Whether you're heading out for your first MSF class or your leathers wear "93" on the back, the act of riding a motorcycle remains fundamentally the same. Let's look at the basic skills and break out how you can get better, no matter what your riding experience. It's the eight best ways to improve your motorcycle riding skills.
The most powerful component on your motorcycle takes time to master and, because it's so important to safety, is worth taking a little extra practice time to stay fresh on.
Novice: Find a big, empty parking lot and work up from low speed. Riding along at 15 mph, progressively squeeze the front brake lever until you feel the front tire on the verge of locking up or the rear tire lifting off the ground. You may dump the bike in this process; crash protection is always a good idea. Once you can confidently achieve maximum braking force at 15 mph, move up to 20, then 25 and so on until it's a skill you can reliably employ at any road speed. Don't expect to master this or any other skill in a single day, competent riding takes time.
Veteran: When was the last time you used your bike's max braking force? Remember what it feels like? Bought a new bike recently? Have you taken some time off to hibernate? Go put in a little of that same parking lot practice, keeping this skill sharp may one day save your life.
What may seem simple and basic rapidly becomes and dance using both hands and feet if you want to achieve genuinely fast riding. Whether you're a veteran or novice, your goal is smoothness.
Novice: Tried a clutchless upshift yet? It's easier than you may think. While accelerating (not riding at a constant speed or decelerating) sneak your left foot under the shift lever and apply a little upwards pressure. Whatever it would take to select a gear if the clutch was pulled in. But, don't pull in that clutch! Instead, hold that upwards pressure with your foot and quickly close the throttle a little bit. The gear should slip home, at which point you should get back on the gas. Practice until doing so is smooth, seamless and takes no mental effort whatsoever.
Veteran: Whether you've already mastered the rev-matched downshift or not, it's something you need to practice. While braking for a corner with two fingers on the front lever, quickly pull in the clutch, blip the throttle, select the lower gear and pop that clutch back out. If you get it right, the shift is fast and doesn't break the rear tire's traction, allowing you to downshift more aggressively, later in the corner. Sounds easy, but it takes nuance and experience to nail it every time, so practicing is a great idea.
That most natural act of the motorcyclist can also be very dangerous if you don't apply skill and experience. Getting better at it will save you time while making your riding much safer.
Novice: Try it! Find a long red light in town where cars tend to back up in two lanes or more, then try and approach it just after it turns red. Carefully pick your way to the front of the queue, quickly calculate the time remaining on the red and, if there's enough, squarely plant yourself in front of one of the lines of cars, claiming your rightful territory. Once that feels natural, work your way up to more complicated splitting scenarios; just keep the pace of progress slow, this is a difficult skill to learn and one that has dire consequences should you make a mistake.
Veteran: Improve your ability by baking practice into your everyday splitting. Can you make it all the way home without touching a foot down? Can you do it without clipping a mirror? Without being taken by surprise even once or while reciting the age, sex and hairstyle of every driver you pass (keen observation skills are a must). Actively try and get better every time and it's a skill you'll keep sharp.
Novice: Try and wrangle your way onto an old dirt bike and an easy environment — think field, not rocky mountain — to ride it in. Then, just have fun. You'll emerge a better, safer rider. We promise.
Veteran: Ever tried flat track racing? It's probably the cheapest, most affordable type of two-wheeled motorsport out there and it's the secret GP riders like Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi employ to master the art of the slide. All you need is a dirt bike and $30 or so to enter a race, don't overthink it.
Carry A Passenger
Getting them there safe, without scaring them, is your goal. Whether that's a quick ride through town or a week-long trip across the country, carrying a passenger is a skill you can improve.
Novice: Try it! Taking a friend or a significant other for a ride is one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do. Just start slow and easy. Make sure they have the same protective gear you do (and that it fits properly), then just take them around the block, then down the street, then across town and work up from there. Go slow at first, your bike's dynamics will be altered by the extra weight. Also, maybe don't refer to them as, "extra weight."
Veteran: Sure, taking a passenger for an easy ride is simple as can be, but have you taken the time to set up your bike so it still brakes, turns and accelerates virtually as well? Have you taken somebody out scratching on a Sunday, on an ADV ride through a faraway place or on a long trip through bad weather? Work up to it, sharing your passion fully is a special thing to do.
Where it's at. And also something you'll always, always be able to improve upon. Corners are the point, the challenge and the reward of riding.
Novice: Tried you local riding road or track yet? Get out there and do so! Your goal the first time out should just be to get a good idea of what it's like and get through it safely. Full safety gear will make you more confident, more comfortable and obviously safer, so wear it. Over the subsequent weekends, just try and improve your confidence and learn new skills. Don't bother trying to keep up with anyone, ride your own ride and focus on your own abilities. It's fun and less daunting than it seems.
Veteran: How's your body position? Have you gotten pictures to check it? Are you trail braking, dragging knee and doing so safely? Riding like this regularly is the only way to get better, then stay good at it.
Bikes don't just fall into a corner on their own, even if it feels like it. Actively and precisely controlling your motorcycle's steering is key to proficient riding.
Novice: Return to that big empty parking lot and ride around it in a lazy circle. Practice pushing on either bar and see what happens. Countersteering! Try and complete an imaginary slalom or similar and just familiarize yourself with the pressure, speed and input necessary to make your bike turn like you want it to.
Veteran: This is one of those skills you tend to learn, then forget about. And, in forgetting, it becomes dusty. Instead of allowing it to, try and consciously think about steering input every time you're out riding. When it's safe to do so, try and change your line in a corner through the bars alone. Play that same slalom game in a parking lot or driveway. Just make it a fun little thing you do regularly and, in doing so, it will be something you do to help keep you sharp.
Don't be intimidated to work on your bike. Just do so with planning and care and, just like riding, work up to the harder stuff and get more experienced friends to help. Doing it yourself will save you time and money and, who knows, you might even get 'er done better than the pros.
Novice: Start small and work up. Have you adjusted your chain? Consult your bike's owners manual, obtain the correct tools, then devote an evening (any maybe a few adult beverages) to figuring it out. Have a friend or friendly local bike shop check your work before you have to rely on it. Try an oil change next, then buy a Haynes Manual and keep on working.
Veteran: It's easy to just pay a shop to do the complicated stuff, but why not expand your useful motorcycling knowledge by teaching yourself a new skill? Add one service item at a time (fork oil, valve adjustment, whatever), study up on it, make sure you have the right tools and, before you know it, you'll be a master mechanic with a full tool set. As your knowledge of how the bike works increases, so does your confidence in it and generally mastery of the entire bike craft. Next: teach your friends, you'll get better through that too, and you won't have to fix their bikes for them anymore. You can learn to perform any maintenance task or repair on a motorcycle, just invest the time, patience and care to do it right.
Want to learn more? Our How To section is full of helpful advice. Novice or veteran, what skills do you practice on a regular basis and which would you most like to learn?