WhyBike Motorcycle Blog

Mailbag: How to convince the parents to let me ride a motorcycle

By James - 6/3/2008

Seth has a problem that a lot of young people run into when trying to get into motorcycling.

I am very interested in learning how to ride and then buying my first bike. My parents are against it because they feel that motorcycles are too dangerous. I am trying to find information that will help them change there view. Can you point me in the right direction? Thank you for your time and help.

Bikes are dangerous. Let me start with the bad news. According to the NHTSA, motorcyclists are more than 30 times more likely to die, per mile driven, than a motorist. Add injuries and as a motorcyclist you are more than 80 times in danger than a cager. For comparison, horseback riding, sky diving, and jet skiing are more dangerous than motorcycling; do your parents let you do any of these?

The good news is that the chances of dieing on a US road per mile driven are minuscule. The chances of dieing on a motorcycle are 30 times minuscule, or still minuscule. You can also prevent most of the serious injuries with proper gear selection, like armored jackets and pants, boots, gloves, and most important, a full faced helmet. So unless you can afford to drop at least $1000 on proper gear, you need to start saving. Receipts for the gear I wear when I ride probably total around $2500. Insurance for a young male on a motorcycle can be expensive as well. It is recommended that you get quotes for potential bikes before you buy them so you know what you are getting into.

According to Progressive Insurance, the most crashed motorcycles are Suzuki’s GSX-Rs, Honda’s CBRs, Yamaha’s R series, and Kawasaki’s Ninjas. The least crashed bikes are the small displacement cruisers, like the 250cc Virago and Rebel, 500cc Vulcans and the 600cc Shadows. Starting on a small displacement cruiser might not impress your friends, but it will go a long way for your parents.

Take the MSF class. This will get you familiar with motorcycles and let you figure out what kind of bike you want. If you pass, it exempts you from the riding part of the motorcycle test. Then go to the DMV and take the written part of your test and get your motorcycle license. This will show your parents you are committed to doing it.

I had the same problem. It was not until after I was out of college, after I stopped living with my parents, paying my own rent could I get a bike. And even then it was hard for my mom not to be worried sick.

To sum up,

  1. Go to the MSF class
  2. Take the test and get your license
  3. Work on your parents. Show them you are responsible and make sure you don’t get any speeding tickets.
  4. Buy your protective gear
  5. Get a 250cc-600cc cruiser to learn on. Nothing scares your parents more than a “crotch rocket”
Good luck and I hope you are in the wind for many years.


Mailbag: Looking for a great 2-up motorcycle

By James - 5/31/2008

Russ had a question:

Your site is great. I just want a little advise. I’m 46 yrs old and haven’t had a bike since I was 20. I want something used in the 4 to 5,000 dollar range. Big enough for me and the wife to to take a few hundred miles with shaft drive and cruise control. Brand is irrelevant. What is your suggestions? I live in the Dallas, TX area.

Thanks much,

As soon as I read your email I thought of a few bikes that come close to your criteria, and checked on Craigslist to verify prices. The shaft drive has it’s advantages, you never have to clean and lube it, except when you change the tire. Dust and gunk don’t gum up a shaft like a chain drive. I have one on my V-Star 650 Classic and enjoy it. The two manufacturers that use shafties for cruisers and sport touring are BMW and Yamaha. Unfortunately BMWs (even a used K1200 with reasonable miles) are a little more than $5,000 used so that eliminates them.

Yamaha has a couple options for shaft drives that are comfortable for 2-up riding under $5000 used. The V-Stars, 650cc and 1100cc fit all your criteria, but the 650 may be a little sluggish for extended 2-up riding. Both are within your price range but I would suggest the bigger motor. My wife and I both have 650s and have ridden them all over the West, many miles on dirt and gravel roads. Me and the bike are covered with dust but I don’t have to worry about lubing the chain. That is when I am glad to have the shaft.

Unfortunately cruise control does not come standard on any of these bikes but there are plenty of after market kits you can get, from thumb-screws to mechanisms more like you are used to in your car. These can usually be installed fairly easily, but can be pricey.

Since it has been 20 years since you last ridden may I suggest the MSF course and getting a few thousand miles under your belt before you start carting around the old lady. Riding a bike may feel just like when you were 20 but your coordination, reactions, and ability to bounce back from crashes have deteriorated a little. Good thing your judgment has gotten better.


Mailbag: High Mileage Motorcycles

By James - 9/5/2007

Scott wrote:

Hi, I recently just got my motorcycle license, and I’m considering purchasing a 1998 Sportster 883 XLH…for what seems to be a great deal at $3,000. screaming eagle exhaust, chrome everywhere…(I’m in Rhode Island) However, it has 26,000 miles on it. What do you think? Is it worth $3k? Right now he is asking $3,500, but I wouldn’t pay that. Is it risky buying a bike with this many miles on it ? Any help is appreciated. thanks, newbie

This is an interesting question and one I have seen on a few forums recently. The proposition of buying a “high” mileage motorcycle is a mixed bag. On one hand, you are avoiding all the deprecation and costs associated with a brand new bike. On the other, a motor only runs for so long and an old bike can nickel and dime you to financial death. So is it worth saving a buck and buying a “high” mileage bike?

I would say it depends. In your situation, with limited experience a used entry level bike is perfect for you. You don’t know what will happen in the next year and you don’t want to hand over a wad of cash for a starter bike. You want a bike that is reliable, since as a novice you don’t want to have problems while you are riding it, and you probably don’t have the mechanical skills to fix a bike that breaks down. Your used bike will not have the cutting edge technology, the modern aesthetics, or the cool paint schemes that the new bikes have but as you ride you will figure out whether that is important to you. Once you have a couple years under your belt you will have a better idea of what kind of bike you want.

