Learning to ride a bicycle is a rite of passage that most children have to go through. The sight is usually the same: The protective parent jogging along the bike and letting go as the nervous child breaks into a smile as he or she rides free for the first time. It's a skill, as the saying goes, you never forget.
Far fewer parents continue the two-wheel training to motorcycles. The reasons for that certainly vary, but many people find the idea of riding motorcycles terrifying and wouldn't even consider putting their kids on them. Millions of children will reach adulthood without ever having ridden a motorcycle, especially those who grow up in urban settings.
Some of those who missed out on motorcycles when they were growing up find the allure too tempting to resist when they get older. They want to become bikers and hit the open road, where they can feel the wind on their faces and be unobstructed by glass and steel. But if they think the skills that they'll remember forever when they learned to ride a bicycle are enough to make it on a motorcycle, it won't take long before they realize they're in over their heads. The power and speed that most motorcycles are capable of can be dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced rider.
A newbie needs the help of an expert rider before he or she hits the road, and turning to a professional trainer is an investment worth making. Spending a half-day learning the ropes with a pro should be enough for a beginner to get comfortable on a bike, gaining experience and confidence with every mile.
"If they're learning what I teach, I can do it in four hours," says Dom Schreiber, a motorcycle trainer in Lake Elsinore, Calif. "Out of actual beginner riders, I've only had three or four who I didn't think could go out and learn the rest of riding."
Schreiber sharpened his riding skills patrolling the highways of Southern California as a police officer, and as a trainer, he stresses the importance of slow-speed maneuvering, similar to the training motorcycle cops receive.
"My philosophy is: If you're not in complete control of your motorcycle at 3 mph, then you should never go any faster," he says. "Until they can do that, I don't let them go any faster."
Once students conquer riding at a slow speed, Schreiber introduces them to street conditions, where the biggest obstacle they face is the fear of falling. If riders think they may fall, their natural reaction will be to look at the ground, pull in the clutch or release the clutch altogether. The first two will increase the likelihood that the riders will fall, and the last will make their bikes take off like rockets. The fear of falling fades as riders gain confidence. Mastering the motorcycle at slow speeds first makes riders more confident in their skills as they progress.
"They're so comfortable with the motorcycle at 1, 2, 3 mph -- and in complete control -- they pick up the rest of it even faster, and they're confident because of that," Schreiber says.
Riding skills are not enough to keep a rider as safe as possible. A biker can do everything right but still go down because of another driver's error. The number of bikes on the road continues to increase, along with the number of fatalities, which has risen each year for 11 straight years. In 2008, there were 5,290 motorcycle fatalities, the worst toll since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting data in 1975.
The most obvious and important piece of protective gear is the helmet. According to the NHTSA, helmets saved 1,829 lives in 2008. Helmet laws remain a heated topic among riders, but 20 states and the District of Columbia require all riders to wear helmets. Younger riders must wear helmets in all but three states; Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire are the only states that have no helmet laws at all.
Often overlooked by beginners is wearing proper footwear. Strong boots that cover the ankles will prevent burns from hot exhaust pipes and deflect any road debris that gets kicked up. Gloves are recommended in all types of weather, keeping the cold out in the winter and preventing blisters and sunburn in the summer.