50 Things I Learned in 25 Years Of Riding Motorcycles Part One

50 Things I Learned in 25 Years Of Riding Motorcycles Part One

50 Things I Learned in 25 Years Of Riding Motorcycles

(Testing the Multistrada for http://www.superbikeplanet.com in Lanzarote, 2010 – photo courtesy of Ducati)

I’ve been riding motorcycles for 25 years. It’s really hard to believe I’ve been doing anything that long; many other hobbies and dalliances have come and gone over those years. But riding, and the very culture of motorcycles has lodged itself into my being, in a way that few other things have. Why? I don’t really understand it. Chatting with my riding mates, we all have so many anecdotes, so much information we’ve gathered from all that seat time. There’s a clarity in the experience, a richness that accumulates. The best, most experienced riders don’t really think about it that much, they just get on with it, and their riding seems effortless. But we’re all striving for that. I guess the 25 year mark just got me thinking about it a bit.

So here’s a bit of what I have learned over 25 years of riding. I doubt everyone will agree with all of it; hopefully you’ll recognize some of it from your own experiences.

1) If you’re meant to be a biker, nothing will stop you: not lack of money, nor discouragement from friends and loved ones. Call it love, a malady, an obsession, some of us have riding in our bones. Do you?

2) Even after 25 years of riding, I learn something every time I get on the bike. But you need to be open to the lessons.

3) I was never a fast rider, but I eventually became a smooth rider. Between the two, the latter is better for the streets.

4) Learn to be fast AND smooth – do track days, take a class (http://www.superbikeschool.com/) or if you’ve got the bottle, race.

5) Feet belong on the pegs or on the pavement, minimize their time spent anywhere in between. Only Fred Flintstone drags his feet when he slows down.

6) You need to be aware not only of what’s happening in front of you when riding, but behind and to the sides. It’s better to predict than react.

7) Farkles like GPS, Satellite Radio, iPhones etc are a massive liability to your attention on the bike. Keep that crap in the panniers.

8) If you believe that everyone eventually crashes, then you should believe it most when you’re getting dressed for every single ride.

9) Spending $500 on a premium full face helmet is smart, as is replacing it every five years. 1/2 and 3/4 helmets may channel air better to your face, but they channel the tarmac better as well.

10) At 18, I had a big bicycle crash. While I sat in emergency having gravel scrubbed out of my palms with a wire brush, screaming, I decided to thereafter always wear gloves when riding. This is even more important on a motorcycle.

11) Riding off-road makes you a better rider on road, because you learn how to handle situations where traction is dodgy, and deal with obstacles. It’s fun, but you do fall down a lot and compared to road riding, it’s hard work.

12) Big horsepower bikes are really only fun to ride when you let them off the leash. Really any bike is the most fun when you’re caning it (except Harleys).

13) Cafe racers and supermotos are so much fun because when you’re doing 60, it feels like you’re doing 100. On a litre bike, you need to be going 140 to feel like you’re going 100.

14) After chasing the latest and greatest for 20 years, I finally realised that less it more: less money, less weight, less horsepower, less technology, less “design”, less hype, less gadgets. The only way I’ve found to get back to that feeling I had when I first started riding is to strip away the unnecessary.

15) “Family Of Origin” issues: just like a child’s environment influences who he/she grows up to be, so too a beginning motorcyclist needs to be mindful of who they ride with when first starting. You can pick up a lot of bad habits from the wrong people. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s been riding for ages and is willing to share some of what he/she knows.

16) The earlier you get up to ride, the better your ride will be.

17) Go to another country and ride. Mark Twain put it rather eloquently: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  More quotes on travel here:  http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/travel

18) The hardest days you have on a bike will be the ones you remember. Hailstorms, hurricanes, and breakdowns test you, and often require you to seek the assistance of others. We’ve always found that people go out of their way to help, especially in remote areas. These experiences have always given us renewed belief in the inherent goodness of man.

19) I realise that many people will strongly disagree with me, but I found the book “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” to be boring rubbish that didn’t stir any of the emotions I get from riding. Ted Simon’s “Jupiter’s Travels” on the other hand, is a must read, ticks all the boxes.

