A beginner’s guide to riding motorcycles

Let’s assume that if you are reading this, you have absolutely no experience of riding motorcycles, and start with the basics. First of all, you might like to understand how a motorcycle stays upright when it is moving; this is because of a simple principle of physics known as angular momentum which basically means that when something is spinning around an axis (like a wheel) it is harder to change the orientation of that axis than it would be if the wheel was not spinning.

Essentially, the spinning wheels of a motorcycle want to stay upright, even when a bike is leaning over to go around a corner. It is only when the wheels stop spinning that the force of gravity takes over and the motorbike begins to fall over, which is why riders have to put at least one of their feet on the ground to stabilise the bike when they come to a standstill.

In order to understand how to ride a motorcycle, you need to know what all of the controls do, so here’s a quick rundown:

On the right handlebar you have a twist-grip, which increases the engine speed (and therefore the motorcycle’s speed) when you turn it towards you. Also on this handlebar is the lever which activates the front brake, and you’ll find the pedal for the back brake on the right hand footpeg. Unlike cars which have only one pedal for all of the brakes, motorcycles have separate front and rear brakes and learning to use them together is an important skill.

Generally speaking you can brake a lot harder with the front than the rear – if you push too hard on the rear brake pedal you risk locking the back wheel. What this means is that the wheel simply stops turning while the bike is still moving, which in turn means that it will lose grip on the road and start to slide – a dangerous situation that will most likely result in a crash. However, learning to use the rear brake effectively will enable to stop the motorcycle in much shorter distances, which can save your life in emergency-stop situations.

The left handlebar lever is used for the clutch, which disengages the gearbox from the engine while you change gears. You can change gear with your left foot pedal. Assuming you start in neutral (where the engine is not connected to a gear, so the bike will not move even if you rev the engine) you change into first gear, by pushing the pedal down once. Then, once the bike is moving, pushing the gear pedal up once will make it pass through neutral and into second gear, then third, fourth, fifth and on some high performance motorcycles even sixth.

Things like turn-indicators, headlights, warning horn, starter button and so forth are all controlled by buttons that you can reach with your thumbs while your hands are holding onto the bars.

How to actually ride a motorcycle

Assuming you are on the motorcycle and have started the engine already, this is how you would pull away. First, pull in the clutch lever with your left hand and then put the bike into first gear by pushing down on the gear pedal with your left foot. Next, slowly and gently begin to let out the clutch lever, if you let it out too quickly the engine will simply stall – you will not be catapulted forward – but the clutch lever will eventually reach a point where you can feel the bike start to move forward ever so slightly as the engine begins to engage the gearbox. This is known as the biting point.

In order to move off, smoothly and progressively open the throttle (i.e. turn the twist grip on the right handlebar towards you) at the same time as you let the clutch level all the way out past the biting point. The motorcycle will then start to move forwards. As you increase in speed, the rev counter (also called a tachometer) on the instrument panel will rise higher and higher – eventually you will need to change up a gear as the engine starts to struggle.

To change gear, close the throttle, pull the clutch lever in and click the gear pedal up a notch before smoothly letting the clutch back out and then opening the throttle again. Always close the throttle before changing up or down a gear, and never change down a gear while the engine is running at high revs – this will cause the back wheel to lock up. When you change down a gear, the revs will usually increase in order to match the speed of the motorcycle, but if the revs are already close to maximum the engine won’t be able keep up so the bike will be moving faster than the back wheel is capable of turning and you’ll lose traction.

Riding a motorcycle is incredibly good fun
Riding a motorcycle is incredibly good fun

When you need to stop or slow down, apply the front brake smoothly, don’t grab at it just pull the lever in progressively firmer as you need to bring the speed down to the required level. At the same time, gently push down on the rear brake pedal, but apply most of the braking at the front, with just 20-30 percent of the braking force on the rear. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated, you’ll soon get used to it.

To turn a motorcycle effectively, it helps if you understand the idea of counter-steering. If you are riding a motorcycle in a straight line and gently push the left handlebar forwards by just a couple of millimetres, so that the front wheel turns ever so slightly to the right, you will notice that that the bike actually starts to turn to the left. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s really the way motorcycles turn and most riders do this without realising what is happening, they just feel as though they are leaning the bike into the corner but don’t notice that the handlebars are turning slightly the wrong way.

If you practice counter-steering in this way, and learn to use the idea properly, you’ll become a much better rider over time. Most experienced motorcycle racers are very skilled at counter-steering and use it to turn their bikes into corners much, much faster than most normal road riders can manage.

Those are the essentials of riding a motorcycle, just to give you an idea of what you can expect. But remember that absolutely nothing can replace professional rider training and road experience, so please take lessons from a qualified instructor before you attempt riding a motorcycle for the first time.

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