The First Ride

It all begins as you grasp the front brake while you throw your right leg over the seat. Keeping your hand on the front brake lever prevents the machine from rolling away as you saddle up. Once you’ve settled in, you support the bike with your right leg as you aggressively bang into the kick stand with your other foot. The machine now wants to fall over, but you won’t let it because you are its master. The machine must obey your commands. When It’s your first-time riding, you’ll feel a slight tinge of adrenaline. After months of planning and scheming the magic moment will arrive; the moment that you have been contemplating for years. You’ll realize that you’re not dreaming as you click the transmission into neutral and press the engine start button. As the engine springs to life, you’ll notice the tachometer needle hovering over the five hundred revs index. Twisting the throttle will make the needle move up and down accordingly, because the throttle controls engine speed. The apprehension is palpable as you feel the monster rumble between your legs like a bridled dragon! This is the moment you have been waiting for. The moment where all of the training and tutorials are put into practical application. This is the day you ride your motorcycle for the first time! There is no co-pilot on this mission because you are the master and commander. Think of it as your first solo flight.

You’ve seen plenty of YouTube tutorials, and you’ve gotten familiar with the fundamentals. You have a summary knowledge of the mechanics, and now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. You understand that you use your left toe to shift gears. You use your right foot to apply the rear brake. Left hand works the clutch and your right hand cracks the throttle. No problem. It’s a simple matter of person vs. machinery. As you sit upon the glistening beast you remember your training. “First things first,” you may say to yourself. The first thing is to get the engine started. Before you do that, you have to pop the gearbox into neutral. The second step is to pull in the clutch. Step three involves engaging first gear. You say these things to yourself as you struggle with anxiety. Fully knowing the risks, you make up your mind to put your fears at bay. Your rational mind screams out as you contemplate the next move in an endless sequence of steps! Realizing that the machine has a capacity to launch like a rocket, you take one last deep breath. Now is the last chance to abort! It all begins once you release the clutch.

So, there you sit on an idling motorcycle, with an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms. Suddenly you get reacquainted with your confidence because you have located the elusive friction zone! This is the moment when the engine’s torque begins to spin the gearbox cogs. With a trembling hand, you slowly let the clutch lever all the way out, while simultaneously applying an ever so modest amount of throttle. Now the fun begins. Your first solo voyage has commenced, and the waiting is finally over. You are actually riding your motorcycle! Your adrenaline surges as you manage to get both feet squarely up onto the pegs for the first time! As you trundle down the road in first gear you immediately realize that this is nothing like you expected. It’s not like riding a bicycle. It’s easier. You don’t have to pedal. All you have to do is twist the throttle with the right hand. But you’re not a motorcyclist yet, because you are still in first gear. You’ll be reminded of this fact as the engine winds up, and the tachometer creeps higher and higher towards its redline! Some new riders freak out at this point, and forget what’s the next step? The next step is to pull in the clutch and apply some brakes! Mastering the friction zone is one thing, but once you get rolling you need to concentrate on stopping. This is accomplished by pulling in the clutch while braking. At this level in training, new riders oftentimes lose their minds; forgetting that they have brakes! Don’t beat yourself up if this happens to you. Commanding a motorcycle is intimidating at first. If you panic, just pop your reserve shoot (pull in the clutch) and you’ll fall safely back down to zero miles per hour. Practice makes perfect. Do this repeatedly until you gain confidence. Run some drills by starting from a dead stop. Accelerate at a sensible rate, and then stop utilizing the brakes and clutch. Repeat the drills incessantly until you get the feel for it. Once you get bored with straight lines, you’ll feel the need to execute some low-speed maneuvers! This brings us to the next stage of training, which involves pointing the machine in the proper direction.

When negotiating turns it is fundamental to look where you are going! As a new rider this concept may seem trivial at first. However, rookies tend to have tunnel vision. This usually means that their gaze is fixed upon whatever is directly in front of them. This phenomenon is known as object fixation. When our eyes are trained onto an obstacle, we tend to bump into it; instead of swerving around it. Maneuvering a cycle through a turn requires you to physically turn your head. This technique forces you to aim your nose into the direction of intended travel. Although this may sound simple, it’s common for new riders to fixate on something such as a tree, which inevitably puts your motorcycle into a crash course with the obstacle. Always point your head into the direction you intend to go, and the machine will follow. To begin, just putter around in a circle. Go to the left for a while, and then switch it up and go right. Remember to have some fun with it as you follow up with a few figure 8’s.

