Monday, December 17, 2012


“Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet.”
- Abraham Lincoln

Returning to my old office of employ, my former secretary said, “My son is thinking of getting back into motorcycling.”  I cringed a bit.  “He doesn’t quite know what he wants, but I told him to log into the Church of the Open Road and see what’s there.”  I cringed some more.  (See Lincoln’s quote, above.)

Most everybody’s initial foray into the sport of two-wheeled travel is a shot in the dark.  So many makes and models to choose from!  What to own?  My first bike was a 90cc Honda.  It was great for putting around town and knocking out some forest service roads up in the hills, but getting to those dirt roads was a bit more problematic.  As I raced up (and I do mean “up”) state highway 32 toward Forest Ranch at 27 miles per hour, even at seventeen years of age, I knew the bike wasn’t intended for the demands I was asking. 

My daughter’s experience is similar yet different.  Her soon-to-be husband had come home on a Triumph Bonneville Black – one of the Hinckley models.  Daughter went for a spin on the back and wondered why we hadn’t told her what a blast motorcycle riding could be.  She took the course, got her license and some gear and went shopping.  She fell in love with what would become her first – and only – bike: a 2007 Ducati Monster S2R.  No amount of counsel could convince her that something a bit more mild would be a better selection for the new rider.  One first-day spill and the thing was sold.

My secretary told me that her son’s first bike was one of those lean over motorcycles and this time he was looking for something he could sit up straight on.  He’ll have a fire-related job up in the mountains this summer and would like something to commute on.

I immediately thought of the KLR 650 I’d owned a while back.  The thing could clip along at highway speeds.  For sight seeing on back roads and forest service routes, the thing was terrific.  But, the handling wasn’t too precise and the brakes were anything but state of the art.  Still the upright-ness is good as long as her son’s inseam isn’t as short as my brother-in-law’s.  He’d straddled the Kawi once and could barely reach the garage floor using the tips of his toes. 

I reverted to son-in-law’s Bonneville Black, recently sold.  There’s a bike with some solid engineering, a moderate sit-up position, and cool retro looks - especially the McQueen signature Scrambler derivative.  Downsides might include the weight and the fact that in the mountains or far northern California, it might be tough to find a nearby dealership.

My two current rides are a BMW 1200 GSA – probably too big and undoubtedly too expensive for an I-wanna-save-money-on-my-commute livery – and my beloved and thus-far rock solid Guzzi Breva – see issues with dealer networks.

There are a ton of great bikes to choose from now.  Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki are all producing some mid-weight bikes that are reliable and economical.  They come in a range of styles and seating positions and dealers are always close by.  Triumph has some 800cc Adventure triples and BMW some 800 Adventure twins that set butterflies loose in my tummy.  A Ducati Monster would be fabulous on the paved mountain roads where I know the young man will be stationed.  Not so hot off the tarmac.

What counsel I would offer this young man? 

Substance over style:  Determine where you’re going to ride, why, and on what surfaces.  Cross out anything on the list that doesn’t match.  Those bikes you check off will be there when your riding circumstance changes – and it will.

Dealer network:  If he lacks the mechanical skills I lack, having someone within shoutin’ distance who can keep the thing in top condition will only lengthen the life of the machine and greatly increase the enjoyment of ownership.

Fit:  Sit on several making sure your feet can rest firmly on terra firma at full stop.  Ensure the relationship between the handlebars, seat and pegs don’t cramp your style.  (After an hour on my old R65, I routinely had to stop, get off, and reestablish blood flow to my butt and joints associated with my hips.)  After you’ve narrowed it down, insist on as lengthy a test ride as the dealer will allow.  Sitting on it in the showroom and operating it on the highway are two completely different arenas.  Both need to be experienced, with the fit on the road being, by far, more important.

Research:  Read reviews from multiple sources and be prepared to eliminate that favorite bike that the press just can’t seem to get its arms around.  Look also for user reviews.  (I just eliminated the BSA 441 Victor from my wish list because circa 1969 reviews I found on line made the thing – new – seemed like it falling in love with a beautiful woman who had no intention of loving you in return.)

