A Return to Motorcycling
In 2013 I bought a motorcycle. I hadn’t owned one since 1991, but with my kids growing up, I wanted to get back into riding. I had enjoyed riding when I was a kid, and as a young man and it had been a great source of social activity for me. I would ride with friend biker owners. I would ride with a friend as a passenger. I would ride alone to meet up with friends. I would shop for bikes with friends who were looking to get into riding. It was fantastic. We would spend long summer days and nights riding the country highways of southeast and south central Wisconsin. We would ride smaller bikes through farm fields and up wild hills. We would pull over and drink coffee or Mountain Dew until the sun came up, and then we’d ride some more. Motorcycles provided both transportation and something common about which to converse.
Motorcycle Safety Class, Licensing, and Learning to Ride
Because it had been 22 years since I’d ridden, I did not want to release on decades old muscle memory to convince me I knew how to ride. I took a safety class at the local technical college (Waukesha County Technical College) here in southeast Wisconsin. Held over the course of four days (M, T, M, W), in three hour increments, the class covered classroom and riding lessons. At the successful conclusion of the class I received a certificate that exempted me from the state riding test, so all I had to do was take the state written test, on a kiosk at the DMV, after which I received my motorcycle license. All those years ago I had only had my temporary license, and when I let it lapse I rode without being licensed, which was fairly common in the 1980’s.
I don’t care how skilled a rider you are. Take a class like this. Get licensed. Be a life-long learner.
In the safety course I learned far more than I had ever learned from teaching myself or via tips from friends, valuable skills I would not have otherwise learned. For example, I knew about the concept of counter-steering, but I’d never really thought about how it worked. Learning this made me a far better turner, curve taker, and overall “pilot”. Other valuable skills included how to safely traverse objects (such as boards in the road) — if they absolutely could not be avoided — and maybe most importantly, to S[earch], e[valuate], and e[xcecute] during every riding moment. The SEE acronym is a very useful mnemonic, instilling foresight into my every day riding as both instinct and ever-present conscious thought. Internalizing the acronym, along with most everything else learned in the class, have made me both a better rider and a better automobile driver.
Choosing A Motorcycle
I chose my bike based on the type of riding I wanted to do. Because I work 50 miles from home, traversed via both major interstate and state highways (one route) and via back country county highways (another route), I wanted something heavy enough to withstand the shearing power of interstate highways as well as be maneuverable enough to handle the back roads I wanted to ride on weekends.
Because my evil plot to return to motorcycling began six years prior to my actually doing so, I had a pretty good idea that I wanted a cruiser this time around, versus just a street bike that I’d had before. I also knew I wanted to buy pre-owned versus new. When it got time to purchase I haunted the local bike shops for a couple months, asking numerous questions. I frequented reddit and other forums. I read magazines. I chose a Honda VTX 1300cc, both for its size and reported reliability. Ultimately though, the a 2006 Yamaha Road Star Silverado 1700cc stole my heart. It was sitting next to the VTX I was trying on for size, and something about it…hooked me. I ran to a nearby cafe, hopped online, researched the Star line, and then talked to a few folks I trusted at various shops.
“Honda is more popular in the U.S. because of their car sales,” said one bike mechanic and shop owner, “so a pre-owned Honda will always be more expensive than a pre-owned Yamaha or Kawasaki, cubic centimeter/each for cubic centimeter/inch, even though Kawasaki is the most popular motorcycle brand in the world. As a mechanic, I’m telling you the Yamaha is easily as reliable as the Honda. You should be able to get a good deal on a Yamaha, Kawasaki, or Suzuki, that suits your needs. The Road Star, maintenance wise, is a dream.” And so forth.
He was right. I bought my Yamaha for over a thousand dollars less than I would have bought the same year Honda, of comparable features and size, at the same shop.
This past fall I enacted some performance maintenance upon my engine, bought new tires this spring, and had a cracked sub-frame replaced. My bike now runs better than ever, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice. [Edit: A year later, the summer of ’18, I replaced the spark plugs and it’s running even better still.]
