Motorcycling is a great deal of fun. But it’s very important to learn how to ride defensively and respect the motorcycle and it’s power. If you start out with this attitude at the outset, you will ensure that you’re entering this high risk activity with thoughtfulness and self-preservation, and it will make the riding experience so much more enjoyable.
Perhaps you know what type of motorcycle you want, or you already own a bike, or maybe you just want some refresher information — no matter who you are or where you are in the process of riding, you can use this online guide and information as a source of information on anything from how to start riding to wearing the proper gear or to whatever.
And please know that the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) offers rider safety and education courses. The courses are covered in more depth further in this article and found as its own section on our site (you can go to our website for more info on the MSF rider courses.
Proper Riding Gear
Whether you are just learning to ride or you’re already an experienced biker, remember to always wear your safety gear. Going down on a motorcycle hurts, there’s no denying it. Have you ever fallen off a bicycle? Remember how badly your skin and hands hurt because they were scraped along the street or sidewalk? Remember how easily your knees and elbows bruised? Now magnify that based on the speed your traveling on the motorcycle. Even if you’re driving around the block in your development or driving in a parking lot, you will easily scrape yourself up worse than any bicycle fall. I’m not stating this to scare you away from riding a motorcycle, I just want to make sure you protect yourself by wearing as much safety gear as possible, including gloves, leather jacket or armored clothing, boots, goggles or sunglasses, and a helmet (which is required by law in most states) . Go to my website to view the proper gear and shopping pages. Once you have your proper riding gear, you’re ready to get on the bike.
Before you just jump in the saddle, you should do a T-CLOCS check of the bike. Let me explain —- EVERY TIME before you ride, you should make sure it’s fit to be on the road. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a checklist they call T-CLOCS:
T — Tires, wheels (air pressure)
C — Controls (clutch lever, throttle, brakes/pedals, cables, hoses)
L — Light (battery, headlights, turn signals, mirrors)
O — Oil (and other fluid levels)
C — Chassis (the frame, suspension, chain/belt, etc.)
S — Stands (kickstand and/or the center stand )
If the motorcycle checks out just fine, you’re ready to get in the saddle. Always mount the motorcycle by throwing your right leg over the seat. When getting off, always bring your right leg back over the seat. This is done for two very important reasons: 1) The kickstand is on the left side of the bike and that’s where the motorcycle weight is hanging. 2) When getting off, it is very easy to burn your leg on the exhaust pipes on the right side of the bike, and you don’t want to get your leg caught on the seat and pull the bike down on you.
So, starting at the left of the motorcycle, grab a hold of the handlebars, put the weight of your body on your left leg, and lift and throw your right leg over the seat and onto the other side of the bike. Take a seat on the motorcycle. Take your time and get accustomed to the bike. Make sure your mirrors are adjusted properly to where you’re sitting, get used to where the controls are (horn, turn signals, lights, etc.). While the kickstand is still down and holding the bike upright, put your feet on the pegs and get a feel for your leg positioning.
Now before you put that kickstand up and start riding, let’s walk through the controls…..
Let’s go over the basic controls of a motorcycle. Get familiar with the key controls like the brakes, clutch, pedal shifter, throttle, and turn signals. This will enable you to learn fairly easily and then we can work on technique. I say this because you don’t want to be looking down at your feet or your hands while riding.
Let’s start with the right side:
Your right hand is responsible for two major functions in motorcycling – accelerating and braking. If you turn the throttle by twisting the right grip toward you, you apply throttle and give it ‘gas’ to the engine. Do not overdo it here as a little twist will do the trick. If you pull back on that throttle too hard, you’ll end up on your butt before you get out of the driveway. So be gentle with this control.
The right hand also controls the front brakes, just like you would have had on your bicycle. Pulling the lever toward you applies the front brakes. You want to gently add pressure to braking as you don’t want to yank the lever too hard, forcing the front brakes to lockup, thereby causing the bike to skid, and possibly end up in an accident. Most bikes are able to come to a stop using a two-fingered technique (your index and middle finger on the brake level while the thumb is under the throttle and the other fingers are on top of the throttle). Some bikes require all fingers around the lever and the thumb under the throttle. You’ll need to assess and use whatever technique works best with your bike.
Your right foot is used to operate the rear brake, but just note that when you use the front brakes, the rear is a little less effective. See, what happens is when you break with your front brakes, the bike’s weight is transferred to the front. Rear brake application is more useful during low speed maneuvering.
Use this as an approximate guide for braking: Slow speeds up to about 10 mph, you can use your rear brake. Speeds above 10 mph, you can use your front brake lever. Now, in any case where you need to come to a quick and sudden stop — USE BOTH BRAKES!! It’s been proven that using both brakes in an ’emergency stop’ can cut the stopping distance by more than half.
Now the left side:
The clutch is the lever just forward of the left hand grip. Sportbikes typically only require only a two-fingered operation (or pull of the lever), while other bikes like the cruisers and touring motorcycles typically require your whole hand to pull the lever and engage the clutch. The clutch is used as a way to connect and disconnect the engine from the transmission. If you’ve ever ridden a stick shift in a car, you understand what I’m referring to. In essence, when you pull in the clutch lever, you’re cutting off the power to the rear wheel and bike will coast as if it’s in neutral even if you’re in a specific gear. Once you release the clutch, the engine kicks in and if you’re in gear, and will power the rear wheel.
