What Does it Feel Like to Ride a Motorcycle?

Motorcycle riding is one of the greatest joys in life. But you need to be okay with the emotional state it puts you in.

What does it feel like to ride a motorcycle?
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Photo by Jan Starek on Unsplash

Motorcycle riding is a combination of exhilaration, fear, relaxation, and pleasure that changes you forever. It’s physical & emotional pleasure, with a layer of anxiety & adrenaline.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to ride one, read on…

The Physical Sensations

Both your hands and feet are always busy.

This might sound pretty obvious to any rider, but before I started riding, my entire knowledge of motorcycle riding was pretty much based on Excitebike and other video games. (Twist the throttle, make a turn, how hard could it be, right?)

So when I realized how much your hands and feet are working while you ride, it kind of took me by surprise. For the most part, there is no such thing as an “automatic” motorcycle; all motorcycles are manual. Your left hand is working the clutch and the turn signal, your right hand is working the front brake, your right foot is working the rear brake, and your left foot is working the gears up & down. It’s a lot more work than it seems.

Extreme acceleration (if you want it)

It varies depending on the style of bike you are riding, but generally speaking motorcycles can accelerate much faster than most cars. As soon as you roll the throttle back, things start happening quickly. A good sportbike can reach 100 mph in a just over 5 seconds. That’s fast enough in a car. But on a bike it feels twice as intense, and it yields a deep appreciation and respect for the raw power of the machine between your legs.

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If you want the excitement a motorcycle brings, but think you might crap your pants going 0-100mph in 5 seconds, get a cruiser.
Photo by Harley-Davidson on Unsplash

Of course not every bike is a Ninja or Ducati. There are different bikes to suit different styles. Harleys, for example, make what are known as “cruisers,” which tend to be heavier, smoother, and have a more relaxed seat angle. Riding a cruiser is much different than riding a sportbike.

It’s all about managing the lean

One of the most fundamental rules in motorcycling is: Friction used for braking cannot simultaneously be used for turning, and vice-versa. In a nutshell: Unlike in a car, you can’t slam on the brakes and turn at the same time. You have to do one or the other, or you will fall.

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Great if you’re doing a stunt. Not so great if you’re trying to stop.

To ride a motorcycle, you need to carefully manage your acceleration, braking, traction, and lean angles all at the same time. This makes it significantly more involved than driving a car. Going too fast in a car and need to stop? Slam on the brakes. Going too fast on a motorcycle? If you slam on both brakes too hard you risk locking the brakes, which results in a skid. Jamming on the rear brake is safest, but you won’t stop in time. And if you slam on the front brake your inertia can easily cause you to flip head over heels.

You need to carefully apply increasing amounts of pressure to both the front and rear brakes, all while maintaining balance and control. There’s simply a lot more going on than in a car.

To add to the thrill, motorcycles can lean so far over in turns, it almost seems to defy gravity. When you’re leaning in a turn and feel that gravity will “win”, you have confidence in the physics of friction, knowing that a quick twist of the throttle will accelerate the bike and get you out of the situation nicely. Leaning heavily into turns adds a huge amount of fun to the experience of riding.

There is truly nothing like it.

You smell everything

When you motorcycle, you notice smells in a way that you don’t when you travel by car, or even by bicycle. Part of it is because your senses are already heightened to begin with. Part of this is because you are traveling faster than a bicycle, so the smells change more frequently. Part of it is the fact that you have a large volume of air rushing by, so there are more molecules for your nose to pick up.

Either way, for better or worse, you smell everything. Grass, trees, the ocean, exhaust, pollution, everything.

You feel everything

For the same reasons described above, you notice the temperature change in ways that are very unique. You know how meteorologists on the news always show slight variations in temperature on the map — 67, 64, 62 degrees, and you think, “Like it makes a difference?”. On a bike you start noticing micro-climates, big time. In fact, whenever your ride by a body of water that is close to the road, you will nearly always feel the temperature drop.

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

You’re exposed to the elements and will feel every nuance of weather. Temperature, moisture, everything. Moving through a tree lined section of road, you will feel that 2 degree drop, and it will make you smile.

When you’re driving a car, you’re somewhat closed off, both protected from and thus immune to the rest of the world. On a motorcycle you essentially have no protection, so you start caring about everything in your environment that can affect you. Potholes, roadkill, even puddles. Windy day in a car? No big deal. Windy day on a bike? It completely permeates your thoughts until you arrive at your destination.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: All of these emotions are fueled by adrenaline, which feels good. While on the road, you learn to live in a semi-permanent state of hyper-awareness.

The Emotional Sensations

You’re never fully relaxed

..At least, you probably shouldn’t be. When you ride a motorcycle, you’re truly putting yourself at the mercy of the rest of the world. Your life can be snuffed out as quickly as flipping off a light switch. Now, this isn’t to say you’re nervous all the time either. But rather you are, at all times, keenly aware of your own mortality. And quite frankly, you should be. Once you start relaxing or acting carelessly, it’s over.

This is why bikers generally prefer riding on wide-open country roads: Less vehicles, less traffic, less to think about, less to worry about. It’s far more pleasurable to drive on two-lane rural roads than congested city streets (or god forbid rush-hour freeways).

You stop trusting people

This is a key part of the motorcycle experience. All those small things that happen on the road which people don’t think much about? Motorcyclists notice them, and are constantly making lots of small decisions accordingly. You notice the big things, the small things, and everything in between.

