Choosing the Right Starter Bike

The other day I watched as a VERY new rider cast a leg over her bike (a middleweight, physically large cruiser), cautiously uprighted it from the side stand, and wobbled off down the road. I don’t mean to judge, but I couldn’t help but think that she may have made a poor decision in choosing her first bike. Why do I care? Because a newbie rider on a bike that they’re not comfortable on is HAZARDOUS, both to themselves and to the people they’re riding with. Picking a starter bike is a hard decision, and depends on many factors: previous experience with dirtbikes/motorcycles, physical stature and strength, overall confidence on two wheels, and personal taste.

Your first bike should inspire confidence, not scare the sh!t out of you. Many new riders get such a fright in their first few days of motorcycle ownership that they immediately put the bike up for sale. A starter bike, ideally, should be fairly light, maneuverable, responsive, and have a more or less “standard” seating position. This means sitting upright, feet underneath you. This position makes it easier to control the bike, and provides a better view of what’s going on in traffic.

If I could give just one piece of advice to a new rider, I would say “don’t let yourself be swayed by anyone else, get the bike you’re comfortable on”. Many newly permitted riders hear things like “oh, don’t buy a 250. It’s too small and you’ll be sick of it too quickly.” However, that person may have NO prior experience on a motorcycle, and feel comfortable only on a small bike.  They need to build up their balance and co-ordination skills before they can consider getting something bigger. The used market is FULL of small bikes, and there’s great deals to be had. When you’re ready to upgrade you simply sell the bike to another new rider. It’s like giving hand-me-downs to your younger siblings.

I will give one caveat: people may disagree, but I think that anything smaller than a 250 is TOO small. The Honda CBR 125 may be a great bike in the big cities of Europe and Asia, but for Newfoundland it’s underpowered. If you insist on buying a CBR125 you need to resign yourself to taking the old way everywhere, because it really doesn’t have the power to be safely ridden on the highway. Unless it’s downhill all the way…with the wind in your back…at 5am so you won’t be slowing down the flow of traffic. Then again, the highway is moosey at 5am, so scratch that idea.

Another thing I tell new riders is “don’t buy your dream bike as your first bike”. That’s because you’re probably going to drop it. Chromed-out cruisers and plastic-covered sportbikes are expensive to repair after even the mildest of driveway tip-overs. Best to get the dropsies out of the way on a used bike that already shows the scars from somebody else’s mistakes.

Many folks think that older bikes are good starter bikes, and they can be, but only if you or someone close to you is very mechanical. Some old bikes are gems, but some can be complete money pits depending on how the bike was maintained by the previous owners.

So all that being said, you’re probably waiting for me to get to the point and recommend some good starter bikes. This list is in no way comprehensive, but it contains bikes that are relatively small, light, easy to control and not scary-powerful. In my opinion, these are the best starter bikes.

Honda CBR250, Ninja 250, Ninja 300

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Honda CBR 250. Photo credit: Honda Canada.

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Kawasaki Ninja 300. Photo credit: motorcycledaily.com

These are small sportbikes that look remarkably similar to their larger stablemates. Very light and agile, with just enough power to merge smoothly and cruise along the highway at a good pace. Phenomenal fuel economy as well.

 

Honda CB500F, Ninja 500

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2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500. Photo credit: totalmotorcycle.com

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Honda CB500F. Photo credit: Honda Canada

Honda’s new 500 lineup boasts three slightly different bikes, all of which are unintimidating and geared towards newer riders. I would recommend the CB500F over the other two because of it’s lack of plastic. The Ninja 500 was discontinued in recent years, but the used market is full of them. If you don’t mind the dated aesthetics it’s a fun, powerful little bike with a bulletproof engine.

 

Kawasaki Er-6N, Suzuki Gladius 650

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Kawasaki Er-6N. Photo credit: w3walls.com

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Suzuki Gladius. Photo credit: totalmotorcycle.com

I have singled out these two bikes from the multitude of great Japanese middleweight bikes for a simple reason: they’re naked, therefore less fragile. They’re slightly larger with a taller seat than the above-mentioned 250’s and 500’s, but for a new rider with the confidence to take on a bigger bike, they’re a great choice.

 

Yamaha V-Star 250, Suzuki TU 250, Kawasaki Vulcan 500

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V-Star 250. Photo credit: autoevolution.com

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Suzuki TU250. Photo credit: cars-database.com

So you just don’t want a sporty bike? No problem. The littlest V-Star is a great starter bike if you’re looking for a cruiser. I can testify from my own experience that this bike will do almost everything a newbie can ask of it, with classic Virago looks. If British styling is more your thing, the Suzuki TU250 resembles a Triumph Bonneville and gets amazing fuel economy. The Kawasaki Vulcan 500 (formerly the LTD500) is no longer in production, but is a great small cruiser if you need something a little more powerful. It has the same great engine as the Ninja 500, and extremely reliable.

Almost any Late-Model Japanese 200-250cc Dual Purpose

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Kawasaki KLX 250. Photo credit: asphaltandrubber.com

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Yamaha XT250. Photo credit: canadamotoguide.com

If you want the ability to go off-road, a small dual-purpose like the Yamaha XT250 would be a great first bike. The skills that you develop riding on uneven, loose services will give you an edge when riding on the street. Plus, you don’t have to worry about keeping the bike spotlessly clean. Be wary of buying these bikes used though, many dirtbikes get absolutely crucified. Best to take a knowledgeable friend along if you spot a deal that sounds too good to be true.

The moral of the story? Do your research, shop around, take your time and find what suits YOU best. If you outgrow the bike or realize that you want a different style, that’s what nlclassifieds and Kijiji are there for.

WHATEVER you ride, ride safe!

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Posted on September 3, 2013, in Behind the Visor and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Beautifully written. So many excellent points touched on here that are often neglected when people consider their starter bikes. It is fantastic to see it brought to light! 🙂

  2. Great write-up Krista! Am also a big proponent of Newbie Riders choosing the right motorcycle for their skill level … unfortunately here, without a graduated licensing system a newly-minted Rider can hop on a fully bagged, 900lb Harley or a 1000cc Crotch Rocket … which the dealerships are only too happy to sell them. Factor in the “peer pressure” which is all too prevalent amongst motorcyclists generally and it’s easy to see how a noob can get in over their head …

    BTW, Suzuki’s LS650 (Savage/S40) is also a great choice for many many new Riders (particularly those of smaller stature) and is a model that I’ve successfully recommended to several novice Bikers!

    A great companion piece to your “Choosing the Right Starter Bike” might be “Ride Your Own Ride” … particularly with the annual Toy Run right around the corner …

    • Thanks Perry! The Suzuki Savage TOTALLY slipped my mind, but you’re right…it’s a fantastic bike for someone starting out, and the big thumper puts out more than enough power to keep it “fun” for years of ownership. “Ride Your Own Ride”…hmmmm…intestesting. I’m very leery of those big group rides, it’s a disaster waiting to happen IMO. Too many inexperienced riders and riders simply not paying attention!

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