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Common Tread

Lemmy's three rules for buying your first motorcycle

Sep 15, 2017

“What kind of bike should I get?”

I used to get that question frequently. Makes sense, I guess. If you see a guy who’s always filthy and mucking about with some loud, old contraption, I can see how you might assume that guy (me) has some clue what he’s doing. (In a two-wheeled sense, anyway.) Now that I review bikes for Common Tread and write about them, I get that question all the time. I still usually have no idea what I am doing, but I have lots of opinions I share while stroking my beard, which I imagine lends them an air of gravitas.

Seriously, though, what I’m about to write isn’t the end-all and be-all of opinions. I don’t usually think of bikes as “beginner bike” or “not a beginner bike.” Rather, most of them live on a continuum between those two points. It’s not a binary label, you know? A lot of it depends on the rider’s experience, size, skill set and budget, to name a few of the big determinants.

With that said, I have a few philosophies on first bikes, and I also have three hard rules. Let’s cover my guidelines first, then we’ll get to the rules.

The Kawasaki Versys 650 offers a practical division between fun and safety. Comfort is through the roof. The package is friendly and approachable, except perhaps for a new rider who's short. That's why fit matters. Revzilla photo.

Make sure the bike feels good. I think this could be the piece of advice that I hear touted least often, which is a shame, because it’s really important. Not only does your bike need to fit you, but it also needs to be comfortable. I have seen more than one person start their motorcycle life on a race-rep bike (a terrible decision for a number of reasons), and they simply feel uncomfortable. Beginner bikes tend to place riders in a fairly neutral seating position which allows great visibility, comfort, and range of motion. I don’t really care if you think you need to be on a bike that looks like a badass cruiser — if a small dual-sport bike actually fits you and lets you stay in the saddle for a reasonable amount of time, you will learn to ride well more quickly, and that’s all there is to it. Of course, you can force yourself into a position that’s used by far more experienced riders and fail or work harder than you need to not to fail. The choice is yours.

Don’t assume you know what you want to do. Sure, those Supercross dudes look like they’re having a grand old time catching all that air, but if you don’t have a buddy with lots of land handy, maybe a dirt bike isn't the best choice for you. Similarly, a cruiser might look real cool, but might not deliver the performance you’re looking for. Motorcycles today are very specialized. Before that specialization, the standard bike or UJM was plentiful. (Google it.) The less specialized a bike is, the more flexible it will be if you try out different types of riding. (Maybe cruise down a dirt road here or there or perhaps go do a track day.) You don’t have to buy a standard motorcycle, but if you have no idea what kind of motorcycling you want to do, it’s usually a good starting point.

Plan on buying at least two bikes. I can hear the gasps already. Hear me out. You should plan on your first bike being exactly what its name implies. It’s your first bike, not your last bike. Don’t worry about getting bored on it — you will. Don’t worry about looking cool on a “learner bike” — you won’t. After your first season, you’ll probably be shopping for bike #2. If simply buying and selling a bike is “too much hassle,” as I have heard before, perhaps a motorcycle is not for you. Motorcycles are generally inconvenient vehicles. They require much more frequent fueling than a car, and go through tires way more quickly. There is no weather protection. You will often smell of sweat, weather, and motorcycle fluids. Don’t try to justify not getting a beginner’s bike. You are starting as a beginner. You need to pay your dues and feel dorky for a season, just like many other riders have for a hundred years. The reward? Actually learning to ride, not learning how not to die on a motorcycle. There is a difference.

Spend wisely. You can skimp wherever you please, but in the entry-level market for both bikes and gear, sometimes a little money buys you a lot of features. This is true in almost any specialty hobby — golf, photography, cycling. As you buy more and more expensive gear, you hit the point of diminishing returns, where you’re paying a ton of money for what amounts to small or not-so-significant features. But down at the other end of the price spectrum where most rookies are coming in, sometimes the small price difference between two products can buy you a lot usability, comfort, or features. Just be mindful that at the entry price point, a few extra bucks here and there can go a pretty long way.

Is the dealer the best spot to buy a first bike? Maybe. It depends on your priorities. Photo by Lemmy.
New or used has no clear answer. Not much of a tip, right? I think there’s upsides and downsides with both methods. The new bike offers convenience — at a cost. It’s going to fire right up every time you want to ride. If it doesn’t, you have a warranty to protect you. Short of crashing your new motorcycle into an inoperable status, your new bike should be the most reliable bike one can purchase.

