How to Buy Your First Motorcycle

by Brett on March 29, 2009 · 81 comments

in Cars, Manly Skills


This is a guest post from Chris Hunter. Mr. Hunter is the Editor of A daily dose of the coolest motorcycles: new and classic cafe racers, customs, production motorbikes, racing motorbikes, and design icons. Subscribe to his site to get your daily dose of two-wheeled manliness.

Motorcycles are one of the pinnacles of manliness. They’re up there with Islay single malt, grass-fed sirloin, and Creed’s Green Irish Tweed aftershave.

Why? Because unlike automobiles, they offer a visceral experience: one that requires skill, mental engagement and risk management. On a motorcycle, you can’t sip coffee, fiddle with your phone, or daydream the minutes away. Your senses are on red alert, and your life depends on two tiny patches of rubber connecting you to the road.

Many guys we look up to are intrinsically associated with two wheels. Steve McQueen was renowned for his love of bikes: he was a successful off-road racer, and by the late 70s, his motorcycle collection included well over 100 machines. Marlon Brando rode his own Triumph in The Wild Ones. Even “Che” Guevara de la Serna was known for his Norton.

Maybe these guys suspected what we’ve just found out: riding a motorcycle makes you smarter, because it taxes your brain. (This has been proved by a scientific study from Tohoku University in Japan.) Or maybe they just rode for the balls-out fun of it.

So let’s assume that you’ve passed your test without too much trouble, and you’ve got the co-ordination, balance and presence of mind to ride a two-wheeler.

The cash is now burning a hole in the pocket of your leathers, and you’re doing the rounds of the dealerships on a Saturday morning, looking for a road bike. This is what you need to know.


The Drop

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Most new riders ‘drop’ their first bike, usually during low-speed maneuvering. There are two approaches to this problem. The first is to buy a secondhand bike that won’t cost too much to repair when and if you drop it. The second is to buy a lighter, more manageable bike that you’re less likely to drop. The decision is yours.

Weighty Considerations


Honda CBR600RR

If you’re mostly riding in heavy traffic or a stop-start urban environment, check how heavy the motorcycle is. (Once you’re moving, weight is less of an issue.) Some bikes regarded as ‘small’ are actually extremely heavy: Harley-Davidson’s smallest model, the Sportster, tips the weighbridge at around 550 lbs. Moto Guzzi’s smallest model, the retro V7 Classic, has a slightly smaller engine but weighs a whopping 150 lbs less. Middleweight sportsbikes, such as Honda’s CBR600RR, will be lighter still.

NB: Treat manufacturer’s weight figures with caution. Some are ‘dry’, i.e., minus petrol, oil and associated fluids, whereas others are ‘wet’ and a ‘ready to ride’ weight. The only way to be sure is to try the bike yourself.


triumph-rocket-iii-touringTriumph Touring Bike

If you do mostly short trips, sportsbikes are fun. They’re responsive and handle well. But if you ride relatively long distances, sportsbike or ‘café racer’ style handlebars are going to hurt. These bars are low and often slanted downwards, so your wrists have to support more of your body weight.

A more upright riding position will take the load off your wrists and hugely increase your comfort level. If you’re doing high speeds, a windshield will make things even more relaxing.

This doesn’t mean you need to ride an unattractive bike: cruisers, be they American or ‘metric’, are comfortable over longer distances. And if you like the Euro style, BMW, Ducati and Triumph all make good-looking and extremely competent touring machines.

Wide load

If you’re regularly negotiating city traffic in California, you’ll probably end up ‘filtering’ or ‘lane splitting’. This means riding your motorcycle between two lanes of stopped or slowly moving automobiles. It’s commonplace in most of Europe too.

For this quick (if somewhat risky) way of shortening journey times, you need a relatively narrow bike. Medium-capacity (up to around 650cc) single-cylindered machines are good for filtering, and scooters such as Vespas are ideal. Large capacity ‘boxer’ twins with saddlebags or panniers are not.

The Supermarket Run


If you need storage on a full-sized bike, you’ll need to factor in the cost of a ‘top box’ to go on the back, or panniers. So it might be better to buy a scooter for short trips. (Yes, we realize that some men have issues with scooters. In the Mediterranean countries of Europe, they don’t.)

On many scooters, for example, you can store your helmet under the seat. And when you come out of the store, you take your helmet out and put the carrier bag under the seat.

Seat Height


Harley Iron 883. Example of a low seat height

Harley’s supercool, blacked-out Iron 883 has a low seat height of about 25 inches. A dual-sport machine such as Kawasaki’s rugged KLR650 or a KTM enduro is much higher, at around 35 inches. If you can’t get both feet on the ground at the stoplight, you’re going to have problems keeping the bike upright.

If the bike has a high saddle but is relatively lightweight, you may be okay with a little lean. If it’s a heavy bike and you’re on tippy-toes every time you stop, you’re in for a stressful experience.

So choose carefully, try before you buy, and check to see if the manufacturer offers a low seat option. The good news is that once you’re on the move, seat height becomes largely academic. Even if your bike’s center of gravity is relatively high, you can still have fun in the twisties.



Where are you going to park your bike? This is surprisingly important, and something that a lot of folks forget to factor in. The two big issues are theft and cosmetic damage.

You can reduce theft to some extent with heavy-duty security measures, but bikes can be lifted into trucks and driven away. And if you’re leaving the bike in public car parks during the day, there’s a risk it will get scratched, bashed, or worse, knocked over. Don’t let your heart get broken: buy a used bike rather than a shiny new one.

Customs and choppers


Choppers look bad-a, but they can be tricky to handle.

Do you like wearing WW2 German army helmets? Or fringed leather chaps? Men like Jesse James or Paul Teutul, Sr., the boss of Orange County Choppers, can help you here.

But one thing to consider about bikes with front wheels that stick out a long way is that most are difficult to ride. They don’t turn easily, and they’re hard to maneuver in tight spaces. The ‘further out’ the front wheel sits, the less inclined a bike is to turn.

The distance between the front and back wheels is another factor: a short wheelbase machine such as the MV Agusta Brutale is designed to respond sharply to small rider inputs. This makes it an exciting ride in short bursts, but hard work over longer distances.

