So You Want to Ride

Story by Liz Jansen// Photos by Liz Jansen
January 1 2014

Experienced motorcyclists take riding for granted, but the thought of getting on a bike can be intimidating for someone who doesn’t know how or where to begin. Consider this a primer for how to get on two wheels.

Caught in a reflective moment, Patti Pepin breaks out into a grin and says, “I’m riding a motorcycle? This isn’t me. I don’t ride motorcycles. I take the bus.”

Even after tens of thousands of kilometres of riding around North America, she still can’t believe she did it. It was a rocky start. Yet, at age 51, without ever having driven a car, she decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. Overwhelmed and ready to call it quits when she didn’t make it through the first day of her course, her daughter convinced her to try again. The following Monday, she booked another course and August 1, 2005, became her proudest moment – the day she got her motorcycle licence.

1. Decide if it’s for you

Learning to ride a motorcycle is a serious decision. The first and most important step is to examine your reasons for wanting to learn. If it’s something you really want to do for your own sake, then by all means, do it. However, if your heart is not in it and you’re doing it to please someone else, or because all your friends are doing it, stop right there. There’s too much at stake to go against your intuition. If you’re uncertain, many riding schools offer a three- or four-hour introductory program. At a fraction of the price of a full course, it’s a good way to confirm whether you want to continue.

Two other factors to consider are budget and time. Getting started needn’t break the bank. The biggest initial expenditure will be the course. Schools supply the bikes, so all you need to bring is minimum gear, which can be rented for the course: approved helmet and rugged jacket, pants, gloves, and boots that cover your ankles. You can get started with gear for $500 to $1000. Good used gear is often available on eBay, Kijiji or Craigslist, especially for women. Beyond that, you’ll need to factor in the cost of a bike, insurance, storage and maintenance.
Once you’ve collected the gear and learned the skills, keeping yourself sharp requires saddle time. If you’re not going to have the time to devote to riding, it’s better to wait until you do.

2. Is it necessary to take a course?

Absolutely. It’s necessary from a safety perspective. Even in provinces where it’s not mandatory, take a basic rider course from an accredited school. Qualified instructors must meet training requirements and be re-certified every year. The courses are first and foremost about safety, designed to give you the fundamental skills you need to stay safe on the road. They’re created for students who have neither ridden nor learned about motorcycles, so if you’re concerned because you have no riding experience, you’re the ideal student.

Learning to ride from a riding partner or friend is ill advised. As experienced, proficient and well meaning as they may be, they’re too emotionally attached for either of you to be objective. More importantly, in most cases, they don’t have the methodology, instructional background or observation skills to transfer learning to you. Besides, the premium discount offered by some insurance companies for completing the course can come close to paying the whole fee.
J. Brandon, one of the organizers of the Carson Tahoe Adventure Moto, recalls his learning days: “Professional instruction is vital to becoming a good rider. Unfortunately, there are many people who will offer to teach you, but who may not have the skills to help you get off to the right start. It can be very difficult to tell the good teachers from those who only have good intentions.”

3. How to prepare for the course
Your best chance of success will come with an open mind, a willingness to learn and an ability to take things one step at a time. Although students arrive excited, they’re also anxious, whether they admit it or not. While some have riding experience, most are there to learn from scratch. They’re worried about whether they’ll hurt themselves – or even worse, embarrass themselves in front of everyone by asking a stupid question, not being able to coordinate the controls or not understanding the terminology.

Fear of failure can be so great that it can interfere with learning. At the beginning of the course, one student will usually voice what the others are thinking: “What’s on the test?” The reality is that if you can focus on the lesson for each module, practice and learn the skills, you’ll have no trouble passing, as long as you can keep your confidence in check.

The Canada Safety Council’s curriculum is consistent across the country. The methodical approach introduces one or two key skills per module, each building on those before. The first two modules are spent learning eye control, balancing, braking and right-angle turns, where students take turns pushing each other through the layouts. You learn to coordinate the use of front and rear brakes and to apply them before even starting the bike. The repetition during practice begins to develop muscle memory and the baseline safety skills on which all others are built.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to learn at your own pace and measure your progress only against yourself. Differences in learning styles, life experiences and riding experiences mean that each student grasps the concepts at a different speed. You’re there to learn how to ride safely. This is all about you, so without overthinking, ask as many questions as you need to understand the lesson, then get out there and practice the skills. Take the praise and constructive feedback from the instructor without being hard on yourself. Learning to ride a motorcycle requires far different physical, mental and emotional skills than most people use in the rest of their lives, so be patient with yourself.

