Gettin Started in Motorcycling

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Motorcycling used to be just another way of getting around, but now it's one of a growing number of "powersports" that may also lay claim to major portions of your discretionary spending: ATVs, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, and any number of four-wheeled and water-based diversions.

However, for me, motorcycle touring is still much closer to bicycle touring than RVing or car-based travel. After all, simply put, a motorcycle is just a bike with a motor. You still get to deal with - and enjoy - the elements. On a good day, you'll be treated to sensory bliss: warm sun tempered with a fresh breeze, the ever-changing scents of the passing scenery, the thrill of the road less traveled, the exhilaration of a winding highway, wildlife sightings, mountain vistas, and cool forest glades… On a bad day, you'll sit in a downpour amid Interstate traffic, peering through a fogged-up visor and wiggling uncomfortably in the ice water pooling in your rainsuit… But on the plus side: there are always more good days than bad days.

So where does one begin? Buying a brand-new Gold Wing or Electra-Glide isn't necessarily the way to go to get into the motorcycle touring experience. Almost any touring rider will tell you they had as much, or more, fun taking their first weekend trip on a beat-up 20-year-old dirt bike than they did crossing the continent on a mega-cruiser. As long as you avoid Interstates, a 250cc bike is fast enough, and a 500 will keep up with highway traffic nicely. My friend Steve Snoen takes at least one long-distance trip a year on his 1956 BSA 250: 15hp and 50mph flat out on a good day. And by long distance I mean riding from Vancouver on Canada's west coast to Massachusetts, as he did for the 2006 BSA Owners Club rally, a 7,000 mile round trip!

I wouldn't recommend a 50-year-old BSA as a starting point, but you get the idea. And beginners can get a great deal on a used bike if they look for something unfashionable. There are literally thousands of four-cylinder, air-cooled Japanese bikes from the '70s and '80s collecting dust in people's garages, and all they typically need is fresh gas, a new battery, a carburetor clean and a tune-up. Garage sales are happy hunting grounds, and many solid reliable bikes with more than adequate performance (like a Suzuki GS650, Honda 750, etc.) change hands this way for less than $ 1,000.

Neither does a new rider need to go all out buying luggage, GPS devices, custom seats and special clothing just to take a trip. A backpack or throw-over panniers work fine for a weekend outing. Many great explorers found their way around with a map and a compass, and as long as you make sure you're wearing boots with ankle protection, heavyweight pants, an armored jacket, a good helmet and work gloves, you're good to go. Oh, and a rainsuit (or even just a couple of garbage bags) to carry along. Used jackets and/or pants are good wardrobe starters, and plenty of them can be had for a song through classified ads and on Craigslist (www.craigslist.org).

Don't skimp on the helmet, though, and never buy a used one. Some of the least expensive helmets on the market work as well as high-end items, although they may not have your favorite racer's graphics on them. A full-face helmet is strongly recommended; and if you don't think you need one, just read James T. Parks' interview with reconstructive surgeon Dr. David H. Hanson (RoadRUNNER: February '08). The first time you don a full-face helmet, it will feel uncomfortably claustrophobic; but trust me, after a few rides you won't feel right without one.

If the bug has bitten on that first trip, you'll probably want to invest in purpose-built equipment, and often a trip to an outdoor outfitting store is enough for the basics. But when buying motorcycle gear, always make sure it fits well and if possible try it out while sitting on a bike. Motorcycle clothing, except for some expensive, high-end suits, is rarely properly waterproofed, so be sure the budget has room for a rainsuit, over-boots and covers for your gloves.

And when only a new bike will do, carefully consider the type of bike that's right. A sportbike may look sexy, but an eight-hour day in the saddle could send you to the ER. Conversely, many cruiser-style bikes feel comfortable in the showroom, but they place more vertical load on the spine. My experience is that the most comfortable types of motorcycles for long-distance travel are "standard" or "adventure" style bikes, where the feet are more or less directly below the hips with the torso in a slight forward lean to the handlebars. The breeze created by forward motion will balance the weight on your arms.

Ready to Go?

Not quite. The most important thing you need is proper training! Even if you're coming back to biking after a few years layoff, lots of things have changed: the roads, the bikes, the laws - and the speeds in which things happen. My first car put out 32hp and would get to 50mph downhill. A typical modern SUV has close to 10 times that power and is easily capable of triple-digit speeds. Modern cars also have ABS brakes, which allow them to stop more quickly than most motorcycle riders can, regardless of the bike. It's a much more dangerous world out there. Make sure you at least take a refresher MSF course; and if you're new to motorcycling, enroll in the full MSF training program.

My first long ride was a five-day tour around Idaho and eastern Washington on a seventies Suzuki GS850 that I bought for $ 500, and I went with a buddy who knew the route well. We pitched our tents for accommodation, visited the Grand Coulee Dam, crossed the Colville Indian Reservation, cruised around the Sawtooth Range and generally had a great time. I was hooked. So if you also have a friend who's into motorcycle touring, ask to tag along sometime.

But when traveling on your own for the first time, don't be too ambitious. Try a weekend trip first, maybe 250 miles round trip. Plan and book your accommodations ahead of time, so you have a place to aim for. I know the serendipity of the open road precludes too much planning, but few things are more demoralizing than riding around a strange town in the dark trying to find a place to stay when you're soaking wet and hypothermic.

What to Expect

It's tempting to under dress for a ride. After all, when you're standing in sheltered sunshine, you'll feel a lot warmer than when you're riding and creating your own 60mph breeze. Experience informs you about how many layers of clothing you need. And don't be tempted to doff your protective gear when the temperature rises. If you get too hot, take a break, find some shade and some water to cool you down - a gas station hose works great! It may sound odd, but you'll feel hotter if you're close to naked under your bike gear. It's always more comfortable, even in the hottest weather, to wear a layer of cotton (or a moisture-wicking synthetic) next to your skin.

The other main issue encountered will likely be fatigue. If you feel drowsy, have a sore butt or aching arms, take a break. Park the bike and take a short nap. Make sure you're properly hydrated, too.

Chances are good that one long ride will have you hooked on motorcycle touring, so expect to spend many summer vacations to come on two wheels. Stay safe and enjoy the ride!