Choosing Your First Motorcycle - A Beginner's Guide

Pete picks 5 for first-timers

story by Pete Brissette, Created Jul. 14, 2010
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Bring up the subject of “beginner’s bikes” in just about any corner of the motoworld and you’ll get about as many opinions on what a beginner motorcycle is as there are motorcycles.

Rarely will motorcycle manufacturers specifically label or market a model as Brand X’s bike for the first-time rider. This litigation-avoidance tactic then swings the doors of opinion wide open as to what constitutes an entry-level two-wheeler.

There are, regrettably, plenty of inexperienced, ill-informed squids in the U.S. (other places, too, I suppose) that think current model race-replica 600cc supersports make a good “first bike.”

Not beginner bikes. Rather heavy, and powered by pavement-melting engines, the Triumph Rocket III Roadster and Star VMax are not what we’d describe as wise choices for the beginning rider.

All shapes and sizes are drawn to two wheels, thus beginner bike selections need to account for rider height, weight, inseam, etc.Veteran riders will surely disagree with that mindset. Nevertheless, sales success of 600s supports this assertion, to whatever degree, that a supersport is an acceptable first bike.

Moving beyond the incendiary subject of a rider’s potential to start on a crotch rocket, there’s the more tangible and practical issue of ergonomics.

The right first bike for 5-foot, 4-inch, 98-pounder Housewife Wanda from Iowa certainly won’t be the same machine the still-growing, all-muscle, 6-foot, 1-inch, 215-pound high-school linebacker needs.

However, there’s an underpinning feature or character trait in that first bike most new riders look for, regardless of physical stature or chutzpah: manageability.

What are some of the ways a bike can supply a welcoming nature?

Perhaps first and foremost new riders will gravitate toward a machine that allows them to plant both (or at least one) feet as squarely on the ground as possible. A humane seat height goes a long way to putting riders at ease, and this is backed up by numerous customer surveys.

A brake set (or single brake) that telegraphs to the rider how much additional brake effort is needed to stop or slow safely is a key component on a motorcycle that can encourage rider confidence.

Also contributing to peace of mind is a somewhat sedate powerband. A new rider needn’t contend with 102 ft-lbs at 1700 rpm. Mundane, flaccid power delivery isn’t imperative, but neither is horsepower that accelerates a bike to 158 mph quicker than you can say “My leg’s in traction for three weeks!”

Next on the short list of qualities new riders need from a first bike are chassis stability and neutral steering. Predictable handling is, as the moto cliché goes, confidence inspiring.

Rounding out some of the key aspects that keep riders in love with riding rather than hating it is good braking. And by good I mean trustworthy stopping force joined by at least a modicum of sensitivity, or more plainly, brake feel at the lever.

"Predictable handling is ... confidence inspiring."

For most folks, including many experienced riders, World Superbike-spec-like brake performance as found on Ducati’s bucking bronco Streetfighter is almost overkill. On the other end of the spectrum, one of the last things you want when grabbing at the brake lever is the sensation you’re squeezing two blocks of wood together. Bye bye poop-eating grin, hello pooping in your pantaloons.

Devil’s sportbike advocate – just for a minute, anyway

Although 13-year-old Daytona Anderson is years from (legally) operating a motorcycle on public streets, his years of experience roadracing motorcycles make him one of the rare candidates that could start street riding on high-performance sportbikes.
This person… Not qualified to start on a sportbike.

As Kevin pointed out in his 2008 GSX-R600 Review, the Gixxer Sixxer “not only outsells every sportbike on the American market (about 20,000 in 2006), it’s the best-selling Suzuki among all of Team S’s extensive catalog.”

Yet, if we look beyond the surface of new-bike-buyer racer boy’s egocentric mentality, you could, in some instances make a case for cutting-edge performance sportbikes as a place to start for the right rider. Safe guess, though, that right person comes from a narrow percentage of the pool of new riders who are naturally adept at controlling motor vehicles.

Would I ever recommend a supersport as first ride? Not bloody likely. But thinking back to when I first started alpine skiing, I went the beginner route, using the shortest, least aggressive downhill ski suited for my weight and experience.

After about only two separate trips to the slopes, a seasoned skier friend said I was ready to move to a more aggressive (and ultimately faster) ski. My skills growth was no longer best served by the beginner-level ski. I stepped up a couple levels in ski performance. Half way through the first day on my new boards I had a good feel for what to expect from them and the respect I needed to give them.

Obviously the price paid for a mishap on the slopes is generally less costly (unless you’re Sonny Bono) than making the wrong move while navigating a motorcycle on public roads. Point is, riders come in all shapes, sizes and skill sets; and skills progress at vastly different rates.

