The best beginner motorcycle – from a motorcycle instructor’s perspective

As an instructor of beginner motorcycle riders I get frequently asked, “What is the best beginner motorcycle for me?”

best beginner motorcycleFrankly, I don’t know what motorcycle you should buy. I do have some strong opinions regarding what motorcycle you shouldn’t buy, though!

The best beginner motorcycles are used

Your beginner motorcycle shouldn’t be new, or expensive, or heavy, or over-powered, or one that’s deep into some specialty niche. You can make that mistake on your next motorcycle.

If you have several experienced riding friends whom you wish to join, resist the temptation to get something just like (or even better than) what they’re riding. Instead, make your first motorcycle one that perhaps you’ll trade after you’ve logged a few thousand miles (and made a few mistakes). You’ll know far better then what direction your passion (if you still have it) pulls you.

The best beginner motorcycles are small and light

Your learning curve will be much steeper on a motorcycle that’s not intimidating and instead easy to manage. No, it doesn’t have to be a 160cc toy bike of some sort that you’ll be embarrassed to be seen on.

Unless you’re physically much larger than the average bear, a dual-purpose lightweight like a Yamaha XT225 makes an excellent starter bike, or a Kawasaki Sherpa or a Suzuki DR200 or DR250 even; just make sure it’s street-legal.

But I’m not going to ride off-road you protest. Well, maybe not (but don’t rule anything out).

The sit-upright riding position of a motorcycle like this gives you an excellent 360-degree view of traffic. It’s light enough that when you don’t recover from a minor blunder and drop it, you can easily pick it up again (without asking the lady in the SUV at the next pump to give you a hand).

Also, when you do drop it, there’s not $1000 worth of plastic bodywork to replace. Your insurance rates, accordingly, will be much lower, and so will your anxiety level.

The best beginner motorcycles are rugged

The exceptionally nimble handling of a light dual-sport motorcycle is a joy, whether dodging urban traffic or rural potholes (with all that suspension travel, go ahead and center-punch them… uh, potholes, that is!) or trying an unpaved county road. You wouldn’t be the first to discover those little gravel lanes are a delight to explore. You will learn a lot about how a bike handles on a loose surface, which in turn will make you a better street rider.

Can’t convince you to try that flavor?

OK. Without naming actual brands and models, I’ll say one word: NAKED.

The best beginner motorcycles don’t have plastic everywhere

Get a motorcycle that looks like a traditional motorcycle rather than a jelly mold; one that allows you to actually see the engine and on through it; one that has rear view mirrors which actually function. Motorcycles like this are simpler/cheaper to work on, often have more user-friendly engines, and don’t lure you into going way faster than you’re ready to mange.

Too often the salesman will direct a newbie toward a 600cc race-replica sport bike. “All the power you need if you keep it revved above 8,000 rpm… and a top speed of 140mph+; Dude; what’s not to like?”) Plenty. What he’s not telling you is that under 8,000 rpm the engine is gutless, and you’ll have difficulty at first managing such a spirited thing. A less-highly tuned engine generally pulls better at lower rpm’s, and encourages a more relaxed pace. Sport-bikes tend to have extremely powerful front brakes (easy to over-apply in a panic situation) and a higher center of gravity than their less-focused cousins.

I’m referring to the class of motorcycle which used to be the norm — the ‘standard’ or just plain old unspecialized motorcycle. Standards generally have a comfortable seat height, good all-around capabilities, and a modest price. At one time the four-cylinder iterations on this theme were so common they were referred to somewhat disdainfully as UJM’s (Universal Japanese Motorcycles). Once ubiquitous; now almost a rarity.

The best beginner motorcycles are newer than vintage

Am I suggesting you drop back in time to seek out a 70’s UJM from the plethora of worthy examples from this era? Probably not, unless you enjoy the challenge of doing you own mechanical work (some shops exclude repair of models made before a certain year).

Unless it happened to be stunningly nice, I would advise against accepting a hand-me-down vintage model in most instances. After all, you want to ride; not wrench.

Look instead for something from the 90’s or later. As a general rule, you’ll have greater reliability and less trouble sourcing spare parts when you do need them.

One other class of motorcycles is often chosen by or shoved on the new rider — cruisers — those cool-looking, low slung bad boys of the boulevard. Their low saddle height is initially appealing— easy to straddle and lean the bike from side-to-side, giving the impression that in spite of sometimes considerable weight, the bike can be ‘handled.’ That same low saddle height also reduces your suspension travel and cornering clearance. Used examples often have obnoxiously modified exhaust systems (please don’t go there), lots of superfluous chrome, and even accessories that are downright unsafe (e.g. exaggerated forward controls, highway pegs, slippery chrome twistgrips or even brakeless front wheels).

