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Motorcycle buying guide: What to know before buying your first bike

Few things in life deliver the thrill and joy of cruising the curves on your own personal, two-wheeled fun machine. Sure, they may be dangerous — they are dangerous — but motorcycles offer a sense of freedom and excitement no car can provide, not matter what it costs. Riding requires sharp skills, a keen mind, quick reflexes, and the ability to handle hair-raising situations. Because of the demands inherent with riding a motorcycle, the barrier to entry is high — higher than it should be, anyway. To get you started, we’ve compiled a motorcycle buying guide with everything you need to know about purchasing your first bike — what type you should get, used vs. new buying, gear recommendations, and licensing info. Here’s a quick rundown to get you out of your cage and onto the open road.

Bike basics

The first gasoline-powered motorcycle, dubbed the Petreoleum Reitwage, was built by legendary German designers Gottlieb Daimler and Wihelm Maybach back in 1885. Since then, motorcycles have branched in countless directions, with different machines made for different purposes. Here are the five basic categories:

Cruisers

Think Harley Davidson. These bikes have lower seat heights and a more laid-back riding position. They often have large engines (though not always), but are not made for racing or super-high performance situations — situations you should not find yourself in for a long time if you’re just getting started. Most major bike manufacturers produce some type of cruiser.

Sportbikes

Motorcycle buying guide

Massively popular in the U.S., sportbikes — often called “crotch rockets” — are finely tuned machines capable of high performance and even higher speeds. Because of the intense power of these bikes, we strictly recommend avoiding any type of sportbike for at least your first couple of years of riding. It takes time to train your body to handle a motorcycle, and it’s far too easy on a sportbike to chuck yourself into a deadly situation. But don’t worry: You absolutely do not need a sportbike to have fun on a motorcycle.

Touring

Motorcycle buying guide

Touring motorcycles come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, but their purpose is always the same — long-distance travel. Some bikes, like the Honda Goldwing or the BMW K1600GTL (above), come fully-loaded with large fairings, luggage trunks, windshields, and even stereos and GPS. Others, like the BMW R1200GS, are more stripped-down, and have high seats and high clearance to allow for off-road riding. Touring bikes generally deliver an excellent riding experience — but because of their high price and weight, they may not be the best choice for a new rider. They’re definitely a great option not far down the road, though.

Dual-sport

Motorcycle buying guide

At their most basic, dual-sports are just dirtbikes — which are generally illegal to ride on public roads — with some mirrors and lights slapped on to make them street-legal. “Supermoto” bikes also fall into this category, with the added change of street-only tires, as opposed to a dual-sports’ knobby tires. Because dual-sport bikes often have smaller engines and are light-weight, they are a good option for new riders. But if you’re short, beware that most dual-sports have very high seats. If you can’t put both feet down when stopped, the bike is too tall for you to ride safely. There are some options, of course, such as the Yamaha TW200, which is a great beginner bike but not exactly a powerhouse. It’s also possible to get lowering kits for some bikes, or to buy a dual-sport with a lowering kit already installed.

Standard

Motorcycle buying guide

This category is filled with bastards, the mutts whose DNA contains elements from the previous four. Many of the most common bikes you’ll see fall into the “standard” camp. They generally have a more upright riding position than a cruiser (which leans you back) or a sportbike (which leans you forward). Engine sizes vary wildly with standards, but usually don’t edge into the super-high range.

Standards are often good, all-around kind of bikes, and easily top our list of the best bikes for beginners; it’s easy to find one without any extreme features that could pose a hindrance or danger while you’re learning the ropes.

Key features

While we argue standard bikes are best for green riders, there is no clear category for beginner bikes. However, here are some of the key factors you should take into consideration while searching for your first set of wheels:

Engine size

Motorcycle engine size is (almost always) measured in cubic centimeters (CCs). This refers to the volume inside the part of the engine where the air and fuel mix to create the explosion that powers the bike forward. More CCs does not necessarily mean one bike is faster than another with a “smaller displacement” (fewer CCs) engine. A well-tuned, precisely engineered motor will outgun a more casual set-up every time.  For instance, a sportbike like the Kawasaki Ninja 650 — which has a 650cc engine — can blow the wheels off a 750cc cruiser, thanks to more precise tuning and less weight.

