Motorcycles—How To Get Started On Two Wheels

Whether you like riding off-road or cruising down endless miles of highway, learning to ride motorcycles is a lot easier than you think.  

By Karen Umphress

Motorcycles—How To Get Started On Two Wheels
Sport bikes like this are perfect for those who want to experience highway cruising where speed and cornering capability are big requirements.

Motorcycle riding offers lots of ways for outdoor enthusiasts to get into the sport—even if you’ve never ridden before. And though jumping on a bike and heading out on a highway or trail may seem intimidating, getting into two-wheeling is a lot easier than you think.

For some, the thrill comes from cruising into a desert sunset on a black strip of pavement with a group of friends or climbing to the top of a sand dune on a dirt bike. For others, it might be defying gravity and the environment while maneuvering their motorcycle through rock piles and off cliffs. And for those who enjoy dual-sport riding, it’s the chance to escape the pressures of everyday life by simply riding off into the backcountry. 

All of these are fun ways you can enjoy motorcycle riding. It’s just a matter of choosing which path sounds the most enjoyable to you. But how do you get started on two wheels if you’ve never ridden before?

Here’s a short course on how to choose the right motorcycle for the kind of riding you want to do along with a few tips on gear and training that will get you started into the fun world of motorcycle riding in no time.

Street Bikes

Gone are the days when motorcycle clubs ruled the streets with fear. Today, most street bike riders are just a great group of people who like to ride. Street bikes are motorcycles designed for use on pavement, asphalt, or cement. They meet all Federal Highway Safety Standards for road use and are equipped with turn signals, side mirrors, a brake light and a horn. You must have a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license to be able to ride a street bike. A motorcycle endorsement certifies that the rider has passed the Motor Vehicle Department requirements for motorcycle operation.

Types of Street Bikes

Street bikes fall into several sub-categories:

Cruisers are the classic type of motorcycles that come to mind first. The motorcycle seat and engine is placed low to the ground. The riding position usually has the seat located near the rear wheel and the riders feet are extended forward to a position close to the front wheel. The low ground clearance doesn’t allow the motorcycle to lean far, so cornering is more difficult.

Sport Bikes are built for both speed and cornering ability. Their seats are higher and the riders legs are positioned beneath the body. The handle bars of a sport bike are up whereas the bars on a crotch rocket are angled down so the rider leans forward out of the wind when riding.

Adventure Touring Bikes are designed to be the most comfortable on long trips. Windshields and saddle packs (bags that attach to the motorcycle for storage) are part of the design. These bikes also generally come with radios, cruise control, and climate adjustments.

Quick Tip: Every state has different rules for the age a person must be to ride a street bike. Check out the laws at your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to be sure you’re in compliance.

 

Getting Started

To get started riding a street bike, take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider Course. Although you don’t need your motorcycle endorsement permit to take the training, in most states, if you bring your permit to class, the final riding test will count as your on-road test for your endorsement.

Required gear varies by state. To find out if your state or the state through which you may wish to ride requires a helmet, eye protection, or other gear, check out the American Motorcyclist Association’s website

Gear You’ll Need

Regardless of the law, the safety gear I won’t ride without includes:

  • Helmet

  • Eye protection or face shield

  • Over-the-ankle boots

  • Long sleeved shirt

  • Long pants

  • Gloves

Additional safety gear includes:

  • Riding jacket with padding and rash resistant fabric

  • Riding pants with rash resistant fabric and pads

  • Riding boots with built in protection

  • Leathers

  • Ear plugs

Quick Tip: Although it might be hot standing in the sun, riding at 55 miles an hour can be chilly. Dress for the ride in layers.

 

Dual-Purpose Bikes

The basic definition of “dual-purpose bikes” are motorcycles that are designed to be ridden both on pavement (on-road) and on natural surfaces (off-road). There are two main types of dual-purpose bikes; Dual Sports and Adventure bikes.

Photograph by Karen Umphress
Dual-purpose bikes allow you to ride on both highways and backroads. Adventure bikes, like those shown here, are larger, heavier and perfect for traveling comfortably on gravel surfaces.

Dual Sport Bikes are generally smaller, lighter, and designed mostly for off-road riding. They have the capabilities to do some on-road sections, but they are not at home on long stretches of pavement as their tires are usually designed or riding on more loose surfaces.