Some people are simply talented from the get-go. I’m going out on a thin limb here, but I’d bet that if Vale Rossi’s first ride were some type of sportbike, he’d probably have fared well enough.

So, with the above groundwork laid, which modern motorcycles might constitute a beginner’s bike? As you might’ve suspected, there are lots of options. Here are five I think fit the bill.

Caveat alert: Before we get to these examples let me say that when I use the word beginner, I’m presuming this hypothetical person has first taken a learn-how-to-ride-a-motorcycle course, such as offered by the MSF or a similar organization, and is approved by state authorities to legally operate a motorcycle on public roadways.

By all means, make sure you’ve received proper instruction in the basics of motorcycle riding before buying a motorcycle. Plenty of people don’t, and then never return to motorcycling after their first bad experience.

5. 2010 Honda Shadow RS $7799

Honda’s liquid-cooled, 52-degree, 745cc V-Twin budget-minded cruiser is sure to cover a lot of the needs new riders have, and it should appeal to, well, a lot of new riders.

Perhaps its biggest draw is the fact that it’s essentially a cruiser; and as we’ve noted time and again this year, the cruiser segment dominates bike sales in the U.S. From this we can safely infer lots of people are inclined toward this type of bike.

Furthermore, the RS is unquestionably inspired by the King of Cruisers, Harley-Davidson, and therefore is probably all the more compelling to noobs.

Beyond its cruiser appeal, the Shadow RS just plain works, with few of the compromises bulkier cruisers force upon riders.

Honda’s Shadow RS is a smart pick for a first bike.

With the RS’s 29.4-inch seat height, heaps of riders ranging from the mid 5-feet mark to over 6-feet tall can expect a comfortable amount of legroom coupled to an easy reach to the pavement.

Peak power of 39 hp arrives in a smooth, linear fashion, and there’s more than enough engine performance to mix safely with automobiles out on the Super Slab. Also, the exhaust emits a surprisingly throaty rumble, so no need to think this bike is devoid of character just ‘cause it comes from conservative Honda.

Steering action is light and neutral. There’s ample lean angle and ground clearance, and the single caliper and disc brake set in front is plenty capable of hauling the Shadow down from speed. Instrumentation is uncomplicated and classically styled.

And with an observed fuel economy figure around 45 mpg, new riders should get plenty of time in the RS’s saddle to graduate from new motorcyclist to experienced motorcyclist.

Alternate take: 2010 Harley-Davidson 883L (Low) $6999

Despite the 883L’s appearance as a big, tough cruiser, it posses one of the lowest seat heights in Harley’s line up, and is the least expensive model from the Milwaukee-based company for 2010.

It’s no coincidence the 883 Low slots in here with the Honda. We compared them because they have much in common.

However, the 883 could be considered something of niche motorcycle in light of its remarkably low 26.3-inch seat height. This ultra-low height for a production motorcycle makes it attractive to women, but as a result of such a low saddle, lean angle clearance is almost laughable. It doesn’t take much effort to drag a footpeg feeler while making an average turn through an intersection, etc.

Put aside the low ground clearance issue, and the 883L is otherwise user friendly. Furthermore, it makes more horsepower and costs $800 less (!) than the Honda. And as important as anything, it’s the real deal.

4. 2010 Kawasaki KLR650 $5999

Polar opposite of the diminutive Harley 883 Low in terms of seat height, the venerable KLR650 from Kawasaki is for the tall people with a freshly minted moto endorsement on their driver license.

The KLR makes the list for the big guys, those that just wouldn’t be comfortable on many street bikes pegged as beginner machines. Why? ‘Cause with the Kawi’s 35.0-inch seat height there’s lots of room to stretch.

Additionally, the liquid-cooled, 651cc Thumper (biker speak for single-cylinder) has lots of stonk to cruise with the flow of traffic on the interstate, or to dig out of sand washes if you take ’er offroad.

The long-running KLR650 from Kawasaki could fit the bill as a beginner bike for long-legged riders.

With over seven inches of rear suspension travel and almost eight inches up front, the KLR650 is equally at home bombing down roads less traveled as much as it is pulling daily commuter duty. It’s an excellent choice for riders in rural neighborhoods where the pavement is crappy or doesn’t exist whatsoever.

All that suspension travel makes the KLR seem a little wobbly going around corners, and the front-end dives under heavy braking. But a not-too-heavy 432-lb curb weight helps keep the Kawi manageable, and its voluminous 6.1-gallon fuel tank means longer runs between the pump.

This bike has been around since the dawn of time, so the aftermarket is riddled with goodies for this most well-known of dual-purpose bikes. Want proof of such? Read this 9-part series Fonzie did on hopping up a KLR, then read how he put the Toyota Land Cruiser of motorcycles to the test in issue 3.

