I have had several beginning riders ask me about riding a Honda Rebel on freeways. This article gives some tips I have come up with based on my experiences riding on Houston's freeways.
I think some people believe the Honda Rebel is underpowered to be on a freeway. While it is true that its top speed is just over 75 mph, I think it is suitable for freeway riding, if you are careful. Of course, the most powerful bike is only suitable for freeway riding if you are careful. In the end, the dangers of riding on a freeway are under your helmet, not under the gas tank.
Below is a list of some of the points I have developed over the miles I have put in on Houston's high speed roads. You will have to decided for yourself when you are ready to joust with all those four wheelers. Once you have made that decision, I hope this article will help you have fun at over 60 miles per hour.
1. First of all, take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginner's riding course. You will need all the basic skills of motorcycle riding, and in fast motion. A freeway is not the place to learn the basics. An empty parking lot, under the watchful eyes of experienced instructors is where you should start.
2. Second, read, read, read. There is a wealth of materials out there about how to ride on a freeway. Learn some techniques while in your armchair and they may save your bacon on the asphalt. For a list of books I recommend, click here.
3. Gear up. There is no getting around the fact that crashes on a freeway are usually catastophic. Your chances of surviving a fall will increase with every piece of safety equipment you wear. I recommend a full face helmet, riding jacket (with CE armor at elbows, shoulders and back), real motorcycle boots (with rubber soles and thick leather), leather motorcycle gloves and Draggin Jeans with Kevlar and armor in the knees). Especially when you are beginning to ride the freeways, proper equipment will help you relax and pay attention to the real danger of the surrounding vehicles.
4. Always check the pressure in your tires before riding. This is especially important if you are going to get on a freeway. My Honda Rebel is constantly losing air. The first time I tried to ride on a freeway, I didn't follow this advice. The bike behaved weirdly. The handling felt mushy and I didn't like the experience one bit. When I got home I thought and thought about why the bike wasn't handling like I expected it should. Somehow, it came to me to check the air pressure. It was down by several pounds. When I aired it up to the recommended 29 psi, and took the Rebel back out on the freeway, everything went fine. And has been fine since. So don't forget to check that air pressure.
5. Try some mini-freeways first. By mini-freeways I mean expressways like Memorial Drive in Houston. It is a divided parkway, with 50 mph speed limits. Entries and exits are minimal, and you get to experience many of the realities of freeway riding at a lower speed.
6. Make your first forays onto the freeways early on weekend mornings. Traffic will be light at that time, and you can experience high speeds without too many distractions. Also, give some thought to which freeway you will try first. Scout them out in your car. Some freeways have a lot less traffic than others. For example, in Houston, Highway 59 north is almost always deserted on weekend mornings. I-10, on the other hand, is almost always crowded.
7. My most important tip is: Don't let a car ride next to you. Get ahead of the car, or behind the car. Never ride next to the car. Or truck. Or van. My main worry is that a guy on a cell phone will drift into me by accident. If there is no car next to me, that chance is minimized. I like to think of my freeway position as like that of a wingman. My preferred position on crowded roads is to be at least a couple of bike lengths (and preferably more) behind the car in the lane next to me. If he speeds up, I speed up. If he slows down, I slow down. I don't pass unless I have a big gap ahead of me. And if another car starts tailgating the car I am next to, I drop back and become the wingman of the tailgater, so there is still no car next to me.
8. My second most important tip is: Always have an escape plan. Where will you go if something bad happens ahead of you? Will you veer right? Or left? Or brake hard? If you have an escape plan always in your head, the odds that you will be caught off guard are vastly reduced. As the situation changes, you will have to quickly adjust your escape plan to reflect the new facts. Just be sure you know what you will do if you have to act suddenly.
9. Don't tailgate. Especially in the beginning, you will need extra time to react. Give yourself that extra time by keeping a large distance between you and the car ahead of you.
10. Don't ride your brakes. It is a good idea to "cover" your front brake with your first and second fingers. But make sure you are not squeezing the brake or you will trigger your brake light before you need it. The same problem arises if you rest your right toes on the rear brake. If you are riding your brakes, the traffic behind you will not be as quick to realize you are slowing down. Avoid this bad habit.
11. Do tap your brakes. The Hurt Report noted that it is relatively rare for a biker to be hit from behind. Still, I always worry that the guy behind me won't get stopped, even if I do. So I tap my brakes with my right foot (or right hand) to let the traffic know that I will be coming to a stop soon. This is especially important in those situations where you are traveling at speed, and see that you will have to stop soon because of congestion ahead. Tapping your brakes will increase the chances that the guy behind you will alert to the fact that a major slowdown is coming up.
12. Take the outside part of a curve. If you enter a curve on the outside arc, your visibility of things ahead will be increased. This is very important when merging onto another freeway at speed.
13. Don't ride in the center of your lane. Ride in one of the tire tracks. Road debris is a constant problem with freeway riding, especially at the start of the day. For example, if you are following an eighteen wheeler, you will not have a clear view of the road ahead. The trucker can easily pass over a road gator (shredded tire). If you are riding in the center of the lane, you won't have long to weave around this danger. If you are riding in the tire tracks of the vehicle ahead of you, it is likely that that vehicle will signal you about oncoming threats by weaving around them, and you will have time to react.
14. Stay off the shoulders and striped areas. As you ride the freeways, you will notice that lots of debris ricochets its way onto the shoulder area. It stays there because few cars are hitting it anymore. But the point is that it stays there. If you pull over to the shoulder (or, worse, use the shoulder to pass slow moving cars), you will drive through this minefield of screws, nails and other threats to your tires. Don't do it.
15. If you have to ride in the lane next to those concrete barriers that are everywhere, use the tire track that is farther away from the barrier. If the barrier is on your right, ride in the left-hand tire track. Why? Because the car ahead of you might ricochet debris into the barrier, and it may bounce back into your path. I have personally seen this happen more than once. Being in the far tire track lessens the risk your tire will kiss that debris.
16. Watch for "three-lane changers." These are drivers that realize, at the last minute, that they need to take an exit that is coming right up. So they angle over to get to the exit, oblivious to anyone in their way. Your defense is to be especially alert when approaching an exit. Don't ever assume that those wishing to exit will be in the lane or two next to the exit lane. They can be anywhere. Proper positioning on the freeway will lessen this risk. See tips 7 and 8.
17. Watch for cars entering the freeway. I like to ride in the right-hand lane. That way, only cars to my left are a real threat, except when I come to an on-ramp. You have to pay attention to those drivers entering the freeway. If the pace will allow, I just let them squeeze in with as much room to spare as I can manage. If there is a solid line of cars entering, I usually switch over a lane to the left. Which tactic is best depends on experience. I have no hard and fast rules for this situation. Just be aware of this problem so you can adjust accordingly.
18. Don't ride on the freeways at night, especially in the beginning. Distances and speed are hard to estimate at night, and visibility is reduced. It's hard for you to see, and it's hard for you to be seen. Not to mention all the drunks out. So try (real hard) to avoid riding at night. And that means heading for home with plenty of time to arrive before the sun goes down.
I will post more tips as I think of them. If you have any suggestions, let me know. This is definitely a work in progress. Freeway riding can be some of the most fun you can have on your bike. Just remember to be careful out there. And don't forget to think.