What Not To Ride…

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Here’s the deal on that:

As a new rider, you do not want a sport bike, period.

Sport bikes typically have plastic covers (“fairings,”) high footpeg clearance for cornering, stubby, steeply raked “clip on” handlebars and a tucked-in riding position. They also have high horsepower (often, enough to easily wheelie the bike just by throttle alone) and very aggressive power delivery, too. Some rev to more than 14,000 RPM! Several have more than 150 hp in a 400 pound package – a power to weight ratio better than a 911 turbo. These kinds of bikes can do 0-60 in less than 3 seconds, run the quarter mile in 10 seconds at more than 130 mph and have top speeds in the 150-plus range. Some can get close to 200 MPH.

It’s not just the tremendous power, either. Sport bike suspensions can be very unforgiving of newbie mistakes; the steering is typically rattlesnake quick and the chassis is set up on the assumption that the rider is experienced. Many of the latest sport bikes are basically the same as full-on race bikes. They are extremely aggressive machines – and very easy to get in over your head on. Examples of this type of bike include the Kawasaki ZX-10R and the notorious Suzuki GSXR Hayabusa (the ‘Busa) as well as smaller cc but often even more aggressive “middleweight ” bikes such as the Honda CBR600.

Several “naked” bikes – sport bikes without the plastic fairings – are in this class, too. For example, the Yamaha FZ-1, Aprilia Tuono and (one of my bikes) the Kawasaki ZRX1200R.  

Such bikes are great fun but not for a person who has not thoroughly mastered basic riding techniques and is at least somewhat prepared to deal with the very aggressive riding characteristics and capabilities of such machines. My personal opinion: No one who hasn’t been riding regularly for at least a year (and taken the MSF class) has any business on any sport bike. This is the type of bike that is most likely to help get a young kid with little or no experience as a rider but who feels invincible and has little fear of death killed. Riding such a bike as your first bike is not unlike trying to learn to drive in a Ferrari or ZR-1 Corvette. It can be done, but it’s not a good idea. 

You also don’t want a large cruiser/touring bike; they are too heavy  (some weigh close to 1,000 pounds) for a beginner and very easy to drop/lose control of in a corner and during low-speed maneuvering if you are not experienced. This is the type of bike that is most likely to help get a middle-aged, first-time rider having a mid-life crisis killed. A 45 year old guy thinks he’s too mature to start on something smaller – or take the MSF class. And soon finds himself dead. Examples of this kind of bike include big Harleys, the Honda Goldwingand so on.  

Choppers? Customs? Look at ‘em all you like. Don’t try to ride one as your first bike! 

So, what does that leave?

Standards and four-stroke dual sports – in the 250-650 cc range. (Avoid two-stroke off-road motorcycles; these also are not for beginners.)

These bikes have moderate power and mild power delivery; they are not too heavy; they are predictable and easy to ride – and will help you learn to ride without getting in over your head (and getting hurt).

I’ve mentioned bikes like the Kawasaki KL/KLR series and the Honda XLs as examples of good-natured/forgiving and easy to ride dual-sport motorcycles. These types of bikes are my personal recommendation for a new/beginner rider. You can learn to ride on the lawn/dirt. And if you drop the bike, it will not hurt it (even cosmetically; they are rugged and don’t have a lot of chrome to scratch, etc.)

Examples of standards include bikes like the thoroughly excellent Honda Nighthawk, which has been made in sizes from 250 to 750 ccs (the latter being a fine bike for almost any purpose, including commuting). The Suzuki SV650 is a little more aggressive, but it’s ok, too.

You could also go with something like a Honda Rebel, if you wanted a cruiser-type of bike in a manageable package.

Another option: a 500-650 cc Japanese bike from the late ’70s or early ’80s. These are much like current standards such as the Honda Nighthawk. They’re docile, easy to ride bikes. For example, something like an early ’80s Suzuki GS500 or, the standard version of the touring bike I recently got, the Honda GL500/GL650 v-twin.

Bikes such as these have the Coolness Factor and also have the advantage of being really inexpensive; you can pick up a nice one for less than $2,500.

As long as you stick with standards and dual-sports, you’ll be fine.

No sport bikes; no big cruising or touring bikes!

Not for your first bike, anyhow.

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  6 comments for “What Not To Ride…

  1. Steve
    May 6, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Great article. It’s what I always tell my friends that are expressing an interest in riding. I actually tell them to take the MSF first (it’s funded by MC licenses in PA) since it’s free.

    I learned on an ’89 Katana that I bought with an ‘R’ title for ~$1000. Forgiving suspension and underpowered, two things a new rider needs. The plastic was already ratty, but after my 4 years it was none the worse for the wear when I sold it.

    I graduated to a 98 Superhawk liter bike and am sooooo glad I learned on an underpowered bike or I would be scared of it.

