A beginner’s guide to buying a motorcycle

Picking the right ride can make all the difference.
Motorcycle Buying Guide
This could be you if you know how to get the right motorcycle. Pixabay

The warm rays of spring sun trigger almost irresistible thoughts of motorcycling following a cold winter. For bikers who live in colder climates, that means bringing motorcycles out of hibernation, maybe for a trip to Daytona Bike Week.

For want-to-be motorcyclists, that means visits to their nearby dealers to throw a leg over the sexiest rides in the showroom. Love can be impetuous and impatient, so we’re here to try to provide a bit of guidance aimed at maximizing your fun and minimizing the risk that worries your mom.

Get everything you need before the bike You can’t ride a motorcycle without the necessary skills, legal permission, safety gear and frame of mind. (If you want to skip straight to the bike recommendations, you can click here).

That means enrolling in a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse, where they will provide you the motorcycle and teach you how to operate it properly. They’ll also prep you for your visit to the DMV to get your motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license so you can ride legally.

The MSF will loan you a helmet for the school, but you’ll probably want some other protective gear to protect the parts of your body you don’t want scraping against the pavement. Here’s a short list of the items you may want:

  • A proper motorcycle jacket made from thick leather or ballistic nylon and backed by protective armor in the shoulders, elbows and spine.

  • Armored gloves to protect your hands

  • Boots that are high enough to protect your ankles and don’t have laces that can whip around the footpegs as you drive.

Helmets are slightly more complicated and exist in an unusual area where paying more doesn’t correlate to increased safety. Any full-face helmet (you don’t want to break your face like Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger did, do you?) with Department of Transportation certification will provide sufficient protection in a crash. This emphatically does not apply to the fake beanie helmets or cheap internet specials, which lack DOT certification and will not protect you in a crash.

More expensive lids have a nicer finish, better comfort features and are typically quieter because they block wind noise more effectively. Studies have shown that exposure to 20 minutes a day of motorcycling wind noise can inflict hearing damage.

With the accessories out of the way, it’s time to pick a bike.

New Versus Used

Beginning riders are often a bit intimidated by the thought of mechanical problems with a machine they may not yet know well. New motorcycles are almost certain to start and run without any trouble for many years, so long as you don’t crash them and provide basic maintenance on schedule. Plus, you get to pick your color and accessories.

The tradeoff, of course, is that new motorcycles are expensive, and come with even more costs when you factor in maintenance and insurance.

Used bikes can save you some cash and you have options about where to find them. Dealers typically have used bikes they will sell you complete with a warranty. Of course, there is also nearly infinite selection available online from sites like eBay Motors and Craigslist. For bikes bought from private sellers, the obvious factors are important. Avoid buying a bike that has visible crash damage. Buy a bike with as few miles as possible. Look for bikes whose owners have verifiable service histories. Those documents allow you to call the shop that has serviced the bike and an relevant information about its condition.

If everything appears to check out, have an experienced motorcycle technician inspect the bike before finalizing the purchase. Consider the cost of any needed repairs, such as replacing worn tires, when contemplating a purchase.

Obviously, the bike should start and run properly. Modern fuel injected bikes are more tolerant of sitting idle, but older carbureted bikes tend to suffer clogged idle jets when they sit. This is simple to fix, but sellers will use this as cover for more expensive problems when a prospective purchase runs poorly. Let someone else figure it out and move on.

Pick a style

Motorcycles vary dramatically in style and construction, from high-clearance off-road-capable dual-purpose machines, to forward-leaning sport bikes that look ready for the race track, to kicked-back cruisers for relaxing rides. There are also monster touring bikes, half-ton giants outfitted with massive windshields and luggage, but these are suitable for veteran riders bent on starting a ride at one ocean and finishing at the other.

BMW F 850 GS Adventure
BMW F 850 GS Adventure BMW

Dual-purpose bikes like the Honda CRF230M or Yamaha XT250 are typically simple, durable machines with high ground clearance and soft suspension that can make them as suitable for the urban jungle as for the real kind. They provide a tall field of view over traffic, usually have commuter-friendly comfortable seats and they can soak up potholes without seeming to notice them. Other examples include the Husqvarna FE 350S and the BMW F850GS.

Triumph Street Scrambler
Triumph Street Scrambler Triumph

Scramblers, like the Ducati Scrambler and the Triumph Street Scrambler, are a fashionable variant that take their styling cues from the past and apply them to modern hardware. The BMW R nineT is another good example. Like, dual-purpose bikes, scramblers are narrow and light, which makes them good for navigating through traffic and for hopping up onto curbs to get into the places where many cities tolerate motorcycles parking to leave more regular spaces for the cars.

Honda CBR300R
Honda CBR300R sport bike Honda

Sport bikes like the Honda CBR300R, Kawasaki Ninja 300, and Yamaha YZF-R3 are race-inspired machines with low handlebars that dictate a forward-leaning riding position that can feel unnatural to beginners. Contemporary sport bikes have plastic aerodynamic bodywork for high-speed riding that is expensive to replace in the event of even low-speed tip-overs that are common among new riders.

2019 SV650 ABS
2019 Suzuki SV650 ABS Suzuki

A better alternative is the classic-styled café racer, like the Suzuki SV650, Ducati Monster 696, which have some of the same nimble handling and sporty style of modern sport bikes, but in throwback style with little or no body work.

Harley Street 500
The Harley-Davidson Street 500. Harley-Davidson

Cruisers like the Honda Rebel 300, Harley-Davidson Street 500, and Yamaha V-Star 250 take their styling from classic Harleys, even though nearly every manufacturer offers one. These bikes’ raked out front forks lend the necessary style, but the geometry of leaning the fork back at such an angle can create awkward low-speed handling that can unnerve learning riders.

However, a low seat is another hallmark of cruiser style, which makes these bikes appealing to beginners, especially shorter ones, because it is easy to put your feet down to catch the bike if it starts to fall over at parking lot speeds. Their low-slung position comes at the cost of suspension travel, so cruisers aren’t good for riding on bad pavement. They better for riding smooth boulevards on a Saturday night. Other cruiser models to consider include the Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD, Indian Scout Sixty.

Another category of bike that is often overlooked is the so-called “standard.” Bikes like the Triumph Bonneville, Yamaha SR400, Suzuki TU250X eschew fashion in favor of function, so they don’t fall easily into any group. They tend to have a comfortable upright riding position, flat, cushioned seats, and reasonable suspension travel, so they do everything pretty well. These jack-of-all-trades rides may be the least trendy but most sensible choice of all.

Regardless of your choice, be careful and have fun riding this season.