First Bikes

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Bikes are not unlike shoes in that you want one that fits.

If you’re a big guy, there are bikes that won’t. And if you’re not a big guy, there are bikes that won’t. Size matters – frame more so than engine. A 250 cc engine will generally have more than enough power for general riding.

But a bike that’s too small for your frame will be awkward to ride – and a bike that’s too big for your frame can be dangerous to ride because it will harder to control.

You want to be comfortable on it, able to easily hold the bike up with your feet and “walk” it around, as when maneuvering it into/out of your garage. You don’t want a bike that’s too heavy for you – or which is hard for you to deal with at low speeds, as when making U turns, backing up and so on.

Almost any modern bike will be powerful enough as they are almost all have power-to-weight ratios much more favorable than most cars. But many bikes are arguably too powerful for a new rider – and not just sport bikes. There are cruiser and touring and adventure-touring bikes that are quite capable of throttle wheelies – and that’s for your next bike or after you’ve been riding your first one for a year (better three).

But you also don’t want a bike you’ll outgrow right away.

Or even ever.

Which brings me to a few specific suggestions. The first is a dual-sport (on and off-road) bike in the 250-650 class, something like a Kawasaki KLR250 or KLR650 or its Honda/Suzuki equivalents. These bikes have a number of merits, among them a standard-sized frame that will fit most adult men comfortably. Street bikes with 250 cc engines (e.g., the Honda Rebel) tend to be too small for most adult men; they’re often used for new rider training courses (MSF) because they are very light and very easy to handle. But they are also very easy to outgrow – and not just physically. A standard-sized man will usually get tired of a little bike like the Rebel in short order.

But a dual-sport bike like the KL250/650 is a bike you may never get tired of. They are huge fun because you can trail ride and ride on the road, as you like. The KLR250 is a little under-engined for long highway rides but it can be operated at highway speeds. The KLR 650 can be operated cross-country – and many owners do just that.

Kawasaki has been making the KLR series for generations. As in decades, without making major changes. These bikes are simple, durable and need very little in the way of elaborate maintenance and what they do need you can probably tackle on your own, if so inclined.

They still have carburetors, even.

My next recommend is related to the above. The adventure-touring class. An example of the breed is the Kawasaki Versys, which is available in 650 and 1,000 engine sizes (the frame size is the same). These are more road-oriented but can also be ridden on grass/trails – hence adventure. This class of bike is surging in popularity because they are a return to what motorcycle riding was once all about… having fun. And without spending a fortune.

New, the 650 starts at just over $8k (see here for more).

My third recommend is a bike that anyone who knows bikes has probably owned or at least ridden at some point and will probably agree is a great bike to own – and not just as a first bike, either. It is the Honda Nighthawk – which Honda made in several iterations but the most common and recent being the Nighthawk 750. It is a “standard” bike of the type that was once referred to as the Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) back in the ’70s and ’80s – because every Japanese nameplate made one. They all descend in basic layout from the bikes that changed everything – the 1969 Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1900.

These two bikes had modern in-line/air-cooled four cylinder engines (SOHC for the CB750, DOHC for the Z1900) and set the standard emulated by everyone else.

The Nighthawk was another take on the same basic theme – and the 750 was made through the early 2000s (see here for some detailed info about the bike). I’ve owned 500 and 650 Nighthawks and have nothing but accolades to share about them. And they have the additional virtue of being common and cheap. Less than $5k will buy you an immaculate, low-miles one and $2,500 or so ought to cover a mechanically sound and decent-looking example. These bikes are also inexpensive to insure and can be fitted with hard bags if you plan to tour/need storage capacity.

Some – like the CB550SC I owned once – even have shaft drive, so no chain to clean or adjust.

New bikes generally similar include the ’20 Yamaha XSR700 (about $8,400 new) and the Suzuki SV650 (about the same). If you like “retro,” you might have a look at the Kaw W800 – which looks like a ’73 Kaw but has all the modernities, including fuel-injection and disc brakes on both wheels.

The downside of the above bikes is they do have the modernities – including a computer just like a modern car and thus when the bike needs service other than the most basic, it will likely mean a trip to the dealer. But, these bikes are less apt to need anything more than basic maintenance for years to come and if you prefer to just ride, a bike like these might be just right for you.

You may be wondering why all my recommends have one thing in common . . . that being they’re all Japanese bikes. The reason for that is simply that the Japanese make the most reliable and affordable bikes. It’s the reason why Honda and Kaw and Suzuki and Yamaha practically killed off the British bike industry – and put Harley on life support. No offense to those bikes; they have their merits, too.

But for someone who wants to ride – and doesn’t want trouble – it is very hard to go wrong with anything made in Japan.

. . .

