Welcome, reader and motorcycle enthusiast, to Part 1 in this 3-part series where I’ll explain the necessary steps to ride on the road – from obtaining a license to purchasing your first motorcycle. This series will be based on my own fairly recent experience as well as anecdotal evidence provided to me by others that have successfully gone through the process.
Driving laws are different all over the world and licensing requirements can vary from one province or state to the next. As such not all of this text may be applicable to you but it should cover the majority of cases if you’re from Canada or the United States. However, before getting into any details I believe it pays dividends to step back and assess the situation as a whole.
So, You Want To Ride?
First of all, congratulations! I won’t sugarcoat this much – riding a motorcycle is a wonderfully freeing experience and expressing interest is the first of many steps to hitting the open road on two wheels. However, it is not a cakewalk and after a substantial investment you may even realize that this isn’t your calling, but you won’t know until you try. Before moving forward any prospective rider should stand in front of a mirror and say “why do I want a motorcycle at this point in my life?” I’m not kidding around either – this is a valid question and something you should figure out first.
I had wanted a motorcycle for many years and was genuinely excited at the idea of being able to ride instead of drive. And I wanted to look cool, of course. Whatever your reason may be, if you are doing this for yourself it is valid. If you are trying to impress someone then please take some time to reconsider this decision. Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous: a typical year sees 100 – 200 deaths in Canada, approximately 350 in the UK, and 4000 – 5000 deaths in the United States (proportional increases of 10 – 30 times compared to fatalities of car occupants).
These statistics are meant to be frightening, a wake up call to anyone who wants to do this for shits and giggles, but not discouraging to everyone else. It’s important to know that every time you throw your leg over the saddle you are partaking in a high-risk activity that requires discipline, attentiveness, and skill. The rewards, on the other hand, are plentiful.
As I previously mentioned this list may change from one area to another but these are the steps I will cover in this series:
- Study for the written test to obtain a learner’s permit (small cost)
- Within a specified time period (30 days – 1 year):
- Attend a rider training course (significant cost, full weekend) with…
- Gear that you’ve purchased (significant cost) or rental gear (minimal cost)
- Purchase a bike (large cost)
- Insure the bike (large to ridiculous cost)
- Park the bike (significant cost)
- Ride and gain experience (1 – 2 years)
- Take an advanced test (small cost)
- Obtain your full, unrestricted license! (priceless)
Is This a Good Time?
The above list should make it clear that, by going down this path, you’re entering into a lengthy and potentially expensive commitment. You can argue that buying a bike right away is unnecessary but if you don’t begin practising while the safety course is fresh in your mind you may forget everything you’ve learned and end up paying for it a second time. For insurance purposes it can make sense to get a license well before you plan on purchasing a motorcycle as many companies look at ‘years licensed’ and adjust the premium accordingly. This is your decision to make; my recommendation is to submit to your sense of excitement and follow the aforementioned steps with no breaks in between.
In total you may need around 2 months to complete the written test, go through the safety course, and find a bike to buy and insurance to go along with it. Steps 5 – 7 don’t require any special actions – simply that you become familiar with riding.
In regards to cost here are some potential numbers to budget for when you’ll be starting out:
- Written test: $20
- Rider training course: $250 – 400
- Gear (helmet and gloves at a minimum; jacket, boots, and pants recommended): $250 – 1000
- Beginner bike: $1500 – 5000
- Insurance: varies spectacularly
On the low end you’re looking at a smidge over $2000 if you can use existing gear but if you have acquired a finer taste in life expect to shell out nearly $6500. These are guidelines, of course, and I expect there to be outliers above and below the thresholds but, for reasons we’ll discuss later, a beginner’s startup costs should fall between the two values. I purposely chose to keep insurance out of the equation because of the huge differences in markets. Riders in some Canadian provinces, like Ontario and British Columbia, can pay almost 10 times as much as a rider in Iowa.
