First Bikes: Many Choices



First Bikes: Many Choices

Small bikes are back, and it’s a beautiful thing.  We’ve all seen the spy photos of the 2015 Triumph Daytona 250.  This is a new market segment for Triumph and an acknowledgement of the growing trend for well-made, well-engineered, small-displacement bikes.  The Hinckley quart will join the ranks of the Honda CBR300R and CB500F and the Kawasakis Ninja 300 and, of course, the CCW Heist and Misfit, as affordable, entry-level bikes that are fun to ride.

It used to be that an “entry-level” bike was simply a cheap used bike that you didn’t mind dropping a few times while you learned to master the “friction zone.”  You were forced to look like a dork for awhile as you lacked the skills and cash for something newer.  You also had to learn to wrench a bit, because invariably those used bikes had issues and emotional baggage that prevented them from truly opening up to you.

First Bikes: Many Choices
Honda CB200

Photo by David

Today’s crop of smaller bikes takes away much of the heartache and awkwardness by offering something that is highly reliable and up to modern standards of manufacture.  You can get on and just start riding – you get the benefits right away.  On top of that, these bikes are actually cool.  You can actually look good in your first summer on two wheels.  They are welcoming, and they tear down what marketers call “barriers to entry.”

Of course, the option to buy a used beater bike is still available.  And since dorky is cool, that option may have some cachet of its own.  There is also something to be said for the street cred of riding something that is older (and less reliable) than you are.  You know, something with carburetors.  Something with “patina.”  That beater bike will give you a schooling.  You can ride a new bike without really understanding how it works, but a used bike will soon become a static sculpture if you’re not interested in tinkering.

First Bikes: Many Choices
Kawasaki GPX250

Photo by Mitch Mcpherson

We hear that millennials don’t want to know what’s under the hood – they just want the technology to work flawlessly.  I don’t think that’s universally true.  There are plenty of young people who are eager to solve problems and don’t subscribe to the sanitized lifestyle.  They are looking for authenticity, however we may each define that.

It’s easy for an old smudgepot to say you have to be a mechanic to ride.  It’s somehow a moral obligation to tear it apart and to own several arcane, single-use tools that can only be purchased from obscure catalogs and paid for in pounds sterling.  Fact is, that’s not the case anymore.  Yes, you need to understand the basics, but you don’t need to be able to do a ring job on the side of the road.

So the choice is yours: do you want to pick up a shiny, hot little bike and just go, or do you enjoy the challenge of something that needs some love?  I choose the latter, but that’s because I love working on the machine, not because I have a Puritanical need for guilt and penance.  Luckily, this isn’t the 1950s, and so if you want something that just delivers the fun, you have more options today than ever before, and like I said, that’s a beautiful thing.

  • EchoZero

    Eh, I’d say that unless they’re already mechanically inclined, most beginners should probably pick up something that doesn’t need a lot of work up front. Nothing is more frustrating than wasting sunny days because your bike is in a dozen pieces in the garage. Once you get the hang of things and the new rider afterglow starts wearing off, it’s time to start looking for project bikes.

    That said, if you’re already wrenching on cars, you probably won’t mind wrenching on your motorcycle. I spend a fair amount of time working on my Jeep, so I didn’t mind when my first bike required some work (though I was not fond of its habit of dying far away from home).

    • Jorn Bjorn Jorvi

      On the contrary, I think small bikes are a great place to start tinkering. The scale is so much more manageable than that of a car. A small displacement naked bike is easy to work on because everything is right there in front of you and functions intuitively.

      • Mark D

        They’re a great place to learn to tinker, but not a great way to learn how to ride!

