Maybe you've got decades-old experience from your youth, and maybe you don't, but you've got a bike now and more questions than ever about riding it. Many aspects of motorcycling can only be learned through experience which leaves new riders at a disadvantage in the beginning.
There are some tips that every new rider should know as they begin their journey on two wheels, and this list is for them.
1. Riding A Motorcycle Isn't About Comfort
Motorcycles have come a long way just in the last 30 years or so.
Baggers are everywhere now and include more than just touring bikes with the modern ADV bike (Adventure bike) and smaller-framed cruisers like Harley-Davidson's Softail line.
While the comfort factor is higher on a Harley Street Glide than on say a Honda CBR1000RR or Yamaha R1, the human body can only take so much saddle time before it gets sore.
Choose Your Motorcycle Carefully
Obviously, the first step is to choose the right type of bike for the riding you want to do.
Sportbikes are great fun around town but rump-killers on long trips.
Cruisers can handle a little bit of both, local and long-distance, and can be customized to maximize one or the other.
Touring bikes are great for both as well but handle cross-country treks better than anything else available.
Know what sort of riding you want to do most of the time and buy a practical bike for that purpose. Motorcycles aren't supposed to be one-size-fits-all, for either the rider or the riding.
The most important thing to remember is that when it comes to mileage, think in terms of “up to and including X-number of miles.”
A bike that's built to tackle hundreds of miles at a time can easily handle the 10-minute lunch run, but a bike that's intended for shorter bursts of speed and performance won't be comfortable on long-distance trips.
Estimate your high mileage goals and buy a bike to handle that, because it'll cover the shorter stuff with no problem.
It's Okay To Skip The “Iron Butt” Challenge
I ride a 2019 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, and most of my regular riding buddies ride baggers too, but we still stop every 100-120 miles. Taking a minute to stretch is important.
When it's hot out, as it tends to get here in NE Texas, our rest stops come closer to every 50-60 miles for hydration.
Can we go further? Sure.
The total fuel mileage on these bikes runs around the 200-mile range depending on weight and riding style, but the body gets awfully stiff after a couple of hours in the same position.
Highway pegs, high-end seats, softer shocks, and handlebars can all add to or take away from your comfort, but 100-120 miles is a respectable distance to travel before needing to stand on two feet again.
If something is happening that requires you to make the best time possible, then so be it, but you'll probably enjoy riding a motorcycle much more if you pace yourself.
2. Learn To Be Your Motorcycle's Best Mechanic
I realize this simply isn't possible for some people. Not everyone is mechanically inclined, let alone skilled or experienced.
Motorcycles are not cheap vehicles nor are they maintenance-free, so unless your bank account is fatter than my portly ass on Thanksgiving night, it's best you learn to handle maintenance and upgrades yourself.
I'm good with my hands. I have tinkered with things since I was a little kid. When I was 8 years old I took apart an old Zenith console TV.
You might remember those; with the turntable under the flip-top.
It had been sitting in the garage for a couple of years because it didn't work. There was a loose connector inside and once I fixed it, the wonderful old beast came back to life.
How the hell I managed that, I don't know.
Stuff like that has just always sort of come naturally to me.
For some people, remembering righty-tighty, lefty-loosey is difficult. To each their own.
I've not only saved a lot of money in my modest budget by doing my own fluid changes, part upgrades, and even tire replacements, but I've also learned so much about my bikes.
There is no substitute for the knowledge you gain of how a bike's parts work from taking things apart and putting them back together.
Do I have to pull up a helpful YouTube video for help? All the time.
And my service manual is worth its weight in gold — for torque specs and diagrams especially.
But what I don't know, I learn.
The labor alone on the maintenance and upgrades to my current bike would have cost several thousand dollars on the low end. Something to consider.
3. Counter-Steering IS Motorcycling
I'll try not to be too technical here since that's not what this post is about (and I'm not an expert). You can Google counter-steering to learn more about it (and you absolutely should!!!).
