Learning to ride a motorcycle is one of the best decisions I ever made. It allows me to get outdoors, explore more, meet great people, and even become more confident in myself and my own abilities. Riding can be a challenging experience when you first start out, but the rewards will always outweigh the negatives. The best part about riding for me is that you never stop learning for there are always more corners to conquer, other bikes with their own personalities to ride, and the limitless number of activities available.
This post will be dedicated to those of you who have decided to learn how to ride. I will be covering a few activities that are crucial to developing your skills as a new rider and to give you insight into the types of lessons you will have if you so choose to sign up for a beginner's course with a riding school. These courses generally lower your insurance when you obtain your first bike so it's probably a good idea to go check them out!
Alright, let's get started!
1) Finding the Friction Zone
After you have learned how to successfully start and turn off the bike, this will generally be the next lesson at a riding school. Here, you will be seated on your bike, you will turn it on, find first gear, and you will learn how to find the sweet spot with the clutch to make the bike move forward. At no point in this exercise is the use of the throttle actually needed. This exercise only involves the clutch and the brakes.
The clutch controls how much of the engine power is transferred to the drive system. When the clutch is fully engaged, meaning the lever is all the way out, the power is being fully transferred to the rear wheel. When the clutch is in, no power is being transferred and you will not go anywhere. If you release the clutch too quickly, you will jerk forward and stall. Therefore, it is imperative that you learn how to operate the clutch in a smooth and progressive manner.
In this situation, I think it is helpful to visualize a backyard hose. When you are not squeezing the hose lever in, no water will come out. If you squeeze the hose lever too quickly, water will gush out and you will blast everyone around you. If you gradually squeeze it, you can moderate the amount of water coming out and maintain control over the amount and pressure.
When you gradually release the lever, you are beginning to engage the clutch. As you slowly release, you will start to feel a "pull" in the bike from the power being transferred to the rear wheel. This is the friction zone. Release it a tad more and the bike will slowly move forward. Move forward a couple feet and smoothly pull in both the clutch and brake lever.
An important reminder: To come to a stop, all you need to do is pull in the clutch. It is not necessary to grab the brake if you panic as the clutch will stop the bike all on its own. There is also a potential to accidentally jostle the throttle if you frantically search for the front brake and this can cause you to lose control. I once had someone crash into me because they popped the clutch and grabbed the throttle instead. If you think you are starting to lose control of the bike, simply pull the clutch in.
Slowly engaging the clutch, and then pulling in the lever to disengage.
2) Slow Speed Maneuvering
After you feel comfortable finding the friction zone, it is time to begin learning how to ride while using it. This lesson involves you moving at a walking pace speed. The goal is to be able to remain upright and moving forward while travelling as slowly as possible. Why? It's for when you are stuck in heavy traffic moving at snail's pace and on and off the clutch constantly.
The goals here are: move slowly, do not stall the bike, do not constantly place your feet on the ground and waddle forward- you need to learn how to balance!
I'll give you an example for why this is so important. The first bikes I rode had kickstarts. This meant that if I stalled the bike, I would have to put the bike back into neutral, lean the bike back onto its kickstand, kickstart it (old bikes sometimes take a couple attempts), put the kickstand back up, put the bike into first gear, and move off all before traffic had started moving again. You probably won't have this issue, because most bikes now have a push start. However, it can still be pretty embarrassing if you stall your bike in front of a bunch of people.
Anyway, practice riding slowly. Do some straight lines and some figure 8s and practice getting comfortable while imagining you have a giant SUV right on your tail the entire time. Kay cool, onto the next lesson.
3) Left & Right L-Turns
You got a handle on the slow speed, so let's push that one step further. Left and right L-turns are very tight 90 degree angles which you can easily set up with some traffic cones. Here, you need to be at a stop a few feet behind the turn, enter the turn, and maintain your balance while properly using your clutch control skills. Generally, people are better at either right or left turns so figure out which one makes you put your foot down more often and tackle that one! I would say the most important tip for this one is LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO. Do not look down at the cones or where your tires are. Instead, keep your head up and focus on something in the distance in the direction you want to go.
