New Rider Advice
At time of writing, I have been riding for a little over four years and have logged 60,000 miles. By some definitions I am still a newbie, by others I am experienced. Either way, I wanted to capture some “new rider” advice before I completely forget the trials and tribulations that I experienced getting to this point. The most important piece of advice is to LEARN HOW TO RIDE; but that is not what this page is about. There are plenty of reputable riding courses available that will teach you how to safely operate a motorcycle; this article is not a substitute for that.
Also — I assume NO liability for any advice I give. I am not a riding instructor, nor am I a professional rider. This is not “Professional Advice”; it is just me sharing some lessons I’ve learned and observations I’ve made. Additionally, like everything else on this blog, what is written here is my own opinion and does not represent the view of NASA or the US Federal Government.
I tried to choose the lessons and observations that proved meaningful to me in some way or another; that being said, I tried to avoid regurgitating common advice or lesson instruction, except where I find it particularly meaningful or there is a nuance that I feel appropriate to share. Almost everything written here was either tried by me with good results or ignored by me with bad results. You may notice that much of this may be common sense advice for any driver, hiker, traveller, or consumer; but again as obvious as some of it may be, it has proven meaningful to me in some way over the last few years, so I am sharing it.
Yes, I am aware that this post is a painfully long. Pace yourself and take breaks. I’ve broken it up into four sections:
- Riding and Safety (the basic experience of riding and traffic.)
- Accessories and Gear
- The Journey (the experience of the adventure.)
Riding and Safety
Test Where You Learn
Assuming you are learning from certified instructors in a reputable course, you probably already have this covered. Irrespective of the value and validity of the state test as a true measure of skill, it stands between you and your license, so give yourself the best shot of passing. The oh-so useful skill of riding a “figure-8” in a little box is much easier atop the little Buell Blast on which you just trained, riding in the same little box whose pavement cracks have served you as markers for the past two weeks. Even after four years of riding, I doubt I would ace the infamous Figure-8 test on my 97-inch-long WideGlide. Taking a course that conducts the actual licensing test using the bike on which you trained, increases your chances of passing while avoiding the logistical hassles of the state-proctored test.
Know Thy Self
Know your skill level and don’t be impatient, riding beyond your limits. It is probably a good idea to stay out of city traffic until you have mastered the basic operation of the bike without having to think about it. It is probably a good idea to avoid taking the Dragon’s Tail until you are comfortable cornering. It is probably a good idea to avoid a long solo trip until you are reasonably assured of your skill and have had some bad weather experience under your belt. It is probably a good idea to avoid long stretches of gravel road and uneven terrain until you develop a good sense of bike balance and control. Even as your skills improve, know your level of traffic tolerance and don’t let yourself get pushed to impulsive manuevers. It’s obvious advice, repeated because human beings are what they are; I have scared myself back into the reality of my inexperience more than once even after four years. But that is not to say you shouldn’t push yourself. It is by taking on new challenges that we improve our skills; just do so smartly and incrementally.
Know Thy Bike
Beyond “knowing how to ride” is really “knowing how to ride“. Practice in parking lots and “easy” streets until the basic functions are automatically executed without actively thinking. Understand the responsiveness of your brakes before you need to apply them in an emergency so you don’t go into a skid (done it). It is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst to downshift for a tight turn only to release the clutch in the wrong gear (done it). Well into my first year, I found myself thinking too much about the process of shifting. Even now, though shifting is second nature, I still occasionally end up thinking “What gear am I in again?” when I’ve changed speed with the clutch pulled.
Know Your Defenses
You can out-accelerate, out-manuever, and out-brake almost anything on the road. These superior abilities provide you with more defensive options to avoid a crash than you may be accustomed to from your automotive experience. This is something that is taught in your course, but I mention it here because of the number of times a swerve or quick acceleration has saved me from some potentially dangerous situations. Whether by bike or by car, vigilance is the best defense; but sometimes danger will slip into close proximity. While a driver’s most common response is to brake, the biker has more, and more effective options, that may not be instinctual to the new biker, but need to be. I have found a quick acceleration and swerve to be a more effective option than braking in many situations.
Impatience is Not a Virtue
You can out-accelerate, out-manuever, and out-brake almost anything on the road. These superior abilities provide you with more cause to be frustrated with traffic than when you were in your car; this frustration may lead to a heightened sense of impatience and impulsive response. Following the car going 10-mph under the speed limit, you may be inspired to tailgate to give him “hint”, only to hit road debris that presented itself too quickly because you’re following too closely (done it). Or being trapped behind a pair of mini-vans matching speeds as if to deliberately block all traffic behind them, you may start closing in and swerving from lane to lane in impatience and not see the spine-rattling pot-hole (done it). It is the same for a car… acting on impulse is risky, but for a biker, but the likelihood of getting frustrated may be higher, and the risks of impulse are definitely more severe.
For skilled riders, I am not saying anything about “risky” or illegal manuevers that some may use to wend their way through traffic. I am assuming experienced riders can make their own decisions about things like lane-splitting, shoulder-use, and unlawful lane changes; but for a new rider… just don’t even try.
Know Your Enemy
To survive traffic, assume car drivers are a bunch of self-entitled, oblivious, distracted idiots. I am not saying they are, nor am I saying they’re not; but if you ASSUME this you will be closer to the correct defensive frame of mind than if you think they are all logical, considerate, attentive, law-abiding citizens. Become a traffic analyst. In my 23-mile commute into Washington, DC, I have become a bit of a student of traffic behaviour patterns, and that little skill has helped be avoid many close-call situations. When I started commuting into DC, it was not uncommon to have a close call or more almost daily. After 3 years of DC experience I have maybe one close-call a month. I can assure you, it was not the traffic that got better, it was my ability to read it.
- Someone tailgating and sporadically tapping their brake is impatient; they are likely to change lanes suddenly without looking. The same rule applies to cars following a bus; they will be OK where they are until the bus stops, then will go for a sudden lane change.
- Someone tapping the brake a lot with no one in front of them is timid, impaired or distracted – the net effect is about the same. They are unpredictable and less likely to respond appropriately to changes. Some are looking for an address and will suddenly brake or change lanes when they think they see it. Some are inebriated and can’t maintain a smoothly controlled speed. Some are just timid with poor vision and reaction time. Give them room, and get around them (and away from them) when safe to do so.