To put it simply, counter-steering is the most effective and reliable way to lean a motorcycle at speed.
When traveling less than about 20 MPH, you're mostly handlebar steering.
Handlebar steering means you turn the bars — and the front wheel — to turn the bike.
Over 20 MPH, you don't turn the bars, you push them.
Let's say you're going 60 MPH on a country road and a right curve is coming up. To make the bike follow that right curve, you push the right grip forward with your right hand.
Think about that for a minute.
If you push the right grip forward, isn't that going to turn the bike left? It will if you're only going 10 MPH, yes.
At higher speeds, pushing the right grip forward tilts the bike quickly to the right side, initiating lean. Because the tread of motorcycle tires are rounded, they get smaller in diameter from the center of the tread out toward the rim/bead.
That simple little push forward on the right handgrip shifts the contact patch of the tire from the center to right-of-center, which causes you to lean right and therefore turn right as well.
As I said, I'm not giving a course on counter-steering here (and for good reason looking at how rough that explanation is), but that's a general idea of how it works.
Can you turn the bike in other ways? Yes, you can.
Are you already counter-steering at least some of the time, whether you're aware of the concept or not? Yep.
Learn about counter-steering and practice it until you're doing it purposely on every curve, and you'll be a more skilled, safer rider for it.
4. You Can Only Go As Fast As You Can Stop
Get comfortable with your brakes. Yes, your brakes.
Every bike's brakes are different and are impacted by rider size, suspension type and quality, cargo load, road conditions, and brake component conditions, among other things.
So, get familiar with your motorcycle's performance when slowing and stopping, and practice emergency braking with both the front and rear brakes, together and individually.
A lot of hotheads out there will brag about never using the rear brake, but it's there for a reason.
And physics doesn't give a shit what your buddy says he does.
Braking At Low Speeds
Supplying power to the rear wheel creates a gyroscopic effect.
Go get one of these (disclaimer: affiliate link): https://amzn.to/3MZojtw. It may be nothing more than a cheap little toy, but an important lesson can be learned from it.
You can also test this by taking a wheel from a bicycle and holding it by the axle studs while spinning it.
Grab your spinner or wheel and give it a spin while holding it vertically. Now, tilt your hand about 45° to one side while it's spinning.
Feel that resistance?
The rear wheel on a motorcycle, when power is applied from the engine, works the same way.
That's how a rider can fall off and their motorcycle keeps going. It doesn't balance itself, but that gyroscopic force slinging the weight of the wheel vertically keeps the bike upright.
But if keeping power to the rear wheel keeps the bike up, speed becomes a problem.
The front brake would only shift the dynamics of the bike by compressing the forks and causing the bike to drive into itself.
The rear brake, on the other hand, drags the bike's speed down and prohibits the power from going unchecked at the very point where it has the most effect.
Supremely skilled riders don't use the rear brake during slow-speed maneuvers because they have excellent throttle control; the rest of us use it anyway.
Subscribe to Robert Simmon's channel on YouTube and watch this video of his:
Preload your throttle to roughly 2,000 RPMs and use the clutch to regulate how much of that power — which is readily available since you're preloading it — reaches the rear wheel.
You can adjust your speed with both the clutch and rear brake, and you can apply an upright force to the rear wheel by letting the clutch out a little bit more.
Braking When Coming To A Stop
Regardless of how you brake above 5 MPH, the last few MPH before a complete stop should be slowed with the rear brake only.
Can you do it with the front? Of course, but it's risky for some.
Coming to a stop with the front brake involves a transfer of weight to the front wheel that, when the wheel isn't absolutely perpendicular to the ground, causes the motorcycle to tip in whatever direction the front wheel is turned.
There's no power to the rear wheel to stand the bike up, and all the weight and momentum of the bike are being loaded onto the forks, making it a pivot point.
Try standing a triangular block on its point and you'll see what this looks like.
Instead, use only the rear brake to complete your stop.
It drags the weight without shifting it as far, keeping the front end stable and balanced.
