It occurs to me that I've skipped one of the most basic posts I could write: how to ride a motorcycle. Now, there's any number of ways to approach this, but I got a question from a friend the other day who has never ridden but is interested. He asked me about basic controls, body position in turns, braking and other things like that. It makes sense. Someone who has never ridden, would not know these things.
When he asked me, I first pointed him to the Motorcycle Safety Foundations' Motorcycle Operator's Manual. It's a great resource, but there's also a lot of extra stuff in there too and the 60 page PDF document I sent him can seem rather daunting (it's really not, though).
So I decided it was time to write an article covering the absolute basics of how to ride a motorcycle. I should have done this a long time ago. Here we go.
I think the best place to start is with the controls on the motorcycle. Not every bike is going to be the same, but the vast majority of them will have the basic layout of the picture below.
As you can see, the clutch is the lever on the left side of the handlebars, the gearshift is the lever down by the left foot peg, the rear brake is the lever or pedal by the right foot peg, the front brake is the lever on the right side of the handlebars and the throttle is operated by twisting the throttle.
The controls will become second nature as you ride, but if you're just starting out remember left side = Gears, right side = Brakes.
When it comes to changing gears, most bikes follow a 1 down, 2,3,4,5,6 up pattern. Neutral is between 1 and 2. Most motorcycles don't have a reverse gear, and few motorcycles have automatic transmissions, so you'll need to know how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. For reference on the typical gearing layout, check out the image below.
Mounting the Bike
If you've never ridden a motorcycle, you might think the easiest thing is getting on the bike. Well, you're pretty much right, but don't get on from the right side of the bike.
Motorcycles have a kickstand on the left side of the bike. This means they lean left when parked. The left side is commonly referred to as the "low side" as opposed to the right side which is the "high side."
Mounting the bike on the high side can make it more difficult to do and can cause you to burn your leg on the exhaust that's on that side of the bike and is sticking out more than you'd expect due to the motorcycle's lean.
Mounting from the left also probably comes from horseback riding. Historically, soldiers wore swords on their left hip, which meant that it was easier to mount a horse from the left side, keeping the sword from becoming entangled in the horse riding equipment. This has since become the norm for horseback riding and then transferred to motorcycle riding.
Riding the Motorcycle
Now that I've covered the controls and mounting of a motorcycle, we'll move on to actually riding the thing. First off, after you mount the bike, you should position yourself so you're comfortable and can easily operate all the controls of the bike. Your arms and legs should be bent so you can operate foot and hand controls and so you can easily steer the bike as needed.
When it comes to handgrips, don't grab them like you're trying to squeeze the life out of them. You should grip the handgrips firmly but gently. The same goes for footrests. Keep your feet firmly planted, but don't press down too hard or you'll have a hard time operating the controls and will wear yourself out quickly.
Now we get into actually moving the bike. To move the bike you'll need to squeeze the clutch, and push the gear lever down into first gear. Once it's there, you have to ease off the clutch and slowly roll on the throttle. To accelerate smoothly and safely, you'll need to find a kind of sweet spot where the clutch engages and the throttle drives you forward. Finding the sweet spot for smooth acceleration is different for each bike. If you're unsure, slowly and evenly ease off the clutch and don't touch the throttle. Once it feels like the bike wants to move, add in a little throttle as you let out the clutch the rest of the way.
As the bike picks up speed, you'll need to upshift. When you reach a point where the bike feels like it needs to shift (this is usually about midpoint in the engine's rev range, but it really depends on the bike), roll off the throttle, then squeeze the clutch lever in all the way. With the clutch level squeezed, lift the gear shift lever with your left foot until it clicks. Once it clicks you'll be in a higher gear. You can release it and it will spring back into place. Repeat this step as needed to continue to accelerate.
To slow down, you'll need to downshift. To downshift, roll off the throttle and squeeze the clutch. Once the bike has slowed down a bit, keep squeezing the clutch and press the gear lever down until it clicks into a lower gear. Once in a lower gear, slowly release the clutch and reapply the throttle.
If you're coming up to a stoplight or stop sign, you can squeeze the clutch, and come to a stop in any gear. Once there, though, you need to select first gear again to begin accelerating. In general, if you can downshift as you come up to a stoplight, do so. That way, you'll be ready to accelerate as needed if the light changes.
These are the most basic functions you'll need to know to know to operate a motorcycle. When riding, you also need to know where to look and how to ride your bike safely. If you're just practicing the basics listed above, a closed course is preferable to the street where there is traffic and other distractions and obstacles. Find a large parking lot, or sign up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation class to learn and practice these skills.
Parking the Motorcycle
Riding the motorcycle is the most fun and difficult part, but parking is arguably as important. You need to be able to park in order to keep you and your bike safe.
When parking on the street, back the bike up perpendicular to the curb with your rear wheel touching the curb. This makes it easy to pull out when you're ready to leave and can help keep you from getting boxed in by cars. Keep in mind that some cities require bikes to park parallel to the curb, so check local parking laws.
When it comes to regular spaces and parking lots. Park as you would your car in a designated parking space. Many riders park in nonspaces closer to the door and away from cars, but this can get you a parking ticket. Always look for designated motorcycle spaces as these are always the best place to park your bike.
If you notice anything I missed or have any questions or suggestions, please shoot me a message or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.