Motorcycles are FUN! That is the number one reason why most people ride. They look cool, they sound great, and they are an awesome way to meet people with the same interests. I think one of the most attractive features of riding is the feeling of independence one feels when on the open road. It doesn't matter whether you are riding a cruiser, the latest Italian super-bike, or maybe a vintage cafe-racer. They all give you that feeling of exhilarating freedom and presence of mind that only riders understand. There is nothing quite like cracking the throttle open on a long stretch of highway as you feel the vibrations of the engine and the wind rushing past... it's a fantastic feeling!
There are three steps to learning to ride a motorcycle:
- Step 1: Choosing the right motorcycle for you
- Step 2: Getting some riding gear
- Step 3: Learning how to ride
Lets start with the Engine: 250cc, 600cc, V-twin, Inline-four... what does it all mean?!
There are two main things to consider when picking your first motorcycle. Believe it or not, neither of these is how the bike looks! The two things you want to pay attention to are CCs and engine configuration.
You are about to read a bunch of stuff that may seem technical, but it is relatively easy to understand once you are familiar with a couple terms. More than anything the choice of engine size will be a HUGE factor in determining how easy or difficult your riding career is. The right choice will also make you less likely to crash, become faster in the corners, and be more confident while riding. (HINT: The right choice isn't the biggest engine!)
Here is a quick breakdown of two key terms:
- CCs - This stands for cubic centimeters, a measurement of volume referring to the size of the engine displacement in a motor. What does that mean exactly? Generally speaking, the bigger the engine, the more CCs it has. That means that a 600cc Honda F4i is going to have a lot more power than a 250cc Kawasaki Ninja 250.
- Engine Configuration: Cubic Centimeters (CCs) aren't the sole determining factor of the power of a motorcycle. The other vital piece is what type of configuration the engine takes, or in other words, how the major components of the engine fit together. Inline-four and Twins are two of the most common configurations:
Now that you know how to judge an engine's size, lets take a look at engine configuration, starting with the most common engine types.
Inline Four Engine (I-4, or Inline-4)
This means the bike has four cylinders that all line up with each other. Here are three ways to tell if a bike has an Inline-four Engine:
- How it looks: See how many pipes are coming out of the engine. Typically you will see four exhaust pipes near the front of the engine right behind the front wheel. These pipes usually go into one or two exhausts that point to the rear of the bike. See that, and you've just seen an Inline-4 engine!
- The sound: Inline-four engines have a very specific sound, a little bit higher pitched with a faster idle than a twin engine. If you have ever heard a Japanese sports bike, then chances are you have heard an inline-four engine.
- Internet: When in doubt, just look up the bike on the internet! There are all types of engines out there, so sometimes the best way to figure out which configuration a bike has is to ask your best friend 'Google'.
Twin engines only have two cylinders that generate all the power. There are many types of twin engines depending on how the two cylinders are lined up. You might have heard of a V-twin engine. It gets its name from the V-formation created by the cylinders. There are also parallel-twins, opposing-twins, and a few other configurations that are less common.
- How it looks: The most important thing to look for is how many exhaust pipes are coming out of the engine. Usually you see two pipes that go from the engine into a single muffler. Sometimes each of the pipes goes to its own muffler.
- The Sound: The easiest way to tell if a bike has a twin engine is by the sound. Twin engines tend to have a deeper sound with a slower idle than inline-fours, kind of a 'blub blub blub' sound. They vibrate more when you ride them, and most twins are much easier to handle since they deliver power in a more predictable way.
What type of bike should I get?
If you are new to riding motorcycles on the street, I would generally stick to these two rules depending on the type of engine in the motorcycle:
Rule 1: If you choose a bike with an inline-four engine, then stick to something 500cc’s or less.
Rule 2: If you are choosing a bike with a twin engine, stick to 650cc’s or less.
Why these rules? It's pretty simple really, and it all comes down to how these two different engines deliver power. Generally speaking, an Inline-four engine will start off kind of slow, but once you hit a certain RPM range, the amount of power they generate increases DRAMATICALLY! This can be very hard for a new rider to manage. It would be like if you were driving a regular car like a Honda Accord down the street, and as you start to accelerate, it turns into a Lamborghini! Suddenly when you were planning on only going 30 or 40 miles an hour you are now doing triple digits without even meaning to. This isn't TOO much of a problem if you are on a freeway in the middle of nowhere, but chances are it would happen during your typical commute or wherever you do the most riding. You don't want a sudden rush of power when you are driving through a school zone.
