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The best way to learn how to ride a motorcycle is to have someone who knows how to show you... and a motorcycle instructor is the best person for that job. So go to a riding school and learn from a professional.
A motorcycle, or motorbike, is essentially an engine with two wheels attached to it, a seat, fuel tank, and handlebars. Because there isn't a lot of extraneous material, motorcycles generally have a very high power to weight ratio when compared to other forms of land transport, and this means that even a cheap motorcycle will out-accelerate most cars.
The basic elements of riding a motorbike are quite simple to grasp. The trick is putting the elements together in a co-ordinated fashion, while staying upright, and most importantly being aware of your surroundings. Riding a motorbike is not like driving a car. And, as any motorcyclist will tell you, the first thing anyone who doesn't ride one says, upon discovering that you are a rider, is something along the lines of 'It's so dangerous'; and then they will proceed to describe, in graphic detail, a motorcycle horror story. Be prepared for this, and learn to ignore it. Do not, however, ignore the grain of truth: motorcycling is not as safe as being cocooned in a car and motorcyclists who aren't alert may not get a chance to repeat a mistake. If you already drive a car, then you will have developed some road sense, but probably not much. If you don't drive a car, then the first few steps are especially important for you.
Road sense is the ability to judge distances and speed, to understand your surroundings and position yourself on the road. On a motorcycle, positioning can mean the difference between seeing a potential hazard and becoming a part of it.
If the rule is to drive on the left-hand side of the road, the best position to ride in is the clear patch to the left of the centre line (the right tyre track, in other words). This will give you a buffer zone from the edge of the road, and keep you off the oil slick in the middle of the lane. You will also have a good view of side streets.
When riding behind a car, make sure that they can see you. Don't sit in blind spots. Use the two second rule, which is that the car in front should pass an object on the side of the road no less than two seconds before you do. This gap should be increased to four seconds in wet weather.
Be visible and assertive (as opposed to aggressive). If you stick closely to the side of the road, cars will often try to push past you, especially if you are riding a bit cautiously, as you tend to do when you're learning.
Learn to anticipate. Watch what drivers are doing. Is that on-coming Volvo driver looking at an upcoming street and are they about to turn directly across your path to get to it?
Helmet - In most places riding a motorcycle without a helmet is illegal. A motorcycle helmet should fit your head well. Ask the salesman for advice, because most people have heads that seems to fit best in one or another particular brand of helmet. Try a few on before you buy.
Gloves and Boots - Whatever you do, don't go riding in sneakers, thongs, or bare feet. Buy a pair of boots that'll give you good ankle protection, and get a pair of leather gloves. The trick with gloves is not to buy a pair that fit snugly on your fingers; they should be a bit longer than your digits. When you are on the bike, and opening the throttle, you will see why.
Leather Jacket - The leather jacket is the symbol that you are a real bikie, or biker. These days, there are synthetic jackets that offer good protection from the weather and the road; but who can deny that certain something, that dangerous edge, a leather jacket imparts on even the most harmless individual?
You can also purchase full leather suits, separate leather pants, or chaps; but at the very minimum, you should always wear a helmet, gloves, boots, a jacket, and jeans or pants made of natural fibres1.
Ready to Rumble
OK, you're dressed to the nines in your smart new motorcycling gear, and parked in front of you is your new machine. If it's your first bike, it's a good idea to buy one you don't mind dropping on its side.
Visually inspect the bike. Are the tyres inflated, is the chain at the right tension, is there anything hanging off it that shouldn't be? You should have had a good read of the owner's manual by now, so make sure that the bike is ready to go. Make sure there is sufficient fuel, and oil, and that the lights work.
Sit on the bike, raise the side stand, and start the engine. It is a good practice to leave the bike in gear when parking it; so make sure it is in neutral. Develop a routine - side stand up, clutch in, gear neutral, engine on.
Let the bike warm up, and check that the strap on your helmet is done up. Are the mirrors positioned so that you can see behind you?
There are four levers and one throttle to be manipulated. Usually, the clutch is on the left handlebar and the front brake lever is on the right handlebar. The gear lever is often on the left side of the bike, in front of your left foot; and the rear brake lever is on the other side. The gear lever should fit above the top of your foot, with your arches on the foot pedals, and you should be able to click the gear lever up or down easily. You should also be able to easily compress the rear brake lever with your other foot with minimal movement.
A word of caution - don't try clicking the gear lever and depressing the rear brake lever at the same time when you're not moving! The throttle is on the right hand side, and needs to be twisted towards you to accelerate.