Conversely, a long wheelbase cruiser with a fair bit of front wheel rake is going to feel very stable on long, straight roads. Figure out the type of riding you’re going to be doing, and choose accordingly.



Part of the fun of motorcycling is making your bike a personal statement, and choosing your gear. Make sure your helmet is good quality, your clothing offers protection and comfort, and your boots are sturdy enough to survive a dropped motorcycle on top.

Then tune up your skills with a copy of Proficient Motorcycling by David L. Hough … and enjoy the ride.

Any more advice on buying your first motorcyle? Share them with us in the comments.

{ 81 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jake March 29, 2009 at 6:13 pm

im lookin to buy a motorcycle – i saw a picture of an old triumph bonneville, looked up the remakes and im hooked – a couple of my friends had sportsbikes but im not into that kinda bike; id much rather cruise (plan to ride cross country/long distance with a bike once im experienced enough)

im saving up to take motorcycle safety and riding lessons and for the bike itself so my questions are

1) does it matter if i buy used? or should i shell out the extra money for new?
2) how much will a bonneville go for (new or used)
3) any tips, recommendations, tips, stories, anything for a new motorcycle enthusiast?
4) any triumph bonneville owners readin this site?

2 Pete March 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm

OT, but tell me more about this Green Irish Tweed aftershave….~60 bucks on Amazon? Is this something I should look into? Never heard of it….

3 Devon Hillard March 29, 2009 at 6:28 pm

While this is a good guide for buying your second motorcycle, I think for your first motorcycle you should get:

1) Something with less than 70 HP, ideally a good bit less. This will make you less likely to get yourself into trouble/kill yourself right off.

2) Something used and cheap, so that when you drop it, and you WILL drop it, you don’t do $10k in damage.

After you have some solid time on the slow beater, then get yourself something good.

I recommend the Kawasaki EX500/Ninja 500 or something similar. You can get them used cheap and they work fine.

4 Curious March 29, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Never had a bike, probably never will. I’m just wondering, when the article refers to “dropping” the bike, does this literally mean letting the bike fall over or is this code for some other type of mistake?

5 Mac March 29, 2009 at 7:19 pm

The only thing I might add is that you should be prepared for your tastes in motorcycles and/or riding style to change, or to be different from what you first think.

Fresh out of my rider training, and successful licence test, I thought I would be into boulevard cruising and mostly urban/suburban riding. I liked the classic look of a cruiser; the chrome, etc., so that was my first bike purchase. Skip ahead a few years and I found myself enjoying touring down country roads and long distance trips. I ended up outfitting my cruiser with with bags, windshield, and a more comfortable seat for touring.

When I started out I had no idea this is what I would end up liking, and I was fortunate that my cruiser was somewhat adaptable to my tastes. I would definitely not break the bank when buying your first bike because you probably will want something bigger/faster/different after the first few years. As well, some folks find out they don’t really like riding for various reasons. There were a few students from my rider training that gave it up in the first year. Factor that in before you get something pricey.

6 Mac March 29, 2009 at 7:22 pm

@ Curious – dropping the bike means exactly that: bike meeting pavement in a non-prescribed manner. Hopefully you aren’t between the bike and the pavement too.

7 TTFK March 29, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Everything you ever wanted to know about checking out a used motorcycle you are looking at purchasing can be found at:

You will not find a more exhaustive resource on what to look for (and why to look for it) anywhere.

8 Chris Hunter March 30, 2009 at 1:21 am

A few replies to the comments:

Jake, I’d buy secondhand. Check eBay and your local Triumph dealer for Bonneville prices.

Pete, Green Irish Tweed is a long-running underground classic aftershave from one of the oldest parfumiers in existence. It’s distinctive, extremely manly, and exceptionally well-regarded. Find a local dealer, and try before you buy.

Devon and Mac, your advice is excellent.



9 John vG March 30, 2009 at 3:09 am

An approved rider safety course is such a great investment. It’s worth every penny, and even for a seaoned rider of 30 year like me the experienced-rider course helped tune up some fundamentals that might save my life someday. All new riders will try to rely on the rear brake for stops. BIG MISTAKE. It takes a lot of effort and practice to do this, but every rider should learn to reach for the front caliper brake as easily as they would stomp the rear brake in an instinct driven emergency braking situation.

If you lock up your rear wheel in a stop (which will happen VERY easily as most of the weight unloads from the rear and shifts to the front), the rear will travel out of line toward the side. The next instinct is to relieve back brake pressure to correct the skid. The next thing will happen in about one second; the rear wheel will correct in a violent way and the rider will go on a gently airborne trajectory OVER the bike and into whatever is in front, like a car or struck grill and quite possibly the bike will follow with unpleasant results. In almost all stopping situations you will be travelling in a straight line and a front brake can be almost locked up with stopping power FAR in excess of the rear brake, with no ill effect.

Well worth researching and reading and practicing too. It’s a hard thing to learn, but it should be way up at the top of the list for new riders. Keep in mind that the optimal braking is 70% front and 30% rear or something like that, but to learn to use the front naturally and instinctively takes practice. READ and take a course.

Another thing is to go for many solo rides before riding with a group. In my experience the group ride is very distracting.

OK one more thing – if you’re not too fashion conscious and can get over the whole baddass image thing make yourself conspicuous with some extra lights on the bike, or reflective gear, or light modulators, or reflectors or something. It makes a big difference in safety especially in the danger times like dusk and in rain, etc.

I can’t wait for the last snow to melt!

10 stretcharmstrong March 30, 2009 at 3:57 am

These days i ride a middleweight sportbike, but in my youth i first started out on a scooter, and for a beginner i would always advise the same route- their light-weight and smaller wheels make for easy handling, they are extremely frugal when it comes to running costs, but most importantly they give you opportunity to get used to riding on two wheels much more safely than jumping on a more powerful and usually more highly-strung bike. Also, because you are not straddling a bikes’ fuel tank, if you do have the misfortune to fall off, you are much less likely to end up stuck between the tarmac and the machine

11 DieMonkeys March 30, 2009 at 4:34 am

I’m disappointed that engine size wasn’t mentioned. Anyone who has never ridden before should stick with an engine under 500cc, even if your friends all ride liter bikes. When you don’t understand the amount of power you have it’s very easy to kill yourself.