You shouldn't be putting two feet down at a stop anyway.
Your left foot should go to the ground, but your right foot should always stay on the peg/board.
At a stoplight, hold the rear brake to be more visible to vehicles behind you (keep the brake lights illuminated). It'll improve stability and your confidence coming to a stop and taking off again.
Braking At Higher Speeds
A motorcycle's front brakes are more effective than the rear brake.
The front brake exerts more stopping force and is capable of heavier use than the rear brake 99% of the time. However, the front brake, being in front of the bike's mass, has sort of a tripping effect on the bike.
Weight shifts forward, the forks compress, the load on the front tire increases, and all of that has consequences you must be familiar with and prepared to handle.
Consequences are not inherently good or bad but merely the effect of an action (i.e., cause).
In a curve, the front brake will stand the bike up under moderate to heavy use. At a stop, the front brake will tilt the motorcycle toward the sharpest angle (bars/wheel angled slightly left = bike wants to fall left).
The rear brake doesn't do that.
It doesn't stop you as effectively either, so you have to understand when to use it.
The rear brake is great for small speed adjustments and for preloading the front wheel ahead of a more aggressive maneuver.
When you load the front tire you increase its contact patch on the road, and that's important for grip.
The reason you never just grab the front brake is that it doesn't have enough grip to sustain the increased force, not yet.
Gradually squeeze the front brake to load up the front tire, then you can brake and lean much more aggressively because you've increased the size of the contact patch.
This is getting way more technical than I intended, so I'll just say it again.
Get familiar with your motorcycle's brakes and practice using them lightly, moderately, and aggressively.
The more confidently you can slow the bike down, the more confident you will be with speed.
5. Master The Friction Zone
If you aren't familiar with the term “friction zone,” it's the section of travel in the clutch from no power to the rear wheel to full power to the rear wheel, and it's something you should be intimately familiar with on any bike before you hit the streets.
While younger generations of motorists have little experience with manual transmissions, the rest of us remember something about not burning out the clutch in a car or truck.
You don't ride the clutch in a car, lest you're just itching to replace the clutch, but you do ride the clutch on a motorcycle.
Motorcycles have wet clutches, which means they are coated in oil just like the crankshaft, lifters, and valve springs in an engine.
A car's clutch works more like the brakes on a bike and likewise is susceptible to failure from excessive heat and even glazing. You don't ride the clutch there just like you don't ride the brakes in any vehicle.
But a motorcycle clutch is well lubricated and can not only tolerate being ridden but is actually part of the design that makes motorcycles work.
When I get on a motorcycle for the first time, the first thing I do is make sure I know where all the controls are, like the turn signals, high-low beam selector, horn, run switch, start button, speedometer, and tachometer.
The second thing I do is start the engine and rock the motorcycle back and forth.
I put it in gear and slowly release the clutch until the bike starts to move, then pull the clutch back in. I repeat this several times until I'm comfortable with where the friction zone begins.
It takes just seconds and will teach me what I need to know to safely and effectively manage the motorcycle's power.
New bike, old bike, well maintained, or in disrepair, it doesn't matter.
I'll also usually accelerate until the clutch is fully released on my first take-off, then test the brakes by coming to a stop again, just so I know them too.
Only then do I ride onto a public street.
It's a matter of safety — mine and other motorists' — and responsibility. I'm confident that I can ride any bike out there, but I don't let that turn into arrogance.
The friction zone is important, especially at lower speeds, because it is the only means of controlling power to the rear wheel.
Hitting the kill switch doesn't actually control anything; it shuts it down and leaves you with hundreds of pounds of rolling metal and plastic to deal with.
Applying brake offers some control if done right, but is more like the police showing up at a crime scene — the thing has already happened.
Emergency braking scenarios aside, mastery of the friction zone — and by direct correlation, good throttle control — is the single most important skill a motorcycle rider can have.
The More You Know
Riding a motorcycle isn't all that difficult with a little planning, preparation, and knowledge of the controls.
