The first time is always scary. Neither classes or friends or glossy magazines can really prepare you for the sweaty, queasy feeling you get when pulling out into traffic for the first time on a motorcycle.
My first time was crossing Middlebrook Pike in West Knoxville. I had just titled, tagged, and insured my beloved yellow Ducati, and had rushed home a few minutes early to get in an hour of waning daylight to practice in a nearby subdivision.
And no amount of DOT-approved foam and plastic and leather could calm my nerves as I left of my now-former apartment complex into the median. But you have to get wet at some point, right?
The first thing most beginners will discover when riding with other traffic is that they're going too slow. The perception of speed on a motorcycle is far different than when driving a car—40 mph in the open air can feel more like 60.
The trouble gauging one's speed can also be a problem when transitioning from a two-lane back-road to a four-lane highway.
I found it absolutely terrifying when exiting the on-ramp to Pellissippi Parkway for the first time at 55 mph. The force of the air hitting your helmet, the noise, the roar of the engine—it all makes for a violent, and exciting, experience.
The only way to become more comfortable with speed on a motorcycle is practice. Here are some tips for building courage:
Treat every ride with respect. Riding a motorcycle is dangerous. It's a machine that deserves respect. Don't get on the bike if you're tired, angry, or in any condition that would prevent you from riding safely.
Maintain a "bubble" of space around you. It's especially important to create space between yourself and surrounding traffic, as you'll still be new to the multi-tasking of changing gears, braking, checking mirrors and using turn signals.
Do everything you can to get the attention of other drivers. Motorcyclists aren't as visible as other traffic on the road, especially when changing lanes or at intersections. I find it useful to flash my high-beams when approaching any car seeking to pull out in traffic. I also make every attempt to avoid blind-spots when traveling on two-lane highways—make sure your light hits the driver or passenger mirrors of the car in front of you.
Try to ride the speed limit. You can prevent a lot of road-rage from other drivers by maintaining the speed limit. Don't worry if everyone passes you in the first few outings; just relax and enjoy the ride.
Wear appropriate clothing for every ride. It can be very tempting to ride in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers on warm, nice days. It's even more alluring when you're just riding a few blocks to the store. But keep in mind that an accident can happen at any time, and at any speed, on a motorcycle. Wear what you want to crash in. Brighter, or reflective, clothing also helps with visibility.
I spent my first few weeks as a motorcyclist avoiding Interstate 40 and any road with a speed limit more than 50 mph. This gave me a chance to explore the back roads of West Knoxville, roads that helped my handling skills due to their twisty nature.
But my anxiety with speed lessened as I flirted with faster roads. A month after my first ride with traffic I was comfortable enough for a ride from West Knoxville to the Foothills Parkway and back, a beautiful route I'd recommend to any motorcyclist. This gave me a healthy mix of faster secondary roads and four-lane highways in addition to some mountain bends.
But the more time I've spent riding the higher speed-limit roads, the more I seek out alternate routes. Freeways and their ilk tend to be boring—they're straight, strenuous (wind, noise, and vibrations), and dangerous because other traffic seems to zone out at the wheel. There is no zoning-out on a motorcycle, of course, which makes these roads all the more stressful.
Riding a motorcycle with traffic and at speed doesn't need to be scary. With the right preparation, mindset, and equipment any beginner motorcyclist can make the transition from the parking lot to the traffic light.
Patrick Beeson is a rookie rider who attempts to cover issues important to newbies each month while splicing in anecdotes about his journey from citizen to motorcyclist. If you're new to riding, or simply want to share a story from your early days in the saddle, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.