How to ride a motorcycle – a beginner’s guide

By: On: June 18th, 20102 Comments »Updated: November 10, 2012

how to shut a motorcycle engine off using the kill switchInstructions for how to ride a motorcycle can depend on who you ask, what they ride, and how long they have been riding.  Here we try to provide basic instruction that hopefully will help you get started, but this is not a substitute for a motorcycle safety course that you should take before getting a motorcycle license.  You may also get better motorcycle insurance rates by attending a safety course.  Now, on with the instructions:

How do you learn to ride?

Personally, I began learning to ride motorcycles about 35 or maybe 40 years ago on trail bikes as a youngster. My first was a blue Chibi 60.  I remember being scared of it when I first got it.  I actually rode my friend’s Honda 50 mini trail most of the time.  While these are both very small bikes, they did help me learn basic skills, such as shifting with my foot, using the brakes, and to avoid burning myself on the exhaust pipe.

I then got a Honda CT-70 trail bike, and a few years later.  That was a really fun trail bike, but I could not keep up with my friend’s dirt bikes.  I then graduated to a Hodaka Dirt Squirt 100cc dirt bike.  It was no Honda Elsinore, Suzuki RM, or Yamaha YZ, but I loved it and had just as much fun as my friends had on theirs.

During my youth, I also spent a lot of time riding the various small to medium size bikes my friends owned, including Honda XR-80, a Suzuki RM 100, Honda XL-175 dual-purpose (my first on-road ventures), and then two of my best friends bought Can-Am 250 motocross racers, so I got to ride those quite a bit as well.  I was lucky to have such good friends that let me ride their bikes so often.

After my teens, I tried a few 500cc street bikes my friends had by then, and I ended up buying a nice used Honda Interceptor 750.  By the way, right up to the interceptor, every bike I ever had was bought used.  I now ride an Italian motorcycle that I love for it’s mechanical features,  styling,  colorful history, and long-term durability, a Moto Guzzi California.  It’s important for your own survival on the streets to never stop learning and to keep your skills honed.  That’s why I attended the MSF Experienced Rider Course soon after I got my Guzzi a few years ago.

The point of my telling you all this is that I firmly believe that years of riding dirt bikes can provide experience that can make you a better motorcycle rider.  Learning how to handle trail bikes in the mud, loose dirt, ruts, rocks, tree roots is a good thing.  It’s not the same on the street with a much heavier motorcycle, but the set-of-the-pants feeling for what a motorcycle is doing underneath you does help.  Start off with small beginner motorcycle if you don’t have much or any riding experience.

What to wear when riding a motorcycle:

Before trying to ride any kind of motorcycle, especially street bikes,  make sure you have the proper motorcycle apparel. Wear a helmet, even if it isn’t required by law where you ride.  If you are a beginning rider, you’ll be surprised at how fast you can end up on the ground, so be prepared for that.  Always wear long pants. Your shoes should be tall enough to cover your ankles, and if wearing lace-up boots, make sure the laces are not able to get caught on the bike anywhere – tuck them in if possible.

A long sleeve shirt would be the absolute minimum, but on the street, a proper motorcycle jacket is a much smarter choice.  It does not have to be fancy, just something that can protect your skin in case of a fall.  The new mesh motorcycle jackets are very comfortable in the summer and most have CE certified padding.  Thin leather gloves work good so you can  feel the controls easily. Don’t forget eye protection, such as a face shield on your helmet, or impact resistant glasses.

Don’t ride any motorcycle until checking it:

Now that you have the right gear, or at least some minimal protective clothing for riding a motorcycle, you’ll need to check several things on the motorcycle before you attempt your ride.  Motorcycle tire pressure is extremely important to the handling of the bike and your safety.  Check the age of your tires if your not familiar with the bike.  Make sure to fill them them to the specified air pressure listed on the bike’s decals or in the owner’s manual.   Don’t underestimate the importance of proper tire pressure.

Other items to check on a motorcycle before riding include brakes, cables (clutch and brake), mirrors and the lights (headlight, brake light, turn signals).  Make sure you have enough gas and don’t forget to check the oil level.

Assuming the chain and sprockets or belt are all in good working condition and correct tension adjustment, we’re now about ready to get on the bike  and prepare for starting the engine.

Find neutral before starting the engine:

Before starting it, put the transmission into neutral by moving the shift lever up or down.  Neutral is usually between 1st and 2nd gear.  Most motorcycles have a shift pattern of 1 down and 4 up.  From the neutral position, this means 1st gear is a downward push of the shift lever, and there are 4 more gears available with an upward lift of the shift lever.   Squeeze the clutch lever (normally is the left lever on the handle bar) when attempting to move the shift lever.

