Photo from my day at the Northwest Motorcycle Clinic
Some people are great at building muscle memory. I am not one of those people.
Although I knew I wanted to ride a motorcycle from the moment I first let off a clutch, I got overwhelmed easily and panicked often. In my first day at motorcycle class, I dropped the bike half a dozen times.
At first, I thought there was something wrong with me. Was I not cut out for riding?
Of course, I did overcome my panic and learn to ride. Since then, I’ve met many new riders who are like I was: they long to learn to ride, but have a hard time acquiring the basic skills.
Can I learn to ride a motorcycle if I’m nervous?
Some may tell you that if you’re scared of riding, you shouldn’t do it. And I see their point: riding is a dangerous hobby that doesn’t tolerate incompetence. However, I think it’s misguided to exclude new riders just because they have a hard time learning.
Although the idea that different people have different “learning styles” is a myth, I do think some people have an easier time learning physical skills. For these people, skills like learning to ride just “make sense.”
For others (myself included), these skills don’t come so easily. In fact, I used to consider myself clumsy. I was constantly bruised, I avoided any kind of sport, and even after years of dance lessons I still had a hard time picking up new choreography.
However, learning to ride a motorcycle taught me that my body is capable of much more than I gave it credit for. I just had to figure out the right way to learn.
The Three Pillars of Learning to Ride
As far as I’m concerned, anyone of sound mind and body can learn how to ride, even if they struggle their first (or second) time on the bike. All you need is the commitment and patience to learn one step at a time.
With motorcycles, we tend to behave as if there’s no middle ground — either you’re riding or you’re not. However, as I learned to ride, I realized there were three central skills I needed to be a competent rider. I call them “The Three Pillars of Learning to Ride:”
- Balancing and maneuvering
- Operating the controls
- Navigating traffic
Okay, so it’s not groundbreaking. However, thinking about the individual steps of learning to ride helped me realize that I didn’t have to learn everything at once. And, more importantly, I actually learned better when I only tackled one new skill at a time.
Learning to Ride, One Step at a Time
For most people, learning to ride means going out to a big, empty parking lot with a (hopefully small) motorcycle. All at once, they try to learn to work the controls as well as how to maneuver and balance.
People who find it easy to pick up physical skills might not have any trouble learning this way. But for me, simultaneously learning how to balance and work the controls sent my panic into adrenaline-fueled overdrive. Not only was this extremely frustrating, but it wasn’t safe.
However, when I switched to learning to ride a scooter, a new world opened up for me. The scooter’s lighter weight and simpler controls allowed me to focus on learning the physics of two wheels. Once I had learned to balance, I ventured out and learned how to be a two-wheeled vehicle on the road.
After becoming comfortable with my scooter in a variety of situations, it was much easier for me to add the final piece of the puzzle: operating the controls.
How should you learn how to ride?
My journey to learn to ride was atypical, but it worked for me. And, I’m glad it did, because it’s shown me that there’s more than one way to learn to ride.
The important thing is not to focus on the motorcycle itself, but to become more comfortable with how riding a motorcycle feels. The more time you give your mind to acclimate to each new sensation, the easier it will be for you to learn the next skill.
In fact, research has shown that learning new skills in different ways (and giving yourself time for those memories to cement) can help you pick up new physical skills faster.
If you’re struggling to learn to ride on a full motorcycle, I challenge you to simplify the problem. Maybe try a lighter motorcycle, and ride it around a parking lot in only first gear. Or get your hands on a scooter and practice on it for awhile.
But you could go even simpler than that. You could practice on a bicycle, and pay attention to how it moves in response to your inputs. Even visualization can help: studies have found that visualizing yourself doing something can help prime your brain to actually do it.
Whatever you choose, remember that the goal is to find accessible challenges. If you push yourself too hard, you’ll end up back where you started: anxious and frustrated. But if you take it slow and steady, you’ll be riding effortlessly before you know it.
Learning to Ride is a Journey, not a Destination
The first few months of learning to ride are possibly the most dangerous time in your riding career. So remember, you’re playing the long game. The object is not to get up and running on a bike as fast as possible, but to make sure you can stay on the the road for as long as possible.
Even after you attain basic competence on a motorcycle, there will always be room to grow. It’s tempting to think that once you’re comfortable on the street, you’re done learning. But the skills you need to ride defensively go beyond the skills you need on a routine trip to the grocery store.
So, though it might feel like your goal is to get comfortable on a motorcycle, that’s actually only a checkpoint on your journey. Learning to ride is a lifelong endeavor, and by keeping that in mind from the start you’ll position yourself to have a long, happy riding career.
If there’s anything I can do to help you along your journey, please don’t hesitate to ask. Enjoy the ride!