Surf any motorcycle forum or Facebook group and you’ll invariably find a thread asking for advice about the best motorcycles for new riders. Read the comments and you’ll see a very wide range of arguments for and against certain sizes, styles and models. You will also read discussions about whether the newbie will outgrow a 250cc “starter” bike too soon, followed by well-meaning people reassuring the new rider that they will be fine buying a 600cc super-sport machine or 1200cc cruiser.
You’ll even come across suggestions that a 1000+cc superbike or 1800+cc cruiser is just the ticket. These dodo birds can be identified by their native call: “I learned on a 195hp Hayabusa and did just fine, so don’t be a wussy.” Ummmm. okay.
One thing to consider when filtering advice is that people who have been riding a while seem to forget what it is like to be a newbie and view this issue through their own experience. And their advice is further skewed if learning to ride came to them easier than the average person. This leads to inappropriate advice that does not apply to most average beginners.
Here are my thoughts on the topic:
Size and Power Matters
I don’t care what the internet “experts” say, with few exceptions a new rider is better off starting on a physically smaller bike with modest power.
Newer riders use most of their bandwidth just staying upright without whiskey-throttling themselves into a fence. Toss them into the real world and their heads explode trying to juggle the controls while negotiating blind curves, distracted drivers and surface hazards they never had to worry about as car drivers.
You could argue that these challenges are present no matter what bike the beginner is riding. This is true, but a smaller, less powerful bike is easier to control and is much less likely to intimidate. The odds of a newer rider sticking with riding are greater if the bike they ride is fun…and fun to a newbie means easy to ride…and that means less weight and power.
Alright, there are times when a larger , more powerful bike makes sense like when it has to haul around a large human. In this case, I suggest a mid-sized bike with just enough power to comfortably maintain 70mph with adequate legroom and reach the handlebars.
The type of bike chosen needs to match physical limits. A person with a bad back should choose a bike with more upright ergonomics. Despite common belief, cruisers aren’t good for most people who have back issues, as the riding position rounds the spine, causing discs to bulge. People with neck or shoulder problems may need to stay away from race-replica sport bikes. I choose to ride a Triumph Street Triple as my track day bike, because it has most of the capability of a pure super sport bike, but with higher handlebars.
Reader Bruce A. pointed me to this cool site that can help you visualize how a person your size might fit on certain bikes. Click on the Options tab to see if your inseam will allow you to stand flat footed.
A big concern of most new riders (and a lot of experience riders, as well) is seat height, or more precisely, “can I touch flat-footed?”. This is understandable if the person is anxious about balancing a heavy motorcycle. The lighter the bike, the less concerning it is to have only the balls of your feet on the ground.
Most smaller riders choose cruisers because they typically have low seat heights. If you’re “inseam challenged” but want a bike that is more versatile than a cruiser, like a sporty standard or perhaps a small sportbike to carve curves to do track days you’ll have a few good options. Harley, Triumph and BMW offer low versions of certain models and many manufacturers have low seats and other components to help smaller riders feel more secure.
It may be possible to lower the chassis of some bikes using aftermarket suspension links and by slipping the forks higher in the triple clamps. You can also have seats cut down or find a lower aftermarket seat.
Here’s one thing to consider…after some time learning how to balance the bike while stopping and starting, then not being able to touch flat-footed becomes much less of an issue. Once you become familiar with the balance of your bike and learn the slow speed techniques, you will be surprised how easy it is to keep a bike upright.
This means that eventually, you will be able to consider almost any bike on the market. Just don’t go crazy…you may drool over a big cruiser, tourer or adventure bike, but be realistic that the bike is a good fit.
Case in point, any capable dirtbike has around a 34-inch seat height. Few people I know have an inseam that long, meaning that all dirt riders must manage while only touching tippy-toe. Dirt riders quickly learn how to balance, and their dirtbikes are very light. Sure, a dirtbike can still weight over 300 pounds, but that is manageable by most reasonably fit individuals. Another example of light makes right!
It’s tempting to throw down your money on a shiny new motorcycle. This option eliminates the stress of buying a used machine from some potential Craigslist scammer and you get the benefit of modern amenities and safety features, like ABS and traction control. Not to mention the pride of owning the newest model on the road.
However, dropping $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 on a bike that will likely get dropped puts a lot more stress on the new rider. Too much attention will be put on avoiding that first scratch on those shiny chrome or plastic parts. And stress does not create the best condition for fun or open learning. That’s why it’s almost always better to buy a cared-for used motorcycle that isn’t as precious.
Buying used means you need to do your research about whether an older model bike is appropriate, which includes being patient in your search for the right motorcycle. Unlike cars and trucks, most motorcycles do not rack up very high miles.