To get to neutral while you are not moving, just keep pushing the shift lever down several times to get to first, with your left foot (normally), then very carefully and slowly, lift the shift lever up with your toe, but don’t lift it as far as it will go.  Now you should be in neutral.  Release the clutch lever and see if you can push the bike.  If it rolls, you are in neutral.  If it doesn’t, just try again.  It’s usually not easy to find neutral, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it the first few times.

Once you are in neutral, make sure the fuel petcock is open.  This is a little valve between the fuel tank and the carburetor.  It usually has a very small lever on it.  My old Honda Interceptor had a huge valve on the left side of the tank for this.   Make sure it is in the open position before starting your engine or it will stall.  Fuel injected motorcycles often don’t have a petcock valve.

Starting a motorcycle engine with electric start:

motorcycle front brake lever located with throttleMost modern street motorcycles have electric start and electronic fuel injection.  With these, it normally just a matter of following a few simple steps: (1) make sure you are really in neutral!  (2) flip the kill switch to run, (2) turn the key to “on” and listen for the fuel pump to run for a second or two, (3) push the start button and let it go when you hear the engine fire.  You may need to gently give it a few short very small twists of the throttle to help keep it from stalling.

Kick-starting a motorcycle:

To start a motorcycle that has a kick starter: (1) make sure you are really in neutral!  (2) make sure the kill switch is set to run, (3) set the choke, usually a lever located down near the carburetor, (3) pull the compression release lever if your bike has one – sometimes the compression release lever is located up near the clutch lever, (4) fold the kick start lever open and push down gently on it with your foot until you feel it stop against the compression of the motor, then let it spring back up before you try to kick it, (5) put your hands on the grips, one foot firmly on the ground, (6) in one smooth forceful motion with the ball or middle of your foot kept on the kick lever, hoist your body weight upward and as you come down, push down on that kick lever with a very quick downward kick.  You may need to give it a short twist of the throttle as you kick, and it may take a few tries.

Turning off a motorcycle engine:

Before we start riding, it’s very important to know how to turn the engine off.  Most every kind of motorcycle has a “kill switch” or kill button that stops the ignition from sparking and shuts off the engine.  It is usually large, red and easy to reach with your thumb while your hands are on the grips (in case of emergency).  Just flip the switch or hold the button in and the motorcycle engine should stop running.  On older bikes with spring -loaded kill buttons, you have to hold the button in long enough until the engine completely stops or it might start running again if you let off of it too before the engine completely stops.  If your motorcycle has a key, just turn the key to the off position, but practice using the kill switch for emergencies.

How to use the clutch on a motorcycle:

motorcycle clutch lever on Moto Guzzi CaliforniaJust like a car with a manual transmission, the clutch is used when starting, shifting and stopping.  The clutch is usually operated by a lever located at the left handle bar grip.  Squeezing the clutch lever on a motorcycle does the same thing as when you push the clutch pedal in a car.  The important thing to know is when trying to get moving, the clutch lever must be released very slowly.  If released too quickly upon starting, the bike may quickly surge forward out from underneath you and/or stall the engine.  The technique to starting is to give the engine some gas (not a real lot) while you very slowly and gradually release the clutch lever when you are in first gear.  It takes a combination of throttle control and slow clutch release to get you moving.  Once you are moving, you can let go of the clutch lever.

How to shift gears on a motorcycle:

upshifting with heel and toe shift lever on motorcycleIf the entire idea of using a clutch and shifting gears is just too much to bother with, then  take a look at some of the latest automatic motorcycles that are on the market today.  If using a clutch is no big deal for you, then shifting gears should be a piece of cake.  Most motorcycle are 1 down 4 up.  From neutral, just pull in the clutch and push down on the shifter to get into 1st gear.  Release the clutch as described above, and then to shift to 2nd gear, lift up on the shift lever firmly with your toe (if not done firmly enough, you may be putting it into neutral).  If you find you’re in neutral when you release the clutch, don’t panic, just give it a quick try again as you’re rolling along.

To get back into 1st gear, just push down on the lever.  If you’re in 3rd gear, push down once to get to 2nd, let out the clutch, and as you slow down more, then you can pull the clutch, push down again for 1st, and slowly release the clutch.  That’s called down shifting, and it must be performed smoothly or else you could over-rev the engine and/or lock the rear wheel as you are slowing down.  Some street bikes have “slipper” clutches that help keep you from locking the rear wheel when down shifting at fast speeds and high engine rpm.  Not to get too technical, it is good for beginning riders to have a bike that has a wet clutch, especially since the clutch will be getting a little more abuse while the rider is learning.

