Bikes > Quickshift

The skills you need to get started riding motorcycles

Mastery will drastically reduce your chances of crashing

Transitioning from cars to motorcycles can be quite daunting. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

There’s an old motorcycle adage that goes “There are two kinds of motorcycle riders: Those who have crashed, and those who will.”

For a longtime user of four-wheeled vehicles (a “cager” in biker parlance), the prospect of riding a motorcycle is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. On the one hand, a motorcycle (particularly a big bike) can be much faster and more entertaining than the average car. On the other hand, the risk of getting into an accident is higher, and if you bump into something, you only have your helmet and the clothes on your back to protect you from some very painful injuries.

But oftentimes, the risks are outweighed by the rewards, and so long as you know what you’re doing and ride within your limits, you can lower your chances of getting in an accident. By my estimate, I rode at least 16,000km in the last year and half, split between some 30-odd test bikes and my own. I had a lot of fun riding with buddies, took hundreds of photos, drank dozens of espressos, ate countless silog meals, and had zero accidents. Not even a drop. Meanwhile, my personal car barely broke 1,000km. This year will likely see lots of miles and, hopefully, more of it outside of NCR.

My experience is nothing special. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other riders have the same pleasant experience. You just never heard about them because good news is no news, and the only stuff that goes viral is kamote content.  So how can you, as someone who’s been thinking of getting into riding, get started the proper way? What skills do you need to practice every day you’re on a bike?

A motorcycle is more stable when it is at speed. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

Balance. This is obvious. If you can balance a bicycle, you can balance a motorcycle. The only real difference is the latter is up to 40 times heavier than the former, and that getting it to move requires constantly working the throttle, brakes, clutch, and shifter. If you can’t balance a bicycle yet, don’t even think about getting on a motorbike until you can pedal your way up and down your street. But after you’ve gotten the bike to go straight on a level surface, the next challenge is to keep it upright both going up and down a steep slope, and on a slippery surface. Which is where the next two skills come in.

Low speed handling – A motorcycle is naturally stable when it’s cruising in a straight line at speed. But at lower, first-gear speeds, it can be a handful. It will want to fall to the side. It will dive if you grab a fistful of front brake, and if you’re caught unaware, you will drop the bike. Proficiency at low speeds is about feathering the clutch as a sort of third brake, modulating your speed with the rear brake, and looking several meters ahead so you can plan your move.

Body position. Longtime car drivers will naturally be stiff and upright on a bike; it’s what you’ve been used to for so long. But in the twisty bits, getting the bike to flow through the curves and esses is about countersteering and getting just the right amount of lean angle. To do that, you need to make subtle changes to your body position so that you’re in tune with the bike. Even coming to a full stop requires a quick change in body position if you’re not particularly long-legged and cannot steady the bike with both feet.

Maintaining control involves smoothly working all of the bike's controls. PHOTO BY SAM SURLA

Situational awareness. Riding a motorcycle can be sensory overload. The noise of the engine, the wind blast, the hundreds of vehicles surrounding you and just waiting to crush you in a moment’s inattention. Even the smell of fresh cow dung when you find a quiet provincial back road for a change. You need to be in a constant state of awareness about what’s happening around and ahead of you, while at the same time being relaxed so you don’t tense up on the bike and freeze.

Hand-foot-eye coordination. If you miss driving a stick-shift car, congratulations! You’re back to shifting again when you get on a motorcycle. Unless you’re on a scooter, of course. While riding schools will teach you the basics of shifting gears and remembering what the levers and pedals do, it takes time to master fluidity on a bike; smoothly going up and down the cogs, and perfectly timed braking inputs and gear changes to nail the apex. Unless your bike comes with a quickshifter—which I don’t recommend for newbies if only to teach a valuable skill–you’ll enjoy each and every throttle blip.

A basic understanding of physics. If you enjoyed physics class during high school, every day on a motorbike is a practical application of the basics. You could argue that driving a car does the same, but riding a raw and unfiltered bike makes you feel and appreciate the unbendable laws of physics even more. Sudden weight transfers make the bike want to either wheelie or dive. Centripetal force makes a bike more stable leaning into a bend than approaching it upright. Traction determines just how much throttle you can give before the wheel slips. Weight determines why big adventure bikes sink into mud while lighter dirt bikes can just skate through.

If you’re ham-fisted, you will crash. If you’re clumsy, you will crash. If you’re careless, you will crash. Heck, you could be a great rider but just one unlucky moment can still make you crash. But if you practice any of these six skills regularly, the odds of you crashing will be reduced drastically. If you’re thinking of enrolling in a riding school to get you started, you’ll learn the basics of getting the bike up and running in a few sessions. But keeping these six skills in mind every time you hop on a motorbike will help you become a better rider over time.

Andy Leuterio

Andy is both an avid cyclist and a car enthusiast who has finally made the shift to motorcycles. You've probably seen him on his bicycle or motorbike overtaking your crawling car. He is our motorcycle editor and the author of the ‘Quickshift’ column.