Learning to ride, and not crash

As I write this, my first motorcycle learner’s licence is barely an hour old and I’m listening to Mark Richardson on CBC Radio. He’s talking about the death of a motorcyclist, who, by all accounts was an excellent rider and an even more excellent human.

“Mainly you think it’s not going to happen to you. It’ll happen to somebody else. I tend to think that,” Mark is saying to the host. “I ride responsibly. I ride defensively. Ultimately I know that it could bite me like it bit Rob [Harris]. If your number’s up, it’s up. And there’s nothing really you can do about that.”

At this point I should be having second thoughts about motorcycle riding, about getting a first bike and continuing to learn to ride. I should just stop now before I get in too deep.

Do you remember the first time you swung a leg over a motorcycle? Felt the suspension squish down? Thumbed the starter button tentatively, not quite sure what to expect, and then the noise and vibration of the ungainly machine rattling, banging to life? The first time you twisted the throttle?

Oooh, yuck – that’s ugly, that is. And Matt’s bruise is pretty gross, too.

This was me a few weeks ago in a parking lot by Lake Ontario. I was as green as they come, taking RTI’s Riding Basics Course to earn my Ontario M2 licence. I’d never been on a bike as of Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon I’d already had my first crash. But I got up, got back on the bike and by that evening had passed my test with — and this is a pathetic brag — a perfect score.

Yes, that crash was my fault. I went to do my 12th emergency stop, wasn’t thinking, panicked, grabbed the brake lever, and then I was on the ground listening as my helmet scraped against the ground. Stupid.

For the next two weeks I watched daily as my right elbow bloomed purple and yellow and green. It looked like raw ground beef surrounded by mouldy cheese. I didn’t know my body could make those colours. My right arm is almost back to normal.

I know this thing I just learned to do, riding a motorcycle, could kill me. But it also gave me life: a richer, thrilling, frustrating, motorcycle-riding life.

Shit no. Absolutely not. No way am I going to stop now. I’m just getting started. After two days in that parking lot by Lake Ontario, I am hooked.

If Matt can get this passionate over a TW200 in the rain, just imagine what he’ll be like after a year or so.

I’d be lying though if I didn’t say I was, am, scared. Hearing Mark talk about what happened to Rob  scared me, and not just because of his tragic death. It’s because deep in my fancy monkey brain, I’m thinking — like Mark said — that it won’t happen to me; I’ll be careful; I’ll be different. I’m a lunatic! I’ve got absolutely no right or reason to think I’ll be okay where Rob wasn’t. I am as bad a motorcyclist as exists anywhere in the world right now. I’ve never ridden on a street, or out of a parking lot, or got above third gear. I — and to a lesser extent, all motorcycle riders — am testament to the amazing power of human wishful thinking.

Maybe that’s part of it. Is riding a motorcycle is about shrugging off the risk of death? Or, no, not shrugging the risk off, but living despite the risk. I never knew the man, but it seems like Rob did that.


If you are out there, thinking about learning to ride, here are five things I learned from my weekend at motorcycle school.

Don’t be cheap. Learn from my mistake. Buy proper gear. Everywhere I wore protection — head, knees, hands — I was fine after my crash at around 20-25 km/h. No scrapes, no bruises. My elbow, with only a jean jacket for protection, wasn’t so lucky. Get pants and a jacket with armour and make sure they fit properly. It’s more comfortable than you imagine. The armour is rubbery and soft. Any good motorcycle shop will help you find what you need.

Take a government-certified course. Don’t just let your friend’s buddy Darren teach you and take your luck on the road test. I took a class with RTI, the Rider Training Institute, but other institutions offer similar courses. RTI’s Riding Basics class is $450 and includes the cost of the practical M2 test, which you’ll take during the course. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even sat on a motorcycle before. They’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started.

Welcome to the wonderful world of motorcycles!

Don’t wait for perfect weather. Learn to ride when it’s a bit cold. Or, even better, on a rainy day. Some people go years without ever riding in the rain. As I learned the hard way: it’s slippery, and takes a little extra care and finesse. But it’s nothing to fear.

Be humble. It’s easy enough to learn to putter around on a motorcycle. Don’t let that give you false confidence. Becoming a good motorcyclist is hard and will take a long time, a lifetime even.

Get your friends to take the course with you. If they don’t, tell them how amazing it was after the fact until they cave and learn to ride. Peer pressure — it works. Riding is more fun with friends.

Lastly, I asked Mark for some of his hard-won riding wisdom, but after much procrastination, he claims he’s “too busy” to put it all down on paper. So, I ask you, CMG reader: What tips do you have to pass on to a brand-new rider?

30 thoughts on “Learning to ride, and not crash”

  1. Good riding skills are important but so is using your head. I have been riding every year for 42 years now. I know how important it is to be visible and predictable to the other road users. Speeding through a yellow light just because you have the horsepower to accelerate quickly is very risky. Use your head and practice your riding skills and you can ride safely for a long time. Quality rider training such as the Gearing Up Motorcycle Training Program is not a luxury but an essential investment for motorcyclists.

  2. What almost everyone else has said, and in particular, enroll in a dirt bike riding course–when I got my M2 licence and started riding with a smallish Kawasaki, the late Robbie M. who was a racer and operated Rocket Motorcycle in Downsview for years gave me very sage advice–he said that now that I know how to aim my motorcycle I should go learn how to ride it! Told me to get to the off road riding school that was run in the Ganaraska Forest in Durham–don’t remember the name of the school or who ran it–but it was certainly worth while–as the lessons learned on those two days–like learning how to ride over obstacles and getting used to riding, turning and stopping in muck and sand without falling over.

