November 25, 1999
"I'd like to start riding motorcycles but I have no idea where to start. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!"
There is nothing in the world like gliding over the fallen leaves on some twisty mountain back road aboard a finely-tuned motorcycle. However, like a lot of things in life, there is a lot you have to do to get to that point. The three keys to really enjoying motorcycling are getting trained, getting properly equipped, and getting legal.
There are people out there that think nothing of learning how to ride by listening to a few rudimentary instructions, hopping on a bike, and riding off into traffic. I am firmly convinced that for the most part is why the accident statistics are so high. Proper training will not only give you an idea of what it is all about and what type of motorcycle you'll be comfortable riding, it will put you on the road with confidence and experience, lower your insurance, and most importance, drastically lower the chances that you wind up testing your riding gear the hard way.
The premier motorcycle training is the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's basic course. The MSF course differs slightly by state, but the general format consists of a period of classroom training followed by a longer period of riding training on MSF-supplied motorcycles. You'll not only learn the basics, you learn a lot of things that many riders must find out the hard way.
Aside from the obvious riding education, MSF training has several immediate benefits. First, many people go out and spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a bike and equipment only to find that they really don't like motorcycling after all (I don't understand it but to each his own ;) With the MSF you'll have a chance to try it out with but the price of a good helmet. Second, you will be using MSF motorcycles so you don't have to be the one paying for those inevitable (and expensive) motorcycle drops that all new riders have. Some riders are so upset at bike drops they quit riding all together, in the MSF course you just blush, smile, pick up the bike and move on. Lastly, you'll have someone (aside from a dealer whose interest is his bottom line) you can ask questions and who will give you straight answers about riding gear, choice of motorcycle, etc. The obvious benefit is the most important however, putting you on the road with the education and training to minimize the chances you'll have an accident and, in the event something does happen, maximize the chances you'll walk away unscathed.
The MSF basic course is just the beginning, though unfortunately it is where many riders give up on training and take to the road. The MSF also offers an excellent course for riders that have some miles under their belt, the Experienced Riders Course. It does an excellent job of taking the training a step further and is used by many riders as a yearly refresher course (we all let bad habits creep in over time...) Then there are the racetrack courses like CLASS and the California Superbike School that somewhat ignore the basics and concentrate on how to get the most out of the riding skills you have (plus learn a bunch of new ones...) These classes are for the experienced riders, but that is where the similarities stop. The classes are filled with all types of riders, from weekend racers on tricked- out Ducati's to Goldwing riders that must leave their trailers in the parking lot. All riders benefit from the concentration on skill and precision, and it is not uncommon to see an Aerostich-clad rider on a BMW touring rig passing a neon-striped ZX-11 (on the outside even ;)
Training is a critical first step to a lifetime of safe and incident-free riding. Fortunately it is widely available and inexpensive. If I could only make one recommendation to the new rider, it would be to take an MSF course.
Good equipment is absolutely critical. I shudder when I see riders wearing short pants and short-sleeved shirts. I've met more than one rider who has walked away from a high-speed slide with nary a scratch simply because they wore high quality and properly fitted riding gear. In one of my previous Rants I went in to great detail about proper gear and instead of restating will simply link to that. The main point is that, aside from your motorcycle, riding gear will be the most expensive motorcycling investment you make, and that you must bite the bullet and buy the best. No one EVER has been heard to say, "I wish I had spent less on riding gear." When you need it, you'll not regret having bought the best.
3. Get Legal
It is amazing how many riders there are out there that do not have a motorcycle license, are riding a bike that has not been properly licensed or inspected, or are riding without proper insurance. Getting a motorcycle license is easy and can solve many headaches down the line. In many people's eyes it is too easy, and some states are now making at least a minimum of rider training mandatory. Second, make sure your bike or the bike you will be buying is properly registered and inspected. If you are buying the bike, a current registration and inspection (while not a guarantee in any way) will help show the bike is in good shape and has been cared for, and will lessen the chances for any "gotchas" when you go to push the paperwork on your new bike. Lastly there is insurance. Motorcycle insurance can be expensive for the new rider but getting caught without it, either by accident or by the Police, can have dire repercussions. The basic 25/50/25 is simply insufficient, it is not too much more to go to 100/300/100 or even 250/500/250. Sam Hochberg wrote a great piece on how and why you should max your motorcycle insurance, I would advise all to read it and give it thought.
To sum it up, starting to ride is much more than hopping on a friend's bike in a parking lot. Getting trained, buying and wearing good equipment, and making sure your paperwork is in order are all important steps in the start of a lifetime love affaire with the motorcycle.
(Thanks to some Mike L. for this one :))