There are many reasons for buying a motorcycle. From a practical point of view, you’re never going to be short of a parking space. As for that logjam at rush hour, exasperated cagers, just disappear in your rearview mirror. If you need any more ammunition as to a bike’s validity as a mode of transport, you can always pull the ‘green’ card. A motorcycle’s physical footprint is around one-quarter of an average saloon car. There's no comparison when it comes to gas consumption either, and as for the number of fossil fuels needed for their manufacture, they're not even on the same page.
To give you an idea of what’s to come, here are the main topics covered in this article:
- Safety considerations
- Self assessment
- Buying a new bike
- Buying a used bike
- The search process
- List of potential problem areas
- Commuter bikes
- Weekend scratchers
- Adventure bikes
Safety is your Responsibility
Before we get any further down this twisting road, there are a few things to consider. Becoming a road user comes with a lot of responsibility. Primarily, this responsibility is to yourself, and once you decide on the bike that’s right for you and head off down the highway, you’re on your own. Whether you’re meandering along a country road or riding at highway speeds boxed in by 16-wheelers, traffic can be scary, and there are only two ways to deal with it. The first is to get as much training as you can. Yes, it's pretty much compulsory nowadays to take an aptitude test. Passing the bare basics and receiving your little piece of paper may tell you that you're legally entitled to ride, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good at it.
Get Down and Dirty
If possible, get yourself on an extra training course that will give you some real-world skills, when it comes to riding, knowledge is power. You can even do it in the dirt. Off-road training is excellent for teaching you how to handle a bike when it goes sideways, or if you lock up a wheel.
This type of training not only gives you a real confidence boost but also speeds up reaction times; skills that can save your life on the street. I know you’re itching to get down to the bike-choosing part, but there’s one last thing that should also be on your radar, and that is, kit. If someone had gone through these pre-purchase points with me, I wouldn’t have ended up wearing a 20-year-old, cobweb-filled, helmet that the owner found in his garage, when I bought my first bike.
Don’t Skimp on your Riding Gear
Riding apparel is essential for several obvious reasons, but it’s doubly important for novice riders. The helmet is the most important item, so buy one that fits well, has a recognized safety rating, gives good visibility and won't be a riding distraction. Leather has been the go-to material of choice for bikers since the early 1900’s. These days though, you've got an incredible choice of technically advanced textiles that are just as protective, if not more so, and cheaper. Let’s not forget boots and gloves too; your feet take a kicking when you ride a bike.
Spidi Thunderbird Gloves
Decent gloves will also give protection from the elements and provide a cushion from bar vibration.
What Will You Use Your Bike For?
With the wise words over, let's talk bikes and in particular, your riding requirements. Are you mostly to be commuting, or using your bike for leisurely weekend rides? Do you prefer the blacktop or do you intend to head for the hills? All these factors will have a direct bearing on your choice of bike. Riding back and forth to work in the city will push you in the direction of a lightweight commuter bike. Also, being able to wriggle through traffic and get great gas mileage will be top of your list.
Clocking up some de-stressing miles at the weekend means you’ll probably choose something sturdier. Excellent handling, good brakes, and an added fun element will be just some of your boxes to tick. Road trips are one of the best things about riding a motorcycle, and if the thought of this floats your boat, once again, there are beginner friendly bikes that will be more suited. Here, you should consider something with a good gas tank range, comfortable riding position, and low maintenance.
Finally, if you occasionally want to take the rough with the smooth, adventure bikes have taken off in a big way, and the choice is vast. Adv bikes are all about taking the highway in your stride while still being capable of kicking up the occasional rooster tail.
Obviously, these are just basic guidelines to get you thinking in the right direction. No two riders will have the same requirements. Neither is there some secret bikers code that says you can't commute on an adventure bike, or go canyon scratching on a commuter.
Apart from the intended role of your motorcycle, a major factor that will also impact significantly on your choice is staring right back at you in the mirror.
Make Sure it’s a Good Fit
Your heart may be saying KTM 1190, but your head is shouting 28'' inseam. Buying a bike that fits your proportions is more important than you think. To be in total control of your bike realistically, you need to get both feet on the floor.
Paddle your bike through traffic, into a tight parking space, or stop on an adverse camber and if you can’t plant your feet on terra firma, you're going over. If that happens, you'll to have to pick your ride up, which is yet another reason why matching a machine to your physical dimensions is important.
Don't panic too much about that last point though; there are ways to pick-up a motorcycle that rely more on technique than brute strength.
If you’re a regular working Joe like most of us, you'll probably have a budget to stick to, and this brings us to another fork in the road; new or used?
The New Option
There are pro's and cons to both, so let's delve a little deeper. New bikes are great; they call to you like sirens, twinkling seductively beneath showroom lights, who wouldn’t want one?
