What makes a motorcycle friendly for beginners?
August 26, 2011 5:48 AM   Subscribe

What makes a motorcycle friendly for beginners?

I've had my motorcycle licence for 10 years now, but I don't have my own bike. I went to the MSF class and I've been riding my dad's bikes a few times each summer, I probably have a total of 1,000 - 1,500 KM of riding experience.

My dad has always had larger cruiser bikes, his current bike is a HD Road King. I feel in control, but at the same time I'm not as agile as I'd like to be (I'm the kind of person who wants to master everything I do). I'm probably intimidated by the weight of the bike, this is why I drive very conservatively.

I'm now looking at buying my own (used) bike. I really like the look of standard (naked) bikes. Specifically the Suzuki SV650, Honda 599, the Kawazaki Z750 and the Yamaha FZ6.

I've read countless articles and discussions, and the consensus seems that, even though there are better choices like 250/500cc, you could do much worse as a first bike.

This leads me to my question, why would a 2007 Honda 599 with 102HP be an okay choice, while the 2002 Honda 919 with 110HP would be too much to handle?

Recent 600cc bikes have similar power output than older ~900cc bikes.
posted by kag to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I had a 599 and it had more than enough power for me as a beginner. I was told at the time that anything under a 600 leaves you wanting more, and anything more than that is power you don't really need, but is awesome all the same.
posted by Frasermoo at 6:08 AM on August 26, 2011

Light weight (400lb +/-) and reasonable (60+/- HP) power, i.e. IMO both Hondas are too much bike for a beginner. That much power can get you in trouble faster than you can say "oh shi..."

The SV650 would be at the upper end of a beginner's bike. When I re-entered riding, I got a Suzuki GS500 and rode it for a year, got my skills back, then upgraded to a R1100S.
posted by mojohand at 6:12 AM on August 26, 2011

It's a more nuanced answer than peak HP numbers would suggest. Part of what makes a bike easy to ride and thus novice-friendly is the torque curve. A nice, flattish torque curve means that the power is available everywhere in the RPM range. Bikes with peakier power delivery will have less power or more power in different situations, which can catch a beginner rider out.

As a rule, v-twins have more torque and less HP per cc displacement than inline four engines. This makes them a little easier to manage, especially around town. Therefore, of the bikes you listed, I would choose the SV650. They're bulletproof, not temperamental and as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
posted by workerant at 6:16 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's worth keeping in mind that over the last 30 years motorcycle power has undergone a ridiculous "Super-Size Me!" power increase process. When I first starting riding, a BSA Lightning or Triumph Bonneville were considered high-performance rides for expert riders, and they made around 50HP. Mr. Thompson's Vincent Black Lightning made less than that.
posted by mojohand at 6:21 AM on August 26, 2011

The SV is a perfect bike for the reasons workerant says. The torque curve is much more important than the peak power number. The SV is the Camry of motorcycles, so you'll never have a problem.

That said, I feel like the BMW S1000RR is a much easier sportbike to ride than any of those, and it has nearly 180hp (wheel) HP and is raced at the top levels in the world. The adjustable throttle mapping, ABS, traction control, lean control, wheelie control, and other electronics make it a much more forgiving bike - though you should learn to ride without those. :)

mojohand, 2-stroke numbers and 4-stroke numbers are not comparable. To simplify, you need to halve the 2-stroke HP to get the effective 4-stroke number.
posted by kcm at 6:27 AM on August 26, 2011

rather, the other way around: halve the 4-stroke number to get the effective 2-stroke number. :)
posted by kcm at 6:31 AM on August 26, 2011

I've read countless articles and discussions, and the consensus seems that, even though there are better choices like 250/500cc, you could do much worse as a first bike.

The great thing about low-powered bikes is that you can make mistakes and more easily recover from them. They are generally lighter and often a lot more maneuverable.