However, the author made up for that miss by mentioning Hough’s book, Proficient Motorcycling. The best book to read for beginning motorcyclists. More Proficient Motorcycling is another good read.

You’ll never learn the right way from your friends or on your own and you’ll only develop bad habits that’ll get yourself killed. Also, alot of states will waive your riding test if you take the MSF course and you can get your license.

12 elena March 30, 2009 at 6:21 am

I wonder if riding a bicycle, while maybe not as manly in the vroom-vroom and speed sense, also makes you smarter in terms of the Japanese study? hmmm…

you should to a post on bicycling soon! it is spring after all…

13 A.T. Nelson March 30, 2009 at 6:29 am

For a good motorcycle-and-manliness fix, check out the Long Way Round and Long Way down mini-series: Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman travel around the world and through Africa (respectively) on motorcycles. It does a great job of making you feel like you’re traveling with them, and you get that thrill-in-your-stomach feeling that traveling brings.

14 Richard March 30, 2009 at 6:30 am

Good article.

I will echo the many others who have recommended the MSF course; it truly is worth every penny and will save your life, or your skin.

And, don’t discount the benefits of a scooter. There are many different kinds and sizes, and they are safe, economical and fun. My Honda Silverwing is terrific, and works well for in-town rides, commuting or long road trips.

15 BRZ March 30, 2009 at 7:16 am

Triumph rider here, ’72 Trophy 650. It is a ton of fun but almost all parts need to be ordered. As with all Lucas equipped machines electrical work is a pain. I think riding an old bike you do look like a bad ass. Especially when you give it one kick an it roars to life! However kicking it until your knee blows out seems to negate the effect!
If you get an older Triumph be prepared to tinker with it a lot.

Ride. Wrench. Repeat!

16 Curtis March 30, 2009 at 7:33 am

I would again, repeat what has been said. Start on something small, at lewast in the sportbike category. If you go out and buy a 600cc-1400cc Race replica bike, and you promptly drop it, it’s going to be expensive, and most likely very painful or fatal to you.

Also, take the MSF, it is an awesome class, ad worth every penny you may need to spend.

17 Земфира March 30, 2009 at 8:07 am

Хороший пост. Прочла с удовольствием

18 Jason March 30, 2009 at 9:45 am

Taking the MSF course before you buy is a good idea. If learning the right way to ride doesn’t interest you, then maybe the 10% insurance discount does (that’s what I get and it’s good for 3 years).

Weight isn’t everything. I’ll give 3 examples here. I’ve owned a Honda ST1100 and currently own a Kawasaki Voyager. I also researched the Honda Goldwing 1200 before buying the Voyager. The ST1100 is the lightest at 670 pounds but it is also the most top heavy and hardest to pick up after a drop. Although the Voyager is a 50 pounds heavier, it feels at least 100 pounds lighter because of the lower center of gravity. The Goldwing 1200 feels even lighter than the Voyager because of the boxer engine keeping the weight low.

My starter bike was an $800 KZ440LTD which was an excellent choice. Small, light, and I wasn’t upset when I dropped it a couple times. Considering a 500cc sport bike will top out around 150mph, I would not suggest it as a starter bike. A Ninja 250 would be better for someone who has never ridden before. Personally, I’d recommend a cruiser because the steering isn’t so touchy and they’re more stable at low speeds.

Protective gear isn’t cheap but neither are medical bills. I’ve never needed my gear but have seen several who wish they had it after they went down. There’s a lot of mesh gear for summer riding so protection doesn’t have to be hot.

19 Santa March 30, 2009 at 10:32 am

I’d rather ride a horse.

20 Dan J. March 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm

I bought a bike for my wife, allegedly, to learn to ride on about 5 years ago. I myself had not ridden in 25 years so we went with the Suzuki Savage 650 LS. It is a lightweight cruise, has a short seat height, and enough power in the Thumper, one cylinder engine, to ride on the Interstate when necessary.

A great bike to learn to ride on and fun at the same time. I rode Deal’s Gap on US 129 in N.C. and Tenn. and the Blue Ridge Parkway a few years ago on vacation by myself.

Beware, the Savage can carry a passenger but it really taxes the engine.

21 Brian March 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Definitely get a used bike for your first: I dropped mine plenty of times, and the only thing that made it OK was that I it already had scratches when I bought it.

On the subject of helmets: There are two helmet safety certification standards DOT and Snell. DOT is standard US government safety tests, and is OK, but the Snell tests are far more rigorous and indicate a much more safe helmet.

Finally, and most importantly, make sure you take the Motorcycle Safety course at your local community college before buying your bike. It gives you a huge advantage in terms of motorcycle safety, and can often shortcut you past the limited motorcycle permit stage, and on to a full permit.

22 Andrew March 30, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Great post! I’m 21 years old, and looking to buy my first bike this summer. I’m thinking someting in the 250 to 500cc range. What kind of safety gear (besides a helmet) should I be looking at?

23 Paul March 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Stopped reading after “Even ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna was known for his Norton.” Maybe you didn’t mean it as a hat tip to him, but why would you include his name in a blog about manliness? The guy was a butcher…If Mussolini had ridden motorcycles, would you have included his name?

24 Kevin March 30, 2009 at 3:28 pm

I had my start with a 700cc Honda v-twin and loved it. One VERY important point mentioned in the article: get a bike where you can put BOTH FEET ON THE GROUND when you are stopped. Can’t recommend that enough.

25 james March 30, 2009 at 3:40 pm

This is a great post. Buying a motorcycle is manly. I think you may have missed engine size as an important aspect.

26 Chris Hunter March 30, 2009 at 5:42 pm

To those who’ve brought up the subject of engine size, I apologise for missing that out. I headed towards that territory with the weight/size issue, but didn’t address it properly.

Commenter ‘stretcharmstrong’ suggests starting on a scooter, and that’s what I did. I think it’s a great idea because you quickly learn some of the dangers of the road, and the dynamics of a two-wheeler. Once you’ve got that, you can figure out the gearchanging aspect and heightened dynamics of a conventional bike.