Adventure Bikes are usually larger, heavier, and designed to be ridden on-road with the ability to travel great distances at higher speeds. They also can do milder off-road sections, such as minimum maintenance roads. Adventure bikes are often very comfortable to ride on gravel surfaces, but their tires are usually more at home on-road.

Motorcycles designed as dual-purpose can not only get you away from the city but allow you to travel whatever back roads lies before you, regardless of whether those surfaces are pavement or gravel. Since these motorcycles use the roads, you must have your motorcycle endorsement to ride them. They also meet all Federal Highway Safety Standards for equipment and road use.

Getting Started

To get started, get your street bike endorsement. You will need this regardless of whether you spend much time on pavement since you will be using public roads. Then take an off-road motorcycle class outlined below.

Quick Tip: If you want to test drive a motorcycle at a dealership, you must have your motorcycle endorsement with you.

 

Gear You’ll Need

When dual-purpose riding, my must-have safety gear is the same as on a street bike:

  • Helmet

  • Eye protection or face shield

  • Over-the-ankle boots

  • Long sleeved shirt

  • Long pants

  • Gloves

Additional safety gear is dependent on which type of dual-surface riding being ridden. The more off-road riding a trip may entail, the more padding I wear. Gear with ventilation is also a plus as your body will be working more.

  • Riding jacket with padding and light-weight, tear resistant fabric

  • Riding jacket with padding and light-weight, tear resistant fabric

  • Elbow pads

  • Knee pads

  • Shin guards

  • Chest protector

  • Ear plugs

Dirt Bikes

Photograph by Karen Umphress
Taking a dirt bike training class is a smart thing to do before heading out on the trail for your first ride.

Dirt bikes are also called “trail bikes,” “enduro bikes,” or “off-highway motorcycles (OHM).”  These are motorcycles designed specifically for off-road use. These bikes are small, lightweight and nimble. Dirt bikes can get you deep into the woods and to sights and locations you wouldn’t be able to access any other way. Best of all, there is a dirt bike for just about every member of your family.

They start in size with 50cc for kids as young as 4 years old.  People in their 70s will still ride and race dirt bikes. These motorcycles are not made to be used on any type of public road regardless of the surface. They are well manufactured, but don’t meet the Federal Highway Safety Standards. Most don’t come with turn signals, a head light, a tail light, a break light or horn. More and more dirt bikes include an electric starter, but many models still use kick starters. Riders start out on wide or dual-track trails. As they progress, they move to single-track trails, which can be from 24 to 48 inches wide.

Getting Started

The best way to get started on dirt is to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Dirtbike School. You can take this course starting at 6-years of age. Children must know how to ride a bicycle without training wheels before taking the course and parents must be present during the entire course. Family and adult classes are available as well.

Quick Tip: The MSF Coach-Trainers can assist you with information about how to find a motorcycle that will fit you and your riding.

 

Taking both street bike and dirt bike classes is strongly recommended; it will make you a more rounded rider. Street bikes are mostly controlled by upper body movements. Dirt bikes are controlled by lower body movements. Dual-sport riding utilizes both the upper and lower body as the riding surface changes.

Gear You’ll Need

The minimum gear I wear for dirt bike riding is:

  • Helmet

  • Goggles or eye protection

  • Long sleeved shirt

  • Long pants

  • Over-the-ankle boots

  • Gloves

  • Elbow pads

  • Knee pads

Additional gear includes:

  • Chest protector/roost protector

  • Neck brace

  • Ear plugs

  • Jersey

  • Riding pants

  • Riding jacket

Try Before You Buy

Photograph by Karen Umphress
Motorcycles can take you to places that can’t be accessed any other way.

A number of motorcycle training providers rent motorcycles so that you can try riding while learning the basics before you purchase your ride. Once you have your endorsement, there are many places that rent street or dual-purpose bikes. Dirt bike rentals, however, are rare. Once you get trained, obtain your endorsement, and purchase the right safety gear, you’ll be ready to ride.


About The Author: Karen Umphress has been intrigued by motorcycles her entire life. She and her husband founded a dirt bike club in 1999, which was the same year they became the Government Relations Officers for District 23 of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). Karen has been a Dirtbike School Coach Trainer since 2010. She was also on staff for the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) for 10 years before starting her own consulting company called UP! Outside, which helps all types of OHV and motorcycle riders. Karen rides whenever possible and owns 3 dirt bikes, 1 dual sport and 1 street bike.  

Subscribe for future Step Outside News!