I’d suggest you practice this part before you ride off for the first time. Practice by gradually and slowly pulling the clutch with your left hand. Don’t think of it as off or on. You need to find that spot where the engine begins to engage. Each bike is different, so you have to find that ‘sweet spot’. I’ll give you more info when we get to starting the bike and riding off.
Motorcycles shift differently than cars. The thought process is the same (Pull clutch/throttle off, shift, release clutch/accelerate), the motorcycle shifting is handled by moving the left foot lever (shifter) up or down with the left foot. The typical shift patters for motorcycles are:
— 6th gear (if applicable to your bike)
— 5th gear
— 4th gear
— 3rd gear
— 2nd gear
— 1st gear
Most motorcycles fit this pattern, which is referred to as the “1 down, 5 up” or “1 down, 4 up”. Finding neutral with your left foot will take some getting used to, but you’ll pick it up pretty quick. The gauge in front of you will have a green “N” that will indicate you are in Neutral. There have been comments and arguments from all over stating that you can shift without using the clutch and it won’t hurt anything. I agree that you CAN shift without using the clutch. My argument is that you SHOULD use the clutch when you shift. Over the long haul of your motorcycle, it will be worth it to use the clutch every time.
I mentioned it earlier with shifting, but here’s how the shift should be done: If at a complete stop, pull in the clutch with your left hand, shift down to first gear with your left foot, ease off the clutch until you feel the motorcycle moving forward and give it a little throttle. If you are already moving, pull in the clutch with your left hand and ease back on the throttle with your right hand, shift gears with your left foot, ease off of the clutch your left hand and twist the throttle to continue the acceleration. I know it sounds like a lot to remember, but when you’re moving, everything happens quickly. Some happen simultaneously. Pull clutch/throttle off, shift, release clutch/throttle on.
Starting it up
Ok, we’ve covered a lot of functionality of the motorcycle, and now we’re going to ‘fire it up’ and start the engine. Most motorcycles these days no longer need to be kick started. We all have that image of the biker jumping up and thrusting his leg down to get the bike started. Not anymore. Here are the steps to follow to start up your engine:
— If you have a choke on your bike, pull it out completely
— Turn the key to the ignition position (you’ll see all the gauges come on)
— Flip the red kill switch down to the on position
— Hold in the clutch (not necessary if you’re in Neutral, but a good habit to just ‘make sure’.)
— Push the engine start button (black button located below the red kill switch)
— Slowly release the clutch (make sure you’re in Neutral – the green N will be lit up)
If you have a carbureted bike, you may need to twist the throttle a little to get gas into the cylinders. If it’s fuel injected, there is no need to throttle.
Warming up a car engine is basically a thing of the past. But a motorcycle engine requires the rider to trust the engine will perform at its optimal level and therefore, must be warmed up before taking off and riding. Once the engine has turned over, allow it to sit idle for a minute to several minutes, and do not rev the engine during this time. Revving the engine can cause issues as the oil may not get properly distributed to the moving parts. Again, if your bike has a choke, begin pushing the choke back in until the motorcycle is idling properly and not sputtering. You’ll get used to the sound of your engine and will easily know when the engine is warmed up. You can use the temperature gauge as a general guide that your motorcycle is warmed up and only start off when you’re confident your engine won’t sputter or fail because it’s not properly warmed up.
Today, most motorcycles have an automatic shut-off if you try to put the bike into gear while the kickstand is down. So, before you attempt to switch into first gear, balance the bike while sitting on it, and use your left heel to pull the kickstand up into place. If you have a bike that has a center-stand, the process is quite different. You’ll need to stand up while straddling the bike and rock the bike forward in order to get the stand retracted.
Now let’s get riding!
Now that you’ve gone through all the preliminary steps of making sure you’re wearing the proper gear, checked the bike over to make sure no issues (T-CLOCS), are now comfortable with where the controls are, how to shift, how to brake, etc., you are now ready to ride!
Here are some of my suggestions for getting the feel and taking it slow: Practice where the clutch engages the engine – pull the clutch all the way in, and shift down into first gear. Hold it there and relax. Very smoothly and slowly, start releasing the clutch. At a point somewhere halfway between pulling it all the way in and having it all the way out, you should feel the bike start to lurch forward. This is the ‘sweet spot’ where the clutch engages the engine/transmission and the rear wheel begins to move.
Now take your time and just play with this feeling. Let the clutch out slightly until the bike moves forward, then pull it back in. Do it again. Do it again. Get comfortable with this feeling.
Ok, now that you’ve got the feel for where the clutch engages, now it’s time to move. As the motorcycle begins to move forward, twist the throttle with your right hand just slightly to give it some gas and you will start moving forward. Once you start moving, pull those feet up onto the pegs. Get comfortable moving with the bike. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to keep the bike stable once moving forward. Once you’re moving at a rate of up to about 10-12 miles per hour, you’ll hear and feel your engine race and you’ll need to pull in the clutch/close the throttle, shift upward with your left foot (pump it upward), release the clutch and twist the throttle to accelerate. It may sound like a lot to do in little time, but trust me, it’ll come naturally with practice. Do the same (Pull clutch/close throttle, shift up, release clutch/twist throttle) to pump the shifter up again to get into 3rd, etc. You also do the same to downshift the bike into a lower gear, except instead of pumping the shifter upward you are pumping it downward. To come to a very controlled and steady stop, you can downshift your way and let the engine do the slowing for you. Again, practice this and it will come naturally to you.