Gear:  Get good gear and wear it all the time while riding.  (Click the Church’s ATGATT label at the bottom of this post to link to some thoughts.)

Training and skill:  This is the most important consideration of all.  If you haven’t been riding in a while, take the MSF safety course.  Again.  The stuff you forget or the stuff you’re rusty on will be the stuff that gets you hurt.

I know the area where my secretary’s son will be summering. I used to live up that way myself.  I know the bike I’d want to have if I were blessed with the opportunity to ride those ranges.  But I’m not going to share that thought here, because what I’d choose bears no relationship with some other rider’s needs.  I hope my secretary’s son finds the perfect bike for him and that it will bring him great pleasure and very little pain.  I also hope he looks further than the Church of the Open Road for advice.  (See the quote from Abe Lincoln at the top of this piece.)

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. MV Agusta F4. If he's really serious, then maybe the F4-312. What's the sense screwing around? Why nibble when you can take a huge bite?

    Seriously though.. I'd go v-strom 650 if I were getting back into it.. Take you anywhere, plenty of accessories, and generally bulletproof..

  2. Good suggestion. I've never met anyone with a v-strom who didn't love it.

  3. I have been talking to a guy at work that is plannig on returning to riding after an 8 to 10 year hiatus. At this point he is planning on plucking down his money on a brand new VFR 1200. I told him like I tell everybody buy used go a little smaller it won't hurt nearly as bad when you drop it. Once you have some miles under your belt go out and pluck the big bucks down. You probably won't take a beating on the starter bike either.

  4. The experience level is really important. I would recommend a Big Four street or dual sport no bigger than 500ccs. Several of the newer value-oriented bikes are available with ABS. This would be a great feature for experienced or neophyte riders, alike. Check out Honda's CBR250R and CB500F and Kawasaki's Ninja 300 for the street. All three of these bikes are available with ABS, have a cool vibe, and are economical to purchase and maintain. Heck, even the insurance is cheap. The Honda CRF250L and the Yamaha XT250 are great options if some off-road riding is desired. These dual-sports don't have ABS, but they are solid values that are inexpensive to buy and own. There are other great choices out there, but I would say that these are where I would look first for a new rider.

  5. I've recommended SV650 Suzukis to two first time motorcyclists.

  6. As the owner of a Suzuki SV650, I do not recommend it as a first motorcycle. It is an okay beginner bike, but there are much better. The throttle response is abrupt, engine braking is high, the turn-in is quick, and the clutch and brakes can be a bit grabby. It's a difficult bike for a newbie to ride smoothly. Also, while 70 hp is not superbike output, it's still a lot for a beginner (in a bike weighing less than 400 lbs). (Consider that its performance specs rival the "superbikes" of 30 years ago.)

    The Kawasaki Ninja EX250 is a much better choice for a new rider. It's a highway-capable 250 (unlike, say, a Rebel), and it's very easy to ride, as it feels like a motorized bicycle. The only down side is you have to be willing to really rev the engine to get good power.

    My favorite beginner motorcycle, however, is the Ninja EX500. It's a bit more capable than the 250, but just as easy, if not easier, to ride. Very linear power delivery, the handling is stable and predictable, and the brakes are easy to modulate. It makes 50 hp, which is just right for this kind of bike, IMO. The 500 is a tried-and-true design, easy to work on, and very reliable. They are also a great value, as you can probably ride it for a year or two, and then sell it for what you paid for it.

    As a re-entry rider seven years ago (after a 20-year hiatus), I thought I was ready for the SV. While I now enjoy it and am comfortable with both the bike and my capabilities, it took the better part of two years (and four minor spills) to get there.

    OTOH, my gf was in a similar situation four years ago; she re-entered motorcycling on an Ninja 250, and after 18 months, moved up to the Ninja 500. Having ridden all three bikes extensively, I can honestly say that I should have started on the Ninja 500. It is supremely easy to ride; just about anyone with normal coordination and balancing abilities can ride this bike without difficulty.

  7. My re-entry bike after about a 15 year break was a BMW R1100 R. I quickly learned that I needed to be very gentle with things until I got my legs back under me. That said, once those "legs" were firmly planted, I enjoyed the hell out of that ride.

