The Beginning: Buying a Bike as a Beginner or Non-rider
"I'm looking to buy my first bike, what do you think I should get?"
I get that question a lot and my answer happens to be a lengthy one. Why isn't it short and simple? Well, there are a lot of factors that go into buying a motorcycle whether it is your first one or not. Really, "what bike should I buy" isn't the correct first question to be asking yourself. Riding and owning a motorcycle is almost no different from driving and owning a car. The real questions should be:
- Why do you want to ride?
- Why do you want a motorcycle?
- What current experience do you have with motorcycles and riding? What are you comfortable with?
I know you want the perfect bike that fits you and the image of yourself; I was the same when I started riding as well. With a lot of people who ask for opinions on a first bike, I generally tell them to focus more on riding and building those skills and experiences then worrying about the style of a bike, nostalgia of an older bike, or customizing a bike. Of course the type of riding you want to do does matter whether you're commuting, joy riding, adventuring, off-roading, or racing--but just like driving, first and foremost is being more concerned about learning to ride well. So, with some introspection about why you want to ride and what your experiences are with bikes, the next questions are:
- Do you have a place to work or store your bike?
- Do you have someone who can help work on your bike (or if you can do it yourself)?
- Do you have a lot of time and money?
If you have all the money in the world, then you can buy whatever bike you want and have it stored somewhere or someone work on it. However, I often find that a lot of people who ask me, want to buy a bike and spend $2000 or less. Now, you think that amount is all you have and should suffice on a bike. There are cases where you are lucky and you get a great deal or a good bike, but I have a rule of thumb when it comes to general prices on bikes--general prices.
Anything that is $2000 and under generally is going to be a project bike, a bike that is a piece of crap, a dirt bike, or just a small engine bike; Anything that is around $5000 is going to be a decent bike, it probably won't be new but it will be running and a good sized bike. Anything that is $8000-$10,000 should be a damn good bike, nearly new, running, and what you want. If you're spending more than $10,000, then you clearly don't need my advice. These are typical prices, you win some and you lose some--BUT this is no different from buying a car. If you buy a really cheap car, it is probably a POS car that needs work or is getting to its last leg, etc.
Older and Project Bikes
Naturally they are less expensive but they need more maintenance, time, and money to keep it running. But you're good mechanically and want to build and learn to work on motorcycles, you say. I hear this a lot, I may have been one of these people and then I did it on a small scale with the moped. I liked some aspects of it but by no means am I an expert or a mechanic--it has taken me till now to have a general understanding of what things are and how they sort of work. I will leave that work to people who know what they're doing so I don't screw myself worse with anything on my bike. Those of you who truly do want to work on bikes will probably already have a garage and tools to do so--starting from scratch is a lot of time and dedication. I'm not saying that you don't have it, but I'm justwarning you: BE PREPARED.
To really get to a level where you can maintain your own, it's going to be non-stop hours and practice, just like any skill set. Some people make it look easy because they grew up with it and spent those hours learning. So if you don't have a partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, best friend, community garage, or money to pay someone to teach you these things or help you... please don't attach yourself to an acquaintance or a service shop and become a burden. Unless you're paying them good money (and don't be cheap), there are no deals, their time is valuable, they can just do regular work for people who do understand, appreciate, and pay. How does it feel if someone continuously tries to exploit you of your time and skills and doesn't pay you enough or at all? Yeah, you don't have time for that and neither do they.
I know there are plenty of good people who are willing to help, but every question, every call, every problem will start to seem like you're taking advantage of their valuable personal or work time. You're an adult who owns this vehicle, you should be able to take care of it when it needs to be towed or if work needs to be done to it.
If you're more focused on wanting to ride than wrench, maybe you should think about investing more money at first. Newer bikes are going to cost more money, no doubt about it. No different from a car (repeating this a lot for obvious reason). However, they are usually more reliable (not that new bikes don't come with their own problems). Obviously you can go about this two ways: you can buy from a dealer and get a lien on a bike that is five years or newer--depending on credit, what offers they have, and what down payment you put down. Which isn't a bad idea, it allows you to pay affordable monthly payments and certain services and warranties that comes with certain bikes. Or you can buy a used bike in a private sale.
