Before You Buy a Bike….

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Motorcycles are a lot of fun. They’re also relatively inexpensive to buy – and they get great gas mileage.

But if you’ve never ridden before, there are some things you should know before you decide to throw a leg over:

* Motorcycles (and scooters) take more skill and involvement to operate than a car –

You need to be able to balance and (in the case of motorcycles) shift gears and work a clutch. And brake. Without consciously thinking about it.

Then, there’s cornering.

A two-wheeled (single track) vehicle turns by a combination of steering and leaning. A car turns by steering only. You lean the bike by shifting your weight to the inside of the corner, working with the machine so that the two of you are one unit. Leaning is a high-order skill that takes time to acquire – and also requires a higher degree of physical fitness (and coordination) than driving does.

And you also have to learn how to stop.

In a car, depressing the brake pedal automatically engages all four brakes simultaneously and in the appropriate proportion. On a bike, the front and rear brakes are (usually) controlled individually – and separately. (A few late-model bikes have linked brakes as well as ABS). The rider must learn to apply the front and rear brakes in the right proportion via manual control of the levers, one for the front brake, the other for the rear. Too much rear brake and the back wheel will lock up (if the bike doesn’t have ABS – and most don’t) and cause the bike to skid. Too much front brake, meanwhile, and you might find yourself flying over the handlebars.

It takes time and experience to master the different handling techniques necessary to safely operate a bike (or scooter), which is why in most states, a separate “M” endorsement on your driver’s license is necessary to legally operate a motorcycle on public roads. Typically, you must pass a separate knowledge and skills test above and beyond the test required to get a driver’s license. New riders usually must also first obtain a Learner’s Permit that limits their riding to daytime hours for a set period of time, typically a couple of months. You may or may not need to get an “M” endorsement if you plan to ride a scooter or moped only; it typically depends on the engine size (and top speed capability) of the scooter or moped. As a rule, if it can go faster than about 35 mph, you will probably need to get the “M” endorsement. Check with your state DMV to be sure.

If you’ve never ridden before, I strongly recommend taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s new rider course. These are held all over the country, in or near most major cities – usually on a weekend. MSF provides the bike (usually a small, light beginner bike such as a Honda Rebel 250 or similar) and the basic gear (helmet, etc.) so you can check it out without making a major commitment. The MSF course will teach you all the basics in a safe, off-street environment such as a large parking lot. See here for more details.

* Motorcycles and scooters are inherently much more dangerous than cars as far as being able to protect you in the event of a crash –

Safe riding practices and skilled riding can lower the chances you’ll be the cause of a wreck, but you can’t control other drivers (who are often oblivious to motorcycles and scooters) or random things like an animal suddenly running in front of you .

If you ride a motorcycle or scooter, you should invest in protective riding gear, including a jacket with armored inserts, gloves and boots – in addition to a helmet (which is mandatory in most states).

* Most motorcycles and scooters have limited cargo capacity, even big cruising/touring bikes –

You’ll probably still need a car or truck to transport large/bulky items. And you can only carry one passenger – typically not in great comfort.

* Motorcycles and scooters are more vulnerable to (and less adept in) bad weather than cars –

They are especially vulnerable to dangerous skids/loss of control on wet/slick roads. A car has four contact patches and if it hits some ice, it may slide. But a bike has only two (and much smaller) contact patches and if it hits some ice, it is much more likely to just topple over. Sand and gravel on the road are also unique threats to bikes and scooters that cars generally don’t have to worry about.

* Bikes and scooters generally don’t last as long as cars –

Assuming decent treatment, most any late model car or truck can be counted on to go 150,000 miles or more before needing major engine work. A bike will typically be tired by 50,000 miles. And bikes often require more frequent maintenance, including things like chain cleaning/oiling/tightening and valve adjustments, which may be be necessary as frequently as once every 10,000 miles or so. Bike tires almost always wear out much faster (on some high-performance sport bikes, in as little as three or four thousand miles or even less) because the contact patch is smaller (and so wears faster) and because of softer compounds (in the case of performance tires).

On the upside, riding a motorcycle or scooter is fun – and with gas mileage that’s typically between 45 and 60 mpg (depending on the type of bike/scooter) it’s inexpensive fun, too.

Probably the smartest option, if saving money is the goal, is to buy the bike or scooter and use it when the weather’s nice and you don’t need to carry either people or stuff – keeping your car as back-up for rainy days, winter driving and when you do need to carry people or stuff.