You will also likely need to do some maintenance tasks before the bike is fully up to snuff. Depending on whether or not you live in an area with long riding season, it’s not unusual to find a five year old bike with only 5,000 miles. That means that not too much will need to be done to make it roadworthy. However, a frequently ridden motorcycle five or more years old will have more 10,000 or more miles. Here are a list of components that often need replacement:
- New tires (worn to the tread wear indicator, or older than five years)
- Chain and sprockets (most OEM units last about 12-15,000 miles)
- Brake pads (anywhere from 6-12,000 miles).
Of course, a oil and filter change and brake fluid replacement, as well as general lubrication needs to be done. Read more about motorcycle maintenance HERE.
Keep in mind that whatever bike you buy (new or used), you want easy access to service and parts. Exotic bikes are cool, but it sucks if you have to drive hours to get it serviced and even worse if you have to wait too long for parts.
Another reason to buy used is so you have enough money left over in your budget to buy good protective gear. It is said that if you can’t afford a good helmet, jacket, pants, gloves and boots, then you can’t afford to be a motorcyclist. While that may sound draconian, it is a smart rule to follow.
You will also have money left to pay for advanced rider training. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that once you know how to operate the bike that you know how to “ride”, which involves much more than simply being able to control the machine.
Ride a Slow Bike Fast (safely)
I want to emphasize that the bikes I am listing below are not only “beginner bikes”! These bikes are appropriate for new riders, but are also entertaining enough to captivate experienced riders who know how much fun it is to ride lightweight machines. Unfortunately, most people think that moving up to the large displacement as soon as possible is the way to go. It’s not.
Speaking of track day bikes, I constantly caution track day riders from buying larger and more powerful bikes, and instead, stick with the smaller bike they started on and learn to ride it really well before considering a move.
Even riders at the top of their game don’t often find benefit in owning a bike with more power. Believe me, it is quite possible to ride faster on board a 600cc sportbike, or even a well-setup SV650 than someone struggling to manage the power of a liter-sized superbike. Lower-powered bikes push the rider to ride more efficiently and corner with greater precision. Big power tends to be a crutch that slows down skill development. As the saying goes, “it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast, rather than ride a fast bike slow”.
The video shows the Intermediate (Yellow group) session with Tony’s Track Days. Before anyone asks; the suspension and every other component on the 250R is stock. Thanks Younia, for the ride!
One last thing to consider are the benefits to riding off-road for new and experienced riders to learn traction management, body positioning and throttle control where there are no texting teens to punt you off the road.
Best Bikes for Newer Riders and Open-Minded Veterans
So, here is my list of street bikes appropriate for new or newer riders, by size and category:
Dual-sports are used on pavement and dirt. They have tall seat heights, but are very light compared to other street-legal bikes.
- Honda CRF250L– A great choice if you can manage the seat height. $$
- Yamaha XT225/250- Very low seat height and great as a commuter or for off-road adventures. $$ – Older 225s are just as good and with more comfort. $
- Yamaha WR250r – More hardcore than other choices in this category. $$$
- Yamaha TW200– Fat tire dually
- Kawasaki KLX250s– Read about my own KLX HERE. $$
- Kawasaki 300 Versys – A more street-oriented “adventure” style bike. A great choice if you ride mostly pavement, but also want to ride easy dirt roads.
- Suzuki DR200 – Old technology. Look for a decent used one. $
- BMW F650GS/ G650GS– Made up until 2012. A more street oriented bike that is heavier than most dual sports. $$$
- BMW G310GS- A brand new model that promises to be a real winner. $$$
- CSC TT250/RXR/RX3 – A Chinese manufacturer offering very affordable motorcycles. $
- BMW G310R– The roadster version of the G310 GS $$$
- Kawasaki 250/300 Ninja– This is a fun bike that looks like a sportbike, but has high enough handlebars and ergonomics to be very rider friendly. $$ Used 250s are versatile, capable, cheap and plentiful $ See me on a Ninja 250 ripping around a racetrack and tell me this isn’t cheap fun?
