Big Motorbike Maintenance

How to Get Into Motorcycles

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You want to learn. The VICE Guide can teach you.

The sensation of driving a motorcycle is almost superhuman: Your senses are heightened, and you command, through light touches, the power of dozens of mechanical horses. I’ve never experienced anything as simultaneously energizing and calming. And I’m talking about just, like, driving to the store.

When you’re first thinking about getting into motorcycles, you’ll quickly realize that for every sensible argument in favor (great gas mileage) there’s an equally foolhardy one (wheelies). You can consider your time, budget, free space, and appetite for risk—but thinking about that stuff is way less fun than riding a bike. Ultimately, it’s not that complicated.

Still, buying a motorcycle probably makes more sense when you have some deeper reason. Maybe you want to clear your mind with long, scenic Sunday drives. Maybe your job is doing spreadsheets in an office park, and the daily commute would be too soul-sucking without lightly putting yourself in harm’s way every morning. Maybe you don’t even care about riding and simply want to be left alone in your garage, tinkering. All valid—and all with subtle implications about the best path forward, like whether you buy new or used.

I got into motorcycles twice, at two different times in my life. In my early 20s, it was more about a way of testing myself, including my ability to bring back to life a Honda that was older than I was. Later, I settled down, moved out of the city with my family, and bought a Suzuki DR650, a burly, cult-classic off-roader that’s lovingly known as a “bush pig.” It gives me my little moments of zen.

Before you set foot on a bike

Before buying a motorcycle, it genuinely helps to watch other people ride—you need to learn what you’ll need to learn because, for the most part, you’ll be teaching yourself. But there’s an overwhelming amount of motorcycle content online, with decades’ worth of message boards full of boomers debating beginner bikes, carburetor maintenance, and tire options. Where to start?

Jump in with the YouTube series Daily Rider w/ Zack Courts, which is put out by RevZilla, a big online shop for motorcycle gear. It’s a great example of a crucial motorcycle video genre: guy with a GoPro riding a bike while talking about it. Your goal isn’t to decide whether your first bike should be a Ducati or an MV Agusta because the answer is neither. It’s about getting a sense of what style you might vibe with—cruiser or sportbike?—and, even more importantly, seeing how a seasoned rider moves on a bike. The throttle is here, the kickstand is there; shifting sounds like this, turning looks like that. 

Very soon, you’ll be visualizing yourself on a bike—which is really all the prep you need to get a motorcycle license. Because as it turns out, obtaining a license is almost shockingly easy.

How to get a motorcycle license

The process varies slightly depending on where you live, but most people in the United States start with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course, a weekend-long driver’s ed class. It’s geared to total beginners, and it’s so fulfilling that I’d recommend it even if you never expect to buy a bike. There are a few hours of classroom training (in-person or online), then you spend a day or two on one of their bikes. At least where I did it in New Jersey, they provided helmets—so you can try it out with a coach for just an entry fee of a couple of hundred bucks.

The actual riding part of the Basic Rider Course takes place on a closed course, usually a parking lot, and is primarily devoted to drills involving the clutch: starting, shifting, and stopping. In just a few hours, you’ll build up to swerving around cones, and the grand finale is pulling off a slo-mo figure eight. When you pass, which most people do, you’ll basically just need to fill out a form at the DMV, and you’ll have a motorcycle license. 

One scary thing, potentially, is all of that happens before you go on a road with real cars. You’ll have to work up to that on your own or, if you’d rather, you can take a second more advanced Motorcycle Safety class… but most people just go for it. The first time, I’d recommend following a friend’s car for a confidence boost. 

What motorcycle gear to buy first

There’s an old adage: Buy the best gear you can afford, then buy a motorcycle with what’s left over. You’ll need to buy at least a helmet, jacket, and gloves, which can be frustrating since none of that is exactly cheap, and you’ll easily spend $1000. But it will hugely help your confidence if you know you’re as protected as possible, which will make you less likely to make a nervous beginner’s mistake when you get an actual bike. 

And eventually, accidents happen. Last summer, wearing my helmet but only a denim jacket, I hit the pavement, gave myself a concussion, and broke three ribs. The helmet prevented something way worse from happening, but the broken ribs were definitely the result of skipping a proper motorcycle jacket with protective padding. I won’t leave home without one again.

Helmet: I’d strongly recommend a full-face helmet, which covers your chin—that’s what hit the ground, for me. Ideally, you would visit a shop to try on a few helmets since you really just want whichever fits best. If you can’t do that IRL, order a more premium Arai Regent-X ($580) and budget-friendly Scorpion EXO-R420 ($160) just to compare, and return your least favorite—they actually have comparable levels of protection, but the Arai will be quieter and better ventilated, which might be worth it if you’re planning to spend a lot of time on the highway.

Jacket: There are a million motorcycle jacket options, and they’re often advertised for different climates: Some people get a better-ventilated jacket for summer and a better-insulated one for the fall. Probably start with one that’s good for summer, or get one with built-in layers for multiple seasons. Definitely look for padding that’s rated CE level 2, like the REV’IT Tornado 3 jacket ($370) I got as soon as I was ready to go back out. If you prefer leather, consider the Joe Rocket Classic ’92, where you buy Forcefield protective pads separately to slide into specially-made slots. 