This way, you cut down the mileage you put on your car, extending its useful life and decreasing your maintenance while also lowering your annual fuel costs considerably.

That’s having your cake – and eating it, too!

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. Even tho this post is four years old, it still makes a bunch ‘o’ sense!

    Had two motors in my younger days–a Yammy 175 Enduro that ran circles around the big bad Bultacos in the desert. Traded that in for a Honda 550/4 road bike that I absolutely loved. My dad sold it, though, when I went overseas in 1974.

    While living in Key West, owned a number of scooters – mostly Hondas. Rented scooters to the Tourons, too. Tourons, like Clovers, don’t pay attention. They just hop on, twist the throttle and slam into a parked car. That’ll be your $300 deposit, maam/sir, to fix that front piece of the scoot.

    Had to lay one of my own down when a local ran a stop sign. Remember opening my eyes and looking into the front wheel hubcap at my reflection. Got some good bucks out of that lawsuit!

    Would like to ride again and am thinking about an Indian Scout.

  2. I just came across this site, from Lew Rockwell. Been riding motorcycles since 1969 – a Yamaha 50 in what was West Germany. Several Yamahas, a Suzuki (500 T!) and a Honda. Currently on a 1987 BMW R80RT – best handling, most comfortable ride of the bunch.

    Good counsel here about the risks – and fun – in riding! I’ll be back.

    • Hi Manfred,

      Welcome – and good to have you with us!

      Bikes in the garage right now:

      2003 Kaw ZRX1200
      1976 Kaw Kz900 (big bore kit, etc.)
      1983 Honda GL650 Silverwing Interstate
      1975 Kaw S1 250

  3. I think motorcycles a lot of fun, but if you have never ridden one before and you’re an older guy, or woman, I don’t think it’s a good idea to start.
    It takes time to build the “body-memory”, so to speak, required to ride well; and I don’t know if a person who’s a little older can do it safely.

  4. Oh Mang! Just got back from a 200+ mile ride. When I left the house the temperature was 24 degrees. When I got home it was 48. I am still freezing. My freaking windshield bag cracked while I was riding (that’s how cold it was). It was me, ‘the other Ken’, and Joe from work. Coolest part of the trip was a skid I did. Hope these Budweisers warm me up! doh

    • That’s bold, mang!

      I’m skeered of all the sand that the VDOT dudes lay all over the place at the slightest hint of snow. It takes at least one good rain to wash the stuff away…

      Glad you didn’t lay it down!

      • What dom didn’t mention is that it was all on 2-lane roads that were selected specifically for their lack of straight sections. About 7 hours of pushing the bikes through curves with occasional breaks to let fingers and toes thaw out.

        The roads were surprisingly clear of sand. Potholes, slow-moving blue hairs and cold air were the only issues. Well, those and dom’s remarkable ability to skid… 🙂

      • Yeah, Ken has some crazy euro lights on his rig (came stock with them). They are completely clear except when he hits the brake or turns on an indicator. But to me when the indicator/brake light is on it strikes me as a regular style lens so I’m thrown off by it. I was sitting there skidding and was like wtf, so I looked to my left and saw the back of my bike. I laughed a bit, let off, and started skidding the other direction. lol I was determined not to have to u-turn! I hate u-turning!

      • Having a touring bike is the ticket; it extends the riding season to almost year-round. So long as it’s in the 20s and so long as there’s no ice/snow on the road, you can ride – without torturing yourself, anyhow – because you’ve got some protection from the wind.

        Anyone who doesn’t have a touring bike can’t appreciate this until they experience the difference –

        I can’t deal with my unfaired sport bike or my unfaired antique bike if the air temp is much less than 50 degrees. Even suited up, the cold just bites to the bone once you’re on the road. But on the ‘Wing – even without a heated suit/gloves – I can ride comfortably when it’s in the 30s…

        Sounds like you guys had a good ride!

        • Heated gloves, desert dawgs, leathers, and some thick socks and you’ll be straight. That is on a touring bike I mean. Yesterday I was wearing athletic socks and my feet froze as a consequence. Freaking awesome riding all year!

  5. Funny, i was on bikes since age 10 and riding them was like second nature, and i remember the first time i got behind the wheel of a car it felt SO alien, all that metal to keep track of and the poor visibility, and it felt all lurchy when i hit the gas, took awhile to get dialed in. But if you’ve only ever driven cars then i suppose it could be the opposite shock.

    I guess it’s all a matter of perspective/conditioning.

    Mostly though bikes are a blast, so if you’re thinking of getting one, do it!

    • Amen.

