Motorcycle FAQ

Motorcycle FAQ
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Is this FAQ official?
Where is the official FAQ?
There isn’t one.
Who are you and what qualifies you to write this FAQ?
I ride a motorcycle in the San Francisco Bay Area and I read and contribute to and I frequently see the same frequently asked questions asked, so I thought I’d make this page as a handy reference for the answers.
Where did you get the answers to these questions?
Some of them I made up. Others I plagiarized borrowed from posts on the Internet because they answered the questions so well.
How many times has this FAQ been read?
This is the 662nd time this FAQ has been downloaded since January 1, 2001. It was downloaded 3265 times in 2000.


What motorcycle licenses are required?
In most states and countries, you need a separate license to operate a motorcycle.
Do I need insurance?
The law thinks so, and anybody you injure or whose things you break in an accident might think so.
What’s the California law on… ?
You can look it up on line.
Can I ride in car pool lanes?
In the United States, Yes. Unless the lanes are marked “Buses Only” or “Closed,” motorcycles are allowed in high-occupancy vehicle lanes, even if there are no signs saying “Motorcycles OK.”


How do I get my motorcycle driver’s license?
In the US, go to the DMV and take the motorcycle written and riding tests.
What’s the best way to learn to ride a motorcycle?
In the US, the best way is to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation‘s Basic Rider Course.
In California: The Basic Rider Course is required if you are not yet 21 years old. If you pass the test at the end of the course, you get a certificate that you take to the DMV. This lets you skip the DMV’s riding test. Call 1-800-CC-RIDER for the times and locations of classes near you.
Riding a bike can’t be that difficult. Why do I need special training?
Please read “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

Safety Gear

In addition to my motorcycle, what equipment do I need?
Plan to spend $500~$1k on safety gear:

  • Helmet – the best helmet for you is one that you can afford, that fits, and that you’ll wear. A $100 Snell and DOT rated helmet is just as safe as a $500 one … but not as comfortable on long trips.
  • Jacket, Pants – Leather looks sexy; cordura is functional. Shorts and a T-shirt are an invitation to skin grafts. Jackets can be had relatively inexpensively at pawn shops or through Internet retailers.
  • Gloves – Protect your hands.
  • Boots – Protect your feet and ankles.
Do I need to wear a helmet?
Only if you value the contents of your skull.
Why do I need to wear a helmet?
When you fall, it will protect your brain from a concussion and your face from nasty road rash. When you ride in certain states and countries, it will save you from a ticket.
But I like to feel the wind in my hair!
I’d rather miss the wind in my hair than risk the wind in my brains.
What other safety gear is recommended?
  • Wind protection for your eyes, if you wear a 3/4 helmet.
  • Ear plugs. An hour at highway speeds will subject your ears to enough wind noise to cause some hearing loss.
  • Some men wear a sport cup when riding.
  • Reflective vests seem to help people see you better between dusk and dawn and in the fog.
  • Headlight nd taillight modulators.
What’s a headlight modulator?
An electronic circuit that makes the headlights flicker at a rate of about 4 cycles per second during the day to make your motorcycle more conspicuous. This helps cagers see your motorcycle and perhaps decide not to turn left in front of you.
What’s a taillight modulator?
An electronic circuit that makes your brake lights flicker for a second or two after you apply the brakes. This attracts attention to your motorcycle when you slow down. This helps cagers see you and perhaps decide to stop before they hit you.
In case it’s cold and my glasses should fog up on the inside, causing me to become effectively blind and a danger to myself and everyone around me, should I use an anti-fog preparation on my glasses?