Re engine size, I tend to look at power given that engine outputs differ so much. For a new rider who needs a bike for longer distance touring as well as commuting, I’d say 600cc is the max, or 750 for a lower-revving twin.

I would say that Honda’s CBR600RR is outside the envelope of suitable sportsbikes for new-ish riders: a 400 or 500 in lower tune will make the whole experience more enjoyable (and safer).

27 Jason March 30, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Andrew, there’s a lot of gear to look at. A must is a helmet as you can’t function too well without your head. You also need a jacket with armor (elbow, shoulder, and spine). The next worst thing to a head injury is a back injury. Leather gloves (I prefer deer skin) as your hands will hit the pavement every time. That would conclude my “required” list.

Highly recommended are armored pants and boots. Although usually not crippling, legs and feet take a lot of abuse in a fall especially if you’re caught under the bike.

Do your research as cheap textile gear can literally melt from the friction of a slide. Leather holds up well but has issues with becoming weaker with age and water exposure. My current gear is a codura & kevlar blend which cost more than my first bike (yeah, I had to save up to get it). Again, do you research here as it’s the only thing keeping your skin in tact.

Don’t take the sale person’s recommendation. They will suggest what they sell, not what is the best. Only the BMW shop here carries good gear but I do live in a small town.

The best protection is defensive riding. They teach this in the MSF class and it will get you out of many situations.

28 Basil Moss March 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Personally I’ll stick with my pedal bike. I think the men who ride 150 miles over cobblestones on the Paris-Roubaix bike race have manliness that trounces any petrol head. All of the encounters I’ve had with motorbikers have been pretty negative- they seem generally to be overweight and arrogant, leaning towards abusive if they see you riding a bike with pedals instead of petrol. But that’s just my experience, maybe motorbike people in America are friendlier…

29 biker wannabe March 30, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Damn you Art of Manliness!

A motorcycle is one of those things that I’ve always wanted, but I go long periods without even thinking about it. Then, every so often I’m reminded of it, and the agony of not having one re-emerges.


Anyway, how bout that Harley Iron 883? Fuck me that’s a bad-ass looking ride.

30 Stephen March 31, 2009 at 7:06 am

+1 on the MSF course. When I was in MA they provided motorcycles for you to learn on as well. You were welcome to bring your own, but I strongly discourage people from buying and riding a bike before the MSF course (some places also provide discount on motorcycles/gear after you take the course). A friend of mine did so, bought a brand new Suzuki 600cc GSXR and rode it before his MSF class. He lost control on a highway, spun out, and crashed into a guardrail. Luckily he lived, but his bike was ruined.

Also, I believe everyone should try and take the course, whether they want to pursue a motorcycle license or not. Either way it was a great experience and a good way to try to see if riding a motorcycle is something you want to continue doing.

I also recommend buying a used bike under 500cc. My first bike was a 600cc sportlike bike (katana) which I bought used from a friend for a good price, however, I wished I had something slightly less powerful and heavy. Dropping a bike happened to everyone I know (myself as well). If you can buy a used naked bike (a bike without the fairings – fairings are the plastic coverings on a sportsbike) it is even better since when you drop it the fairings are usually damaged and they are expensive to replace. A prime example would be a used Suzuki GS500, or if you are looking for something with more kick, the SV650.

If you do decide to buy a new bike, be waary of what the salespeople say. Some shady salespeople they will try to oversell you a bike you should not be riding in the first place. Unfortunately there is a stereotype that the bigger the engine size a bike is, the manlier you are. There are many stories of men being sold 1300cc Hayabusas (to feed their ego) by salesmen looking for the higher commission. Many times these men have no experience to handle that much power and will greatly injure themselves, if not kill themselves, from irresponsible riding. If not, they become fearful of riding the motorcycle and it turns them off from riding.

Some people will say that you will outgrow a bike with a smaller engine size, so it is better to buy something more powerful. I believe that buying a used bike to learn on and then selling it is a better way to learn the fundamentals – that way when you are well experienced, you can move up to a new, more powerful bike with confidence of being able to handle it well. The market for used beginner bikes will always be there and many times you will be able to sell what you learned on for a price close to what you bought it for.

Safety equipment. Most likely you want to match the look of your bike – if you have a sporty bike, you may prefer mesh jackets and gloves from companies like first gear. These are armored and protect from road rash. I rode in normal jeans and boots, but keep in mind that in event of a slide, jeans and sneakers will provide minimal protection and road rash is pretty much a given – there is a reason why track racers wear a full leather set up (jacket and pants) for protection. Furthermore, I whole heartedly believe a full faced helmet is the way to go. One time when I was riding, an enormous June bug flew and splattered onto my face shield. I know that if I did not have the face shield and it hit my face, I would have crashed or slid out.

While people may have different reasons for their choice in gear, it is important to note that in a car you are protected by the car. In a motorcycle, you are only as protected by the gear you wear. Please please please do not be a “squid” – someone who believes that a tanktop, shorts and flipflop is proper motorcycle attire. Unfortunately, there are many of these irresponsible riders who believe style and convenience is more important than safety.

31 Jason March 31, 2009 at 7:33 am

Basil Moss: Pedaling on pavement? No thanks, I prefer pedaling on dirt. I was going to start taking the kids mountain biking this summer but one had to go an break his leg which ruined those plans.

If you think bikers are generally overweight, arrogant, and abusive, then you’ve met the wrong ones. Chances are you’ve met nice ones but they were in a car and you didn’t know they were a biker. I’ve seen motorcycles with mountain bikes loaded on them or towing a small boat (kayak or similar sized sail boat). By reading the comments so far, no one seems to be arrogant or abusive so hopefully that changes things a little for you.

Something else. For those wanting their speed fix, there’s safe alternatives. Take the MSF beginner’s class. Then then advanced class. Then something like the Lee Parks Total Control class. Finally find a race school and start doing track days. It’s legal and there’s no cops or wildlife to ruin your day.

32 Jason March 31, 2009 at 11:51 am

Hahahahahaha! @ the ad for Sexy Gay Singles that I just saw on this site. I’m not a homophobe or anything, its just that at first I thought it was an ad for a hair product.

