Any article giving advice to scooter or motorcycle drivers is going to be 90% about one thing – safety. There’s a reason why ER doctors call motorcycle riders “organ donors”. Especially when you’re new to riding on two wheels, it’s a huge paradigm shift to become aware of the fact that there is no protection on you whatsoever. You’re used to having that comfortable steel and airbags all around you in a car, but on a bike, it’s just you and whatever it is that’s coming your way.
In fact, some studies have shown that you are much more likely to have a motorcycle accident in your first 6 months than any other time on a bike.
So perhaps the first tip should be to know your limitations. Start on the small, residential streets to get where you’re going until you feel comfortable, and work your way up to the multi-lanes.
Wear a helmet with shield
Wearing a helmet goes without saying. If you don’t, quite frankly, you’re an idiot. Enjoy the vegetative state.
The next question is what kind of helmet should you wear? A popular style for scooters is the half-helmet because it’s minimal and fits easily in the box below the seat. I’ve worn a half-helmet for some time and recently decided I would rather have a face shield.
Why? For one thing, if you don’t have a face shield to break the wind, that means you must wear goggles or some wrap-around sunglasses. Riding without any eye protection, again, is not a good idea. Not only will you be wiping tears from out of your ears because of the wind making your eyes water, but you’re one bad hop from a tiny pebble bouncing out from under a car’s tire and putting you in the world of 2D forever.
Also, on long trips, especially in cold weather, the wind against the skin of your face can give you a red tinge the rest of the day. And if all you have is sunglasses for eye protection, you can forget about riding at night.
Wearing a shield can fix all that. Not only is it wind protection for your face, it’s protection for your eyes that lets you ride at night. You can wear sunglasses or not. There are several face screens that snap on and off of half-helmets so you it’ll still fit in your seat box.
Let’s just get all the protection items out of the way first. If you’re going to ride in even slightly cold weather, it’s a good idea to put some riding gloves on.
Professionals and safety experts would tout how the gloves help you grip the handles and the brakes better, but what I’ve experienced the most is that if you’re riding in the cold and you have no protection on your hands, eventually your hands will stiffen up – like you do in the cold. Stiff hands react slower to traffic situations, causing you to brake and (in the case of manual transmission scooters) shift gears slower. The last thing you want when there’s an emergency on the road is even a split-second lapse in reaction time. So don’t chance it.
And besides, when you fall off a bike, what do you think is the first thing to hit the ground? Your hands when you try to catch yourself. So just in case, do yourself a favor and keep them covered.
Ride in the wheel basin
Riding a scooter, you become intimately familiar with the roads you ride on. Over time, if you ride a certain path often enough (like a commute to and from work), you’ll begin to automatically know the tricky spots – the rough patches, the potholes, the bumps in the road – and fly around them without even thinking. It’s actually quite amazing how quickly we pick up on this.
We pick up on it quickly because scooters don’t have the suspension systems we’re used to in cars, so when we hit those bumps and potholes, we feel it with our whole body, even smacking our teeth together if we’re not careful.
So the best advice for a smooth, non-tooth-breaking ride is to ride in the wheel basin. The wheel basin is the area on a well-worn street that the car wheels ride in the most. There are two in each lane, the left basin and the right basin, corresponding to the driver and passenger side wheels in the cars. These wheel basins are by far the most comfortable, smooth patches of road to travel down.
Your first instinct when riding on two wheels is to ride down the center of the lane, giving yourself more cushion on each side. And you can do that, but you’ll find on a lot of roads over time the weight of the cars can do some wild things to the middle of the lane. Some bulge upward several inches, creating a ridge in the middle of the road that if you’re not careful you can wind up straddling the top of – all 2 inches of it. Others break and crack down the center of the lane, which can create giant gaps that are the bane of a scooterist’s existence. Once your tire gets caught up in that gap in the middle of the road, you lose all control of your bike and can easily tip over.
Riding in the wheel basin fixes that. You’ll also find in places where the road was assembled in segments, you’ll find regular bumps in the road. Not only are these bumps smoother when you’re riding in the wheel basin, they are often more pronounced in the middle of the lane thanks to the bulging effect.
The next big question is which one do you want to ride in, the left or right? That may really just come down to personal preference. Some motorcycle classes teach to ride the inside of the lane on multi-lane roads so that cars aren’t tempted to encroach into your space. That can be pretty unnerving, though, to be feet away from a giant pick-up truck that could squash you like a bug. I tend to put as much distance between myself and thousands of pounds of crushing metal as possible.
And on that note…
Use cars as a buffer.
Let’s say you’re at a stop light and the light turns green. Now as tempting and natural as it may be to just gun the gas and zip on through, remember there’s always someone out there who hit that point of no return on their yellow light and thought, “Screw it, I can make it.” And that’s when you could have a very close relationship with that guy’s fan belt.
How do you prevent this? Other than the obvious look-both-ways approach your parents taught you when you were 5, another strategy is to use the other cars on the road as a buffer. In that same scenario, if you’re on a 2 or 3 lane street and there’s another car right beside you at the stop light. After getting him to roll down his window and asking for some Grey Poupon, and the laugh riot that would follow, let him go first and ride beside him. That way if some maniac does come barreling through too late, you’ve got a car between you and that fan belt relationship that you want to avoid.
Gas hand palm forward.
This is one of the best tricks I learned when I took motorcycle class.
When holding the grips on the scooter, make sure your gas hand (the right hand usually) is held with the wrist broken back, the palm facing forward, not over hand with the palm facing down.
Why is that? Because if you hit a bump (and you will hit many) and your hand is above the grip facing down, the jolt of your body bouncing back would pull on the grip, causing it to rotate toward you. In other words, you’ll crank back on the gas.
Suddenly because of that one bump, your bike is speeding out of control and you’re just hanging on for dear life.
If you brake your wrist back so your palms are facing forward, a sudden jolt would cause the opposite to happen. Your hand would break even, rotating the grip away from you, and turning down the gas. No out of control bike, no problem.
There are a lot more riding tips you’ll figure out along the way as you get into riding your new scooter, but these will give you just a little bit of confidence to get out there and have fun.