  • Honyock Undersquare

    Or, to prevent any missed opportunities to ride, maintain a stable of two, so that one may be ridden when the other is indisposed. Assure your spouse that having one motorcycle is the equivalent of having one shoe – worse than useless. Point out that most serious motorcyclists often have more than two. You couldn’t get along with only one pair of shoes, now, could you? And besides, I picked up this magnificent 1934 Scott Flying Squirrel for a pittance, a small fraction of its real value, despite the admittedly seized piston…

  • Archie

    My first bike was a 1991 MC22 Honda CBR250RR. I still own it. They’re everything they’re cracked up to be and more. For a decades old bike that had done 89,000kms when I bought it (now since doubled by yours truly), it’s always been a peach.

    • Jasiek Wrobel

      CBR250RR. I would love to ride one soo much. It looks like a perfect combination for me: a screamer but not an overpowered one. For now I am using Honda cbf500 as a beginner bike, and I am very happy about it.

  • augustdaysong

    Hoping small-displacement, high-performance bikes like the Japanese 250cc four cylinders are brought back too

    • Piglet2010

      Someone needs to make a 249cc V-8 that revs to 25K rpm – I would buy it in a second.

  • Rameses the 2nd

    I started with Honda Shadow 750. Easy to use and one of the best starter bikes IMO.I bought mine with only 590 miles on it at a very reasonable price on Craigslist, never had any issues, and sold it for the same price after riding it roughly 3000 miles. I gave me a ton of confidence. I took the BRC and learned from others mistakes. Don’t let the displacement be the only point in picking your first bike. As long as you have control on your right wrist, you will be fine with most street bikes. I would stay away for “project” bikes and super sports, but everything else should do just fine.

  • Riedl

    16 years old, 1972 Honda SL350 – frame up resto in the grarage with my old man. We had enough parts left over to build a second off road only bike. Good times

  • Piglet2010

    No love for the Leonhardt Manufacturing GUNBUS 410 as a starter bike?

  • Mr.Paynter

    I fear for a colleague who bought a Daytona as a first bike since a scooter in highschool over 10 years ago and went straight to Squd-mode. Downed it twice unseriously with n00b mistakes and then wrote it off being a fool, all in 6 weeks and walked away basically unscathed and instead of heeding my advice and getting some riding in on something more forgiving, he is now buying a ’05 Fireblade to “not even worry about getting over the 600s in a few months”

    This is the guy who tries to impress me with tales of 245km/h in a t-shirt because the guys in his crew took off and he didn’t wanna get left behind even though he’d left his jacket at home for a gentle ride…

    • 200 Fathoms

      Imminent Darwin moment.

    • BigHank53

      Look into a third-party life insurance policy. If he’s going to be an idiot he may as well do you a favor on the way out.

  • Tom U.

    For me this post couldn’t be more timely. I’ve been riding a Honda Ruckus for a few years and I’m planning to move up to a motorcycle in the spring, and I’ve been wrestling for a couple of months now with the question of old vs new for my first bike.

    For instance, my local dealer has a Honda CB500X on the floor (which the reviews here nearly have me sold on), but they also have couple of 1980s-era UJMs in their used inventory (like a 1980 Honda CB750) that have caught my eye. They’re less 1/3 the price of the 500X, but are nearly as old as I am, and I suspect will take a lot more work to keep on the road. And I know there’s a big middle ground between brand new and 30+ years old that I haven’t explored enough yet.

    Decisions, decisions….

  • Ed Hunt

    I started on a Honda CB400A – for Automatic – while in college 22 years ago. Worked great in the hills of Pullman. Because it was a Honda twin, it just worked no matter how badly I treated it. Before that I had only ridden a Honda Super Cub, so it was a pretty easy transition. When I got back into bikes, it was because I found another 1978 Honda CB400A. It was beaten half to death but I tore it apart in my basement and restored it into the world’s slowest cafe racer. My first bike with a clutch (after my MSF) was a beaten and rusty 10 year old Vstar 650. It could have picked up an garage queen for a few dollars more, but I spent the winter tearing it apart and customizing it – learning every nook and cranny. When I take it out now, it’s MINE. I know what’s new and what’s not and how everything fits together. I know what to pack in my tool kit. I know where the bondo is on the tank. That secret knowledge gives me more smiles per gallon. THAT said, ultimately you need a second bike to ride while you are restoring the first. I’m shopping for a dirt beast now – and while the new CRFs look tempting, my eye keeps getting drawn to mid 80s Honda XLs held together with bailing twine.

