Watson On: Learning To Ride A Motorcycle

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Tim Watson Motorcycle

Dead set on learning to ride a motorcycle? There is, in my opinion, no better way as a teenager than buying a ratty old field bike and heading off-road towards the distant horizon at a slow paced wobble.

Photo: Bjorn Bulthuis

Learning to ride a field bike is a sort of rite of passage into the world of motorcycles. The first time you get on anything with an engine and two wheels you will fall off. It maybe in the first few seconds, or the moment you come across an obstacle, such as a small rock, when you’ll frantically reach for the clutch lever instead of the brake, lose your momentum and end up in a tangled heap of revving motorcycle engine and exhaust smoke wondering what on earth just happened.

You will also hurt yourself. A lot. But, like riding a horse, the only thing to do is get back on and try again. Learning to ride a motorcycle in an open field is definitely the school of hard knocks but, as far as I know, it never really did me any harm.

Faced with the prospect of riding into a single-strand barbed wire fence at 20 mph or learning how to take avoiding action and aiming for the thorn bush instead taught me how to anticipate things better and what to do in an emergency. In hindsight, the barbed wire might have been the better option, as thorns in the face hurt a lot and leave marks that look like you have been peppered by a shotgun.

At this point, I have probably made most motorcycle safety instructors throw up their arms in horror and shake their heads. They will say you’ll do nothing but learn bad habits riding a field bike and do things which will make you a bad rider for the rest of your life. But frankly, I’m sticking by my guns on this one.

Teenage boys, within reason, are indestructible. They tend to bounce and roll better than older guys when they fall off a moving motorcycle. Plus, they get the added benefit of earning some scars to show friends what happens from riding a bike around and around a field at speed.

But it’s not just the art of learning to control a machine on two wheels. You’ll also get to know how things work. The premise of buying an old motorcycle is that it should be easy to work on. Sure things will break and bits will fall off but, if you want to get it moving again, you’re going to have to work out why the clutch cable needs adjusting and what happens if you don’t check the oil.

You get to learn how to take a carburetor to pieces and, when you run out of gas miles from anywhere, you’ll learn how really, really heavy and awkward even the smallest engine motorcycle can be when you’re pushing it uphill in the midday sun.

That very first time you get on a motorcycle is a mixture of nervous anticipation and sheer terror. You’ve been through the controls, got a rough idea what the clutch and the gearbox do, but have no idea how sensitive that throttle can be.

At first, you’ll stall it over and over again until you find the sweet friction spot on the clutch. Then you’re off. It’ll feel like you’re traveling at 100 mph when it’s probably closer to 20. Twisting the throttle too hard makes the front of the bike rear up and no matter where you’d like to go the bike seems to have a mind of its own and is going to fight you until it has deposited you into the nearest hedge.

Braking takes a bit of time to get used to as well. At first, the front brake seems the best option to stick to. But, once you have pulled it too hard too many times and are thrown off at low speeds, you’ll start to discover that using the rear in tandem actually makes sense.

Thereafter, it does get easier. It will take you several hours of getting on and then falling off and then getting back on again and trying to understand what you did wrong. As I said at the outset, I am sure that many of my bad riding habits can be traced back to teaching myself to ride a motorcycle around in a field. I don’t cover the brakes properly and am faster and better at going around right hand corners after hours and hours of going clockwise around and around a field.

Riding a field bike did teach me about cows. I was once confronted by a huge herd of cattle in what I thought I was an empty field. I came to a sudden halt. They looked at me and I looked at them and I decided the best course of action was to turn the bike around and head back in the direction I came from.

The problem was, the cows were up for a challenge and pursued me en masse for the next 10 minutes, gaining on me as I frantically tried to make my old motorcycle go faster than 25 mph. I did finally outrun them by shutting the bike off and hiding in a hedge until the cows swept past me in a thunder of hooves and making that odd snorting noise that angry cows make. It was a close run thing.

That is why learning to ride a bike off-road for me is definitely the way to get started. They would never teach you how to outsmart cows in a motorcycle safety course.

That said, proper gear is always a must and proper instruction goes a long way when you are ready for it. Did I mention I’ve taken the Basic Rider Course twice?

  • ThinkingInImages

    Great article, Tim. Unless you are gifted with some innate talent, put away the ego. When you start riding a motorcycle, even a scooter or a moped, there is more mass, speed and mechanical complexity than you can imagine. It’s not as casual as bicycle riding because a bicycle is a lot lighter than you are.

    It’s a lot like riding a horse. An unruly, reluctant, horse. I’ve been there. Once he got into it the spirit of things, he was a magnificent, spirited, animal. Even when you settle in with a horse, you can’t forget you’re on top of a half ton animal with a mind of its own.

    • Jim Franklin

      I have to admit, horses frighten me when I am on top of them. Knowing that, statistically, you are more likely to have a fatal head injury from a horse back fall, than from a motorcycle crash, doesn’t help. If you crash on a motorcycle, its probably your fought….you asked it to do something that you may not had meant to….and it complied. A horse can decide, completely on its on, that you have been on its back long enough…and take care of that situation…..then the things look at you, sprawled on the ground like “what are you doing down there?” I never crashed a motorcycle where I couldn’t look back and point to a mistake I made.

      Some background here, when I was teaching the Experienced Rider Course back in the 80s, a lot of the students told me how many miles they had ridden, I had never kept track…..going back through my old titles and registrations for past mileage, and better tracking after that, on current bikes, at this point, I have accumulated just over 2 million miles on motorcycles….I ride almost everyday, year round…I did that when I lived in Illinois, I did that when I lived in Hawaii….I can drive a car, I just seldom do….I may have spent 10 hours on a horse in my life time…..I have never been thrown by a horse, but I respect the fact that some of the best riders have been, and its more a matter of luck than skill that I haven’t been thrown. A couple of things my brother told me while he was teaching me to ride way back in 1964, that I have remembered to this day…1) a motorcycle always knows one trick you don’t know, and is just waiting for the opportunity to show it to you, and 2) There are only three kinds of riders, those who have crashed, those who will crash, and those who will crash again…..probably goes for people who ride horses too.