33 Jim March 31, 2009 at 1:58 pm

First bike: A bunch of us motorcycling Santa Cruz/SFBA geeks passed around a Honda Nighthawk CB250 for years. Great starter bike with just enough power to hit the freeway, and little enough to keep you on the pavement. The bodywork is simple enough that you can do repairs yourself (hello, turn signal stems) after you drop it.

I still dropped my 2nd bike a couple times. It happens.

Helmets: If you hope to enjoy eating solid food in the future, get a full-face helmet. A 2-up couple recently wrecked their Harley on an on-ramp in Marin, and from the description in the newspaper that repeatedly mentioned their extensive facial damage, you know what kind of stupid helmets they were wearing. Also, a friend of mine badly chipped his teeth after high-siding it on a slick manhole cover.

Loud pipes: No, they don’t save lives. This is a disproven myth. Think about it – how much can you really be warning people ahead of you when your volume is projected to the rear? And you can’t count on people hearing you even with loud pipes, because new cars are very well insulated for sound. How manly can you really be if you need loud pipes to inform everyone? (“If you have to tell people you’re cool, you’re probably not”) People begin to doubt… Loud pipes (amongst other negative behaviors) lead to bad public relations which can result in motorcycle bans or restrictions. The non-riding public doesn’t differentiate between sport bike, cruiser, or touring bike. Every rider is an ambassador.

Expect everyone on the road to try and kill you.

Motorcycle Consumer News has some brilliant riding articles (and a lot more). I’ve been a subscriber for around 10 years.

34 LumpyCam March 31, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Great article, Chris. My couple cents:

1) Buy used to start–you’ll drop it a few times plus tastes will quickly change once you experience what riding is all about for you–and expect to upgrade quickly to your ‘real’ bike. If you buy a smart first used bike you should be able to sell for not much less than you paid for it (I lost $200 on my first BMW after a year). Get it from Craigslist and NOT a dealer (buy your next ‘real’ bike from a dealer).

2) Take a course. Many of the principles of motorcycling are not intuitive (e.g. turn left to go right…) and chances are your crazy uncle is not a great teacher.

3) Buy a full-face helmet. There are just soooooo many reasons.

4) Take your significant other to try the pillion (back seat) before you buy. It is now “our” bike.

5) Bookmark to daydream before jumping on your ride to head home from work. You’re commuting to work on it, aren’t you?

35 Kyle March 31, 2009 at 2:32 pm

I’d love to have a motorcycle, but I simply can’t afford the insurance. It costs an arm and a leg to ride one. Considering the long winters here, that would also be on top of a car payment to get around in less favorable weather.

Maybe when I have more money, but for now, my wallet says “no”.

36 Drew March 31, 2009 at 3:27 pm

NEVER. NEVER. NEVER – EVER go cheap on a helmet. Period.

Look for safety ratings that are BOTH DOT and SNELL certified.

Dropping your bike is a matter of “when,” not “if.”

37 Jack of Most Trades. April 1, 2009 at 8:54 am

Best piece of advice: Take the MSF course.
Second best piece of advice: “Expect everyone on the road to try and kill you.”

38 Jake April 1, 2009 at 12:41 pm


While I wholeheartedly agree that you should spend as much as you can possibly afford on good safety gear, the SNELL/DOT debate is a lively one. There is very good science to back up the idea that helmets should actually absorb impact more slowly than helmets designed to meet the SNELL standard do. SNELL impact standards require a harder shell and foam arrangement, which ultimately could cause more shock to the brain in a crash. Ironically, the cheaper DOT-only approved helmets tend slow the head more slowly (if that makes sense) and thus reduce acceleration on the brain.

A good article from Motorcyclist on the subject can be found at:

Above all, ride like they’re all trying to kill you.

39 Tim April 1, 2009 at 1:12 pm

To follow up on Jason’s post about gear:

ATGATT (all the gear all the time) is the motto to live by if you want to survive. A -fullface-helmet is a must since most head injuries from a fall occur to the jaw area. DOT approval is a must, many are now also SNELL rated. An expensive helmet will be both, but so will an lesser-priced one. The former will have better ventilation and a thicker no-fog shield sometimes, but don’t feel the need to spend $700 on a bucket when $200-300 will offer the same protection. Just make sure it fits. If you’ve got squirrel cheeks, it fits.

Textiles will melt easily upon sliding, and you will slide on pavement that will act like coarse sandpaper to your gear. Leather allows the skin of another animal to be destroyed instead of yours. Textiles will melt into your skin in a long slide. Try to remove it from the wounds. It’s not fun. Cordura nylon is a possibility though if you need to use textile. Armor is good, be it soft or hard.

Leather gloves. Nothing else. Full fingered. High cut boots, preferably leather, above the ankle. Waterproof will make you happier in inclement weather. Good tread is required to stay upright at oil-slicked toll booths in the rain while you fumble for coins. Armored riding pants are great and kevlar-denim blends are now an option. I also wear a hard backplate inside my jacket for spinal protection. I’ve t-boned a car. I know what pain is like. I wish to not endure it again, or mitigate it if unavoidable. I was ATGATT and still severely injured. ATGATT saved me from worse.

Shamless plug: Check out my (now-defunct) motorcycling podcast for 2 years worth of two-wheeled fun.

40 Jared April 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

This might sound like a dumb question, but I ask it out of sincere curiosity. If the whole time you’re riding a motorcycle you should be thinking that everybody is out to kill you, does that take away from the fun and relaxation of riding? It sounds you’d be tense all the time.

41 Jason April 1, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Jared – Yes, it can ruin the ride if you’re literally thinking people are trying to kill you. The point is what would be a simple fender bender in a car can be deadly on a motorcycle. Combine a small profile vehicle with other drivers being tired or distracted and they’re just not going to see you. Think of it as defensive driving taken to the next level. The good thing is it will become habit so it doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the ride.

Here’s something to think about. You’re cruising down the interstate and you start to pass a car. You see the driver’s head turn an glance in his mirror. Hopefully you already know where everyone else is because there’s a good chance that car is coming into your lane. Even if you think you made eye contact, they may still take your lane. If you’re in traffic, get ready to lay on the horn.