Choosing your Motorcycle

I’m a new rider. What kind of motorcycle should I get?
The common wisdom is that you should buy a used bike for $1 to $4k depending on what you can afford. A “naked” standard bike — one without expensive fairings — won’t suffer much damage when you drop it. When you have a year or two of experience, then you’ll know more about what kinds of motorcycles there are, how you ride, and what you really want.
What are the different kinds of motorcycle?
  • Touring bikes are big and heavy, but have enough luggage for a long trip.
  • Sport-Touring bikes are not so big and have not so much luggage, but have better handling.
  • Sport bikes, also known as crotch rockets, are small, fast, light, and covered with shiny, cool, and expensive plastic. They are light and easy to handle, but their go-fast handles are very sensitive. A sport bike will try to kill you if it senses that you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Standard or “naked” bikes are competent at everything. An excellent choice for a beginner.
  • Cruisers (such as Harley-Davidson) are low and long; their primary purpose is looking cool. They tend to be big and heavy.
  • Enduro bikes have suspensions that can soak up big bumps and tires that can deal with mud and gravel. They’re good for long cross-country trips on dirt roads. Because they’re tall, they are a handful to handle in parking lots, but they tend to be sturdy and can usually deal with being dropped.
  • Dual-Sport bikes have big knobby tires and can go anywhere a street bike can go as well as almost everywhere an off-road bike can go.
  • Off-Road bikes have big knobby tires and can climb around on goat trails.Since they don’t have things like headlights or turn signals, they aren’t allowed on public streets.
How do I tell whether a used motorcycle is in good shape?
Check out the Used Motorcycle Evaluation Guide.
Does the crotch rocket style generally come with better handling (compared to a standard street style) or is it all looks?
Oh yeah, It’s night and day. Handling, brakes, power, the works. That’s why people buy sport bikes.
How comfortable is that leaning forward posture, especially if you are on there an hour or more? Is much of the weight of your torso braced on your arms?
Different models have different amounts of forward lean and different foot peg position (also important for comfort). Your comfort on a particular bike depends on the length of your arms/legs, the position of the various controls, your physical condition, and how you sit. At speeds of 45+ mph the wind supports you quite a bit. I can ride all day at freeway speeds on my VFR but the VFR has a relatively mild lean and low foot pegs compared with say a Ducati 996 or a GSXR-750.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of shaft drive and chain drive?
Chain Drive is light, highly efficient, inexpensive, and allows you to relatively easily change your motorcycle’s final drive ratio. However, it requires regular lubrication, cleaning, and tension adjustment.
Shaft drive is heavier, almost but not quite as efficient, somewhat expensive, and makes it impractical to change the final drive ratio. However, the maintenance intervals are much farther apart.