      Bikes have so many virtues, but one of their greatest may be that they grant access to an elite world of speed and performance that would otherwise be inaccessible due to cost for most people. $11,000 or so (about the cost of a really cheap new car) will buy you a bike capable of a high 9 second quarter mile (and 180-plus top speed) run right off the showroom floor – and there’s virtually nothing on four wheels that can touch that.

    • Oh Mang! Just got back from a 200+ mile ride. When I left the house the temperature was 24 degrees. When I got home it was 48. I am still freezing. My freaking windshield bag cracked while I was riding (that’s how cold it was). It was me, ‘the other Ken’, and Joe from work. Coolest part of the trip was a skid I did. Hope these Budweisers warm me up! doh

  6. Now let’s see, first bike

    ’68 Honda 250 Scrambler
    Strictly off road and great fun

    followed by a
    ’69 Honda 305
    Strictly road and fun with good gas mileage

    then a
    ’73 BSA 500
    THe Famous single “Thumper”, Fast too.

    then a
    ’74 Vespa 200 Rally
    Perfect scooter for San Francisco

    ’74 Norton 850 John Player Special
    Not quite the perfect bike for San Francisco
    First of the Real Cafe Racer’s, double headlights and spooky fast

    Then a
    ’79 Vespa P200E
    Just couldn’t beat the gas mileage, again

    took a break while I raced road and mountain bikes

    Ten years ago…
    1998 BMW K1200 RS
    Great machine. Smooth as silk. Pushed it one time, over 160mph.
    (Actually, pushed it one too many times and lived to tell about it)
    Sold it so I could live to be a ripe old age.

    and finally back to the best
    1980 Vespa P200E
    Great gas mileage. Fun. And a scoot that keeps my ego in check. Have it today. Great transport for
    the transiting to the other side after the total collapse of the universe, well, at least, the collapse of “life-styles” based on infinite expansion.

    Next bike? After the “phase transition”…
    BMW 1000RR but I’d keep the Vespa. Hey wait a minute, I thought I was done with the 200mph bikes?!?!

    PS If you want a “chick” bike, the Vespa is the one! No kidding.

    • Excellent!

      My current stable:

      ’75 Kawasaki S1C triple (in the process of being restored).
      ’76 Kawasaki Kz900 (restored/mildly hopped up).
      ’03 Kawasaki ZRX1200R (bought new, mildly hopped up).
      ’00 Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa (modded for off-road use)

      As you can see, I am prejudiced… a Kaw man.

      But I don’t discriminate, either. I also have:

      ’83 Honda GL650 Silverwing Intersate

      I’ve been considering a new ZX10 or ZX14 but I’ve gotta finish the ’75 S1C first!

      • I consider myself a Yamaha person, but owned in turn: a Benelli Buzzer (age 10), a Honda CL 70, a Suzuki TM 75, a Honda CR125 Elsinore (i remember the lime-green KX’s back then) and finally two different rd400’s, one stock and one i bought half built then met a friend with a machine shop (circa age 15 now) and some connections and dropped a tz350 crank in and that thing just screamed and was just freaking bulletproof. And both people i bought the RD’s from also had KH 750’s, that seemed to be what RD people stepped up to if they went up a step. You saw alot of the 750’s but not many 400’s.

        It was nice to grow up near Wildwood, NJ, where back then (70’s) you could take motor vehicles on the beach in the winter, so all the kids had them, plus great trails up there. I’d have probably never gotten into street bikes were it not for that.

  7. Riding motorcycles off road, where there is little to no other traffic to contend with…….fine, and fun. Riding motorcycles on the street, where you may experience a crash with a car or truck……no thanks.

    • I do both… I have a dirt bike for riding the trails around our place but I also have four street bikes and, even though you’re right about the risks, wouldn’t give it up for anything, or almost anything.

  8. Good points in this article – I am passing on to a co-worker who is getting “the itch”. Living in Florida I get to ride almost everyday, but still have my truck to fall back if needed. It was 39 degrees this morning but will be a pleasant 66 this afternoon – maybe I will take the long way home – keep the rubber side down.

        • Ha. I have a buddy here I work with (we are both office workers). Over the holidays he was visiting with his family and got into an argument with his younger brother (two years younger). His brother is a construction superintendent. Anyhow, they were squaring off and making comments toward each other. His brother went on to say “everyone who works in an office is a pussy, don’t swell up on me!” Pretty funny. My buddy is a built dude, as I am. We both mess with each other daily repeating the comment his brother made. It’s good for a laugh.


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