I love older bikes. If the engine still runs strong and smooth after 50K miles you can be sure it will run strong for another 50K with the right care. You also have to look at the person selling it. If they are doing wheelies and stoppies, the bike probably has a shorter life expectancy than if a retired auto shop teacher uses it on the weekend. If a deal is too good to be true, it usually is, so take someone down to look at the bike with you or take it to a mechanic. I hope you get a good deal and that you get a really good bike.


Mailbag: Picking up a big motorcycle

By James - 6/24/2007

Randy asked a question . . .

Thank you so much for your article “The Grit of Riding Gravel“. I wish I had read it before taking my new Harley into my gravel driveway. Do you have any tips on how a person can get a 650 lb. bike back on its wheels by yourself, after laying it down in this kind of situation? I had to get help.

Congratulations on your new bike and my condolences on your lay-down. I have been there twice and while both resulted in less than $250 worth of damage, your ego feels vulnerable and your bike looks like crap until you fix it. At least now you have a good reason to put on those mods you wanted.

Having picked up my bike by myself and having done it with help I will tell you which I would choose. Help is always preferable but you should always be ready and capable of picking up your motorcycle by yourself. There are a few tutorials on the web that tell you how to pick up a bike but here are the basics:

  1. Turn off the kill switch.
  2. Turn the gas valve to “off". Your carbs will flood and leak gasoline while on it’s side.
  3. If you can reach the shifter, make sure it is in gear. It will make sure the motorcycle does not run away from you once on it’s rubber.
  4. Extend the kickstand if you can access it. You will thank me later.
  5. Find a suitable place to grip the bike. Place one hand on the handlebars and the other towards the rear. Some have rear handles, if not look for an exposed bit of the frame. Do not use the fender, plastics or accessories like saddlebags. They are not designed to support that much weight.
  6. Some are big enough to face the bike and lift, but the most powerful way is to have your back to the bike and butt on the seat.
  7. Use your legs to push the bike off the ground. The hardest part is the initial lift. Once it is on it’s wheels it gets easier.

If a picture is worth a thousand words a video is worth a million.

Here are some other tutorials from around the web. They pretty much say the same thing but there are nuances to sport bikes, cruisers, or UJMs that make things easier or harder.
Pick up a fallen BMW
How to Pick Up Your Motorcycle


Mailbag: Are cheap helmets worth the risk?

By James - 4/14/2007

Steve wrote:

Are KBC helmets any good? How come they’re so much cheaper than Arai and Shoei? Should I go straight to an Arai to protect my melon? The KBC’s are tempting because of the price.

The price of a helmet is generally related to the quality of the materials and features; liners, graphics, shields, the noise levels and venting options. You get what you pay for. KBCs have a reputation of wearing out sooner than some of it’s competitors, but if you are replacing your helmet every 3-5 years the helmet should last unless you are an everyday rider.

You may be concerned about safety, but if your helmet is certified by DOT, Snell, ECE or BSI you can be certain that it will protect your head as well as any other helmet. There has been an informal trackday study from Roadracingworld that shows that Arai and Shoei helmets prevent concussions (32% and 34% of crashes resulted in a concussion, respectively) a little better than AGV and HJC (35% and 36% of crashes resulted in a concussion, respectively). KBC was not on the list.
What stuck out to me was that the difference between the “best” and “worst” is only 4% better prevention of concussions while the price can be 300+% higher. I agree that you should pay more to protect your head, but it seems that the crash standards are pretty consistent across brands, so safety is not an issue when choosing a helmet.

The single most important aspect to choosing a helmet is fit. Some people have KBC-shaped heads, some have Shoei-shaped heads and I have an HJC-shaped head. You need to go to a store that has a lot of brands and try them all on. Find what feels best and get that one. Happy riders are safer riders so get a helmet that fits, regardless of brand.


Mailbag: Legalizing Lanesharing in Florida

By James - 3/30/2007

Roy wrote in

I recently relocated to the Tampa area from SoCal and am wondering if there are any groups around here that are working to have lane sharing legalized? I would even be willing to make helmets mandatory if we could lane share. I would like to become involved with any groups that are trying to make it legal to laneshare. Thanks

I feel you Roy. I was in Arizona last October stuck in traffic in Laughlin. Temperature was in the 90s and no wind. It took us 40 minutes to go 3 miles on that asphalt oven. My wife was sweeping and afraid we were going to get tickets so we just sat in traffic. Luckily it was all downhill to the river so we cut the engines and coasted into town. If we were splitting, it would have taken us 10 minutes. I really miss it when I am out of state.

Here in California we have a powerful proponent of lane sharing in the Highway Patrol. When the lane sharing law was up for debate in the state senate, the Highway Patrol lobbied to leave it alone and that goes a long way when it comes from “Ponch and John” instead of the stereotypical outlaw biker.

Unfortunately this is not one of the AMA’s priorities so their poilitical muscle won’t really help you here. I think your best bet is to contact LaneShare.org and start a grassroots movement within your state. Find out what law enforcement has to say, as well as the opinion of state government and the voting population.

Good luck and if you need some statistics that show it can be an effective traffic solution as well as be safer than sitting in traffic read Is sharing lanes more or less dangerous than sitting in traffic?


Mailbag: Uninsured motorist coverage: Do you need it?

By James - 3/7/2007

Aaron wrote in . . .

I have a question about Uninsured/Underinsured motorist coverage. I called my health insurance that I receive through work and they told me I would be covered for emergencies, office visits, etc. if I were to be in an accident of any sort, being motorcycle or other, I would still be covered.

My question is, wouldn’t it be redundant to pay for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage if my copay for emergency room is only $50?

I have to sign a waiver to refuse it. Is this a scam by the insurance companies or is this really a good idea? If I don’t get the uninsured motorist coverage, I’d be saving about $200 a year.

