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Five things every new rider should know

People come to motorcycling in a lot of different ways.

There’s the guy who suddenly realizes that all his friends are going on a weekend motorcycle trip and he’s the one missing out because he doesn’t ride. There’s the woman who has been a passenger for years and wants to ride her own ride.

There’s the middle-aged guy who sees a kid on a dirt bike, remembers the happy riding days of his own youth, and suddenly can’t recall why he ever stopped riding. Or the young woman who spots the sleek new sportbike in the display window and suddenly decides, with absolute certainty but with no warning, that she simply must have it and learn to ride it.

These are general examples and actual true stories. But for as many different ways as there are to get into motorcycling, there are a few common experiences everyone has.

You face a bewildering variety of choices. You need advice, but you find that even advice from experienced riders is sometimes contradictory.

(See a word you don’t understand? While you’re still learning the motorcycle lingo, refer to our glossary of motorcycle terms.)

Even a small amount of research will quickly teach you that motorcycling can be a relatively inexpensive, even money-saving hobby, or it can lead you into horribly expensive mistakes; that it can bring life-long fun or hurt you badly if you get it wrong.

None of which is meant to discourage you. To the contrary — the AMA consists of thousands and thousands of enthusiastic riders who hope you become a convert to motorcycling and join in the fun we’re having. Of course we hope you’ll eventually become a committed motorcyclist and join the AMA, too.

But for now, to help you get into first gear, we’ve put together some basic advice gathered from the hundreds of years of riding experience accumulated by AMA members. Based on that wisdom, here are the five things we believe every new rider needs to know.

1. Do it right: Get licensed. Be legal. Be smart.

The statistics show that unlicensed riders are more likely to be involved in a crash. Does a motorcycle endorsement on the piece of plastic in your wallet make your riding skills sharper? Of course not.

The real reason licensed riders are less likely to crash is because of their attitude, not their drivers license status. Riders who take motorcycling seriously, ride legally, ride sober, and try to continuously improve their riding skills are more likely to have long and happy riding careers. It’s all about attitude.

Which leads us to the importance of lifelong learning.

2. You need training, but your best friend probably isn’t your best teacher.

True story: We know a woman whose rider training lasted 10 feet. That’s how far she got across the parking lot before her boyfriend got nervous, yelled at her, and in the ensuing argument she gave up on learning to ride.

Often, it’s easier to learn from a professionally trained stranger than from even the best-intentioned friend or relative.

Want to ride off-road? The MSF has a course designed to help you with that, too. Visit the MSF website for more info.

Even if you never stray from the pavement, having experience in a low-traction environment will improve your skills and make you a better rider. Some of the world’s best riders on asphalt got started in the dirt.

Fortunately, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers a course specifically designed to take you from zero riding experience to a licensed motorcyclist in one weekend. See our account of a course to get an idea of what to expect and read the Basic Rider Course handbook at the MSF website to study up in advance.

In many states, passing the MSF course automatically makes you eligible for a motorcycle endorsement on your drivers license. No more tests to take. Also, many insurance companies offer discounts if you’ve passed the course.

The downside is that these courses are very popular and fill up early. It’s best to check with your state program around the beginning of the year and reserve a spot as soon as possible.

But don’t stop with the beginning rider course. Make a commitment to lifelong learning. You can go on to take the MSF’s Experienced Rider Course, and there’s a wide range of schools that provide advanced training on the road, on the race track or in the dirt. Check out our list of schools, some of which give discounts to AMA members and our brief list of books on motorcycling topics, including how to improve your riding skills.

Also, there’s one other benefit of taking an MSF course before you plunge head first into motorcycling. Some take the class and learn that motorcycling’s not for them after all. Better to learn that after dropping a few dollars on course tuition than a few thousand on a motorcycle.

3. Your dream bike shouldn’t be your first bike.

When you’re just getting started, it’s easy to get caught up in the allure of the machine itself. Your friend has a Harley so you have to have a Harley. You saw the Ducati gleaming in the sun and now you can’t get the color red out of your mind. You saw the superstars of AMA Superbike dragging a knee at Road Atlanta and now you know you want a Suzuki GSX-R1000.

We understand. We experienced riders can waste hours talking about how great this bike is, or how much we’d love to own that one, or why this other one is more beautiful, more desirable, etc.

And yet, the best bike for you to start riding on is probably one that would never inspire lust. While you may be tempted to buy the bike of your dreams, you’re probably best off buying a smaller, less expensive used motorcycle that’s mechanically sound, even if it’s an ugly duckling.

“What?” you exclaim. “You’re taking the fun out of my dreams!”

Hear us out. Here are three reasons to buy an inexpensive used bike to learn on:

You’re most likely going to drop it. And if you drop your dream bike, you’re going to cry. And incur bills. Hey, it’s nothing personal. All of us, especially when we were learning to ride, have dropped a motorcycle or two in our day. Take it from experience: It’s easier to stomach the results when you’re less emotionally (and financially) attached to the bike that’s hitting the pavement.

What you think you want now may not be what you really want later. Only after you’ve ridden for a while will you know whether what you really love is riding across three states on a week-long tour or riding three miles to your local bike-night hangout. Buying an expensive new bike today and selling it a year from now when you realize it’s not for you is the perfect way to take a big financial hit on depreciation.

You can still get your dream bike. Once you have some experience and have refined your idea of what you want in a motorcycle, you’ll be better able to choose the one that’s right for a long-term relationship. Plus, you can sell the cheap learner bike, probably for about what you paid for it, to another aspiring rider. Just feel the good karma spreading.

4. It’s not just the motorcycle. You need gear.

We’ve mentioned the unpleasantness of dropping your bike. What if your body hits the ground? Will you be prepared?

While the AMA opposes mandatory helmet laws, the association strongly encourages voluntary helmet use. Even some states that don’t require helmets for adult riders may require them for riders with less than a year of experience. You can find your state’s requirements on our state laws page.

A helmet and gloves are a good start, but also consider boots, a jacket and pants specifically made for riding. Gearing up right doesn’t have to be expensive. While you should always buy a new helmet because crash damage to the interior can often be undetectable to anyone but an expert, gently used riding pants, boots, gloves and a jacket are usually fine. Most retailers and online mail-order houses also frequently discount non-current styles.

Rain gear made specifically for motorcycling is inexpensive and will keep you comfortable and safer when the weather turns foul. Ordinary rainwear will likely be destroyed from the wind when riding a motorcycle.

5. You don’t have to ride alone.

Of course you can, if you want, but for most people, motorcycling is a social activity, at least part of the time. Meeting other riders will introduce you to a level of camaraderie that’s uncommon these days. Riding with responsible, experienced riders can help you improve your own skills. And, above all that, it’s fun.

How do you find like-minded riders? If you’re interested in a certain kind or brand of motorcycle, you can almost always find an internet message board devoted to that interest.

The AMA can also help. On this site you can find an AMA-chartered club in your area, or search our database of thousands of AMA-sanctioned events across the country.

Of course, we hope you’ll become hooked on motorcycling, just like the rest of us have, and then we hope you’ll be committed enough to join the AMA and help protect your right to ride. And stick with us for the long, fun ride ahead.