Riding your Motorcycle

What’s the preflight inspection?
Before every ride, check…

  • Tire pressures.
  • Tires for wear, cuts, and stones.
  • Engine oil level
  • Coolant level.
  • Headlights, brakelights, turn signals.
How do I steer/stop this thing?
Please see the “Training” heading.
What is countersteering?
Countersteering is the technique of physically pushing the motorcycle’s handlebars in the direction opposite from that which four-wheeler-based intuition would tell you it should go. It is the most efficient way to steer a motorcycle in everyday driving and in emergencies.
What’s this about shaft-driven motorcycles not countersteering or wheelying?
Balderdash. It’s a boring old joke used to start flamewars and confuse newbies.
What is a stoppie?
A stoppie is when you stop with the front brake in such a way that you purposely bring the rear wheel off the ground. The opposite of a wheelie per se.
What’s a high-side? What’s a low-side?
A high-side is where the bike suddenly regains traction after beginning to skid and spits the rider over the bike – the rider typically exits on the high-side of the bike – the side not closest to the ground. A low-side is simply where the bike loses traction and skids into the ground with the rider remaining on the low side of the bike – the side closest to the ground.
High-sides are usually more severe. The most common high-side accident scenario is where the rider loses traction at the rear wheel (due to excessive power or overbraking), the bike starts to skid, the rider regains traction suddenly by releasing the brake or chopping the power, and the bike immediately regains traction and spits the rider over the bike and tumbles. The key to avoiding this is learning not to chop the power and not to overuse the rear brake.
What’s a Tank-Slapper?
A violent oscillation of the front steering. All steering systems on motorcycles have a nautural frequency (or speed) where, given an initiating disturbance, they will tend to oscillate quickly from side to side, each oscillation bigger than the previous. At its worst, the steering will be hitting the stops very rapidly – thus, the term “tank slapper.” Damping prevents this from happening, by the rider’s arms and sometimes helped by a hydraulic steering damper. The newer sport bikes with their steeper steering geometry are more susceptible.
The most common slapper scenario is to be accelerating rapidly from a corner over broken pavement where the front wheel is barely touching the ground. A combination of bumps in the pavement and the rider attempting to steer the bike while the front wheel is slightly off the ground can cause an intial disturbance that is exactly at the natural oscillating frequency of the steering and overwhelm whatever damping the rider or bike is providing. Most people seem to be able to “ride them out” however.
Of course, worn steering bearings, worn tires, accident misalignment, poor suspension setup, etc. can all make the bike more susceptible to this problem.
What’s the proper technique for waiting at a stop light?
Keep your motorcycle in gear. Watch the rearview mirror for that idiot who keeps hitting motorcycles that are waiting at red lights.
How do I deal with a Left Turn on Arrow Only intersection when the sensors won’t trip the light?
You can’t change lanes: the driver’s handbook makes it clear that that’s not legal. You can’t leave the bike and push the pedestrian crossing button, for that’s abandoning your bike. Common wisdom has it that if you wait through three cycles, then the light is obviously malfunctioning, and you should treat it as a stop sign. The safe thing to do is to wait until there’s a green light for the other lanes and then to proceed. Cops have been known to give tickets in this circumstance. Subpoena them and challenge the ticket in court.
What do I do when it rains?
In the SF Bay Area, “winterizing” a motorcycle means packing your rain gear in the saddlebags. When it rains, slow down a bit. Be aware that the first rains in the season will cause all the accumulate oil and spooge to float up to the surface and make the roads really slick for the first hour or three.
Keep practicing your panic stops. Be aware that since there is less traction, your rear wheel will even more readily lock up, so be gentle with it until you get a feel for its traction in the wet.
What do I do in the wind?
Loosen up on the handlebars. Let the bike lean into the wind. Loosen up on the handlebars. The bike will do the right thing by itself. Loosen up on the handlebars.
What should I do on groovy pavement?
Loosen up on the handlebars. Let the bike squirm. Loosen up on the handlebars.
What is lane-splitting?
Also known as lane sharing, it is the practice of riding between lanes of cars.
Is lane-splitting legal?
In California, it’s not exactly illegal. In most other states it’s illegal.
How do I lane-split safely?
When traffic is stopped or moving slower than ~20MPH, you can split between lanes of traffic moving in the same direction. Keep your speed no faster than 15MPH over what the traffic is doing. Watch out for holes to either side of you because holes attract lane changes.
When should I “lay her down”?
Almost never. Tire rubber has immense traction; plastic, steel, and chrome have next to no traction at all. If you’re on your bike and in control, you stand a much better chance of stopping in time or swerving out of the way than if you just let the bike slide.
Anything else in particular should I watch out for?
Avoid Volvos, SUVs, minivans, and people talking on cell phones. People in Volvos drive as if they were in the safest cars in the world and seem to be disproportionately dimwitted on the road. People in SUVs drive as if they have super powers, the right of way, and diplomatic immunity. People in minivans drive as if they were in little sports cars. People talking on a cell phone drive as though they are talking to the President and nothing else matters. None of them can see you—or would care if they did.
Why the heck are some people so inclined as to take exits at the very last moment?
A bird sings, Grasshopper, and a dog barks.—Bozo

