When we first get into motorcycling, we almost always have some kind of ideal motorcycle in mind and a strict budget about what we're prepared to spend long before we've ever experienced life on two wheels. Looking back, it's incredible to see how quickly and drastically those things can change.
My first motorcycle was a 1986 Yamaha Fazer that cost me $1,000 (a.k.a. every penny I saved for nine months). I had to sell it when I moved to Southern California for school and it was five or six years before I was able to afford another bike. My subsequent motorcycles were all 1970s café racers that I bought for less than $2,000, none of which ever really ran.
While this made owning and riding motorcycles terribly frustrating, it was also the position many of my friends were in and I assumed that I just had to find the right $2,000ish bike that wouldn’t have so many problems. After all, we all know somebody who got a great deal and hasn’t had any problems, right?
After I moved in with a roommate who had a new motorcycle, I started to re-evaluate what motorcycling was worth to me. One day, fed up after being left behind on a trip because my bike wasn’t running (it was never running), I walked into a Triumph dealer and rode home with a demo model Bonneville and a nice little monthly payment.
The rest of the story is fairly uninteresting, but these days I’m writing about motorcycles full time and looking at buying bikes twice as expensive as that Bonneville. Who knew something that started as worth only $1,000 to me would become something that drove most of my thoughts and actions (and subsequently my bank account) 10 years later? I bought that first bike as a toy, something I could ride for fun, with no plans that it would become my main mode of transportation, much less a catalyst for adventure or the thing my life and career would revolve around.
What should I buy?
A funny thing happens when you become a motorcycle journalist: people come out of the woodwork to ask you for help when buying a motorcycle. Close friends, neighbors, guys you sort of knew in high school over a decade ago, everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind it in the slightest. A big part of why I do this (besides the obvious — getting to play with awesome stuff) is that it’s incredibly rewarding to help people get a bike or piece of gear and have them come back weeks later to tell me they love their purchase. Everything bike-related is expensive and has the ability to greatly improve or ruin our experience on two wheels and it feels awesome to be a part of helping someone get it right.
Lots of my local buddies love to send me craigslist ads they find. Most of the time, it’s for a sub-$2,000 vintage motorcycle that they think looks really “clean.” My first reaction used to be to shame them for wanting such a piece of junk, share a few stories about how miserable those bikes made me, and then preach the gospel of the Suzuki V-Strom or Ducati Hypermotard (my favorite budget bike, especially if you buy used, and my favorite bike, period) and impress them with all of my fancy motorcycle knowledge. That's not how I respond today, though.
Here’s the thing: The V-Strom is really ugly and the Hyper is really expensive. If you're focused on getting your dream bike, it’s probably not the V-Strom and if your budget is your top consideration, you’re not buying the Hyper. The V-Strom is an absolutely fantastic motorcycle that does a lot of things really well, but most of the things it does well are things we didn’t know we wanted a bike to do when we began riding.
The takeaway: A motorcycling life is not a one-destination trip
When you start riding, you just don’t know how motorcycling is going to fit into your life years and miles down the road. Our needs and desires change as we experience more of motorcycling. The cafés I lusted after when I finally decided I wanted something that ran full time look nothing like the dual sports, motards, and adventure bikes I find myself spending hours looking at online these days. More importantly, my changing tastes came authentically from my experiences with motorcycles and as I learned about the styles of riding I liked the best, not from some know-it-all friend or a motorcycle journalist.
Would I have saved some money had I avoided those first few piles of junk and my Bonneville? Absolutely. However, there's something to be said for buying the bike you want, even if it turns out to be a mistake, because it’s the first step toward learning what kind of bike you really need and want as you grow as a rider. You’ll figure out your sweet spot, just like the rest of us.
So what's motorcycling worth to you?
When I bought those old café racers, motorcycling was worth somewhere in the $2,500 range to me (bike plus the cheapest helmet I could find). After getting enough of a taste to realize this was something I really wanted to make a bigger part of my life, it was worth somewhere in the $8,000 range (bike plus a nice helmet and jacket). These days I couldn’t imagine my life without a variety of bikes and pieces of bike gear in it and would gladly sell my car or other possessions to keep fueling my love for all things with two wheels.
My point is not that progressing as a motorcyclist means getting into more and more expensive bikes. In my eyes, guys like Uncle Loomis, who have turned thriftiness into an art form and can fix pretty much anything on their bikes, are as authentic as any motorcyclist on the planet.
I no longer try to stop the new riders from making that emotional motorcycle purchase and buying the $2,000 bobber. I know it will get them in the door. Learning motorcycling's worth in our lives is a lifelong discovery and it will take them many unexpected places.