighbors will not love you for.

    That said, I love my ’72 Honda, her and I have a serious lust for one another… but I think it’s time for something a little less…passionate (read: reliable)… I’m hoping it will be a poly-amorous relationship… I think I might bring her a curvy italian fox to cozy up next to.

    • ben

      also… take MSF, read Proficient Motorcycling… do it… do it… DO IT…

    • Piglet2010

      On the other hand, you can pick up a Ninja 250 that is less than 10 years old with less than 10K miles for $2,000 or so if you are a bit patient. Or one of the 250cc mini cruisers or a Yammie TW200 in the same age, mileage, and price range.

    • Beju

      My 35 year old Suzuki doesn’t leak engine oil, but it did puke out a few gallons of gas when a carb float got stuck. After I paid a mechanic to clean out the carbs. It did leak some fork oil when a seal went though.

      I wanted a UJM, but in retrospect, buying a 35 year old bike without a garage of my own to work on it wasn’t the best idea. Short list of things to fix/improve: brake lines, pads, fluid, regulator, stator, seat/cover… it goes on and on.

      • ben

        yeah, and on and on and on… she’s in my house… spilling gasoline on my cat… buy a newer bike!

  • Jono

    if you ever get the chance to mess around in a dirt bike/dual sport setting, take it!! its an awesome way to test the majority of your skills in a fairly consequence free environment. loads of fun too =)

    cant go wrong with the rest of the advice here though

  • John P. Muller

    I learned to ride off road, and it’s definitely a great place to start because (a) dirt is a lot less painful to fall on than pavement; (b) riding in the dirt will help you get a great feel for riding. Tough to explain exactly what I mean, but it you try it, I think you’ll probably get it. I don’t know how easy it is in your area to get off road, but if you can manage it, a dual sport is a great way to start.

    There’s a lot of great advice in this thread. Definitely concur on the MSF course. It’s a great introductory course. Not sure I totally agree about the used bike – unless you have someone check it out before you buy, you might just be buying someone else’s headache and spending more time and money on repairs than you saved on the bike in the first place. Have fun, and good luck with law school! And remember, ATGATT.