A couple days back I caught this write-up from Chris Cope where a prospective rider “wrote-in” asking for advice about purchasing a given bike as a first motorcycle. That article, combined with a series of other works from Lemmy and the boys over at Common Tread, have covered this topic in great detail. I take my hat off to each of them as they have hit a lot of the major issues involving making your first motorcycle purchase. Similar to the before mentioned article, I’ve also received a few random requests for advice on different “beginner” bikes, so I figured I had some beneficial advice worth adding to the wealth of knowledge I just mentioned.
There are a lot of things to consider when buying a motorcycle. Seating position, new versus used, brand, price, displacement, dealer network; all of those are important factors, but I want to delve a little bit deeper into the philosophy behind riding a motorcycle. If a new bike is just a toy, an image, or you’re simply convinced you can’t live without bike “X”; this advice is probably not for you (yet). However, if you’re the introspective, planning type, I recommend you think about the answers to the following questions and see if that helps you decide on where you fit in the vast breadth of the motorcycle world.
How do you picture yourself on a motorcycle?
Is it riding from cafe to cafe, dragging a knee, carving through the dirt, packing up and “heading west” on a haphazard adventure, commuting to work every day, or maybe even loading down the bike and riding through Mexico? Your vision may be one or all of these, and that answer is a big part of making this decision. To me, a motorcycle is a tool, and each tool has a different job. Some of the before mentioned sites go into greater detail about the specifics of each of these tools, but first I’m just suggesting you think about how you see yourself, and “where you want to be” before you look at bikes and decide what “looks” appropriate.
After that consideration, you may want to start asking around for advice about various bikes that suit that purpose (there’s also a comment section below).
Per my comments to friends that are shopping for their first (or subsequent) bike, if you just want to cruise around town and commute to work; virtually any bike will do. Different bikes fit each rider differently, and many bikes can be slightly modified to fit you better, but I’ll talk more about that in a minute. That said, if you see yourself spending endless days on the motorcycle as your annual two-week vacation each year, you may want to consider something a bit more luggage friendly than the Ninja 250, or something a bit more reliable than a ’82 Honda Nighthawk. Not that those bikes are incapable of such a trip, in fact if you like challenge and adventure, those bikes may just be your fancy, but for most people, there’s usually a certain level of expected “comfort” and convenience.
Do you have an endorsement?
That’s a big deal. Some folks have purchased bikes and received their endorsement after the fact; it can be done. However, some folks have quickly discovered they don’t like riding and sold said bike not long after; thus I suggest you go get an endorsement beforehand.
If you take your state safety course, it is likely going to cost you $50 to $100, plus another, let’s say $25 to get your learners permit, which is typically a requirement before taking the course (this all depends on your state). The safety course is going to provide you with a “ready to ride” motorcycle to use on the course, so you won’t have to provide your own. You’ll be responsible for wearing over-the-ankle boots, long pants, long sleeves, a helmet, and safety glasses, and full-finger gloves. The before mentioned helmet will need to be DOT approved, but you can usually find an affordable (cheap) half-helmet for $50 or less. The course will not only teach you “how” to ride a motorcycle, but they will also cover important safety tips; you’ll likely learn that “awareness” is every bit as important as understanding how to operate the bike. Knowing what to avoid is every bit as effective as knowing how to react when you’ve been caught by surprise. After three days of classroom and range time, assuming you pass the final skills test, the safety course will present you with a card to take to your local DMV, and you’ll be able to get your full endorsement (which will cost you another $25).
Yes, you can do things the old fashioned way; get your permit, buy a helmet, ride a bike for a few weeks (daylight hours only, no passengers), go to the DMV, try your hand at the state administered skills test, on a street legal motorcycle you brought with you, and pay to get your endorsement. That’s how I did it… and I honestly don’t recommend that. Yes it is (marginally) “cheaper”, however it leaves you highly exposed to the “unknown” with literally no experience, and in the end, the safety course will only cost you an extra $100, at the most around $300 if you take it at a local motorcycle dealership, which is what I did later.
What’s the rider triangle?
Somewhere around 2004 the idea of owning a motorcycle entered my imagination. I remember looking at sport bikes thinking “I would never own a crotch rocket. That makes my back hurt just looking at it.”
Motorcycle ignorance at its finest. Now I’m considering rear-sets for the Scrambler in the event I find a dirt-fairing machine to park next to it. I rode a cruiser for almost three years and found it aggravated my back. Part of that was the rear shocks, and part of that was just how I fit on the bike. Had I invested some money in better shocks, a taller windshield, and/or a different set of bars, that bike may have been much more agreeable long-term.
The point here is that rider triangle is everything; where your hands, butt, and feet make contact with the machine are (semi) fixed on any given bike, but each person’s frame is different. What bike is comfortable for one person is diametrically different for another. Per my comments above, many of this can be adjusted; motorcycle seats are a dime a dozen (for popular models), bars and risers are cheap, and there are a myriad of aftermarket foot controls for most bikes. If you have your heart set on one bike, and you have deep enough pockets, there are usually ways to make that bike fit you.