- Obvious, but people engaged in non-driving activities while driving are distracted. They are less likely to stop in time – so don’t get in from of them. They are less likely to move when traffic starts moving – so don’t rear-end them in anticipation of traffic flow. They are more likely to list into adjacent lanes – so don’t dawdle in passing them. Another hint that they are distracted is their tendency to stop 1 or 2 car-lengths behind the car ahead at a light, which sounds a little counter intuitive, but check it out.
- Timid or distracted drivers are even worse in turns. They will be hitting the brakes mid-turn when it is most dangerous for you to slow down; don’t follow them closely in a turn.
- Long lines in turning lanes tempt some drivers to bypass the line to make an illegal turn from the adjacent lane – try to be one more lane over, or be prepared to brake suddenly when traffic comes to a screeching halt for the law-breaker.
- Someone trying and failing to make an illegal left turn at a major intersection will attempt to do so again at the next cross street where a “No Left Turn” sign may not be posted. (This happens regularly on my commute.) Since opposing traffic is likely to be heavy (hence the first “No Left” sign) they will bring their own lane to a sudden stop. Avoid them like avoiding a bus lane.
- Regarding bus lanes… Look for people at the bus stops. If there are passengers waiting, odds are the bus has not passed in a while, and that right-most lane could be a good bet. If there is no one waiting at the bus stop in rush hour, the bus has likely just been by and will be found soon ahead. Avoid the lane, and if possible the adjacent one.
- A large truck lumbering down the middle lane will leave a large gap ahead of them. Remember that traffic from both adjacent lanes will seek to fill that gap — don’t immediately dart into the gap as soon as you clear the truck, pull far enough ahead to know you don’t have a competition for space that you will surely lose.
- A car suddenly darting into an exit lane is likely making a snap decision to take the exit, and may as quickly decide against it and dart back into traffic — try to not be next to them.
They Don’t Need Brakelights to Stop
In my second year of riding I first had the excitement of going into a skid at 55 mph in morning rush hour traffic because I was relying too heavily on brakelights as my signal to slow down. In this case, the morning sun behind me completely washed out brakelights and it took crucial seconds for my brain to register that the car ahead was getting really big, really fast. In another instance, the transmission of the truck ahead just locked up; it stopped as quickly as if it hit a tree without ever showing a brake-light. I was way too close to slow down, and worse yet, I was laden with a passenger, which greatly increases stopping distance. A well-timed swerve and fortunate lack of on-coming traffic saved our lives. However, maintaining a safer following distance would have been a better choice.
Know the Hazards of Your Commute
If you commute on your bike, that is likely where the greatest percentage of your time and miles are spent; therefore your commute may be the most likely place for you to have an incident. Know where the hazards are like the back of your hand. Where are the pot holes? Where is there gravel on the shoulder of a turn? Where are the construction areas? Where are the speed cameras, speed traps, and awkward turning lanes that suddenly reduce traffic flow? Where are there stop lights on curves? Where does the road buckle? Where are the lights timed so badly that cross traffic gets trapped in the intersections? Where are the bus lanes that cause impatient drivers to sporadically change lanes?
The accident you saw this morning on the way into work will likely be littered with debris and glass on the way home. Knowing where the hazards are for the route on which you spend the most time, will significantly improve you chances of a safe ride. This is particularly true for commuting traffic which tends to cluster giving less reaction time. This knowledge also really helps for long work days and autumn/winter commutes when you are riding in the dark, with reduced hazard visibility.
There is no Autopilot
You’ll notice the above paragraph recommends familiarity with the hazards of your commute, but not so much with the commute itself. I assume that most of us as car drivers have been lulled into complacency with familiar roads. Have you driven home on “autopilot” arriving without really remembering the trip? Or allowed distracting behaviors to creep into your car on your commute because you are familiar with the route and bored to be taking it.
The stakes are higher on a bike and situational awareness is probably the top motorcycle survival skill. Get familiar enough with your commute to avoid the hazards, but stay attentive and vigilant enough to recognize new ones. I don’t have statistics, but I cannot help but think that the crashes of experienced riders would have to mostly come from a lapse in vigilance. I used to have a lot of close calls in city riding in my first couple of years while building my experience and skill, but now almost every close call I have has been when I have been thinking about something other than the road.
Commit to Turning
After four years, I still find twisties challenging. I wonder if it is just me and my nerve. Or if it is the long wheel base and large rake of the Dyna. Or its skinny front tire. Or the mini-ape-hanger handle bars. It is probably a combination of all them, but I really notice the improved difference when I just focus on the basics. Use your training as the authoritative source, but to summarize: slow before the curve, press the handle bar to drop into the turn, look out through the arc, and gently accelerate through it. Practicing that and getting back to the basics is the key. Try to not fall into bad habits on the easy turns, like I have. My mini-apes tend to let me lay back, hanging from them (bad habit). So, to turn right I tend to countersteer by improperly pulling on the left instead of properly pressing on the right. This works out fine for the easy stuff, but instills a set of bad habits that hamper me on the twisties.
Committing to the turn is vital, which can be difficult when you suddenly see a hazard like gravel or roadkill, or the turn just seems to go on “too long”. Upon seeing a hazard, I tend to lose my nerve for the turn (dangerous). I tend to instinctively ease off the throttle (unstable and dangerous). The instability lessens my nerve even more (dangerous). I tend to fixate on the hazard instead of looking through the turn (dangerous). At least I’ve had the sense to not touch the front brake in a turn (very dangerous) – except for once, to discover just how horribly unstable a turn can be.
So the real advice is to follow the instruction from your class and instill proper technique through practice. Don’t develop bad turning habits. I am constantly amazed at the difference when I force myself to get back to the basics.
Keep a Pulse
Take a tip from radio towers; a flashing light is more noticeable than a steady one. When stopped at a traffic light on level ground with distantly approaching traffic behind me. I try to remember to tap on my brakes to give myself a little more visibility until the car behind is less likely to hit me. Of course there is virtually no way to know if this practice has saved me from disaster, but I do it anyway.
Know Where to Put Your Foot Down
This is one of those ubiquitous lessons on every biker advice page; yet despite its ubiquity, poor footing still appears to be the biggest reason to drop a bike. They say there are two types of bikers: Those who have dropped their bike, and those who will. Coming to a stop and stepping in loose gravel, vermiculite, ice, an incline, a hole or depression, a wet leaf, a pine cone, oil, wet pavement, etc is really one of the easiest ways to go down, or really strain yourself trying not to. I have managed to step on every one of the aforementioned hazards nearly dropping the bike (and actually dropping it once within 30-minutes of owning it).