Maintaining your Motorcycle

What’s the best way to clean out the inside of my helmet?
Assuming that the liner isn’t removable, You can sprinkle some baking soda in there and sort of rub it around then vacuum it out. You wont’ be able to get all the soda out but you’ll get enough. Also, you can stuff the helmet with crumpled newspaper when you’re not wearing it. For a really stinky helmet change the paper every couple days. It will take a while but the paper will eventually absorb the odors.
How do I get the bike up on the center stand?
  1. Start with the bike on its side stand;
  2. grip left handlebar with left hand;
  3. grip frame member with right hand;
  4. place foot on center stand lever;
  5. pushing down on centerstand, tilt bike till both legs of center stand touch ground;
  6. push down hard with foot and lift/pull on frame member.
How often do I need to lubricate the chain? What with?
Every 600 miles or 1000km, either spray wax chain lubricant or pour some gear oil on it.
How often do I need to check the tension? How?
Every 600 miles or 1000km. Your motorcycle’s Owner’s Manual will have directions.
Do I need to turn the fuel valve off if parked overnight or longer? Does it do any harm to leave it on?
If the float valve is in good shape and everything else is OK, no, you don’t have to turn off the fuel petcock. However, if anything isn’t perfect you’ll have, at best, gas all over the bike and the floor. At worst, you’ll fill one cylinder with gas and the other cylinder will fire when you try to start it and you’ll go into hydro lock and bend a connecting rod. Do you feel lucky?
What’s the best money I can spend on making my motorcycle go faster?
A coupla hundred bucks on a track school.
What does it mean to “re-jet” the carburetors?
Carburetors supply a gasoline and air mixture to your engine. The gas comes out of little things called “jets” (usually a pilot jet, needle jet and main jet). If you modify your airbox or exhaust to flow more freely, you get more air going through your system. This often means that there is not enough gasoline, so the engine runs badly. “Rejetting” means replacing or modifying some of these jets so as to supply gasoline differently than stock, usually more gasoline than stock. If done correctly, this allows your engine to generate more power, run a little cooler, start and run smoother and get worse mileage.
I want to put bigger tires on my motorcycle. How can I tell what will fit?
No, you probably don’t want to put bigger tires on your motorcycle. They will probably make it handle worse, not better. To some people, bigger tires may look better, but to those in the know, they make the bike look like the owner doesn’t know anything about motorcycle suspension and steering.
What do “Cartridge Emulators” do?
Old style forks used damper rods to control oil flow, and thus damping. The damper rods are simply calibrated holes through which the fork oil is forced during suspension travel. Because of this, the damping rates are a compromise between what would be ideal for compression damping and what would be ideal for rebound (extension) damping. The oil passes back and forth through the same hole.
Cartridge forks have one-way valves, so that damping is tailored to the direction of travel. That way you can have separate damping rates for compression and rebound. The valves are usually controlled with a carefully tailored stack of very thin washers, who’s deflection rates control the damping rates. (They’re pushed aside by the flow of oil, and how much force is required to get them to deflect is what determines the rate of oil flow.) That’s the “shim stacks” you may have heard of.
Cartridge emulators replace the damping rods with cartridge valves. It’s generally not as good as a true cartridge fork, but they’re much better than damping rods.
What do “Steering dampers” do?
A steering damper is a miniature shock absorber for your steering. They look a lot like precision built versions of a screen door closing rod. It will attach on one end to the frame, and the other to some point which is steered, usually one of the triple clamps. (I’ve seen them attached to the fork tube below the upper triple clamp as well.)
They will slow down steering input, and their primary benefit is found on bikes which get their front wheels light or off the ground altogether under acceleration. They’ll help prevent you from turning the wheel while it’s light/off and thus produce a wiggle, wobble, or tank-slapper when the wheel is loaded up again.
What will catrtridge emulators and steeing dampers do for me?
Let you ride faster and still be within the performance envelope of your bike.

Keeping your Motorcycle

How do I secure my motorcycle?
Lock the steering to one side with the ignition lock. Use a disk lock. Use a large lock with a chain around something solid. If you use a disk lock, also get a bright ribbon that says something clever like “Remove Before Takeoff” so you don’t forget to remove the lock before you break your brake disk.
Keep the motorcycle out of sight … or in a brightly-lit area. Keep it under a cover, with a better lock than the other motorcycles nearby. Get a bike that is less popular with thieves.
Despite all this advice and all your best efforts, your bike might still get stolen.

Other Motorcyclists and Other Vehicles

Why don’t Harley riders wave?
Because they think you got the wrong kind of motorcycle.
Because more Harleys are ridden by poseurs than all other marques combined.
When should I wave?
When it’s safe. For instance, not in a turn and not when you’re concentrating on traffic.
What is a Squid?
squid (skwid) n. 1. a motorcyclist who exaggerates his riding ability by attempting dangerous tricks. 2. a motorcyclist who wears grossly inadequate safety gear, typically shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops. [Naval term for young sailor; typically one on leave with money to spend on a motorcycle. Believed to be an acronym for Stupid, QUick, and Inevitably Dead.]
Take the Squid Self Assessment Test.
What is a Cager?
Someone who is driving a car.