The more you ride, the more confidence you'll have in your own ability to control the motorcycle.
Arrogance (i.e., cockiness) is definitely a risk, so you must remain mindful of the pitfalls of taking the machine for granted, but confidence is definitely your friend on two wheels.
I have a riding buddy who is a very new rider. He has less than 3,000 miles on two wheels. His first bike is a 2015 H-D Electra Glide Ultra Limited — a “full dresser” — and that's a good bike selection with his height of about 6'4″.
It's a massive motorcycle, though.
A few weeks ago, he and his girlfriend (she rides her own) were riding with me on FM 2088 in east Texas. Several miles before 2088 arrives at 271, the road gets pretty fun and curvy.
Well, he misjudged his entry speed in one of the corners and panicked. He flopped his whole foot down on the rear brake and locked up the back wheel.
The road was curving left and yet, with that wheel locked up, he was going straight. He managed to free it up and regain control a few inches from the edge of the road (six-inch shoulders before ditches and fields).
No harm, no foul, right? Wrong.
He and the motorcycle were physically fine and able to continue, but for the remaining 150 miles of our ride, he was only occasionally visible in my mirrors (I was leading).
It shattered his confidence and made him skittish about every inch of every road after that.
It happens more often than people admit.
Mentally speaking, some riders handle it better than others, but we all go through it.
We all get shaken.
Confidence is the first casualty of something like that and without confidence, riding can be scary as hell.
The next day, without much of a plan for the ride, we three crossed paths with another couple and two other riders in town and hooked up with them for lunch in Ben Wheeler, TX.
The other riders led and they like faster speeds down straight and open roads, as opposed to the winding country roads I enjoy so much.
There were curves but the kind that you can take at 20 MPH over the speed limit without straining the motorcycle.
That ended up being an unexpected blessing for my friend because it let him build his confidence back up.
Look for those opportunities after a close call as immediately as possible. With time, you'll be able to experience what he did and face subsequent miles without issue, but you need experience.
When Motorcycling Goes Very Wrong
About 18 months ago, that same friend's girlfriend and I had an experience that affected us in very different ways. He's a new addition, obviously, but I've been riding with her for a couple of years now. I'll call her J.
We lost a friend on a ride.
Just a few miles into it, a very experienced and confident rider was pushed off the road by inexcusably wide and deep cracks in the road. He was thrown through the fairing of his Harley-Davidson Street Glide CVO and died.
We still had to ride home after all the cops, medics, and Justice of the Peace arrived.
Another good friend — I'll call him M — was leading that day. He suggested that we take the longer route home since the way we came was blocked by emergency vehicles.
That was important because it gave us those extra miles to exist on our motorcycles with the shock. There were six of us left to ride home that day, and we all continued riding motorcycles.
When I say inexcusable, I mean TxDOT went out the next day to grind and fill those gaps. Impressive speed for such a sluggish state organization.
Seeing something like that, being a part of it, screws with your confidence.
J, M, and I leaned on each other in the coming days as we grieved, and I forced myself to travel on two wheels only for weeks. No truck.
J lost her nerve for a while. I thought she'd never ride again, or might not.
It wasn't M's first time but too many times, so he considered selling his bike.
I knew it'd be hard to get over what happened, and really I couldn't get it out of my head for a year, at least, but I kept riding.
The friend who died was so confident that he dismissed the risks of riding the right edge of the road, practically on the white line. He did that all the time.
And it was fine until it wasn't.
Arrogance is a killer, man.
His death taught me to always keep my shit in line. Never get so comfortable on a motorcycle that you lose focus.
Something may be stupid-easy but the reaper is always looking for a chance to snatch your ass off that bike for good, so stay engaged.
Golden Rule Of Riding a Motorcycle
No matter your skill, experience, or the motorcycle you're riding, the most important rule is to always ride within your skill level.
Your skill will increase with time and miles, and it can always be exceeded, so know what you're capable of, and what you're comfortable with, and stay within your limits.
Safe riding, everyone, and thanks for reading.