So, I responded to a (slightly old) post about a guy who wanted to get into motorcycling. Too often, I see discussions about beginner bikes centered around how much power a certain bike has or “That’s way too fast for a beginner!” and in my experience, there’s so much more to it than that, so I decided to discuss it a bit. And since I wrote a long as shit post and feel like maybe others might enjoy reading it, I decided to copy it here. I’m by no means an expert, so if anyone has something to add or change, feel free to let me know. Also don’t forget to check out Wes Siler’s excellent article on why 600’s and liter bikes are so prevalent.
This’ll be a bit of a long one, just to warn you. Also, from here on, when I refer to a “sportbike” I’m referring to bikes like the R6, R1, CBR’s, and GSXRs. There are a lot of “sportbikes” that are perfectly acceptable to learn on (KTM 390 is one, the 250’s, 300’s, and a few of the 500’s are good, too) TL;DR start with a “beginner” bike to be a much better rider and a much more alive person
Power alone is not what makes a bike bad to learn on. For sure, it can be a crutch; you can build up a lot of bad habits if you can just muscle out of corners, but it’s really a secondary concern. I’ve seen a lot of guys get a 600cc sportbike using this logic, and it doesn’t always end well.
But the main thing is suspension and steering geometry. Due to various aspects like rake angle (how close the forks are to vertical), trail(like caster for cars), and handlebar placement, a lot of the top-end sport bikes (and yes, 600’s are just as bad) have amazing handling IF you know what you’re doing, and I mean really know. The problem is that if you don’t, you’re going to have a bad time.
What typically makes a bike good for beginners is that it’s forgiving. If you go into a corner a little hot, or a little awkward with your body language, or you need to slow down a bit mid corner, or you’re not giving enough throttle to settle the rear, or you’re giving too much and lightening the front, or any of the myriad other ways to be off form on a bike, you can still get through the corner without much drama.
It’s easy to assume that a motorcycle is a lot like a car in that a high performance car drives just like a normal car, only faster and better through corners. There are a few cars that are a handful and require a gentle touch to avoid going tail first into the grass, but for the most part, you can put a new driver in a Cayman or M3 and as long as they don’t go too fast, they’ll be okay.
The problem is that a motorcycle is a much more dynamic thing than a car. You’re basically on a motor with wheels, being held up by gyroscopes, and you yourself weigh a third to a fourth as much as the vehicle itself. Additionally, a sportbike isn’t like a Cayman, or an M3, or even a high-dollar exotic. Even the 600cc bikes are more analagous to an open-wheel race car. They are quite literally designed to be as fast as is possible, with some concessions on power and component quality for price reasons. The result is that to hit that apex of performance the bike was designed for, you have to be very accurate with your body language and control inputs. If you shift your weight incorrectly going from one side to the other, you can induce headshake (oscillation of the front wheel) that can very easily throw you off the bike. You also need to keep in mind that a car can lose traction on one or more wheels and still keep going in basically the same direction. You don’t have that safety margin on a bike. So while most road cars require about the same amount of skill to drive at the same percentage of their limit, this is absolutely not true of road bikes.
Safety aside, there’s also the question of fun. For a new rider, I can almost guarantee you will have much more fun on a small, easier-to-ride bike.
There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, a 250cc twin (or KTM’s 390 single) is going to be a lot lighter than a 600cc or 1000cc I4. Similarly, because they make less power, they don’t need some stupidly huge rear tire to put that power down. Because a motorcycle turns using the shape of its tires, a narrower tire makes the bike feel much more agile. There are a lot of very experienced riders who still have 250cc class bikes because of how much fun they are on a properly twisty road.