Speaking of horns, look at the Wolo Bad Boy, Stebel Compact Nautilus, or the Fiamm equivalent. They’re good for both waking up drivers and scaring wildlife out of the road. Once installed, do not test the horn in your garage.

42 Lee April 2, 2009 at 10:05 am

Nice article and some great advice. I had a motorcycle and learned to ride while overseas in Japan many (many) years ago. This is a great place to learn. Why, you ask? Because you are nothing less than a target – everyone wants to hit you. You learn quickly to always look around for your aggressor.

Anyway, I recently bought another motorcycle lately, more so do to a change in commuting but the old lessons learned still apply today. Not to re-hash everything above, but you have to have a full face helmet. Forget the nazi helmets and all that other crap. Won’t save that pretty face of yours for anything – two accidents in Japan and both times I landed square on the chin. No issues here.

I bought a Honda 1100 to commute with and quickly fell into it again. A great bike, reliable, easy to handle, and at 49 mpg – I can live with that.

I see many riders out there at 0 dark thirty on my 85 mile (one way) commute. We all have our safety vests, full gear, and a solid helmet (no K Mart specials). No one cares what we look like. We get there safely and come home to the family.

Once you dress up and see the weekend lobsters (you can tell – tank tops and a nice new sunburn) – you’ll sit back and smile.


43 Steve April 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm


“I’d love to have a motorcycle, but I simply can’t afford the insurance.”

What are you trying to insure? Maybe you’re looking at the wrong kind of bike?

I pay $200 per year for full coverage insurance on my bike. Perhaps shop the insurance providers or look at different models and years of bikes to find a policy you can afford.

44 Gary April 2, 2009 at 5:11 pm

my 18 y/o son took the Harley safety course almost a year ago and is ready for his first bike. he has been tooling around on his uncle’s fat boy and does really well. so to my question….he feels that he needs to move right onto a harley v-rod that is for sale. we have been exposed to a honda and a yamaha, both used/for sale with engine size about 750. since he is 6’4 and 245 lbs he just feels he needs the v-rod ………. i am trying to discourage as bike #1.

i need some input here.

45 Ian Johnson April 3, 2009 at 12:42 am

In the last year, one of my best friends lost a kidney, his spleen and half his colon to a motorcycle accident, My brother’s girlfriends brother died in a motorcycle accident, last month Iwatched a motorcyle accident and had to stabalize the man before the paramedics got there, and a i saw a friend today who broke some ribs last week in a motorcycle accident, the best way to get a bike, is to not

46 Jason April 3, 2009 at 5:44 am

Ian Johnson – Anyone who rides hears that from their non-riding acquaintances. The real question isn’t how they ended up, it’s how did they get there in the first place.

Last year a couple got killed on a Harley and some of my friends tried to scare me with it. What happened? He ran off the road and straight into a tree (his wife was on back). Failure to negotiate a turn is the #1 cause of motorcycle accidents that don’t involve another vehicle.

Last fall a friend of a co-worker almost killed himself (fortunately there was no traffic). The guy admitted to doing wheelies over 100mph.

Another one lost control and spent a few months in the hospital. The police report said alcohol was a factor (no DUI issued).

Probably the saddest thing I saw last year was a rider cut off a pickup truck carrying a loaded trailer. The truck had the right of way but had to slam his brakes to keep from hitting the bike. Had he been killed, it would have been his own fault.

The list goes on but the point is most accidents are avoidable (that goes for cars too). The ones which are not usually involve wildlife and most people walk away from those if they have proper safety gear.

Riding a motorcycle does come with additional dangers and it’s not something you can learn to do properly on your own. That’s why people here keep recommending the MSF course and good safety gear.

47 Joel April 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

I’ve wanted to get a Vespa for awhile now. I know not everyone thinks this is a manly ride-but as others have said, it seems like a good way to start out . Is the MSF course equally valuable to a guy who wants to get a scooter? What about safety clothing? It seems like people on scooters tend to wear the open helmet and don’t wear the jacket, pants, and boots of motorcyclists. Is this because they’re not as necessary or it’s just a fashion thing and you should get all that stuff?

48 Jason April 5, 2009 at 10:33 am

Joel – I’ve never ridden a scooter but it would seem they work basically the same as a motorcycle. I believe scooters don’t require shifting and have linked braking (one lever works both brakes). Aside from that, everything else should apply to scooters.

As far as safety gear, yes you need it. If you go down at 45mph, it doesn’t matter if you’re on a motorcycle or scooter, you’re going to get the same damage.

49 badbozs April 5, 2009 at 3:40 pm

nice pics.

50 richard April 9, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Wow , this is really great…People are very passionate to ride the sport bikes.

51 Longley April 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm

If you want to be manly get something old and british, plus the greasy hands to go with it

52 Joshua April 20, 2009 at 6:28 pm

I love riding motorcycles, but like mentioned proper gear, training, and self-restraint in driving will keep you much safer. And like mentioned above most fatal accidents are the motorcyclists fault, not another driver.

Here are some statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Keep the rubber side down!

53 Reese April 30, 2009 at 2:49 pm

As a rider coach for the california motorcycle safety program or MSF throughout the nation, I would like to say that I like reading that people are saying to take the basic rider course before purchasing and riding a motorcycle. In the long run you will end up enjoying the ride much more and learn very valuable skills to keep you safe on the road. Yah don’t look too manly with your bike laying on its side, in the middle of the intersection.

54 Antony May 15, 2009 at 3:55 am

Dear All

Your article sparked an interest for bikes I had repressed for ages, for various reasons.
But I have discovered today the Royal Enfields and I need one.
I would like it for touring, of course of the very old school type.
Do you think it would be suitable?

Kind regards

55 Al June 3, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Well, I just bought my first bike in about 24 years. And now I’m 58, and not as brave and stupid as I used to be. I am allergic to pain. BUT-if I thought there was a chance of sliding down the asphalt, I wouldn’t have bought it. I don’t do accidents. I don’t wear helmets, armor, padded gloves, knee-hight boots, and all of that other crap. It’s too hot here. I just get on, and go where I want to go, and don’t even put the thought into my mind that the 4-wheelers who pull out in front of me can outmaneuver my ass. If I was scared like you safety-conscious people, I would buy an SUV.

