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5 Tips for New Riders

Maybe you’ve got decades-old experience from your youth, and maybe you don’t, but you’ve got a bike now. Many aspects of can only be learned through experience which leaves 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.

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 a Honda CBR1000RR or Yamaha R1, the human body can only take so much saddle time before it gets sore.

Choose Your Bike 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 excel on cross-country treks.

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 feel very good 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 to stretch. 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 fuel tanks on those bikes run 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 about all most get 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 it much more if you pace yourself.

Learn To Be Your Bike’s Best Mechanic

I realize this simply isn’t possible for some people. Not everyone is technically inclined, let alone skilled or experienced. Motorcycles are not cheap nor are they maintenance-free vehicles, 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 and have been tinkering with things since I was a little kid. At 8 years old I took apart an old Zenith console TV 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 that once secured brought the wonderful old beast back to life. How the hell I managed that, I don’t know. Stuff like that just comes 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 learned a ton about my bikes.

There is no substitute for the knowledge you gain about how a bike’s parts work from taking things apart and putting them back together. Do I have to pull up YouTube 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, and I already know how to fork money over. Something to consider.

Counter-Steering IS Motorcycling

I’m going to try not to be too technical here since that’s not what this post is about. 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. Under about 20 MPH you’re mostly handlebar steering, meaning you turn the bars – and the front wheel – to turn the bike. Over that speed and especially over 40 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? If you’re 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-hand grip shifts the contact patch of the tire from the center to right-of-center, which causes you to turn – or lean – right.

As I said, I’m not giving a course on counter-steering here (and for good reason looking at how rough that explanation is haha), 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 know 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.

“Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.” Jeremy Clarkson

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 affected by rider size, suspension, cargo, road conditions, and brake component conditions, among other things. So, get familiar with how your bike slows and stops and practice emergency braking with both the front and rear brakes, together and individually.

A lot of hot-heads out there will brag about never using the rear brake, but there is a reason it’s there. And physics don’t give a shit what your buddy says he does.

At Low Speeds

Keeping power to the rear wheel creates a gyroscopic effect. Go get one of these (affiliate link): https://amzn.to/3MZojtw. It’s a cheap little toy but an important lesson can be learned from it.

Grab your spinner 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. It’s how a rider can fall off a bike and the bike 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, but the rear brake drags the bike’s speed down and prohibits the power from going unchecked at the very point where it is actually used.

Supremely skilled riders don’t use the rear brake during slow-speed maneuvers; 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 on standby 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.

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, you can, 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 perfectly straight, will force the bike to want 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 is being loaded onto the forks, which is a pivot point. Try standing a triangular block on its point and you’ll see what this looks like.

Instead, use the rear brake only 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 usually always stay on the peg/board. At a stoplight, hold the rear brake to be more visible to vehicles behind you. It’ll improve stability and your coming to a stop and taking off again.

At Higher Speeds

The most effective brake on a bike is the front brake. It exerts more stopping force and is capable of heavier use than the rear brakes 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 front tire is loaded more, and all of that has consequences you must be familiar with and prepared to handle.

Consequences are not inherently good or bad but are merely the effect of an action.

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 bike 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. Which is to say, 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 needed for grip. The reason you never just grab the front brake is that it doesn’t have enough grip to sustain such force… yet. Gradually squeeze the front brake for a second 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 bike’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.

Master The Friction Zone

If you aren’t familiar with the term, the friction zone is 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 the younger generations 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 replacing the clutch is on your bucket list, 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 bike I’ve never ridden before, the first thing I do is make sure I know where all the controls are, like the signals, high-low beam selector, kill switch, start button, speedometer, and tachometer. The second thing I do is start the bike and rock it back and forth with the engine. I put it in gear and release the clutch until the bike starts to move, then pull the clutch back in and repeat 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 bike’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 get on a public street with the bike. 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.

Anyway, the friction zone is important, especially at lower speeds, because it is the only means of controlling the power to the rear wheel.

Hitting the kill switch doesn’t control anything, it just shuts it down and leaves you with hundreds of pounds of rolling metal and plastic to deal with.

Hitting the brakes 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 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 greater confidence you’ll have in your own ability to control the bike. Arrogance 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 due to him being about 6’4″ tall, that’s about right. It’s a lot of bike, though.

A few weeks ago, me, him, and his girlfriend (she rides her own) were riding on FM 2088 in east Texas, and several miles before we hit 271, the road gets pretty fun with 40-50 MPH curves. 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 bike were physically fine and able to continue, but for the remaining 150 miles of our ride that day, 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. Some people handle it better than others, mentally, 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, the same three of us and another couple ended up crossing paths with two other riders in town and hooked up with them for lunch in Ben Wheeler, TX. The other riders led and they like speeding 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 even trying.

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 the next miles of similar road without issue, but you need experience.

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, was thrown threw the fairing of his CVO, and died. I and J were in the ditch with him. We still had to ride home, and another good friend – M – who was leading that day suggested going up and around since the road was blocked going back the way we came.

When I say inexcusable, I mean TxDOT went out the next day to grind and fill those gaps.

Seeing something like that, being a part of it, screws with your confidence as well. 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 didn’t. I knew it’d be hard to get over, 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, 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 bike that you stop focusing on menial tasks. 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.

The Golden Rule Of Motorcycling

No matter your skill, experience, or the bike you’re riding, the most important rule is always to ride within your skill level. It will increase with time and miles, and it can always be exceeded, so know what you’re capable of, what you’re comfortable with, and stay within your limits.

Safe riding, everyone, and thanks for reading.

What do you think?

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Written by Tinker Moto

Tinker Moto is a motorcycle content creator and rider based in Northeast Texas. Riding motorcycles is what he loves, whether semi-locally around North and Northeast Texas, frequent trips to the mountains of Arkansas, or long multi-thousand-mile trips like for the Sturgis rally. He creates content on the web, social, and video content on YouTube.

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