Jun 08, 2015

How to get started as a Bay Area motorcyclist

Soon after moving to the Bay Area last fall, I bought a motorcycle. Since then, I've been learning how to ride – it's great fun. Here are some things I've learned, and wish I had known about when I was getting started:

  • First things first, take a MSF course, or something similar. These courses are about 10 hours long, which is divided between classroom time and time on a riding course (read: empty parking lot populated with safety cones), learning to handle a bike at low speeds. A course like this is the first step in reifying your "I want to ride a motorcycle" impulse.

  • Once you've taken the course, you will need to get a motorcycle endorsement on your license. I'm not exactly sure how this works in California, because I transferred my Michigan endorsement. I believe it involves a trip to the DMV and some sort of test.

  • I bought my current bike from MotoJava, a small outfit just above the Mission. It is run by two guys, Paul and Joe, who buy used bikes, refurbish them, and sell them for a profit. They only have a handful of bikes at a time. Their site is sort of fun to check out – the inventory page is frequently updated with newly in-stock bikes. You can't test drive their bikes prior to purchase, which is a bummer. However, they consistently get rave reviews.

  • Craigslist is probably the best place to find good deals on used bikes, if you know what to look for.

  • For your first bike, don't buy new. It's very likely that you will drop your first bike a couple of times (I definitely did), and it will get scratched up. It's better to get a cheaper, older bike that you won't feel as bad about as it gets banged up.

  • Similarly, I would buy a small, light bike first. Mine was a 2006 250r Ninja. In retrospect, 250 cc was a little small for me, but it was a good size to learn on. I wouldn't buy anything larger than 650 cc, and a 650 is pushing it.

  • This site is specific to 250 Ninjas, but it is well-curated and has a lot of good general info. Specifically this, this, and this.

  • This is a good buyer's guide for used bikes. There are a lot of shit bikes out there, be careful.

  • Read this book.

  • Here is a map of cool roads to ride around the Bay. There is a lot of beautiful riding around here.

  • Revzilla is a good site for comparison-shopping for gear. For your first purchase, I'd recommend going into a shop and try a bunch of stuff on, then getting the stuff that fits best.

  • On risk – it's definitely a risky hobby. A lot of this risk can be mitigated by how you ride (i.e. being alert, very defensive, and not competitive), and the conditions you decide to ride in (i.e. choosing to ride on country roads in the middle of the day rather than on the expressway during rush hour). But there is still a lot of risk that is inherent in moving 50-80 mph over asphalt, surrounded by large metal vehicles conducted by inattentive drivers. You can read a lot of "risk mitigation" stuff online. I think it's good to drill it in beforehand, because it is easy to be cocky and confident once you're comfortable on your bike.(more on whether motorcycling is worth the risk)

  • Gear is important. It's also a big hidden cost, expect to spend about $1000 for all the gear you need. Initially, I spent $300 on a jacket, $200 on a helmet, and $100 on gloves. In retrospect, that was not enough, I should have also bought riding pants ($250) and boots ($150), which I purchased later. It's expensive because it's basically a suit of armor – abrasion-resistant materials with armored plates incorporated.

One thing you notice when you get out there is how crazily fast everyone is driving – you never notice this in a car. And if an accident happens at high-speed, you don't have much control over what body parts will be contacting the pavement.

The best metaphor I've heard about this: Imagine yourself in your riding gear. Then take a power sander and thoroughly go over all parts of your body with it. The parts that would hurt after doing this are the parts that aren't protected enough. Asphalt at 60+ mph is at least as bad as the power sander.

[rereads: 2, edits: this post is a cleaned-up version of an email wrote to a friend, made some tweaks after a readthrough, later: fixed list formatting, added a link to my post on motorcycling risk]