Tips for First-Time Riders on Classic Motorcycles

Man on motorcycle
Georgijevic / Getty Images

Riding a motorcycle for the first time is often exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, and if the bike happens to be a rare classic, that likely won't do much to quell the owner's nerves. However, there are some basic riding rules that every first time rider must adhere to that will help alleviate any potential problems.

Layout of the Controls 

Although the differences between a bicycle (where most riders get their start) and a motorcycle are quite obvious, there are also some similarities and more subtle differences that must be considered before your first ride.

Bicycles typically have their front brake levers on the opposite side of the handlebars from a motorcycle's positioning; that is the lever is on the left on cycles and on the right on motorcycles. To get used to the position of the front brake lever, it is a good idea to gently roll the bike forward then apply the brake a number of times to get a feel for it. (Muscle memory will come in to play in an emergency).

Also on the right side of the handlebars is the throttle or accelerator. Viewed from the right side of the bike, the throttle is turned anti-clockwise to increase the engine revs or to accelerate. To get a feel for the operation of the throttle, the new rider should practice sitting on the bike, ensuring it is out of gear, start the engine and then increase the revs gradually (keep the revs below 2000 rpm if a counter is fitted).

On the left side of the handlebars is the clutch lever. This lever, via a linkage to the clutch, disengages the engine from the rear wheel when pulled in.

Foot Controls

In general, the foot controls on a motorcycle are:

  • Rear brake pedal
  • Gear change lever
  • Kick starter

Until the mid-1970s, most British bikes had the gear change on the right side. Most European and Japanese bikes had their gear change on the left side. As the design of gearboxes deferrers considerably, so too does the operation.

For example, some bikes (typically Japanese) will have a 5-speed gearbox with a one down, four up lever operation system on the left, whereas older British bikes may have a 4-speed gearbox with a one up, three down operating system on the right side.

The kickstart lever fitted to early bikes can be either on the left or right side depending on the particular design. Some manufacturers had both left or right kick start locations within their model line-up.

As with any motorcycle, before taking the first ride, the owner should position all of the levers to his or her liking.

Taking the First Ride

The first ride is all about confidence building and should, therefore, be no more than a few feet in a safe, secluded area. The rider will start the engine and allow it to warm. When the engine is idling smoothly, the rider should fully depress the clutch lever (pulling it all the way to the handlebars), rev the engine slightly (add approximately 300 rpm to the idle setting) and engage the first gear. The bike will not move until the lever is released.

Before setting off, the rider will increase the revs slightly and slowly release the clutch lever. It is good practice to bring the clutch lever back in as the bike first starts to move as this will inspire confidence in the balance between throttle and clutch.

Once the bike has moved off and the clutch lever has been fully released, the speed of the bike is being controlled by the throttle position. Quite simply, applying more throttle will speed the bike up and less will, of course, slow it down. However, the first time the new rider has set off from a standstill, he should close the throttle and pull the clutch lever back in at the same time as applying a small amount of front and rear brake.

During this short distance, the rider will have learned where the clutch begins to engage the rear wheel, how much throttle was required to move from a standstill and how much pressure was required on the brakes to slow and stop the bike.

This confidence building exercise should be repeated a number of times until the rider feels ready to move to the next phase of learning: gear changing.

Changing Gears

Gear changing requires the bike to be traveling at a minimum (approximately) of 1/3 throttle open position. The rider will close the throttle, pull in the clutch lever and move the gear change lever to the next gear, all at the same time. Having changed up into second gear, the rider should practice changing back down into first gear.

Changing down through the gears requires the rider to close the throttle, pull in the clutch lever, blip the revs (apply a small quick throttle opening), and move the gear change lever back to first. Note, if the rider is traveling along in fifth gear, for instance, he will need to repeat this procedure until first gear is engaged.

How to Brake Correctly

Correct application of the brakes on a motorcycle is essential -- too much front or rear brake can cause the wheel to lock up and skid. Applying either brake as the bike is leaned over can also cause a wheel to lock and skid.

As a starting point, a new rider should practice braking harder in a progressive manner, gradually bringing the bike to a stop the first few times before applying more pressure as confidence builds. In dry conditions, apply approximately 75% braking force on the front wheel (not when cornering) and 25% on the rear. In wet or slippery conditions, apply equal braking force to front and rear, but at a greatly reduced pressure on the levers.

Classic motorcycles in particular and motorcycles, in general, will bring many years of riding pleasure if a new rider gets good training, to begin with, and progresses slowly as they gain confidence. Following these basic guidelines will introduce any rider to the art of motorcycle riding. Once you master the basics, consider enrolling in a training program to move your skills to the next level -- ideally before any bad habits are learned.