A used bike might work, too, though. You may be dealing with imperfections, running issues, and the whims of the previous owner. None of those things is necessarily bad, but you'll take a little bit of a gamble. The payoff is a lower buy-in — sometimes thousands less than the new bike. It’s not uncommon to pick up a serviceable learner bike for literally a tenth of the cost of a new, entry-level motorcycle. Getting nosy near open garage doors in the neighborhood can really help here. Plenty of folks want to sell that old bike, but never get around to listing it for sale. It can be easy to swoop in and score a deal if you're a friendly, outgoing person. Especially if you’re not in a hurry, buying a used bike can save you buckets of cash, and that's why the market for them is so healthy.

Generally speaking, the older or more abused a used bike is, the more willing you, the buyer, should be to either repair the machine or pay to have it repaired. All bikes break. Old bikes break more. This is a mechanical certainty; I’ve tested this theory a jillion times. Trust me, it’s airtight. If you are unwilling to wrench, be prepared to spend a bit more. If you are unprepared to spend a bit more, be prepared to wrench.

The Yamaha SR400's small size, low displacement, and low-frills design lends itself well to learners who are looking to quickly pick up the mechanics of riding a motorbike. Revzilla photo.

I'm negotiable on all of the aforementioned items to some degree or another. However, I did also promise you hard-and-fast rules. I have a short checklist to go through when it comes right down to answering the question “What bike should I get?” I’ve been using this now for about five years, and it hasn’t failed me (too much). I’m sure salty vets can — and will — come up with some bikes that are grossly inappropriate that sneak past my rigorously developed criteria. That's not the point. The checklist is a tool of speed and convenience. If you’re a rookie and you’re trawling craigslist and a bike you are considering meets all three criteria, it will probably be a workable first street bike. The list assumes you have sat on the bike and you are comfortable upon it. The bike must also meet all three rules. I am not Meatloaf. Two outta three is bad.

Rule 1: No more than two cylinders

This rule serves to eliminate the larger triples or four-cylinder racing machines. A twin will have plenty of power for an incoming rider, so if you’re going to trot out the “don’t want to get bored with it” line, save it. Spurgeon still happily rides around on his first bike — an 865 cc twin.

Rule 2: No more than 900 cc

Couple this up with the previous rule. You can find some very big twins, ranging from a Honda RC51 to a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide, but the displacement is usually abnormally high. That's why I put the cutoff for a rookie at 900 cc. Stick with this rule, and you can consider bikes like the ever-popular Suzuki SV650 and also the smaller Harley Sportsters. These are bikes that even experienced riders have a ball on. Schultzy, our cameraman, rides an SV650 and let me take a short hop on it not long ago. I had forgotten how much fun those bikes are.

Rule 3: No Italian

I have nothing against Europe. The Italians make a lovely motorcycle, delicious food, and passionate love, I am told. Here’s the rub: Most Ducatis are not good bikes for the freshman class. The smallest Monster is not a bad entry-level choice, but it suffers the same flaw that other suitable Italian beginner bikes do: the cost of the parts is usually a little nuts. Other Italian marques fare just as poorly. Take a Moto Guzzi V7 Stone, for example. This is a near-perfect learner bike by the spec sheet, but a replacement fuel tank — a common “Oops, I dropped my bike!” item — is hard to come by and very expensive. Did I mention the incredibly long wait for parts that can occur? You don't want to waste half the season because you knocked a footpeg off your ride and someone in Mandello del Lario isn't scheduled to make another batch of them for eight weeks.

Japanese motorcycles tend to have plentiful parts both new and used, and American bikes, while expensive, usually have a decent aftermarket keeping the prices reasonable. If you’ve got to have the Euro-sexy, don't say you were not warned. This is also an example of why all three rules have to be met: a Ducati 899 Panigale meets Rules One and Two and in no way should be considered even remotely appropriate for a beginning rider.

Honda CBR300R
There are plenty of motorcycles that meet all three rules and still provide plenty of fun and even style. Photo by Kevin Wing.

That’s it. Not too bad, right? (I know the Ducatisti are taking to their keyboards at this moment.) There’s other opinions out there; they’re worth what you pay for them — just like mine. Yes, you can find someone who will tell you that he started on a 1,000 cc sport bike and he was OK just as long as he “was careful with the throttle.” It’s still a crappy idea.

As a biker with a little gray starting to show up in his muzzle, I can assure you that learning to ride a bike is fun. Hell, damn near everything about motorcycling is fun. I can promise you this: you will never look back on your riding career and say, “Man, I didn't buy nearly enough first bike.”