How to Choose a Motorcycle — A New Rider's Guide

I saw an article the other day from a Washington newspaper about a guy who crashed on his way home after purchasing a new motorcycle. The article is short on details but immediately conjures visions of a familiar tale — the young, unlicensed, presumably untrained motorcyclist who purchases a high-performance sportbike (in this case, a 2004 Yamaha YZF600) and promptly crashes.

2004 Yamaha YZF600I don’t want to focus on the details of this incident. The rider was apparently pretty seriously hurt and probably doesn’t need any more grief. Instead I’d like to ask what a new rider should be considering when looking for their first bike. I have my own thoughts on what a new motorcyclist’s strategy should be; we’ll see if anyone agrees with me.

Get Prepared

To state the obvious, motorcycling is a serious activity that entails significant risks. Preparing yourself is a big part of becoming a motorcyclist. Some basic steps you should consider before buying your first motorcycle:

  1. Plan to ride legally. Every state requires a separate motorcycle endorsement to operate a motorcycle. And most states have some kind of learner permit system. At the very least, you need to plan to get a learner permit; you’ll generally need to pass a written test for this. Studying for the permit will familiarize you with the motorcycle controls and some basic motorcycling concepts. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a summary of state licensing requirements, although it appears to be a bit out of date.
  2. Read more! It won’t hurt to study more than the DMV handbook. I (and many others) highly recommend David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling and More Proficient Motorcycling.
  3. Take a class! Your learners permit exam may give you some basics and Hough’s books are filled with useful knowledge, but nothing is going to beat a class where you can learn the principles of motorcycle operation, practice in a controlled environment and get coaching and feedback from professional instructors.

    Contact your state DMV or visit their website and see what kind of motorcycle training is available. Motorcycles are provided in beginner’s classes, so this is a great way to try out motorcycling before you invest in a bike. Cost varies greatly from state to state, ranging from free (go Illinois!) to several hundred dollars.

    It’s really worth it to take a course. You’ll find that the classes fill up very fast — ask about waitlists and walk-ins. Because the classes fill up so far in advance, people often have unexpected conflicts and some classes end up with empty seats. Find out what the procedures are in your state and do what you can to get in. In many states, successful completion of the class also earns you a motorcycle endorsement. Pass the class and it’s official — you’re a motorcyclist!

Decide What You’re Actually Going To Do

Motorcycles come in all shapes and sizes. Many new riders are instantly drawn to sportbikes. Ask yourself why you’re looking at a particular type. Do you really intend to take your motorcycle to some track days and open it up? Or are you planning on wreaking havoc on city streets? The former is a blast; the latter, not such a good idea.

If you really think you just want to tool around town, maybe a simple standard is what you should be considering. Or maybe you want to get out of town and take some weekend trips with friends — a sport tourer or touring bike might be just the ticket. You may have a hard time carrying an overnight bag and some camping gear on a standard or a sportbike.

Personally, I like to take long trips and check out some isolated back roads, which can be pretty poorly maintained in lots of places. For this reason, I’m hooked on big BMW dual sport motorcycles that have the size and power for long days riding two-up and the flexibility to accommodate rough or unpaved roads. It’s important to know what you like to do and buy accordingly.

Pick Your Motorcycle

OK, so you’re all trained up and licensed. You’ve just returned from 15 days in a monastery under a vow of silence, where you did nothing but meditate on how you would use this new motorcycle. So now how do you actually pick one?

Once you know what style of bike you’ll want, you’ll need to start narrowing it down. But I’ll tell you up front — I’m not going to suggest you buy a new motorcycle. Instead, I’m going to encourage you to get a used bike.

Frame Size. The first thing you’ll want to take into account is the motorcycle’s seat height and weight. If you have a short inseam you’ll probably want to seek out a bike with a lower seat height. Some people may be tempted to get a taller, heavier motorcycle right away, assuming they’ll grow into it. And I’ve definitely seen short riders handle some very large motorcycles.

Unfortunately, as a new rider you’re going to want all the stability you can manage in slow speed situations. I’ve watched people try to learn on bikes that were too tall for them, performing well while in motion only to topple over while coming to a stop. Try sitting on the bike. Can you place your feet flat on the ground? Can you straighten the motorcycle off the side stand without straining? If the answer to either question is no, take a look at some smaller bikes and see how they feel.

Engine Size. Now we’re talking. How big an engine can I get? I want to go fast, right? Well, maybe not. The fact is that for new riders, it’s not going to be the engine size holding you back — it’s going to be your skill level. Most single-vehicle motorcycle accidents result from the motorcycle running wide in a corner. In other words, the motorcycle’s performance exceeded the rider’s abilities.

Take a look at smaller displacement motorcycles. Seriously consider starting out on something with less horsepower. My first street bike was a Kawasaki KZ440LTD that was over ten years old. I still have this motorcycle and it’s still a great little machine.

“But won’t it be underpowered? Won’t I outgrow it?” you might ask. This is one of the advantages of buying a used motorcycle — much like a car, motorcycles lose a lot of their value very quickly. If you’re looking at something that’s five or ten years old, you’ll be able to recover most of the cost when you’re ready to sell it and move up.

Price. So how much should you expect to spend? My general guideline is $1,500 to $3,000. You can certainly find cheaper bikes, but I’ve always found that they needed some work and weren’t the bargains I expected. If you’re a competent mechanic, definitely be on the lookout for a deal. But if you’re not, expect to pay around $2,000 and be sure to have the bike looked over by a mechanic. Adam Glass has produced an excellent guide for the used bike buyer.

You’re Not Ready Yet!

Before you ride off into the sunset, be sure you pick up some gear to go with it. Your gear is just as important — it’s your last line of defense in case of mishap. Buy a good helmet, some gloves, and motorcycle jacket, pants and boots. Expect to spend some money here. Protection doesn’t come cheap.

So there you have it — my advice for the novice in search of a first bike. I strongly believe smaller, used bikes are the way to go for the beginner. Don’t finance a new motorcycle right away and cringe every time you bang it up.

Instead, take some time and develop your skills. Put 5,000 to 10,000 miles on your starter bike and then start evaluating new motorcycles. You’ll have more experience, you’ll have a better idea of what you really want, and you’ll have ridden enough that you’ll feel confident asking for a test drive. And you’ll be able to pick out something you really love.

Oh, and if it turns out that you fall in love with those old motorcycles and become a vintage junkie? Not my fault.

Does anyone agree or disagree? Feel free to leave the story of your first bike in the comments.

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One Response to How to Choose a Motorcycle — A New Rider's Guide

  1. RickL says:

    My first motorcycle was not chosen by me. It was in the garage of a neighbor who needed some brush cleared from 20 acres. At one dollar an hour it took me a couple of summers to work off the $300 price. I was allowed to ride it while I was working it off. I crashed it into a tree and bent the forks on the second or third ride. I did have a helmet, one of those sparkle jobs that was little more than a football helment. I hid the giant bruise on my leg and torso from my mom for about two weeks. She got very freaked out when she saw it.

    Even if we did have your blog in 1975, I probably would have read it but would have done the same thing anyway.

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