If you have a friend that knows bikes that can take a look with you, great. If not, there are plenty of communities and online forums that are more than happy to give you their opinion on bikes from their own experiences. Again, they are voluntarily giving you their advice which is better than hassling someone else for their time and opinion.
These two options with buying a newer or pricier bike will seem to cost more money at first, but generally if it is a good bike then the cost to maintain and work on it will be low versus the cost to keep or get an old bike running. Just like a car.
Some Things You Should Know About Owning a Motorcycle
A motorcycle service shop labor costs are almost no different from a car service shop, so you should expect about $100 per hour for labor, give or take. That seems a lot for something that is two wheels and costs less than a car. But the overhead, permits, licenses, education/experience, and tools for having a garage to work on motorcycles is no different from one that works on a car, if not more expensive with certain tools. Keep that in mind for your own garage if you plan to build one or share one.
The cost of getting professional motorcycle paint done for your tank, fenders, and fairings is also just as expensive as a car. It is due to the cost of paint, body work, labor, knowledge, permits, licenses, paint booth, etc.--shocker. If someone is painting something for you with a whopping deal of anything under $300, then it is either a really big favor, poorly done, or out of a spray can. I've bought cheap paint, clear coat, sand paper, Bondo, gloves, mask, suit, cups, paint thinner, hardener, yadda yadda--it isn't less than $100 after all of that and it isn't less than an hour of work. It is a lot of hours to prep and a lot of sanding and painting and layers depending on type of paint, quality, and experience.
The cost of custom building a bike can vary greatly. I put in $800 in 22, the custom 125cc bike and that is on the cheap side using some cheaper parts, fabricating my own things, painting it myself, wiring it myself, etc. I want to say on the cheap side, with a bike that is already running and you're doing a full build with cheap parts from e-bay, painting it, new wheels, seats, etc.--expect about $2000, less if you're lucky. And that's an okay build. The builds that you see in social media that are done really well and have a lot of their parts fabricated or use quality aftermarket pieces and accessories probably run north of $5000. Some people can do it for less, but they're probably making their own parts and doing a lot more work. Custom seats alone that are high quality are around $500+. Okay generic looking seats that are custom are around $300. E-bay made in China, after market seats are $100-$300.
If this all sounds really intimidating maybe you shouldn't get a bike... No worries, read on.
One of the best things about riding motorcycles and being involved with different communities of people who share the same passion is that... The communities you become involved in and the people you meet are amazing. There are so many resources out there available for you that you may not realize.
- Online forums, communities, and riding groups
- Community garages
- Private/State ran safety riding programs and race classes
- Motorcycle events
- Motorcycle magazines, e-zines, blogs, and reviews
There are plenty of online forums and sites that focus on brand and model specific communities that are a great resource to use to ask for advice, opinion, and help on the same kind of bike that you might own. And sometimes they do special meet ups and it is really cool to see a bunch of the same bikes in one spot owned by someone who probably loves it as much as you do. Those online communities also are focused on type of riders like motocross, dirt bike, trail riding, touring, sport bike-track, or lifestyle communities as well as ones that focus on general riders within a certain area. I myself am a part of a few Facebook groups in the DC, Virginia, Maryland-Baltimore, and Philadelphia area. There are also riding groups that are open to new members and do monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly events, some of them are bike specific, gender specific, or riding style specific. I support and have ties with groups in different cities all along the east coast.
If you don't have a place to store your bike or you would like to learn to work on your bike and don't have the place, knowledge, or tools--community garages have become a great resource that have been becoming more popular with motorcycle enthusiasts especially in the city. Depending on your membership, you pay to either store your bike, have access to tools, have access to classes, and hours which you can work on your bike while others are there as well--sometimes they have people specifically there to help you too. There are some really cool community garages to have popped up and they often combine these garages with a coffee shop or retail space--making it more welcoming for you to hang out.
Why not focus on building your riding skill right off the bat? There are plenty of programs, like the Motorcycle Safety program, that offers a beginners course with bikes that you can learn on and ride. It is a great place to meet people and pick your riding coaches brain. If you already have developed basic riding skills for a while, why not try some flat track classes? Those classes may be focused on racing but those skill set and ability to control at speed and turns are transferable to the street.