Is uninsured motorist coverage a scam? Yes and no. Is it worth $200 per year? That depends. I am not helping much am I Aaron. Let me explain this better. This is a timely subject for me as my wife and I just raised our liability coverage so that we could also raise our uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. More on this later. First here are some facts.

Depending on which state you live in 30-50% of the drivers are uninsured. According to Devvy Kidd:

Here in California the numbers are astronomical. Statewide, over one third of drivers lack insurance–about 33 percent, according the California Department of Insurance. The figures skyrocket in low-income and minority city neighborhoods: nearly 50%. In San Jose, California, 55% of all drivers on the road have no insurance. Statewide, the problem is worst in the Los Angeles, Imperial, San Diego and Alameda counties. With the exception of Alameda, the uninsured rates in those counties reaches a whopping 90 percent range. Alameda County’s worst neighborhood, Oakland, is 63 percent uninsured.

If you do happen to have an insured motorist hit you, there is an even better chance that they are only carrying the state minimum amount of insurance. So you can see that if you are in an accident, you will probably have to deal with an uninsured or underinsured driver. An underinsured driver is one that is carrying insurance, but insufficient to pay for all your medical bills or fix your bike. Here in California the minimum is $15,000 bodily injury liability, $30,000 bodily injury liability maximum for all injured, and $5,000 property damage liability.

If you spend any amount of time looking at motorcycle classifieds you know that it is easy to total any motorcycle with just a minor accident and reclassify the title as salvaged. A low speed collision can total a $20,000 Road Glide and easily leave you with $40,000 in medical care. Fairings are expensive, frames are tough to straighten, and doctors are paid the big bucks to sew you up. If the at-fault driver has no insurance you are on the hook for the deductible on your comprehensive and health insurance and your rates will go up. What is more frightening is the time you miss from work, and your ability perform your duties at work and at home could have suffered. Your health insurance or comprehensive coverage will not compensate you for lost wages or diminished capacity to perform your duties. This is where uninsured motorist coverage comes in. If you are absent from work for months or can no longer perform your duties, uninsured motorist coverage will compensate you.

After finding out about this and researching it, we decided to up our coverage to $100K/$300K. Unfortunately, your uninsured motorist coverage cannot exceed your liability insurance, and here is where I see the scam. As a motorcyclist, I am at far more danger from uninsured motorists than the danger I pose to others on the road. But it is more important to cover myself and pay extra for the increased liability insurance than to leave myself open to a devastating injury by a judgment-proof driver.

It is up to each person to decide whether uninsured coverage is worth it to you. If you have a family, a mortgage, an integral part in a company, it may be worth it. It only takes one inattentive moment for you to be hit by a motorist and have your life changed forever.


Is sharing lanes more or less dangerous than sitting in traffic?

By James - 2/27/2007

Meet my newest best friend, FARS. FARS stands for Fatality Analysis Reporting System. It is a great web based application that aggregates fatal accident reports and lets you search , slice, and query all of their information. I use it when I smell B.S. from a person reiterating rhetoric and anecdotes as fact. I found it useful to enlighten a cager today on the topic of lane sharing.

Frankly I see motorcycles lane split in L.A all the time. They are not lane sharing They are lane splitting. It is unfortunately a burden on others and a hazard. It also raises insurance rates and lawsuits as riders who take a dangerous lane split inevitably sue the poor auto driver who doesn’t see them passing from behind with two inches to spare and unknowingly close the gap and are involved in an accident. Sorry but I am for a separate lane but lane sharing is ridiculous and dangerous.
- GWMobile

I am not sure that I would consider a cager “poor” if they change lanes without signaling for 100 feet or looking in their mirror. What about the “poor” motorcyclists that are killed or injured because people change lanes without proper caution? But lets make this about the numbers, not conjecture.

The Hurt Report contended that motorcyclists were safer sharing lanes than sitting at the end of a backup waiting for a car to rear end them. I wanted to look at the data and see if this hypothesis holds true. Here are some facts to chew on:

I could only get a complete set for 2005 from FARS so all data is from that year.

Percentage of fatalities resulting from a vehicle rear ending a motorcycle in:
Alabama: 11.9%
Arizona: 8.6%
California: 5.4%
Florida: 7.6%
Georgia: 0*
Louisiana: 5.7%*
Mississippi: 19.2%*
South Carolina: 10.2%
Texas: 9.7%

* Small data pool, results may be skewed.
States selected have a similar riding season.

If you look at just the largest states and only accidents that happened on the highway:

California: 6.0 rear-end fatalities/billion miles ridden on the highway
Florida: 9.0 rear-end fatalities/billion miles ridden on the highway
Texas: 9.4 rear-end fatalities/billion miles ridden on the highway

Is this because California drivers are especially careful? Or maybe they are more aware of the vehicles around them. Maybe Florida and Texas are much more congested. Percentage of fatalities resulting from a vehicle rear ending a passenger car:

California: 11.0%
Florida: 9.7%
Texas: 11.6%

So Californians are rear-ending cars and killing people at a similar rate as other states, but are not rear-ending motorcycles at as much as other states. This leaves me to ask, are there other factors influencing this trend? Are motorcyclists in the Golden state more visible than other states? Are the roads somehow safer for motorcyclists? Or is our unique ability to share lanes and not wait to be sandwiched by an inattentive driver helping us survive better than our out-of-state brethren? Here are the total fatality rates for these three largest states for multi-vehicle front-impact accidents of motorcycles:

California: 49.4 fatalities/billion miles ridden
Florida: 48.7 fatalities/billion miles ridden
Texas: 51.5 fatalities/billion miles ridden

So it looks like Californian bikers are fatally crashing into vehicles in front of them at the same rate as other states, but are not being rear-ended at the same rate. This leads me to believe that sharing lanes has a positive impact on preventing rear-end motorcycle fatalities, and a negligible effect on total fatalities. Insurance rates should be lower in California, not higher, although 3 fatalities for one billion miles seems like a small amount when spread over the large populations of insured drivers. Another conclusion from the Hurt Report was that less than 10% of riders did not have liability or health insurance, far below the national average of 30% for auto drivers. Let me know if there are alternatives to this conclusion, I can’t think of any.

