So you watched Long Way Round and want to start touring with a motorcycle, but you have never ridden one before?
If you can drive a car with a stick shift and you put in the hours, you should be able to get confident enough to go riding on your own in less than a month. You will need to get a learners permit to do so legally, though.
I know, because that is how long it took my wife from getting on the bike for the first time to driving 5 800 km over 19 days. You just need to get a learners permit and start riding.
Get a learners permit
Before you go out on the public round you need to get a learners permit. This varies from country to country and state to state. It is generally a written test and an eye examination. Once you’ve passed, you are allowed to ride your bike on your own on the public roads. The permit will only be valid for a couple of months.
This will give you the opportunity to practice riding your bike safety before you go for your practical exam where you need prove you can control your motorcycle.
Learn on the right motorcycle
If you have never been on a motorcycle before, do not try to learn on a BMW 1250 GS or a Harley-Davidson. Borrow or buy a small bike like a Yamaha TW 200 or a Honda CB 300 F. You are looking for something that has a low seat height and that is not too heavy. The taller the bike, the more difficult it will be to keep upright when you put your feet down. And a heavy bike will easily topple over once it leans past a certain point.
Don’t worry, once you get comfortable you can get a bigger, heavier bike. When I bike is moving you don’t feel the weight anymore. You will also start to learn where the balancing point it when holding a heavy monster upright on your tip toes.
My wife literally got onto a bike for the first time (apart from riding pillion with me) two weeks before riding 5 800 km around South Africa. After making an appointment for her learners permit she started practicing on an old 1976 Yamaha MR 50 on the farm where we rented at the time. We still have that old 2-stroke smoker. The nice thing about such a small 2-stroke bike is that you can really ride it hard without going that fast, so you get to practice riding through all the gears.
Wear the correct safety gear
This goes without saying, but you need to wear the correct safety gear. Don’t think that, because you are riding slowly in your backyard, you can wear flip-flops and no helmet. It is very easy to snap an ankle when coming down and landing on your head can cause serious injury. You will also have to get used to wear safety gear for when you are ready to go out on the public road.
Once you start riding faster, and especially when going out into traffic, you may want to consider a neck brace too. They are not uncomfortable at all and offer protection to your neck. Read my post on neck braces HERE.
We learned this the hard way when my wife came off her BMW 650 Funduro on my birthday. She has only been riding for about two months at that stage. We were struggling to find a coffee shop that had a table available and it was 105 degrees outside. We removed out bike jackets and stowed them in our top-boxes. My wife was wearing sandals at the time.
As I rode behind her I saw she was not noticing the car in front of her coming to a standstill in the middle of a country road. She was admiring the view and slammed right into the rear of the car. Luckily she was only doing 25 mph. She flipped the bike and thankfully landed on her but without much more than a scratch on her ankle. She was lucky.
Learn to ride your motorcycle on private property
If you can, try to practice your clutch control and pulling away on private property. A long driveway or a quiet parking lot it perfect. If you know someone that lives on a farm, even better. If you don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic, you can focus on just riding your bike.
Learning to ride your motorcycle on private property also means you can start honing your skills before you get your learners permit. So the day you get your permit, you are ready to hit the public roads. Remember, you are also not covered by your insurance if you make an accident without a licence. So staying away from other vehicles before you can ride is a good idea.
Learning to ride a motorcycle is like riding a bicycle
I won’t go into the detail of how to ride a motorcycle here, but the quickest way to learn is to just start riding. That is why it is very helpful to learn to ride on a small, light-weight motorcycle. You will save yourself hours of frustration by not having to pick up a heavy 400 lbs beast each time you drop it.
The trickiest part of riding a motorbike is clutch control. It works exactly like a stick shift car. Let out the left-hand side clutch lever slowly while rolling on the gas with the right hand. Again, a less powerful bike makes it so much easier. With a fast bike you risk pulling away too quickly, with the bike possible taking off without you.
“The number one mistake first-time riders make is not looking ahead.”
Similar to learning to ride a bicycle, you need to look where you intend to go, rather than down at the controls. Otherwise you will not be able to keep the bike in a straight line. Practice pulling away a few times while keeping your feet on the ground. Once you get comfortable with balancing the clutch and throttle, ride slowly in first gear. Slowly step on the foot-brake (right-hand side) and be ready to put your feet down. At first, stay away from the front brakes. Apart from your right-hand already having to deal with the accelerator, grabbing the front brake while turning may cause the front wheel to lose grip.
Once you are able to ride in a straight line, make a few turns (remember to look where you are going, not what you are doing) and stop, you are ready to shift gears. Find a long stretch of open road ahead and pull away slowly. Pull in the clutch and grab second gear with your left foot while releasing the throttle for a second (just like in a manual car). Release the clutch lever and ease on the throttle. You are riding a motorcycle!
Dirt roads are not the same tar roads
Once you are comfortable riding your motorcycle on tarmac and you are keen to get into adventure riding, make sure to practice your skills in the dirt. I’ve seen experienced road riders struggle on dirt roads. Loose stones, corrugations and soft sandy patches can quickly catch out a rider that is not used to the sudden loss of grip.
Riding in a straight line may feel very normal, even at silly speeds. It is around the bends that you need to take care. If you are not used to dirt riding, stay away from the front brakes in anything but a straight line. If you encounter a sandy patch, lightly lift your backside off the saddle to lower your center of gravity (by standing on the foot pegs), lean back and give some gas. Remember to look far ahead, not down at your wheel!
Before going on a long adventure, especially in countries with poor roads like Africa or South America, it might be a good idea to go for an advanced riding course.
Now just ride your motorcycle
So now you have your learners permit and you can ride your bike. Now you just need lots of practice. While I don’t encourage you to ride on dangerous roads with heavy gear without a few months’ riding experience, that’s exactly what my wife did on our trip around South Africa. In fact, the trip is the reason why she learned to ride.
The more you ride the better you’ll get and soon you will be ready for a larger, more powerful machine. Enjoy and stay safe!