Opinion: Things I wish I knew

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S,

Matt Bubbers is CMG’s resident newbie. An experienced auto writer but new to motorcycling, he’ll be chiming in over the coming months to give us some insight on his experience as a new rider. – Ed

While others learned to feed a sourdough starter or sing sea shanties, I learned to ride a motorcycle during the pandemic. Thankfully, I managed to schedule and pass my final test in the fall in between lockdown waves. With the victorious results in my pocket, I whooped and hollered, shouting for joy inside my helmet as I rode home as a fully licensed motorcycle rider.

Thanks to graduated licensing, it took me four years to get to this point. Now I’m here and able to look back on my experience, I feel like I am able to impart my knowledge on those looking to do the same. I’ve compiled all the tips and notes I wish I’d known before taking my motorcycle license test in hopes that it will demystify the process and help others to follow.

Ontario has a graduated motorcycle license system, so I actually took three tests to earn my full M license. Most provinces and territories have similar arrangements, so these tips should apply to everyone.

You can do iiiiit

The very first thing to know is that, if I could learn to ride a motorcycle, apropos of nothing, you can too. You may lack confidence in your abilities, but there’s only one way to find out if riding a motorcycle is meant for you – by doing it. Taking a motorcycle course will provide you with the skills to become a safe, capable rider. Instructors are motorcyclists too! They are enthusiastic and encouraging. They want to see you succeed.

Bring a friend

The licensing process isn’t all glitz and glam. It can be a bit of a slog with lots of waiting, especially in the early days. So, beg, bribe – do whatever it takes – to convince a friend to get their license with you. Standing in line at government offices to fill out the initial paperwork, sitting in a classroom and waiting around between sessions – it’s good to have a buddy. If not, well, I did the whole process alone since none of my cheapskate friends could be convinced. It can be done and you’ll make new friends.

Take the class

It’s been said a million times, but sign up for one of the government-approved motorcycle safety courses. They’re only a few hundred bucks, but you’ll get experienced, qualified instructors who coach you through the whole process step by step. I took classes for both my intermediate license (M2) and my full license (M). I’d hazard a wild guess that the pass rates are higher for people who take the courses too, because the whole point is to teach you what you need to know to successfully perform the skills needed. It will also increase the likelihood of starting off with good riding habits.

Chill out and have fun

Easier said than done of course, but try to remember: motorcycles are fun! Licensing tests aren’t like tests in school. You’re choosing to take these ones, and it’ll be worth it. You’ll be nervous and anxious, but instructors are there to teach not trick you. Soak in the experience. Enjoy the camaraderie and the fact that you’re learning new applied skills.

Don’t rush it

This is the most important advice I can impart here: don’t rush. In Ontario, you’ve got up to five years to practice riding on your intermediate M2 license before taking the final M test. Enjoy it! Use those summers to ride, to meet other riders, to take short road trips, then longer ones. Try an off-road riding school or maybe even flat-track racing. Go to a Moto Social in your city; they’re always super welcoming for new riders. Every mile you put on your motorcycle during these in-between years will make your final test so much easier because you’ll be that much more confident.

But don’t wait too long

Don’t wait until the last month of year five to take your second and final road test. Give yourself a cushion in case you fail, in which case: no big deal. Just learn from your mistakes and take the test again.

Practice makes perfect

Now, some tips for taking the final license test, which is called the M2X course, or M2 Exit, or M license test in Ontario. U-turns might not be something you regularly do as a new rider, so make a point to practice on a quiet street. Pulling a safe u-turn was on the test when I took it in summer of 2021. Practice getting on the highway at one entrance, merging into traffic, and then off at the next exit. On the test, they don’t grade your ability to cruise for hours in the fast lane.

Success! Matt becomes a fully licensed motorcycle rider.

Know the buttons

Does your bike have four-way flashers? Where’s the switch? Modern bikes have a mess of functions with lots of buttons on the handlebars. Learn what each of them do on your bike and be able to find them quickly – ideally without looking down. On the test, they could ask you do to do an emergency stop by the side of the road and you’ll need to switch on the four-ways for full marks.

Move your head

I can’t stress this point enough: Exaggerate your movements. On the test, they’ll dock points for not scanning intersections for potential hazards or for not checking your mirrors. The thing is: the person grading you needs to see you do those things, so it’s not enough to glance with your eyes. Consciously turn your head to check your mirrors, to look left and right, to look at that driveway, to look at everything. Think ABL: Always Be Looking.

Brave new world

I also successfully learned how to bake bread during lockdowns, but I’m way prouder of getting my full motorcycle license. If you’re at all on the fence about getting into riding – take a course and see if it’s for you. Learning to ride will change your life. It sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t. It changed mine. Perhaps not in any profound Zen sense – jury’s still out on that – but at the very least riding has given me more moments of pure, blissed-out joy during these last two brutal years. You’ll see things differently and meet interesting, new people.

If you’ve got any other tips to pass along to test-takers, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.


  1. Well done article Matt. I’m always interested in the new process as opposed to when I got my license 40 years ago. I grew up with motorcycles on a farm and often went down in the gravel, sand, or grass etc. that was the riding surface at any given moment, and was thankful to do no harm. In my experience, learning to use the front and rear brakes independently and together has been a lifesaver on dirt or pavement. I wonder how much of this is taught, or with the popularity of anti lock and linked braking systems is it even relevant? Either way, I think emergency braking should be high on one’s list of skills to acquire. The second thing is the myth of relaxing while riding (the cruiser mentality) and clearing your head. Have fun, but pay attention at all times, as we’re only a couple of seconds inattention away from ending the fun. I imagine these subjects are covered in the suggested literature, but just my 5 cents worth.

  2. Good advice from the author and commentators here. It’s true that you’re never too old to get your licence – after a couple of “cycles” over the years with the process in Ontario, I got my full “M” licence at age 55. During my two experiences with the “M” exit test, I was asked to do the roadside stop, but never a U-turn. Only extra piece of advice would be to watch your speed, particularly on city streets with limits in the 40-50 km range. You’re already nervous enough on your test and your desire to prove you can ride smoothly often leads to your speed creeping up unknowingly.

  3. Look further down the road, as it slows things down & gives you advance warning of “hazards”

    No graduated licensing in Alberta and you don’t even need a course to ride. You do need a Class 6 rider to accompany you @ ALL times, until you attain the class 6. You also do NOT have to ride on a highway. My little lady took a course through SAIT & passed (insurance discount) & then I took over her training, getting her ready for her road test (former Instructor myself in Ontario) which she passed on my little Honda GROM

  4. Now that you have a license to ride a motorcycle, get a copy of the book “Motorcycle Roadcraft, The Police Rider’s Handbook.” While you have to accept the diagrams which are all left-handed because of its British origin, the advice and system of riding safely but quickly is essential in modern traffic. There is a 2020 edition. And it available through online sources. I re-read my copy every spring before starting a riding season.

  5. Don’t overlook decent gear.

    Yes, it gets expensive and every ones budget is different. Just keep in mind, first bikes come and go. Helmets, gloves, boots, jackets etc tend to stay with you longer. If you are too hot, too cold, you are less likely going to enjoy riding. Same goes for if you lose a chunk of skin, or catch a shoelace on the footpeg coming to a stop during your test 😉

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