Passing wisdom (two cents) to new riders

Barely qualified for advice, but I'll give it anyway
Published March 19, 2009

I’ve got a great friend that’s soon taking the plunge into motorcycling and I feel a responsibility to share my wisdom–a full year of it–to prepare him for the mean streets. There are some things that everyone tells you that are totally true and I’ll reiterate some of them, but there are a lot of things that no one told me that would’ve been nice to know beforehand.

Counter-steering is for real

It’s not a myth, it’s not a theory–counter-steering is simply how you steer a motorcycle

It’s not a myth, it’s not a theory–counter-steering is simply how you steer a motorcycle. Trust your instructor when he tells you push right, lean right, go right. Truth be told, you can push or pull on the bars to initiate counter-steering and initiate lean, so the MSF verbiage can, I think, get a little confusing. The important thing to remember is that to turn to the right, you point the front wheel to the left. To turn to the left, you point the front wheel to the right. Understanding the phsyics behind it isn’t real important, but I promise that it’s legit. It’s easy to doubt, but take a leap of faith and you’ll learn real motorcycle control.

At speed, only very small inputs are required for turning

When you’re moving slowly (i.e. less than 10-20 mph), it may be necessary to turn the handlebars to full lock in order to make a turn, but that’s because you’re turning without leaning. When you get to speeds where you turn by leaning (initiated by counter-steering), you will not turn the handlebars much at all. Very slight inputs on the handlebars will give you all the lean you need to make turns.

A moving motorcycle wants to stay vertical–there’s no danger of tipping over

When I started riding, I was apprehensive about falling over when leaning into turns. But once a motorcycle is moving forward at a decent clip, there’s really no chance of it falling unless you pull something stupid. A bike in motion naturally wants to stand up and will in fact fight against you, trying to stand up while you counter-steer to tip it into turns. Think of a bike as a Weeble Wobble, and if you don’t trust me then watch this video.

If you’re going to drop the bike, it’ll be at very low speed

When you’re not used to handling the weight of a bike, low-speed maneuvering–in parking lots, garages, pulling out of driveways, coming to a stop–can be sneakily dangerous. Simple dips in the road, a change of angles from a driveway to the street, can cause the bike to shift weight unexpectedly. Be prepared. And don’t forget to put down the kickstand before dismounting. I forgot, three times.

Always park facing uphill

Motorcycles don’t have reverse gears, so if you need to go backwards you’re going to have to do it with leg power. I’ve made the mistake of parking with the bike’s nose pointed downhill, into a curb, and it is not easy to get away from the curb. When possible, always park facing uphill.

Backing into a parking spot is safer than backing out

In a typical non-parallel parking spot, you’re going to have to either back into a spot or back out of it. Backing out of a spot puts your back to possible traffic behind you, while backing into a spot puts your back to an empty parking spot. All other variables being equal, you’re generally better off backing into a parking spot to make an easier exit into traffic.

Mind the winds

On a motorcycle, wind matters

The first evening I rode the Ninja home in gusting winds was a bit of a shocker. I couldn’t believe that no one warned me about wind beforehand, and a couple of coworkers that started riding around the same time had similar sentiments. On a motorcycle, wind matters. It’ll threaten to push you around, possibly shoving you into other lanes of traffic. Generally, you can mitigate the effects of wind by keeping your arms loose, especially your elbows and grip on the bars. The wind will actually push your torso a lot more than the bike, and if your shifting torso moves your arms with it–and your arms are stiffly connected to the handlebars–you’ll impart the wind force through your body sail directly into steering inputs. Keep loose, and your torso can get battered without causing accidental steering force.

Be careful with the rear brake in the rain

If you’ve ridden a bicycle much you’ve probably learned that pulling the front brake is dangerous and could flip you over the handlebars. That is not a concern on a motorcycle–the front brake must be used as your main brake, applying roughly 70% of your braking power into the front wheel. That doesn’t mean you should neglect the rear brake, but be especially careful with the rear in the rain or in other low-traction conditions. Because weight transfer shifts forward under braking, the rear tire has less traction potential, and in the rain it is easy to exceed that potential and lock the rear tire. It’s not catastrophic, but it’s startling and could put you down if you’re not careful.

The left side of the road is most visible to other drivers

Almost exclusively, I stick to the left side of the leftmost lane in city riding. From the far left side of the road, cars pulling in from the right of the road are more likely to see you earlier–if you’re to the right, it’s easy to inadvertently hide a bike behind a car parked on the curb, or behind a road sign. As well, positioning yourself on the far left will usually make you more visible to traffic in oncoming lanes, as you don’t risk hiding behind other vehicles that are in the left lane. The nearest I’ve been to an accident happened when I was in the right lane of a six lane city avenue, and a truck in the left lane stopped to make a left turn, hiding me from the view of an oncoming SUV preparing to make a U-turn. The SUV didn’t see me and whipped in front of the stopped truck, directly into my path of travel. Had that driver made a simple left turn instead of a U-turn, I am 100% certain that I would’ve hit her, but the full U-turn gave me the precious inches to avoid the collision. I now immediately get to the far left of that road when I’m on it, which is basically every weekday morning.

On the street, nobody sees you

If you think people see you, pretend that they don’t

If you think people see you, pretend that they don’t. This is a truth I learned to respect in my years of bicycle commuting in Seattle and Sacramento. People in cars are looking for other cars, not looking for bicyclists and motorcycles. If they’re not looking for you, they won’t see you. You can take measures to make yourself as visible as possible–clever lane positioning and your clothing can help–but you should always assume that nobody sees you, even if you think they looked right at you. Do not put your faith in other people. It’s up to you to avoid getting hit.

I’m scratching only the surface here, and strongly suggest researching more riding literature before braving the streets on two wheels. The DMV motorcycle handbook is a good start. I also read the MSF text in the eager weeks before taking the course. And David L. Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling is a must-read, packed with years of true wisdom and warnings. A lot of the ideas are shared in all three texts, but the redundant reiteration can only help cement the caution to your brain. Caution is good.