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Common Tread

Seven things I wish someone had told me when I started riding

Jul 14, 2014

I'm a relatively new rider (three years and about 25,000 miles so far). I've taken a few hard knocks along the way and learned some valuable lessons. If a new rider has an advantage over an experienced one, it's that those lessons are still fresh. Here are a few of the most important ones that I want to share with other new riders.

Pick a bike that fits your skill level

Unlike most countries, in the United States new riders can buy any size motorcycle they want, whether they can ride it or not. So within three months of getting my license, I was riding a big cruiser. A month after that, I was lying face down on the freeway hating life after the driver of the car in front of me slammed on his brakes and I had to stop faster than my skill level allowed on a bike that size. The fact is, it takes time to build skill and competency. There’s no shame in starting smaller and working your way up.

A large cruiser wasn't the best choice to learn on. If Llyr the cat suspected, he didn't say anything. Photo by Jed Wheeler.

Anti-lock brakes are your friend

One of the many things I didn’t know when I bought my cruiser was what a difference anti-lock brakes made. If I’d had ABS, I’d never have gone down. And yes, ABS can add a bit to the sticker price. But as I found out, medical bills are expensive, too.

All the gear, all the time

Helmets are not optional (they reduce the risk of dying in a crash by 37 percent, according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics) and no, the half or three-quarter helmet is not good enough. After my accident last January, I had deep grooves from the asphalt all down the visor of my Shoei helmet. If I had been wearing a half or three-quarter helmet, the tarmac would have taken my face off at minimum, and killed me at worst. How’s that for a fashion statement?

Gear up for the ride. Photo by Jed Wheeler.
A solid jacket, boots, gloves, and protective pants are also essential. I shudder a bit every time I see someone riding in shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt. If it’s hot, get a perforated jacket. I switch between an Icon Chapter jacket for everyday wear, a Klim Latitude armored shell with Gore-Tex and a down jacket underneath for winter riding, and an AGV perforated leather jacket for hot days. For pants, I have a couple different armored textile overpants that I switch between depending on the jacket I’m wearing. And on days when I’m feeling stupid, my bare minimum is kevlar-reinforced jeans.

Be visible

Drivers in cars look for other cars. I’ve had people look right at me before merging into me and then act surprised at the sound of my horn and the rev of my engine as I get out of their way. For me, being visible means choosing light colors for my bike, helmet, and wet-weather gear. LED running lights on a bike can look great and add visibility, too. At minimum, make sure your jacket and/or any backpack have reflective strips on the back.

It’s not about speed

I’ve always had a bit of a lead foot, and in my first year of riding I carried that habit over, racking up several expensive tickets in the process. Now, If I start getting that itch, I know it’s time for a track day. They’re relatively cheap, and I don’t need to worry about some jerk in a cage cutting me off. Conditions are always uncertain on surface streets, so I want to be going a bit slower and have time to react.

Ride where the cars aren’t

This isn’t always possible, but even in heavy traffic you can mitigate your risk a bit. Thousands of words and big chunks of books have been devoted to lane positioning, but a lot of it comes down to awareness and putting a buffer zone around yourself. That usually means avoiding the center of the lane. Being to the left or right of your lane, depending on the circumstances, gives you better visibility ahead, lets you see further through corners, and puts more space between you and the cars around you. Also, there's no reason to ride in the middle of a cluster of cars when there are almost always open spaces just in front of and behind the cluster.

Be aware of risk factors

Bad weather is part of life, and there will be times where you’re stuck coming home in a downpour, but there’s no reason to unnecessarily put yourself in a bad situation. Drinking and riding goes in this same category. If I’m going to have a few while I’m out, I wait until I’m fully sober before getting back on my bike. It’s just not worth it. I’d always rather crash at a friend's house than crash on the road home.

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty

I’m a software engineer by trade, not a mechanic, but basic maintenance is not hard and YouTube is full of helpful videos. Things like being able to change your own oil, brake fluid and chain and sprockets can save you thousands of dollars over a lifetime of riding. Preparedness can’t be over-rated, either. I carry plugs and a small bicycle hand pump in my bag so I can fix a flat on the go. A small tool kit is worth its weight in gold when you need it. Just be prepared to swallow your pride and find a good mechanic when it gets above your skill level.

I’m sure I’ve left things off this list. There’s much more to know than I can possibly cover in a thousand words, and none of us should ever stop learning, anyway. But these tips should help you get started. What would you add?