What’s a good beginner’s bike?
by Thomas Day
One of the common things about being an MSF instructor is getting asked, “What’s a good beginner’s bike?” This is a question that every experienced rider has attempted to answer dozens of times.
Kids (people younger than 30) ask straight-forward questions, expecting straight-forward answers. When a kid asks me this bike question I count off a list of mid-sized, practical motorcycles that I’d recommend for a beginner with a reasonable expectation that they will look into and consider some of the bikes on my list.
All questions asked by “adults” (people older than 30) are double-edged, convoluted, culturally-loaded, context-sensitive questions. When I was a kid, you started riding a motorcycle when you were a kid. I didn’t know anyone, in 1965, who decided to be a motorcyclist when he or she was approaching retirement age. Now that the English language has lost all sense of proportion, being “young enough” to take on a physical skill can apply to anyone. After all, we pretend that 50 is “middle aged,” owing $200,000 to the bank is “home ownership,” our prisons are part of a “corrections and rehabilitation” system, and some folks even think being called “conservative” is a compliment. When an “older person” (people over 50) asks the bike question, I give them my usual answer, but I rarely expect them to consider the bikes I recommend. Old folks usually don’t want answers to their questions, they want “affirmation.”
In the current “Baby Boomers in Decline” climate, my generation is desperately seeking to restore a deluded self-image. They want to move insanely fast from being rank beginners to “experienced” and respected riders. What they are hoping for is knowledge and skill “transference,” not training. In fact, older people starting a new physical or mental activity are at a disadvantage due to physical limitations and mental “stiffness.” With that in mind, my small, light beginner bike recommendations might be toned down to mopeds and scooters for adult newbies, but I know that’s not what they want to hear. They see themselves in a completely illogical light and expect the rest of us to play along with their fantasy.
I’ll use, for example, a guy (who we will call AC, as in “Advertising Consultant”) who sent his wife to a Minnesota Basic Rider Course a few years back. Apparently, this dude is not from Minnesota because he was astounded and irritated at the fact that basic riding classes are held rain-or-shine; and it rained. She was lucky it didn’t snow. In an attempt to impress me with his insight as a motorcyclist, AC bragged that he was the new owner of an “Anniversary Edition of the Heritage Soft Tail Classic” and had passed down his old Harley Sportster to his wife. I think he might as well toss her a hand grenade with the pin pulled. A 1200cc (even considering the Sportster’s modest 50hp), 500+ pound motorcycle is not a beginner’s bike. The only beginner quality you could assign to the Sportster is the 29” seat height. Throw in the “stable” cruiser steering and you have a bike that will be easy to roll into traffic. Once she gets on the road, making emergency maneuvers is a different matter. AC and his wife see themselves as something other than beginners and their choice in motorcycles reflects that delusion.
This is typical of the kind of starter bike affirmation that old beginners want. Motorcycle Consumer News published a letter from a 60-year-old new rider who thought his MSF training “250cc bikes were ridiculously small.” After struggling through the course, he had his “big Harley” delivered to his home because he knew he “wasn’t prepared to take it into traffic.” He terrorized his neighborhood for three weeks until he finally “hit 40mph in second gear.” After three months of additional self-instruction, reading, and watching videos, he had convinced himself that he could “put the bike anywhere [he] wanted.” I’d be surprised if he could pass a basic skills test on his bike. Of course, if that old beginner had the wisdom to start off with a beginner’s bike, he might have had a positive and effective learning experience.
When you are 60 years old and are desperately looking for evidence that you’re still a virile, active male, considering a real beginner’s bike is a hard sell. A typical overweight American adult looks comical on, or in, anything short of a farm implement. (I’m feeling your pain. “Friends” say I look like an overstuffed, over-aged sausage on my bike and in my Roadcrafter.) Regardless, an identity crisis and peer pressure are poor justifications for buying exactly the wrong beginning motorcycle.
When I was a kid, 55-185cc bikes were as common as “custom” bikes are today. Adults often rode Honda Trail 90s around town. A 305 was big enough to take on two-up long rides across the country, and a 650cc bike was considered a large and powerful motorcycle. While the technology of those motorcycles was miles below all but the worst bike available today, the power and weight of the typical, mid-sized bike was about right for a beginner motorcycle.
While that MSF-deriding 60-year-old newbie may think that a 250cc motorcycle is “ridiculously small,” there are a passel of 250cc bikes that are more than capable of typical freeway speeds (and legal) and more than equal to beginning rider skills and needs. Several of the 125cc bikes used in the Minnesota program are more motorcycle than most of the new riders can handle. I, personally, often ride my 250cc Kawasaki Super Sherpa on the freeway and around town and it regularly hauls my 210 pounds and extra gear quickly and comfortably. I know a few experienced riders who own 400cc and smaller bikes and ride them long and often.
If you want my advice on a beginning bike, feel free to ask. If you want confirmation that your hippo-bike was a brilliant choice, ask someone else. I think beginners belong on beginner bikes, regardless of age.