A Guide to Buying Your First Motorcycle

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The lust-worthy Aprilia RSV4 RF may one day be a great bike for you.  Just not now.

You finally made the decision. You’re going to start riding motorcycles and all you can think about is what the feeling will be like to dawn your gear and get out on the open road. But before you do that, there’s a very important question you should ponder: “which bike should I buy?”

Sorry to Burst Your Bubble

First, let’s get something important out of the way: the first bike you should buy is not the same bike you’ve been fantasizing about all these years. Sorry. Not sorry. It sounds harsh but it’s the truth. What if you’ve ridden dirt bikes, are an experienced sports car driver, or are the type of person who picks up new sports really quickly?  Doesn’t matter. Nothing you are or have done can prepare you for riding a motorcycle on the street and accepting this simple fact could very well save your life. As a matter of fact, it’s our entire motivation for writing this article.

Think of it this way: An “average” motorcycle makes somewhere near 100 hp (keeping in mind that many have eclipsed the 200hp mark). The power-to-weight ratio of a 100hp, 450lb motorcycle is 1hp for every 4.5lbs.

Now, consider the fastest and most powerful production Ferrari automobile ever made (at the time of writing this): the Model 812 Superfast. A 789 hp, 6.5 liter V12, weighing a paltry 3,845 lbs, for a monumental 1hp to every 4.2lbs.

Toss a new driver the keys to this beauty and see what happens.

So in essence, if your first bike makes “average” power, it’s the equivalent of handing a new driver the keys to the Ferrari. Not withstanding the fact that driving a car is a simpler and less demanding task then riding a motorcycle and that crashing a motorcycle has VERY (statistically) different consequences than crashing a car. Indeed, you will discover that motorcycles require a recalibration of your brain. The feeling and rush that’s so addictive can easily spell disaster for a new rider so we implore you to think twice before making a potentially deadly decision. Rant over.

What To Look For in Your First Bike

Small displacement bikes have come a long way in the last 10 years with many amazing options to choose from

The most important characteristic of your first bike is that you should feel comfortable and confident riding it.  Having taught and witnessed many new riders, we can tell you with confidence that there are 3 primary factors you should consider:

Weight: As discussed earlier, how much a motorcycle weighs will have a direct impact on its performance, from manoeuvrability at low speeds to even pushing it around in a parking lot.  In your earlier days of riding, weight will be the single greatest factor that correlates to confidence when riding your new bike.   To give you an idea of how much motorcycles weigh and how much variability there is in motorcycle weight:  A small standard bike like a Honda CB300F weighs about 350 lbs.  A full sized adventure bike like a Triumph Tiger 800 weighs about 475 lbs.  A full sized cruiser like a Harley Davidson Road Glide can weigh upward of 820 lbs -more than twice as much as the smaller Honda. The simple rule of thumb as you’re starting out is: the less weight, the better.

Power: If you want to know the honest truth, power is not something you should be concerned with when buying your first bike.  Take it from someone who spent their first year of an 18HP, 225cc Honda.  As a new rider, you’ll have so many other things to concentrate on that it will be quite a while before you “get bored” of your bike and are craving more horsepower. Besides, a lightweight 250cc bike is plenty fast (0-60 in about 5 seconds) and will still require recalibration of your brain and it will accelerate, stop and turn more quickly than anything you’ve ever experienced.  As an added bonus, smaller bikes generally carry lower insurance premiums.

If you ever thought you needed a lot of horsepower to have fun on a bike, think again.

Style: Cruiser, sport bike, standard, tourer…the list goes on.  Your first bike should ideally reflect the category of your more aspirational “dream bike” and the type of riding you want to do.  If you aspire to ride twisty roads on a Ducati Panigale V4R some day, start with a sub-400cc sport bike like a Yamaha R3.  If you aspire to ride a BMW R1200GS (and perhaps do your own version of Long Way Round), start on a 250cc dual sport like a Honda CRF250L. The smaller displacement version of your dream bike shares many of its characteristics and will provide a great riding experience for you as you get more miles under your belt.

Should You Buy New or Used?