After training for an hour or two your fingers will go numb, and your mind will be reduced to mush. This means it’s time to wrap it up. You’ve learned several skills so far, and by now you’ll be very tired. Now is a good time to shut the engine down and have yourself a victory snack! As stated earlier, it’s not uncommon to experience an adrenaline jolt after riding a motorcycle for the first time. This puts your body into overdrive, and it will wear you out quickly. Give yourself some time to come down as you mentally review the day’s events. Put the bike back under its tarp and give yourself a hearty pat on the back! Today was a big day for you.

The Next Day

As you can readily ascertain, several factors must converge to successfully operate a motorcycle. It’s natural to become overwhelmed in the beginning, but as you hone your basic skills, you’ll see noticeable improvement. After your first day of riding, it’s wise to review key events from your first time out. You’ve learned to look where you are going and can stop with modest proficiency. You’ve executed monotonous drills and practiced until your hands cramped up! All the while you gained absolute control of the machine. Your confidence grew exponentially as you kept at it, which gave you needed courage to operate at higher speeds. Going faster requires a skill that we call up-shifting. But first, let’s talk some more about the brakes.

Braking on a motorcycle is different than in a car because each wheel has an individual actuator. The front wheel has its own brake control independent from the rear. As you know, the front brake controller is located on the handlebars, while the rear brake lever is controlled with your right foot. You’re familiar with the basics so It’s time to safely perform a panic stop. A panic stop can be practiced by first reaching a speed of 20 mph, and then braking aggressively. Panic stopping involves pulling in the clutch while applying a smooth and steadily increasing pressure to the front brake. As far as the rear brake is concerned, the objective is to apply as much pressure as possible without skidding. Keep in mind that the front brake gives you roughly 70% of total braking effect. In other words, the front brake is your friend. The proper method for applying the front brake is to squeeze it, slowly at first, until you feel the compression of the forks. As the front suspension reacts to the initial squeeze, the vehicle’s weight gets transferred to the front wheel. This provides optimal traction at the front tire. At this time, it is safe to apply increasing pressure to the front brake. In the Marine Corps, riflemen are trained to squeeze the trigger as opposed to jerking it. On the firing range, a projectile will swing wide if the trigger is jerked abruptly. This is because the muzzle of the firearm is disturbed when the Marine gets too aggressive with the trigger finger. If a Marine jerks on the trigger instead of squeezing it, the bullet will inevitably miss the target. In a similar fashion, if you jerk on the front brake, the front wheel tends to skid. Proper braking requires finesse. Make a conscious effort and employ gentle inputs when braking. When it comes to the front brake, don’t grab at it. Learn from the Marines and gently squeeze the lever instead. You will slowly gain confidence as you perform more training drills.

Now that we have explored proper braking we can graduate to higher speeds. As stated earlier, this requires up-shifting. You will never forget the sensation derived from the thrill of shifting out of first gear, past neutral, and up into second on a motorcycle. The first time you will be amazed at how effortless shifting a bike really is. Like everything else, shifting is a skill that you must cultivate by doing. To shift correctly, your toe should be underneath the shifter so you can click it up one notch at a time. It’s wise to keep slight pressure on the shifter peg with the toe of your left boot. In this way, your foot is perfectly positioned to “lift” the transmission out of first gear and into second. This will become automatic muscle memory over time, but for now you will have to mentally go over the process in a step-by-step linear fashion. Step one is to release the throttle, so the engine slows down. The second step is to pull in the clutch lever with your left hand. Step three is when you physically lift the shifter with the toe of your left boot. The final step requires you to release the clutch and accelerate using the throttle. Once you’ve mastered shifting out of first gear and up into second, you’ll be tempted to accelerate and upshift yet again! As a new rider it is wise to avoid this temptation until you’ve mastered downshifting. Instead of clicking up into third gear, it is better for a beginner to stay in second. As a new rider you’ll be very pleased to realize that downshifting is even easier than upshifting was. The steps for downshifting are the same as for upshifting. The only difference is that you keep the sole of your left boot on top of the shifter, instead of under it. When executing a downshift, simply rest your foot on top of the shifter with a gentle pressure after you pull in the clutch lever. Proper shifting requires a bit of finesse. In no time flat you will find yourself shifting with ease. It’s not a very steep learning curve. Practice makes perfect. Allow yourself all the time you need for practice. Begin by starting from a dead stop. Then accelerate and upshift. Now downshift, stop, and repeat.

