With the snow gone and the weather warming up, it’s finally starting to feel like motorcycle season again. That also means it’s the perfect time to answer the call of the open road and buy that motorcycle you’ve always wanted. It can be intimidating at first, but with the right approach, getting started riding motorcycles can be simple, safe, and enjoyable. It also helps to know what you’re getting yourself into when you decide to actually take the plunge.
The process itself is a lot like getting a driver’s license and buying your first car, but back when you were getting your driver’s license, you had your parents there to tell you what to do. A lot of people who are looking to start riding don’t even know a rider who they can ask for advice and guidance. With that in mind, I’ve broken down the process into seven steps. It’s more of an overview than a detailed guide, but it should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting yourself into and what you need to do to get started.
1. Take a class
There are a lot of people who will tell you that if you can ride a dirt bike, you’ll be fine on a motorcycle. Those people are wrong. There are some people who will tell you that you should just buy your first motorcycle and teach yourself to ride it with the help of some YouTube videos. Those people are idiots. Riding a motorcycle may be a lot like riding a heavy bicycle, but young riders who don’t know what they’re doing get themselves killed. The goal of riding a motorcycle is to have fun, not to get yourself killed.
Your best chance of having fun and not getting killed is to take one of the classes offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. These people know what they’re doing, and while you won’t be an expert rider at the end of your course, you’ll be competent at the basics. Handling a bike at low speeds and taking a corner properly are not skills that come naturally, so having people who know what they’re doing there while you practice these skills is invaluable.
2. Buy a cheap bike
New motorcycle riders are a lot like new drivers in the sense that their lack of experience leads to a lot of wrecks. In fact, something like 50% of motorcycle wrecks happen in a rider’s first six months. Even if a new rider doesn’t have a wreck in the first six months, a bike that’s good for beginners is going to get old quickly, and new riders rarely keep their first bikes for long. If you spend a lot of cash on your first bike and wreck it, you just wasted a lot of money. If you spend a lot of money on a bike and sell it nine months later, you’re going to have to eat some serious depreciation, and you just wasted a lot of money.
Most new riders want a bike that looks cool, but cool bikes are usually expensive and powerful, two things that new riders absolutely don’t need. My first bike was a 1983 Kawasaki KZ305 that made several horsepower and only cost $650. I fixed multiple problems on it with nothing but a hammer, and when it finally died on me, it didn’t matter because it only cost $650. There’s no hard and fast rule for how much money you should spend on your first bike, but it should be a pretty insignificant amount. I recommend spending less than $1,000, but even if you’re well off, don’t spend more than $3,000. Anything more than $3,000 is just a waste.
As far as what type of bike to buy, standards and small cruisers are best for beginning riders. The Kawasaki Ninja 250 is a perennial favorite among first-time buyers, but a bike you’ll already want to go fast enough as it is. You don’t need all that racy body work encouraging you to go faster. Stick with something simple and basic for your first bike, save your money, and in six months or a year, upgrade to the bike you wanted in the first place. Finally, a 500 is the absolute largest engine you should buy, and you should really just buy a 250.
3. Buy safety gear
Safety gear may not be convenient or make you feel cool, but it’s also the stuff that keeps you from leaving your epidermis on the highway or exposing your brain to asphalt. That makes safety gear incredibly important. I know better than to believe that everybody who rides wears a full safety suit, but do you know why MotoGP riders get up from wrecks looking more disappointed than dead? It’s not because the track is made out of couch cushions. It’s because they’re wearing full head-to-toe safety gear.
At the very minimum, even in a state where you can legally ride without a helmet, you should wear a full-face helmet, a motorcycle jacket, and gloves every time you ride. You won’t always listen to me, but if you wreck while wearing nothing but a T-shirt, it’s going to hurt a lot worse than it needs to. You should also own and wear motorcycle pants and boots, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that you’ll do that every time you head across town to a friend’s house.