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32 COMMENTS

    • Hi Richard,

      There are an almost infinite number of options, of course! That’s one of the great things about bikes – they’re much more individually tailored than cars. You can get a frame to suit, much like a suit. And engines varying in type and size and output almost unlimited. I’ve got inline fours, air and water-cooled; twisted twins and singles; triples, too!

  1. The late model Nighthawk 750 was my first bike when I got back into riding about 10 years ago. It’s a great choice! It’s fairly tame if you don’t get hard on the throttle, but you won’t outgrow it. It’s super low maintenance with hydraulic valves (no adjustment necessary).Throw some soft bags on there and it’ll handle all the gear you need for weekend camping trips.

    • Hi Robbie!

      Yup; I had some great years on a CB550 SC – the one with the “chopper” styling and shat drive. A fun and practically free to own bike. Can’t say enough in their favor – because there’s very little to say otherwise!

  2. I started off on an ’07 Ninja 250R and while some might call that too little of a bike, I think it was just the right size.

    See, I was able to learn how to ride properly without being scared of the bike. If my first motorcycle had been a 600, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get proficient because I’d constantly be fighting the machine and holding on for dear life.

    I’ve since moved up to an ’01 CBR600F4i and then a ’13 GSX-R750. Next stop R1 and then Panigale.

    I’ll never sell any of them, because I remember how much I regret selling any of the cars I had over the years.

    • Hi Ice,

      I like the Ninja 250R and Hawk 250, too – but I’m also 6ft 3 and 215 and much too gawky to ride a bike that size comfortably. On the other hand, my friend Graves is about 5 ft 4 and weighs maybe 130. A 900 pound dresser Harley would be much too big (and heavy) for him, even though he has been riding for 30-plus years.

      Hence my general recommendation about a bike that fits… you!

  3. The Versys x-300 should also be on the list. The most fun bike I have had in a long time.

    High revving 300 Ninja motor that can do 80mph (160lbs here) with minimal vibration.

    <400 lbs

    Somewhat low seat

    300+ mile range per tank

    I got mine (new 2017 model purchased in 2019) out the door for $5k – I did add a center-stand, running lights and 12V plug.

    The only con for me is the tubed tires

    Anon

  4. Yes: You do not want the first bike to be too small, as you’d get bored with it. Also consider v-twins of less than 1000cc as a first bike. This would even include a Harley Sportster 883. (although the Harley is a little heavier and sits a little higher than their Japanese counterparts.)

  5. My son has a 2005 1000 KZ Police which I saved from an early grave. (Maybe) The kid is not mechanically inclined. Here is some of the troubling things that I found while trying to save it.

    The Carbs (Mikuni) are pretty much junk especially the enrichment system,,, more springs and balls then I expected. I much prefer a simple choke.
    No overflow on the carbs… stuck float,,, it all goes into the cylinder and the airbox.
    Airbox had a cute itty bitty drain bottle attached to the drain hose which was out of site and had never ever been emptied which was why the airbox had gunk 1/2 inch thick in the bottom.
    Getting the carbs back on requires the utmost patience (grrrrrrrr) and time. Syncing was fairly standard.

    The electrics were horrible. Most wires are 16-18-20 gauge. The wire carrying the charge current was 16ga. Had to run a wire directly to the battery to keep it from smoking batteries.
    The turn signal control box, Regulator, and Spark Control unit were under the battery box. Okay except you have to pull the Carbs, airbox and undo a lot of wiring just to access. Would have been okay if not for having to pull and turn the airbox to get it out of the bike.

    The self cancelling turn signals is a sight to behold. Found out what was wrong,,,an itty bitty relay in the switch housing. To repair will cost over $300 for a new left switch housing. The relay is not sold separately….

    All the lights in the fairing was fed by one 16ga wire. LOL.

    The Ignition module was intermittently failing. Replaced with a Ignitech unit. Many miles and years on my GL650. Affordable and very reliable. Out of the Czech Republic. Positioned it under the seat.

    Setting the valves is miserable. (Overhead Cam) Uses shims. Must have a special tool to hold valve down while changing shims.

    This bike has an exhaust air injection box to keep it from after firing when decelerating. Much like the Air Cut Off valves in many Honda Carbs. Gets nasty and carboned up.

    Changing the oil filter is more complicated than say,,, a Honda. Not that hard but can be a mess.

    And lastly, some of the sites selling parts are nasty. Partzilla sent me an air filter where the foam was deteriorating so bad it was flaking off when touching it. Complained, they refunded me,,, but will no longer accept any orders from me. Babbits sells list or greater only.

    The bike runs nice but with 80,000 miles on it the cam chain and guides are shot. The kid doesn’t want to front the money so he’ll probably destroy the engine riding it around.

    A high maintenance bike but nice to ride,,, powerful,,, and looks good. I still prefer Honda’s.

    Harley has come a long way from its AMF days. Today the Milwaukee 8 engine I own has runs flawlessly….. so far. But the dealers will gouge the crap out of you. Told my son $300 to bleed brakes,,, a 30-45 minute job at most for a dealer. But all dealers, car and motorcycles are like that.