A Friend in Need…
Most bikers, whether loners or club members, on Harleys or Sport Bikes, acknowledge a certain camaraderie among those who experience the world on two wheels. As well as being incredibly freeing, motorcycling can be a dangerous and difficult activity. There is an adage, “Never leave a biker behind,” that I have tried to live by. I have stopped to assist several bikers since becoming one, and invariably they have appreciated it whether they really needed help or not. Some are just resting. Some have already called for help and are waiting, but appreciate having a friendly stranger to talk to. Others have been trapped without a cell and were able to call for a buddy with a trailer because I stopped. Some have been just looking for directions.
I have been the recipient of such kindness as well which may very well have saved my life.
In this area, I am really still a newbie. In four years and 60,000 miles I have ridden in a “group” about twice, and with one other rider only a handful of times. My first time was with the three guys I met on the Dragon’s Tail trip in 08, and I learned a lot. The important thing is to not let a group ride push you beyond your abilities in speed or cornering. If you feel uncomfortable before a ride, let your group know. This is not so much to “warn them” that you may be slow, but for you to feel better knowing that it is “OK” with them to ride within your comfort zone. Bikers know you are out there to have fun. The guys on the Dragon’s Tail trip generally rode to just keep the headlight and taillight of the adjacent bikes in view, most other groups ride in a tighter staggered formation. But if the guy ahead wants to tear off, let him. Eventually, you will see him at a roadside stop enjoying a coffee, and you will hook up again. If you find yourself in a group that does not respect your riding level, then they are not your group.
There are plenty of on-line guides about group riding, and most organized rides have briefings to go over expectations, hand signals, riding skills, etc.
On the flip side, I learned that you may need to give up your personal ideas of schedule and spontaneity when riding in a group. Be ready for a lot of time spent “getting ready”, “running back to the motel room”, and “nursing that cup of coffee” while you are chomping at the bit to get going. And when you discover that cool-looking bar/restaurant/monument/overlook/attraction/market beside the road, you may not be able stop for it with the freedom of a solo rider. While I enjoy the potential for camaraderie of riding in a group (Rolling Thunder was incredible and it was great to have shared my experience of the Dragon’s Tail), I seem to really prefer to strike out alone for adventure.
Running Hot and Cold
Our normal perceptions of temperature are generally based upon standing around; temperatures on a moving bike are much different. Fall and spring are notoriously deceptive for me. You can be sweating while standing in the sunny parking lot, or while crawling through stop-and-go traffic; but once you get up some speed, you can be shivering and loosing feeling in your fingertips. Then you encounter a long shaded valley and you will really regret stowing the jacket or not bringing the chaps.
When it is temperate, I recommend erring on the side of being too warm. If you are a little too hot standing in the parking lot, you will probably be fine on the bike and you can always unzip a bit to cool off. Follow the cold weather outdoorsman’s advice of dressing in layers, and pack for a layer or two colder than you think it will be. Yet, after four years, I still screw this up.
Similarly, really hot weather feels much less so at highway speeds. You can end up with a deep sunburn before you realize it. The combination of heat and wind can dehydrate you and put you on the verge of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or worse. Heat stroke can creep up on you and will impair your judgement and hazard vigilance without being aware of it. The only two times I have ever been pulled over for speeding were on 100+ degree days. The onset of heat exhaustion had impaired my situational awareness both about my speed as well as the cop sitting there in plain sight. Try to avoid extreme heat by travelling in the early morning. Even if you are feeling fine, take the extra precaution of staying cool and hydrated with lots of breaks.
Keep your Mouth Shut
Literally, keep your mouth shut, especially in farmland and especially in the evenings, unless of course you enjoy eating bugs. For the record, I have found none to be “tasty”.
Yes, You Can Spit
Whether your are a pack a day smoker or you just broke the “Keep Your Mouth Shut” rule, you may find the need to spit. I have seen several blog lists that say: “You can’t spit on a motorcycle.” The fact is that you can. The key lies in two factors: commitment and aiming a full 90-degrees from the direction of travel. (I will spare you the personal experience that backs this up…) And be quick about it, while you are looking to the side, you are not looking at the road.
A Stone’s Throw
A rock falling off a construction truck may crack a car’s windsheild. Being hit is the face by a similar projectile is not fun (done it) and is a distraction that can momentarily impair your ability to control the bike if you react to it. Try to stay way back from trucks sloughing debris.
This advice also goes for poultry trucks — which have a truly amazing propensity for flinging chicken shit and other unsavory liquid-things at you if you are following too close (done it).
Take It Like a Biker
If you do get hit by a rock (done it), get smacked in the face by an enormous bug (done it), or have a bee fly up your sleeve and sting you (done it), just take it without flinching or reacting. Most instances are superficial pain and just part of the experience; it will give you something to talk about at your next stop.
Of course if you do sense you have sustained actual damage to you or the bike, or to be rid of the apian passenger in your jacket, or if you just need a minute to regain your focus: keep your composure and pull off the road when it is safe to do so. Even if you are still being actively stung, deal with it and be sure the bike is stopped and securely on its sidestand before dismounting.
If it is a bee that is stinging or a bug that is tickling, try to kill it by pinching the jacket before taking it off; otherwise you will drive yourself nuts trying to find it and will be distracted when you get back on the bike wondering it if is still in there (done it).
Your riding class will tell you to stand up slightly on your foot pegs to take up the shock with your legs, and to accelerate right before impact to take some weight off the front tire. I have never gotten the timing right on the latter, and my forward foot controls do not allow me to stand up on my pegs without pulling hard on my handle bars, which is not smart. I find the best way to handle the bumps when you can’t take up the shock in your legs is to sit up straight and just slightly flex your butt. If the bump is severe and wants to throw me up off the seat, I kind of go with it keeping my feet on the pegs. I find I keep better control of the bike this way than by fighting it by pushing myself back into the seat with my handlebars.