56 Allen August 23, 2009 at 5:17 am


57 half helmet August 23, 2009 at 5:18 am

Well, for me it is the mileage which I will look for while buying my first bike. Style should also not be comprised. I do like Harley Davidson very much.

58 Good First Motorcycle October 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

I’m Looking forward to what technology brings to motorcycles. There is already motorcycles that have functions that change the driving style of the bike, like sport and commuting. Sure motorcycles have gotten faster, but not as many advances as their 4 wheel counterparts.

59 john January 29, 2010 at 11:55 pm

three considerations to buying a bike 1) sit on a lot of different machines, comfort is king, 2) safety, if both feet don”t touch flat on the ground you will drop it at an intersection sooner or later, 3) price, consider the insurance cost and maintenance cost as well as the payment. the tires alone for my triumph rocket III are $600 a set and that doesn”t include mounting and balancing, but what a ride!!!

60 Toby Crow April 10, 2010 at 10:44 pm

My two cents on motorcycles directed to the curious “pre owners”.
1.) Buy a used motorcycle first. The size according to your bodies frame. I’m a bigger guy so I chose a 650cc Suzuki Boulevard S-40. Earlier in the comments it was mentioned about a Suzuki Savage 650cc which are the earlier S-40s. Anyways, check out the motorcycles online community like, for example, and see what the riders are saying. Did you know they now make a 650cc scooter. Check out —I’d like to test drive one. I went from 650cc to 900 cc and now 1520 cc Honda Valkyrie.
2.) Don’t skimp on protective gear. DOT or Snell approved helmets always. Dress for the crash. The other pieces of gear are worthy investments too.
3.) As you look around you’ll see motorsize bantered about as cubic inch or cc’s interchanged. A general rule of thumb is 1 cubic inch is 16.5 ccs.
4.) Take a MSF approved safety course! It will save your butt some grief and pain.
5.) Motorcycle riding is an awesome way to clear your mind…maybe due to concentrating on the ride itself.
6.) Shiny side up and rubber side down.

61 Bernt April 12, 2010 at 8:49 pm

When I bought my first motorcycle, I talked to a family friend who’s been riding for about 25 years. He helped me through the process and actually ultimately sold me his old bike which has served me very well since. So if you know someone who knows bikes, talk to them! Worst case scenario is you get some great advice…

Also a couple other posters said this too, but I think it worth saying again. TAKE THE MSF CLASS! It will save you tons of headaches and the instructors will be able to tell you things that you need to know or do that would probably never even think of on your own. Just take the class.

62 Matt Welsh May 7, 2010 at 8:09 pm

To the person who asked about thinking that everyone is trying to kill you and whether it stresses you out – for me, not so much, but you do have to pay constant attention unlike a car. I’ve been riding for exactly 30 years this year on street bikes, and what I always tell new riders is that having a motorcycle is like having a pet tiger: Sure, they can bring you lots of joy, happiness and adventure, but you should never, ever forget what it is, and what can happen if you stop paying attention for a second.

63 Mac May 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I don’t agree with any of these postings stating you should start off on a smaller bike. As long as you attend the course and you can put both feet flat on the ground you will be fine. Also, you must not panic on the bike. If a large bike causes you concern then get a smaller one. I started off on a HD Super Glide that weighed 650 pounds. Never dropped any bike. Have fun!!!

64 Josh May 18, 2010 at 1:16 am

@ Mac

A lot of it is mental. Most think the smaller the bike, the more in control you can be and more maneuverability you can have. This gives one a greater sense of confidence and makes one more relaxed. I myself feel this. I started off on an EX500 about 15 years ago. I recently started riding a 900. I was probably in control of the 900 just as much as I was the 500 but it didnt feel like it for awhile. All is well now. But its like anything, you have to crawl before you walk. Smaller bikes can help build confidence and experience.

Btw, I have dropped my bike a time or 2. And it was the small one both times. Which probably adds more credence to what you’re saying.

65 jim dorey July 1, 2010 at 12:32 am

as johnvg mentioned waaaay up there, learning to use front brake in an emergency is very important, personally, i learned that on bike. started on the old coaster brake and banana seat things, learned quickly that depending on the rear brake would be silly, so, multispeed biking should be a bit of required practice.

66 charley September 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm

beware “filtering” down here, south of the manson/nixon line; some folks don’t like it and are crazy enough to open a door on you…depending on thre situation i generally prefer to wait.

67 Jack November 28, 2012 at 10:45 am

I have ridden for 45 years, spent 20 years in the motorcycle industry And roadraced for ten years . I do have a bit of fatherly advice for new riders. Be mature enough to not start out with too much bike (power wise). Keep in mind that a little ole 600cc sportbike has a higher power to weight ratio than a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. And a 1000cc sportbike has a higher power to wieght ratio than a Formula 1 car. My full blown privateer AMA 1986 GSX-R750 Superbike would have gotten it’s ass kicked by an off the showroom equivalent of today.
Make wise decisions and have fun riding.

68 Thomas December 10, 2012 at 6:04 am

Hello Everyone, I am in the market for my first bike and I have my eyes on the HD 883 Iron. I am a short guy at about 5’1 but sat on the bike and it felt great (height and weight wise). I am weary of getting that beautiful bike for my first, but here is my plan after reading this thread. Take the MSF class, then buy my Harley, then take the class again using my own bike. Does this sound like a good idea at all?

69 deathproof January 25, 2013 at 12:42 am

Oldschool cb750, no horn, no mirrors, no blinkers, red led flashlight zip-tied on for tail light, dot 3/4 helmet, Levi jacket and doc martins, shades in the day, clear saftey glasses from work at night (after I got sick of burning red eyes), thumb holes cut in hoodie for warmth but I’m rollin…

70 Q March 31, 2013 at 5:38 pm

I bought my first motorcycle at the age of 13 – almost 30 years ago. (I still don’t know how I talked my parents into that.) If you ride enough, you are going to lay it down. My worst (luckily) was due to sand in a parking lot. I was wearing shorts and no shoes – okay so I am not very smart.

