Learning to Ride – Choosing a Motorcycle

October 29, 2013
Byron Wilson
Byron Wilson
Associate Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

Byron's sure to be hunched over a laptop after the checkers are flown, caught in his own little version of heaven. Whether on dirt, street or a combination of both, MotoUSA's newest addition knows the only thing better than actually riding is telling the story of how things went down.

To evaluate all the different machines  our six newbie tester changed often and discussed the differences.
There are streetbikes, dual sports, cruisers and more that would serve a new rider well, and with so many options available making a decision on a first bike can be tough.

Depending on where you stand in the continuum of new-riderdom, choosing a first motorcycle may be the most fun or most frustrating experience you’ll have. There are a host of riding options available, including several new entry-level mounts, and choosing one requires some thought and research.

Speaking from experience, much of the time spent on a motorcycle as a new rider is focused on keeping the thing upright, learning to be fluid with your controls and growing comfortable addressing the numerous tasks demanded during a ride. A bike that’s reliable, inspires confidence and that you don’t mind dinging-up is a good place to start. That last suggestion is a hedged bet, because the potential for a newbie to drop the bike a time or two is pretty high. If money is a concern, be warned that cosmetic fixes can be costly on high-end bikes, but on a 250 dual-sport they just add to the character. It’s something to consider.

Do some pre-purchase introspection to decide what you want to accomplish with the new bike. Off-road exclusive riders will need a different bike than pledging members of the gang that hangs at the bar down the street. Are you street only, or do you want to take the bike out on dirt roads in the hills? Are there extended, multi-day trips in your future? Is this the first step on your way to a career in GP racing? There are dirt bikes, dual-sports, adventure touring bikes, standard street bikes, cruisers, and sportbikes to choose from, each with its own advantages and limitations.

Check out the bike evaluations in our motorcycle reviews section to see what a mount is capable of and what, if any, quirks it has. Some like the 2013 Honda CB500F and 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 First Rides give a full account of newer motorcycles that are being specifically marketed to new riders.

Sectioned triple reveals all.
Learning some cursory aspects of the mechanics of a motorcycle will be a big help when choosing a new ride.

Learning some cursory aspects of the mechanics of a motorcycle will also be a big help. Many rides are classified according to their displacement, but what is displacement and what does it have to do with anything? The cc stands for cubic centimeters and is a measurement of the quantity of fuel/air mixture that moves through a single rotation of the engine. Larger displacement motorcycles generally have more power on tap than smaller and lower displacement motorcycles typically offer better gas mileage.

Displacement isn’t everything, as the engine configuration makes a big difference too. A 600cc Inline Four has a lot zip than an 800cc V-Twin. Inline Four, V-Twin, Single, Parallel Twin, Boxer and so on are all designations of the engine configuration. Leaning some of the basics of how these configurations perform will help give you a sense of the performance capability of the bike in question.

Though it’s generally safe to assume that larger engines are more powerful engines, it’s relative to the tuning and configuration of the powerplant. Most newbie rides are going to sport Singles or Twins, since these typically don’t produce high outputs of horsepower or claim astronomical top-speeds.

There’s much more that determines the overall performance of the bike, however, including the transmission, weight, engine design, etc. Generally bikes with larger cc’s next to their names are going to be heavier, require a bit more skill and finesse to operate and are going to cost more than lower displacement machines within the same class.

The International Motorcycle Show is the perfect place to check out your next potential motorcycle.
Sit on lots of bikes before making that first purchase to see what feels best. Consumer shows generally have many different types of motorcycles on the floor to check out.

Depending on the age, make and model there are bikes with or without anti-lock brakes, electric starters, electric fuel injection, adjustable suspension and other options. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) have become much more prevalent on motorcycles in recent years. ABS monitors the rotational speed of the wheels and if the wheel gets close to locking up during braking, the ABS kicks in to modulate the pressure on the brakes, helping to avoid things like skidding and keeping the inertial effect of the motorcycle intact, allowing for greater stability. It’s a safety measure that can be invaluable to a rider with little experience on a motorcycle, though it will add slightly to the overall cost.

Find a way to sit on a few different types of bikes if you already haven’t. Dealerships are perfect places to do this, since many offer a variety of makes and models. Consumer shows are also ideal. Even if you’re not ready to make a purchase go in and talk to the staff, see if there are bikes well-matched to your aspirations as a rider and get an impression for the geometry of the machines to know what feels most comfortable. Another great way to sample different types of motorcycles is during a training course, like MSF, which often offer several styles of bikes for class participants.

The following descriptions will highlight some of the features that make up motorcycles in each of the broad categories mentioned above. Hopefully they will serve as a jumping-off point in your search for the perfect ride.

The 250F uses a 58.3-inch wheelbase and it plows along its intended line with determination.
The 2013 Honda CRF250L is a capable handler in the dirt.
 The BMW is slightly more affected by a severe throttle chop simply because its front end is so soft.
(Top) The Yamaha WR250F is a newbie-friendly off-road trail-bike. (Middle) The Honda CRF250L is a reliable dual-sport. (Below) The BMW F800GS fits into the Adventure category and require some skill to maneuver off road.