- Kawasaki 400 Ninja – New for 2018, this is a larger displacement (but lighter) version of the 300.- $$
- Honda CRF300R/F – A good choice in either the sport or standard versions. You meet the nicest people on a Honda $$
- Honda 250 Nighthawk – A very basic bike. There are better choices for similar money.$
- Yamaha R3 – A fun bike that is capable of any street riding as well as track day duty.$$
- Suzuki TU250- A basic standard bike.$
- Suzuki GSX250R – A new model for US riders.$$
- KTM RC390- A work of art that is a sporty option for street or track.$$
- KTM 390 Duke– The naked version of the RC390. Another work of art with high handlebars.$$
- Suzuki GW250- A basic standard bike. Kinda ugly, IMO
- Honda 250 Rebel– The cruiser version of the old Nighthawk. A bike used at beginner courses throughout the USA.$
- Honda Rebel 300– A new model. $$
- Yamaha V-Star 250- Classic cruiser styling $
- Kawasaki KLR650- The Swiss Army knife of motorcycles. Big and heavy but a workhorse with good balance and power for all riders.$$
- Suzuki DRz400s/sm – A larger dual sport for long-legged riders. The SM is a supermoto street version.$$
- BMW F700/800GS- The slightly lower, street-leaning version of the more off-road 800GS. $$$
- Yamaha FZ/MT07– A great all-around bike. $$$
- Suzuki SV650/Gladius- The bike I most recommend to newer street and track day riders.$$
- Kawasaki Ninja 650 – In the same league as the Suzuki SV650, meaning it’s a great choice for street or track. $$
- Kawasaki z650 – A naked streetfighter version of the Ninja 650. $$
- Kawasaki Versys 650 – A more upright, “adventure” style version of the Ninja 650. A good choice if you have the legs. $$
- KTM 690 Duke – A sporty naked rascal $$$
- Honda CB500R/F/X- Three versions of the CB500 to match all tastes. A good choice. $$
- Ducati Scrambler – Cool bikes in several versions. $$$
- Ducati Monster 797 – Another cool bike from Ducati.$$$
- BMW F800R/GT – A mid-sized standard (R) or sport tourer (GT) $$$
- Triumph Street Twin/Scrambler/Cup – This bike has a 900cc motor, but it is mildly tuned and well balanced. Click these links to read my reviews of the Street Cup and Scrambler.
- Honda Rebel 500– A new model that is getting some good reviews. $$
- Kawasaki Vulcan S- The best of the smallish cruisers, in my opinion. $$
- Suzuki S40 Boulevard – A 650cc single cylinder bike. $
- Suzuki M/C50 Boulevard– A basic 800cc cruiser. $$
- Indian Scout – Too big and expensive to be a true new rider’s bike, but a beauty for when it’s time to upgrade. $$$
- Harley-Davidson Street 500 – An inexpensive way to have the H-D badge in your garage. $$
- Harley-Davidson Street 750 – A larger version of the 500. $$$
- Last generation Triumph Bonneville – These are a bit too heavy, but are mellow enough and can be found used at reasonable prices.
Other bikes to consider:
This is a list I came up with, but I know I’m missing some options, like older bikes. Please include your thoughts in the comments below and I’ll consider adding it to the list.
What You Won’t See On My List
A lot of beginners eye bikes in the 600cc class of sport bikes, thinking the engine size makes it manageable for a newb. But, 600s are shar edged tools that can cut a rider whose skills aren’t developed enough. Yes, beginners survive starting on a 600, but why put the beginner through the stress of having to manage a machine designed for experienced riders?
You may wonder why there are several 650cc and 800cc bikes on my list. Well, those bikes are designed to be easy to ride by average riders wanting a bike that is comfortable and practical for all types of riding. The engine displacement may be greater, but the power delivery is more mellow and user-friendly.
Cruisers are sized with big displacement engines, but they are tuned to lug around town and produce less power per cc than standard or sporty models. That’s why it’s not unheard of to find a newb riding a 1000 or 1200cc cruiser as their first bike. But, these bikes are still not great starter bikes becasue they are heavy with forward controls and a long wheelbase, making them unwieldy at slow speeds.
Get a used Ninja 250/300 if you’re small and like performance machines. Get a Honda Rebel 300 or 500 if you like cruisers and have a really short inseam. Score a Honda CRF250L or a Kawi KLX250s if you lean more toward off-roading and have long legs or get a XT225/250 if you have shorter legs. Get a Kawi 300 Versys if you like adventure-bike styling and capability. For a sportier bike, consider a Honda CBR250, Kawasaki 300 or 400 Ninja or a BMW 310R.
A step up in size may be just fine for a lot of beginners. In this case, the Honda CB500 series makes a lot of sense. I like the Vulcan S for a mid-sized cruiser and a cheap, used DRz400s for a bigger dual-sport. KLR650 is another (heavier) off road worthy option.
For someone who is pretty comfortable on two wheels, a Ninja 650 or SV650 are my most recommended bikes becasue they are capable of touring, commuting and doing track days. You can even ride dirt roads pretty well on these bikes. The Versys 650 is another great option, as is the Yamaha FZ-07.
For bigger dudes with the skill, a BMW 700/800GS or F800R may work (750/850 for 2019). For cruisers, you may get away with a Harley 883 or even a 1000 Sportster, but I’d seriously look at the Indian Scout. For sport bikes, consider a Honda CBR650 Ninja 650, or drum roll…a used SV650.