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Learn to Ride a Motorcycle for Adventure Travel

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Why learn to ride a motorcycle for adventure travel in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America
Oh, the places you’ll go (on two wheels)

Around the time most people reading this were born, I decided to learn to ride a motorcycle. My main reason was “I feel like it’ll come in useful some day.” And it has. Fast forward 20 years and I’m an amateur motorcycle journalist, have ridden over 20 motorcycles from 125cc to 1200cc at most (so far), have learned to fix, crash, wheelie, and more, and show no signs of slowing down. (Except literally, Mum. And Jo. Don’t worry.)

Here’s how and why you should learn to ride a motorcycle too.

Learning to ride a motorcycle properly (and fix* motorcycles too) has proven over and over again, in many countries and continents, to be a valuable life skill. Especially so the the further you go from modern Western civilisation.

* Later, I’ll put together a series on basic motorcycle repair, probably on my other blog.

In this guide…

  • Where people ride motorcycles in the world as transport
  • Why you should learn to ride (and why you can’t wing it)
  • How to learn to ride a motorcycle
  • A word on motorcycle gear
  • Suggestions for first motorcycles

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Where People Ride Motorcycles in the World

Motorcycle sales are slowing down in the US, Europe and Australia. There are many theoretical reasons for this, but it’s generally that they’re not as cool as they used to be.

Because for some ungodly reason, nobody wants to look like this going to work any more:

Man commuting on a Ducati Panigale V4
How I imagine I look when commuting

But worldwide, the motorcycle market is still growing. People are buying small motorcycles, and using them as transport in many parts of the world because they’re cheap, easy to ride, easy to fix, and extremely versatile. There’s also the growing Uber Eats and other delivery markets that’s propelling the use of cheap, manoeuvrable transport.

That’s why in most of the less-developed world, motorcycles are a dominant (and growing) form of transportation.

In East Africa (and maybe Africa elsewhere), every male and many women know how to ride motorcycles. They’re known onomatopoeically as “pikipiki” in Swahili. They’re used both for urban commuting and bashing bush trails. There are many maintenance shops, but they’re mostly for repairs, such as after (frequent) crashes, fixing stuck chains or replacing tyre tubes. They’re also used as informal taxis, called boda boda (which also sounds onomatopoeic). You can call them on Uber or Bolt, too.

Riding a motorcycle in the villages of Tanzania - why you should learn to ride a motorcycle
A motorcycle out in the farmlands of Tanzania

In the Middle East, particularly large cities like Cairo, motorcycles are the cheapest and often fastest way of getting around. If you order food delivered, it will almost definitely come by motorcycles.

In Latin America, motorcycles take you to gnarly off-road destinations. You can navigate rocky roads on islands, fang your way up mountains, and get to a whole lot of places you can’t get to just on foot.

We’re constantly grateful that we learned to ride. In places we travel to, it means we are far more mobile than others who have to organise motorcycle taxis, or bigger taxis. It just opens up the world for us.

Why You should Learn to Ride for Adventure Travel

Many people think they don’t need to learn to ride to benefit from motorcycling. Because firstly, you can get a ride with someone else piloting the motorcycle.

Or worst case, instead of learning to ride a motorcycle, you can ride a scooter, which is super easy and you don’t need to learn… right? Wrong.

Firstly, learning to ride makes you a much safer passenger. When you learn to ride a motorcycle, you learn how to lean. How weight affects braking. Where to put your head, legs and hands. You become so much more aware of what the vehicle can do, so you become better able to predict and avoid danger.

Jo learned to ride at a basic training course in San Francisco, as well as me showing her how to use one of my smaller machines. She didn’t get her license, but she’s an excellent motorcycle passenger!

Secondly, learning to ride makes you a much better rider — even if you only plan on riding a simple machine like a scooter. Scooters are simple, and many people in less developed countries ride without proper training. But that’s how bad riders are made.