Although I live near Milwaukee, the home of Harley Davidson, and have numerous friends and neighbors who work at Harley and/or own Harley’s, I expected to be shunned for choosing a metric bike. That did happen. I’m not going to lie. People would compliment me, “Is that beautiful hog out there yours?”, and I’d reply, “Yes, but it’s a Yamaha.” The light would leave their faces, and mumble an, “Oh…”, and they’d wander off, like when a zombie smells another zombie in “The Walking Dead”. This didn’t bother me much. I soon learned there are entire communities of agnostic riders who do not care what brand of bike their fellow riders ride, so that they are riding something. To be fair, many Harley Davidson riders like and appreciate non-Harley motorcycles. Many of these folks are those I ride with often. I was speaking only to the brand-centric snobs, and those exist across all brands. So eff ’em. Ride.
The best tip for purchasing a bike is to go to as many dealers as possible and sit on bikes. Imagine yourself riding them. Set your homepage for cycletrader.com or craigslist, with bike-type, price-range, and location filters, and immerse yourself in motorcycle forums. You’ll soon find yourself gravitating toward one style or other.
Oh yeah. Try not to fall in love with the motorcycle you ride in your safety class. Like a newborn goose imprinting on its human savior, you will find yourself biased. Try to stay objective and focus on the kind of riding you want to do, and pick a ride that will facilitate both that and your personal style.
For an introductory list of motorcycle types, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Types_of_motorcycles <- Will open in a new tab in your browser
Buying A Motorcycle
Is it best to be an experienced, licensed rider prior to buying your first bike? Certainly. But it’s not a requirement. As mentioned above, sometimes the bike will sweep you off your feet at the shop, and you’ll just have to buy it. You’ll have to own that bike! That’s cool. Worry about getting it home as a secondary concern. Have a friend ride it home. Offer one of the employee’s some cash. See if they deliver for free or a minimal charge. It’s no big deal.
Research similar models at various sites (again, cycletrader.com is a great source for this). Create a Google sheet, Notes file, hell, a paper document…whatever works for you..of models you like, with their prices and main features and shop/seller locations and links to where you found the information. This should take an hour or so. By the time you’re bored you will have a good idea if the sticker at the bike shop is potentially going to screw you or is a fairly good deal.
Ideally you will obtain access to accident/damage information on your target bike. Be bold and ask the seller for it, and/or use the various online tools for finding things out. Ideally we’d all have a mechanic buddy to look the bike over before purchase. I didn’t. I used my gut. It was mostly correct, but I’m pretty sure the bike I bought had a cracked sub-frame, when I bought it, and I just didn’t know. That shop is now out of business…and four years later I’d really have no recourse anyway…but lessons learned.
Offer the shop less…hundreds less…than sticker price. You can usually talk them down something at least, or perhaps they’ll throw in a helmet or saddlebags or a windshield, SOMETHING. Just be prepared to either walk away from the bike, or to say, “Fine,” and pay them their asking price. No harm in asking.
When I bought my bike I talked the owner down a bit…and then my wife swooped in and talked him down even MORE. Awesome!
I joined a local/regional meet-up group, on Meetup.com, because as I like to say, “All my rowdy friends have settled down”. Of my high school friends, who had bikes, only one or two still do, and because I live over an hour away, from my old home town, and because those folks and I no longer have much of a friendship, I had to look elsewhere for riding companionship and camaradarie. A couple coworkers have bikes, but that hasn’t panned out as a riding group” Parents of my kids’ friends…the ones with whom I’m friendly…do not own bikes, and those that do own bikes…we don’t really have a connection. The old saying that grown men don’t make new friends is true, at least for me. It’s an effort.
Meet-ups are the solution. A ready-made group of like-minded folk all pursuing the same goal. In this case it’s riding. The meet-up events I’ve attended thus far have all been anywhere from fun to amazing, depending on the ride.
The basic organization of these things is to meet in some central location, greet each other for a few minutes, after which reviewing the general techniques of staggered group riding and hand-signals (object in the road, I need a break, slow down, turn around, etc.), which takes no more than five minutes. Then it’s off for a riding! Great fun.
Meetup.com allows for discussion groups for each posted ride, RSVP’ing, etc. A fellow rider recommended another couple of sites that I’ve not yet tried, and I may give them a shot at some point. Feel free to post comments and suggestions about how you meet fellow riders, or about any other related points, in the comments below.
Dan Reams is a riding enthusiast and Quality Assurance Manager living in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He can be found on Twitter @ebsewi