As any motorcycle rider will tell you, few things in life deliver the thrill and pure joy of cruising the curves on your own personal, two-wheeled fun machine. Dangerous though the may be — and they are dangerous — motorcycles offer a sense of freedom and excitement no car, no matter its cost, can provide. 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. Here, 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 that you should know about:
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 make 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, I 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 do what it needs to do while handling 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 all 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, this would not be my first choice as a new rider, but 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 like me, 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, however, like the Yamaha TW200, which is a great beginner bike, but not exactly a powerhouse. It is 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 my list as the best bikes for beginners, as it’s easy to find one without any extreme features that could pose a hinderance or a danger while you’re learning the ropes.
Unfortunately, there is no clear category for beginner bikes — it’s all over the place. But here are some of the key factors you should take into consideration while searching for your first set of wheels:
Engine size: Motorcycle engine size is (almost always) measured in cubic centimeters (CCs). This refers to the volume inside the part of the engine where the air and fuel mix to create the explosion that powers the bike forward. More CCs does not necessarily mean the bike is faster than a motorcycle with a “smaller displacement” (fewer CCs) engine. A well-tuned, precisely engineered motor will outgun a more casual set-up every time. For instance, a sportbike like the Suzuki GSX-R600 — which has a 599cc engine — can blow the wheels off a 750cc cruiser, thanks to more precise tuning.
Note: The approximate engine size is most often part of the name of the bike, so nearly anytime you recognize a number in the name, it probably refers to the bike’s engine size — though not always.
Seat height: Seat height is quite important, whether you’re a beginner or not. As mentioned, both your feet must be able to touch the ground when sitting at a stop on your bike. Conversely, if you’re tall, a bike with a low seat height is going to be uncomfortable, and probably make you look a bit silly. To gauge what seat height range is good for you, measure the inseam of your leg, from the bottom of your foot to your groin. Any bike with a seat that’s taller than your inseam is probably too tall. An even better tactic is to go to a dealership and try out a lot of bikes to see which one feels solid while sitting. Once you find one that works well, ask what the seat height is for that bike, and look for bikes in that range.
Weight: The weight of a bike matters for a number of reasons. Heavier bikes are better for highway riding (the first time a semi-truck passes you going 75, you’ll understand what I mean), but can be more difficult to maneuver. Also, if you drop your bike — which will happen — or if it gets knocked over when parked, you need to be able to get it upright without the help of someone else, in case a drop happens while you’re all alone. So make sure to take your strength into consideration before opting for a big, heavy machine. (Though with the right technique, even a tiny person can get a behemoth Harley upright.)
Used vs. new
Similar guides to this will point you to new bikes. If I were just getting into motorcycles, however, I would avoid buying a new bike until I had some riding hours under my belt. Why? Because you’re going to drop it, probably more than once. And there is no reason to screw up a brand new motorcycle simply because you’re learning. Also, you will spend less money; people often like to buy a different bike after they’ve learned to ride and have some idea of what kind of bike they really want — not to mention the inevitable repairs.
That said, if you’ve got money to burn, do whatever you want. Buying a new bike definitely has its perks: The machine is guaranteed to run great, and should come with a warranty and deals on maintenance. But for those of us who have to budget our motorcycle purchases, go used.
There are a lot of classified sites for used bikes, but your local Craigslist is often the best. Make sure whatever bike you buy has a clean title (no lingering tickets, not stolen), good tires, starts quickly and easily, and runs strong and evenly. (If you have someone who knows bikes, take them with you when you go to check out rides.) Once you find a bike you think looks good, compare it with other used bikes of the same make, model, and year, just to ensure you’re not getting ripped off. And do this before you go out to meet any bike-seller. Once you see a bike that could be yours to ride, it can be difficult to turn it down.
Just tell me which bike to buy
OK, OK. Here are my favorite bikes for beginners, due to their relatively low price, fun riding experience, and reliability:
Ninja 250: Easily my favorite of the “beginner” bikes, this two-wheeler (above) looks like a sportbike, but wont’ kill you the first time you hit the throttle. That said, it also as a great powerband around 7,000RPM to 10,000RPM that makes it fun long after your newbie days are over. New Ninja 250s are fairly cheap, and a good-quality used one is even cheaper. I’ve been riding for decades and still have a blast on my Ninja 250.
Honda CBR250R: Relatively new, the CBR250R is Honda’s answer to the Ninja 250, and has many similar traits and a similar price (though finding a used one is more difficult). I’ve never had a chance to ride one, but those who have recommend it highly.
Suzuki SV650: A fantastic all-around bike, the SV650 is the kind of motorcycle you’ll keep forever. It’s easy to ride, and has plenty of power — but not so much that you’ll be too nervous to ride it. I fell in love with this bike after renting one for a trip from London, England, to Islay, a small island off the Southwestern coast of Scotland (where my favorite whisky is made). It started every time, and was relatively comfortable, even after a few hours on the saddle — two things I appreciated very much during a week on the road. You can’t go wrong with the SV650.
Yamaha XT 250: A dual-sport bike with an average seat height and a good amount of get-up-and go thanks to its hearty thumper (single-cylinder) engine, the XT 250 carries with it a long heritage of awesomeness. The XT 250 won’t be as fast as any of the others on the list — but it is light, durable, and buckets of fun, especially if you want to hit some dirt from time to time.
There are many, many other good bikes to choose from — literally hundreds. So don’t take this list as anything more than my favorites in the new-rider category. If you’re looking for a cruiser, the Harley Davidson Sportster 883, is a good option, but it’s quite heavy, which is why I left it off the list. Another great cruiser option is the Suzuki Intruder 750, a bike I’ve owned and love — and one that you can find used for not too much cash.
Even more important than your bike is your gear — it can save your life, no joke. I highly recommend beginning your motorcycle-riding life by abiding by the code of “all the gear, all the time,” often referred to as ATGATT. Is it a pain in the butt to put on (and take off) jacket, helmet, pants, boots, and gloves every time you ride? Absolutely. Know what sucks more than that? Dying or becoming a vegetable because you couldn’t spare two minutes to slap on your gear.
Unlike motorcycles, I do not recommend buying a used helmet. (Jackets, boots, gloves, and pants are OK to buy used, but you might have a hard time finding your size.) Helmets lose their protective abilities if they take on heavy impact during an accident, or are just too old — and when you buy used, you just never know. Considering that you will be relying upon your helmet to protect your brain and face, I’d save up the extra cash to get a good one.
As far as which helmet to buy, there are many good options. Full-face helmets are a must, in my opinion, as they provide the best protection by far. It is extremely important that your helmet fit correctly, so don’t buy one online until you’ve tried the exact make and model. Also, make sure that whatever helmet you buy is DOT-approved. For more information, WebBikeWorld has an excellent, extremely thorough guide for buying the right helmet, and I highly recommend reading that before picking out your dome-piece.
In the U.S., riding a motorcycle legally requires getting a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. The process for doing this varies from state to state, so check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles to find out what you need to do. You will likely have to first take a written test to get your motorcycle permit before you can sign up for your endorsement test. Your permit will give you the ability to learn the basics and get some hours of riding under your belt.
Important: The absolute best way to go about getting your license is by taking a motorcycle safety course, which most often includes your endorsement road test at the end. Taking a safety course will also teach you truly invaluable skills that will keep you alive. These courses, which you can find through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, will cost you a couple hundred bucks — but please believe me when I say that it’s money well spent.