Gloves: It’s almost impossible to crash without touching the ground with your hands. Pretty much any motorcycle glove will be fine for just getting started—though consider getting a pair with knuckle guards and longer wrist sections that enable more straps since they’ll be less likely to come off. You can often buy decent gloves from your jacket company, so they match. Or Alpinestars is a safe bet, with the sportier SP-2 or classic leather Mustang both costing around $100.

Pants and boots: Starting off, you don’t really need special motorcycle pants or boots—your biggest concern will likely be protecting your calves and ankles from the engine when it’s hot. Just wear whatever you already have, then consider upgrading to something more protective if and when you’re spending more time at high speeds.

Which motorcycle to buy

If you get your dream bike as your first bike, you’ll invariably fuck it up. You’ll drop it a bunch, drive it poorly, and bork the engine up doing basic maintenance. Just don’t bother: It’s smarter to start with something you will care less about. One good thing about motorcycles is that they’re pretty easy to resell—and since you’ll know way more about what you really want by year two or three, you can usually upgrade later without taking a huge bath on your first bike.

The sweet spot for most people is a lightly used bike from a dealer. You will find cheaper options on Facebook Marketplace or Cycle Trader (kind of like Craigslist), but there’s some added risk if you’re not mechanically savvy enough to know the bike is actually fine—and how to repair it if there’s anything wrong. I kind of regretted getting such an old bike with my first Honda: When you’re just getting started, you might be happier actually riding something that costs a little more than you would be spending your time getting the cheapest option running. 

While an aspiring gearhead with a garage full of tools might find their ideal used bike for $2,000, I’d plan to spend more like $5,000. For that price, there are tons of great options for beginners that will definitely be ready to ride now. Partly, choosing is just aesthetic preference. If you like cruisers, get a Honda Rebel 500; if you like a sportier look, get a Kawasaki Z400. But if I were to offer a single motorcycle recommendation that would make most people the happiest—a bike that can dodge city traffic just as nimbly as it can take winding dirt roads in the country (even if highways aren’t ideal)—it would be a used, dual sport Honda CRF250L. It’s light, fun, easy to handle, and, crucially, designed to get beat up a bit. Perfect first bike.

Taking care of your motorcycle

For storage, don’t worry if you don’t have a garage. It’s fine to stay outside—though, you might want to get a ventilated, waterproof motorcycle cover, like one made by Dowco. It’ll probably take years before rust is an issue, but if nothing else a cover prevents you from having a wet butt after it rains. If theft is a concern, consider getting a loud disc-lock alarm made be XENA, which will scare the shit out of anyone who tampers with it.

Thankfully, it’s a lot easier to work on a motorcycle than it is to work on a car. Most things you only do once a year, like changing the oil, oil filter, and air filter, lubricating the chain, and bleeding the brakes. You should do basic maintenance yourself to build confidence and cut costs—just pick some free Sunday and go to town, triangulating between the owner’s manual and YouTube videos. 

Depending on where you live, at the end of the riding season, you’ll want to get the bike ready for winter, too. Mostly, that’s a matter of adding fuel stabilizer to a full gas tank, which helps prevent rust, and bringing the battery inside to prolong its life—like any motorcycle maintenance, it’s really not a big deal.

What if I crash?

There are levels to this. You’ll almost certainly drop your bike at some point, and probably pretty soon after getting it. In most cases, your pride will be the only thing that gets hurt. Pick it up from the side deadlift-style—another reason you’re better off learning how to ride with a lighter bike. If your motorcycle is older, and it has a carburetor, it might not instantly start, so leave it parked upright for a few minutes until the fuel can drain back where it belongs.

If your motorcycle doesn’t start, you can call a tow truck for a couple of hundred bucks or, better off, load it into the back of a friend’s pickup truck with a $20 rented steel ramp from Home Depot. If it was a low-speed dump or you just dropped it in a parking lot, there’s a decent chance you can fix everything yourself—especially if you have your motorcycle model is pretty common—with the help of those endless archives of message board posts. 

And of course, mechanics exist if you’re in a pickle, and some will even come to you. One thing to keep in mind is that most people only get the minimum legally required motorcycle insurance—which I do, too, just since I only pay $150 a year—and this won’t cover anything when it comes to repairs.

If you get injured or hit your head, call 911 or visit Urgent Care. Another thing to note, once you’re back home, is that healthcare billing around motorcycle accidents can be moderately complicated: Before your health insurance company will cover anything, they will probably require you to file a claim with your motorcycle insurance company.

After it’s all said and done, if you’re physically fine but your confidence is shot, consider taking one of those follow-up intermediate Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses. I definitely thought about it. The first time I got back on my bike, months after my accident, I was pretty paranoid, and my riding, especially in turns, was way stiffer than before. But like a lot of things with motorcycles, the obstacles are just dumb mental blocks—and I didn’t get into this to be nervous. The way I felt better was: I just kept on riding.

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