  • Tall Jones

    Exactly the path I’m going down now except with a ’97 GS500. I was even looking at the early 90s GSXRs, and now the FZ-09 as potential next/second bikes.

    I might hang onto this little 500, I’d like to add the lunchbox filter and rejet it sometime this winter but I haven’t been able to stop riding yet. I’ll probably hang onto it at least through next summer I figure.

    • _dc

      1977 Suzuki GS750 as my first bike. Classy looks, smooth power, decent handling. Easy to wrench on and very reliable with occasional maintenance.

      Sometimes I think I want more power, but for the roads I’m on, there is no real need, and would likely just lead to accidents or speeding tickets.

    • mustangGT90210

      Lunchbox, straight pipe and a 150 main, 40 pilot jet will have that thing running top. Was my set up on my ’93. That intake growl from the lunchbox… My gas mileage dropped by 15mpg because I loved the sound when I got on it. Rejetting it will take you a whole 10 minutes if you’ve ever opened your carbs before, no need to stop riding it!

      I sold my ’94 gixxer 2 days ago for $1800, now as long as my credit stacks up, I’ve got my down payment on a brand new Orange FZ :)

      • Tall Jones

        Well I’ve never opened my carbs before, so it’s going to take me a bit longer than that, but I’m glad to hear it’s no big deal and I’ve found some tutorials on gstwins that should get me through the process. I was planning on 140/40 and keeping the stock exhaust intact, but maybe I’ll just order a set of 150s while I’m at it and try each combination. Did you just cut your pipe off underneath? Or did you put some kind of megaphone pipe on it?

        Good luck with the FZ09!

        • mustangGT90210

          Thanks for the wishes on the FZ, sadly I don’t have enough credit history for a loan yet. The joys of being 21 and buying everything outright so far because I hate the idea of payments… Guess it all works out in the end, as I just had my truck up on the lift at work and found $500 of work I need to do to it to keep her going. Bike fund will take a hit but I love my truck so it’s worth it. I’ll keep saving up and start building my credit so hopefully next year I can grab one of those!

          Here’s a pic of my GS when I finally had it mostly finished. Mechanically it was perfect in this picture.I sold it a month later to buy the gixxer. I’m now in the market for a cheap F model as a run around. Gonna run the same paint scheme, same gixxer pegs, same pipe, same intake, etc.The pipe I had on this was simply a universal 12″ shorty muffler welded to the pipe. You can see it here :

  • Piglet2010

    I wish Honda would bring back the CBR400RR and sell it in the US – lighter is better.

    Oh I forgot, the US is full of cretins who would rather ride 1,700cc V-twins that weigh 800+ pounds. GRRRR…

  • Nate Terrill

    My first bike was a 2002 Vulcan 800. I credit this bike with teaching me, early in the game, that I hate cruisers and don’t want anything to do with them. It was actually very reliable, I just hated everything about it, including the purple color.

    • ThinkingInImages

      I bought a Shadow RS as a sort of gesture to taking it a bit easier now that I’m older. Not a cruiser, not a standard, not quite, well anything. Nice motorcycle, very wrong engine. Any illusions/delusions of anything like it are over. I traded it in on a CBR205R and I’m having a great time.

  • Brian Baecker


  • John Tiedjens

    For those starting as long as you have a basic feel for riding I would tell you to buy your 2nd bike first. Then you avoid the inevitable “grown out of it with in one season blues.” More power doesn’t mean you have to use it right out of the gate but when you need it… boop there it is.

  • William Connor

    I prefer older bikes with more power and that need someone with the right know how to make run.

  • Rowan

    HONDA CBR500R!!!!!!!!!!!