Larger touring motorcycles often have a rocker type shift lever, especially when they have foot boards (aka floor boards) instead of foot pegs.  The rocker shift lever is also called a “heal-and-toe” shift lever.  The  lever rocks in the center like a see-saw.  You use your toe to down-shift (as usual), but on these, you use your heal to up-shift.  To up-shift with your heal, just push down on the rear part of the lever with your heal.  Doing that does the same as lifting up the front part of the shifter with your toe.  It’s a little weird at first, but really is easy.

How to stop on a motorcycle:

how to stop a motorcycle using rear brake pedalWhen stopping on a motorcycle, normally you will down shift to help you slow bu using the engine to help act as a brake to slow the motorcycle down.  You want to be in first gear with the clutch pulled in when you actually stop.  Apply both the front and rear brake and make sure to keep the bike upright when you are using the brakes.  The rear brake is usually a pedal under your right foot.  The front brake is usually a lever at the right handlebar grip.  You normally never want to use just the front brake or just the rear brake when stopping quickly.  Too much front brake can put you out of control in a hurry.

Too much rear brake could cause the rear end to start skidding out from under you.  My Moto Guzzi rear brake pedal controls the rear and the front brakes together at the same time, but if I need to stop quick, it also has a front brake lever, as on most other motorcycles.  On mine, the front brake lever activates  the pads on a second front disc, so using front and rear lever together provides more than enough stopping power.  There are other motorcycles on the market now that have a similar braking system.

By riding and gaining some experience, you’ll learn quickly how much brake force is necessary, and what the best combination of front and rear brake force works best for your motorcycle.  Remember, only try to stop when the motorcycle is upright.  Never grab the front brake during a turn or you’ll crash for sure.

How to use motorcycle turn signals:

how to turn off motorcycle turn signalTo use the turn signals, slide the switch located on the left handlebar grip.  Push it to the right to turn on your right turn signal, and to the left for the left turn signal.  One of the most common errors that motorcycle riders make is to forget to turn off their turn signal after making a turn.  On many motorcycles, to turn off the turn signal, just push the signal switch straight in.  I try to make a habit to push in my turn signal switch randomly as I am ride just in case I forgot to turn it off.

Off-road riding tips:

When riding dirt bikes, on simple trails or on a motocross track, how you move your body around on the bike makes a big difference when you are negotiating rough terrain.  When going down a steep bumpy hill, like over tree roots or rocks, make sure to stand up with your knees bent and your butt moved back to the rear of the seat.  Your arms will be extended and pushing forward on the handlebars to keep you ready and from being catapulted forward over the bars.  Your knees will be acting like soft suspension to again help keep you from getting bounced over the bars.  You’ll want to go nice and slow and use the rear brakes a lot.

When attempting to ride up a steep hill, you kind of do the opposite because you want to sit down, scoot all the way up close to that gas tank, and your arms will be bent as you lean forward.  You’ll want to go a little faster than normal so that you get to the top without stalling or losing traction part way up.  These two techniques help position your weight properly, which allows you to go up and down steeper inclines with ease and control.

Recommended reading:

These are a few of the more popular books that we recommend for additional info on learning how to ride a motorcycle.   Getting one or all of these books will  help you become familiar with basic techniques before you try to get your motorcycle license, and will help you afterwords as well.

how to ride a motorcycle 144 pages 140 photosMotorcycle Safety Foundation Motorcycling Excellence Book 192 pages 150 photosProficient Motorcycling

About John Clay

John Clay is the author of MotorcycleInfo.Org. He and his family reside in North Carolina in the United States. A graduate of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced Rider Course, he enjoys riding his Moto Guzzi in charity rides and serves as a volunteer motorcycle marshal for an annual bicycle charity event in the Carolinas.

» has written 131 posts

2 Responded

  1. Karen Hickman says:

    I have a harely 883 and was wanting to convert it to automatic is there a way to do this? If so, How much would it cost and who would convert it? thanks K

    • John says:

      Karen, I’d recommend getting a new motorcycle, such as an Aprilia, or a Honda that is equipped with an automatic transmission. If you’re not interested in the sport bike style of those, a Ridley would be closer in style to your Harley, but that is if you can find a good used one since they stopped production a few years ago.