Keep in mind that those 100+ HP bikes can generally out-accelerate all but the most exotic cars. Would you recommend a Lamborghini Diablo or a Bugatti Veyron to a new driver?
posted by b1tr0t at 6:34 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm hesitant to engage with someone who suggests a S1000RR as a beginner's bike, even if tongue-in-cheek (though I guess if you survive that first year, you will know how to ride) but pride compels me to note that all the bikes I cited are 4-stroke.

The point about the SV650's fat torque curve being an aid to the beginner is a good one.
posted by mojohand at 6:37 AM on August 26, 2011

Light bike. Predictable and agile handling. Balanced rear/forward weight. Good visibility. Flat torque curve. Cheap to repair when you drop it. Looks good, sounds good.

This excludes both racebikes and cruisers. And IMO the 'looks good' part excludes almost every motorcycle out there :)

The small Ducati Monsters would be the perfect example if they weren't arguably expensive to fix.
posted by krilli at 7:06 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A 500cc twin is a great bike to start on. You want a bike that isn't too heavy, that allows you to put both feet on the ground and with a fairly upright seating position. Your goal is to feel confident and in control, that's harder to do on a big bike. Once you've had it for a while you'll know what features you like and don't like so your next bike will likely be very different. In the meantime you'll have a nice ride that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, will be easy to work on (if you want to), cheap to insure and great on gas.
posted by tommasz at 7:30 AM on August 26, 2011

I owned several bikes in the past, Harley's scare me and yes I owned one , I then also owned a 2004 bmw 650 and a bmw r1150 gs which I felt where rock solid I loved the fact of the abs, saved my butt a few times. The 650 was very nimble and I felt totally safe on that machine.
posted by escapesouth at 8:09 AM on August 26, 2011

kcm: Okay just to be clear the S1000RR is a totally unacceptable motorcycle to even suggest to a beginning rider with less than a thousand miles under their belt. To say nothing of being expensive and impractical.

kag: Both of those bikes have way more power than you'll ever need, and I guarantee you won't be able to feel a difference between 102 and 110 horsepower. All things being equal, go with the lighter one.

A 500-600cc twin of some kind would be a better choice.
posted by pts at 8:19 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a begining rider but my last bike before my current V-Strom was the SV650, same engine as in the Wee (as its come to be called) but the SV is more appropriate for a beginner because of the Wee's heavier top side.

The SV is a total blast to ride, will go faster than your current skillset and will make you grin like a monkey on X. Just take your time, don't ride faster than your skill level and have fun. Oh and maybe don't go riding with your buddy who has an R1 and likes to pop wheelies at 100 miles per. Eventually yes but not while you're getting your skills up to speed.
posted by fenriq at 8:34 AM on August 26, 2011

I live in a small region and there aren't many used bikes in my price range in a 200 miles radius. There's a Honda 919 for sale in the next village and I'm trying to figure out how dangerous it is to drive in normal driving conditions compared to, say, a SV650 (which is my first choice). As I said before, I'm driving conservatively and I just want a bike to ride with my dad on sunny summer days.
posted by kag at 8:38 AM on August 26, 2011

If you're buying new, a GS500 might be a good mid sized bike for a beginner. I think they cost about $1k less than a SV, and are just as reliable. Both are plenty bike even for seasoned riders.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:43 AM on August 26, 2011

I also started with an SV650. I think it is a great starter bike because of the torque curve. As a v-twin, is displays consistent and predictable levels of torque through a wide range of RPMs. Many inline 4's (the sport bikes out there, CBRs, GSXRs, R6's and the rest of them) do not have this consistent torque curve. They have a reasonable amount of torque until you get to like 5k or 6k RPMs then it suddenly has FAR more torque. It just hits a power band, and if you are not ready for it or careful around that RPM range, the front wheel can very easily come off the ground.

I wish we lived near each other, I am trying to sell my SV650 as we speak...
posted by milqman at 9:31 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's lots of good discussion here, but nothing that really gets to the root of the new-rider motorcycling experience. There are good bikes and there are bad bikes, but what is the common theme? Torque application is certainly one of them, but it goes a lot deeper than that.

