Motorcycle suspension basics for beginners

Ohlins motorcycle shock absorber
The dirty Ohlins shock absorber on my Aprilia RSV4 Factory

Often overlooked but critically important, the suspension on a motorcycle helps soak up bumps and keep the tires firmly planted. Poorly adjusted suspension makes for nervous riding, but well-adjusted suspension can make every ride better, especially in the turns. This is our summary of motorcycle suspension basics for beginners, namely what you’d see on modern sportbikes or standards.

For excellent beginner bikes like those on our list of best beginner sportbikes for 2021, the suspension is typically not adjustable except for the rear shock absorber’s spring preload. This means you have to live with the suspension as-is, but the setup is generally soft and forgiving. Adjustable suspension components are costlier, so don’t expect to see them until you buy a more expensive motorcycle. But it’s still important to understand what the components do and what type of adjustments are available.

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Best motorcycle helmet, jacket, glove, and boot brands for sportbike riders

A motorcycle rider wearing a helmet and leathers

If you’re a beginner motorcycle rider, it might be hard to figure out which brands of helmets, jackets, gloves, and boots are legitimately good brands for sportbike riders. As with equipment for any activity or sport, there are many to choose from, with varying degrees of price, quality, and cool factor.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it mean that brands not appearing here are bad. It’s just a list of the brands that we like, purchase, and believe in. Also keep in mind that it’s critical to purchase gear that’s specifically made for motorcycle riding; for example, work boots and gloves are not going to fare well in a crash.

But enough already, on to the list.

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Check your tire pressure at least weekly

Motorcycle parked

Motorcycle tires have a rounded tread because motorcycles have to lean over in order to negotiate turns, which means the contact patch is quite a bit smaller than that of a flat-treaded car tire. The contact patch for motorcycle tires is famously compared to that of a credit card, meaning there’s very little rubber connecting a motorcycle to the road. This makes it critically important to have good tires in good condition, and part of that condition is the proper tire pressure.

Check your bike’s manual or the tire manufacturer’s website for the recommended tire pressures for your bike, and make sure to check the tire pressures at least once per week. I recommend buying a good quality tire pressure gauge with a hose; the valve stem on motorcycle tires can be a little hard to deal with sometimes, so it’s better to have one with a hose so you’re not trying to jam a big old gauge in between the wheel spokes. Here’s a search for motorcycle tire pressure gauges on revzilla.com.

A couple of extra tips:

  • Many gas stations will let you use the air inflator for free if you go inside and ask the attendant to turn it on.
  • Don’t rely on the pressure gauge attached to the gas station inflator; get your own.
  • Make sure your tires are relatively new and have plenty of tread left; if you buy a used bike and it’s been sitting for year or longer, those tires might be degraded. Buying new tires is a really cheap insurance policy.

How long do you need to ride smaller motorcycles until you can get your dream bike?

Ducati and Aprilia sportbikes
Ducati and Aprilia make some of the dreamiest sportbikes in the world

There isn’t a magic timeline for a beginner motorcycle rider to be ready for their dream bike, but it definitely shouldn’t be their first bike unless they both happen to be something like the Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS. Chances are that dream bike is something more powerful, more beautiful, and more expensive. My dream bike when I was a beginner was the Yamaha YZF-R6, but fortunately I had the good sense not to buy it despite some unscrupulous salesmen trying to convince me otherwise. So when is a beginner rider ready to make the jump to their dream bike?

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Best Beginner Sportbikes 2021

Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS

We’ve finally updated our list of favorite beginner sportbikes for 2021, and the list is a little shorter this year. We don’t include used/older bikes in this list because there are too many to choose from, and we now only recommend manufacturers with good quality reputations and plentiful service networks. For example, we’ve removed the KTM RC 390 from our list mainly because its network of dealers and authorized mechanics is rather sparse.

Just a quick note; we always recommend considering a used bike for your first bike. Why?

  • You’re probably going to drop your first bike. I did. Multiple times. Sucks to do it to a brand new bike.
  • Used bikes are less expensive and can be easily sold for just a little less money when you’re ready to move on to your next bike.
  • Your first bike is a stepping stone; learn on it and move on. Like the rest of us, you will want many other bikes. Don’t blow a big chunk of money on your dream bike for your first bike.
  • Speaking of dream bikes… for new sportbike riders, please for f***’s sake do not run out and buy that Yamaha R1 you’ve been dreaming about. It is ALL kinds of wrong for a beginner rider. Start smaller, start used (preferably), build your skills, and work your way up to it.
  • If you’re still set on buying a brand new beginner sportbike (sigh), keep reading.
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If you ride a motorcycle, you need ear plugs

ear plugs and helmet
I buy a lot of ear plugs

If you ride a motorcycle without ear plugs, you are going to damage your hearing. The noise level from winds at highway speeds is sufficient to cause tinnitus and permanent damage over time, and there is no helmet quiet enough to adequately protect your hearing on its own. If you don’t want permanent ringing in your ears or hearing loss, you need to wear ear plugs.