    • Hi Ken,

      The earlier Zeds are much better (I own one, a ’76 900). These also used Mikunis and mine have been as reliable and maintenance-free as EFI. The engine itself is an anvil. Never had any issues with the electrics; the police 1000s – which were based on the 900/1000 civilian bikes – may have had issues there because of added equipment; I dunno as I’ve never owned or worked on one.

      I agree Honda makes top shelf bikes; I have owned and own them, too – including my weirdo Honda, the ’83 GL650 Silverwing!

        • Hi Ken,

          True, that!

          My GL650 has been one of the best bikes I’ve ever owned. The pushrod twin has a 9,000-plus RPM redline. Shaft drive. Same fairings as the same-year Goldwing. A really great middleweight bike – and cool, too – because of it rarity and unusual layout.

  6. Great advice my first bike back in 78 was a little 1973 honda cb 500 four. What a great first bike rode and modified the we we out of that thing it had almost 100k on it when I upgraded to a 80 cb 750 supersport, it was fast but never liked as much as the cb 500 wish I still had it.

  7. Great advice Eric.
    The only thing I will add that, as a motorcycle maniac for 35+ years, we are always trying to find that unicorn bike that does everything we want to do with it, or think/dream what we want to do with it. It never works out that way. And why I have I think 6 bikes now (2 locations).
    I bought a KLR650 once thinking it could do everything I wanted it to do. Yes it did the majority of things, but very poorly in every category (compared to a dedicated version obviously). And why it was replaced with a real dirtbike, and semi-do it all 2-cyl adventure bike, and now potentially a real tourer as my needs change as I grow older.

    • Feel the same way about my Suzuki DR650. Love the simplicity of the single-cylinder thumper … but its rough edges show, both on the road and on the trail.

      Going to take a look at the KTM 490 Adventure when it arrives in 2022.

      • Jim H, I think that 490 is going to be a two cylinder? If so, it’s going to be a hard bike to beat. I rode the CB500X a lot and it is a wonderful machine for a relatively small bike. I would be hard pressed to want to ride 2 up on it though, in which I need to do.
        I own a 790 Adventure R, and it is a great motorcycle and does a lot very well. It won’t do better than a Goldwing touring of course nor will it do mountain single track better than a dirtbike. Compromises. Better to own as many as possible. Pick your poison and ride, ride, ride.
        The guy who dies with the most bikes wins, haha……….

  8. Eric,
    Perhaps take test ride and do a write up on the Royal Enfield 650? It is under $7K and appears vintage but with modern tech. I’d be interested on your take on this machine.

    • Hi Hans,

      That bike is a beauty… but much as I admire Brit bikes, I’m leery of them. I’m sure they are much less iffy than back in the ’70s and ’80s. But in the context of this article, I wanted to steer the new rider to something that’s known Blue Chip, which most Japanese bikes have proved to be. I have a couple pushing 50 years old that I have no fear of riding anywhere… beyond them getting wet, of course! 🙂

      • Hi Eric,

        Slightly off topic, encountered a motorcycle clover today, he was putting along at 20-25 in a 35 zone (normal flow is 40-45). The road has an 8 foot wide bike lane, but he sat in the center of the car lane, backing up traffic until I avoided it, turning left 2 miles after he created the impasse. In theory, a motorcycle is as easy to pass as a cyclist, in actuality, a cyclist almost never creates such a block.

        Cheers, Jeremy.

        • Hi Jeremy!

          It must be catching… unlike the WuFlu. I encountered one of these two-wheeled Clovers today as well. Two cars ahead of me, a guy on a big cruiser bike doing 35-ish on a road with a 45 MPH speed limit. He, at least, eventually pulled off to let his “tail” proceed without him…

          • I encountered a two wheeled clover a couple weeks ago. He passes me and at the next light I am behind him. As usual he can’t get going fast so now I wait. So I change lanes. Down the road a bit he’s hovering off my left rear corner. I need to make a left turn coming up in 3/4 of mile or so, thus I accelerate a bit. He matches. I accelerate more, he matches. I punch it up quick to 20 over in an area infested with cops to get over.

            • Hi Brent,

              Yup – in re the Clover – and that’s why I always have my radar detector with me. So that when I encounter a Clover I can quickly get around it and leave it far, far behind.

      • Eric,
        Do you know why the British drink warm beer….because they have Lucas refrigerators! I have a 74 Norton Commando and a 68 BSA. Yep they can be exciting to drive…and just maybe I’ll make it back to the garage without being towed.
        I agree, the Japanese have been making high quality reliable motorcycles for years. The Royal Enfield is made in India and not sure about the quality but the price sure looks right (under $7K) for what is appears to be a retro vintage looking bike.

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