You will be the first name on the slip, so there won't be any nasty surprises in the pipeline. If, as occasionally happens, there's a manufacturer fault that causes a problem in the engine or chassis, no biggy. Most bikes come with a 12 or 24-month warranty for such eventualities.
2018 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 XT
Listen to bean counters who refer to bikes as ‘units’ and use words like ‘per capita’ and ‘median budget.’ They’ll tell you that sales of new motorcycles are either ‘struggling to maintain last year's figures,' or on the ‘verge of a dip.’
So, what does this mean to the new bike buyer? Good news actually, dealers and manufacturers often join forces to offer great deals like a minimum deposit, or low rate finance.
Do your homework diligently. If you can find a bike you like that’s just about to be superseded by a newer version, you could even score 0% financing in a bid to make way for new inventory.
All sounds good so far, so what’s the downside? Well, when you buy new, you’re paying the full ticket price, and aside from the finance deals, you can usually forget a discount. There’s also the small matter of depreciation.
The moment you ride your new toy through the door, it loses a chunk of change from the simple fact that it is now, by definition, a used bike. This situation isn't a big deal if you intend to keep the bike for a while.
Want to know if the new buy option is for you? Then ask yourself three simple questions. Would you say that you were more of a polisher rather than a wrencher? Do you have the finances to handle the payments or purchase price? Do you intend to keep the bike for a couple of years?
Answer yes, to all three, and you're ready to point, pay and enjoy.
Tips for Buying a Used Motorcycle
The flip side of the coin is to buy a used bike. Like the new option, this is also full of pluses and minuses. The good thing is though, the registration of used motorcycles outstrips new bike sales. This fact translates to a very healthy marketplace, packed with choice and variety.
2013 Yamaha Super Tenere / Dealership
First, the plus points, as mentioned before, ride a new bike away from the dealer and its value immediately drops. Look for something with a couple of thousand miles on the clock, the price drops even further, and the chances are, it will still look like new.
Buy a used bike from a dealer, and although you won't get the new bike finance deals, you'll still get the offer of finance.
It should also come with a multi-point safety check, which you should not be smooth-talked into thinking is a full service. Play your hand well though, and you may even get a service thrown in to seal the deal.
Buying a used motorcycle from an individual comes with its own set of challenges. The potential for a bargain here is enormous, so, unfortunately, are the risks.
2012 Yamaha Super Tenere XT1200Z / Craigslist
Follow some basic rules though, and you can significantly limit these risks. The golden ticket is homework. When you’ve created a shortlist of makes and models, start reading the reviews.
Whittle your list down even further to the ones that really float your boat, then start surfing the owner's forums. There's no better way of finding out the real deal on a particular bike than to read the comments of actual owners.
Professional road testers get a bike for an afternoon to thrash around a track or their favorite road. Owners forums, on the other hand, will highlight what a particular bike is like to live with, its known weaknesses, real-world handling characteristics and how easy it is to repair.
Let the Search Begin
With your head chock-full of useful information, let the search begin. It doesn't matter where you look; eBay, Craigslist, Cycletrader or the classified section of the Jefferson Jimplecute (yes that was an actual newspaper in Texas) the same rules apply.
Looking at the ads on a national site is fine, just be aware of their location before you hit ‘buy it now.’ If you live in Booger Hole West Virginia and the bike of your dreams is in Beer Bottle Crossing, Idaho, the logistical nightmare and transport costs will be considerable, so add them to the overall cost.
Looking in the classifieds in your area may reduce the number of options, but the chances are, you'll know if the bike is coming from a good home. This rule isn't cast in stone. However, you have more chance of scoring a low mileage, and accessory laden, dealer serviced weekend toy in an upscale burb than you have from the wrong side of the tracks.
Being your first motorcycle purchase, do yourself a big favor and take along someone who knows their way around a bike. Overwhelmed that the altruistic owner is willing to let you purchase his pride and joy, you may not spot the warning signs.
Signs to Look Out For
The following is a brief list of potential problem areas to look out for when buying a used motorcycle, privately. Some issues are superficial, while others may have more serious connotations.
- Tires – worn, scrubbed, cracked sidewalls.
- Gas Tank - dents, scratches, none standard paint jobs.
- Handlebars – none standard or new.
- Controls - check bar weights, grips and levers for scuff damage.
- Footrest rubbers - are they new, has one side been replaced?
- Fairings - any scrapes? Nonstandard stickers or paint job, fasteners missing.
- Engine - any dodgy noises, leaks, signs of new gaskets, the condition of engine oil.
- Vehicle numbers - engine/VIN/license numbers should all match the paperwork.
- Exhaust - check for leaks rotted downpipes and scraped silencers.
- Seats - splits or cracks, check underneath for wiring loom and electrical components.