There are so many motorcycle events across the country and internationally and almost none of them say that you have to have a motorcycle to attend (unless it’s a race or a ride to somewhere). What better opportunity to see these bikes in person and talk to people about their experiences with these bikes. It's also generally a good time. I rarely haven't had fun at a motorcycle event. There are even shows and meetings of types of bike that you might like and want to focus on, like classic bike meets or sport bike meets and the Progressive International Motorcycle Show where you can physically sit on new bikes and talk to industry experts with your questions on price, performance, and use of these bikes.
Motorcycle magazines, blogs, and reviews are some of the best and often free resources that you can look up yourself. I don't know every bike and haven't been lucky enough to ride every bike, so I often look to journalists and online reviews for the information or questions I have on certain bikes. They often will give you the specs that you need as well as honest feedback about the pros and cons of each bike. Definitely a huge help on deciding on a bike depending on how you ride.
You Still Haven't Told Me What Bike I Should Get
Well, that's the thing. All of these questions and information will allow you to decide what is best for you. How a bike rides also depends on how you want to ride, engine size, your comfort in how tall a bike is, your reach (across the tank and reaching the handlebars), and sitting position. You will have to just physically sit and try it out, and maybe look to some of your resources above from other people with similar physical attributes and experiences.
Sometimes engine size does matter, sometimes it doesn't. Some bikes that have larger engines are made to ride easily and some aren't. Across the board, I know that people generally outgrow bikes with 300cc or less pretty quickly unless they just want it to bop around town, do small bike races, or just love small bikes. Smaller or shorter people, particularly women, do like to start on things that are 125-300cc. I'm one of them and it's great. But I also know I need a larger displacement bike for the type of riding I do (travel). I think 300-500cc is possibly a good start for beginners of all physical size depending on the bike. Hit up a community or forum and see what people say about their bikes.
I actually started briefly on a CB350, but not long enough to call it mine and it ended up in pieces anyway and belonging to an ex (I don't really want to talk about it). I often mention that my Kawasaki Ninja 250R is my first bike and technically it is, I own it. I bought it on a lien from a friend who got it at his Ford dealership and paid it off pretty quickly. It wasn't the dream bike I imagine myself on, but it was small and pretty. I also didn't honestly know what I wanted for myself at the time, being new at riding. You just hear what everyone rides and think that's the bee's knees. I can tell you that I don't regret buying the 250 and that it has never left me stranded, it has never broke in ways that simply buying a new battery or doing basic maintenance like oil change, new brake pads, filter changes, new tires, or new chain didn't fix. And because it was a smaller and cheaper sport bike, the parts were also inexpensive.
I have ridden it everywhere: highways, tolls, cities, neighborhoods, gravel, mud, dirt, grass, water and put over 16,000 miles (average speed 75-80 mph, gone as fast as 100 mph) on it in the three years that I have owned it. I have painted it, dropped it, abused it, loved it, but ultimately rode it. It might not be a popular bike or the prettiest bike or the most bad ass bike but I ride it everywhere and with everyone. And no one has ever said, "no you can't ride with us with that".
I am glad I have this bike even though I'm ready for something else. Because I have gone on so many adventures with it, through so many cities and states, with so many people. It has allowed me to do all of those things and not worry about cost, maintenance, and let me focus on developing my riding skills and having those amazing adventures and experiences. That to me is what matters with buying a bike and why I ride.
At the end of the day, you will buy whatever you want with how much you can afford. If you are dedicated to the idea of working on bikes or wanting an old bike, then get an old bike--but realize what time, money, and responsibilities that come with it and don't rely so heavily on other people without respecting their time and space. Get that CB350 or XS400 or old Sportster then. But there are also plenty of contemporary or modern bikes that are also classic and may be easier to maintain if you just spent a little more money in the beginning like a Continental GT or an SR400 or a T100. Just remember though, more money upfront will mean less headaches and more riding and you will be less discouraged as you're just starting out.
Looking to your resources is the most important! Nothing is more amazing than basically open source and sharing from countless people and experiences. I will list the ones that I use at the end of this post and I hope that these things will help to set you on your way to a decision on what you want to do (because I can't tell you that's for you :) ).