There is one thing you must learn to do: Turn Your Head. When pulling out onto a road, or changing lanes, turn your head and glance beside and behind you. Motorbikes have a huge blind spot, and this is a life-saving habit to develop. That said, let's get moving.
With the engine running and the bike in neutral, pull in the clutch with your left hand. Click the gear lever into first gear (whether you have to click up or down will depend on your bike). As you release the clutch (slowly at first, speed will come later), wind the throttle towards you gently - not much! - just enough to keep the bike from stalling. As the gear catches, the engine revolutions will drop, and you will need to wind the throttle on a bit more. Now you are moving... if you haven't stalled.
Pull the clutch in, at the same time pushing the throttle forwards (really it's letting it spring back to zero throttle, but don't let go of it); and, with the fingers of your right hand, pull in the front brake and stop. Practice starting, moving off, and stopping. Remember to keep the clutch in when the bike is in gear and you want to stop. When moving, grip the fuel tank with your knees and keep your upper body relaxed, so it can move with the bike.
Once you feel confident, you can increase your speed and use more gears. Keep your head up, be aware of your surroundings, and don't look at your hands to see what they are up to. When slowing down, 'blip' the throttle when the clutch is pulled in and as you change down a gear; this will help the gears mesh, and it sounds good too (listen to bikes changing down gears and you will hear that blipping sound).
When braking, apply more pressure to the front brake than the rear. The rear brake is really only to keep the bike steady, and to assist the main braking of the front. In wet weather, you usually need to apply a more balanced front and rear brake combination.
Cornering is one of the main joys of motorcycling; a good corner is great fun. Try it and you'll see what I mean.
When approaching a corner, make sure that you are in a gear that will give you enough acceleration out of it. Slow down, keep your head up, and look through the apex. Don't be afraid to lean when cornering - go with the bike, keep your head vertical, but don't try to sit up when the bike is leaning over... unless you want to pick it up and change direction. That could be a foolish thing to do mid-corner, unless you are avoiding an obstacle. Point your chin and inside shoulder where you want to go and keep your arms relaxed, forearms parallel to the ground.
Position yourself so that you won't run wide, or cut the corner. It is strongly recommended that you study cornering, either through a motorcycle training centre, on the Internet or even by buying videos. Cornering is something of an art, and it is important not to get into bad habits, such as looking down at the road directly in front of you, a common error.
The principle of steering a bike through a corner is known as counter steering. Essentially, it means that when you are turning right, you push the handlebars as if you were trying to go to the left, and vice versa. Sounds odd, but it is very important to do. As you go through the corner, accelerate out of it.
Sliding the tyres is something to learn from an expert; but don't worry if the back tyre slides a little, just apply constant acceleration out of the corner and look to where you want to go, remembering to counter steer.
There are some fundamental rules to braking. The first, as described above, is to brake mainly with the front brake. The second is to use only the back brake when you are moving and manoeuvring slowly, say at walking speed. If you use the front brake, and the front wheel is not straight, you will topple over. A slow speed crash is particularly embarrassing.
Braking in corners can be quite important. Applying the front brake will cause the bike to sit up, and applying the rear brake will bring the bike down into the corner; some riders use the rear brake (gently) through tight, fast, corners religiously.
If either wheel locks up because you have applied rapid, hard pressure to the lever, just release the lever slightly and the wheel will catch again.
Practice stopping quickly, by placing a marker on a nice quiet bit of road. Ride towards it (not directly at it) and, as you pass it, brake hard. See if you can shorten your braking distance.
If you suddenly see something on the road, you need to be able to avoid it. If you can, counter steer quickly around the object, then back into your original path; it's kind of like a controlled 'wiggle', for want of a better explanation. Essentially, you push the handlebars one way, letting the bike move around it; and then you push the handlebars the other way, as if you are making a very fast s-bend turn. You need to use your whole body for this, your legs, torso and arms.
If you can't avoid the object, but if you can ride over it... do so! Maybe even accelerating to try and get the weight off the front wheel.
Motorcycling is a broad culture in its own right, with sub-cultures that range from the stereotypical hog riding Hell's Angels to the corporate BMW riders or café racers.
Get into it. Learn about bikes and engines, watch the world motorcycle grand prix, read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig and Australian Motorcycle News, particularly for the cartoon character Fred Gassit. Maintain your own bike, or at least make sure the chain is greased and the tyres are at the right pressure. Discover your favourite corners, then discover them with a group of fellow riders. Ride between cities, over mountains, and on a racetrack. Wave or nod at other riders as you pass... and keep your shiny side up.