The 26th annual Ride to Work Day has come and gone (it was on Monday, June 19). While we applaud and support the efforts of the nonprofit, all-volunteer effort to promote the virtues of using “motorcycles and scooters for transportation,” what we really need is for more motorcyclists to commute to work on a daily basis, not just once a year.
The great thing about motorcycle commuting is that you get to add at least two motorcycle rides to every work day, plus the bonus of occasional head-clearing rides during your lunch hour. But riding to and from work on two wheels is demanding. Rider staffers commute every day and we deal with rush-hour traffic, gridlocked freeways, frenetic city streets and crowded parking lots, as well as occasional close calls, bouts of bad weather, flat tires, unexpectedly empty gas tanks and—mercifully rare—accidents.
As with motorcycling in general, being prepared, thinking ahead and keeping your ego in check go a long way toward making commuting safer and more enjoyable. So, without further ado, here are our top tips for motorcycle commuting like a pro.
1) Stick Out Like a Sore Thumb
Commuting is not the time to try and look cool in your black leather jacket and matte-black helmet, which makes you all but invisible to today’s distracted, smartphone-addicted drivers. The smart move is to make yourself as conspicuous as possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to wear hi-viz apparel. Fluorescent colors do not occur naturally in nature, so they’re more likely to catch someone’s eye. A few years ago, Olympia Moto Sports made a “toxic” version of its Airglide jacket that combined hi-viz yellow and orange in the same jacket. It was hideous, but it got your attention. If you don’t want to commit to the expense of a hi-viz jacket, buy one of the many brightly colored safety vests made for motorcyclists, which can be worn over your regular riding jacket or suit. I wear Fly’s hi-viz orange Fast Pass Vest every day, which is made of mesh, has reflective stripes and has pockets where I can keep my garage door remote, earplugs, tire gauge and other essentials.
2) Dress Like a Spaceman
Road warriors should never go into battle without their armor. Adhere to ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time) and wear a full-face helmet, armored jacket and pants, gloves and boots. Or, instead of a jacket and pants, go with Aerostich’s Roadcrafter, which has been around for more than 30 years and is the go-to one-piece riding suit for many motorcycle commuters. You can zip in and out of a Roadcrafter in seconds, and it’s designed to be worn over regular clothes. Put on your work attire, zip into the (mostly) waterproof Roadcrafter and ride to work without worrying about getting bugs, dirt or road grime on your cotton Dockers. It has flexible, CE-approved armor covering the knees, elbows and shoulders, and optional armor can be added to protect your back, hips and chest. There are several huge pockets, under-arm and back vents, as well as convenient zippers at the hips that make it easy to access your pant pockets to dig out your wallet, phone or keys. Several versions of the Roadcrafter are available—all of which are available in hi-viz yellow—and there’s a less-expensive version called the Useful Suit.
3) Flip Your Lid
Every motorcycle commuter should wear a full-coverage helmet that protects his or her entire head. For added convenience, consider a flip-up or modular helmet, such as the Shoei Neotec. A quick-release button allows you to raise the chinbar so you can talk to a gas station attendant, toll taker or friendly bystander without having to remove your helmet. But keep in mind that modular helmets are not designed for riding with the chinbar flipped up, which leaves your face exposed. The Neotec is comfortable, has decent ventilation and a convenient drop-down sunshield. Mine is Brilliant Yellow, which adds to my hi-viz look.
4) Be a Middleweight Champ
The best motorcycle to commute on is one you already own. But if you can choose among several motorcycles in your garage, or if you’re considering buying a bike to commute on, we recommend a contemporary machine with modern suspension, tires and ABS-equipped brakes. Today’s motorcycles are so much more competent, capable and responsive than bikes of just a few years ago. And within the wide range of motorcycles built within the last 5-10 years, one of the best bikes for commuting is the Kawasaki Versys 650 LT (above). It has a stone-reliable 649cc parallel twin that makes good midrange power and sips regular unleaded gas from a 5.5-gallon tank, a comfortable upright seating position, decent wind protection (including an adjustable windscreen and handguards), ABS and quick-release hard saddlebags. And it retails for just $8,999.
5) Be a Hard Ass
As a motorcycle commuter, you’ll want to be able to easily transport stuff to and from work, such as your lunch, a laptop, a pair of work shoes (since you’ll be wearing motorcycle boots on the bike) or groceries you picked up on the way home. Hard-sided, lockable luggage is the way to go. Bikes like the Kawasaki Versys 650 LT come with easy-to-use hard saddlebags, and many other bikes can be fitted with OEM or aftermarket accessory hard luggage from companies like Givi. Hard luggage will keep your stuff dry in a rainstorm and keep it safe from thieves should you need to run into a store for an errand. Top-loading saddlebags/panniers or a top trunk with a clamshell lid are the easiest to open/close and load/unload, but any lockable hard luggage is better than none. And while you’re at it, keep a set of Rok Straps handy in case you need to secure bulky cargo such a cardboard box to the passenger seat.