It’s time to reflect. We know that this endeavour will require 2 months of work and cost on average $4250 plus insurance. With your current schedule, is this feasible? Are you a student and is money tight, or are you a working professional with a new job and an uncertain future? Do you have a secure parking spot? Can you actually get insurance? Will there be enough time in the season to do some riding? A lot of stars must align for this dream to become a reality.
Hit the Books
The first step is to successfully write a knowledge test. In many cases this will consist of general road rules – you should be familiar with these if you already drive – as well as motorcycle-specific questions. You study for this test by reading your local licensing authority’s motorcycle handbook which will be available as a physical book and potentially a digital copy. Here’s a helpful hint: read the book. No, you are not too cool to simply skim through it and just go over the sections your friend told you to look at. If you can’t invest the hour or so it takes to read the handbook from cover to cover are you really ready to get on a motorcycle? The text can sometimes be dry but there are nuggets of valuable information and if you pay close attention it will become obvious that long-time riders contributed their experiences to help educate a newer generation. You can also find practice tests online or in the book.
Once you feel ready it’s time to prove that to the government. Good luck!
Go To School
As you triumphantly waltz out of the test facility, temporary license in hand, wide grin slapped across your face, the question becomes “now what?” Technically, you have a license… so what’s stopping you from hopping on an overpowered two-wheeled machine? Oh right, common sense and the idea of self-preservation. I’ve heard stories and read news articles about eager riders (usually young and male) who somehow get their hands on a motorcycle (usually a sport bike) just hours after getting their license and unfortunately never make it to their next birthday.
A rider training course is designed to transform a complete novice into someone who can proficiently ride a motorcycle and obey traffic laws in just two days. If that’s hard to believe keep in mind that all your riding for the course will occur on a closed-off location, such as a parking lot, which is not the same as riding on the street – we’ll touch upon that later. The courses offered in my area consisted of a weekday evening in-class session and two full riding days over the weekend. Saturday morning marked my first time ever being on a motorcycle and by Sunday afternoon I had passed the mandated exam conducted on-premises by the instructors which allowed me to upgrade my license. I learned a tremendous amount and cannot imagine getting on a motorcycle any other way. Here’s how it all went down:
A week before the course I went to a local motorcycle store and purchased a helmet, jacket, and gloves as those were all required by the program. If you already own a heavy denim or leather jacket and money is a concern feel free to use them but strongly consider buying dedicated gear when you take your riding to the streets.
Seeing as how it was the end of a hot August when I signed up I wanted to at least have some ventilation so the jacket and gloves I picked up were both mesh. I also opted to wear my regular jeans and work boots; shoes must cover your ankles so sneakers were out of the question. I spent a good chunk of change on the gear I bought but don’t regret it as they were all quality items I use even to this day, 3 years later. There was also the option to rent gear which I think is a good call for someone who is unsure if they will enjoy riding, but if you are gung-ho about the idea like I was you might as well get your own stuff from the beginning. Do your research online and in-store before buying.
Pay particularly close attention to your helmet! This is the most important piece of equipment you will ever put on so don’t make this a purely financial purchase decision. Nearly all helmets you can buy from a reputable store will be ‘safe’ (they will be DOT approved and some may have Snell ratings) so do not sacrifice on comfort. A helmet that doesn’t have the right fit will be a nuisance and a distraction, ultimately making it dangerous for the rider because they won’t be able to devote 100% of their attention to the road.
Early on Saturday I arrived at the facility along with approximately 25 other students. A large parking lot belonging to an arena was cordoned off with barriers and cones demarking our motorized playground. We were all excited but a bit nervous at the sight of the Hondas that were lined up for us. In reality they were small bikes with little engines but for the uninitiated they looked impressive enough to cast doubt in everyone’s mind that 2 days of training would be sufficient.
The first lesson of the day was an overview of all the buttons, switches, and levers on the CBR125R. We then practised operating the clutch lever and finding the ‘friction point’ – the moment at which the clutch engages and the bike reacts by giving you signals that it wants to get going. Before breaking for lunch, everyone in the group was successfully starting and stopping. I was impressed with just how much progress we were able to make in a few short hours.
