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Risk Hierarchy: Information - Rider Ed - Driver Ed - Conspicuity - Bike Defect - Ultra-Defensive Riding - Crash Avoidance - Injury Mitigation - Crash Scene
A typical Basic Rider Course (BRC) takes place over about three days, often a weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday. It has classroom sessions to go over the basic controls of the motorcycle and how to use them, some basic riding strategies emphasizing defensive riding and regulatory issues.
The range exercises start out with basic control exercises, mainly clutch and throttle and brakes. They continue with turning, cone weaves, s-turns and swerves, braking exercises, u-turns and varius simple maneuvers. The range exercises are generally tightly supervised and safety is a big consideration. Here's ET's detailed review of the MSF's BRC.
The ability to ride a regular, unpowered bicycle is a pre-requisite. You won't get much out of the course without that. Most basic courses have lax requirments for protective gear during training. Helmets, eye protection, boots and gloves are usually required, but a cotton shirt and jeans are considered OK. This is inadequate, we strongly recommend wearing abrasion-resistant pants and jacket, and armor. See rockthegear.org and check out Britney Morrow's road rash. ET mentions that he low-sided during a basic course and would have been hurt except for knee armor.
Training courses are provided by state organizations in Oregon, Idaho and Illinois, and by MSF and its affiliates in most of the other states.
Rider's Edge is Harley Davidson's version of the MSF's Basic Rider Course. It uses the same curriculum, but there is a extra couple of hours of range riding time, as each of the exercises are 30 minutes long. There are some additional classroom exercises. There is also a marketing session when the HD dealer will try very hard to sell you a bike, and usually a socializing component. The Rider's Edge classes are usually taught on (almost) 500 cc Buell Blast motorcycles, whereas the regular MSF classes are usually taught on smaller bikes in the 125cc to 250cc range. Our 'First Bike' feature explains why the Buell Blast might not be the best bike for a first time rider to train on. Here's MSgroup.org on the differences between Rider's Edge and the basic BRC.
Most branches of the military offer various levels of training, which is usually mandatory and which varies by institution and sometimes by location. Your chain of command will have details.
In most states, training is not mandatory and it is possible to obtain your motorcycle license or endorsement by taking a skills and a written test. We recommend taking a BRC anyway.
We caution against hubris, as always when you do something to improve safety. It is common to get a sense of false security which can kill.
In particular, new riders are very much at risk. Taking a Basic Rider Course, while essential, does not give you enough skills to survive on the road. You need to study and practice in relatively safe environents before venturing out onto city streets or major highways. And a BRC is just the start, you need additional training, skills practice and study your whole riding life.
One last word: if you fail your basic course, consider that riding a bike might not be for you. You have the option of taking the course again, or, in some states, testing out at your local DMV, but take it from us that the BRC test standard is fairly loose, and if you can't hack it the first time, you are more likely to have life-threatening difficulties while riding. We don't think the data is clear, but there are some studies out there which suggest that those who take the BRC more than once have very high chances of being in a crash in the following year. This is why we recommend delaying your first bike puchase until after you pass the course, so that you don't have a lot of cash invested in the process. Maybe avoid mentioning it to too many of your buddies, so you don't have a lot of explaining to do if you change your mind.
While we 100% recommend a BRC for new riders, please be aware that training has its risks, and there is about a one in half million chance that you might be killed during training. The training organization will make every effort to prevent injury. Here's our analysis of one irresponsible blog which, erroneously in our opinion, is skeptical about the efficacy of BRC and the MSF in particular. We put this in so you have all the information, but we totally support basic training for riders. Skipping training is very likely to kill you. Here's some support for this view, from an unlikely source: MSgroup.org. Although they have hosted vitriolic, anti-MSF postings in the past, when push comes to shove, they recommend that novices and retreads take the course.
If you want to take training, and can't afford it, try RidersU.org. They are a registered charity that finances training for needy riders.
Now you are ready to get your first bike