For more info on splitting lanes:
Lane Splitting Articles


Mailbag: Motorcycle License Requirements

By James - 2/20/2007

I recieved an email from Chris . . .

I had a question about a motorcycle license.

Can you get one without a normal drivers license, like a permit or something??

Thank you.

Here in California you do not need a driver’s license to get a motorcycle license. All you need is:

  1. Fill out the DMV’s motorcycle license form (DL 44) and pay $26 (at the time of this writing)
  2. Pass the written test, you get three chances
  3. Pass the skills test or pass a CHP approved motorcycle rider training course

There are some caveats;

  • If you do not have a Class C (for automobiles) driver’s license, you will need to take the written automobile test and road test through the DMV
  • If you are under 21, the CHP approved motorcycle rider training course is mandatory
  • If you are over 21, the CHP approved motorcycle rider training course is optional, and completion will waive the skills test
  • If you are between 15 1/2 and 16 years old you can only get your motorcycle permit
  • If you are over 16 and do not take the skills or road test you can get a permit

With the permit you are not allowed to ride

  • with a passenger
  • at night
  • on the freeway

Most states are the same way and some have a few more or less hoops to jump through. I hope this helps and let us know how you are doing. See you on the road!


Mailbag: Ethanol in your motorcycle

By James - 2/15/2007

George emailed me with a question about burning E85 in his motorcycles.

What about burning E85 in 1964 Honda and 1983 Yahama motorcycles?

E85 is (from Wikipedia) fuel made from 15% regular gasoline and 85% Ethanol. Ethanol is an alcohol made from organic materials like sugar, corn, and brewery waste. Drink a beer and stop global warming! But seriously, Ethanol can be a viable alternative to oil which is hard to extract from the earth and located in hostile environments.

The real danger to running ethanol in your engine is the damage it may cause to magnesium, aluminum, and rubber parts in the fuel system. E85, or Flex Fuel engines have rubber conditioned to transport or store E85 and stainless steel that does not corrode when exposed to alcohol.

If you are really serious about converting your engine over to accept E85, the process shouldn’t be hard, as long as they are four strokes. A trip to your local auto parts store or favorite internet shop should provide you with what you need. Also read Roger Lippman’s excerpt about converting an old VW engine. I hope this helps.


Mailbag: Kawasaki Vulcan 500 for a starter bike

By James - 12/5/2006

I received an email from Colleen . . .

I am looking at purchasing my first bike. I am told the (Vulcan) 500 will not keep up with my “riding buddies” on the highway. They ride 100 plus. thoughts ??? I actually have a 900 on hold but wonder if the 500 would be a better first bike.
The Vulcan 500 is a great starter bike. Its low weight, center of gravity and forgivable throttle response will help you learn how to ride and bail you out when you make a mistake. I spent the first three years on my Vulcan 500 and it let me gain the skills I needed to become a safe rider. The Vulcan will do 100 mph, but it won’t get their quickly and won’t have much to spare. Funnily enough, the 900 doesn’t go all that much faster, and any bike at 100 mph is not all that fun. Whether or not you can keep up with your “buddies” at 100 mph should not be your concern at this point in your riding career.

The first year you ride you will be building confidence and skills. Riding a motorcycle is not like driving a car. You can’t just hop on and be able to go fast. I suggest taking a MSF course to learn the basics. Find riding buddies that are willing to slow down and tutor a new rider. Don’t ride faster than you are comfortable. Riding is not about being the first, that is for the track. Riding is all about making sure your group shows up in one piece.

My parting advice is to buy a bike that fits you, not your riding buddies. You will have a lot more fun in the long run.

For more information read my article on the Vulcan 500.


Mailbag: Learn How to Build a Motorcycle

By James - 7/1/2006

My husband is interested in learning to build motorcycles. How’s the best way to get started? I wondered if there’s some type of school or training program that I could surprise him with for his birthday? Any suggestions?
- Dena

There are two things I would suggest to learn how to build motorcycles.

The first is read. There are books about building custom bikes and there are manuals that deal with the engines, braking systems and everything else. Here are the most popular books about building choppers on Amazon:
How to Build Choppers - Amazon.com

The second thing he should do is practice. There are “bootcamps” and there are aprenticeships, but if this is just a hobby those may be too instensive for the weekend builder. The best option for you seems to be community college or university auto shop. For a fraction of what it would cost to rent or buy all the tools you need, including welders and paint sprayers, you will have access to all the equipment and an instructor to show you how to do it.

Don’t start from scratch on the first bike you build. Buy a cheap “clunker” and bring it back to life. Make sure it is cheap so you can experiment and fix it if you mess up. Start on a older and/or smaller Japanese V twin and hone your skills until you are confident in them and then you can reburbish a bigger motorcycle, get a kit bike, or start from scratch.

Lastly, unlike the motorcycle shows on TV, slow and steady is the way to build a motorcycle. Making sure it is done right is the most important thing in bike building. Don’t rush it. Your life as well as your passenger’s depends on it.


Mailbag: My Sportster is too much for me

By James - 6/29/2006

Brenda emailed me:

My Sportster is too much for me as a first bike. I really like the feel of the Yamaha VStar and the Kawasaki Vulcan, I am not so sure about the forward controls though, are they hard to get used to? I am going to go out on the sporty a few more times but I think I am going metric. I am driving myself crazy, I just want to ride and be happy!!