The other part is that while a sportbike is stupidly quick on a track, they are miserable to ride around town. They’re uncomfortable as shit because of the ergonomics (that low-down riding position is going to make your back and/or your arms hurt like a motherfucker after an hour or so), and the way the handlebars are positioned, turning at low speed is like negotiating with a wolverine. As I mentioned in the other post, I rode my friend’s 1299 for ten minutes. In that ten minutes, my crotch was on fire from the exhaust that’s literally a half inch from the seat, my arms hurt, and I stalled it three times at stop signs because the engine will stall if you even look at it funny without giving it gas.
The last component in my little trifecta is skill. Because of the twitchy, uncooperative handling dynamics of the average sportbike, a lot of the guys who get one for their first bike are TERRIBLE riders. They’re so unsteady on the bike that they mosey through corners, power out, and think they’re the fastest shit on earth.
As an anecdote, the other day I was riding with some friends through a local canyon. I was on my Monster, my friend was on the -most- ghetto Triumph Daytona 675 you’ve ever seen (his shifter is a 3/4” bolt), and we were behind a guy on a sportbike of some type (It’s not easy to tell from behind.) Daytona had a passenger who had never been on a motorcycle before, so he was taking it easy, and even still this guy on the sportbike was slowing us down. While we were looking for a chance to pass him, he decided he’d show us just how fast he was. He made it through about two corners (still going pretty slow) and then went into the third way too hot, froze up, and ABS’d all the way into a gravel parking lot that was VERY conveniently there.
A good rider on a slow bike can very easily smoke a poor rider on a fast bike. I’m far from what you’d call a skilled rider, but I’ve still managed to scrape my toes, knees, and kickstand on my previous, fully-loaded adventure bike on aggressive off-road tires.
Confidence born of a stable, predictable bike, and light-and-responsive inputs go a LONG way to being fast through corners and, more importantly, to building up those skills to go even faster. It’s hard to be willing to try something new, like shifting your weight off the seat, if you’re worried that you might go down for your impertinence.
Additionally, because sportbikes are tuned to have as much power as they can without requiring expensive engines or exploding all the time, all of their power is in the top end. That’s great if you’re on a track and revving to 10-16krpm all day, but in everyday riding, that means that the bike is fairly sluggish right up until you hit a somewhat-unpredictable wall of power.
If you start on a smaller bike, ride that for a year or two, and then move up to something more hardcore like the F4, F3, or the japanese 600’s or liter bikes, you’ll be a far better rider for it. The other advantage is used 250’s basically don’t depreciate. A lot of people sell them a few years later and MAKE money.
So, the question then is, what bike should you start on?
That’s more or less up to you.
The basic things you should look for are:
1. Something that isn’t the range-topper for that category. There are a lot of differences between say, a Ninja 650 and a Ninja 600, despite looking similar and only being 50cc apart in displacement. And yes, the 600 is faster.
Comfortable and fun vs. you gon’ die.
2. A 2-or-3-cylinder engine of some configuration. Twins generally have more torque and a much more usable powerband than inline fours. Although they’re more expensive, Triples are god’s gift to motorcycling. You get the best of both worlds; the torque and smooth powerband of a twin, the sky-high redline and smooth power of a four, all wrapped around a glorious sound. Notable Triples are Triumphs and the MV Brutale.
3. Handlebars that aren’t clipped onto the forks. An actual metal tube will give you the easiest time of things, generally, but the single hand grips that are risen above the top of the forks are good, too. Having handlebars that are very low and very narrow is a lot of what makes muscling a sportbike around at low speed such a chore.
I started with a Suzuki Gladius, which was basically the legendary SV 650, just uglier. The 250 and 300 sportbikes are always popular, as are the KTM 390s recently. While the low-displacement bikes struggle a bit at highway speeds at times, their light weight and nimble handling will make things so much more fun for you.
I’m not trying to scare you off of motorcycles or even sportbikes, I’m just trying to make it very clear why it’s a better idea to start off on something that will allow you to learn instead of spending the entire time trying to avoid dying. Especially here, on a forum of car enthusiasts, I find it’s easy for people to fall into the “I can drive fast cars no problem, so a fast bike will be fine” mentality.