If you have any questions, concerns, feedback or anything to add, please do not hesitate to reach out or write in the comments below. Don't forget to share with other people who have the same questions and follow me on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
See you around.
Just to name a few that I often support or associate with. A lot of them are on the east coast in the US since that is where I reside and frequent the most. Feel free to add or share more resources, groups, and links in the comments below!
Facebook Groups and Riding Groups:
- DC Triumph, an open group of riders in the Washington DC metro area. They often do rides, meet ups, happy hours, and charities.
- The Mufflers, a Baltimore women's riding group that does a lot of charities particularly with local art shows. A great group of women to know. During riding season, they do weekly happy hours and rides. They also greatly support a lot of women moto events.
- DC Motobabes, a DC metro women's riding group. They are pretty low key but also supports a lot of local charities and rides. Definitely a strong bunch of individuals.
- Dirt Church DC, a group of friends who ride and work on motorcycles and mopeds in the DC area. They host a number of just fun events and welcome new people to attend these events.
- The Miss-Fires, a large women's motorcycle group which many members are from New York City--however they actually have members all over the US. They too support many local events and charities as well as large women's moto events.
- The Litas, A women's riding group that started out west, it has become one of the larger groups to expand with different chapters all over the world. There is most likely a Litas group in your city or closest city.
- Mohawk Ryderz, A semi-private group of motorcyclists, mostly focused on track and sport bikes. They're located in the Maryland, DC, Virginia area. They do a lot of different rides, track days, charities--mostly invite only. But still a good group of people to know. Once you're a part of their family, you are a part of their family. :)
- Philly Moto Fam, a Facebook group for the Philadelphia area. A smaller and more recent group, all experiences and types of riders are welcomed. You will find a lot of shared local moto themed events and folks who just want to ride.
- DC-Moto (DMV Motorcycle Riders), a Facebook group for the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. They occasionally will do rides. I find that this group is always active and people are more than happy to chat and help about bikes.
- Caferacer, a Facebook group for caferacer enthusiasts
- DMV Moto || Women's Chapter, a Facebook group, women focused, for the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area
- Throttle Control Club, a Facebook motorcycle group based around the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. They occasionally do rides and are pretty active.
- Two for the Soul, DC area oriented group. Pretty active page.
- Dunn Lewis MC
- Brother Moto
- Moto Guild (San Francisco, Chicago, Philly), a community garage where you can pay to store your bike and wrench on your bike. There's a few different cities that have a Moto Guild garage. And the great thing is that they also offer various classes on working and getting familiar with your bike, occasionally do rides, and have bike nights.
- Philly Cycle Storage, community garage with membership for storage, tools, classes, and help on your bike in Philly.
- Ryder's Alley, located in NYC, a place to store your bike, work on it, and take classes on bike stuff. Motorcycle riding events and community oriented place.
- MotorGrrl, located in Williamsburg (Brooklyn). Also a place to have a membership with access to storage, tools, help, inspections, and your other motorcycle shop related needs.
- American Super Camp, Traveling flat track classes by former racer, Danny Walker. Danny Walker has trained and continues to train many flat track racers to this day. You can find his classes traveling all over the country, providing all gear and bike. You can also find him supporting teams in the MotoAmerica circuit races.
- Training by 10, Johnny Lewis, current American Flat Track racer, also gives private and group classes. He does both traveling classes and classes at his home at the Ocala Speedway in Florida.
- SoCal Supermoto, located in California, they provide more classes in how to ride with control and confidence on the track for dirt and street riders.
- PA Motorcycle Safety Program, Pennsylvania Motorcycle Safety Program gives you the opportunity to learn how to ride and earn your license (as long as you have your permit, take the classes, and pass both written and riding tests). They also offer classes beyond the basic riding class after you get your license (you will have to have your own bike for these.) Currently these classes are free and what a better opportunity to learn and improve your skill than these classes. Many states have their own Motorcycle Safety Programs, most of them you will have to pay a fee, but I encourage everyone to do it. I have met some great coaches and other riders in these classes.