For well over 20 years the KLR650 has proven a reliable, well mannered, do-it-all machine. The breadth of its abilities, friendly nature and roomy rider ergos make the KLR an option for beginners with a long inseam and adventurous spirit.

Alternate take: 2009 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS $7999

The V-Strom 650 is good alternate choice to the Kawasaki KLR650, especially if you’ll spend most of your miles on-road.

Although Suzuki bills its long-running V-Strom models as dual-purpose motorcycles, they certainly aren’t as lithe as the KLR in true off-road environs. You won’t find as wide a selection of off-road tires for the V-Strom as you will for the KLR, and a 50-pound weight penalty doesn’t help the V-Strom 650’s off-road cause.

However, the Strom isn’t out of its league on well-maintained fire roads. More importantly, the Strom’s 32.3-inch seat height may interest the same rider looking at the KLR.

The crowning jewel of the Strom is its fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, dual overhead cam, 645cc, 90-degree V-Twin sourced from the near legendary SV650 – a bike many would proclaim an excellent first timer’s bike. This engine supplies lots of useful low-rpm grunt, but just like other bikes in this beginner-ish collection, it’s also user-friendly.

Additional desirable features include a fairing and windshield that offer good wind protection; a wide saddle with room for a passenger; healthy 4.8-gallon fuel capacity; support from the aftermarket and the safety enhancing option of ABS.

3. 2010 Honda NT700V $9999

Honda’s new-to-the-U.S. NT700V is far and away the priciest bike in this short list. But a quick examination shows that a lot of value is squeezed into the NT. Many of the traits and features that make this Honda appealing to experienced riders are also reasons for the noobie to consider it, too.

The NT’s 31.7-inch seat height should keep the average-build new rider in touch with the ground, and a fueled-up, ready to ride weight of 562 pounds is palatable. By comparison, Yamaha’s land-missile R1 race-bike-with-lights superbike weighs a claimed 454 pounds. A little over a 100 pound deficit to a sportbike isn’t much when you consider the Honda’s heavier shaft final drive system and touring-oriented design.

Speaking of the NT’s shaft drive, that’s another big reason to eyeball this bike, as shafties are virtually maintenance-free.

Honda’s NT700V existed in Europe as the Deauville years before coming to the U.S. as the NT. This motorcycle should appeal to lots of riders, new to experienced.

The NT700V’s manually adjustable windshield in this price point is a boon in my book, as is its seamlessly integrated hard luggage with built in pass-through for longer items. The seat is wide, and most passengers should have plenty of “personal space.” There’s even a glove box in the dash area.

A 680cc, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected V-Twin smoothly delivers ample power for trolling around town. And the NT barely breaks a sweat breezing down the freeway.

Effort at the clutch lever is light with good feel, and the 5-speed transmission offers trouble-free shifting. The dual-disc front brakes posses surprising stopping power and operate in conjunction with the rear brake via Honda’s Combined Brake System (CBS) for additional stopping power. For an extra $1K the brake package improves with optional ABS. And, wonder of wonders, a centerstand comes standard.

The NT700V isn’t the sexiest choice out there, but I can’t think of any genuine reason I wouldn’t recommend this bike.

Alternate take: 2010 BMW F650GS $9195

This 798cc Parallel-Twin BMW lacks many of the touring accoutrement found on the NT700V, but with the Standard Option package that includes heated grips, ABS, on-board computer and snazzy white turn signals (big whoop, I know), the BMW’s upgraded status increases MSRP to $10,700, just eclipsing the NT’s base price.

Additionally, the Beemer has an optional Low Seat at no added cost that drops seat height to 31.3 inches. And for an extra $250 you can get the factory installed low suspension, shrinking seat height to a stubby 30.1 inches.

Then there’s the intangible of acting upscale and snooty while zipping around on a BMW as your first bike…

2. 2010 Yamaha FZ6R $7390-$7490

Fear not, new rider dreaming of a sporty choice! The FZ6R from Yamaha should satiate your hunger for some flash and need to look fast even when keeping to the posted limit in school zones.

The Fizzer also represents that rare instance when a manufacturer directly solicits new riders. From Yamaha’s marketing copy:

“The FZ6R offers features that make it easy for beginning rider to get started: low seat height, grips that reach back, and a torquey, 600cc engine you won’t outgrow anytime soon.”

Yamaha crafted the FZ6R with the beginning sport rider in mind.

Yamaha not only built the FZ6R with the beginner in mind, it also built a fair bit of adjustment into the ride position.

The 6R’s 30.9-inch seat is adjustable for a 20mm increase in height, and its handlebar – already 12mm further back and 12mm lower than the FZ6 model that preceded it – offers 20mm of forward adjustment.

