What You Need to Know as a New Rider
Seven essential tips for newly licensed riders
So, you've finally taken the plunge, attended a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse, and earned your motorcycle endorsement. Truth is, the adventure is really only beginning once you get that piece of plastic. There’s a lot more to do.
First and foremost, you need to get out there and make use of your license, which means getting a bike. I recognize that, financially, such a thing is easier said than done but my general advice is this: unless you happen to be rather mechanically minded, go to a reputable dealer and get the best bike you can afford. Repeat: the best bike you can afford. Don’t finance your first bike.
If you’re like me, the desperate need to get out on two wheels will make you really, really, really want to ignore that piece of advice, but the fact is, you are going to drop this bike a few times; it’s going to get dinged-up. Having a moto that’s fully paid for will make these learning experiences easier to tolerate. This may mean having to save for a few extra months (which can be torturous if you’re bike-free during the summer), or having to lower your standards to get a motorcycle that’s not as sexy as the one you really want (hence the reason I ended up with a 2005 Honda CBF600 when I first returned to riding), but it’s better than being in an upside-down loan, or, worse yet, not going out to ride for fear of causing depreciation.
Related to that experience of letting anxiety keep you from riding, once you’ve overcome the not inconsiderable challenge of getting your hands on a bike you’ll need to keep a lot of things in mind if you want to continue to enjoy riding for a long time. Here are a few of them:
Get Out Your Salt Shaker
Motorcyclists love to give advice, but not all of it is good. Indeed, quite a lot of it is terrible. As you get further into motorcycling you will discover there is something of a folklore subculture within certain riding circles. Take a look at the way some folks feel about helmets, for example, or attitudes toward the necessity of loud exhausts. You’ll find a surprisingly high number of conspiracy theorists, too. Point is: not all motorcyclists are clever and you should take all riding advice with a grain of salt.
Applying this, you should take some time to be honest with yourself about what sort of bike you want, what sort of riding you want to do, and how you want to address the inherent risks involved. Ultimately, you are the one most affected by your decisions. And your decisions don’t have to agree with the decisions of others. Your buddy may think a Harley-Davidson Breakout is a great first bike, but he’s not you. Take the time to research things thoroughly and be confident in the decisions you make.
Do the Stuff They Tell You to Do
If you are used to life with modern cars you may not be used to sticking to a maintenance routine. That’s something you’ll want to develop as a motorcyclist. Modern bikes are pretty reliable—yes, even the Harleys—but the nature of a motorcycle is such that a little problem can easily create a big problem. For example, if your car dies in the middle of nowhere during a rainstorm, you can just sit there—nice and dry—waiting for the AAA dude to show up (Related advice: it’s a really good idea to sign up for breakdown coverage). If your bike dies in the same scenario, you’re stuck waiting outside in the cold and wet, with nothing to do but get colder and wetter and curse the fact you chose theater as an elective in high school rather than auto shop.
The most barebones maintenance routine can be remembered with the word “bolt:”
You should check those things a lot. You’ll likely have heard this from your riding instructor before you got your license, and he or she may have even suggested a little “pre-flight” routine for each time you get on your bike. Here’s what I do:
At the start of a day of riding I check tire pressure cold. If everything’s OK, I quickly check the oil level. This is easy if you have a sight glass, but very much worth doing even if you don’t. Bikes can consume oil quickly (I was always surprised by how much of the stuff disappeared after a day of hard riding on my old Honda). Next, click on the ignition and make sure all the headlights and indicators are functioning properly. It can be a trick to check that brake light, but you’re a clever bunny—you’ll find a way. Lastly, once I’m on the bike, just before setting off, I rock the bike forward a little and make sure the front and rear brakes each are working.
If you’re new to riding it’s a good bet your bike will be chain-driven. It doesn’t hurt to give that a quick tug before each ride as well, making sure it’s neither too slack nor too tight. At regular intervals you should check the chain more thoroughly, actually going to the trouble to measure the slack, just like they tell you to in all the owner’s manuals.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Part and parcel with checking to make sure stuff is working properly is maintaining it. I’m not a huge fan of wrenching, but there are certain things you should just be doing yourself—primarily oil changes, chain cleaning, and chain adjustment. If you don’t know how to do these things you will find literally hundreds of YouTube videos explaining how. I’m personally a fan of the videos from Moonfleet41, aka Delboy’s Garage, which are thorough, easy to understand, and watchable.
RELATED: How to Ride in the Rain
Finding the space, time, patience, and confidence to work on your bike can be tricky, but it’s worth it to do as much as you can. These days, you can expect to pay in excess of $80 an hour for a motorcycle mechanic. I don’t begrudge anyone earning a good wage, but doing stuff yourself means you’ll have more money to spend on gear or a new bike.
Make Sure Your Bike is Right For You
Related to the idea of doing a little bit of maintenance yourself, take the time to make sure the bike is set up so you are comfortable as a rider. Are the handlebars where you want then to be? Is your seat at the right height? Are the shift lever and brake pedal naturally accessible? How about lever span and clutch freeplay? On most bikes all of these things can be adjusted.
Do the Stuff They Tell You to Do, Part II
In addition to telling you to do pre-ride checks, it’s a good bet your grizzled old riding instructor also emphasized the importance of regularly reminding yourself of the basics. Doing this will feel dumber and dumber as you put on years of experience, but you really should find the time every now and again to spend an hour or so in an empty parking lot doing tight circles and emergency stops and pushing your bike around and all the other things they had you do when you were learning.
As I say, you’ll feel silly doing this as a more experienced rider and perhaps inclined to tell yourself you don’t need to do it, but here is what will happen: you’ll find yourself having to do a U turn in front of a load of other motorcyclists (at a cafe, for example—or, in my case, a press event) and you will get it all kinds of wrong because you haven’t practiced, and they will laugh at you.
Cover Your Ass (as Well as The Rest of You)
Wear your gear, man. I realize that being fully kitted can be pretty damned expensive. Go crazy with the Klim offerings, for example, and you can easily spend more on stuff to wear on a bike than on the bike itself. But few things will throw ice water on your enthusiasm for riding like a bad case of road rash.
My tip is to look for quality used gear on eBay and the like. Go with names you know from trusted sellers and you may be able to get your hands on some really great stuff for not too much money. Alternatively, I recommend Oxford products if you’ve really got your heart set on enjoying that new-kit smell. I recently got a hold of a Montreal 3.0 jacket and Montreal 2.0 pants and have been surprised at just how good they are.
You will, of course, need to buy your helmet new. And don’t forget the earplugs. If you learned to ride without them they may seem a little awkward at first, but they’re worth it for the sake of protecting your hearing. I find that wearing earplugs also improves my concentration and decreases fatigue.
Take Responsibility For Your Actions (and the Actions of Others)
It’s just you on that bike, and whatever happens on it is your responsibility. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase that is to say you will be the one most affected by whatever happens. Other road users will do dumb things and that will make you angry, and at some point along the way you’ll want to respond. RideApart is littered with YouTube videos of guys responding in the wrong way, often with pretty painful results. Don’t be that guy. Instead, do your best to anticipate and avoid hazards and dangerous situations.
Chris Cope is the former director of RideApart but we fired his ass for not putting cover sheets on his TPS reports. These days he's the head honcho of UK-based website The Motorcycle Obsession.