This issue of unexpected power with an Inline-four is compounded by the fact that a motorcycle’s throttle is located on the handlebars. This means the thing you are gripping that steers the motorcycle is the same thing that controls how fast it is going. If you get bumped somehow and have to adjust in your seat or you tweak the handlebars in an unexpected way, you may also unintentionally give the bike a little more gas. Combine an unstable steering situation with a surge of unexpected power, and you have a recipe for an accident.
Twin engines, on the other hand, deliver power in a very predictable way, and because of this they are much easier for new riders to manage. They might have a lot of lower-end torque (meaning they have more power at low speeds), but that power stays the same no matter how fast you go. Compare that with an inline-four that is pretty weak at low speeds and suddenly doubles or triples in power output the faster the engine works! This is why I recommend a lower engine displacement (500cc’s or less) with an Inline-four than with a twin engine.
What are some good bikes for me to start with?
- Kawasaki Ninja 250 and the Ninja 500: Both of these Ninjas make great first motorcycles. The Ninja 250 has been upgraded a lot over the past few years to improve reliability, and also to make it LOOK like a full sized motorcycle. The Ninja 500 is slightly more powerful, but the design is little bit dated since it is not a bike currently offered by Kawasaki. Either one could be purchased used for just a couple thousand bucks.
- Honda CBR 250: Honda recently released the Honda CBR 250 in the U.S. to compete with the beginner motorcycle market. I have to admit it is a great looking motorcycle no matter how you slice it, plus the 250cc engine is very manageable. You can't go wrong buying this bike.
- Honda Rebel 250 - If cruising is more your style, then you might want to consider the Rebel. I rode a Honda Rebel during my Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course to get my motorcycle endorsement. It's a really fun bike with a low seat height, really ideal for those shorter riders. Nothing gives confidence like being able to flat-foot the pavement when you pull to a stop.
- Suzuki Boulevard s40 - This bike comes with a 650 single cylinder engine. It's a lot like a V-twin but instead of two cylinders it only has one. Definitely a really cool classic cruiser style with an awesome sound on this bike. Keep in mind this is a 'full size' motorcycle so it might be a little hard to handle at low speeds due to the sheer weight of it.
- Suzuki SV 650 or Suzuki V-strom 650: Two classic beginner motorcycles are the SV650 and the V-strom (also affectionately nicknamed the 'wee-strom'). Both bikes are powered by a V-twin engine and both are very beginner rider friendly. They make good first bikes for heavier or taller riders, or maybe for riders that have some dirt bike experience. If you are smaller, or you are a little nervous about motorcycles, I would probably avoid these two in favor of one of the 250cc offerings from Kawasaki or Honda.
Save your skin!
One thing that a lot of new riders do not realize is what you should be wearing when you commute on two wheels. There is a reason that motorcycle racers and even old Harley riders dress up in leather jackets, protective pants, boots, gloves and helmets: Motorcycles are DANGEROUS!
We have a saying in the motorcycle community: “There are two types of riders: those who have crashed, and those who haven't crashed yet.”
Everyone crashes. It's really only a matter of time. Some people get away with low speed accidents that don't do much damage. Other people are thrown into guard rails that can slice off limbs. The fact is, riding a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than riding in a car. With a car you have a whole cage of steel surrounding you and protecting you, as well as air bags and a crumple zone that help you survive an accident. On a motorcycle the only protection you have is what you wear on your body. Motorcycle gear won't protect you from all of the dangers out there, but it gives you a lot better odds when you get in that inevitable accident. Here is what you should be wearing:
- Helmet: For the love of God, even if there are no helmet laws in your area PLEASE wear a helmet anyway! Helmets protect the most important part of you: your brain and your face. I don't know about you, but I love being able to think and operate in society day to day. If your brain is damaged, you could be eating out of a straw for the rest of your life. Also, when it comes to helmets, you should really consider a full face helmet. Statistically you are more likely to scrape up the front of your helmet than the back during an accident. If there is no helmet between you and the pavement when that happens then you can kiss your face goodbye.
- Gloves: It's natural that if you fall, you try to catch yourself with your hands. You are going to do the same thing if you have a motorcycle accident. It's all human instinct. That being the case, doesn't it make sense to protect your hands? Don't just use some old gardening gloves. Go get yourself some real motorcycle gloves, preferably full gauntlet (meaning they cover your wrist too). In all of the motorcycle accidents that I've been in, I have always walked away with torn up gloves with un-harmed hands underneath. Let the leather gloves get ripped by the pavement instead of your soft human skin.