Thar She Blows
It was in my first year that I learned for the first time how much the wind can affect your trajectory. I was coming home from work (without raingear) in my first storm, clenching the grips tightly from the cold and buffeting rain. A gust of wind blew me right across the lane, luckily stopping short of putting me in a ditch. I was paralyzed with surprise at being moved laterally across the rainy street. To this day, the only thing I remember my training course saying about wind is that “it can be tough especially on a bridge”. I later got the hang of steering into the wind. I needed to not tense up, to grip firmly but stay loose enough to react to lateral gusts by steering into the wind to maintain a straight path down the road, and just as importantly, to STOP steering into the wind when the gust suddenly disappears. Stay controlled, but loose and responsive.
Take a Bow
Just like the big wave created by the bow of a boat speeding through the water, semis barreling down the road compress the air ahead of them forcing it stream off on either side (and above) forming a wall of wind. This is called a bow shock — and when you break through the wall of air while passing a a semi at highway speeds, that name can be pretty obvious. Additionally, as the air reaches the back of the truck, it rushes in to fill the space that was just taken up by the semi itself as it speeds along. This is the wake and it is very turbulent. If you have been on the interstate at all, you already know this, but if you haven’t…
This will all vary a LOT by the shape and speed of the truck, and the direction and speed of the wind, but… As you are approaching the back of a semi, get ready to be tousled and buffeted a little by the wake. The air crashing in from either side and top of the semi crashes against itself creating swirls and eddies that will want to knock you around a little bit. Stay firm and relaxed and gently guide the bike; the wake is not going to take you too far one way or the other.
As you go to pass, you may notice that the turbulence decreases as you ride through the air coming along the side of the truck. As you proceed along the side of the trailer, you may even feel that you are being sucked in a little as you approach the low pressure behind the bow shock. As you get toward the cab, you will hit the bow shock and you will be steering toward the front of the semi into the wind to keep going straight as you pass though the wall of air. When you leave the bow shock, the wind will very suddenly disappear requiring you to quickly stop steering into the front of the semi – lest you end up there. Do some searches on aerodynamics and fluid dynamics for some great visualizations of what I am talking about.
A hill, ridge, or mountain is also impediment to the winds blowing across the plains and valleys below. When the mass of air hits the ridge from below, it needs to compress to make it over. This increases the wind pressure you will experience as you reach the crest, so be ready for it, particularly if you on a turn or already dealing with the wind of passing a semi.
A similar thing happens on the prairies and farm land in the mid-west. I-90 across South Dakota (a Sturgis route) is built mostly on a long berm above the rest of the prairie. On my return ride in 2007, a strong steady wind from the south rushed over the fields. When it got to the interstate, all the air between the height of the road and the field below had to compress to make it over the berm, magnifying the intensity of the wind in my east-bound lane. Almost the whole trip across the state, I was pressing to the right just to stay straight. But occasionally there would be an underpass for a crossing road, and all the air that had been compressed over the interstate berm would instead flow through the underpass. So the wind would suddenly disappear requiring a quick steering correction to avoid heading for the shoulder.
Don’t Stare At It
This requires you to both fight your instincts and use them at the same time. When you encounter a road hazard ahead of you, do not stare directly at it; look to the side of it where you want the bike to go. The natural tendency is to fixate on the hazard, but when I do this, I find that is exactly where I put the front tire, knowing in my head that I don’t want to. Keep your eyes on the part of the road where you want your bike to go. Once you identify the hazard, immediately focus on the evasion, and not the hazard, and you will instinctually steer through the path you are looking at.
Keep your Nose Up
In general, it is best to park your bike such that you can ride straight out when you leave, but sometimes circumstances dictate that you will need to back out. If you are parking where you will need to back out, try to stay on level ground or in you are on an incline, keep the front end of the bike pointed uphill. It can really hard to manually back up a bike pointing downhill, especially on gravel. I only had to get into this situation once to learn this lesson. I was in a gravel parking lot with my front wheel pointed downhill blocked by a dumpster with cars parked on either side. I was forced to push, pull, and grunt 15 feet back before I was able to ride out.
Stopped at a gas station for a cup of coffee, I watched another biker pull up into downward incline to get to the air pump. After topping off his tires, he got back on the bike and found he was stuck unable to back out. Fortunately I was able to help push him out.
Try to notice the slope of head-in parking spots before you pull in. If the parking stop is slightly uphill or level, you are fine. If it is really uphill, make sure you will be able to walk straight back off the incline without turning, as it is much tougher to turn while backing up on an incline. If the parking stop is downhill, back into the spot so you can drive out. Again, just keep your nose up and you will be fine. Oddly, though this circumstance is generally avoidable, it still happens; don’t be afraid to ask another biker for help pushing you out. It is a much better option than dropping the bike.
Motorcycles have blind spots, just like cars. To minimize them, try to set your mirror just outside the view of your shoulders, but still… always do a QUICK head check before changing lanes to make sure you are clear. I had several close calls in my first couple of years forgetting this one.
And make it quick. You may likely be changing lanes to get out from behind the “idiot” ahead of you, who may be hitting the brakes while you are looking away. I haven’t rear-ended anyone yet, but have had some tense moments…
Your First Bike
This is a tough one, and again I remind you that I take NO liability for anything written here. I very nearly bought a smaller bike (a Sportster) as my first ride but decided against it while in the showroom. I had “heard” that one should start with a smaller bike that is easier to handle to become more proficient at riding, and then trade up sometime later. I was going to follow this practical advice when I walked in with full intention of making my purchase. But at the last minute I chose the Dyna Wideglide because it suited me in both style and fit, and I am so glad that I did. I honestly believe that I would not have gotten as deeply into riding had I make compromises in my first bike.
As for safety, my thought is that it is not the strength of the rider that keeps the bike off the ground; it is physics. Even walking the bike, if your feet firmly touch the ground and you don’t tip the bike too far, you really don’t need strength to keep it up; you need balance. So while many very experienced folks recommend getting a starter bike first, I am very glad that I instead I got the bike that I wanted. There is a certain pride after 60k that my miles and my bikes miles are pretty much the same.
Then again, I have the same philosophy about tools, clothes, electronics, and dining (as opposed to just eating)… buy the best you can afford, and if you can’t afford it, wait until you can. Also, I am not a very small person and could be taking my build for granted in terms of controlling the bike, so I do recommend talking to other riders of your physical stature for advice.