    If you have not purchased your first motorcycle, then buy a small, used bike–you’re likely going to drop it several times, so it doesn’t hurt as much when it happens. Then, when comfortable on it, move up to a newer bike that you have your eye on in a year or two.

    Ride as often as you can, in good weather and bad, in heavy traffic and on quiet back roads, take refresher riding courses and finally, try to find an excellent rider who is prepared to put up with you, and follow her or his lead.

  3. If you cannot see a drivers (or other riders) face in his mirror, he can’t see you. Get out of his blind spot. If you have a close call, don’t just thank your lucky stars, learn from the situation and don’t repeat it. When stopped for a red light, keep an eye on your mirrors and the bike in gear. You may need to move quickly.

  4. Read David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling & practice some emergency manoeuvres in an empty parking lot with the bikes you ride before you have to try them on the street.

  5. Remember two things: to car drivers you’re invisible, and they’re all out to kill you. Keep that in the back of your mind and you’ll probably be just fine. Worked for me for the last 40 years.

    1. You left out the third – the large Polish sampler platter at the Wilno Tavern will not kill you; it will only feel like it.

  6. Hi CMG! Wow. First, thank you for reading. Second, I’ve been blown away this week by the quality, thoughtfulness and wisdom in all of your comments. There are so many things in here I never would have thought of as a newbie. In fact, I think the collected wisdom here should be a story unto itself. Thank you all for taking the time to chime in and help a new rider! -Matt

      1. One other thing, and this may be somewhat controversial. They probably taught you not to have your fingers on the brakes because in a panic you may hit the front brake too hard and cause a stoppie or have the front wheel lost traction. This is true; but you can correct this by practicing careful brake modulation. What you can’t do beyond a certain point is decrease your reaction time. Reaction time with two fingers on the brake is far lower than when you have to reach from the closed hand position (since your right hand will be holding relatively tightly for the throttle).

        Far safer in my view to learn, early, to throttle with index and middle finger on the brake lever and modulate your braking response. Slow reaction times are just as dangerous, if not more, than risk of grabbing too much brake.

        Try it in a safe environment and get used to it.

        Also, when you get some time under your belt, taking the RACE course or equivalent will really up your game in terms of understanding traction limits, braking limits, etc. in a pretty safe environment.

        Good luck.

        1. Wow. You are an incredibly fastidious man. Have you ever actually gone on a two hour ride with fingers always over brake lever?

          Per chance, the best advice may be to get a license, and then endeavour to improve one’s skills. Stoppies and wheelies are fun.
          First thing I learned to do. Find a safe venue for this.

          All humans are ham-fisted. I feel the best advice is to waken the f*ck up.

          1. Honestly, i do every ride from one minute to three weeks that way, it becomes second nature. Not sure why you think it’s so difficult. And sure, wheelies and stoppies are fun when you WANT to do them.

        2. Both excellent points. I don’t cover the front brake all the time (eg., trolling down a road with little traffic and no driveways), but I absolutely do when the risk level goes up: at intersections or urban roads with lots of driveways or areas with deer as but a few examples. Doing a track school with FAST at Shannonville was probably the best $500 I’ve ever spent (2002) and subsequent training has been invaluable as well. Never stop learning. Riding 47 years.

  7. Remember that motorbike riding is like any new motor skill. It requires a lot of concentration and effort until it becomes second nature. That’s when the program gets transferred from your consciousness to your long term memory. Figure about three months before you no longer have to think about every step of clutch, gearchange, throttle input and braking.

    After that it gets easier but it can also get more dangerous unless you maintain situational awareness. You know, street sense. If you only walk down the road looking at a cell phone, you will eventually get robbed or fall down an uncovered man-hole. Same with bike riding. Be aware, and realise that yes, they are trying to kill you. Just keep out of their way and don’t give them the chance. And have fun.

  8. Constantly look for potential trouble developping ahead of you such as cars coming the other way and making a left turn in front of you. They have a hard time judging your speed and often don’t see us. I know it isn’t cool but wear a jacket/vest with reflective colors such as green or orange if you can. My 2 cents 🙂

  9. Don’t ride “within your limits”; ride well below your limits, so that when a situation pushes you you will still be within your limits.

    Assume nobody on the road sees you. On that note, since you’re buying new stuff anyway, buy hi-viz. Or at least spend $20.00 on a safety vest and wear it at night, and put reflector tape on the bike and your helmet.

    Have fun – that’t the only reason to do it. If it’s no longer fun, stop.

  10. Always wear boots. You’ll never lean a bike over as far as the day your shoelace loops around the shifter. Always carry a thin 3″x3″ piece of aluminum, plastic,wood or anything to put under your side stand on a hot day.

  11. Yes I have driven a motorbike for 30 years now and I have as anybody who rides encountered some pretty close calls with other riders with some or no experience on the roads which is all part of the learning curve of owning a bike, the more you ride the more you are see. Good luck to all the new riders out there and be safe.

  12. Drive your car like you are riding a motorcycle watching and preparing for all dangers you were taught to prepare for. It will make you a better rider and driver.

    1. And ride your motorcycle like you are driving your car…. take your space in the lane and occupy it. Signal all your turns and lane changes. Be ready to beep your horn if ‘that’ car starts to move into your space. Don’t take stupid risks. Don’t be a jerk. DO enjoy yourself!

        1. Yes–like the dual trumpet air horns I had installed on my Black Cherry ’06 Road King with leather fringes and not so loud pipes.

  13. For new riders – get out in the roads as soon as practical after you finish your course, even if it’s a parking lot or just around the block. Get to know your bike and get comfortable with it. I was so nervous bringing my first bike home, but two days later I went out for six hours on both country roads (80 kph) and quieter city streets and haven’t looked back since. If you don’t get out because you are nervous, you may never get out.

Join the conversation!