There’s something else to consider here, there was a reason I asked “How do you picture yourself on a motorcycle?”
Some folks are convinced they love sport bikes, while others simply love cruisers. I can easily point out a dozen friends and associates that have moved from one end of the spectrum to the other. Yes, age is often factor (and the result may surprise you), however I go back to rider triangle. You may be convinced that a given cruiser is the most comfortable bike you’ve ever ridden. It might also surprise you when I have you climb up on a BMW R1200GS or plop down on a Bonneville T120. When choosing your first bike, unless you need a very specific tool, don’t be completely convinced that you absolutely need a certain type or brand of motorcycle. Sit on every bike you can park your keister on and see what fits, and absolutely do not buy any motorcycle until you’ve taken it for a test ride; the longer the better.
Who do you ride with?
Having never ridden a motorcycle, this may sound like a silly question, but I’m telling you, it will play a subconscious role in the bike you “want”. I feel safe saying that the majority of riders spend time riding with other motorcyclists. When writing my own iteration, I read an article about “things no one tells you about riding a motorcycle”, one of the items was “you join a club”; for many that’s literal, but in reality, motorcycling is small section of society, and as a result riders tend to stick together.
If you’re just getting into motorcycles, odds are you know someone who rides. Do you plan on riding with folks you know? If so, what do they ride? Do you like the kinds of bikes your friends have? I’m not saying you can’t go against the grain, I see the lone cruiser chasing their sport bike buddies around town from time to time, as I see naked bikes sprinkled into poker run formations; it happens. That said, most folks tend to assimilate into the groups they like spending time with. I had a buddy swear up and down he didn’t want to buy a Harley. After a season or so on his Honda, he sold it to buy a big Harley, not all that different from his riding associates (there’s a reason you see Bat-wings flying together).
This question also has a second facet to consider, how do those people ride? Some riders are social animals; “Tavern-to-Tavern” is often a slur used to describe the cruiser crowd, but there are no doubt droves of riders that have little interest in racking up more than 100 miles in an outing.
Having not ridden at all, it’s tough to identify if that will be you, but it’s a valid question to ask your prospective riding buddies; what kind of miles do they lay down in a given weekend? You may also find out you rub elbows with some “hyper-milers” at the office. Again, if I grossly stereotype, these are generally the “Road Grimed Astronauts” wearing Aerostich riding suits, rocking the filthy ADV or touring bikes and prefer to cover more ground before breakfast than some riders do all weekend. Why is this important? Because if you’re the one with a hyperactive bladder and bike with a low capacity fuel tank, the hyper-milers are likely to get a bit impatient with all the frequent stops. Vice versa if you’re addicted to the “open road” and your buddies want to grab a cold one at every pub you pass. Again, you and your friends may absolutely be the exception, but this is still something to consider.
What bike speaks to your soul?
My buddy Jeff said this is the most important question… and he’s dead-on. Being the nerd that I am, I literally made a weighted pro/con matrix when selecting my replacement for the Speedmaster (to be fair, there was beer involved). I really wanted a Tiger 800 XCx, or perhaps the more economical Tiger 1050, but the Scrambler kept pulling at my heart strings. Both Tigers are better bikes than a Scrambler in every way… but we all know how that worked out. I regret nothing.
This question should be weighed heavily against “What’s your budget?” The bike you need, the bike you want, and the bike you can afford are likely very different things.
It is wise to be mindful of each of them, and choose accordingly. If you can’t have the bike you want, it would be wise to choose the appropriate, utilitarian, machine that is the bike and can afford in the interim. It will still get you on two-wheels, put money in your pocket for respectable gear, and ideally help you save toward the bike you really want. For many, this bike is the Rebel 250, the beat up old dirt bike, or the vintage 80’s Honda. It’s not luxurious, but it gets you on the road and puts experience under you belt.
Wanting is sometimes better than having; saving up for the “next bike”,
the bike you “want”, may also help prevent you from blowing cash on a bike that, in the end, you don’t really “love”. If budget is of less concern, then the bike you “want” is more likely in your grasp. The danger in that being, if you can buy (or finance) the bike today, there’s little forcing you to think it over. In this case, per previous comments, I positively insist you ride the bike before buying. The heart is a fickle thing, motorcycles are gorgeous machines, blocking rational thought from you mind; once the bike is ridden off the lot, it’s difficult to recoup that instantaneous depreciation in the event you change your mind.
On the other hand, if you “settle”, you may be left with that insufferable “itch” that you simply cannot scratch. For some, it’s buying the sensible Asian cruiser when you truly want the rumble of the American V-twin. For others, it’s lust for the redheaded Italian supermodel with all the Swedish trimmings. Again, if it’s in your means, sometimes you just have to go for it. It would be wise to be mindful of the likelihood that this bike may spend a very short time in your stable, along with the associated complications, but if you ignore the motorcycle that speaks to your soul, you’ll always have eyes for a machine other than your own.