Good Reading Resources:
- Moto Lady, Journalist, leather worker, graphic artist, photographer from Portland, OR--all around a motorcycle credible source. Alicia aka Moto Lady often focuses on the women motorcycle community and can be found traveling to many events and doing many charities. She has been writing and reviewing many motorcycles and events for over five years.
- Bike Exif, curates some of the top notch custom builds from around the world. Between being eye candy and showing off ingenuity, Bike Exif is definitely a resource for style and inspiration.
- Pipe Burn, another great resource on custom built bikes and custom building culture.
- Revzilla, major online motorcycle part and gear retailer, started and located in Philadelphia. They create much of their own reviews, content, and information on nearly all of their products plus more on lifestyle, events, adventures, maintaining your bike, and just really a plethora of information for and about the motorcycle community.
- Silodrome, an online resource on design and performance especially around gasoline culture-a lot of the things he writes about are swoon worthy.
- Sport bikes Inc, Philadelphia based online magazine on motorcycle culture--mainly focusing on sport bikes. Reviews on motorcycles and gear and covering major motorcycle events all over the country. You can occasionally meet up with them on their public rides and rallies in the Philly area.
- Michael Lawless, Pennsylvania local, continues to race, write, and support the flat track community. Some of his work may be found published in other publications but you can also just read and follow his direct blog.
- Caferacer XXX, Motorcycle culture media content promoter. Often is found putting together charities, rides, and supporting events all over the world for various types of motorcycle facets.
Events (just to name a few):
- Progressive International Motorcycle Show, One of the major traveling motorcycle industry shows. This is the place where you should go to check out new bikes, to sit on, have a feel on the weight, height, and reach, and ask all of your performance, costs, aftermarket parts questions to each brand's representative.
- The One Moto Show, A fun annual custom motorcycle show that happens in Portland, Oregon.
- The Handbuilt Show, One of the more anticipated custom Motorcycle shows that happens in Austin, Texas--particularly during the weekend of MotoGP and MotoAmerica races at the Circuit of Americas.
- Harrisburg Super Swap Meet, One of the larger swap meets that happens on the east coast.
- The Fox Run, A women's only moto camp in Lancaster county, PA. Some of the most welcoming group of ladies that I have ever met. Always a good time.
- White Rose Hill Climb, One of the more interesting and fun events you will see. Riders with modified bikes that will try to ride up an intensely large and steep hill.
- Babes Ride Out (East Coast, In the Dirt, West Coast), Women's only motorcycle events. They have a camping event in the west coast, east coast, and the UK (one year) and a dirt bike event.
- Motos in Moab, Motorcycle camping in the desert in Moab, Utah.
- The Race of Gentlemen, Vintage pre-1965 motorcycles and hot rods racing on the beach at Wildwood, New Jersey (last year they also included a west coast event).
- Wheels and Waves, a week of celebrating surfing, motorcycles, and beach fun on the beaches of Biarritz, France.
- Born Free Show, a vintage motorcycle show that happens in Silverado, California.
- Strange Days, a vintage motorcycle show and festival that happens in Cuddebackville, New York.
- Brooklyn Invitational, custom built motorcycle show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
- Distinguished Gentleman's Ride, A charity ride where you ride classic bikes while dressing "dapper" in your finest suits (or dresses) to raise money and awareness for the fight against prostate cancer (and now also men's mental health.) These rides are organized through local communities in cities all over the world.
- Dream Roll, a women's only motorcycle event at St Adams, Washington.
- Barber Vintage Motorcycle Festival, One of the largest vintage motorcycle weekends, celebrating motorcycles with races and vendors in Birmingham, Alabama. Interesting fact, Barber is a museum with the largest collections of motorcycles in the Americas.
- Moon Eyes, In Japan, Moon Eyes has become an iconic custom build show for both hot rods and choppers. Incredible builders from all over the world are invited to have their work in this event. Also, it is Japan. They tend to go over the top with building things.
- Daytona Bike Week, one of the biggest bike weeks in the US is at Daytona beach in Florida. It is where motocross race is happening while other people are showing off their bikes and partying.
- Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one of the largest bike rallies in the US. There's a lot going on... Racing, partying, vendors...