It is all about avoiding obstacles (like cars, trees, debris in the road, dogs, etc.) I can practically lay down a 650cc dirt bike and keep going. I can’t do a 180 degree sliding stop on a 1200cc Harley (mainly because the engine will hit the ground once you lean over far enough).

Get whatever bike you can ride well enough to dodge a car, jump a curb, and stop prior to getting killed.

71 Mike May 1, 2013 at 10:16 am

I agree with everyone on the safety. I have two sport bikes, A little 300 Kawasaki Ninja that I just purchased for gas mileage and I don’t need to do a 120 mph anymore. I also have a Hayabusa, very fast. I wear my helmet on either one and any distance I might go, even around the corner to the store. SAFETY SAFETY SAFETY. Yes I agree, ALL first time riders NEED the safety course. I learned a lot and had a great time doing it. Better safe than sorry.

Have Fun Be Safe

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73 Jacob August 24, 2013 at 2:13 am

I have been wanting to ride for a while now and someone i know has a 1990 Honda NS50F 50cc for sale in great condition i would just like to know is this is a good first time bike ?

74 Blake August 28, 2013 at 6:43 am

Ive heard mixed reviews about riding in the winter. I am looking into buying my first bike soon hopefully. Riding a bicycle is getting a little old. Only problem is it is going to be my only ride and I still have to get to work all year round. Any advice for me?

75 Wristy September 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm

“If you do mostly short trips, sportsbikes are fun. They’re responsive and handle well. But if you ride relatively long distances, sportsbike or ‘café racer’ style handlebars are going to hurt. These bars are low and often slanted downwards, so your wrists have to support more of your body weight.”

This is terrible advice. I’ve never heard of any sportbike rider or instructor who says to put your weight on your wrists, and several of the best (e.g., Lee Parks, Keith Code) who say exactly the opposite. By putting your weight on your wrists, you’re not only hurting your wrists, but hindering your control of the steering and throttle.

It might be true that on long rides your *abs* and *thighs* will hurt, if you’re not in shape for it.

Saying that a sportbike will hurt your wrists is like saying that a straight razor will take all the skin off your face. Sure, if your technique is wrong and you try to muscle through it, that could happen. Instead, use those manly muscles and support your body like you’re supposed to, so your hands can stay feather-light. You’ll have better control, which is the whole point, after all, of a straight razor or a sportbike.

76 Grey September 13, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I’ve been planning to buy a motocycle for a long time now and havent because I dont know which one to get. I’m 5’2 and weigh 82 lbs so it cant be very heavy. Which one do you recommend?

77 Steve September 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

“If the bike has a high saddle but is relatively lightweight, you may be okay with a little lean. If it’s a heavy bike and you’re on tippy-toes every time you stop, you’re in for a stressful experience.”

Remember that, at many intersections and even in some parking lots, you’ll be straddling an oil slick when you come to a stop, which, especially after a rain, will be extremely slippery. You will never gain any traction on your tip-toes in this scenario, and over you will go. Plan accordingly.

78 Dave October 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Very good comments on here.
The beginner bike issue can’t be addressed by a blanket statement like get under 500cc, etc. Yes, certain criteria must be met, but soooo much depends on the rider. I had a 150cc Honda scooter back when I was 18 for about 2 years. I am now 40, took the MSA course (yes, it is well worth it) and went out and bought a Victory High Ball. This bike is heavy and sports a whopping 1730cc motor yet handles like a dream. I have always been a natural athlete and perhaps my balance / coordination plays a part in my ability to maneuver this bike, but I am extremely comfortable on it and have never been in threat of dropping it. Now with that being said, I ride around like an old lady…

To reiterate what others have said and add a few more pointers:
1. Both feet hit the pavement when you stop (that means flat!)
2. Take the MSA or MSF course
3. Brake in a straight line!!!! Most bikes are dumped at slow speed when turning and the front brake is applied.
4. Knuckles up and wrists down.
5. Ride solo until you are comfortable and experienced. We all have a buddy with a bike that will push you beyond your limits.
5. BEST ADVICE ON HERE….. Expect everyone out there is trying to kill you. 6. Always be aware of space margins and speed control

Ride safe and rubber side down

79 Bill Wilson October 23, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Bought my first bike new in 1974 when 19. Got a 1973 BMW R75/5 and was picking it up off a neighbor’s lawn 7 hours later after hitting gravel going around the corner. I had ridden smaller stuff previously like Honda 50′s and Vespas but they were easier to control when squirrelly.
I still own a ride the bike. Took the MSF course in 2001 after being off it since 1987 and the first ride made me realize how rusty my skills had become.
A newbie would be smart to take the MSF course first to learn the basics before buying a bike. They use 250cc bikes which are easy to handle and maneuver. You can find used ones like those fairly cheap plus those are quite reliable so won’t have to worry about repairs while one hones their skills. I’d bang around on one of those for a year in all sorts of weather before moving up to something larger. Then the rider should know what type they want along with any accessories to make it’s use more practical and enjoyable.

80 Andy November 4, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I’ve been riding over 40 years, worked at a dealership and am often asked by friends who know my passion for motorcycles whether to buy one and what to buy. My response to the first question (especially if it comes from their spouse/SO) is that you either like the idea or image of being a biker or you are a real biker. The first is like a virus or a phase that may pass on where the second is like your DNA where you will eventually answer the call to your passion. I’m fine with both, but wives and girlfriends often assume their guy’s interest is irrational, transitory or both – it is not for some.

On which bike to buy I challenge them to answer the following questions:

1. Where do you want to go?
2. How fast do you want to get there?
3. What/who do you want to carry with you?
4. What type of people or tribe do you want to hang out with?

I realize that the first bike question becomes a subset involving other points well covered above, but I’ve found that answers to these questions fairly effectively narrow down the choices. This comes from helping a number of friends buy their first bikes new and used who are still riding/smiling.

If this post generates further questions among those considering a bike, I’ll be happy to elaborate further.

81 jeff April 7, 2014 at 2:33 pm

I am a new rider and I am 6’7″ 285 lbs… I just bought a 2007 Suzuki c50 boulevard and was wondering if that would be a good size bike for me to learn on? because of my size, a big bike seemed like the only option for me.

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