Off-Road: Dirt Bike/Enduro
Dirt bikes, whether designed for competition or trail riding, are purpose built for off-road use and as such have features designed to perform well over variable terrain. Tires are slim and narrow and most have knobs to improve traction in slick and loose conditions. Suspension is generally softer than on street bikes to absorb impact off of jumps or in bumpy conditions. Dirt-only bikes will need aftermarket upgrades to be legal for street use, such as the rear view mirrors, turn signals, brake lights and license plate holders. They’re lighter, more nimble and have higher ground clearance than their street brethren. The 2012 250F Japanese Enduro Comparison looks at two trail bikes that will be fun and friendly to new riders.

On/Off-Road: Dual Sport
Dual Sports are basically dirt bikes with the features necessary to make them street legal. Fuel capacity is often increased and power delivery frequently less punchy than on dirt-only bikes. Ground clearance is generally lower and the stock tires more street-friendly than off-road only knobbies. The Honda CRF250L or Suzuki DR650SE are representative of this segment.

On/Off Road: Adventure
Adventure bikes, such as the BMW F800GS or Triumph Tiger, are also “dual sports” in the sense that they’re designed to handle on/off road use, but motorcycles in the adventure category are larger, heavier and more expensive than motorcycles marketed strictly as dual sports. Bikes in this class require more skill to maneuver off-road due to their increased size and power. Adventure bikes often come prepared for aftermarket accessories such as saddlebags and top cases and generally have upright seating positions and comfortable ergonomics, which make them well-suited for longer rides. You’ll often see adventure, adventure touring or simply touring monikers used to describe bikes in this category. Bikes that fall more within a touring designation will come with street tires and will, for most riders, be capable of only light off-road duty, such as on dirt or gravel roads. More aggressive dirt-capable tires are available, but most Adventure bikes are street bikes first and foremost.

(Above) Suzuki’s GW250 fits into the standard streetbike category. (Below) Honda’s CBR500R has many of the styling traits of a sportbike, but offers more controllable performance than its larger cousins.

Street bikes/Standards
This broad bike category encompasses a wide range of models. Generally a motorcycle is considered a standard when it features an upright seating position, visible engine, limited body work and handlebars and footpegs positioned for a comfortable ride. They are versatile road-going machines that work well for rides of varying distance and are often less intimidating for a newbie than a sportbike or cruiser due to their balanced handling and neutral riding position. There are plenty of arbitrary sub-classes of the street bike segment, like the naked/streetfighter mounts, which are often powered by sportbike engines but packaged in a more upright ergonomics package. Supermotos are a specialized hybrid of dirt/street, with a lightweight MX-like engine and chassis rolling on fat street tires.

Sportbikes are often derivatives of motorcycles used in road racing and as such have an aggressive, forward leaning riding position, full fairing bodywork to optimize aerodynamics and performance-oriented components, such as premium suspension, brakes, tires and electronics (see the Ducati 1199 Panigale or BMW S1000RR for a premium-level example). There are different sizes of sportbikes, so while many are very powerful machines, there are several options such as the Kawasaki Ninja 300 or Honda CBR500R that maintain many of the styling traits of their high-performance cousins while offering more measured and controllable performance. Beginner riders should be extra careful about not selecting a sportbike that’s too aggressive for their skill level. The pinnacle of production sportbikes are the Superbike (1000cc+) and Supersport (600cc+) classes, as well popular hypersports (1300cc+) like the Suzuki Hayabusa and Kawasaki ZX-14. Since they’re performance oriented and prone to crashing, insurance rates are generally higher for larger-displacement sportbikes.

At the core of the 72 is a revvy 1200cc Evolution engine that provides a spirited ride.
Harley-Davidson is an iconic marque in the cruiser category.

In most cases cruisers have a longer wheelbase than sportbikes or standards (the wheelbase is the measurement from one axel to the other), have a lower center of gravity and a relaxed riding position. A cruiser most often sources a V-Twin configuration (though other cruiser engines are employed). The engine displacement is usually larger in comparison to bikes in other categories, but will be designed to provide more bottom-end power and operate at peak performance lower in the rev range. Cruisers are often very heavy, but the heft is offset by the low center of gravity and low seat height, allowing most riders to plant two feet firmly on the ground. Handling is often less nimble than other models, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of handing those long winding roads. They may provide a bit difficulty when navigating a tightly-packed parking lot, however, particularly larger models.

If youre looking for the most comfortable luxury touring motorcycle available the 12 Honda Gold Wing is it.
Large touring bikes like Honda’s Gold Wing are heavy, expensive and require plenty of skill to operate successfully.

Another large-bike segment is the Touring class and include rides like the Honda Gold Wing or Victory Vision. These bikes can weigh upwards of 900 pounds and are not wise as beginner bikes as these large mounts require experience and skill to operate successfully. They typically are geared for long-range riding and come with numerous features from full audio systems to cruise control and have large 1000cc+ engines. The Can-Am Spyder also falls within the touring segment, but it’s unique for the fact that it’s a three-wheel mount. Cornering ability is more like an ATV than a motorcycle and will take some getting used to. Can-Am has equipped the machine with numerous electronic systems to help keep it from tipping in the twisties.

Whatever style you choose, make sure to be honest about your abilities as a rider. If you have zero experience, jumping on a Gold Wing with a pillion isn’t a grand idea – and riding off the dealer sales floor aboard the Hayabusa is plain stupid. There’s no shame in starting out small (everyone was a noob once). Developing confidence and competence at core riding skills are critical to ensuring the experience remains fun, safe and rewarding.