Without proper training, you never learn critical riding skills like:

  • Braking: Untrained riders only use the rear brake, thinking its safer. But by doing this, they’re short-changing themselves of 80% of stopping power (which comes from the front brake), meaning they’re much more likely to skid right into another vehicle.
  • Turning: Untrained riders turn by pulling on the handle bars. They will never learn to ‘counter-steer’, which is how you actually should turn at speeds above ~20 km/h, and make mistakes like looking at the thing they’re trying to avoid — the best way to guarantee you’ll hit it.
  • Observing: Untrained riders never learn how to ‘scan’ and adjust speed and position for turns. Andthey never learn just how dangerous it can be to lose concentration for a second. Might sound crazy, but look around next time you’re in Egypt at how many riders are texting while riding…

Even though in most parts of the world you can get a scooter or motorcycle without presenting a license (particularly in unscrupulous countries), this is a great way to crash and ruin your holiday, and maybe your life. The first time you come across something unfamiliar, like an off-camber downward sloping road on which you’re going too fast, you’ll panic, skid, and crash. It’s not how you want to spend yourtime travelling!

Learning to ride a motorcycle will even make you better at riding an electric kick scooter. You’ll be so much more aware of body position, braking capability, and general safety.

Jo learning to ride a motorcycleon a Honda Hawk NT650
Jo at her first motorcycle lesson, by yours truly. On a Honda Hawk NT650, a legendary cult motorcycle that pre-dated the Ducati Monster for supplying a v-twin in a naked chassis with a single-sided swingarm. But I digress…

How to learn to ride a motorcycle

In most parts of the world, you need to go to rider school. In the US, you also should in most cases.

The below is an overview of how to get your motorcycle license, assuming you have a car license already and are over 21. Of course, check your local authorities’ web pages for more details.

Getting a Motorcycle License in Australia

In Australia, the process varies a lot state. In every state you have to start with a two-day pre-learner course, which is half classroom, half practical (and super fun!). Afterwards, it varies by state, but there are several stages of courses and restrictions before you get an unrestricted license that lets you ride any motorcycle with a passenger. The whole process takes around 2-3 years! Before you get your full license, you’re restricted in what motorcycle you can ride, and whether you can carry a passenger.

I got my Australian license a long time ago. But even then, I had to do two rounds of training. It has been tough for a long time!

Getting a Motorcycle License in the UK/Europe

In the UK, it also takes a few years to get your license. Most people who have a car license have to do a “Compulsory Basic Training” course, which is a 1-2 day course that lets you ride a motorcycle up to 125cc.

After that, you have to do your motorcycle test, which will give you an A2 license. This means you can ride “restricted” motorcycles with power up to 35kW.

After two more years, you can get your full A license with another test, which will let you let loose on that German sports-bike you’ve been ogling.

In most of Europe, there are a couple more stages, including even basic first aid training.

Getting a Motorcycle License in the US

In the US, getting a motorcycle license is very easy if you already have a car license.

The first step is to pass a knowledge test at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The knowledge test isn’t so easy that you can guess all the answers, but you get a few tries. I skimmed the book in 30 minutes, failed the test once, read the parts I got wrong in the book while sitting in the DMV, then did the test and passed the second time.

The second step is to either do a road riding test at the DMV or to do a weekend-long approved training course, and take your certificate back to the DMV. The road riding test is quite easy, but you need a small motorcycle to get around the obstacle courses (it needs a fairly small turning circle). Many people opt for the training course, because you learn a lot of safety advice, and it’s also fun.

Motorcycle Gear: Get it All (and Wear It)

In places like Africa, Asia and so on, you’ll rarely go above 50km/h, and usually hover at lower speeds. At these speeds, the most critical bit of gear is a helmet and gloves. You’ll probably fall off, and you might scrape or break something, but your helmet will mean you avoid concussion, and your gloves will mean you can keep your job as a typist.

Of course, you can still break arms, burn your legs, and whatever else. If going on a longer trip, of course I suggest wearing all the gear. But I’m aware that for shorter jaunts, it gets hot and is impractical, and is less critical.

In the West, speeds are higher. The risks are higher. You need a lot more protective gear, and you need to wear it all the time.

You don’t need to buy it new — in fact, second hand everything is best except a helmet. Don’t buy a second-hand helmet. It’s illegal!