20) “Present moment living” –  there are books published about it, classes given, lectures. We don’t need any of it, because riding a bike is about as pure an exercise in “present moment living” as you can have. Our bodies and minds meld with the motorcycle, the controls an extension of our thoughts. When we ride well, there is little conscious thought involved, it’s just being and doing. People who don’t ride will never understand this.

21) Being biased for or against a particular brand of type of bike is a fool’s game. Harley, Ducati, Honda, BMW, Triumph, Kawasaki, Moto Guzzi, KTM – Tim and I have ridden or owned all of them (and many others). You eventually get old enough to understand that nearly every motorcycle has something worthy about it, and being prejudiced against any of them limits the quality of your life. A bit like other people and cultures.

22) Because of riding, I’ve traveled the world, eaten wonderful food, seen incredible racing, and made lifelong friends. If you let them, motorcycles will enrich your life in ways you could not fathom when you first threw a leg over one.

23) Buy yourself a set of these, they work especially well when you have a long day’s ride ahead, and a friend comes down with a massive hangover and sees them under his bike just as you’re about to ride off: http://www.aerostich.com/fake-oil-pools.html

24) It always cracks me up when the guy on the GS in the full Ewan and Charlie regalia laughs at the Harley dude with the beard and the beer belly in the leather vest, who’s laughing at the guy riding the GSXR thou in a full Dainese suit and stuck in traffic, who’s laughing at the guy in the waxed cotton Belstaff that’s cursing past the pipe in his mouth as he tries to kick his Commando to life.

25) Every day spent above ground is good. Every day spent on two wheels is better.

Part 2 to to follow. Thanks for reading and as always, ride safe!

Jim McDermott

(Testing the Kawasaki KLR 650 for http://www.superbikeplanet.com in Sonoma, California. Image courtesy of Kawasaki)
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40 Comments

  1. Bob Smith

    Hi, still in love with bikes, 67 and love the life on wheels, give me the Alps into Italy and I know God made these roads for bikers, Started at 16 years old and still feel excited to ride, just like the first time, my Son and Grandson are keen bikers. I can’t stand waiting in traffic in a car when I could be filtering on the outside. I love my Guzzi’s but all bikes have their appeal, 150,000 miles on my old Yamaha, just finished a swinging arm repair so it can give me some more enjoyment.

    Reply
  2. James Lingenfelter

    I started riding in 1979 on a 1971 yamaha 200. I now ride a Ducati 1000SS but am building a 78 Suzuki GS400X cafe racer. I really do miss the small nimble machines I started on. Good read! Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  3. christian ituze

    Beautiful article, been riding for 5 years now.

    Reply
  4. Steve Durham

    Good morning. Since I am restoring an old bike, could not go for any early morning ride. Entered “early morning motorcycle ride” on my computer and came across your website. You are absolutely right about motorcycles enriching your life… discounting the enjoyment of all the great people I have met, one experience sums it all up for me. In 1976 I purchased a brand new burgundy and white Triumph Bonneville. I could not sleep that night, so I got up and went to the shed, turned on the light, and stared at this machine.
    I could not believe that it was mine. I am 67, still ride regularly, and still have that sense of
    wonder that I experienced that night. Everyone should be so fortunate.

    Reply
  5. Abe

    I’m loving some of the comedy you have in here. I’m a new biker. I figured this was worth the read. The very first one struck me as funny. I said the other day, “I was born to ride.” Ever since I got on that bike and passed the skills test, I’ve been on two wheels. This morning was cold in Southern NH, but it was a good ride to work. I’m going to be ripping my skin off in the winter. My first bike was a 1982 Honda CM450C. I’m a tall guy, and that bike has a high center of gravity. I was really rocky to begin with. Learning how to handle that bike took a couple of days. Once I got used to it, I wanted bigger. My old man let me take his Harley 1200 for a spin. That was heaven to my body. It was so much more comfortable to me. So, I went and bought myself a 1990 Yamaha Virago 750. It has a “Sissy Bar” for my daughter. The title “Sissy Bar” is another laughable thing you could add. “Real bikers don’t have Sissy Bars”. We do too. Not for the driver but for the passenger. My little lady knows how to ride back there, but she likes to lean back and enjoy it without hanging onto dad. “Real bikers don’t have 3 wheels”. That IS a true statement. That makes it a trike. Thanks, Jim, for the good read.