By this point, you will be sick and tired of first gear so let's speed things up! This lesson is pretty simple and becomes an automatic response very quickly. All you have to do is move off, smoothly speed up in first gear, pull the clutch in, shift up once, and immediately release the clutch. Make sure that you use your foot to firmly shift up, as a half attempt at shifting may cause you to slide back into neutral which is in between first and second. If this happens, don't panic, just shift up again. Speed up a bit more in second if you want and then roll off the throttle.
To downshift, keep off the throttle, pull the clutch in, firmly push down on the shifter and you will click into first. SLOWLY release the clutch to coast in first gear OR, pull the clutch and brake in at the same time to come to a stop.
5) Emergency Braking
If you are at a riding school, they will have a lesson dedicated to emergency braking. You will be instructed to speed up to second gear and to ride towards an instructor. As you get closer, the instructor will suddenly motion for you to stop. Your goal is to safely stop as quickly as possible. If you are not a riding school, do NOT ask a friend to do this for you. Motorcycle instructors have lots of training under their belt and know how to properly assess these situations.
If you are alone, simply practice in an empty parking lot and use a traffic cone as a marker for braking. Speed up to your cone, and once you pass it, smoothly but firmly use both brakes. Generally, you will want to use the front brake more than the back brake with a ratio of 70/30. Pull you clutch in while you brake and quickly tap down on the shifter as you come to a stop. This will put you back into first and will allow you to move off quickly again if need be. In the real world, you will want to check behind you to make sure that the cars behind you are able to stop too. Get into the habit of performing shoulder checks when you are practicing as well.
When you feel comfortable with this exercise, try practicing this in the rain!
6) Push Steering
This lesson is a lot of fun! Similar to emergency braking, a riding school instructor will stand in the distance and as you get closer, will motion for you to swerve to the left or right.
I discussed this in a previous motorcycle post as well (click here). But my simple explanation is as follows: Push steering is when you push on the handlebar on the direction you want to go. So, if you wanted to go left, you would push on the left handle. If you wanted to go right, you would push on the right handle. This may sound counterintuitive, but push steering momentarily destabilizes the vehicle which allows you to lean the bike in the direction you want to go. When you begin to lean, the front tire is pointed in the opposite direction of the turn. As you lean the tire then corrects itself and points in the direction you want to go, thus controlling the rest of the maneuver. This may sound confusing, but if you know how to ride a bicycle then you already unconsciously perform counter steering.
If you are on your own, create a box with your traffic cones and then create two lanes on the right and left sides of the box. The box will act as an imaginary hazard and the two lanes are the paths you must take to swerve around the hazard.
7) Stopping In A Curve
This lesson will most likely be included in your test at the end of your beginner's course. You will have to essentially move off from a stop, enter a curve, shift into second in the middle of the curve and then come to a full stop in a box. It's pretty easy to set up your own curve in a parking lot. You can also ask a friend to stand a little ways away and time your speed. Don't forget to shoulder check once you come to a stop in the box or else you may lose points during your test!
8) Traffic Behaviour
All of the previous lessons will teach you crucial skills for your riding adventures. But before you enter the real world, you need to learn how to be defensive against the number one hazard around you. Other drivers. Most people do not understand the mechanics of riding. This is similar to if you drive a manual car and you have someone pull right up behind you on a hill. They're not thinking that you're worried about rolling backwards. Same situation here. They often don't think about motorcycles and so they don't look for you. So an extremely important lesson here is to try to be seen and to respond to traffic situations in ways that other car drivers can understand. If you have to brake quickly, do not assume that other car drivers behind you can stop as quickly. If you are changing lanes, double check that drivers around you have acknowledged that you want to move over. If you come to a stop sign, most people won't know that you can come to a full stop while remaining upright and then immediately move off again.
Overall, keep these points in mind and try practicing different turns and traffic behaviour situations in a parking lot. Get a group of new riders together and try riding around in a miniature set up with your traffic cones. At first, you may be surprised how many mistakes are made but this is okay, just have fun with it!
I hope you found this information helpful, and I wish you lots of luck in successfully completing your first motorcycle test! What did you think of my list? For current riders, did I miss anything? For the beginners, which lesson are you most excited to try? Let me know in the comments!