The best beginner motorcycles don’t have ape-hanger handlebars

In addition, their massive grips and levers don’t fit the small-to-average sized hand well. Buckhorn or ape-hanger handlebars place form over function. The seat may be such that it forces you to assume a single position on the bike, with no ability to move around, stand up, use your knees to absorb a bump, or carry a passenger farther than around the block. A bike with these features will not enhance your limited skills.

To re-cap: buy used, buy cheap, buy small. When you’re ready to move on in a few months, you’ll find someone else who wants your trainer, and have a much better idea what you want and how to ride it.

Trust me on this one.

Pete Tamblyn


8 Responses to The best beginner motorcycle – from a motorcycle instructor’s perspective

  1. Ismael October 8, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    I have to be very honest, it was a little disappointing to accept that no more than 250cc is the right cc for a beginner, I was hoping read something around 600cc (in my mind a Ducati Monster 696). But by experience I know that the biggest mistake is using a very powerful bike for the first time (I started with a 955 and still can´t tame the beast).
    But in your experience after how long will most of us get bored using a 250cc or less?

    • MotorcycleMentor October 9, 2013 at 3:10 am #

      I believe there are situations that warrant a larger-than-250cc starter motorcycle. In my situation, as I mentioned in one of the podcasts, a 250cc motorcycle would have been a horrible first motorcycle for me. It really depends on several factors, mainly what your riding goals are.

  2. Anita Prickett October 15, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Last year I told my husband I’d signed up for the msf after he’d discouraged me for years. Guess he thought I should be happy riding pillion on his BMW Rt even though I’d wanted to ride for 30 years. He found a VStar 250 that was the perfect beginners bike for me for about 500 miles. Then he found a BMW G650GS with a lowered suspension. I’ve put 2400 miles on it this year and am having a blast so much so he bought himself a kawasaki Versys. NH and ME has great back roads with fun twisties. During the summer we travel to ice cream stands, and during the fall we go to apple orchards. He did a great job of finding me bikes to learn on. Best advice is to remember your first bike doesn’t have to be your last – get out and ride (even if it’s just around the neighborhood), and practice. Having a manageable bike makes it easy.

  3. Mike November 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    My first bike was a brand new Triumph Bonneville. I’m a big guy, 6’2-6’3 around 240, so the Bonny seemed a little small when I first sat on it. In fact, my friends who had been riding for a while and hadn’t taken a MSF course. They made fun of me constantly and told me I looked like a bear humping a football. I felt self conscious, for about two seconds. Getting a small bike to start saved my life. Not that a nearly 900cc bike is small, but it was small to me. Being able to control the weight and speed of the bike, helped me to expand my rising skills faster.

    I felt more comfortable riding around my neighborhood and even more comfortable still when getting up to highway speeds. If you’ve never ridden before, getting up to highway speed is nerve wracking. The sensation of the wind pushing you and the scenery going by so fast while on two wheels is unnerving. Learning how to ride safely is no joke. Whatever you do, don’t buy more motorcycle than you can handle for a first bike.

  4. Gina November 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    I love thoroughbred horses and was taught at a very early age that if you want to ride something special, learn to ride that special beast, don’t start on a pony!

    At the age of 55, three years ago, I bought my first motorcycle – a Yamaha XV1100 Virago. I’ve learned to ride it well and I love the freedom of the open road. I have taken every opportunity to learn from more experienced riders, including Police riders who offered improvement courses locally.

    During the first year after passing my test, I rode my husbands XVZ 1300 Royal Star 1000 miles back from France to England, my first solo trip, fully loaded in appalling weather. Riding through the heart of London to my first destination with a further 800 miles to the North of England where we live was quite an experience!

    As one of just two lady bikers in our motorcycle club, I ride all year preferring to take the bike to work rather than the car. There’s nothing like it. I just wish I’d discovered the joys of riding my own motorcycle earlier in life having spent years as a pillion on my husbands bikes!

  5. MotorcycleMentor November 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    @Anita @Mike @Gina

    Great feedback. Great advice.

  6. Ron Taub May 16, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    I was lent a Virago 250 to/learn on after my MSF course. It was too underpowered, and with no windshield unpleasant to ride over 50 mph. My next bike I was lent was a Harley Electraglide for a 500 mile ride. looking back, that was very foolish. Very heavy, hard to lean with little experience.
    I bought a Vulcan 750, it was an excellent first bike. Easy to handle, smooth power and braking.
    Good beginner bikes are in the 650cc to 800cc class.
    Ride like your invisible, and ride your own ride.


  1. MMP 02: 5 Things I’ve learned about beginner riders since starting [Podcast] • - September 23, 2013

    […] Best beginner motorcycle — from a motorcycle instructor’s perspective (tips from Pete) […]

Leave a Reply