It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
I don’t know for a fact if the statistics support it, but I learned in my training course that accident rates for second-year bikers are higher than for first-year riders. Presumably this would be because familiarity outpaces actual skill, so don’t let your guard down and think you know it all. I have been fortunate to have avoided any crashes, but I do remember having a lot more “close calls” in my second year than in either the first or third.
A new rider has no business taking passengers. Passengers are the worst cargo and the most valuable if damaged. Passengers are heavy which makes turning, stopping, and accelerating more difficult. They move around which makes turns, stops, and slow riding more difficult. They talk, providing distraction. They can grab you and push you making control of the bike more difficult.
But at some point you will be ready for a passenger (by some standards, not for a year) and when that time comes, you must communicate with your passenger before the ride. Don’t trust that “they know” because they have “done it before”, they have to know how YOU want things done. Show them how to get on and off (many will screw this up anyway). Make sure they don’t touch your hot pipes. Make sure they have their helmet secure. Make sure they save their fidgeting for higher speeds when the bike is more stable; new passengers through fear or excitement tend to be immobile at higher speeds then tend to fidget and shift their weight when you are stopping. Some will tend to brace themselves against a tense situation by pushing on your shoulders, which pretty much has them steering your bike if you aren’t expecting it; have them hold onto you low.
There are plenty of riders guides for passengers on the web. The point I want to make is to communicate before the ride. But again, don’t even think of taking a passenger until you are very competent. Don’t fool yourself or be coerced into thinking you are ready before you are.
Accessories and Gear
Pack the Rain Gear on Top
This one is pretty obvious; when the weather hits, you don’t want to be unpacking in a deluge. Yet somehow over time, that rain gear ends up at the bottom…
Buy Cheap Goggles
Never buy expensive goggles. Firstly, because it is rarely worth it. Secondly, you will render them useless much sooner than you expect. I have bought transitioning lenses that barely darken. I have bought anti-fog coatings that develop a translucent haze at the first sign of rain. I have bought adjustable bows that snap right off. I have yet to see a pair of expensive goggle that are actually worth the price; and since I have now stopped looking for them, I doubt I ever will.
Even some of the “wonderful” features are liabilities. Adjustable-length bows are necessarily thinner and less durable. Anti-fog coatings require an impractical amount of care. Foam eyecups that create a complete seal around your eye will make them useless on the first cold humid morning. Even the moisture from your eye will make them fog up, and without a small air gap, that fog will never clear. The funny thing is that the salespeople will tell you that you want no gap at all. I find you want a small gap, which is why I don’t say “buy sunglasses”. You need the right balance to keep you eyes from getting windblown, yet allowing enough air flow to keep the fog clear.
Your best bet is to buy your goggles at a rally from the guy selling 3 pairs for $27. You can walk away equipped for sun, night, and overcast conditions; and know that they fit your face. Then, when you ultimately drop them, scratch them, sit on them, or lose a pair (and you will) you are only out $9. I find the cheap ones last just as long if not longer than the pricey ones that require an unreasonable amount of care.
The next best bet is the internet. Buy a bunch of different cheap brands; most all of them will be acceptable. When you find the brand you love, reorder half a dozen more and hold them in reserve.
The only “good” thing I have experienced about pricier goggles is that they generally come with a hard case, which now holds my cheap ones.
As for what to carry… I carry at least four at any time: a good dark pair for bright sun, a partially mirrored pair for bright overcast skies, and two pair (one is a back up) of yellow lenses for night and rain. I find the yellow lenses provide a strong contrast enhancement that really improves my view. Lenses listed as “amber” may range from the great yellow one’s to the not-so-good orange ones, so look at the picture.
Given that leather saddle bags leak, and so does rain gear, I carry some empty ziplock sandwich bags in my saddle bags. They are great for stashing your wallet, camera, and cell phone when the weather gets ugly, and they don’t take up space.
Larger freezer bags are durable and a great way to compartmentalize your stuff on a long trip. I have bought all types of little specialty cases and Dobb kits, but find they just take up too much real estate in packing. I use one for toiletries; one for chargers, cables, and flash drives; and one for snack bars and drink mixes.
Much more durable than leaf bags or garbage bags, contractors bags make a great liner for large sissy bar bags for very little overhead volume. If you own ample bungies (as you should), contractor bags are a great rain cover for your gear as well. The important thing though about using them outside of your bags is to get them cinched tightly over your stuff. If you leave enough loose material to flutter, you will have holes in a few hundred miles; well cinched they will last a whole trip. When taking the tent and sleeping bag, I will often carry two. One to line the sissy bar bag and one to go over the camping equipment. When I get a hole in the external one, I swap with liner.
Don’t even bother buying bag covers. They will wear out as fast as a contractor bag for much more money.
You Can Never Own Too Many Bungies
Riding back from Sturgis, I had to dodge a large bag flying off the bike ahead of me on the highway because the guy used one measly bungie to hold it down. He didn’t even know he lost it. Wind and rough roads can easily dislodge your gear, so batten it down securely. There is no reason to skimp. And, by carrying more bungies than you need, you always have what you need as you accumulate stuff on your ride or you just want to ditch your leathers for a while.
ATGATT = All the Gear, All the Time. I am not going to give too much advice on this one as I really think it is a matter of personal choice. However, the common sense advice for new riders is to protect yourself. Even experienced riders fall, and protecting yourself just makes sense. The worst case scenario of going down is of course death, dismemberment, or disability. Even the “best case” scenarios may end up with road rash. Despite its cute alliterative name, it is not pretty to have your skin peeled and grated off, and it doesn’t grow back well. (Do a Google image search; you’ll see.)
Leather or armored gear allows you to slid along the road much farther down the road than a pair of jeans before tearing into your flesh. A helmet can turn a potential skull fracture into a mild concussion. You are better protected from a crash wearing the proper gear.
So, that all being said, I still think that the best protection is skill and vigilance, that the safest crash is the one you avoid, and that presumably you are an intelligent responsible rider who can make your own decisions. (Again, I take ZERO liability for anything I say here.)
But remember, there is no shame in wearing the appropriate gear. Most bikers who choose to not don helmets and jackets and gloves do so out of a personal choice about their experience of the road. This is not a high-school peer-pressure situation. Other bikers really. really, really do not care that you are wearing a full face helmet in full leathers in summer. They may likely ask you “Aren’t you hot?” This would be called “making conversation”; they are not trying to embarrass you for your choice to ride safely.