I started with the Vulcan 500LTD and then moved up to the V-Star 650 Classic. The Vulcan is much lighter and has less torque but does have a higher top speed with a 6th gear. I like the full fender design and V twin of the V-Star better than the “chopped” looks of the Vulcan with the small front fender and parallel twin but that is all preference. Both bikes have performed almost flawlessly. The Vulcan had an issue with a loose connection that would cut out the motor at random times. I replaced the battery connection for about $10 and it fixed the problem.

The larger front tire on the V-Star never feels “heavy” because of the center of gravity and with the higher weight feels more stable at highway speeds. I rode the Vulcan down to Cabo San Lucas from San Francisco and all the Harleys we passed could not believe that I was riding a 500cc bike. I couldn’t understand why you would need a bigger engine just to ride down to the beach. The V-Star has been just as reliable although it has never been out of the country. People always think it is a bigger bike than it is. I think that is because so much thought went into the styling. The Star has a bigger seat, but my butt still hurts on both after a while without the Airhawk Pad.

The forward controls should not be a problem. I switch back and forth all the time and there is no learning curve.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you are happy doing it. I hope this helps you make up your mind.


Mailbag: What is my motorcycle worth?

By James - 6/21/2006

I got this in an email:

I’m simply trying to find out about how much my 1987 1100 sporster is worth if I sell it. It’s in great shape

The answer as always is, “it depends". There are two places I look to find the value of my motorcycle before I sell it. The first is Kelley Blue Book. Their online Motorcycle Value Guide will ask you some simple questions about your bike and give you a value. The second place I like to look is in the classifieds. Look in the paper and online at places like eBay and Craigslist. You can usually find a make and model like yours. See what it sells for and price your accordingly.

I hope you get a good price for it. Good luck!


Mailbag: Honda Rebel on the Open Road

By James - 6/9/2006

“Teacher” wrote:

Hello all. I’m wondering if Rebels are built to travel some what long distances? I live in Chicago, an want to travel to Kankakee, which is about 60 miles from Chicago, all open road. Any tips for taking somewhat of a long trip?

The Rebel is not the one that will poop out first, you will. On long trips, you need to pull over when you are tired or thirsty, those are your most important cravings to pay attention to. You also need to rest your butt. Get off the bike and stand around for a while. 60 miles is not a long distance. You don’t need to do anything different for a trip that short. If you are traveling at highway speed I might recommend a wind shield or full face helmet. It will be over before you know it! Some of the other riders that visit here will also have their own tips for riding long distances. Guys, Chime in . . .


Riding a motorcycle with a titanium plate in your head

By James - 5/26/2006

The mailbag gets all sorts, but this was totally out of left field:


I am no doctor, although I do have a degree in biology, and I have almost completely erased all that knowledge from my brain. So I have no clue about what would happen if you fell off a motorcycle and hit your head. But I do know that anyone who rides a motorcycle could die at any time. That is one of the risks we take when we pull out of our driveway. We try to minimize the risks and make smart decisions to keep us alive. And in your situation it is no different. You may decide that motorcycling is not worth it and that is OK. But for me life is too short to take the “safe” route. I strive for quality of life, not quantity.

I would say, “slow down” and ease back into riding if you choose to. I don’t know what got you in the first accident but I can only imagine there was a lot of skidding, bouncing, and crushing. Wear a helmet and proper gear and take a motorcycle class. And when listening to the doctors remember, their job is to patch you up; your job is to live your life.


Mailbag: Gas Nozzle Tips

By James - 4/16/2006

Dave wrote in about gas nozzles:

I just started riding again after a 20 year layoff. I need some help on how to use the current gas pump nozzles. I can’t seem to get it positioned so that it flows without stopping every few seconds. Thanks!

There are some things that are taken for granted by experienced riders that can be very difficult for new riders. Filling up can be one of those rituals that gets instinctual after a while. I hardly think about filling up anymore but unless you are used to the new nozzles and how they work they can be very fustrating. I am not sure how much detail you need but here is the breakdown at a very basic level.

The Problem with Gas Nozzles
The “new” gas nozzles are designed for cars with long filler necks. The sping loaded emissions recovery sheath needs to be compressed to a certain point AND the handle needs to be held to start the flow of gas. Motorcycles have really short filler necks which means that the nozzle extends deep into the tank and triggers the auto-shut-off when the tank is only half full.

Fill ‘er Up
To fill your tank to the top you need to manually compress the emisions recovery sheath and hold the lever. This will take some getting used to, so have a rag around in case of spills. Only fill your tank up to the botom of the filler neck. Gasoline expands and contracts a lot depending on the temperature and can cause your tank to explode if it gets too hot or can cause your tank to implode if it gets too cold. Some air will allow the gasoline to expand or contract without the pressure exceeding the material capabilities of the tank.

Waste Not
Most nozzles have variable speeds, pull the lever a little and gasoline will flow slowly, pull it all the way and the flow will increase. Use the slowest flow speed you can for two reasons. The first is so you don’t overshoot the mark and spill gas all over the tank. The second is so less gas splashes back and onto your hands and onto your paint. My tank shape allows me to pour the gas towards the front, so that the gas hits the front and flows down the side. This reduces the amount of splashback and bubbling you get, but you may have to experiment to find the optimum angle for your bike.

Every Last Drop
Once you are satisfied with the level, pull the nozzle out of the neck slowly. Gas will dribble off the tip so give it a few shakes to get the last drops into the tank. If you do not make sure to get every last drop, it is inevitable that it will fall on your paint, seat, or clothes. And you know how absorbant those gas station paper towels are. . .

There are a few more steps I have in my fill up ritual. I do some rough math and figure my miles per gallon and make sure it is what I expect. Dropping MPGs can be the first sign that something is wrong with the bike. Next I reset my tripmeter, even on my bike with a fuel guage, the tripmeter gives me a much better indication of how much gas is left, depending if I am doing highway riding or city trips. Last thing I do but the most important is make sure the petcock is off of reserve and switched to “ON". Feeling the bike sputter only to find you are already on reserve will get you steamed, and the only one to blame is yourself.