- Lights/electrics - make sure everything works.
- Wheels - check for loose spokes or dented rims on mags.
- Brakes - make sure they work, don't bind and find out how long ago the last replacement of pads took place.
- Forks - leaking seals, pitted or rusted legs.
- Bearings - check F and R wheels, swing-arm and steering head.
No two used bikes are the same, it will cost you money to put right, and it's no good going back the next day to complain about it. Just make sure you flag them up before you agree on a price and don't be afraid to ask the seller questions like ‘have you made any repairs to the bike or engine?’ If yes, find out why and who did the work.
Don’t be put off though, these are worse case scenarios and negotiating a better price is all part of the fun. The golden rule is though if in doubt walk away, it's that simple.
You should now have a helmet full of information, so maybe it’s time to look at some motorcycles and see if they fit the bill.
Based on the approximate needs of most beginner bikers, we’ll use the same categories as mentioned earlier namely, Commuters, Weekend Scratchers, Cruisers and Adventure bikes.
Don’t worry if you like a particular bike that doesn't fit into the slot you initially hoped it would. Sports bikes with their tight lock and wrist aching clip-on bars, don't always make great commuters, but if that's what floats your boat and you are willing to put up with it, then go for it.
The G310R is BMW's first go at an entry-level bike, and a damn fine they've made of it too. Designed in Germany but built in BM's partner factory in India, the build quality and equipment is first class.
You get KYB suspension front and back, and the inverted forks come with a four-piston radial mounted caliper with beginner-friendly ABS. The 313cc single cylinder engine redlines at 10k, but bottom end has a nice spread of torque and is super smooth.
With a seat height a fraction over 30” planting your feet shouldn’t be a problem and averaging 60mpg, tank range will be around 170 miles. The baby Beemer handles well enough to scratch, is economical for commuting and comfortable enough a weekend away.
Honda Bulldog 400
Strictly speaking, the Bulldog is a concept bike but Honda has filed the patents for it, and the Japanese rumor mill is sure it’s going to hit the production line very soon.
Rolling on 15’’ chunky tires, the built-in storage on the huge gas tank, crash bars, luggage rack and twin headlights, it looks like a two-wheel ATV.
The Bulldog will have a 399cc DOHC twin cylinder engine driving through a 6-speed box, which should make it comparatively frugal, yet still capable of highway speeds.
A low seat height of just 28.75” and it’s Tonka Toy, go anywhere do anything looks, are going to make this bike very popular, so start saving your pennies now.
Launched in 2014, the SR400 is a huge tip of the hat to the iconic SR500 that was around in the late 1970's. Yamaha has recreated the retro feel with conventional forks and twin shock suspension.
The SOHC 399cc single cylinder engine is delightfully low-tech, with only the fuel- injection giving a hint that it’s not a concourse version of the original SR. Lightweight and a slim profile, make it an ideal lane splitter and the footpeg-handlebar-bench seat configuration, give you a dirt bike style riding stance.
Now don’t freak out, but the SR is kickstart only! Don’t worry though, it has a decompression lever and at 8.5:1 compression, you could probably turn it over by hand. Having been on the market for three years, you'll be able to find good used versions and with genuine retro looks, ease of handling and over 60 mpg, what's not to like?
The original KTM 390 launched in 2013 was a breath of hooligan scented fresh air. It was fun with a capital F and stood out from the crowd. Unfortunately, it also came with a few niggling problems, like a harsh ride, glitchy fuelling, and a wooden seat.
Fast forward four years and the 2017 model has addressed all the issues of the original, turning it into a highly polished, corner killer with drop-dead styling. Seat height has gone up an inch to 32.7, " and repositioning of the footpegs gives it more of a street fighter stance.
The gas tank now carries over half a gallon more. Young tech-heads will love the new TFT dash too, which is programmable and links wirelessly to your comms and music. Programmable ABS is standard as is the huge grin-factor. Expect around 55mpg.
The SV is one of the most versatile learner-friendly bikes on the market. The 645cc V-twin is frugal enough to commute, loves bends and is comfortable and well equipped for longer trips.
The 2017 version gets some exciting updates, including a sporty looking exposed trellis frame, and Showa suspension. The beginner-friendly low rpm assist clutch is designed to make stalling a thing of the past.
The wide seat is narrow at the front, which makes it easier to plant feet and you can expect almost 50 mpg. The model has been out in various forms since 1999 and proven robust and reliable. Low mileage, accessory laden examples shouldn't be hard to find.
The 300cc class is comparatively new to the world of motorcycling, but for novice bikers, it's a godsend. All of the big Japanese manufacturers have an example in this capacity and CB300F is a gem.
