The most exciting time for any beginner is the moment he or she decides to start looking for a bike. If you’re thinking about riding motorcycles, chances are you already have a hot bike you’re dreaming of riding. Whatever you do though, don’t run out and buy that hot bike without doing a little homework first – it could save your life.
Walk into a dealership these days and some salespeople will be all too willing to sell you a bike you shouldn’t buy for your first one. When looking for my first bike I was personally told things like, “We’ll show you how to ride it in the parking lot,” or “Let’s get your credit approved and you can own this thing in 20 minutes!” And this was when I was looking at models I had no business considering for a starter bike - I was just looking at them to drool a little. Do your own research and don’t rely on salespeople to safely guide your decision making.
So what makes a good starter bike?
What I mean by friendly power is an engine that isn’t so powerful it launches you to the moon if you make a mistake. My personal opinion is that for sport bikes, 500cc and below is a good starting point. When you twist the throttle, the engine should smoothly and gradually make power. In contrast, a Ducati superbike throttle behaves more like an on/off switch and makes it almost impossible for a new rider to be smooth. Smooth is the key word.
When it comes to good beginner bike ergonomics, I look for two things: being able to put your feet flat on the ground and being as close to upright as possible. Tipping over is one of the great newbie fears, so making sure your first bike allows you to get your feet flat on the ground is a huge deal. It’s also a lot easier to stay balanced if your seating position on the bike is relatively upright, and an upright position gives you the greatest leverage if you make a slight bobble and have to put your feet down and use your legs to keep from tipping over. Plus it’s just a lot more comfortable than being leaned all the way forward on a typical supersport bike.
If you enjoy sports or activities that rely on equipment, you’ll understand this part right away. Every equipment-based activity (golf, skiing, snowboarding, tennis, surfing, etc.) has different types of equipment for different skill levels. If you decide to take golf lessons, the instructor won’t hand you a set of pro clubs – they’re too stiff, have a very small sweet spot and rattle like hell if you mis-hit the ball. If you decide to take snowboarding or ski lessons for the first time, the rental shop isn’t going to give you stiff race-caliber equipment. In both cases you’ll be given flexible, forgiving equipment that will let you make mistakes. Think of motorcycles the same way. You want a bike with forgiving power, good but not overly powerful brakes and suspension that’s soft enough so the bike helps you if you’re choppy with the throttle, brakes or steering. And trust me, you will be choppy at the beginning.
Another recommendation I always make is to buy a used bike for your first one. Since your first bike is a learning tool, odds are that you’ll make some mistakes (everyone does) and drop it in the parking lot or driveway. It’s better to get those noob mistakes out of the way on a used bike instead of scratching up a pristine brand new one. Besides, you can sell a used bike for only slightly less than you paid for it when it comes time to upgrade. I bought my first bike used for $3800 and sold it nine months later for $3500; i.e. I basically paid only $300 to use that bike for nine months.
You might hear someone tell you that you’ll wish you got something bigger and that you should just get the bike you want, but I couldn’t disagree with this more. Your first bike is a learning tool and like the beginner equipment in all activities, it needs to be forgiving so you can learn as quickly as possible. Craigslist is littered with barely used bikes; many new riders quit because they buy too much bike and get frustrated or scared. Start smaller, learn, get comfortable, then move on to the better stuff.
As for specific models, check my list of the best new starter bikes – 2010 edition if you’re dead set on buying new. Most of them can be found as used models though, so keep that in mind as you’re looking around. Oh yeah, here’s another video clip for you of too much bike, not enough skill. Don’t be this guy. Seriously.