Practice makes perfect, so get out there and use some gas.


Mailbag: Importing a Motorcycle into California

By James - 4/12/2006

Trevor wrote in about moving to Californa and bringing his motorcycle. . .

Thought maybe you guys could help me. I live in WV and ride a 93 seca II (xj600s). It is the non-california version. Problem is, I am movin to California this october. Can I get this bike registered ther? I read that motorcycles are smog exempt but I am a little nervous because there is a Specific california model of my bike. I would greatly appriciate any help, advice or ideas on who to ask next.


First I want to say welcome to California and if you are ever in the Bay Area, I would like to ride with you.

I have been scouring the net looking for info and was astonished to find that the DMV website was a help. On the California Department of Motor Vehicles website it states:

Aren’t All Vehicles California Certified?

Not all new vehicles are manufactured to be sold to California residents or businesses. Many manufacturers make vehicles to be sold in the other 49 states. These vehicles (49-State) are made with smog equipment that meets federal emission standards, but not California standards. 50-State or California certified vehicles are made to be sold to California residents.

What Is Considered a New Vehicle?

California law considers any vehicle with less than 7,500 miles on the odometer when acquired by a California resident or business to be a new vehicle. This holds true whether or not the vehicle has been registered in another state. If you acquire a new vehicle from another state, you may not subsequently drive it to accumulate over 7,500 miles to circumvent the law. DMV cannot accept an application to register the vehicle, and you cannot register or operate the vehicle in California.

Further down the page it says:

Does This Apply to Someone Moving to California?

If you are moving to California from another state, you may register a new federally certified vehicle in California if it was first registered by you in your home state, or for military personnel, in your last state of military service. When applying for vehicle registration in California, you must provide evidence of your vehicle’s previous registration and that you were a resident of the other state when you acquired the vehicle.

On the Smog Information page it says:

Does my vehicle qualify for a smog exemption?

Smog inspections are required unless your vehicle is:

  • Hybrid
  • 1975 year model or older
  • Diesel powered
  • Electric
  • Natural gas powered and has a Gross Vehicle Weight rating of 14,001 lbs. or more.
  • Motorcycle
  • Trailer

So it looks like you are good to go for two reasons, if you registered it in West Virginia and can prove you lived there, you can bring it to California, which is good for your car but you don’t need to get smog checks for motorcycles.

See you on the roads Trevor.


Mailbag: Winterizing your Motorcycle

By James - 11/25/2005

Jarrod emailed me . . .

I am new to the motorcycle family and was wondering if during the winter just going out once a week or so and letting it run without riding would be ok, instead of winterizing it?

They say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and the same is true for storing your motorcycle. Spending some time at the end of your riding season will save you time and money when you are ready to ride again. While running your motorcycle periodically over the winter months will prevent clogging of the fuel system, it is the bare minimum you can do and may drain your battery. Everybody has a different way of doing it, but there are alternatives that will preserve your motorcycle over the winter months.

There are a few problems that motorcycles have when stored for an extended period. The first is that gasoline can break down and clog your fuel system. The best way to prevent this is by putting a fuel stabilizer in your tank and running the bike for a few miles. I have used products like ISO-HEET or Sea Foam in the past. They prevent the fuel from breaking down and restricting your fuel system from getting gas into the engine. The second advantage to these products is that they absorb moisture. Rust inside the tank is a major problem if you are storing your motorcycle, especially in cold weather. Moisture condenses out of the air in the tank and the alchohol in ISO-HEET will remove it. Some say to fill up your tank then add the stabilizer, some say to drain it. I don’t think it matters much, except you will need more stabilizer with a full tank than an empty one.

Washing and waxing your bike is an important step. You don’t want gunk sticking to your bike for 3 months, especially if the gunk has salts or acids commonly found in road-side dirt.

If you can, keep the battery above half charge. You will lose capacity if the battery stays at a low charge for an extended amount of time. A trickle charger can help with this.

Here are a collection of articles that outline in greater detail what you should do to store your bike for those months when you cannot ride:

From WhyBike.com:

From around the Web:


Mailbag: Brother-In-Law Stole my Motorcycle

By James - 11/3/2005

Chrystyna wrote to me about a situation that can’t end well no matter what.

I would like some information on how to contact/find out my rights in regards to a motorcycle/title which I bought in good faith from my brother in law, Was not running at the time, estimated value 5 grand, took to the shop, fully restored 48/68 SPCON Harley Panhead, value @ completion 15+ grand. Meanwhile bro in law used titla as collateral and was never returned title after his agreement was paid off. The other guy took the title to the bike shop, paid remaining balance and now has possesion of said motorcycle. ANY BODY HELP!
Can anybody help her out? All I could find out was general info about car titles.


Mailbag: Motorcycle Backfire

By James - 10/26/2005

I bought 1994 Kymco 150cc motorcycle in Taiwan. It rides well, but when I am going down a hill it backfires. The local repairshop said it is okay because it is an old bike. What shall I do to ride down the hills without scaring all the living creatures around?

- Milan

This summer I was in the same situation, when I used the engine to control my speed on downhills, the bike would backfire continuously. Luckily it was only temporary, since I was on a ride through the Sierra Nevadas. At that altitude, 9300 feet, all cabureted bikes run rich which means that not enough oxygen is mixed with the gasoline to burn it all. When the unburnt gas hits your hot pipes, it ignigtes which causes the backfire. At more reasonable operating altitudes, there are two reasons why your bike may be running rich. Either there is too much gas being introduced to the cylinder or not enough air is being sucked in. Try cleaning the air filter, that is the easiest solution, otherwise check the carburetor, if it is sticky it could restrict the flow of air. If too much gas is flooding the engine, try restricting the amount of gas coming out of the jets. This varies from bike to bike so check with your mechanic or a service manual for the correct way to adjust them.