A secondary benefit of ear plugs for beginner motorcycle riders is a calming effect. The noise reduction makes riding much less stressful while learning how to ride, which is the other reason I always encourage new riders to make a habit of wearing them. There’s also a huge variety of plug types to choose from, so I’ll cover a few of them here.

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What a weird year, but we can still ride

Motorcycles
At least you can still ride your motorcycle these days

I haven’t been riding too much this year, partly because my high maintenance Italian bike has needed some work, and partly because I can’t eat at the restaurants where I normally stop on my rides. What a weird year. But at least I can still ride.

It’s an amazing privilege to be able to ride a motorcycle and enjoy the open roads; those of us who ride know the feeling all too well, and those of you who aspire to ride will know the feeling soon enough. One of the best parts of riding, for me at least, has always been getting some good food at a fun place to stop. Obviously that’s an experience that hasn’t been the same this year for many of us.

The important thing is to adapt. We all have to adapt. Most things are different now, and some things will stay different. But when it comes to riding, thankfully things haven’t really changed. Yeah maybe for now it’s the McDonald’s parking lot with a McRib and a Diet Coke instead of sitting down to a GS Rider Special (chili + eggs + hash browns) and a coffee at Newcomb’s Ranch, but the ride is still the ride.

For the new or aspiring riders out there, stay safe and remember to get some proper gear. The rides will still be as exciting as ever, even if you have to sit in a parking lot to eat instead of the cool mountain top restaurant. And don’t forget to wave to your fellow riders.

Want to ride sportbikes? Start the right way.

My buddy’s Kawasaki Ninja 400, one of the best beginner sportbikes you can buy

It’s a new year and you’re finally ready to enter the world of motorcycle riding. I’m always happy to see new riders joining the ranks, and I’m twice as happy when I see them making good decisions about their new found obsession. Make sure you get the right safety gear, get the right training, and get the right bike. It’s tempting to go out there and get a hot new sportbike straight away, but a little patience will ensure you’ll be able to enjoy riding for a long time.

  1. Get the right gear. I’ve got some more info here, but you need a helmet, jacket, pants, boots and gloves. And make sure they’re motorcycle-specific! Do not skimp on gear; ask any experienced rider for some horror stories, and you’re going to hear some unpleasant things.
  2. Get the right training. Check with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to see if there’s a course in your area and take it. If you pass the course, you can skip your state’s riding test when getting your motorcycle license.
  3. Get the right bike. Just like any other sporting equipment, you need a forgiving motorcycle when you’re starting to learn. I’ll be updating the list soon, but not much has changed since we last published our list of best beginner sportbikes. Get one of these or something similar from the used market, become an awesome rider on it, then move up to your next ride. Part of the fun of motorcycles is that since they’re relatively inexpensive, it’s not that hard to buy/sell/trade and try different bikes.

The rider next to me ordered a jack and coke at breakfast

Newcomb's Ranch bar
The bar at Newcomb’s Ranch, a popular rider hangout on Angeles Crest Highway

It never fails. Every time I ride up to Newcomb’s Ranch on Angeles Crest Highway for breakfast, I see fellow motorcycle riders ordering booze with their morning meal. Today while I was sipping my coffee, a gray haired gentleman in full leathers walked up to the counter next to me and ordered a jack and coke.

Riding a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than driving a car: it takes balance, coordination and skill. Adding alcohol to a ride is ALWAYS a bad idea. If you ride with a group and someone orders a drink at one of your stops, you’re better off riding home alone than putting yourself at risk with a buzzed rider in close proximity.

 

Ride safely on those canyon roads

Rider on road

It’s spring time again and all kinds of motorcycles are coming out of hibernation. I rode the famed Angeles Crest Highway this morning, and it was busy with riders of all kinds eager to soak in the curves. The mile high motorhead hangout, Newcomb’s Ranch, was packed due to a special event.

When it’s this busy, I like to remind new riders of a few things to keep out of trouble:

  1. Ride your ride; don’t let faster riders pressure you into riding beyond your comfort level.
  2. If you pull up to the local hangout but it’s super crowded and you’re uncomfortable maneuvering your bike in such tight quarters, park somewhere else (a safe spot away from traffic) or just avoid the place altogether. Many bad things can happen if you get yourself wedged in with so many other bikes.
  3. Just take it easy and remember you need to get home in one piece.