Because we were instructed to follow a short circuit with several turns our speeds never climbed above anything I’m not able to hit on my bicycle. That, combined with the great manoeuvrability of the lightweight CBR, made the experience seem at least somewhat familiar to me. Knowing how to ride a bicycle was not a requirement anyone mentioned but I felt much more comfortable on the two-wheeled machine with an engine given my closeness with two-wheeled machines that I’m responsible for powering. Another benefit I had was understanding how manual transmissions work and the need for changing gears. I do highly recommend becoming familiar with the theory before taking the course, and perhaps playing a racing game that allows you to shift manually.
But did my love of cycling and video games make me perfect? Not by a long stretch. I stalled the bike more times than I can remember and on one occasion the bike lurched forward before seizing. That caught me off guard – and off balance – so my front wheel wasn’t straight when the bike came to a stop. I tried my best but simply couldn’t keep it upright and laid it down very slowly. There was no damage to machine or rider (perhaps a minor scratch on my ego) and everything else was fine as the instructors told us “if you’re going to drop a bike, do it here rather than on the road”.
The end of the day came too quickly but at the same time I was more than happy to go home. Remember how I said it was a hot month? I don’t deal too well with heat, and after baking in my black helmet and black jacket all day, inhaling fumes from 25 bikes – some with riders that seemed content revving the engine to redline before taking off – I was beginning to feel woozy. This onset of this feeling came much quicker during the second day so let this be a lesson: don’t book your spot in a program during the hottest month of the year if you are prone to overheating.
The mood was slightly different on Sunday. There were only 6 hours left of instruction, at which point pylons would be strategically placed to simulate real-world traffic conditions and our skills would be put to the test to determine if we were fit to graduate and obtain the next license in the graduated system.
The pressure was on!
Much to the credit of the instructors and staff nearly everybody was able to get back on their bike and continue without missing a beat. There was only one straggler and I do think his situation is worth mentioning: he was going way too slow. Riders were forced to lap him around the circuit and his presence became not just an inconvenience, but a safety concern. Eventually the instructors pulled him aside and – I imagine – painted a few scenarios for him about what can happen if you move at a snail’s pace on the road. If you’re a new rider do not be scared of shifting up and getting some speed. In fact, motorcycles are much more compliant in 2nd gear than 1st and the bike is more stable once you’re travelling at speeds greater than 15 km/h (~10 mph).
Finally, it was time. The overall group was split up and we were told to remain in a specific order within each smaller pack. We were to complete a series of mini-tests, each one targeting a different skill set. One-by-one, the instructor-turned-examiner called each rider to the start position and announced when it was time to begin.
Every test was over almost as quickly as it started and a grade was given based on compliance and time. For instance, one test had the rider accelerate in an arc and stop in a designated box (stay between the lines!); this took no more than 10 seconds. Another one was designed to reenact an emergency lane change by accelerating towards the examiner and watching for their left or right hand to go up before swerving to that side. All of the tests were covered during the two days of training so nothing was a surprise.
Just like that the entire ordeal was over and everyone parked their bikes for one last time and shed their layers of gear. Soon, envelopes were passed out that contained the results. As another testament to the great teachers every single participant that weekend passed! Yes, even the slow guy picked up the pace and rode to a passing mark.
First Motorcycle Next steps
After some humble celebrations and parting handshakes all the graduates returned to their cars and drove off. As much as I loved my car I was looking forward to being on a motorcycle. I now had a piece of paper and, more importantly, the skills necessary to pilot that type of vehicle alongside distracted car drivers, sleep-deprived truck operators, on pothole laden streets, over random debris and fluids… Well, that’s not quite how I was picturing it at that moment but all those things made my first solo trip very memorable. As soon as I came home I jumped online and started browsing for the bike that would soon be mine.
Thanks for reading Part 1 of my journey. I hope the content helps ease your mind and hopefully pushes you to try this out yourself if you’ve been flirting with the idea. Continue to Part 2 to read about what kind of bike to purchase and how to begin riding!