Note: The approximate engine size is most often part of the name of the bike, so nearly anytime you recognize a number in the name, it probably refers to the bike’s engine size — though not always.

Seat height

Seat height is quite important, whether you’re a beginner or not. As mentioned, both feet should touch the ground when sitting at a stop on your bike. Conversely, if you’re tall, a bike with a low seat height is going to be uncomfortable, and may make you look a bit silly. To gauge what seat height range is best for you, measure the inseam of your leg, from the bottom of your foot to your groin. Any bike with a seat that’s taller than your inseam is probably too tall.

An even better tactic is to go to a dealership and try out several bikes to see which one feels solid while sitting. Once you find one that works well, ask what its seat height is and look for bikes in that range.

Weight

The weight of a bike matters for a number of reasons. Heavier bikes are better for highway riding (the first time a semi passes you going 75 mph, you’ll understand what we mean), but they can be more difficult to maneuver. Also, if you drop your bike — which will happen — or if it gets knocked over when parked, you need to be able to get it upright without the help of someone else. With that in mind, make sure to take your strength into consideration before opting for a big, heavy machine. With the right technique, however, even a tiny person can get a behemoth Harley upright.

Used vs. new

Motorcycle buying guide

Other guides may point you to new bikes. If you’re just getting into motorcycles, however, avoid buying a new bike until you have some riding hours under your belt. Why? Because you’re going to drop it, probably more than once, and there’s no reason to screw up a brand new bike simply because you’re learning. Also, you’ll spend less money. People often like to buy a different bike after they’ve learned to ride and have some idea of what kind they really want — not to mention the inevitable repairs.

That said, if you’ve got money to burn, the world is your two-wheeled oyster. There’s a bike out there to suit every need and budget. Buying a new bike definitely has its perks — the machine is guaranteed to run great, and it should come with a warranty and deals on maintenance. But for those of us who have to budget our motorcycle purchases, go used.

There are many classified sites for used bikes, but your local Craigslist is often the best. Make sure whatever bike you buy has a clean title (no lingering tickets, not stolen), good tires, starts quickly and easily, and runs strong and evenly. If you have someone who knows bikes, take them with you when you go to check out rides. Once you find a bike you think looks good, compare it with other used bikes of the same make, model, and year, just to ensure you’re not getting ripped off. And do this before you go out to meet any bike seller. Once you see a bike that could be yours to ride, it can be difficult to turn it down.

Just tell me which bike to buy

OK, OK. Here are our favorite bikes for beginners, due to their relatively low price, fun riding experience, and reliability:

Kawasaki Ninja 300

Motorcycle buying guide Kawasaki Ninja 300

Easily our favorite of the “beginner” bikes, this two-wheeler looks like a sportbike, but won’t kill you the first time you hit the throttle. It also has a great powerband from 7,000 to 10,000 rpm, which makes it fun to ride long after your newbie days are over. New Ninja 300s are fairly cheap, too, and a used one of good-quality is even cheaper. We’ve been riding for decades and still have a blast on the ol’ Ninja 250.

Honda CBR300R

Motorcycle buying guide Honda CRB300R

The CBR300R — Honda’s recent answer to the Ninja 300 — shares many similar traits and a similar price point, though, finding a used model is often more difficult. Those who have ridden them recommend these bikes highly.

Suzuki SFV650 ABS

Motorcycle buying guide Suzuki SV650

A fantastic all-around bike, the SFV650 ABS is the kind of motorcycle you’ll keep forever. It’s easy to ride, and has plenty of power — but not so much that you’ll be too nervous to ride it. We fell in love with this bike after renting one for a trip from London to Islay, a small island off the Southwestern coast of Scotland (where some wonderful whiskeys are made). It started every time, and was relatively comfortable, even after a few hours on the saddle — two things we appreciated very much during a week on the road. You can’t go wrong with the SV650 ABS.

Yamaha XT 250

Motorcycle buying guide Yamaha XT 250 2015 header

A dual-sport bike with an average seat height and a good amount of get-up thanks to its hearty thumper (single-cylinder) engine, the XT 250 carries with it a long heritage of awesomeness. The XT 250 won’t be as fast as many of the other models on our list, but it is lightweight, durable, and buckets of fun, especially if you want to hit some dirt from time to time.