How do I ride with a passenger?
Don’t, until you have enough solo experience. After that, go slower and brake earlier.
How much experience should I have?
Some people are perfectly capable of carrying passengers right away; others need a year or two of riding experience. Unlike luggage, passengers are heavy, floppy, and move by themselves.
What do I need to tell my passenger?
Tell them not to ride with you. Tell them that if they’re gonna ride with you they have to wear safety gear (helmet, gloves, boots, leather or cordura jacket and at LEAST long pants). Tell them to look over your inside shoulder in a turn and never to put their feet down until you tell them to dismount. And HOLD ON.


What newsgroups is this FAQ for?,, and
Why those three?
Because that’s what the author reads.
What is
It’s a usenet newsgroup for discussing motorcycles and related topics with a specific focus on the San Francisco Bay Area.
What is it okay to post about?
Just about anything, as long as it relates, even somewhat tortuously, to motorcycles.
Are there any forbidden topics or content?
Just the usual: Spam, trolls, and binaries will annoy people, possibly enough to cause complaints to your ISP. If you notice that the topic has come wildly off-topic, then it’s best not to respond.
Can I post for-sale ads or links to online auctions?
Yes. Please say something like Ad: in the post title. And post it only in the appropriate newsgroups. It’s spam if you post it in a lot of places and any inappropriate places.

Useful Links

This is not intended to duplicate Yahoo or Google, just to list a few popular useful web sites.

General and Noncommercial

A Case for Smaller Bikes “DO YOU EVER WONDER why so many inexperienced riders crash, and often spectacularly? … It’s the sheer competence and ease of big speed the newer sportbikes are capable of.”

California Law Web Site “Vehicle Code” and “Streets and Highways” are probably the most useful.

Doc Wong’s Street Riding Clinics and Doc Wong’s Dual-Sport and Dirt Clinics Doc Wong is a chiropractor in the SF Bay Area who organizes free street and dirt riding clinics.

Everything Motorcycles @

Home of the Short Bikers mailing list, list of motorcycles with low seat height, techniques for handling a big motorcycle

The “Hurt” Report Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, a 1981 study of factors causing motorcycle accidents and injuries.

MicaPeak mailing lists and web pages

Motorcycle Tire-Changing

SF Bay Area Track Days Not only does it have all the track days, it has links to all the local folks.

SFBA Motorcycle Resources

Tony Foale Designs Motorcycle Steering and Suspension

Two Wheel Safety Training MSF classes in the San Francisco Bay area

The FAQ a FAQ for another newsgroup

Used Motorcycle Evaluation Guide

Commercial or Brand-Specific

Inclusion here is for information only. It is not an endorsement, nor does it mean commercial support of this site.

Aerostich sells excellent cordura motorcycle riding suits, pants, and jackets.

CLASS Motorcycle Schools

California Superbike School With Keith Code, author of the “Twist of the Wrist” series.

CLASS Motorcycle Schools Here’s your chance to improve your riding skills and learn from the pros!

Internet BMW Riders Technical information about BMW motorcycles

Kisan Technologies make headlight and brake light modulators.

Motorcycle Leather Exchange sells new and used motorcycle riding gear.

Motorcycle Consumer® News is an online and print magazine with no advertising.

Silly and thus Worthwhile

Highway 17 Page of Shame A classic but now defunct web site about the commute over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Spagthorpe Motorcycle Company, the web site of this legendary motorcycle company.

FAQ To Do List

This FAQ is growing. I will modify it as e-mails and posts on e newsgroups appear. Here are some things I’m thinking about … (This list in particular is about BA-specific things.)

  • recommended rides in the area
  • where to ride dirt bikes
  • list of area clubs
  • recurring events
  • links to dealers and stores
  • motorcycle roadside assistance providers and phone numbers

These are good ideas; some are, I think, worthy of a web site all by itself and beyond what I want to do. If you have some material finished and pretty much ready to go that you can e-mail me, please send it to me.