Non-bikers may look at the Harley rider wearing ear-plugs with atop his bike with thunderous pipes resounding and comment how ridiculous that he would have pipes so loud that he would need ear-plugs. The actual reason for the ear-plugs is wind abatement, not pipe attenuation. The sustained wind at highway speeds can really do a number on you ears, and this is significantly exacerbated in cold weather. It is amazing how much more comfortable a cold ride on the highway can be wearing foam ear-plugs.
This one is not so much advice as a heads-up that I hadn’t really thought about it until I bought my windshield. I found highway rides without a windshield to be a perpetual sit-up exercise. I bought a detachable windshield right before my Sturgis trip and was surprised (though being a physicist I shouldn’t have been) that the wind went from a steady hard laminar flow to turbulent flow right into my face. I really didn’t like it at first, but I got used to it. While the laminar flow presses your goggles to your face, the turbulence tries to knock them off. Though the wind pressure was much reduced by the windshield, the wind noise of turbulence increased.
Accessorizing a bike can be a frustrating ordeal, particularly if you are unsure if the outcome will meet your expectations until after you have sunk the cash into non-returnable parts and labor. Ask around. Bikers love to talk about their bikes, and people love to give advice (duh).
Be aware , however, that the answer to “How do you like ’em?” may or may not get an accurate response. There are plenty of folks still trying to justify a bad buy to themselves and to anyone else who will listen. The question “Do you recommend ’em?” may be better at empowering the person as an authority, making them more inclined to give an objective, critical assessment.
My sissy bar bag has side pockets with a top enclosure that is a box-style lid with a single strip of velcro securing it. I like the box-style closures for the style; I think they hold more and they shed water better than a flap. But, if you only have a strip of velcro holding them shut, that flat-top provides a great moment-arm for stuff inside to hit the lid and pop the top open when you hit a bump. I have managed to lose a flashlight, a bottle of sunscreen, and worst of all, my only garage door opener; all by hitting a bump and hearing a small crash behind me.
If you have the box-style lids, try to get ones that close securely with a buckle or try to rig something up. Alternatively, wedge your stuff into the pocket so it does not have a chance to bounce up and knock the lid open, and don’t put anything in that pocket you are afraid to lose. Admittedly, this is really only a problem on rough roads… which is pretty much my daily commute.
Get a Mechanic
Not just any mechanic, get YOUR mechanic. Like YOUR dentist, YOUR tailor, YOUR hairstylist, YOUR doctor, YOUR pizzeria, … Honestly, after four years I am still working on this one. But you need to find someone you trust to work on your bike that will listen to you, understand “that odd sound”, and always keeps the bike running as you like it. I keep coming close but not yet succeeding. So the advice is start the rapport early, maybe even while buying your bike.
Get the Warranty
When buying a Harley, get the extended warranty! Just budget it in and do it. Mine has already paid for itself. Then again if you are only going to put 5000 miles on the bike in 5 years, maybe you don’t need it. I am pretty sure that by 20,000 miles the warranty more than paid for itself. And the warranty is time based not mileage limited… so if you ride the hell out of the bike, accumulating a lot of miles in a short time, the extended warranty is a pretty smart deal in my opinion.
Do a Once-Over
When you get your bike back, try to do a once over while you are standing in the shop to see if anything is amiss or messed up. One of my weapons against the cold is a pair of electric gloves that run directly off the bike’s battery. There is a fused harness that runs from the battery to a pigtail connector tucked under the edge of my seat. On one service trip that harness was pinched, just inviting a short. On another service trip, they lost my chrome debris deflector cover. Had I noticed that at the time, I may have avoided the months of schedule conflicts and mis-orderings that followed.
Check Your Lights
This is standard protocol that you will learn in the riders’ courses, but needs to live on beyond class. I have had three tail light problems in that last four years, and everyone was pointed out to me by someone else. It was dumb luck that I hadn’t been rear-ended. Unlike a car — most bikes have ONE brake light and ONE headlight. If they go out, you have trouble. And it is not just the bulbs that cause the problems. My 06 Dyna had taillight problems twice because of the circuit board that controls the lights.
Take your Saddle Bags Off
Most Harley shops will give you a complimentary wash with service, which is generally great. If you have leather saddle bags, REMOVE THEM. The leather bags handle water as well as you would expect (they handle rain reasonable well with some amount of leakage), but the really don’t respond well to soapy water. Am still rueing the day I let the shop wash my bike with my brand new saddle bags that still bear the soap water splash marks after countless rains and several applications of leather black.
Avoid the Pressure
I know, it is a bad design, but Harleys (at least 06 Dyna and others) are not really as “water proof” as they are “rain resistant”. While I have not had rain-induced problems that I know of, I do (now) know the rear tail light housing will not stand the blast of a pressure washer without taking on water — which in turn will blow your bulb and corrode that little circuit board that controls it (have done both).
Leaf Blowers Do Double Duty
Washing a bike is (to me) a tedious difficult task with all the nooks, crannies, and recesses. I would get so annoyed at getting my chrome all polished only to have water trickle down from a recess getting it off the stand, and dealing with water streaks from incomplete drying. I have seen specialty air driers to help avoid this issues, but rather than pull out my wallet, I pulled out the leaf blower. It works great for drying the bike.
Of course the common sense advice is to get off the road as safely as possible, and fix it or call for help (you don’t need me to tell you that). However, human nature does not always align with common sense (which is why I am telling you anyway). In real life, I still can’t really differentiate between a serious problem for which I should just stay put, and one that will allow me to press on in search of help or a more comfortable stop.
On the Florida loop of my 2009 coast-to-coast ride, I had a battery cell short out while I was in the fast lane of an interstate through Birmingham. Having electronic fuel injection, the bike just died, leaving me to coast across four lanes in rush hour to the shoulder. Of course I had no idea why it stopped. Now what? I tried to start the bike; it started right up. I opted to try to keep going, but stayed in the rightmost lane in case I needed to coast to a stop again. It got dicey with the bike stopping and restarting by itself as I rolled, especially past jersey-walls with no shoulder. It stopped again, and I coasted down the next exit with enough just enough momentum and slope to roll into a Waffle House parking lot. I went inside with my Harley atlas to contemplate my options over a quick cup of coffee and hash browns. I located the local shops on the map, tried to start the bike again (it did), and make the “oh-so-brilliant” choice to keep going back on the interstate toward one of the shops that was still a ways off. It died again and I was lucky enough to be able to coast to the next exit. I ran out of momentum the base of a hill. This time the bike would not start at all, and I had to push it another quarter-mile up-hill to get it safely into a parking lot, where I finally called the shop for a tow just as they were getting ready to close.
