Beginners' guide to riding a motorbike

Man riding motorcycle through traffic

David Morley

Posted May 04, 2021


Thinking of taking up two-wheeled transport? Here’s what you need to know.

As workers return to the office and traffic congestion ramps up, commuters are turning to two wheels as an alternative to public transport or the car.

In the first three months of 2021, sales of road-registered motorcycles grew 20 per cent compared with same period in 2020, while motor scooter sales jumped 27 per cent. Meanwhile, off-road motorbike sales soared almost 90 per cent, which the Victorian Motorcycle Council’s Rob Salvatore puts down to the fact that people are spending discretionary income on local adventures in lieu of overseas travel.

For those wary of taking public transport in the age of COVID, there’s a persuasive case for choosing a motorbike or motor scooter rather than a car to get you where you need to go. Cheaper to buy than an extra car, they cost less to run, can park for free on the footpath in Victoria and are better for navigating peak-hour traffic. They also contribute less to the overall level of congestion.

But while small, nimble, efficient forms of personal transport look certain to play a significant role in our post-COVID transport mix, there are increased risks. According to the Transport Accident Commission, two-wheeled road users are 30 times more likely than car drivers to be injured or killed in a crash. Comfort and convenience can also be compromised if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So if you’re thinking of joining the throng taking up two-wheeled transport, here’s what you need to know. 


Nine motorcycle safety tips every bike rider should know

Be seen, be safe

According to Rob Salvatore, the best thing you can do in the name of on-the-road motorcycle safety is to assume that you’re invisible. Car drivers have a long history of not being able to see motorcycles and there’s some research to suggest that motorists only see what they’re looking for (i.e. other cars and trucks) rather than something like a motorcycle that might have appeared out of nowhere – thanks to its speed and manoeuvrability. Riding in a car driver's blind spot is a big cause of crashes when the motorist suddenly decides to change lanes.

Be predictable

The second most important thing, Rob says, is to make sure you don’t do anything that other drivers aren’t expecting. Being predictable equates to being visible and that’s incredibly important. Don’t be tempted to rely on the old eye-contact theory whereby a driver who has made eye contact with you will do the right thing. All this means is that they’ve seen you, not that they’ve processed that information and will not drive into you.

Know the road rules

Apart from being able to legally park on footpaths and use transit lanes (regardless of the number of people on board) the road rules for motorcycles and scooters are effectively exactly the same as for cars and trucks. The other exception is lane filtering, where riders are permitted to travel between two lanes of slow-moving or stationary traffic, as long as the bike doesn’t exceed 30kmh. 

Motorcyclist among traffic

Motorbike sales have boomed in 2021 as commuters look for affordable alternatives to cars.


 

Avoid lane filtering

Lane filtering can be dangerous (L-platers are banned from doing it) and knowing when it is safe to filter takes experience. Car doors can fly open at odd times, other traffic can change lanes without warning, and simply maintaining balance and control at filtering speeds takes practice. Done correctly, though, lane filtering places the bike at the head of the traffic queue when the lights turn green, allowing the rider to build up a safety buffer of space around them.

Train for safety

It’s important to keep up your skills base, so training and an advanced riding course are worth considering. Yes, you will develop new riding and hazard perception skills as you spend more time on the road, but sometimes the necessary lessons are learned the hard way. Gaining experience and skills in a safe, controlled environment is where rider training comes in, long beyond the point at which you’ve obtained your licence.

Choose the right safety gear

It seems odd to many experienced riders, but the only piece of personal protection equipment mandated by law is a helmet. The fact that L-plate riders are also required to wear a high-visibility vest highlights that there’s more to protective gear than just a helmet. Gloves are a must, as are strong boots that cover your ankles and offer some protection. Smart riders also know that a proper bike jacket with inbuilt armoured panels is a must, as are trousers with the same armoured panels. Bitumen and gravel are very unforgiving and an 80-kilogram human body travelling at 60kmh has a lot of kinetic energy. Something’s got to give and it won’t be the road.

If you want to know which gear is not only safest but also comfortable enough that you’ll actually wear it, check out the MotoCAP ratings. The Motorcycle Clothing Assessment Program, partly funded by RACV, independently tests motorbike clothing for durability and comfort in heat, cold and rain, as well as how it performs in crash conditions. Each item gets a star rating out of five. Their website makes it easy to see what apparel will best suit your particular needs and type of riding. 

Motorcyclist with high-visibility vest

There is more to protective gear than just a helmet. Consider also wearing high-visibility vests, gloves and strong boots.


 

Ride to the conditions

Any sort of two-wheeler is vastly more susceptible to weather conditions than the average car. Motorcycles have only a small tyre-contact patch, so grip is always limited and even more so in the wet or on soft surfaces. That fact greatly affects braking and cornering, so judging an appropriate speed for the conditions is vital.

Know your bike

Off-road bikes don’t have the same exposure to traffic (although a four-wheel drive can appear from a side track any time) but the conditions usually offer less grip and can change dramatically according to the weather.

A dirt bike also has a higher centre of gravity and vastly different handling characteristics to a road bike. Riding at a speed that leaves a margin for changing your mind or pulling off an emergency stop on a loose surface is a big part of staying safe when riding in the bush.

Choose the right bike

Victoria now has a very sensible system of determining who can ride what motorcycle on the road. Since 2008, the Learner Approved Motorcycles (LAM) system has been based on a power-to-weight ratio, rather than the previous simplistic maximum 250cc engine-capacity limit. The current system allows for physically larger motorcycles (up to 660cc capacity in some cases) that have safe real-world performance and can accommodate bigger riders. The other benefit is that you won’t necessarily feel the need to trade up to a bigger bike once you’re off your L or P plates.


Related reading