Ultimate Motorcycling Editor’s Letter, March 2021: Vive l’automatique!

Editor’s Letter, March 2021: Vive l'automatique!

Testing the 2021 Honda Rebel 1100 DCT for this issue reminded me of something fundamental—motorcycles need to be accessible to new riders. Although we’ve all come to take it for granted, the coordination of our hands and feet to make a motorcycle operate smoothly is far from instinctive. We all had to learn it—or not ride.

Certainly, not riding is an option we don’t want to promote.

Like most of us, a bicycle was my entry into the two-wheeled world. When my father decided to teach me how to ride a bicycle at age 6, he made it very simple—learn, or suffer the consequences. He wasn’t going to bother with training wheels for me.

Our backyard was large and had a slight incline. On the downhill border, there was a cinderblock wall. This made for some serious learning motivation.

The bike was a Schwinn Sting-Ray knockoff with a banana seat and a tall, wide handlebar—and a bit too big for me.

Schwinn Sting-Ray knockoff

The first thing my dad did was explain to me how to actuate the brake. There was no front brake, so it was all moving the pedals backward to engage the coaster brake. That was the first thing I had to learn.

The downhill slope of the backyard came in handy. His push allowed me to coast along—pedaling for propulsion was not a skill I had to learn just yet. However, I did have to learn to use the brake before I hit the rapidly approaching wall. While that may sound simple, the excitement of riding a bicycle for the first time made it difficult for me to recall the exact instructions and how to implement them.

So, I ran into the wall.


I’m sure I don’t have to mention that this was the pre-helmet era. Regardless, running into the wall was a great motivator to remember how to use the brakes. There was a downside to braking to a stop—getting my feet to the ground to hold me up was a bit of an effort. As a result, I was able to stop before hitting the wall, but then I would fall over. Fortunately, we had a grassy backyard, so falling wasn’t nearly as bad as hitting an immovable object.

Once I had braking down, my dad explained and demonstrated how to turn the bike, as well as pedaling it for locomotion. The idea was that I’d coast down toward the wall, apply some brake, turn the bike, and pedal back to him.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Well, that meant a few more interactions with the cinderblocks. On the upside, I wasn’t going as fast because I did use the brakes. Typically, I was experiencing glancing blows at lower speeds—a huge improvement.

It took some time to make that first U-turn, but I eventually succeeded.

That success led to the need to learn how to pedal and retain balance. A couple of failures in operating the pedals on the way back up the slope resulted in more time on the grass. Still, I was improving.

Finally, I was able to coast down the hill, turn the bike, and then pedal my way back up to my dad. I was a bicycle rider!

Although my dad’s syllabus was a bit unorthodox, it worked. Amazingly, this just took a few hours, and no serious injuries resulted.

I was out on the street in no-time, and all I had to do was find a curb to start and stop at so my foot could reach the ground. Learning to ride a bicycle was incredibly liberating, and it meant my life experiences were going to expand greatly—just like when you learn to ride a motorcycle.

My motorcycle learning experience was actually pretty easy. My first bike—a clapped-out Honda Super Cub—had an automatic clutch, so learning to twist the slow-action throttle and operate the heel-toe shifter was pretty easy.

When I advanced to a Yamaha 90 Enduro, learning a clutch wasn’t too hard. I started by popping the clutch to get underway, and quickly adjusted to modulating its release. This happened in the driveway, with the front wheel pointed at the garage door. I managed to never crash during my steep learning curve.

All of these experiences have made me someone who appreciates making it easy for a novice rider. A centrifugal auto-clutch is a great teaching tool, and the fully automatic Honda Dual Clutch Transmission makes life even easier.

I was disappointed when Honda debuted the DCT on the VFR1200F. To me, it was a great learning device, yet they put it on a premium motorcycle for highly experienced riders. I wanted to see it on a Honda Rebel 250 twin, but that would have doubled its price.

With the DCT, the Honda Rebel 1100 is actually easier for a beginner to learn on than the Rebel 300 or 500. Those motorcycles depend on the rider coordinating the clutch and throttle. The 1100 is twist-and-go, and that’s about as easy as it gets.

Even as a veteran motorcyclist, I have a full appreciation of the DCT’s convenience. The DCT versions of the Gold Wing and Africa Twin are functionally outstanding. Clutching and shifting are fun, but they are not essential to the enjoyment of motorcycling.

Even MV Agusta has auto-clutch models with clutchless quickshifters, so there’s no reason to think the technology isn’t cool enough for everyone.

If we can get people out on motorcycles without demanding that they learn to coordinate the clutch, throttle, and shifter, that’s great. Some will go on to enjoy the visceral rewards of fully manual operation, while others may happily tool along with an automatic transmission and never look back.

The easier we make learning to ride a motorcycle, the more motorcyclists we will have to ride with. Vive l’automatique!