So what advice comes from this? Well…
If you feel you must press on, do so in the lane closest to the shoulder to pull off quickly if needed. If you are approaching a bridge, construction or any other shoulderless area reconsider pressing on if there is a chance of getting trapped there. Pay attention tothe time of day relative to when shops are closing; don’t press-on only to call for help 10 minutes after they have closed. If you find a safe and comfortable place to wait for a tow, you may not want to leave it to press on. If it is afterhours, pressing on to the nearest hotel may be smarter than pressing on to the nearest shop. And of course, motorcycling is a dangerous activity; it is much more dangerous on a vehicle that is functioning correctly. The best advice, again, is to get off the road as safely as possible and fix it or call for help.
One good thing I have learned about service on the road, is that most dealers understand what it is to be trapped away from home and will give your work priority to get you going again, including doing scheduled service. (It is pretty tough to make a 6000-mile trip without an on-the-road 5k service.) With the exception of the Sturgis trip, I have always gotten faster service on the road than at any of the shops in my local area.
On the flip side, be really careful in checking out the bike when you get it back. While they are friendly and quick, they are not “your hometown service” and just may not be as “careful”. One dealer didn’t properly replace the transmission plug, spraying transmission lubricant on my brakes. 100 miles after leaving another dealer I couldn’t get the bike into neutral, and had to ride back and ended up spending the night. My first stop after leaving yet another dealer, I noticed the sidestand twisted so I couldn’t reach it with a foot sweep. Less than 600 miles after having a bearing replaced on the road (and inappropriately paying for it as a maintenance item) it was grinding again and strangely covered by warranty at home. On another ride, the technician used his own “secret degreaser” when cleaning the engine chrome, with the complimentary service wash, only to leave a horrible gray film all over all my flat-black surfaces.
Fortunately it is not always this bad. The dealership in Vallejo, CA gave me the absolute best service ever. Despite having the viscera of a million grasshoppers on every surface — they washed that bike SPOTLESS – for free as a part of normal service. And getting the bike back, I had never before or since felt the engine running that well and the transmission working so smoothly. (I really, really wish they were not 3000 miles away.)
If you are close to a regular service interval right around the time of a rally, don’t plan to get the work done at the rally; try to do it at a shop several hundred miles away if at all possible. I was in that situation on my Sturgis 2007 trip. I knew I would need regular service before I got home and I planned to take care of it on the road on the way back. But a faulty brake light controller (brake light was stuck on) gave me no choice but to service the bike in Rapid City right in the middle of Sturgis Week. I was trapped there for 10 hours, only to end up with a shop-induced problem down the road. The sheer volume of bikes and the fact that many of the mechanics working the rally traffic are “temporary employees” puts your bike at a higher risk of screw-up.
All About the Journey
Always budget more time that you think you need for a major bike trip, and remember that the journey is what it is all about. But, you do need to strike a balance between miles and smiles if you actually have a destination. The interstate is generally very fast and very safe with good road conditions. I can easily do a 500+ mile day including adequate rest and food stops if I stick to the interstate. But with a few exceptions, the interstate is generally dull and lacks the charm of travelling the winding roads through the countryside and passing through interesting and friendly little towns.
On the flip side, you lose a lot of time on those charming little roads, and the fun, challenging twisty ones can be exhausting for prolonged periods. If your destination is a bike rally 1600 miles away, 250 charming and twisty miles a day makes for a much longer vacation than most folks have time for.
Mix it up. Figure a blend between interstate, highway, and real off-the-path backroads to make for the best trips. Most interstates tend to run nearly parallel to the older highways that still carry the charm and character, so you can get a good mix of expedience and experience. You can alway hop back onto the interstate if you find you are not making the progress you needed.
Ask the Locals
Don’t be afraid to talk to the locals. Ask them where they eat. Ask them where the beautiful roads are. But also try to read the person you are talking to see if they actually like living there before you take the advice. Many folks love their community and are happy to share its history and treasures, but some do not. They may feel trapped and can no longer perceive the incredible charm of the greasy spoon diner or feel that the town has “nothing to do”. Had I listened to the slubberdegullion outside the convenience store near Scranton, PA, I’d have never stopped and discovered their Italian Festival. On the flip side — the people of Arco, Idaho were fiercely proud of their town, its history, its parade, its food, and its oddly diverse “Northern Exposure-like” population. I had a great time hanging out with those folks.
Much the same as “temporary employees” in the service shops during rally weeks, rallies bring out the transient tattoo artists from all over. Chosing a tattoo should be more about choosing an artist than about the tattoo itself. While my memento mori ink from Sturgis 2007 has the merit of being an impulsive “rally tattoo”, I still hang on to the regret about the quality of the work.
Literally, pack empty space for a long trip. You are going to want to buy things on the road, and will be much less frustrated if you have a place to put them. Am not just talking about souvenirs, but about the “I forgot” items, groceries, snacks, and beer for the night. Bungies help a lot, but when I takeoff for a trip, the bag atop my main bag is usually empty for exactly this reason.
If you are taking off in the cold, remember to “pack” the empty space to stow your cold weather gear when it warms up. If you have a rough time estimating volume, pack up the gear to plan to wear when you take off so you know you have the space for it, then unpack is last.
Along the lines of “Pack Space”, a good rally tip is to get a collapsible cooler. Campground beverage prices tend to be inflated, exploiting their captive audience. Whether you are saving some cash by buying in town, or just trying to avoid standing in line for every cold one– a small collapsible cooler is a worthwhile accessory.
Sit on It
Another rally tip… there’s a shortage of chairs in rally camps. The ground is wet with dew in the mornings, and wet with “other stuff” at night. I have only once succeeded in following my own advice on this, and it was totally worth it. Get a small folding camp chair. They can be very small, and can just be bungied on top of the rest of your stuff. The times I leave it behind are when I think “Ah… why am I taking so much stuff?” — but then I regret it when I have nowhere dry to sit. Beginning your ride with a damp dewy derriere is not a good start of the day, and won’t make for a comfortable mid-morning either.