Honda Rebel 300

Motorcycle buying guide 17 Honda Rebel 300 - red RHP

Not only is the Rebel 300 beautiful, it’s a great starter bike. It’s comfortable, has the right amount of power for a beginner, and it’s low maintenance. It’s a reliable and all-around solid bike to add to anyone’s collection, and trust us, you’ll end up with a collection if you can afford it. This is a very durable bike that should last you for quite some time.

Cleveland Cycle Werks Misfit

Motorcycle buying guide Cleveland Cycle Misfit

This is a café racer, which is a reference to a specific type of design with racing handlebars. It’s not just pretty; it packs a punch, too. One of the reasons this bike is great for beginners is its large and solid front section, which prevents the bike from turning on a dime and knocking you down. In addition, the way the fork — aka, the connection between the handles and wheel — is built allows it to absorb bumps and terrain better than most, making for a smooth ride.

Moto Guzzi V7 Stone

Motorcycle buying guide moto guzi v7 stone 2015

Comfortable, pretty, reliable — these seem to be the key qualifiers, and this bike has all of ’em. The V7 Stone looks retro and feels new, which is pretty much what you want for your first bike. It’s light, too, but not too light. One of the really nice things about it is that it has a big tank, so you don’t have to fill up too often. It handles well, it’s durable, and it works well for the city or the open road.

There are many, many other good bikes to choose from — literally hundreds — so don’t take this list as anything more than our favorites in the new-rider category. If you’re looking for a cruiser, the Harley Davidson Sportster 883 is a good option, but it’s quite heavy, which is why we left it off the list. Another great cruiser option is the Suzuki Intruder 750, a bike we’ve owned and loved — and one you can find used for not too much cash. If you’re looking for additional recommendations, we’ve put together a dedicated list outlining the best motorcycles for beginners.

Gear

Motorcycle buying guide

Even more important than your bike is your gear — it can save your life, no joke. We highly recommend beginning your motorcycle-riding life by abiding to the code of “all the gear, all the time,” often referred to as ATGATT. Is it a pain in the butt to put on (and take off) your jacket, helmet, pants, boots, sunglasses, and gloves every time you ride? Absolutely. Know what sucks more than that? Getting hurt or worse because you couldn’t spare two minutes to slap on your gear.

Unlike motorcycles, we don’t recommend buying a used helmet. (Jackets, boots, gloves, and pants are OK to buy used, but you might have a hard time finding your size.) Helmets lose their protective abilities if they take on heavy impact during an accident, or are just too old — and when you buy used, you just never know. You’ll be relying on your helmet to protect your brain and face, so save up the extra cash to get a good one.

As far as which helmet to buy, there are many good options ranging from basic to high-tech. Full-face helmets are a must, in our opinion, as they provide the best protection by far. It is extremely important that your helmet fits correctly as well, so don’t buy one online until you’ve tried the exact make and model. Also, make sure that whatever helmet you buy is DOT-approved. For more information, WebBikeWorld has an excellent, extremely thorough guide for buying the right helmet, and we highly recommend reading that before picking out your dome-piece.

When you get more experience, you’ll be able to look into other gear like a sidecar that lets you carry an extra passenger or more gear.

Helmet Brands: Bell, Icon, Shoei, Schuberth, and Scorpion all make great helmets. While we recommend a full-face helmet, some people prefer half-helmets with muzzles, which should provide almost as much protection. Just keep in mind that you’re risking knocking off your chin with them.

Glove Brands: Alpinestars, Icon, Scorpion, and Dainese make nice, comfortable gloves. We recommend gloves that have knuckle protectors; some off-brand gloves don’t, and you’ll be risking a tear.

License

In the U.S., riding a motorcycle legally requires getting a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. The process for doing this varies from state to state, so check with your local DMV to find out what you need to do. Unless you live in Ryder, North Dakota, you will likely have to take a written test to get your motorcycle permit before you can sign up for your endorsement test. Your permit will give you the ability to learn the basics and get some hours of riding under your belt.

Important: The absolute best way to go about getting your license is by taking a motorcycle safety course, which most often includes your endorsement road test at the end. Taking a safety course will also teach you truly invaluable skills that will keep you alive. These courses, which you can find through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, will cost you a couple hundred bucks — but please believe us that it’s money well spent.

Update: Recommended several new motorcycles for beginners, including the Honda Rebel 300.


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