    Reply
    • Tim Orr

      Glad you enjoyed it Abe

      Reply
  6. Dodd

    THANKS JIM…

    Reply
  7. Stu Cliffy

    I’ve only been riding for just over 2 years after hankering after a Harley for most of my early life. Unfortunately I had a bad accident in 2011 which took me off the bike for 12 months. However, after muany strange looks from friends & family I’m now back on it (since Sep 2013) and loving every minute. My wife thinks I’m mad but understands that it is my thing. It is hard to describe the feeling you get from being able to escape from it all by going out for a few hours on the bike. The best stress relief therapy I know. Keep up the good work Jim – and all you fellow bikers, ride safe.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Stu glad you enjoyed it and good to hear you’re back on the bike! Ride safe

      Jim

      Reply
  8. Mark

    Yes that pretty much mirrors my 30 years of experiences Jim, and there are some key lessons to learn, such as protecting yourself from ‘road gravel’ and ‘smooth’ riding. Thank you Jim!

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Mark, glad you found it helpful! Jim

      Reply
  9. Martin

    I`ve been riding since i was 16,i`m now 58, just gets in your bones, never tried to give it up, been married for 30 years, have 3 lovely daughters, my wife just accepts that is what i love. Old and new bikes the same. Just some things i`ve discoverd in my years of riding, most brit bikers do not like football,(ask your fellow bikers) It`s what i call dooers and watchers, most bike riders are dooers. Most football fans are watchers!

    Reply
  10. Andrew

    I got back on a bike after a 10 year lay off. Every day on my Ducati has been more rewarding than the last.
    I agree with most everything you said especially 11, 12, 15 & 21.

    One thing I’ve found though…

    “Ducati, turning Motorcycle Riders into Mechanics since 1926”

    Very happy to have stumbled upon your input.
    Love your work Jim!

    Andrew

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Andrew glad you enjoyed it. I’m a long time Ducati fan and was lucky enough to get to test Troy Bayliss’s Factory 1098 WSBK at Portimao in 2008, the highlight of my riding life. Always had good luck mechanically with my Ducs, which model do you own?

      Jim

      Reply
      • Andrew

        Jim I was fortunate enough to meet Troy at a Ducati open day last weekend in Brisbane. Genuine, very interesting bloke, I have a world of respect for what hes done on two wheels! You must have been blessed to test Troys 1098, I’ve ridden a street one, they’re an excellent machine.

        The first Ducati I was on was a GTL 500 Parallel Twin, worst bike! Then stepped up to a 750 Paso which was so easy to ride and had absolutely no problems with it until I had a serious Brain fade and collected a 1000 Guzzi from behind. (You definitely learn from your mistakes!)

        I’m currently on a 2000 748S, which is a lot of fun, but really not suited to anything more than Sunday Breaky runs or track days. This bike’s had a hard life so I’ve been trying to get her up to scratch, Relays, wiring, lights and Fuel pump. Now looking at a new clutch…

        I love riding the mountains around Brisbane but want to do more substantial trips like Philip Island etc. so I’m hunting for a Multistrada to satisfy those urges!

        Reply
        • Jim

          Isn’t Troy a great guy? So down to earth. I got to interview him at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah back in 2008 with Superbikeplanet, here’s the podcast: http://www.soupkast.com/kast/soupkast56.mp3

          The bike test was for journos, of all the WSBK factory bikes, organized by the WSBK organizers when Portimao opened. It was a pretty amazing thing, getting to ride the bike Troy won the double on the day before, and then retired. What a machine! I got five laps on it and incredibly, Michael Schumacher was on the track too and passed me on Troy Corser’s R1. It was just the most special day.

          748’s a great ride but yeah, hard work on the road. I had a 2005 Multistrada S, loved it to bit, should never have sold it.

