Wes Siler is a full-time writer and in charge of IndefinitelyWild, a site about adventure travel in the outdoors. He is also quite the motorcycle guru, appearing on /DRIVE’s series called RideApart, which had videos based on the best motorcycles for beginners and some quite interesting canyon carving. In 2007, he was also the first Road Test Editor for Jalopnik.
We wanted to pick his brain about his past experiences riding motorcycles, especially when it comes to safety. So many new motorcyclist don’t err on the side of caution and start out with improper safety techniques or have the wrong mindset going into the hobby. Even more experienced riders may also fall prone to lax tendencies and may not be making safety their highest priority.
Q: Give me a little history to how you started riding. Was riding a motorcycle an upgrade from riding dirt bikes, or just an urge you had?
I started out as a car enthusiast, but quickly realized that bikes offered a much more pure experience and that their performance-to-dollar ratio was off the chart. This was in England, where motorcycles are a normal part of everyday life, so my progression through the ranks of performance and mentors were built in. It was also patently obvious that bikes just make much more sense as personal transportation, freeing you from the shackles of traffic and offering much lower running costs. Important in a country where gas is four or five times the price it is here in the US.
I joined some motorcycle forums, met friends through them, learned more about the sport and developed my riding ability and the rest is history. I sold my last car in 2002 and never looked back.
Q: What was the reaction of family and close friends when you started riding? Did they have any fears/concerns of your safety?
My mom worried a little bit, but I think mostly she was concerned that wearing a helmet was contributing to the acne I had back then. Again, motorcycles are more a normal part of life in England rather than the extreme sport or moron bait they are here. You start small, wear all the safety gear and prioritize safety over everything else.
Q: What was your own thought process in terms of the added danger to being on the road? What were the precautions you took?
I was 16. Danger was awesome. It still is.
Bikes don’t really have to be a dangerous thing and it’s a little crazy that they’re so widely considered such in this country. Do you think a family of three, all commuting on the same bike through Jakarta considers what they’re doing very dangerous? Our approach to motorcycles here is simply a ridiculous one, which creates the danger. Yes, buying a specialized tool for experts which is capable of traveling at 200mph, then attempting to operate it as a total novice while wearing cargo shorts and tribal tattoos is going to kill you. No one should be surprised by that.
Q: Looking back on when you first started riding to your current skill level, what advice could you offer your past self in terms of riding, in both skill and safety?
I had a couple great mentors, plus the entire culture of skilled, mature motorcycling England offers, so I was honestly as safe and cautious a beginner as you could expect. You have to take substantial training there, just to pass your test. Compare that to America, where the best new rider training on offer — The Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider Course, which serves as the practical license test in most states — is equivalent to the course you must take just to get your learner’s permit in the UK. And, most American riders don’t even do that much. You also have tiered licensing, so new and young riders start on small, light, easy bikes.
I do wish I’d been able to start riding dirt bikes earlier, but that’s a relatively inaccessible thing outside California (or the west coast in general) where I now live. Now, all my friends that I give road and sport lessons to leave me in their dust once we get off road.
Q: From an older RideApart video on DRIVE, there was discussion about lane filtering. What is your position on this and what can you say to new riders and also automobile drivers about the pros and cons of filtering?
Lane Splitting is a contentious issue because it looks scary when you’re sitting down low in a car and a motorcycle disturbs you from your texting. From a motorcyclist’s perspective, there’s nearly always five feet or more of room between lanes of stationary or slow moving traffic. The widest point of a motorcycle is the rider’s shoulders, so that’s plenty of room and sitting up high, without pillars, we have much greater vision. If you could see lane splitting from our perspective, you wouldn’t consider it dangerous at all.
One of the few substantial studies ever done on lane splitting found that, if 10 percent of road traffic switched to motorcycles or scooters, overall congestion would fall a total of 40 percent. That’s a pretty compelling argument for the drivers who feel motorcycles are cutting in line. Every bike that passes you is doing its part to incrementally reduce the congestion you face.