Once you’ve mastered panic stopping and basic shifting, you can move on to negotiating higher speed curves. This involves getting the motorcycle to lean over towards the direction of the curve. As stated earlier, rule number one is to physically move your head into the direction of the curve. In this way you will avoid object fixation which is the phenomenon in which your motorcycle will travel in the exact direction that your head (and eyes) are aiming at. As a beginning motorcyclist, you must avoid tunnel-vision, which is akin to object fixation. Tunnel vision can kill a motorcyclist quicker than a depth charge! There is a simple antidote to tunnel vision however, and it’s simple. All you must remember is to turn your head. When you negotiate a corner, it is imperative to rotate your head into the direction in which you want the machine to travel. Novice riders tend to keep their focus straight ahead, with eyes glued to whatever is directly in front of them. This is especially problematic when negotiating a turn. Keep your attention focused on where you want the bike to end up. This is to say that if you’re turning, your head better be pointed in the direction of the exit point. In a curve, you will go wide if you don’t rotate your head. You must also tilt your head in a way as to keep your eyes parallel with the road. Keep your head on a swivel as they say in the Navy. Like magic, the machine will always travel in the direction of your gaze.

Once you’ve turned your head it’s time to start counter-steering, which induces a lean. This technique occurs as the rider applies forward pressure to the handlebar in accordance with the intended direction of travel. Counter-steering is what we mean by push right and go right. It puts the motorcycle into a lean without excessive inputs from the rider. The reason for this is that when you counter-steer, the motorcycle does the leaning for you. As a rider, you lean with the machine in unison as you initiate the counter-steer. This is the best method for inducing a lean. Simply stated, counter-steering is a must have skill for budding motorcyclists. We have two options. We can lean our body and hope the machine leans with us, or we can learn counter-steering. I like the second option because it requires less energy on my part. The act of counter-steering requires a very subtle input. It takes much less physical force to induce a lean by counter-steering then it does to lean with your body. Keep in mind that higher speeds require more forward pressure to get the machine leaned over. This is due to the gyroscopic effect produced by the spinning wheels. For some, banking a motorcycle into a lean is like flying without leaving the ground. Counter-steering allows you to twist and turn like a fighter pilot who aggressively banks from left to right. Push left on the handlebars to lean left and push right on the handlebar to lean right. Simple.

Head Out on the Highway

You now have proficient shifting and braking skills, and you know how to initiate a lean. It’s time to gear up and head out on the open road! Riding around on some quiet twisty country roads is very satisfying. The counter-steering technique helps to amplify this sensation. After a few weeks of practice, you’ll get more and more comfortable with the entire process. By this time, you and the machine will have morphed into a cohesive unit. It’s as if you were born for this. Your mind, body, and soul will converge as you become one with the machine. Riding in the peaceful countryside can be a surreal experience that only a motorcyclist can fully understand. Motorcycling, when done properly, is a mind-altering experience. In fact, riding is downright therapeutic. I say this because attentive riding requires your mind to be fixated firmly into the ‘present moment.’ Mystic gurus attain psychic transformation through meditation and deep breathing exercises. Bikers experience a similar sensation while riding because it forces us to be mindful. This means we actively block out all irrelevant mental noise. This mental silence is literally what spiritualists strive for during periods of intense meditation. Psychologists know that we can achieve self-actualization through years of self-study. Motorcyclists have an unfair advantage in this department because bikers must exercise extreme mental discipline. Motorcycling requires the same sort of mental fortitude that is employed by spiritualists and healers. Training your mind to become an enlightened thinker is like training your mind to operate a motorcycle. In other words, it takes the same kind of psychic discipline to ride a motorbike as it does to reach inner peace through meditation.Motorcyclists and mystic gurus have a lot in common. For one thing, both groups know what it means to be truly alive! Mystics seek enlightenment through silent meditation while bikers experience it as we thunder down the highway! Motorcycling requires us to transition into a state of extreme mindfulness. The intensity of the experience thrusts us into a metaphysical state of total amazement! It’s like magic. Bikers and spiritualists alike find themselves transcending time and space because both groups have ultimate control of their mental faculties. Take a ride one day and you’ll notice as your mind, body, and soul coalesce into a state of existential bliss. It’s as if you’ve suddenly gained access to a certain kind of mechanized divinity. Once you’ve experienced it for yourself, you’ll know. From that moment on you’ll be a biker!

It doesn’t matter what you ride, it only matters where you’re going.

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