    One last thing I would mention to new riders is to find some buddies with lots of seat time to ride with. My two favorite people to ride with are in their 50′s and have been riding since they were teens. Even with my decade-plus of riding, they make me feel like an amateur because they ride smooth AND safe on spirited rides through the back country.

    • May 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      Hey Steve,


      The bike I learned on was an early 80s Honda XL250 dual sport (remember those?) I started on the dirt, which I recommend, because it’s easier on the bike – and easier on you. When you drop the bike, it will be a softer landing (and probably at lower speed). Also, dirt/dual-sport bikes are built to be dropped and you won’t hurt the bike whereas even a minor drop on asphalt is no fun – and can cause serious damage to a street bike.

  2. Dottie
    July 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I know it’s a little late to be posting about this article, but you have brought up a very important issue.

    Personally, I think these new sport bikes should only be ridden on a racing track. By choice, not law, as I am a Libertarian. Yes, I feel I can speak on this issue. My first bike was a Yamaha 60. I was 9-years-old. Our dad was very strict with the rules. We could not even SIT on the parked bike without a helmet. We rode back in the woods so we also had to have proper shoes (no sandals, flip-flops), long pants and some kind of attire that covered your arms. We rode hard & fast on rough terrain & had our share of major wipe-outs. We sure had a lot of fun!

    I never did get a street license. Just wasn’t interested. My dad is now 70-years-old and still rides. He has a full-dress bike and he and his wife get together with friends and take road trips every chance they get. My brother also still rides trails, climbs and has a street bike.

    The saddest thing I see with these new sport bikes is the age of the riders. I don’t think I have ever seen ANYONE that looks over the age of maybe 28 riding these things. That seems to speak to the maturity of the rider because I see them darting in and out between cars and trucks, riding wheelies down the expressway at 60 mph and these kids are wearing sunglasses, shorts & a tank top. No helmet, of course. I’m also seeing a lot of passengers on these bikes as they weave in and out of traffic at high speeds. C’mon kids, what are you thinking?

    You young kids probably think I’m just some old fogy sticking my nose in your business like your mama always did. “It’s my bike,” you say, “It’s my life”. Yeah, you’re right. It IS your bike and YOUR life, but it’s also MY life too when you ride like this on the street.

    I’m not trying to tell you what to do, I’m ASKING you to use your common sense. You also encourage the Clovers to pressure the government to make more laws restricting your riding. This will only hurt YOU. Not me.

    I understand there’s probably not many, if any, places to ride your bikes fast and do wheelies so why not contact a group that might be able to help: Like the StarBoyz. They are located in Ohio and are now offering classes on how to ride wheelies and do stunts. Perhaps they can help find a safe place for you to do this. Here’s there website: http://forum.starboyz.net

    Thanks for taking the time to read this and Happy, Safe Riding!

    • July 19, 2011 at 4:47 pm

      Hi Dottie,

      I understand where you’re coming from, but consider:

      The same arguments can be directed at fast cars; indeed, almost any car (a “family car” like the current Toyota Camry V-6 has more power than a mid-1980s Corvette, can do 0-60 in 6 seconds or so and has a top speed well over 130 MPH).

      Not all sport bike riders are irresponsible or reckless; as with cars, it’s the person controlling the machine – not the machine.

      It takes a fair amount of skill to ride any bike competently. Arguably, more skill than it takes to drive – or, more skill than many (probably most) American drivers possess. People who ride high-performance sport bikes usually have even more skill – because low-skill people are not attracted to sport bikes, or are scared of them or get scared off them pretty quickly.

      Riding fast – as such – is no more dangerous than driving fast (as such). It depends on the operator, the machine and conditions.

      I do agree with your point that sport bike riders should exercise good judgment but I also cheer any action that annoys the Clovers. I especially enjoy blasting past one on my sport bike and watching him fume as I go by!

      • Mr6
        April 18, 2012 at 8:42 am

        My first three bikes were ’91 Nighthawk 250, ’79 Suzuki GS 850, and a ’89 Suzuki CBR600. I rode these over the course of 4 years. I never had a problem riding the Nighthawk. Great small bike, even if you’re 6’3″. The GS850 was a pure pleasure to ride. Super quick, and super smooth, BUT I was too inexperience to handle it when I slipped in wet sand on the freeway on ramp. Like Eric said, too heavy for a beginner, but a beautiful machine. The CBR600 sport bike was a blast to ride, but going too fast too quickly was a constant temptation. An SUV driver on a cell phone turned left in front of me (toward a strip mall) about 20 seconds after my light turned green, and the brakes were just good enough to reduce me to probably 15mph on impact. So, yeah. I agree with Eric. Beginners stick to standards. I haven’t ridden since, but I’ve always wanted a KLR650.

        • April 18, 2012 at 9:52 am

          Thanks for your input, Mr6! I’ve owned a Nighthawk, too (CB550) and it was a great all-arounder. I think its a shame there aren’t many middleweight standards being made new anymore. Probably the closest to it is the SV650 Zuke.

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