  8. I agree with everything suggested. In addition, I assume he wants to spend his time riding, not wrenching. I would avoid bike that have a strong reputation for high levels of care and feeding. That reputation might be why you are getting such a great deal on a lightly used bike.

  9. For a first time rider or someone returning to riding after more than 10 years, my suggestion is to get something used with the intent to sell it in 6-12 months time. There are several reasons for this:

    1. A new rider may decide after a few months that they really aren't all that interested in riding at all. Lots of new bikes go almost unused for this reason and the owners take a huge financial hit if they have purchased something brand new.

    2. A new rider doesn't really know what kind of riding they want to do. They may think they want a sport bike or adventure bike, but after some time find their interests have changed.

    3. There is a good chance the bike will get dropped or crashed, while the person is learning. Busting up a brand new moto hurts a lot more than a used one.

    Once you decide you are buying a bike you intend to sell later, you can focus on what you really need and what will be good to learn on. Pick a category you think you might be interested in and refine the search from there. A Ninja 250 is great for someone who thinks they want a sport bike. Maybe a TW200 for someone wanting an ADV bike. Small displacement, lightweight machines will reduce the chances of crashes and help develop skills.

    If they learn fast and decide they want to upsize in a month or two, they can resell with minimal $$$$ lost in comparison to buying anything new even if they never drop or crash it.

    In short, minimize the investment and maximize the chances of developing skills.

  10. For a new rider coming into Guzzi the new V7s are just about right!

  11. I thought I wanted a HD until I started riding my old Kawasaki.

    Better to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow. I started on a mid 80s 600, but then I was in my 30s, 6' 200 lbs with many years of experience driving in urban traffic as well as twisty mountain roads. It was just a matter of learning how to handle the machine. I learned a lot by reading, and riding. By far the best thing I ever did was spend 2 days with Reg Pridmore at Streets Of Wiilow. Not that I learned so much attitude there as I was able to fit the riding skill pieces together. It was a case of an experienced rider turning on the light bulb for me, and making all the stuff I'd studied/experienced come together.

    While I have not taken Keith Code's school I have studied his techniques, and practiced them. There is valuable stuff there, and I would encourage you to explore all approaches to riding. There are many different schools of thought on riding technique. The key is to explore them all, and find what works for you.

    You're probably thinking WTF does this have to do with picking a bike?

    You really won't know what bike is the bike for you until you ride a while. Some have been riding for years, and still don't have the right bike. The thing to remember is the bike that speaks to you at the time is the bike to get, and is always the bike to get. Well unless you're young/impulsive, and want a 'Busa. Probably not the best choice if you really want to learn how to ride. That's better done on a bike that's forgiving of newbie mistakes, yet commands your full attention. Kinda like my '87 Ninja 600. I miss that old girl sometimes. She taught me a lot about riding, and wrenching.

    Funny thing about the time I started riding the VFR800 was new, and all the moto mags raved about it. I wanted one, but couldn't afford it at the time. Fast forward 10 years, and I got one. Love it. I'll ride it 'til the wheels fall off, but I don't think I'd appreciate it enough if I hadn't had that old Kawi first.

  12. 650 V-strom. My wife just sold her '07 and got a 2012 model. I can't think of a better bike for the money and one that can be enjoyed by a beginner or veteran rider. Unlimited farkling opportunities also. Reliable as a brick.

  13. That's a great website u put together Jax, informative.

    One thing for sure, there's no definitive answer to this? Lots and lots of varied opinions, and all have value.

    It seems as though the son probably wasn't an avid / extensive rider, they don't usually stop. So I'd go with suggesting entry level stuff. Make sure they take the MSF BRC, think about a smaller used bike, etc.

    When teaching the MSF classes, I find many riders kind of 'over estimate' their abilities, especially former riders. I'd err on the side of caution personally.

    1. I suspect the young man gave it up temporarily for reasons such as young off=spring on the scene. That's why I pulled the plug on riding for a while.

      That said, you make an excellent point re: smaller and/or used.