First Time on a Motorcycle

Low-impact training has made learning to ride a motorcycle much less exciting. From the December 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Art Friedman.

When I started riding a motorcycle four decades ago, learning to ride was a hit-or-miss proposition. Fortunately, I missed anything fatal, but there were plenty of new riders who hit or got hit before they ever learned enough about their new vehicles to become proficient.

In those days, "formal training" was the five minutes you spent with the salesman in the alley behind the shop: "This is the clutch here. Just let it out nice and slow now. Oops. You sorta need to pause when the bike gets moving. Yeah, that's more like it. Good, now open the throttle. Oh, the brakes are... Wow, did that hurt?"

If your first ride home from the dealership was anything like mine, you probably still haven't gotten your adrenaline levels back to normal. I didn't yet know anybody who rode a motorcycle until after I started riding (now it seems like all my friends ride), so I had no knowledgeable source to turn to. And when I did find other riders to talk to, I had to sort out all the BS about not using the front brake because you'd "just flip it right over." Esquire magazine even printed advice to "lay it down" to avoid a crash. Fortunately, I was just smart enoough to figure out that "laying it down" was, in fact, crashing.

Though we still have questionable gems of wisdom like "loud pipes save lives" (the research indicates just the opposite) to confuse matters, there are a lot more sources of reliable information to turn to these days. Better still, new riders can actually get expert information and training before they have to venture out into the streets. Thanks to the efforts of motorcycle-safety advocates across the country, almost all states now have motorcycle safety programs, which involve some sort of formal training based on the Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum. These courses don't pretend to turn first-timers in veteran riders. However, they do provide a systematic approach to learning motorcycle control, a trained instructor to show you how you should be doing it, hard facts about motorcycling and myriad related issues, and a safe place to practice. With a real instructor instead of your buddy (who, with four months and one nasty crash under his belt, looks like a grizzled pro), you get proven, tested information about how a motorcycle works and avoid all those bad habits and misinformation. Even if your mom or significant other is an accident-free rider of 20 years, you will do better to start with formal training.

There are two ways a new rider can get formal training. You are probably familiar with the basic rider-training course. It some states, like California, it is the easiest way to get your motorcycle license, because graduation from the course puts a Class M endorsement on your license. This course offers street-oriented skills and information.

However, there is a new off-highway skills course, which might be appealing even to someone who has his or her sights set on riding a cruiser. For one thing, the course is available to future riders as young as six years of age. Riding in the dirt also teaches traction management and lack-of-traction management much faster than road riding, and these skills can be more than a little useful when things go sour on the street. Dirt riding also permits you to play without apology in ways that would be considered reckless in the unyielding arena of the street.

Though he will probably miss out on all the great stories about how he almost died 17 times while riding his first new bike home, a new or severely lapsed rider will benefit tremendously from either or both courses. And when he gets a few months and miles under his wheels, the Experienced RiderCourse will help polish his skills.

With winter upon us, a new bike and initial training probably seem like a project that can wait until some green reappears on the plants. Though new-bike shopping can wait, you should sign up for training now. In some areas, courses for all of this year were filled by May. There is a chronic shortage of sites, bikes and instructors, and new bike sales continue to grow, so demand for training will also increase. You can find a course near you by calling (800)446-9227. Do it now.

If you are an experienced rider who would like to help new riders start out safely, instructors are in demand throughout the country. You won't get rich, but those, such as our own Evans Brasfield, who have trained new riders, say it's very satisfying.

For more info on any of these topics plus a host of safety tips, I recommend the MSF's web site. Or you can contact the Foundation at 2 Jenner St., Suite 150, Irvine, CA 92618-3806, phone (949)727-3227, fax 727-4217.

You should always remember your first time, but not because it sent you to the emergency room.

_To get all the details of the author's first time, email him at _ _or at _

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of

Exercises arranged and observed by a professional instructor are much more useful than those suggested by a friend or relative. Photography courtesy of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
One of the advantages of formal training is that you get a safe place to practice. You also get excercises and courses designed to help you practice the skills you actually will use, not just those you happen to think of.
Some tyros feel self-conscious practicing in front of an audience, but other new riders are just as awkward as you are.
Most rider training sites will provide motorcycles to learn on, so the mechanical abuse and possible cosmetic damage is not inflicted on your own bike. Plus you get to try out some bikes before you buy.