How to: Spot a newbie

Spring is in the air, and that means a fresh batch of new motorcyclists will soon be taking to the streets. Like chicks out of the nest, they will be wobbly.

Const. Dave Gray has seen every possible mistake new riders make during his years as an OPP motorcycle patrol officer, where he is now the lead instructor, and as a member of the elite Golden Helmets precision riding team. We asked him to identify the “tells” that immediately give new riders away. And, well, there are many. Here’s how not to ride a motorcycle.

That’s Const. Dave Gray on the right, with his boss, Sgt. Paul Potter, standing behind the bike at the Toronto Motorcycle Show. Grey is a Master Instructor with the OPP, so he knows what he’s talking about.
The BMX stop

An 800-pound motorcycle doesn’t stop like a little BMX bicycle. You can’t just put your feet down, but that’s exactly what new riders often do. “Coming to an intersection, you see the feet walking,” says  Gray. “The bike hasn’t come to a full stop and their feet are already down.” By contrast, he explains, a professional police rider will pull up, stop and put the feet down in one smooth movement.

The Triangle

New riders will make a similar mistake taking off from an intersection. “You’ll see feet out in a triangle, walking until they’re up to 30, 40 km/h, because they think it’s a safety thing — but it’s absolutely not,” Gray says. Instead, bring your feet up when the bike gets moving.

The Speed Demon

Going faster than is wise in a given situation is another typical new-rider trait. “A new rider sometimes has this over-confidence, or doesn’t understand the capability of their motorcycle or limits of their own skills,” the constable says. Slow down, eh?

Riding too fast is a sure sign of a newbie, though this looks pretty fun.
The Late Braker

Coming into intersections or especially turns, a new rider will get on the brakes too late and too hard, as if they’re surprised. “We see a lot of that,” says Gray. Avoid this mistake by looking ahead and planning your next moves.

The Wobbly Parker

Anybody can ride a motorcycle fast in a straight line. It’s slow-speed maneuvers that new riders — and even experienced ones — often struggle with. In a parking lot or while doing a U-turn, you’ll see a newbie shaking around, lurching and wobbling.  Gray advises finding a safe, empty parking lot in which to practice, and practice, and practice your low-speed riding.

You may not have an entire US Navy base to practice in, like these riders in San Diego, but new riders should make the time to practice off the road.
The Quadruple-Take

Newer riders get nervous doing lane changes. “They’ll do shoulder checks and shoulder checks — they’ll do seven — and then suddenly veer over,” says Gray. Instead, he advises riders do one good, solid shoulder check making sure it’s clear, and then making a nice smooth movement to change lanes.

The Snail

“Another tell is braking way too soon,” Gray says. While still on a straight road, you’ll see a new rider slowing right down to 30 km/h because there’s a turn way up ahead. “You’ll see dancing with the brake light: on, off. [New riders can be] very sporadic: slower, faster, slower, faster,” he explains. “You’ll see experienced riders being smoother in their speed and maneuvers.”

Few people are better motorcycle riders than motorcycle cops, and especially the OPP’s Golden Helmets.

Even if you’re an experienced rider ready to roar out of the garage now the weather is warmer, you’d be wise to be mindful of these newbie mistakes. Riding a motorcycle is a “perishable skill,” as Const. Gray says.

“You’re not going to be at the level you were at in September last year when you first get out in March, but people don’t understand that,” he explains. “You need to get that rust off and bring yourself back up to that good level, and continue to learn and develop.”

Even the elite riders of the OPP’s Golden Helmets do a basic skills refresher in the spring. And you’re not better than them.

9 thoughts on “How to: Spot a newbie”

  1. HB, I think the reasons you give are your own personal beliefs. If anything, if I see someone sitting at a light, with their hands folded as a newbie move. One shucks always be ready to ride away, escape a rear collision; this means not being stopped directly behind the vehicle in front. Have an escape route. There is a reason schools teach things a certain way. One thing the Constable neglected to mention, making a smoother approach to stop is accomplished by using the rear brake. Front brake is for scrubbing high-speed and then slowly decreasing front brake pressure while adding rear brake to make a smooth stop without getting the “fork hop” which can upset the balance of the bike.

  2. “practice your low-speed riding” That’s what they told me when I flunked the first test 35 years ago; Good advice! It’s good practice to learn the maneuverability of your bike and get accustomed to the weight of it.

    1. depends who you ask. I know some very experienced riders who do this in case they need to move out of the way of a car coming in from behind.

      1. This is actually taught by some riding classes because if you’re in neutral and another car comes in from behind too fast and can’t stop you may not have time to get into gear and get out of the way.

    2. I must disagree with HB! While I am not an expert rider, I have been riding motorcycles for 20 years, I do not consider myself to be a newb. As a rule, I will not select neutral while sitting in traffic… and I would suggest doing so is a bad habit to develop. I want to be in a position to react to anything as fast as possible.

      That said, I am interested to hear your reasoning for doing so!

      1. We all have to justify our position so that others know where we are coming from.
        With the transmission in gear and the clutch lever pulled in your clutch isn’t fully disengaged causing heating of the clutch plates leading to wear and a changing engagement point and more load on the engine. Think about shedding heat on a stationary air cooled engine. Also, many bikes can not be kick started in gear.
        You can still be ready for some imaginary non-event while keeping your hand on the bars and shifter foot on the peg “ready to react to anything”. I know what the rider courses teach about the bike in gear.
        Some “very experienced riders” still only use the rear brake or the front brake (another newb practice) and other less than ideal habits after all those years.
        Certain “rules” such as sitting on the left, center, or right side of your lane are also less than ideal, since seeing the road ahead and also being seen depend on where you sit in your lane and your situation in traffic.

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