Unlike your first motorcycle, your first set of safety gear should not be inexpensive or disposable. The bike itself is insignificant, but you are not. Buy quality safety gear. If you spend $1,000 on a bike and $1,000 on safety gear, you’ll be a lot better off than if you buy a $2,000 bike and wear a helmet the previous owner threw in for free. Even better, you won’t be wearing a helmet that’s still crusty with the previous owner’s sweat.
4. Buy insurance
Despite the fact that motorcycles offer a high level of performance for relatively little money, insuring one costs next to nothing. In fact, your yearly payment probably won’t be that much higher than the monthly payment on your car insurance. Aside from it being the law in a lot of states and a requirement to get a license, motorcycle insurance gives you additional coverage if you end up needing medical treatment from an accident. Any damage to a $1,000 motorcycle is irrelevant, but any damage to you is incredibly important to fix.
Depending on who you are, insurance companies are going to offer different rates, so either call your insurance agent, use a comparison site, or just request quotes from several companies. Either way, a little extra effort could end up finding you a much better price. For $120 a year or whatever it ends up costing you, though, there’s no need to spend hours comparing rates. Just search a few, find one that offers the coverage you want for a good price, and go with them.
5. Get your license
Assuming you pass your MSF class, you’ll still need to go get your license. It will be a little tedious — just like getting your driver’s license was — but the good news is, you’ll only have to take the written portion of the test. You will have already taken a written test in your MSF class, so the one that the DMV gives you will be a piece of cake, but you’ll still have to jump through that hoop in order to get your license.
Some people will tell you to just buy your bike in cash from a guy on Craigslist and not to bother getting your license. People like that are part of the reason law enforcement doesn’t like motorcyclists. Just go ahead and get your license. Other people will tell you that you don’t need a full license and can get by just on a continually renewed learner’s permit. If you’ve taken an MSF course, though, getting a learner’s permit takes just as much effort as getting a full license. Please be responsible and get a full motorcycle license.
6. Register your bike
Registering your motorcycle is essentially the same as registering your car, which means it’s a mildly inconvenient but fairly straightforward. You hand over documentation that the bike is yours, cut a check, and receive your tiny new license plate. It screws onto the back of your bike, and you go home happy. The law also requires you to go through this process, and if you refuse, it makes your friendly neighborhood law enforcement officers unhappy.
What’s crazy is that it’s not unheard of for people to forget to do this. Unlike driving a car without a license plate, it’s easy to drive a tag-less motorcycle almost indefinitely without consequence. Failure to register your vehicle is going to turn any routine traffic stop into a much bigger hassle, though, so just go ahead and follow the law.
7. Be safe
Once you have all the boring stuff squared away, it’s time to enjoy your motorcycle. In the beginning, you’re going to have fun no matter how fast you’re going, so take it slow and don’t do anything stupid. Especially for the first six months, you should be going on short rides, getting to know your bike, and enjoying the fact that you’re now a proud, motorcycle-owning American. You also need to wear your safety gear every time you go for a ride. It may feel lame and be a bit inconvenient, but the spending time in the hospital after a wreck would be even more lame and even more inconvenient.
While you’re riding, never forget that everyone and everything is trying to kill you, and that includes the road itself. Not only do you need to constantly keep an eye out for other drivers who are trying to run you over, you also need to keep an eye out for gravel and dirt that might cause you to lose traction and crash. Animals in the road are also a big concern, and while you’ll probably come out looking better than the deer you hit, it’s never going to be pretty. Be assertive, be careful, and most of all, be safe.
Finally, it will be tempting to quickly move up to a cooler, heavier, and more powerful motorcycle. Resist this temptation. Just because you can handle your beginner’s bike doesn’t mean that you’ve mastered it, and it doesn’t mean that you can safely ride a liter bike or a large cruiser. Instead of going all out, consider moving up to a more sensible mid-range option in six months or a year. A Honda Shadow 750 might not be the world’s most exciting motorcycle, but it makes a great second bike. A Yamaha R1, on the other hand, is not a great second bike.
Have your fun, but be smart about it, and definitely be safe. Happy riding!
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