We’re going to give you some biased advice here which is something the mass media would never encourage: you should always buy a used bike as your first motorcycle.  The reasons for this are 3-fold:

  1. Save money: As with anything else you buy new, motorcycles depreciate as soon as you ride them off the lot, so there’s no point in taking that hit.  Also, if you have followed our advice and are starting on a smaller bike, you are likely to “upgrade” in a year or two anyway so buying used makes even more sense. Even if you’re well off and money is no object, save the cash for your dream bike down the road or invest in better gear.
  2. You’re probably going to drop it:  Sorry but this is statistically the case.  As the saying among riders goes, “There are those who have dropped their bike and there are those who have yet to drop their bike”.  Although there is a legitimate risk of getting into trouble at speed, there is an even higher risk that you will drop your bike in a parking lot at low speed or even while moving it around with the ignition off.  If you buy a used bike that’s mechanically sound and may have a little wear on it, you won’t lose your mind if (when) this happens and it will cost less if you need to replace a part.
  3. You won’t benefit from “the latest and greatest”:  Every model year, manufacturers need to evolve their designs and it’s the media’s job to convince you that the you really need the newest innovations.  We’re here to tell you that’s total B.S., especially as a newer rider.  Although having features like a TFT dash, a 10% increase in horsepower or ride-by-wire throttle are all nice-to-haves.  None of them are going to materially affect your riding experience in year 1 and they certainly aren’t worth paying extra for.  The only exception to this that we’ll openly advocate for is ABS.  Although not fool-proof, it’s a nice safety feature that you may well benefit from as a rider of any level.
Start with a used bike to save money.  As a bonus, you won’t feel as bad when you drop it.

How to Find Your First Bike

Making a decision on which bike to buy requires you to get your head around the multitude of options, features, prices and styles available.  As such, finding the right bike will become much easier once you understand the sport as a whole.

  1. Take an introductory course: What better way to learn what you like than to ride different bikes?  Most motorcycle safety courses offer a variety of styles for exactly this reason and after some seat time on cruisers, sport bike and standards, you’ll have a much better idea of your likes and dislikes.
  2. Attend a motorcycle show: The next best thing to riding bikes is simply sitting on them to understand their weight and ergonomics.  A bike show allows you to cover a lot of brands in a short period of time.  Pro tip: when possible at the show, take bikes off their kick stands and lean them over slightly.  The weight differential between bikes is important (as outlined above) and you can get an idea of this feel, even at a stand-still.
    Part of being a motorcyclist is going to “the bike show”.  Get used to it.
  3. Visit dealers:  Although dealers are primarily concerned with selling you stuff, the good ones will take the time to help you make an informed decision.  At the very least, visiting dealerships gives you a chance to sit on bikes, ask questions and understand pricing so you can make the right decision when you’re ready.
  4. Read/watch reviews:  There is a multitude of buyer’s guides out there and once you hone in on a few models you’re considering, you should be able to dig up a ton of information about performance, reliability, pros and cons of any given bike.
  5. Read forums: Not that bike reviews from the media aren’t accurate (as there are many great sources out there), but you stand to learn a lot by seeing what current owners have to say about a specific bike.  Motorcyclists are such a chatty bunch that there exists a forum from every motorcycle ever made and the regulars will be happy to answer questions if searching the halls of wisdom leaves your wondering.  Just beware of the inherent bias.
  6. Go to a bike meet: We’ve seen many an aspiring motorcyclist at local meet ups and it’s a great way to chat with people about bikes and riding culture.  Perhaps you already know people who ride but getting different perspectives is often valuable.  One thing is for sure: riders love to talk shop and will do so with total strangers.  It’s one of the many pleasures of riding and you can benefit from that even before you’ve purchased your first motorcycle.
  7. Check local listings / classifieds: Whether or not your first bike purchase is driven by budget, it’s always a good idea to see what’s available around you and what the going rate is for the type of bike you’re interested in.  In Canada, sites like Kijiji and Auto Trader are valuable resources.  In the US, Cycletrader, Craigslist and eBay Classifieds are popular.

 Additional Ressources for New Riders

5 Tips to Become a Better Street Rider

Motorcycle Safety: Fault vs Responsibility

Are You Riding Your Bike or is Your Bike Riding You?


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