Few things in life deliver the thrill and pure joy of cruising the curves on your own personal, two-wheeled fun machine. Sure, they may be dangerous — they are dangerous — but motorcycles offer a sense of freedom and excitement no car can provide, not matter what it costs. Riding requires sharp skills, a keen mind, quick reflexes, and the ability to handle hair-raising situations. Because of the demands inherent with riding motorcycles, the barrier to entry is high — higher than it should be, anyway.
Here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know to get out of your cage and onto the open road.
The first gasoline-powered motorcycle, dubbed the Petreoleum Reitwage, was built by legendary German designers Gottlieb Daimler and Wihelm Maybach back in 1885. Since then, motorcycles have branched in countless directions, with different machines made for different purposes. Here are the five basic categories:
Think Harley Davidson. These bikes have lower seat heights and a more laid-back riding position. They often have large engines (though not always), but are not made for racing or super-high performance situations — situations you should not find yourself in for a long time, if you’re just getting started. Most major bike manufacturers produce some type of cruiser.
Massively popular in the U.S., sportbikes — often called “crotch rockets” — are finely tuned machines capable of high performance and even higher speeds. Because of the intense power of these bikes, we strictly recommend avoiding any type of sportbike for at least your first couple of years of riding. It takes time to train your body to handle a motorcycle, and it’s far too easy on a sportbike to chuck yourself into a deadly situation before you even know what’s happening. But don’t worry: You absolutely do not need a sportbike to have fun on a motorcycle.
Touring motorcycles come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, but their purpose is always the same: long-distance travel. Some bikes, like the Honda Goldwing or the BMW K1600GTL (above), come fully-loaded with large fairings, luggage trunks, windshields, and even stereos and GPS. Others, like the BMW R1200GS, are more stripped-down, and have high seats (due to high clearance) to allow for off-road riding. Touring bikes generally deliver an excellent riding experience — but because of their high price and weight, they may not be the best choice for a new rider. But they’re definitely a great option not far down the road.
At their most basic, dual-sports are just dirtbikes — which are generally illegal to ride on public roads — with some mirrors and lights slapped on to make them street-legal. “Supermoto” bikes also fall into this category, with the added change of street-only tires, as opposed to dual-sports’ knobby tires. Because dual-sport bikes often have smaller engines and are light-weight, they are a good option for new riders. But if you’re short beware: Most dual-sports have very high seats. If you can’t put both feet down when stopped, the bike is too tall for you to ride safely. There are some options, of course, such as the Yamaha TW200, which is a great beginner bike but not exactly a powerhouse. It’s also possible to get lowering kits for some bikes, or to buy a dual-sport with a lowering kit already installed.
This category is filled with bastards, the mutts whose DNA contains elements from the previous four. Many of the most common bikes you’ll see fall into the “standard” camp. They generally have a more upright riding position than a cruiser (which leans you back) or a sportbike (which leans you forward). Engine sizes vary wildly with standards, but usually don’t edge into the super-high range.
Standards are often good, all-around kind of bikes, and easily top our list of the best bikes for beginners; it’s easy to find one without any extreme features that could pose a hindrance or danger while you’re learning the ropes.