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How to Choose Your First Motorcycle

Choosing Your First Bike
Yamaha V-Star 650
Photo: Jose Barrera CC

Ask a motorcyclist what you should purchase as your first bike, and you’ll find everyone who rides has an opinion. Cruiser riders will point you toward a small cruiser, like the Harley Davidson Sportster. Sportbike riders sometimes suggest 600cc bikes to people who have never ridden a motorcycle, which is usually a bad idea. Some people might tell you to start with a dirt bike before taking to the streets.

The fact is there is no short, “one size fits all” answer to the question. The answer depends mostly on how you answer the following questions.

Have you ridden a motorcycle before?

If the answer is “no,” you might want to hold off on buying your first bike. Learn to ride in a safe, controlled environment first. An introductory course by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is perfect for new motorcyclists. The MSF provides small-displacement bikes for students to ride. The organization has a long track record of instructing new riders.

If you have ridden a motorcycle before and are familiar with their basic controls, only then is it time to start shopping for a bike.

What do you plan on doing with your motorcycle?

In the United States, the vast majority of motorcyclists use their bikes purely for pleasure. Fewer motorcyclists use their bikes as daily transportation. These riders like the fuel economy and lower cost of ownership than owning a car. Unfortunately, riding a bike full time isn’t possible in many parts of the country due to freezing winter weather.

For every day riding, dependability, and low cost of ownership, look at the many dual sport bikes available from major manufacturers. Some are more “dirt oriented,” like Honda’s XR650L. Others are more “street oriented,” like the Kawasaki KLR650. Both make good first bikes, especially for taller riders.

For a purely recreational ride, ask yourself what kind of riding do you think you’ll enjoy the most? Do you just want to ride? Do you care to learn the finer details of riding a bike fast? For new riders who just want to ride, a small-displacement cruiser works well. For new riders who think they might like to learn how to ride fast, a small-displacement sportbike is a good choice.

Small Displacement CruisersSmall Displacement Sportbikes
Harley Davidson SportsterHonda Grom (125cc)
Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTDKawasaki Ninja 250 and 300
Honda Shadow VLXHonda CBR250R
Yamaha V-Star 650KTM RC390

(note: this list is by no means exhaustive)

A few notes on “small displacement”

Harley Davidson Sportster
Harley Davidson Sportster
Photo: rev_kyoto CC

“Small displacement” can be anything from a 50cc dirt bike all the way up to a 883cc cruiser like the Harley Davidson Sportster. “Displacement” refers to the size of the motorcycle’s engine as measured in cubic centimeters. Whether or not a bike is “small displacement” depends on what kind of bike it is. For sportbikes, anything smaller than 600cc is considered appropriate for most beginners. For cruisers, anything under about 1200cc is an appropriate choice.

What’s a powerband?

Kawasaki Ninja 250
Kawasaki Ninja 250
Photo: skinner1011 CC

If you’re new to motorcycling, this next thing is something you’ll want to remember. A “powerband” is NOT an extra feature some bikes come with and others don’t. A bike’s powerband refers to how the engine’s power is delivered to the rear wheel. Some bikes, like high end sportbikes, make all of their power at the very top of the engine’s rev range. Other bikes, like cruisers, make lots of power down low but run out of steam early. The more torque a bike’s engine makes down low, the easier it is to get going from a stop. Look for a beginner bike with plenty of torque down low and adequate power when the engine’s revved up.

Are you buying a bike or its insurance premium?

You’re going to have a hard time with insurance if you’re under 25 years old. 25 is the magic age when your insurance premiums go way, way down. Race-replica sportbikes often come with unmanageable insurance premiums, especially for new riders in their early 20s. Look for a sporty standard with a displacement under 600cc to save on insurance.

The last word? Ask yourself what you plan to do with the bike and then buy something you like.

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About the Author

Michael Padway is a motorcycle accident attorney with over 40 years of experience in motorcycle cases. He’s been a lifelong motorcycle rider, and fanatic for its culture, advocacy, and safety. If you need assistance with a motorcycle accident, contact him at (800) 928-1511 or visit michaelpadway.com for a free consultation.