Things to Know When Buying Your First Motorcycle
Few things in life deliver the thrill and pure joy of cruising the curves of the road on your own two-wheeled fun machine. Motorcycles offer a sense of freedom and excitement no car can provide, not matter what it costs. Riding requires sharp skills, a keen mind, quick reflexes, and the ability to handle hair-raising situations. Due to the demands that come with riding motorcycles, the barrier to entry is high — higher than it should be, anyway.
Here’s a quick rundown of everything you need to know to get out of your cage and onto the open road.
The first gasoline-powered motorcycle, dubbed the Petroleum Reitwage, was built by legendary German designers Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach back in 1885. Since then, motorcycles have branched in countless directions, with different machines made for different purposes.
Here are the five basic categories:
Think Harley Davidson. These bikes have lower seat heights and a more laid-back riding position. They often have large engines, but are not made for racing or super-high performance situations. Most major bike manufacturers produce some type of cruiser.
Massively popular in the U.S., sportbikes — often called “crotch rockets” — are finely tuned machines capable of high performance and even higher speeds. It takes time to train your body to handle a motorcycle, and it’s far too easy on a sportbike to find yourself into a deadly situation before you even know what’s happening. With that, these bikes are not recommended for beginners.
Touring motorcycles come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, but their purpose is always the same: long-distance travel. Some bikes come fully loaded with large fairings, luggage trunks, windshields, and even stereos and GPS. Others are more stripped-down and have high seats (due to high clearance) to allow for off-road riding. Touring bikes generally deliver an excellent riding experience — but because of their high price and weight, they may not be the best choice for a new rider.
At their most basic, dual-sports are just dirt bikes — which are generally illegal to ride on public roads — with some mirrors and lights slapped on to make them street-legal. Since dual-sport bikes often have smaller engines and are light-weight, they are a good option for new riders. However, if you’re short, beware: Most dual-sports have very high seats. If you can’t put both feet down when stopped, the bike is too tall for you to ride safely.
This category is filled with hybrids whose makeup contains elements from the previous four. Many of the most common bikes you’ll see fall into the “standard” camp. They generally have a more upright riding position than a cruiser (which leans you back) or a sportbike (which leans you forward). Engine sizes vary wildly with standards, but usually don’t edge into the super-high range.
Standards are often good, all-around bikes that, easily top our list of the best bikes for beginners; it’s easy to find one without any extreme features that could pose a hindrance or danger while you’re learning the ropes.
There are some of the key factors you should take into consideration while searching for your first set of wheels:
Seat height is quite important, whether you’re a beginner or not. As mentioned, both feet should touch the ground when sitting at a stop on your bike. Conversely, if you’re tall, a bike with a low seat height is going to be uncomfortable, and probably make you look a bit silly.
The best tactic is to go to a dealership and try out a lot of bikes to see which one feels solid while sitting. Once you find one that works well, ask what its seat height is and look for bikes in that range.
The weight of a bike matters for a number of reasons. Heavier bikes are better for highway riding (the first time a semi passes you going 75, you’ll understand why), but can be more difficult to maneuver. Also, if you drop your bike — which will happen — or if it gets knocked over when parked, you need to be able to get it upright without the help of someone else. That is especially true should a drop happen while you’re all alone. So make sure to take your strength into consideration before opting for a big, heavy machine. (Though with the right technique, even a tiny person can get a behemoth Harley upright.)
Used vs. new
If you’re just getting into motorcycles, avoid buying a new bike until you have some riding hours under your belt since you’re going to drop it, probably more than once. There’s no reason to screw up a brand new motorcycle simply because you’re learning. Also, you’ll spend less money; people often like to buy a different bike after they’ve learned to ride and have some idea of what kind of bike they really want — not to mention the inevitable repairs.
That said, if you’ve got money to burn, do whatever you want. Buying a new bike definitely has its perks: The machine is guaranteed to run well, and should come with a warranty and deals on maintenance. But for those of us who have to budget our motorcycle purchases, go used.
Even more important than your bike is your gear — it can save your life, and that is no joke. We highly recommend beginning your motorcycle-riding life by abiding by the code of “all the gear, all the time,” often referred to as ATGATT. Is it a pain in the butt to put on (and take off) the jacket, helmet, pants, boots, and gloves every time you ride? Absolutely. Know what sucks more than that? Dying or becoming a vegetable because you couldn’t spare two minutes to slap on your gear.
Unlike with motorcycles, we don’t recommend buying a used helmet. Helmets lose their protective abilities if they take on heavy impact during an accident, or are just too old — and when you buy used, you just never know. You will be relying upon your helmet to protect your brain and face. So save up the extra cash to get a good one.
While we recommend a full-face helmet, some people prefer half-helmets with muzzles, which should provide almost as much protection. Just keep in mind that you’re risking knocking off your chin with that style.
In the U.S., riding a motorcycle legally requires getting a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. The process for doing this varies from state to state. You will likely have to first take a written test to get your motorcycle permit before you can sign up for your endorsement test.
Important: The absolute best way to go about getting your license is by taking a motorcycle safety course, which most often includes your endorsement road test at the end. Taking a safety course will also teach you truly invaluable skills that will keep you alive. These courses will cost you a couple hundred bucks — but it will be money well spent.