The very first time I ever rode a scooter was here in Ubud. I found it so liberating and just plain fun, that as soon as I got home, I went and bought one. That’s why these days I tend to encourage new visitors I meet to hire a scooter, and if asked, I’ll also teach them to ride one.
If you’re new to riding, safely negotiating the streets of Ubud can have steep learning curve. It’s certainly not the most dangerous place in the world to learn, but it’s far from the big empty parking lot scenario where so many of us took our first driving lesson.
So, in the interests of helping you enjoy your riding experience here in Ubud (by keeping you out of the local hospitals; believe me, you don’t want to go there) here are my 15 Helpful Tips for Riding a Scooter in Ubud:
1) There’s really only one thing you can do wrong when starting the bike:
The first thing I teach a new rider is not to touch the throttle (accelerator) when starting the bike. Why? Because if you start the bike with the throttle open it will immediately take off. If you are a new rider, your instinct when you feel this sudden motion will usually be to hold on tighter, but what you actually need to do to is let go (of the throttle, not the bike). Failing to release the throttle at this critical time means that the bike will probably careen across the street with you on it, and plow into the side of a parked car. Sometimes if the bike is a crappy one, you might need to use a little throttle to get it to start; if so, be sparing with it, and remember to let go as soon as it does.
2) Do not take your very first scooter ride on the main streets of Ubud:
The main streets of Ubud are very busy most of the time, and while the best place to learn to ride is in a big empty parking lot or on an abandoned aircraft runway, sadly, Ubud has neither of these. I once watched a large German tourist clamber onto his freshly rented scooter, press the starter, and immediately roar off down the wrong side of Monkey Forest Road like he’d been blasted out of a cannon. His legs were sticking straight out at 45 degrees, he was bug-eyed with terror, and as the oncoming traffic scattered to avoid him, his wife (who had been lifting her leg to climb onto the back when he inexplicably shot out from under her) screamed at him, “Halt!…Oh Mein Gott. Friedrich!!…Hallllt!!!”
Find somewhere quite to take your first ride, and ideally have someone who knows what they’re doing give you some pointers before you do. If possible ask a more experienced rider to go with you to collect the bike, and take you to your chosen quiet peace (there’s a football oval behind the Monkey Forest for example). If you absolutely have to collect the bike yourself, and your hire place is on a main street in Ubud, go as early in the morning as possible so there’s less traffic around.
3) Learn to ride by yourself, before you put a passenger on the back:
Riding with your friend on the back might feel comforting, but in reality the bike is a lot harder to control with two people on it, especially if the passenger is heavier than you and/or is frightened and so tries to sit up straight when you go through corners. Let go of your friend/partner just for a little while; just till you learn how to ride the bike. When you are ready to put your friend on the back, have them sit as far forward as they can without making you uncomfortable. The more the weight is towards the front of the bike, the easier it is to control and to stop.
4) If the bike stalls, push it to the side of the road:
Your rental bike could stall for a number of reasons. It might just be crappy, it might be out of petrol, there might be a dead rat in the exhaust pipe etc. If it dies on you in traffic it can be pretty stressful. Try a couple times to restart it, but if it won’t restart immediately, just push it off the road and try to restart it there. Do not sit in the middle of the road repeatedly pressing the starter and adding more and more throttle, because if it finally does start you will likely have the careening/crashing problem mentioned in Point 1.
5) In Ubud we drive on the left hand side of the road. You know…generally…most of the time…unless we decide to drive on the right:
Traffic can come from any direction in Ubud, especially at intersections. So can dogs, chickens, pedestrians and the odd cat. Expecting the traffic to adhere to any kind of western type road rules will lead you to disappointment at best. While we generally drive on the left, sometimes we turn right from the right hand side of the road. This is completely logical – the streets are very narrow, and if you sit in the middle of the road to turn right, you block the whole intersection for cars trying to turn in. Turning right from the right also makes it easier to merge with moving traffic. Don’t try this yourself unless you know what you’re doing, but be aware that others do. You might be turning left and be suddenly confronted by someone coming straight at you on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Be prepared and don’t get annoyed, just smile and go around them.
6) One way streets in Ubud are not one way:
Just because you’re riding down a one way street doesn’t mean that traffic won’t come at you from the other direction. The only real one way street in Ubud is the top of Hanoman Street. The Main Road between Hanoman and Monkey Forest Roads is also one way between 6am and 6pm if the cops are around.
7) Beware Ubudian gravel piles, and avoid road gravel like the plague:
No one knows how they get there, or has ever seen them appear, but it is a well-known fact that in the middle of the night, huge piles of gravel grow right out of the roads all over Ubud. You might be travelling along a familiar route when suddenly “Bam!” one materialises right in front of you. There will be no signs, there will be no lights, there will be no warning at all…just a huge pile of gravel, 3/4 of the way across the road.
Gravel is everywhere in Ubud. It not only grows spontaneously out of the road itself, but is washed all over the place by the rains. It appears at the side of the road, in the middle of the road, in corners…just everywhere. Gravel is the sworn enemy of the bike rider. It’s a frightening fact, but stopping very fast in gravel is impossible; the best you can hope for is to scrub off a bit of speed before you crash (well worth the effort). Stopping quickly in gravel is possible, but it’s very tricky. It requires an advanced (and usually very lucky) emergency stop (see below). Avoid gravel like the plague. Ride around it if you can, and if you can’t (often the case) reduce speed as much as you can before you get to it, and make sure the bike is completely upright when you ride over it.