6) Stay in Shape
Being physically in shape is never a bad thing, and it will make the challenges of motorcycle commuting easier to handle, but we’re actually referring to your bike. Keep up with regular maintenance so your motorcycle will provide safe, reliable transportation. Check your tire pressure at least once a week (also inspect the tires for excessive wear, damage or embedded objects like nails), and check your oil level every time you fill up for gas. Regularly check that your horn, headlight, taillight/brake light and turn signals are working properly. Change the oil and filter according to the recommended schedule listed in your owner’s manual. Be diligent about all normal, applicable maintenance items—chain lubrication and tension, brake pad thickness, cables and hoses, and so on. And if you have to put your motorcycle away for winter, fill the tank with gas and a fuel treatment such as Star Tron and put the battery on a maintenance charger.
7) Fer Chrissakes, Will You Cover Yourself?
No, we’re not talking about Chet chastising Wyatt for wearing women’s underwear (who are we to judge?). We’re talking about covering your brakes while riding in traffic. By keeping two fingers on top of the front brake lever, when you roll off the throttle your fingers automatically move into position to squeeze the brake lever. If you overreact and stab the brake lever too fast, you can apply more brake pressure than the front tire can handle and—if you don’t have ABS—cause the front wheel to lock up. As Nick Ienatsch teaches in his Yamaha Champions Riding School, you must load the tire before you can work the tire. By covering the front brake, you can react less aggressively and progressively apply stronger pressure, which compresses the front fork smoothly, weights the front tire and helps it grip. You should also cover the rear brake pedal and practice using both brakes in unison for full stopping power. Hard, controlled braking is an invaluable skill for motorcycle commuting, so if you’re not comfortable doing it, practice in an empty parking lot.
8) Play Offense
Riding offensively doesn’t mean being aggressive. When you’re surrounded by cars and trucks that weigh thousands of pounds, letting impatience, anger, cockiness or other hot-headed emotions or behavior get the better of you is a losing proposition. (Read Editor-in-Chief Mark Tuttle’s column about road rage, “Keep Calm and Ride On.”) When you ride defensively, you’re just cruising along waiting for things to happen. When you ride offensively, you’re on high alert, constantly scanning, looking ahead, anticipating and putting yourself in position to avoid bad situations before they occur. Change your lane position to put space between you and cars, to stay out of blind spots and to give you the best view ahead. Ride slightly faster than the traffic around you to avoid getting trapped with no escape path. It can be tough to stay focused on the road when you’re thinking about a big meeting at the office or the stressful day you just had, but it’s mission-critical to keep your head in the game and ride with purpose.
9) Change It Up
My round-trip commute is 50 miles, nearly all of which takes place on U.S. Route 101, the main artery through Ventura County that’s usually clogged with traffic during rush hour. Taking the same route day after day can be boring, making it all too easy to tune out and get caught off-guard. (Read Managing Editor Jenny Smith’s take on this in “The Dangerous Mundane.”) From time to time, I take alternate routes to change things up. Instead of hopping on the freeway, I cruise along the coast and then take city streets and farm roads through Oxnard. Or I ride up through the Ojai Valley and take a twisty route up and over the mountains on Balcom Canyon Road. Alternate routes may take you longer, but they change your perspective and stimulate your brain with different views and challenges. And if you have an alternate route that’s scenic, it just makes riding to work that much more fun!
10) Don’t Tailgate and Watch Your Six
Because motorcycles are smaller, quicker, more nimble and capable of shorter stopping distances than cars, it’s easy to find yourself tucked in closely behind a car’s bumper. And due to the accordion effect of stop-and-go traffic, you can end up trapped with nowhere to go when cars behind you must stop suddenly. To the degree possible, maintain a safety cushion between you and the car you’re following, and position yourself in the left or right portion of the lane so you have an escape route. Here in California, lane-splitting is legal, so we can ride between cars in traffic, which, if done at a prudent speed, is actually safer than riding in the lane because it can reduce the risk of a rear-end collision. Wherever you ride, stay alert, watch your mirrors and always give yourself a way out. Don’t sit there at a stop light or an exit ramp with your bike in neutral and your head in the clouds.
Got other tips for motorcycle commuting? Share them in the comments below.