During the FZ6R’s new model launch, 5-feet, 10-inch Fonzie remarked that he could easily flatfoot with the seat in its 30.9-inch position, yet after 150 miles of riding never felt as though the seat was too low.

This bike is essentially fully faired and has an effective windshield. Dual disc front brakes provide “adequate power,” said Fonz from the intro, and during our recent comparison of the FZ6R to the Suzuki GSX650F and Kawasaki Ninja 650R, the Yamaha was deemed to have the best brakes of the bunch.

The 6R runs a milder state of tune in its inline four-cylinder engine than the FZ6 did, but the R’s 64 peak horsepower is plenty of get up and go in most instances. Guest tester Tom Roderick heaped praise on the 6R as a bike with a great engine that has “strong mid-range and pulls cleanly all the way to rev limiter, with excellent throttle response.”

Yamaha’s marketing hype for the FZ6R seems right on the money, so young and young-at-heart new riders, get yer checkbook out!

Alternate take: 2010 Ducati Monster 696 $8995

Ducati’s Monster 696 grants easy access to the world of motorcycling and the world of Ducati.

With all the glory Ducati’s superbikes receive it’s easy to forget about the company’s lil’ Monster. Here’s your chance to own a Ducati without putting a second mortgage on your house.

The Monster 696 has a lowly 30.3-inch seat height. Its air-cooled 90-degree V-Twin engine is mild yet grunty in low rpm, but it’ll rev eagerly all the way to its lofty 10,000 rpm limit. I found the 696’s ergo package well suited to my height, inseam, etc, but a slight forward reach to the handlebar might seem a stretch for those under, say, 5-feet, 5-inches or so.

An undertail exhaust maintains a clean look, and dual Brembo (perhaps the most respected name in brakes) brake calipers clamping pizza-pan-size rotors keep this Monster in check.

And, of course, it has lots of sex appeal, which can be tailored to your tastes. Ducati’s Logomania removable bodywork for the Monster series allows for a swap to a selection of no less than 10 different color schemes.

1. 2009 Suzuki TU250 $3799

I feel as though I can’t say enough good things about the lil’ TU.

Had I ridden the TU prior to our Best of 2009 article, I might’ve pegged it for bike of the year over the Triumph Street Triple 675 R. For what it’s worth, I’m in love with that Triumph!

Maybe it’s the TU’s undeniable simplicity and bygone era styling, but this motorcycle screams beginner bike to me, and that’s why it stands alone here sans an alternate choice.

The TU should be especially attractive for those physically suited to its 30.3-inch seat height – daddy long legs may want to look elsewhere.

If any current motorcycle has to be pegged as posterboy for a beginner’s bike, the TU250 from Suzuki might be our pick.

With an open and upright riding position, easy reach to the handlebar, roomy and comfortable saddle, light weight (328 lbs) and powerful-enough air-cooled 249cc Single, this Suzuki is ideally suited to buzzing around the neighborhood and in town – right where most new riders will spend the lion’s share of their time learning new skills.

And if you need to mix it up with Peterbilts on the interstate, the TU250 can do it, albeit just barely.

Most impressive of all, though, is that Suzuki supplied the TU250 with fuel injection while managing to keep the bike’s MSRP so low it beams: “All are welcome!”

The TU came out on top in our 250cc Streetbike Shootout last year, as our tiny horde of testers with vast riding experiences simply loved this machine.

When guest tester Alice Sexton was asked if she noted any shortcomings in the TU250, her succinct reply was, “None!”

In Your Defense

Rather than focus exclusively on spindly bikes with wheezy little engines – what many purport as the best type of beginner steed – I wanted to highlight that new riders come in different sizes, and with different levels of talent: from timid to racing-by-the-end-of-the-year type riders.

I want beginning riders to know there’s a slew of excellent options available to suit not only their limited experience, but also their physical requirements, skills level and tastes.

As a new rider you’re bound to find yourself in this situation more than once – it’s the nature of the beast. But with a motorcycle that fits properly and is generally manageable for you, hopefully you’ll just chalk up mishaps like this to experience and not blame the motorcycle or leave riding altogether.

Veteran riders and pundits might decry my small collection as incomplete by its exclusion of some of what many consider obvious best beginner bike choices, such as the venerable Kawasaki Ninja 250R.

Let me reassure you: You, too, Salty Veteran, would probably pick some great bikes for the new rider.

This five-plus list of scoots is by no means definitive or comprehensive. As I’ve indicated, you could substitute just about any bike above for another so long as you keep the needs of new riders in mind.

And to the new riders reading: Whatever bike you select, these or others, try to ensure you’re honest with yourself about your skill, experience and physical stature before making the pick.

And, above all, keep riding. We need you!

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