Buying your first motorcycle

My Experience

I had a mini bike, had ridden dirt bikes, and maybe 1-2K miles on my honda CH80 scooter when I bought my first “real” motorcycle while in college. It was a Yamaha Seca II, 600CC inline 4. It was a powerful midsize sport/standard type bike. Some people recommended it as a first bike on various forums. I loved this bike and rode it for a few years. I thought I was great on the bike. I saved up some money working after college for a bit and decided to quit my job to take an extended vacation in Spain, three months during the summer. There I rented a 250CC Honda Nighthawk, and traveled up and down Spain’s Mediterranean coast with it, staying in hostels and campsites. While on that bike I realized I had no idea how to ride a motorcycle properly. The bike was so small, so flickable, so forgiving, I was going lower in turns than I ever had before. Scraping pegs and skidding into stops, spinning the tires in the dirt into side skids. It was so much more exhilarating than riding the Yamaha. Sure the Yamaha had so much power when you reached higher RPMs it almost threw you off the back, but the bike was taller, heavier. I learned I had always been riding conservatively because I never really got the chance to learn on a small bike. A bike I could totally rag on and bring to the edge of its capabilities. When I got back stateside I knew what I had to do, I sold the Yamaha and got a Kawasaki Ninja 250.

So the upshot of the story is…I know we all don’t want to be seen riding around by our friends or peers on what some consider “kiddie” bikes. Small displacement motorcycles. But swallow your pride and do it for your first year or two, and you will be a better rider for it.

How they do it in Europe

In most European countries the percentage of road travelers on two wheels (whether that be a scooter or motorcycle) is much higher than here in the United States. While in the US most people ride motorcycles for recreation, in Europe many just choose it for the advantages it gives them on their commute. Europe has much higher gas prices than in the US, and it tends to have denser cities with smaller roads and less parking. Add on the tax benefits of owning a smaller vehicle in Europe and you have a very compelling reason to choose a motorcycle or scooter for your road travels.

For that reason, and also because Europe tends to be more regulation heavy in general, Europe tends to have a lot more progressive and well thought out policies surrounding motorcycles. In Europe, when you get your first license, you can only ride smaller displacement motorcycles up to 125CC. With your level two license, you can only ride bikes under 45HP, and in most countries you need to have that license for two years before you can apply for an unrestricted license. They don’t do this because they feel like it, they do it because their research has shown less accidents and fatalities if a new motorcyclist gradually rides heavier and higher displacement bikes. Start small, move up.

My advice: start small

Even if you’re stateside, or in a country where the European licensing model does not apply, I would highly recommend you start with a similar approach. You don’t need to limit yourself to 125CC. But keeping it around or under 300CC for a more sporty highly tuned bike or 500CC for a cruiser style less tuned bike.

Things to consider when buying your first bike
  • The weight of the motorcycle. It is better to get a lighter weight motorcycle to start with.
  • The seat height of the motorcycle. And the center of gravity. All things being equal, it is better to opt for lower seat height on your first motorcycle.
  • The drive; chain vs belt vs shaft. This comes down to preference, but there are pros and cons to each.
  • Carburetors vs Fuel Injection
  • Accessories availability / cost
  • Alternator capacity