  • STRTRRR

    My dad: “it’ll take you 30 minutes to go all the way and back. If you’re not back in 40 minutes I’ll come looking for you. Be back in 39.” Best way to learn, full stop.

  • Reid

    My dad and I taught my sister how to ride a motorcycle in a cow pasture while she was home over thanksgiving break :) She’s going to be great, I can tell. Never fell once, never stalled out; she even popped a pretty good wheelie.

  • Piglet2010

    Fortunately, I learned enough from riding bicycles and running small farm tractors that I did not have out of control episodes like that on a motorcycle (which is not to say that I do not crash while trail riding, even on the forgiving Yammie TW200).

  • Jack Meoph

    That’s pretty much how I learned to ride. No helmet either, just t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and that’s the way it went for quite a while. I taught my wife how to ride the same way, but with a bit more instruction and a helmet. We were down in Mexico at my brother-in-laws timeshare, and he brought many dirt bikes. My wife got on a 125cc (yamaha, I think) and I had her go forward and brake. then forward, shift, and brake. then circle left, and then circle right, and then figure 8. Then we went riding through the various dirt trails around the area. Spent about a week doing that and when we got home, I bought her a ’82 CX500 Custom. She’s had the honda, a Harley 883, a Seca 600, an FZ 1, and now she has the Kawi ninjette 250r.

  • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

    If you suck at riding a motorcycle, you suck at riding a bicycle too. Eight years later I still can point out guys who rode bicycles first. You could do it in MSF and now i can tell on the road and even at the track.

    • Piglet2010

      Yes, we know you are God’s Gift to motorcycling.

    • Jim Franklin

      A prerequisite for taking the MSF class used to be, that you had ridden a bicycle, as the courses evolved, I don’t remember that being emphasized as much….and it may longer be in the program, I haven’t taught since 2009.

  • Dan

    That’s how I learned to ride. As a kid, on a crappy old motorcycle, in a field. Then in the desert. Cacti learns ya real good. I spent countless (and the best) hours of my youth roaming around on a motorcycle. Eventually when I started riding on the street, all that time on the dirt payed off. Fast forward a few decades, rider courses, track days, superbike school, road racing, motocross, desert/woods/enduro/hair scrambles, etc… starting off in a field worked for me.

    It’s working for my kids, too… though I’m there with them.

  • zion

    As the motorcycle safety instructors “throwing up their arms in horror”, let me say this……..you’re spot on . If you’re young enough and on a beater bike and have a good field/open space to ride in, go for it. Probably the most fun you’ll ever have and you’ll look back on it with great memories.

    That said, however, it doesn’t hurt to come take a class and learn some sh*t, too. Learn your road survival techniques from us safety geeks and some tricks of the trade. Combine all that knowledge and enjoy your new lifelong passion.

  • Jordan

    If you follow professional racers on twitter, you’ll see that they post pictures of themselves with their mates doing this all the time. The Haydens and Valentino Rossi take it up a notch by having their own personal flat tracks.

    Any rider of any ability can do this and enjoy themselves greatly.

  • Davidabl2

    My experience was completely different..Bought a small street bike and rode it around the empty roads in then-rural SantaBarbara for a few hours..and got on Highway 101 and rode it the 90 or so miles back to Pasadena,Ca. This was in April, 1969 however. And the bike DID come with a helmet,pair of goggles,gloves, which fit. And a kidney belt, which didn’t fit. Although it might possibly fit today :-)

    Today there is three times as much traffic in SoCal, moving 25mph faster(when traffic permits) than there was back then…

    • eddi

      Same here. My start was parking lots and streets of Augusta, Georgia. Fortunately I was too stupid to realize that I was in over my head from hour 1. Despite tempting Murphy, Fate and the easily amused gods, I lived and learned.

      • Davidabl2

        I didn’t have my first,and, so far, only serious crash for almost forty years..
        When I began to try to learn to ride faster, on a (almost) modern bike.

  • John P. Muller

    Having gone through the barbed wire fence, I can assure you that the thorn bush is the better option.

  • 200 Fathoms

    “That said, proper gear is always a must…” As demonstrated in the photo?

  • Davidabl2

    Thinking it over, another reason that it was easier to learn “back in the day’ was that cars then were rear wheel drive like bikes, had mediocre brakes…and a lot were still manual shift, some even without real “synchromesh’ either by design or by age:-)

  • Jim Franklin

    I taught the MSF motorcycle safety courses for more than 20 years, starting in 1985. I say courses because when I started there was the MRC (Motorcycle Riders Course) and the BETTER BIKING PROGRAM (a course for experienced riders), but I taught the MRC:RSS, the Interim ERC, the ERC and the BRC. But I didn’t learn to ride in a course on a parking lot somewhere, in 1964, there weren’t any courses available that I knew of…..I learned how to ride on a Jawa 50 in a school; yard not far from my home. What you learn from riding in the dirt, better than you can learn anywhere else, is traction control, managing brakes and throttle so as not to plant your face in tarmac (Kenny Roberts, three time World Road Racing Champion raced on dirt tracks long before he mastered a road course). There aren’t as many places where you can just go and ride off road as their used to be, and you can learn techniques that will keep you safer on a motorcycle in a formal course, and less painfully too, than you will ever learn on your own without one. Life is a life long learning experience and so is motorcycling.