There’s also the safety issue. The most common road accident is when one vehicle strikes another from the rear. A simple fender bender is a minor headache for car drivers, but direct impacts like these are what kills bikers. Splitting lanes removes riders from the ever expanding and contracting traffic column in each lane and shifts impacts from direct to glancing, which is far, far less likely to cause us injury or death.
It’s also worth remembering that American roads are only exceptional in the size of their vehicles and the comparative lack of skill of their users. Lane splitting is legal and encouraged everywhere else in the world, where it’s seen as a practical means to reduce congestion and makes motorcycles an economical, eco-friendly form of transportation.
Some people get confused because they think of an isolated incident where they saw a rider lane splitting while also riding dangerously. Just as it’s legal to drive your car on the road, but a number of laws and common sense governs how you do so, lane splitting must be performed within the speed limit and in a safe manner.
Q: From an article on RideApart, readers could see the road rash of a rider not wearing protective clothing after a nasty fall. What’s your opinion on protective gear, more specifically clothing? What is your standing on the debate of comfort vs. safety?
There is no debate. Riding gear is specifically designed and necessary to make riding a motorcycle both comfortable and safe. Any riders who may argue otherwise are simply ignorant of the sport they claim to be a part of. Riding gear keeps you cool when it’s hot, warm when it’s cold, dry when it’s wet and alive when you crash. It’s remarkably effective at all that. I routinely ride in temperatures ranging from sub-freezing to over 120 degrees and in everything from snow to rain to ice to sand storms. California, FTW. Motorcycle gear makes that possible.
Every other weekend, we see MotoGP riders crash at high speeds, sometimes exceeding 200mph. They almost always walk away unscathed. That’s because they wear the best gear possible, gear that’s commercially available to everyone.
If anyone still cares to argue, I will gladly fight you at a place and time of your choosing. You wear what you normally do on a motorcycle and I’ll wear what I do. Hope you like getting your ass kicked.
Q: How did you learn your own limits and the limits of each bike? How would you recommend trying to learn the limits in a safe way?
You don’t ride test bikes to their limits. For some reason, motorcycle manufacturers refuse to incorporate basic crash protection into their bikes. Protection that’s widely and affordably available in the aftermarket and which is extremely effective at preventing damage in most crash scenarios. Because of this, even a simple, common, low-speed crash frequently results in the motorcycle being totaled, plus pissed off PR reps. I’m flabbergasted that consumers aren’t more up in arms about this — you’re buying bikes that can be totaled if you accidentally knock them off their stands while parked.
To develop the skill to push a motorcycle to its limit, you need to start small, learn to flog the life out of a 250, get to the point where it’s the bike limiting your speed, then move up to a 500. Read a bunch of books, do your first track day, work harder at getting better each and every day, then, when you’re at the point where it’s really, really, really the bike that’s the limiting factor, move up to a 600. Immediately book your first multi-day track school, plan on going back a few months later, read some more books, work as hard as you can and, three of four years of that later, you might be at the point where you can use a 600 to its full abilities. If you do get there, you’ll be a better rider than 99 percent of motorcyclists. You’ll obviously want a liter bike at this point, but after a few years on that, you’ll realize they’re pointless and that riding them is just about managing their power and isn’t really all that fun and you’ll move down to the growing class of exotic middleweights like the Triumph Daytona 675R, which offers real component quality in a package you can genuinely exploit as a mortal.
There you go, I just gave you the cheat code to becoming an expert motorcyclist. There’s other paths to getting there, but all will take more time, cost you more money and involve much more hassle, injury and broken bikes. This is a real thing, riding bikes isn’t something you can buy your way into being good at.
Q: Have your been to other countries and rode motorcycles there? If so, how do you compare your experiences there to in the US? If not, you can ignore this question.
US motorcycle culture is awful. A few guys get it and form an exclusive club that’s closed off to outsiders. Everyone else is a poser on a Harley or a moron on a sportbike. Elsewhere, motorcycles actually form basic transportation for the masses or are at least a hobby for intelligent people prepared to invest time and effort into doing it safely, actually getting a lot out of it as a result. I’m not sure what it’ll take to get American motorcycling to that point, but I’ll keep fighting the good fight and hopefully, one day we’ll get there.