- Jacket: I could just say you should wear this piece of gear because it's cool. Motorcycle jackets are the epitome of badass style. The Terminator wears one, real motorcycle racers wear them, and even the Fonz wears one! How can you go wrong?
If looking awesome isn't justification enough, you should consider that it's always nice to protect your body from the pavement as it travels by at 50mph. When you end up crashing (and you will), chances are you will be sliding or rolling on pavement, so you will want your arms, back, and chest protected. I've literally seen pictures of girls who had nipples torn off in motorcycle accidents because they weren't wearing a jacket of any kind. I know wearing a jacket when it is already hot out can be uncomfortable, but I would rather sweat a little than bleed a lot.
There are a lot of different types of jackets out there: Leather, textile, mesh, combination... As long as it is a REAL motorcycle jacket then you won't go wrong. Beware of 'fake' jackets that might be made out of real leather, but the leather is much thinner than what you find on a real motorcycle jacket. Look for something that has leather around 1.2-1.4mm thick. When it comes to textile or mesh, just about anything from any of the major brands like Alpinestars, joe rocket, icon, shift racing, teknic, etc... will do just fine.
- Boots: Tennis shoes are not going to cut it folks. You need some over the ankle protection like motorcycle boots or some sturdy work boots. There are some motorcycle gear manufacturers that are making shoes specifically for riding, and those shoes usually have lots of added protection and cover your ankle. If you value your toes and your feet then make sure to protect them as well!
- Pants: This is the most controversial piece of equipment out there. Most riders I know do NOT wear motorcycle specific riding pants. I understand why; it really is a pain in the ass to wear leather/textile riding pants or to slip on a pair of motorcycle over-pants on top of what you are already wearing. Jeans simply won't cut it in this department. They tear easily and really offer no more protection than a typical t-shirt.
You should think about what is going to be hitting the ground in a motorcycle accident. If you are like most people, then you might be sliding on your ass or your knees long enough to rip off more than a few layers of skin. If you are unlucky you might start grinding off bone before you slow to a stop. Either way your lower body is going to get wrecked if you crash, so it's best to protect it as much as you would any other extremity.
Learning HOW to ride
Ok so you now know which motorcycle is good for new riders and what gear you should wear. The next thing is where to learn how to ride. For me, there is really only one option: Motorcycle Safety Foundation new riders’ course.
Also known as the MSF course, it includes classroom portions and a field portion. It will take someone who has never set foot on a motorcycle and give them the knowledge and experience they need to pass the license exam and enjoy a long and safe riding career. They go over panic breaking, slow speed maneuvers, clutch manipulation, obstacle avoidance, throttle control, and a lot of mistakes that new riders tend to make. My favorite thing about it is they usually have a motorcycle there that you can ride. When I took my MSF course, I rode my GS500 to the class, and during the riding portion of the instruction, they let me ride a Rebel 250. It was great, and it was really cool getting to compare different motorcycles!
Toward the end of the second day, you have to pass a riding exam and an obstacle course that tests all of the skills you have learned. In some states passing the MSF exam allows you to waive the DMV riding test, so you only have to take a written test at the DMV. This is why a lot of riders in California sign up for MSF, and I highly recommend it to any new riders who have the opportunity to take it.
Who should NOT teach you?
Friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, or basically anyone other than a certified motorcycle riding instructor. To put it bluntly, most people are not the greatest riders out there. Even good riders who have been riding for a long time often have the tendency to become a bit lax, and many do not remember how difficult riding a motorbike can be for the first time. People who have friends and family teach them how to ride motorcycles are statistically MORE LIKELY to suffer a motorcycle accident:
"The motorcycle riders involved in accidents are essentially without training; 92% were self-taught or learned from family or friends. Motorcycle rider training experience reduces accident involvement and is related to reduced injuries in the event of accidents." - Section 12.1 of the Hurt Report
Where to go from here?
After reading this article, you should have a strong basic understanding of what to look for when buying your first motorcycle, the type of protective gear you should use, and how to learn to ride and obtain your license. This article is a good primer, but it should be one of many you should read. The best thing you can do is research on your own as much as possible before slinging a leg over a bike for the first time. You might find some things in this article that you disagree with, or you might find a motorcycle that fits you perfectly that I didn't mention. The point is you shouldn't take my word, or the word of your friends and family as gospel. Do your own research, make your own opinions and above all else, ride safe!