The single cylinder DOHC engine has a counterbalanced crank, which wipes out vibes right through the rev range. The bike shares precisely the same engine, frame and cycle parts as the CBR300R, so in reality, the F is a genuine factory street fighter.
Seat height is just 30.7, " and at 348lbs the bike is easy to maneuver. You won’t be making any buddies at the local gas station either; at well over 70mpg, a full tank is good for around 230 miles. Oil change is recommended every 8000 miles, so maintenance costs aren’t a killer either.
Kawasaki Vulcan 650S
At 649cc, this is around the upper limit of engine size you’ll probably want to try for a first bike, but the Vulcan’s engine has impeccable manners. Although the DOHC twin engine comes from the Ninja, a heavier flywheel, different cams and fuel mapping, make for a willing, vibe free ride.
If you’re worried about finding a bike that fits just right, Kawasaki has it covered with ‘Ergo Fit.’ Buy the bike new, and the dealer will change the footpegs, seat, and bars to suit your reach at no extra cost!
The Vulcan is the type of bike that you can grow with, and the range of touring accessories means it will pull double duty when you are confident enough for the long haul.
Harley-Davidson Street 500
Like the BMW 310, this was Harley’s first attempt at an entry-level bike. The 500 and 750 use identical cycle parts, but whereas the 750 has a bit of get up and go, the 500 feels a bit breathless. This problem could be down to the weight though, as its 130lbs heavier than the Honda CB300!
On to the positive stuff, it carries the weight low down, and this gives it a real, big-bike, solid feel. The liquid cooled, 6-speed V-twin engine is both revy and smooth. It's also a Harley, so if bragging rights are important to you, you're probably sold on it already.
The comparatively short wheelbase and wide bars make the Street a cinch to move around, and with over 60mpg a full tank is good for approximately 200 miles. Maintenance free belt drive is a bonus as is the 3,000-page accessory catalog!
Honda Rebel 300
Like the Harley Street, this is another rolling chassis with a two-engine configuration. The Rebel 300 gets the same engine as the 300F/R models, and the 500 has the DOHC CB500F engine onboard.
As the cycle parts are the same, the single saddle is a mere 27” off the deck, and Honda has built the Rebel with customization in mind. The bike looks rather funky, as standard but the option to really put your stamp on it is a great idea.
Back in the real world, thanks to the re-tuned 300cc engine, you can expect a colossal 70mpg and the mid-mount pegs lean it more towards bobber than cruiser. Handling is reassuringly stable, and the front and rear 16" wheels and wide telescopic forks give it a chunky look.
As mid-range adventure bikes go, they don't get much better than the 500X. Engine wise, it's the same as the other 500's in the Honda line-up, but the extra 1.2 inches of travel in the front forks makes it ideal for leggy learners.
Obviously, the Honda is designed to be equally at home tackling the occasional fire road as it is on the blacktop. The bikes comfortable riding position, and small fairing screen though, make it a potentially great tourer. Especially as 53mpg and a 4.5-gallon tank, equate to over 200 miles between stops.
The 500X is another one of those bikes that will be kind to you fresh out of training school, yet grow with you the more miles you clock up.
Kawasaki Versys X 300
The X3 is another model from the big K aimed at the newer rider with an adventurous spirit. The 293cc 6-speed twin engine is a transplant from the Ninja. However, the fueling, tuned airbox, and different exhaust give better mid-range.
What it does retain from is sportier sibling though is a 12,750rpm redline! The bike also gets slipper/assist clutch, which is excellent for the novice rider with a heavy boot.
Seat height comes in at 32", but Kawasaki offer optional seats that will drop or raise that by 1'' and the screen is high enough to cope with either configuration. With over 5" of suspension travel and the 19" front 17" rear tire combo the Versys is also capable of living with the bumps.
Once again, at 651cc, the KLR is probably at the top end of the scale in terms of engine size, but the Kawasaki has earned its place here for several reasons. It’s a lightweight, simple to maintain, two-wheeled Swiss Army knife, which was an adventure bike before the phrase was even though.
The KLR is comfortable enough to take advantage of the 200-mile tank range, and with over 7” of travel in the suspension, dirt roads and scrub won't bother you at all. Everything about the Kawasaki's design is for low maintenance, and even the latest editions retain a CV carb instead of fuel injection.
The single cylinder DOHC engine is damn near bulletproof, and the model has been around for so long that used accessories and dedicated owner forums are plentiful.
The choice of motorcycles on the market aimed specifically at the beginner rider is truly phenomenal. Together, with the advances in handling technology, brake and engine efficiency, there’s never been a better time to launch your two-wheeled career.
When buying a beginner bike the amount of information to process to make the right choice may feel daunting, but just take your time. Be honest in your self-assessment, get the proper gear, try as many options as you can, then stop overthinking it and buy, ride and enjoy.