What gear you need and how much it’ll cost

The gear you need (and the rough budget) is the following:

  • Helmet: $150 for a comfortable, DOT-certified helmet. Don’t go cheap, because cheap ones won’t protect you. Don’t buy one second hand unless you’re buying it from a trusted best friend. Don’t buy old stock — the foam goes stale. About US$150 will get you a great, fully certified helmet from a good shop. US$500 gets you a great fitting one. What’s your head worth to you?
  • Jacket: $150 for something armoured and maybe water-resistant. You don’t need leather, and textile jackets are usually more appropriate for wet weather anyway. You can still break a rib or collar bone in a jacket, but at least you won’t scrape your flesh off your elbow or internal organs.
  • Gloves: $50 for armoured textile gloves. You can get cheap ones, but just make sure they’re snug and you can move in them. It’s amazing, but people regularly ruin their hands. If you have no hands, using your phone to browse Instagram is a lot harder.
  • Pants: $100 for ugly but functional armoured textile trousers. These are hard. You cannot just wear jeans like Levis – slide for a metre on those and you’ll wear through them. Good pants also prevent you from being burned by your exhaust pipe.
  • Boots: $100 for something above the ankles, made of tough material, and with a bit of armour to protect it all. Many people just look at Instagram and think everyone rides motorcycles in sneakers. Not so. Those people eventually crush their ankles. If you like the sound of crushed ankles, just wear sneakers.

If you don’t want to buy (and wear) all of the above, motorcycling isn’t for you. If you have friends who don’t use it all and have crashed and “are fine”, that’s OK, and you can do that. I just go by statistics that say motorcyclists in the US are about 30x* more likely to die in an accident than a car driver. None of my rider friends have died. But riders get injured and die all the time, and I want to avoid being one of those.

* Those stats include everyone who rides with no gear (helmets aren’t mandatory in most of the US), under the influence of drugs/alcohol, and people texting while riding. There are some easy ways to increase your odds…

Where to get cheap (but good) motorcycle gear

You might be shocked at how much motorcycle gear can cost. But apart from helmets, there are some great places to buy

For cheap gear, check out your local motorcycle garage or mechanic bay shop. Many of the kind of places where you can rent a mechanic bay have a “community shop” section where you can buy cheap second-hand gear.

There are also many fairs organized by these shops. Join some local mailing lists and Facebook groups, and stay in touch with them.

Finally, sometimes people will just give you stuff. If you ask on Reddit’s r/motorcycles group, people have been known to just post you gear. Motorcyclists can be very, very supportive.

First Motorcycles to Buy

Your first motorcycle should be one that

  • Comes from a dealer you trust
  • You aren’t afraid to ride (i.e., nothing scary powerful) — this is for Americans who can buy anything as a learner
  • Can go highway speed (depends where you live) without being at totally full throttle — or, just make sure you stay off highways if you can avoid it
  • You think looks cool (you have to want to ride it)
  • You can afford to “drop” (either at a standstill, or low speed, like in a car park)
  • Isn’t a maintenance nightmare (unless you want to learn that too!)
  • Is legal (in some places, it doesn’t matter). For example is “A2” compliant in the UK, or “restricted” in Australia.

This basically means you should find a dealer you trust (or a close friend), show up with around US$2,000, and buy something used that’s less than 500ccs. Do not buy a basket case from Craigslist/Gumtree, that “cheap” motorcycle for $1000. You don’t know what you’re getting.

The key in the above is buying from a dealer you trust. There are many motorcycle dealers that will make sure you don’t buy something too powerful as your first motorcycle. They’ll usher you into something cheap, knowing you’ll learn a lot, and come back — they’ll even give you a good trade-in price. If you buy something cheap, you’ll ride more, learn more, and lose less money (you might even break even).

Some great examples of first motorcycles that people love are:

Learn to Ride a Motorcycle for Adventure Travel 1

A dual-spoor (road/dirt) bike like this Suzuki DRZ-250. Dirt bikes are easy to manoeuvrer in traffic, really light, and very fun! You can also ride them off-road easily, and that’s a great place to practice. Many experienced riders still own these.

Learn to Ride a Motorcycle for Adventure Travel 2

A Kawasaki EX500. These are comfortable and sporty motorcycles that are light and not very powerful. You can buy them used easily for US$1,500-2,000, even from a dealer. Plus, they look (and sound) decent.

Learn to Ride a Motorcycle for Adventure Travel 3

A Honda CB300R! This is new, and you can get them for US$5,000. I mention it because it comes with ABS and even some advanced safety features. Older Honda CB250 and CB300 models can be bought for a song, too.

Got more questions about adventure motorcycle travel? Drop a comment below. Just be warned… it might be a long answer. I really like writing about motorcycles…

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