          Jim

          Reply
  11. Alwyn

    I’ve been riding for 40 years. Friends and relatives ( who do not ride ) will say; but isn’t it dangerous. And i would retort, Of course it’s dangerous! Life is dangerous. The other day my friend Brian , waking up for an early visit to the bathroom, stepped on the dog , broke three ribs against the bedstead, one pierced a lung, and bashed his eyebrow open against the dressing-table – ambulance and E R and months of pain and discomfort
    Just imagine , I would have forfeited 40 years of enjoyment, going places, meeting and befriending interesting and wonderful people, if I heeded what non-motorcyclists feared can happen.

    I live in sunny South Africa. We ride all-year round – hundreds of thousands of like-minded ride-enthusiasts.

    I concur re your point extrapolating the choice of company one keeps ( item 15 ).
    Also points 20, 21 and 22.

    Thanks, I’m pleased I came across your contribution.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Alwyn, glad you enjoyed it! Jim

      Reply
  12. Allan

    “What he said. ”

    I’ve been riding for 5 years now, but started with full rider gear (and yes, full face helmet only) and as many courses, both on and off-road as I could pack in, just to kick-start some experience build-up, and from the crap-load I’ve learnt in 5 years about being a road user (after 20 years of driving a cage), I really like the way you think. Great article! (And I’m definitely looking up Jupiter’s travels. Thanks!)

    Reply
  13. Ig

    I recently got back on a bike after a 15 year interruption , kids are grown up and it’s ME time!
    Went for my first off-road weekend again and WoW …. I love my GS!

    Live life to the fullest … Don’t waist it on the couch!

    Thanks for the blog Jim.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Thanks for reading it LG! – Jim

      Reply
  14. Toyne Howell

    Unlike People, it doesn’t matter how much trouble you have with bikes, You still love them!

    Reply
  15. Naftali Thaithi

    Splendid!

    I am only 1 year and a few months old into riding and I love the culture and the people. This helps put things in perspective.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheer Naftali, glad you liked it and ride safe! Jim

      Reply
  16. Bradley

    To your point 14, I realised a week ago that, having just bought a Royal Enfield Classic 500 at the age of 50, there is a uncanny likeness of the RE to the 50cc Suzuki I started out on at school when I was 16! But I love it…..

    Reply
    • Jim

      We’ve never ridden the new Enfields, how is it Bradley? Would love to know. Jim

      Reply
  17. Brian Cantwell

    Been riding since 1970 and agree with most of these, but especially 11 & 17. Recently back from a European tour and would add another rule: avoid the Italian Autostrades!!
    My ambition is to do a US coast-to-coast… just need one or two willing companions

    Reply
  18. Nick

    Rule 1 Never grow complacent
    Rule 2 Just Ride

    Just Back from a 10 day tour woke up next morning desperate for a ride

    Total Addiction

    Reply
    • Jim

      Where did you tour, Nick?

      Reply
    • Nick

      Central France on D Roads managed to avoid the motorways smiles all round
      Cheers

      Reply
      • Jim

        Nice!

        Reply
  19. Dave Catchpole

    Thanks for this, Jim, I’ve been riding for over 40 years and couldn’t agree more. I also strongly agree with points 1, 11, 14 and 18. But pretty much all of the above have moulded me into who and what I am today. Love it, live it and ride it!!

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Dave, I’m hoping when I’ve been riding 40 years the list will be much longer 🙂

      Reply
  20. Tonto

    Been on bike for about 50 years now and they never cease to amaze me. They just get better all the time. Living in East Tennessee gives me an almost perfect corner of the world to practice the art. Some of the thing said here I’m not 100% on…but that’s OK…mostly I agree. Get in the wind ya’ll.

    Reply
    • Jim

      Thanks Tonto, I wrote the post and even I wonder if I’m 100% on everything I said 😉 Cheers, Jim

      Reply
  21. Steve

    Brilliant 🙂

    Reply
    • Jim

      Cheers Steve!

      Reply
  22. Rudolf

    A life behind bars….killing bugs!! You live only once, get a frame , engine and two wheel between your legs and you are in for quality living!

    Reply
    • Jim

      So true Rudolf!

      Reply

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