“Is this guy in front of me texting? Is that guy going to pull out of his parking spot? The pavement in this lane sucks, is it safe to switch? Is that car going to cross my path to exit? When is this truck moving over? Am I out of his blind spot yet?” You might feel like the king of the road, but you learn quickly that cars & trucks aren’t thinking about you at all. You learn to analyze other people’s agendas and try to predict their behavior.

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Yeah…it might be a good idea to pay attention.

You get smart about the rules of the road

Especially the “forgotten” ones. Blind spots. “Slow Curve Ahead” signs. Paved shoulders that suddenly turn into gravel. Did you know trucks are never allowed in the fast lane except to pass? Motorcyclists do. Did you know most accidents happen while turning left? Motorcyclists do. Did you know the road is at its slipperiest in the very first few minutes after rain hits? Motorcyclists do.

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LA traffic is hell for motorcyclists. But at least you can split lanes!

You need to plan your trips

Driving a car doesn’t require much pre-trip planning. But every trip on a motorcycle requires that you spend time thinking about your gear beforehand. “What is the weather now? What is it going to be like in an hour? Is it going to be hot? Do I need to wear jeans or risk getting pelted by rocks if I wear shorts? What the heck am I going to do with my jacket once I get to the beach? Do I need to carry anything in my backpack? Will I have room for the stuff I’m picking up?”

Weather alone is a huge factor. You ever see someone motorcycling in the rain? Yeah, it’s exactly miserable as it seems. If you don’t cover up (and I mean completely, from head to toe), you get soaked, plain and simple. I’m spoiled living in SoCal where the conditions are always pretty fantastic, but even here I rarely just hop on my bike & take off somewhere. I can’t even imagine what it must be like having to deal with snow, sleet or ice…

I’ve ridden in Denver, Colorado, USA. If you’re unfamiliar with Denver winters they can get pretty cold and snowy. In fact from November to February it’s just not a good idea to ride when the sun is down, lots of icy spots. I have been caught in snow while riding a few times and a few times I have seen the snow beginning to fall and thought “Yay, snow! I’m taking out the bike!!” Riding in winter conditions like that is without a doubt, far and away the scariest, sketchiest dumbest thing a biker can do. It can also be the most fun riding you’ll ever do on a bike.

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If you think cars and trucks aren’t looking for bikes normally, while it’s snowing I am pretty sure car and truck drivers aren’t even aware that motorcycles exist. At all.

Needless to say, traction becomes quite a concern, but only when you’re turning… Or going straight. Or slowing down. Or speeding up… Heck even when you stop, putting a foot to the ground can end in disaster. On average, the thoughts “I am going to die now” and “WOW! I shoulda just died, can’t believe I made it!” fly through your head about every 3 seconds.

I would recommend never doing it, ever. But if you do… It’s an awesome level of hyper awareness that’s ten times as strong as normal “good weather” riding. You get to learn (quickly) how to drift corners, never touch the front brakes while stopping, follow cars closely so you can keep your tires in their grooves, de-ice your hands using the exhaust (grabbing the engine block just isn’t enough) and most of all you learn that getting soaking wet in a summer rainstorm: really not that bad. It’s the most on-the-edge riding you’ll ever do and it all happens at around 15-20mph…

If you grew up on a dirtbike I think you’d enjoy it, if you got into biking as an adult via street bikes I say don’t do it.

You reap a ton of benefits

The cost savings are tremendous. The average motorcycle costs 5-10x less than the average car. You can get a solid used 500cc bike for under $2,500, total. You think your car is fuel-efficient? Some bikes get over 70 miles per gallon. Insurance is ridiculously cheap, and depreciation is low.

You never, ever have trouble finding a place to park. I cannot stress how awesome this is. Meeting a friend at a restaurant? Those people who drive endlessly around the block looking for a spot, or have to deal with 6-story parking garages are peons! Having a bike is no hassle at all. Just park on the street right out front like a champ.

Riding has become one of the greatest joys of my life. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a new sense of fun, adventure, and practicality. But you need to be okay with the adrenaline-fueled, hyper-aware emotional state it puts you in.

What does it feel like to ride a motorcycle?
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Stefan von Imhof is a travel writer and photographer. He loves going off the beaten path, exploring cities by foot and finding under-explored, hidden gems. After living in California for the past 15 years, he and his wife now live in Melbourne, Australia.

3 thoughts on “What Does it Feel Like to Ride a Motorcycle?”

  1. Hello Stefan,
    Myself Hari from Mumbai, India. I came across your article through my younger brother who is about to become a practicing psychologist. Well we always discuss ways to relax and everytime we have ended picking up travel as a sole solution which gives a chance to experience exploring the unknown, make risk assessment, trusting ones gut feeling, keeping all the ego aside and interact with who ever is source of knowledge it makes you unlearn and relearn a lot of things which we otherwise don’t notice or give importance to.
    I have worked as a tour manager for my friend who holds a Guiness Record for traveling world on a 100cc 2stroke motorcycle.
    And we have done about 1000miles a day and trust me we have enjoyed it so much and at the end of it. We used to even have energy to enjoy a beer and hotel pool.
    So coming back to how motorcycle helps. You have rightly mentioned one has to do a lot to be on a motorcycle and travel. I think it’s like a meditation where you forget a lot about what’s troubling you and start focusing on things in hand. The wind makes one feel fresh and from the very first movement of the wheel things starts getting better it feels like I have control over my life. I am free, I am me.

    Really liked your story and
    All The Best !!


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