The Sportbike Progression: Everyman’s Path To Panigale

CCW Misfit
CCW Misfit

The Beginner
Brand new? You need to start small. This isn’t condescending or inappropriate for you because you consider yourself more of a man than everyone else, it’s the first step in learning to ride.

The best way to fast forward your riding skills to “competent” is to buy a cheap beater and learn to flog the life out of it. Whether that’s in a field or around the back roads near your house, it’s how you’ll take all that funny clutch and countersteering stuff from confusion to confident ease. Go get your learner’s permit, take the MSF course, walk away with your license, then buy something small (250cc-ish, less than 400 lbs), with all its paperwork, in running condition, off Cragslist for a grand or less. If you’re embarrassed of it, just hide it in the back of your garage and take it out early on weekend mornings when no one’s going to see you.

We could simply recommend that you buy a new, small bike. And doing so isn’t a bad option. You’ll get something shiny, something reliable and something with low monthly payments and with only a little cash down. But, as a brand new rider, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to drop the bike, you’re going to crash it and you’re going to neglect essential maintenance. And, you need to learn a little more about bikes than just riding. A crappy old bike will break down, it will have problems. You will learn how to fix them. Bikes are not complicated machines, you will buy some maintenance books, learn how to find instructions on the Internet, acquire a few specialty tools and, in doing so, you’ll develop a more complete knowledge of how a motorcycle works. That knowledge will inform better riding.

Honda CBR500R
Honda CBR500R

The Neophyte
You’ve put in your miles on something small, learned the basics of motorcycle maintenance and you’re ready for a little more. You’d like to expand your riding out of your neighborhood and maybe start commuting, going on day trips or just be able to tag along with your buddies when they go riding on Sundays.

Our current favorite bikes for neophyte riders are Honda’s range of affordable 500s. The CB500F starts at just $5,500, but budding sport riders may want to consider the $6,000 CBR500R. It’s exactly the same bike as the CB, just with a really nice-looking fairing and clip-on handlebars that are a little lower and a little further forward. That change puts you in a more sport-oriented riding position, setting you up perfectly to start learning sport riding techniques.

If you’re shopping for an older, used bike, then the Suzuki SV650 is the ubiquitously recommended one to go for. It’s a little faster than the 500s, but that performance remains accessible and non-intimidating. Again, look for the faired “S” model for its slightly more sport-oriented riding position. With it, you’ll be better able to work towards sport body position.

Whatever you get, ride it as much as possible. Take it to work instead of the car. Ride to the grocery store. Take the fun way home. Plan an epic summer road trip. Do your first track day. And, as you gain those experiences, learn what does and doesn’t work for you. Maybe you want a little sharper brakes, in which case you can fit braided lines and EBC HH pads. Maybe you want better acceleration, so you fit a smaller front sprocket. Maybe you want more ground clearance and fit rearsets. Maybe you want firmer suspension and replace the fork internals. Whatever it is you do, learn a little more every time you do it.

yamaha FZ-09
Yamaha FZ-09

The First Big Bike
Gotten to the point where you can flog that CBR500R absolutely as fast as it will go? Are you dragging knee and peg and hitting the rev limiter in every gear? Is the limitation on group rides really the bike and not you? Be honest with yourself and move up only when you’re truly ready. Again, the goal here is to advance your skill level as quickly and effectively as possible, not to impress your friends with how much bike your credit card can take.

Next up, you’re going to want something with more power and more handling, but you still want something with a wide performance envelope, not something that’s going to try and spit you off when you make mistakes.

We’d suggest looking at a mid-capacity sport naked. Something like the Yamaha FZ-09 and Triumph Street Triple. These are bikes that can do absolutely anything and do it very fast, but remain practical for all-round duties like commuting because their relatively upright riding positions are comfortable.

Used, the Street Triple in any of its iterations makes an excellent buy. Other, similar bikes do too. Don’t be tempted by a larger motor at this point, it will only get in the way of your riding progress.

Because they’re “slower” (once you’ve reached this point, speed is 100% a function of skill), speed-related components like the brakes are free to be a little less specific than they are on the next tier, supersport 600s. Less ultimate stopping power is made up for by more user friendliness. The same applies to power delivery, ergonomics and all that stuff too. More capability on paper is not more capability in the real world if your skill level is not yet at a place to take advantage of it and, again, a wider performance envelope is, by definition, better more of the time.

This is actually a good point in your riding to be at. Spend some time here, again taking in a variety of challenges and modifying your bike to expand its and your capability and you’ll end up being faster than the vast majority of motorcycle riders.

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