Mailbag: Engine Size

By James - 9/22/2005

I am bying(sic) a motorcycle to commute to work and for the occasional weekend . I have a 35 minutes driving each way. I am 5′10″ and weight around 230. My wife is 5′7″ and weights around 210. I will like to buy a standard or sport touring bike but a sports bike who feels confortable (without leaning forward too much) will do. My wife believes that a 500cc can do the trick. I keep telling her that even tough I am not looking for a racing bike, I believe that a 500 will not accelerate with my weight and size in order to pass a vehicle at 55 MPH. Not taking in consideration if she goes along for a ride. Please, reply and let me know if I am right or my wife is right. I don’t want to make a mistake that will cost me thousands of dollars.

Rafael C.

I started with a Vulcan 500 and found it fast enough for commuting and touring. Passing at 55 mph was no problem. When I did ride with my girlfriends, one of which is now my wife, it was noticeably slower but not horrible. For reference I am 5′10″ 190 and my girlfriends were between 110-140 pounds. The biggest problem with a passenger is at low speed, not at 55mph. The trick is with a passenger to keep your revs higher and shift later to give yourself more power. Some creative clutchwork will also be needed if you ride in the hills. While I think you could definately get a 500 and be happy with it, I would probably reccomend the 600/750cc class, especially if you can find a good deal on a used one. It really comes down to how much you will be riding 2-up and the price you want to pay. I am sure there is a happy balance in there and if I have learned anything from being married, it usually means listening to the wife.


Mailbag: Lane-Splitting Blues

By James - 8/20/2005

After reading my Motorcycle Lane Splitting Safety article, a visitor, Josh from San Diego wanted to share an anecdote. . .

So today I got a ticket for basically splitting lanes. I live in San Diego and was getting off of the freeway and saw a motorcycle cop in the right lane of the off ramp. There’s a red light and everyone stops and I stop behind a truck, pull to the right (between the lanes) and creep up to the front of traffic. All of a sudden the motorcycle cop pulls up behind me and says to pull over at the next safe spot. He gives me a ticket for “unsafe passing on the right” which is Vehicle Code 21755. Now here’s 21755 as written on the DMV’s web site.

Pass on Right Safely - Vehicle Code 21755
The driver of a motor vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting such movement in safety. In no event shall such movement be made by driving off the paved or main-traveled portion of the roadway.

So what exactly did I do wrong? Nothing, of course. In my experiences so far cops have an agenda against sports bike riders. Now I’ve only been riding for about 4 or 5 months and I ride a 2004 Ninja 500R. I split lanes almost all of the time down here in SoCal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately California’s lane-splitting law is ambiguous and hard to prove that you were traveling in a “safe and prudent” manner. Obviously a cop’s word will always win in court so I guess there is no reason to fight it. The trouble with the lane splitting law is that the biker lobby is so afraid of losing the ability to lane split altogether that nobody wants to touch it. Most bikers will live with the ambiguity, careful to not cause a scene and pay our occasional fines quietly because we know that if we brought it before the people of California they would outlaw it. It is literally fitting that the lane splitting issue, like the action itself has so little margin of error.

It is no secret that cops rarely give out tickets to make the roads a safer place. Traffic tickets are a cash cow for the government and if they really cared about safety they would require a lot more training, fines would be tens of thousands of dollars, and they would strip you of your license on your second moving violation.

So what can you do? You could lay rubber a block long right in front of City Hall. You could do a 70mph wheelie through the police parking lot. But none of these things will change the law, just get you in more trouble; even if they made you feel better in the short term. All I can say is pay your fine, keep splitting, and educate your cager friends about lane-splitting. Make them understand why we do it and how it actually SAVES them from waiting in more traffic.

For more info on splitting lanes:
Lane Splitting Articles


Mailbag: Moto-escort for the Bicycle Races

By James - 7/25/2005

Can you provide any information on becoming a moto-escort for the bicycle races? I would be most interested in any information you can provide me. Thank you.

- Michael G.

While it is not my cup of tea, the idea of zooming around bicyclists on a motorcycle helping out logistically during a race is exhilarating to some. I would quickly get frustrated at taking a curve at 15 mph on a twisty alpine road that should be a 45 mph peg-scaper. There is some skill required balancing a cameraman on the back as he twists and turns to capture the action, but I get enough of that with my passengers shifting around.

But if you are interested in becoming a moto-escort for bicycle races you may want to read this blog post about the motorcycles used in the Tour de France.

I would practice a lot of course. You should try to ride a lot in 2nd gear under 20 mph. Low speed control of your bike’s balance will be key. Contact some of your local cycling associations and see if they need help during their races. With practice and persistence you should be riding next to the yellow jersey in no time.


Mailbag: Motorcycle takes a Long Time to Warm Up

By James - 7/23/2005

I’m writing to see if you can answer a beginner riding question or point me in the right direction. I Have a 2001 Kawasaki 125cc bike with less than 200 miles on it (bought new). I’m finding a couple of problems. It takes a long time to “warm up.” Meaning, even with the choke on for a few minutes sometimes it will shut off until after riding for awhile, or I’ll have to rev the throttle at stops to keep it going until its warm. I don’t always ride every day, so sometimes there is a few days in between use. Can this be the problem? Also, I was riding on a parkway the other day at around 50mph and the bike died on me. I was able to pull over start it up again and ride off, but I was surprised and a bit spooked. Is this normal if the bike doesn’t have enough warm up? Is it because the bike is new or the engine is too small? I appreciate at help. Thanks!

- Emmanuel P.