8) Learn how to make Emergency Stops:
The streets of Ubud are hectic. Stuff jumps out in front of you all the time. Dogs, other bikes, piles of gravel, you name it. The ability to make emergency stops is the most crucial safety skill a rider has, and the only way to learn how to do them is to practice. Practice on a dry road first, and work up to a wet road – hope you never have to do one in gravel. Then, every time you get on a new bike test its brakes (and your skill) with a few emergency stops. Emergency stopping for some is instinctive, but for others takes a lot of practice.
In an emergency stopping scenario, between 80 and 90% of the stopping power comes from the front brake (in your right hand). The back brake (left hand) is vital too, but it’s pretty much the front brake’s assistant. So the aim of an emergency stop is deceptively simple – get the front brake applied as quickly and as fully as possible, without locking the wheel. But of course it’s not just a matter of grabbing the brakes as hard as you can. The front brake must be applied quickly, but smoothly. If you grab it too hard all of a sudden, it will lock. A locked front wheel is very bad because it takes longer to stop, prevents you from steering, and in all likelihood (for certain if the bike’s not completely upright), will cause you to crash.
A perfectly executed emergency stop involves applying the rear brake a fraction of a second before the front brake, because that preliminarily transfers the weight to the front tire and compresses it to the road, allowing the front brake to be applied (hard) when the tire has maximum grip and so minimal risk of locking.
9) Do not ride faster to try to get somewhere before the rain hits:
Bad idea. Firstly roads that are lightly wet with the first drops of rain are more slippery than fully wet roads, because they are both wet and dirty. Secondly if it’s about to rain where you are now, it may already be raining on the road ahead, so you might be heading at speed into somewhere very slippery. Finally, gravel on the road is much harder to see when it’s wet. It rains a lot in Ubud (in the wet season it does anyway). Buy yourself a poncho (a mantle in Indonesian) from the supermarket and just ride through it.
10) Tires need air:
If you rent a bike for more than a week or two there’s a good chance you’ll need to put air in one or both of the tires before you hand it back. There are dozens of local bike shops all over Ubud who will do this for you for a tiny fee. If your bike is hard to steer, is hard to maneuver at low speed and/or if you have to accelerate to maintain speed going downhill, you’ve either got low tire pressures or a really shitty bike. If you’re riding around with tires that are virtually flat, you’re much more likely to crash if you go into a corner too fast, and your ability to perform emergency stops will be greatly reduced.
11) Use your mirrors:
Make sure you check and adjust your mirrors when you get on your bike and use them when you’re riding. Traffic can come up behind you fast and overtake you on roads that you thought were only wide enough for one. Try to stay on one side of the lane or the other, and check your mirrors before moving across. Generally ride on the left hand side of your lane unless overtaking.
12) Do not be offended if locals beep their horns at you (a little):
Indonesians consider westerners on scooters to be by far the most dangerous things on the road. This is because western tourists on scooters are by far the most dangerous things on the road, and to locals, non-locals are always tourists. If there is even the remotest possibility that you could do something that endangers them they will beep at you on sight (but lightly). They will also beep when they get closer to you, just in case you didn’t hear them the first time. This is not personal, so don’t take offense – it’s a perfectly logical risk minimisation strategy.
13) Don’t drink alcohol and ride:
Alcohol really does mess with your ability to ride a bike. More so than your ability to drive a car, because in a car, you don’t have to balance. Remember, if you crash a car you generally damage the car; when you crash a bike, you damage you.
14) Learning to recognise and steer clear of tourists on scooters is a vital skill, even for other tourists:
On the roads, locals avoid any non-locals, but because they are the least experienced riders on the road, everyone tries to avoid tourists. There are easy ways to spot a tourist on a scooter. I’ve compiled this handy list because if you can spot ’em, you can avoid ’em, greatly reducing personal risk; and if you are a tourist, the sooner you learn to stop riding like one, the safer you’ll be:
- There will almost always be two of them on the bike, and if it’s two girls, the larger one will invariably be on the back;
- Whoever’s on the back will be constantly swivelling their head around looking at shops, people etc. These random weight shifts by the heavier passenger will make the bike wander from one side of the lane to the other. Meanwhile the driver will be hunched over the handle bars, staring intently at the road just ahead, wondering why it’s so hard to keep the bike going straight;
- They will speed up and slow down for no discernible reason;
- If they remember to use them at all, they will leave their blinker on until they need to make another turn in the opposite direction;
- One of their rear view mirrors will be pointed straight up at the sky, and the other down at the road;
- The locals will warn you of their presence by beeping at them at every intersection.
15) If you learned to ride a scooter in Ubud, do not assume that it will be the same if you ride elsewhere:
The speed of the traffic in Ubud is relatively low, and drivers here are very bike conscious. Local drivers look for bikes and generally they give way to them. In Australia (for example) ‘bike awareness’ is generally interpreted as ‘if you see one, cut them off.’ Australians like to drive their cars real fast, and they don’t like to give way to anything. Australian women with kids tend to drive huge four-wheel drives, so the kids are protected in case she slams into something e.g. you. They also like to simultaneously drive, apply make-up, drink coffee and talk on the phone. Australian men like to drive aggressively, and if you pull up in front of one at an intersection, you better be able to pull away faster than he can when the light goes green, or he’ll beep you furiously then tailgate you for as long as possible.
I hope these tips will be useful to new riders, and riders who are new to Ubud. Generally, Ubud is a pretty safe place to ride, and even to learn to ride; but it’s not entirely without risk. My general advice is: don’t be afraid, just be careful!