As you know from the blog, I tend to collect: miles, states, pins, T-shirts. Harley has a mileage program; you log your mileage which is certified by the shop when you go in for service, and you get free crap. I don’t do this, and the thing that galls me about it is that I wanted to. They only count the miles since registering your bike with the program, and I didn’t even notice until my first thousand. Despite the fact that my invoice shows I bought a new Dyna with 6 miles on the odometer, the program doesn’t allow past documentation for credit miles, so I never signed up. So lesson for the new rider: if you like the associated pins and patches of this mileage program, sign up when you buy the bike!
You Really Don’t Need That Much
This is not new advice, except that the bike requires even more minimalism than other modes of travel. Once the weather layers are decided, clothes packing is easy for me: socks and underwear for each day plus maybe an extra shirt. If I am gone long enough to do laundry, an extra pair of pants to wear while doing it is somewhat useful – though your raingear pants will do in a pinch. One thing the TSA restrictions on flights has been good for is teaching us to get all of the critical toiletries into a single quart ziplock.
Of course, if you are riding to the city to go for fine dining and the opera, then maybe this packing advice is not for you. But if you are hitting the backroads for adventure you don’t need a wardrobe, extra shoes and hair dryers; excess stuff is just excess weight and complexity.
OK… So you packed too much and you bought too much. Now what? Today’s proliferation of UPS stores and FedEx/Kinkos make is really easy to ship to yourself both at home and on the road. You can even ship to “general delivery” at a US post office of a tiny town and pick up the package like folks would do before home mail delivery. I have used the self-shipping option many times to both lighten the load on the trip as well as pre-emplace stuff at a destination I intended to stay at for a while.
Break Free of the Chains
This is actually a new rule for me that applies to any travel adventure: Never eat at a business that you can patronize at home. By getting away from the burgers that taste the same everywhere, you open yourself up to adventure, will experience new tastes, better appreciate the local flavor, and end up with stories worth telling. I decided on this rule having filled up on a chain fast-food meal only to ride past one of the coolest-looking BBQ places moments later now lacking the appetite or the time to stop. If you must eat chain-food (like pulling into town after all the kitchens are closed), try to eat at one you don’t regularly go to at home. The pleasant surprise of a mushroom and swiss at a Dairy Queen was as new to me as the closed local diner would have been.
Proper Use of a GPS
I carry a GPS on my bike, but not to tell me where to go. I turn it on, and throw it in the saddle bag and never look at it again for the trip except to change batteries. While I LOVE having a GPS in the car and on my phone for finding things, when I am on the bike I am led by impulse and instinct. The GPS is only along to log the trip, helping me recall where I have been and remembering where the cool things are.
As for my earlier comment on collecting, I have recorded every new road I have traveled, mostly using the GPS with the occasional reconstruction for dead batteries or forgotten tracking. I use this map not just memorialize my rides, but to help plan new routes to bias my travels toward roads not yet traveled.
Top It Off
Running out of gas is not fun. I have actually run out of gas only once. I was surprised by an early spring snow storm and I tried to delay stopping for gas to minimize the time for the snow to accumulate in the miles ahead of me. I ran out just as I was turning off the highway exit and had the rare luck of three consecutive green lights with enough slope and momentum to stop right at the pump.
But besides that experience, I very nearly ran out in western South Dakota between Pierre and Sturgis, and was lucky to find a gas station in the middle of nowhere selling from a cash only pump at exorbitant rates.
Look at your maps. A sparse population implies a paucity of petrol. Especially in the mid-western and western US, ask around about the fuel situations before heading out on the road across no-mans-land. It doesn’t matter that you filled up just 50 miles ago if you need a full tank to get to your next stop. The Harley Ride Atlas of North America has a good US-level map that illustrates your risk. But even in the East, there are areas where despite having a string of small towns, the gas stations are surprisingly rare.
Be mindful of gas shortages in the news, during post-Katrina fuel shortages I encountered a lot of out-of-service gas pumps in North Carolina and was eventually forced to run low-Octane gas in one fill up and was glad to have the chance to do so.
Last Day Sales
Prices on the last day of a rally plummet. Vendors will almost alway sell at a reduced profit rather than re-pack the stuff. And dated items like rally T-shirts are almost worthless to a vendor the day after the event, and on the last day they will be selling below cost just to reduce losses on unsold inventory. So, unless that item is really the last one or exquisitely rare, you are usually best off waiting until the last day to buy.
It turns out that long sleeves, gloves, helmet, and reflective vest are required on bases even in states where none are required on the roads. Be prepared, and be aware that the security officer you talk to on the phone, or that waves you through the gate, may have a completely different understanding than the officers patrolling the base, as what happened to me at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the LRO/LCROSS launch.
I was already on-base having ridden in short sleeves past the main gate guards. I had even called ahead to find the only requirement to be a helmet. Stopping to watch the Atlas V being rolled out to the pad, I wanted to move the bike to get a good picture. I put on my helmet, started the bike and was immediately stopped by a very… “stern”… security officer directing me to “shut it down” and go no further. It didn’t matter to him that I had already ridden all this way without long sleeves; he was not going to let me ride without long sleeves, gloves, and a reflective vest. Fortunately I had raingear which provided long sleeves and sufficient reflectorization. Unfortunately, rain gear was my ONLY option on a 95 degree humid day. Had I not had it however, the bike would have stayed parked, and I’d have had a very very very long walk from the launch pad to the commissary.
Make the Best of It
Aristotle was right; some of the best stories come from overcoming adversity. Yes, riding through beautiful countryside in beautiful weather is a beautiful thing. But the best adventures come about from dealing with the unpredicted. That doesn’t mean that plowing through a thunderstorm is your best course of action. It may make for great stories, but kill a new (or experienced) rider. But learn to go with the flow. A 10-hour wait at the shop can mean meeting interesting people, future riding buddies or pen pals. Spending an extra day in a tiny country town to wait out a weather pattern can help you relax, collect your thoughts, reflect on you ride, try the local food, do some laundry, and see the largest frying pan in the tri-state area.
Most of my adventures come about because I put myself into the situations and places where they occur. Rarely does adventure happen when I am actively looking for it or as part of a plan. Adventure is something that happens by being out there and being open to possibilities. Ride for the journey, and when adventure happens, go with it.