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Motorcycle training: A guide to learning to ride

Jan 22, 2016

Learning to ride a motorcycle today is easier than ever because there are more opportunities to learn from a professional.

I’m old enough to remember when “rider education” meant the salesman at the motorcycle dealership told you “this is the clutch, this is the brake,” and he slapped you on the back for good luck as you wobbled off on whatever he just sold you. Or maybe you had an uncle who told you “never touch that front brake – she’ll throw you right over the handlebars.”

The quality of instruction was uneven, to understate the issue.

Today, there is a wide range of resources (international readers: I’m focusing on the United States to keep this manageable) to carry you through your life-long learning. Just like your regular education, it’s just a question of climbing the ladder of knowledge.

Elementary education: Accelerating from zero

Let’s say you know you want to learn to ride but you have no knowledge of motorcycles and no friends or family who ride. You don’t even know how the controls on a motorcycle work. Spending thousands of dollars to buy a motorcycle you don’t know how to ride and trying to survive the learning curve sounds like an insurmountable obstacle.

You don’t have to do that alone.

If you're starting from zero, read our story and watch our video on how to ride a motorcycle to get a basic understanding of how a motorcycle works. When you're ready to give it a try, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse can take you from zero to motorcyclist in a weekend. All you have to do is get your learner’s permit and sign up for a course. The course provides small, lightweight training bikes and is taught by certified instructors.

There are many advantages to taking the MSF course: In some states, it is free, but even if you have to pay, it’s cheaper than any other form of training, especially the self-taught school of hard knocks; in many cases, if you complete the course you immediately get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license, with no further testing; you may get an insurance discount; and you’ll know you’re getting a time-tested curriculum. You may hear extremely experienced and nerdy motorcyclists quibbling over finer points of the course, but that’s the equivalent of two education Ph.D.s debating how many days of the fourth-grade history class should be devoted to the Civil War. That’s no reason for the fourth-grader to skip history class.

What about having a friend or family member teach you? I won’t say “never.” But there are pitfalls. “Experienced” and “skilled” are not the same. As more than one instructor has told me, plenty of riders have been riding 20 years, but instead of progressive advancement in their skills, they’ve just repeated the same first-year mistakes 20 times.

As a new rider, how can you be expected to know if your uncle, who’s been riding for 20 years, is giving you good advice or bad advice? You can’t. Plus, learning from a friend or relative injects personal feelings and relationships into the process, for better or worse. Being good at doing something does not mean a person is good at teaching it. I know a woman who decided to have her boyfriend, a very skilled rider, teach her to ride. She popped the clutch, lurched ahead 10 feet, he shouted at her, they began arguing about his teaching technique and she gave up. Her riding career lasted 10 feet.

Plus, your insurance company won’t give you a discount and the Department of Motor Vehicles won’t let you skip the riding test if you tell them that you were trained by your cousin Sal, never mind that Sal has both a cool café racer and a Suzuki Hayabusa and once shook hands with Jason Britton. Things to consider.

Advanced RiderCourse
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Advanced RiderCourse is geared toward sharpening the skills of riders who have been on the road for a while. Photo by Sergio Herrera.

Secondary education: Getting beyond first gear

You passed the basic course, got your license and bought a motorcycle. Think your education is over? Did you drop out of school after the sixth grade?

In high school, we start taking a little more responsibility for our own education, choosing a few electives, learning study habits. Being able to make a motorcycle move down the street is not the same as riding it proficiently. There are plenty of good books and videos that can help you develop proper skills.

Over the years, racers and sport riders have long sworn by Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist, which has now been updated in DVD form. Books such as Riding in the Zone by Ken Condon and the Proficient Motorcycling series by David Hough help you sharpen your street riding skills. The Upper Half of the Motorcycle: On the Unity of Rider and Machine is a cerebral look at how human and motorcycle meld into one working unit. These are just a few examples.

In recognition of the need for ongoing education, the MSF has greatly expanded its course offerings. The Street RiderCourse 1 and Street RiderCourse 2 build on the Basic RiderCourse and get you out of the parking lot and onto the street. The Advanced RiderCourse sharpens your skills at identifying and avoiding hazards and improving your riding technique.

In some cities, private riding instruction is available, often in a one-on-one arrangement. Research what’s available near you.

Stayin' Safe Motorcycle Training
Some training programs, like Stayin' Safe, take place on the street, the environment where you ride most or all of the time. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Higher education: Specializing, refining, thinking more deeply

We go to college to delve deeper into the subjects that interest us most and to develop critical thinking skills beyond the basics we learned in high school. If you’re serious about this motorcycle stuff, you’ll need some higher education in riding, too.

If you’re that brand new rider I talked about at the beginning, understand that this is not stuff I expect you to do any time soon. These are options to consider after you’ve finished the education above and have been riding at least a year. At that point, you can start thinking about going to the next level.

Jason Pridmore
Attending a school gives you the opportunity to learn from experienced teachers and racers such as Jason Pridmore. Star Motorcycle School photo.
If you’re a sport rider and can afford to treat yourself, a school like the Yamaha Champions Riding School, which provides a bike, meals and personal instruction, or a program like Jason Pridmore’s Star Motorcycle School, where you ride your own bike, can be the most intensive learning experience you ever have on two wheels. If the cost of these schools is more than you can swing, check into your nearest track day. In many cases, the Novice class at a track day also includes basic instruction on riding skills and techniques. You don’t get the frills of the fancy schools, like catered lunches with pro racers, but I know from experience that in some cases you get a lot of the same instruction for maybe 10 percent of the cost.

Street and off-road riders have specialized courses for sharpening their skills. Two I can personally recommend are Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training, which goes beyond riding technique to teach street riders how to heighten awareness and spot and predict hazards, and RawHyde Adventure Training to teach you how to take that adventure-touring motorcycle off pavement and open up a much bigger world of riding. Like the sampling of books mentioned above, these are just a few examples. There are other training options. See what’s available near you.

As a new rider, you’re just beginning what I hope will be a long, happy and safe lifetime of riding. Smart riders know that the best way to achieve that goal is to accept that the learning never ends.