Smaller displacement bikes often take a long time to warm up. My wife’s Honda Rebel is a cold-blooded motorcycle but big bikes suffer from this as well. It usually has to do more with the idle setting and fuel/air mixture than displacement. You can figure out whether you are running lean or rich with a simple test. Start your bike up and ride it down the road. Don’t let it warm up and don’t give it full throttle. Ease up to 55mph and then pull in the clutch and kill the engine. Pull over and pull the spark plug out. You will need a wrench, practice before you leave if you haven’t done it before. If the ceramic element is white then you are running too lean, a black element means you are running rich. You are hoping for a tan spark plug. That is perfect. Usually new motorcycles come from the factory lean, for pollution reasons so my bet is that it is too lean.

The other reason your bike may be cutting out is electrical. Either the battery is weak (especially after sitting for a while), there is a short somewhere (does it happen when you go over a bump?), or there is condensation in the wires (rainy days or cold mornings) giving you a weak spark. It is hard to diagnose over the internet so if you don’t feel comfortable monkeying with the motorcycle talk to a mechanic and they should be able to narrow the focus.


Mailbag: Riding Cross Country in the Cold on a Motorcycle

By James -

My 17-year old son wants to take his 20 year old 550cc Kawasaki from Chicago to San Francisco in February. Is this something that can be done? Should I panic now? Any help you can give me would be very much appreciated.

- Kit S.

There are a lot of situations that could determine whether you should panic now. Rapture, being chased by lions, a comet on a collision course with Earth; but your son riding across America on a motorcycle is probably not one of them. Your description of his trip causes me some concern especially with someone so young, but is definitely not panic worthy. Instead help him have as safe of a trip as he can. Here are some tips to get him and his motorcycle to the Golden State.

I have never been to Chicago in February and I think I know the reason, it is really cold! Ice is really dangerous for motorcycles and it is one of the reasons people don’t ride during the winter in the Mid-West. As bad as that can be eventually he will have to go over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges where it will be even colder and icy-er. The Donner party tried to cross the Sierras in open vehicles in the winter and we know how that turned out! I have ridden around Lake Tahoe in March and started shivering and I didn’t have that far to go. He will need really warm motorcycling gear. He will probably need an electric vest and maybe some electric gloves. Forget about it if he doesn’t have a full face helmet with a balaclava to go under it.

He might be able to avoid most of the really cold weather and mountains by heading south but it will add significant mileage to the trip.

A 20 year old motorcycle may or may not be a concern depending on the condition of the motorcycle. Make sure the tires have plenty of tread, the battery is strong and the oil is clean. I have heard of chains freezing so make sure it is properly adjusted and lubed. 550ccs is also not much of a concern. I rode to Cabo San Lucas and back to San Francisco on a Vulcan 500 motorcycle with no problems even though bigger bikes are the rage these days.

There is plenty of time to take the Advanced Motorcycle Safety Course so sign him up.

Is this something that can be done? Yes. Will it be an uncomfortable trip? Yes. Make sure he is prepared.

Here are a couple articles he might find helpful:
How to Stay Warm in the Cold
Cross Country Motorcycle Riding


Mailbag - Honda Rebel as a Starter Bike

By James - 2/14/2005

I recieved an email about my opinion of the Honda Rebel as a “starter bike". . .

I took motorcycle lessons in Sept & I passed the course, but I haven’t taken the written at DMV to get M-license. I am thinking about getting a Honda(Rebel). Since I’m 5′1″, do you think that bike would be alright for a starter bike? Please give me your opinion.

- B. Brown

Great job taking and passing the motorcycle course! It is a great investment. Now you can look forward to ambiguous questions followed by four correct answers on the DMV test. You must pick the “most” correct answers to pass the test and get your license. It can be fustrating but keep at it. A Class M license is a great thing to have.

The Honda Rebel is a great bike. My wife Rachel rides an ‘85 and have had no complaints about it; it still runs strong. When getting your first bike you have to consider a couple things.

First is comfort. It takes about six months to get really comfortable with your first motorcycle so I like to advise people to get a 125 or 250cc bike. They are generally the lightest and most forgiving in case you forget to put your kickstand down and have to pick it back up. You sit lower on the cruisers like the Yamaha Virago 250, Suzuki GZ250 and Honda Rebel. The Ninja 250 has a higher seat hight and at 5′1″ you may not be able to flat foot it. Kawasaki and AlphaSports both have 125cc bikes that may feel better for you. My wife got her license this summer and we decided on a used Honda Rebel. She is about 5′8″ and in California 250ccs are the minimum displacement engines allowed on the freeway. She commutes from Oakland to San Francisco and the only way over the water is on the freeway otherwise we would have gotten a 125.

Second is power. Generally women and people over 30 know enough to ride within their limits, but younger motorcyclists have a tendancy to use all the power of a motorcycle whenever they can. Once you learn when to use your power you can move up to a bigger bike, but until then, 125s and 250 teach you great motorcycle skills, ones you will absolutely need once you upgrade. You think you are exempt from small bikes because you just know you will outgrow them? Well this is the exact reason you are not. Take a look at what the Marmot says on buying your first bike…

Third is cost. There is a good chance you will drop your first bike. You will still be learning to ride 20 years from now and the first 6 months are the hardest. The 125 and 250 classes of motorcycles are good because repair costs are low and the initial investment to purchase one can be under $1000 for a used bike in good condition. Multiply that by 4-10 times for a new or used 600cc bike. You want to get good on a “beater” then move up after you get all of the mistakes out of your system. As my wife learned this weekend when a driver backed into her bike and took off, a used 250cc bike is a good thing to have. If they had hit my V-Star and skewed the forks, bent the fender, damaged the tire and scratched the paint, I would be looking at over $3000 as opposed to $300 for the Rebel.

For more information from Rebel Owners, try the Rebel-Riders Group at Yahoo.

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