4. Learning to Ride

One of the most common worries is about learning how to coordinate front and rear brakes, clutch, shifter and throttle, especially if you have never driven a standard transmission. The skills are built on each other, with time to practice before moving on to the next one. By noon, you’ll have an ear-to-ear grin, even if learning to shift is a new skill. By day two, you’re practicing emergency stopping, swerving and cornering, wondering what all the apprehension was about.
Physical strength and stature are concerns, especially for women. While it’s best to be physically fit, at minimum, you need to be able to maintain balance and put one foot down. Learning to ride is about developing a relationship with your motorcycle, working together and riding smart, not about physical strength.
After the course, the fear shifts to stalling at intersections, knowing which gear to be in, and starting from an incline. It’s natural to be nervous, especially when starting out, and it’s inevitable that there will be some embarrassing moments. Patience, practice and persistence build confidence, minimize the fluster factor and get you on your way again in no time. Before intentionally putting yourself in new situations, like riding in traffic or on a highway, make sure your skills and confidence are up to it. Take a friend and practice in an empty parking lot, away from distractions.

5. Choosing your first bike

Purchase your first bike after taking the course, and buy something used. To someone who has limited experience with motorcycles, they all look big, and they all look the same. Sarah Schilke, Marketing and PR Manager for Schuberth North America, recalls learning the lingo with her first bike: “I rode that Rebel 250 for a month, all the while wondering why people kept asking me what size it was! I knew I was supposed to answer ‘250,’ but I had no idea why. I finally figured it out, but at first it seemed so weird that engine size was the most important descriptor of the machine.”

Waiting until after you’ve taken the course gives you experience on at least one style of bike, and a better idea of what your riding preferences are. Purchasing used gives you a further opportunity to discover what you’re most comfortable with, rather than investing in a beautiful new motorcycle that may not be right for you.

It’s going to tip over. Remember, you’re learning, and bikes can be awkward. Even experienced riders have to pick their bikes up once in a while. Better to practice your skills on a bike that’s already been broken in than to be heartbroken by seeing your dream bike lying on its side.
Choose the bike that’s right for your skill level now, not something you’ll grow into. Passing the course is just the beginning. A new rider has lots of learning to do, and getting on a bike that’s too big or too powerful can undermine confidence and place the rider and everyone around them in peril. Develop your skills and confidence until you’re ready for something larger; another good reason to buy used.

6. Rider etiquette

You’ve successfully completed the course and joined the two-wheeled ranks. Now, how and where do you find others to ride with? How do you approach them? What do you wear?

Every other rider has been where you are right now. They understand what you’re going through and will be approachable and helpful. Although you’ll be tempted to join group rides right away, put at least 5000 kilometres on before doing so, and then choose your group wisely. The danger factor rachets up significantly when you don’t know the other riders, their riding skills or how the group is managed.

The only one who knows how scared you feel is you. So go out and have fun. Your motorcycle will lead you to the most amazing people and experiences, but you have to be out there, riding it.

Plan to continuously upgrade your skills through refresher training and advanced riding courses. Off-road courses, as strange as it may seem, can provide valuable knowledge to the street rider.

7. Purchasing gear

Riding a motorcycle exposes you to heat, sun, cold, rain, wind and risk. Good gear protects you, mitigates the risk, reduces fatigue, improves comfort and increases your enjoyment. When selecting gear, purchase function, fit and fashion – in that order. Build your gear wardrobe as your riding evolves and you come to understand your riding needs.

A helmet is the single most important piece of safety gear you can wear. While you may rent a helmet for the course, never purchase a used helmet. Styles range from modular to full face, three-quarter open face or a half helmet, but remember, the greater the coverage, the greater the protection. DOT approved helmets must meet minimum safety standards, but will vary in their comfort level. Buy the best quality you can afford. Try it on and have it fit by an expert, making very sure it’s comfortable before you hand over your cash.

Qualities to look for in gear include armour, ventilation, versatility, abrasion resistance and visibility. Uncomfortable gear is a distraction; it creates fatigue and becomes a hazard.

When trying on jackets, pants and gloves, assume your riding position, ideally on a bike that’s similar to yours. Sleeves and pant legs will seem long in the dressing room, but that extra length is taken up when you’re in the riding position. Make sure the jacket covers your lower back, as it will “ride up” when seated. Look for armour that covers knees, hips, elbows, shoulders and back, remembering that it, too, is designed to cover vulnerable areas when your knees and arms are bent. It feels awkward at first, but you’ll soon get used to it. Whether you select leather or textile, check the abrasion resistance of the material. Thin fashion leather, for instance, provides no protection. Look for adjustable waists to fit different sizes and accommodate layers.

When it comes to your extremities, look for abrasion-resistant boots, with oil-resistant soles, and make sure they provide ankle coverage and support. Leather or textile gloves should cover fingers and wrists, have padding in the palm and armour over your knuckles.

8. Ride your own ride

There is only one person at the controls of your motorcycle, and that’s you. As much as you’re energized by the freedom and independence, you’re also vulnerable. Listen to your intuition, whether it’s guiding you through learning to ride, purchasing a bike or riding with others. And you’ll soon realize that the ride is amazing!

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