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Common Tread

How to ride a motorcycle: A (don't) crash course

Jan 23, 2016

I'm going to guess you ended up here after you watched the ZLA smash-hit "How To Ride A Motorcycle."

If you’ve watched our video (and if you haven't, it's right below), you’re no doubt a little bit more educated, but you might just have more questions now than before you watched the video. That’s OK. There’s no way to completely encapsulate everything you need to know into the format of a video. And that’s why this article exists.

As a teenager, I became a motorcyclist. I remember having a hell of a lot of questions. You are probably in the same boat. Heck, you're probably gonna read this article and watch the video and still wonder what the heck I am prattling on about.

So back to your questions. If you're anything like 16-year-old Lemmy, your top three look like this:

  • How different is this from driving my car?
  • I’m really confused by neutral. Some gears are half a step, and some are whole steps? What is this, music class?
  • How do I know when it’s time to shift up or down?

Let's see if I can expand on some of those topics and give you a better understanding of how this concert of body movements works. Now's probably as good a time as any to mention some obligatory safety stuff, too: This is no replacement for the professional education Lance outlines in his article on the topic, but it should serve as a nice primer for folks who aren’t sure if motorcycles are their thing. You will in no way be ready to ride on the road at the end of this article (or the video!), but you will at least know what that twisty-thinger on the handlebar is for.

Bike parts are not the same as car parts

But there are some similarities. The differences, however, are pretty important. Ultimately, we need to go, stop, and steer, but those things are accomplished a little differently on a motorcycle than they are in a car. Some things are pretty dang similar, but most are not. Let’s examine some of the differences in a few of the major components, shall we?

transmission pattern
The shift pattern of many motorcycles is cast into a part near the shifter. RevZilla photo.
The transmission: Now we can get to some of that shifting stuff. Most cars in North America utilize automatic transmissions, but almost all of the motorcycles we have here are equipped with manual transmissions. Most motorcycle trannies are a specific type of manual transmission known as a sequential manual. That name tells you that you must move through the gears in numeric order. In a car, a driver can skip-shift and make a second-to-fourth shift without ever hitting third gear, for example. That’s not possible on a bike. You can shift into and out of third quickly. You can also hold the clutch in through both shifts, too. But ultimately, you do have to actually shift through the gear. And oddly, neutral is a weird "half step," generally between first and second.

The brakes: They’re actually split front and rear. Unlike a car, which has linked front and rear brakes, motorcycles have separate controls for the front and rear brakes, because different scenarios can require different amounts of each brake. We didn't cover braking too much in the video, but as a learner, you'll want to try to use both brakes at all stops.

The right side of the handlebars is where all the fun stuff seems to happen. RevZilla photo.

The throttle: Twist the throttle to make the bike go faster. It works just like the gas pedal in a car, only you’re using your right hand, not your right foot. Remember that "when do I shift" question? Well, the answer can get a bit tricky. Some bikes, like some cars, include no tachometer and you sort of shift by ear. When the engine starts to sound uncomfortably loud, you shift up a gear. On other types of motorcycles, it can be really important to keep the motorcycle within a pretty narrow operating range. Bikes like this usually have a very visible tachometer that gives you visual shifting feedback in addition to the auditory clues the engine serves up.

The turn signals: Unless you have a reasonably fancy motorcycle, you have to turn ‘em off. They don’t cancel automatically, like a car does.

Starting the bike

On modern, fuel-injected bikes, starting is pretty easy, almost car-like! There are some differences, but they’re not hard to get accustomed to. Here’s the routine: Take the bike off the stand, turn the key and the ignition switch on, put the bike in neutral, pull in the clutch, and hit the starter button. It’s cake. It takes longer to read it than to actually do it.

You may find you can eliminate some of these steps on your motorcycle, depending on how it was built and wired. For instance, most Harleys don’t have a sidestand or clutch switch, so you can eliminate those steps from the routine. However, it does become much more important to make sure you remember to flip up the jiffy stand and make sure the bike’s not in gear, or you might have some fairly disastrous consequences. (I’ve seen a fella’s bike roll away when he hit the starter while the bike was in gear. It was hilarious.)

One of the perks of an electric starter is how sweaty I never get. Photo by Dan Venditto.

If you’ve got an older machine, though, things can be different. Chokes, ticklers and kickers are items that some old-timey bikes have that may require a very specific starting sequence. If you’ve got one of these items to contend with, do what all of us who have ridden an old bike did before you: enlist the help of a buddy, and pray. Lots of praying.

Getting moving is the hard part

Those of you who have driven a car with a manual transmission know the finesse required to balance the application of the throttle with the engagement of the clutch. It’s a very similar process on a motorcycle. Those of you who have not driven a stick... well, you’ll learn. It’s a herky-jerk life when you first begin on either a bike or in a car. Effectively, if you’re getting on the gas, you’re letting off the clutch, and vice-versa. The two are inversely proportionate.

Coming off the gas and onto the clutch. You quickly learn to stop without even thinking about it. RevZilla photo.

The process sounds easy, and it is — sort of. You have to “train” your hands to work in concert with one another. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty simple, but at first it’s easy to upset the rather delicate interplay of these two things. Give it too little gas, and it will stall out and die. Too much gas? The engine will rev way up. (And if you let the clutch go, you might be popping your first wheelie!) This will likely be a practicing point for most rookies. (Again, this is similar to learning to drive a car with a manual transmission.) Happily, the clutch/throttle interplay is most difficult when moving from a dead stop, so if you can master that, gear changes into increasingly higher gears get easier and easier.

An open area with low traffic provides the ideal spot to get familiar with a motorcycle. Photo by Lemmy.

Now, the wrench in this whole works is that you’ve got to master this trickery while you’re balancing. It sounds easy, but it can feel like a juggling act when you’re first starting out. Oh, and you’ve also got to watch out for road hazards. This alone is a good reason to start somewhere safe like a wide-open parking lot away from traffic or in a field. (And for the love of motorcyclists everywhere, please don’t trespass, either. That’s not cool.)

You still have no idea what you’re doing

This was, figuratively, a crash course. This article and video cover the bare minimum of information. We’re trying to help you figure out if motorcycling is for you. If you’re all hot and bothered now, it probably is. But the education starts here, it doesn’t end. Check out some of our other stories, from new rider profiles to some info on where to learn how to ride and the types of motorcycles on the market today.

The other thing I’d encourage you to do as a Zillan and a rider is to call up one of our Gear Geeks. Whether you want info on a piece of gear, some help installing a part, or just need someone to bounce ideas off of, they’re here to help. Even if you just want some thoughts on which bike might be right for you, give them a call. It doesn’t matter that we don’t sell bikes. We help motorcyclists here. From getting you into the right jacket to pulling over to lend you some fuel on the road, our Geeks are pretty helpful folks.

Sixteen-year-old Lemmy should have been so lucky.