Good beginner bikes are ones that inspire confidence in the new rider, encouraging him to expand his capabilities in the due course of competent riding, while allowing mistakes. That's pretty simple to talk about, but what does that mean in practice?

Firstly, it's about confidence. That means a motorcycle that the rider will be hard-pressed to intentionally get themselves into a situation that they cannot get themselves out of. This gets really basic, even a bit stupid. I'm talking about a bike that a new rider can stop in a controlled manner in any situation and not feel like they're going to fall over, for example. What can make a new rider feel uncomfortable in that situation? Well, some obvious ones are terrain (gravel) and slope. A good beginner bike has a low seat and controls laid out such that a new rider can put his feet down firmly on the ground, and keep the bike upright even if the ground is loose or the rider is on a hill. A good beginner bike is also easy to hold upright without much effort, which implies a lower center of gravity and good leverage at the controls.

These things also inspire confidence while riding, making handling predictable while in motion. Once in motion, the best way to encourage a rider to expand his capabilities is to make the bike comfortable enough that the rider will stay there! That is, a good beginner bike isn't uncomfortable at the low speeds a new rider should be enjoying, and doesn't encourage the rider to do dumb things in order to be enjoyable [sport bikes are often very, very boring unless you're using them].

Once you're in the saddle and comfortable, you want a bike that won't kill you if you do the dumb things that a new rider inevitably does, like chop the throttle in the middle of a turn, or whack the throttle open in the middle of a turn, or get too hard on the brakes, &c. Bike that inspire confidence in the ways outlined above are configured in such a way as not to get too bent out of shape when you do these things. The "limits" are low and progressive versus a sport bike's limits which are high and sudden. On a forgiving bike, you have more notice that you're reaching the bike's limits, there's a much larger grey area between "reaching" and "exceeding", and the entire motorcycle is configured such that once you're exceeding them, you've got a better chance of getting back into shape without the bike taking a nap. These are influenced by a number of different factors, but I summarize them as being mostly influenced by the leverage that the wheels and suspension have on the chassis, the leverage that the center of gravity has on the chassis, and the inverse of the amount of leverage that the controls have on the chassis. The first parts are due to the fact that small inputs on the part of the driveline and suspension can have magnified effects on the chassis. The last part is due to the fact that the more leverage the controls have, the more motion is required to cause input (you literally have to do more as a rider). Hypersport bikes have small control leverage (small inputs = big outputs) and highly leveraged suspension (small suspension inputs = large chassis effects).

Torque and horsepower are fairly linearly related to the above, and a decent indicator of same.

As a result, and I'm running out of time here, some bikes like the S1000RR are very, very bad. They're tall, have a very high center of gravity, require little input to effect the chassis in big ways, and don't require a lot of suspension movement to make the chassis move in large ways. The net effect is of a bike that can be moved very quickly, but if you exceed its limits, it will pitch you off before you (a new rider) will know you've done anything wrong.

On the other end is a Ninja 250. They're short, light, easy to maneuver, the suspensions and brakes are weak, the controls require deliberate and oversized inputs, and if you do something stupid, you'll likely recover without trying.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:04 AM on August 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

I've owned 4 bikes over 20 odd years, and my favorite of them all was my first, a 1981 Yamaha 650 with a dent in the tank that I bought from a bike mechanic. It was kind of sluggish and I was much heavier than I am now, but it was a no frills, easy to fix, hard to break bike. I didn't have to play around with it, I just put the key in and it went. Bought it with 15k on and still have it with 33k or so.

Test drive a couple, buy the one that you like. Yeah, it's a simple answer, but you're asking sort of a subjective question. Like the joke about the old bull and the young bull, you need to walk down and fuck them all, not run down and fuck one.

My answer for a beginner friendly bike differs from almost everyone in the thread, I don't really think that there is gonna be a overriding consensus. For my first bike I'd go for something a bit more '85 Caprice than '09 Boxster, but again, that's me.
posted by Sphinx at 4:26 PM on August 26, 2011

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