me on my SV650.
Another riding season is getting started, and so I get a lot of questions from friends how to get into it. One thing that comes up with CLOCKWORK regularity is guys who think a 600cc (or bigger) sport bikes would make a good first bike.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought about this issue. And reading through the forums, it seems the newbies come back with the same arguments and the same questions over and over and over again.
Allow me to say this first: I am a sport rider. My first bike was a Buell blast and I put nearly 5000 km on it in 1 season before selling it. Then I rode my dad’s BMW f800R for a couple of months while I saved up/looked for a new bike. I ended up with a 07 SV650. Although I am not Valentino Rossi, I have ridden enough, tinkered enough and done enough research along with talking with other riders to think that I can speak with some degree of knowledge on the subject.
First, I want to address the main arguments we see here as to why a 600cc sportbike simply must be a first ride along with rebuttals. Second, I want to cover the rationale behind why any self-respecting biker steers newbies away from these machines.
I can only afford to get one bike so it might as be the one that I want.
I don’t want to go through the hassle of buying and selling a used bike to learn on.
These two arguments are the more common ones. I am going to offer first a piece advice that everyone should keep in mind.
This is your first bike, not your last.
Motorcycle riders change rides, on average, once every two to three years. This means the bike you learn to ride on will not be in your garage in a few years time anyway whether you buy it new or used. You’re going to sell it regardless to get something different, newer, more powerful, more comfortable, etc.
Yes, buying bikes can be a bit of a pain in the ass. It costs money and takes up our time. But you have to realize, this isn’t a cheap sport. You will end up spending a fair amount of cash to get into it. That said, I know we all want the best value out of our money as possible.
Here is the thing…If you can afford to buy a 600 or up sport bike that’s (on average) 12 grand, you can definetly afford to spend 2000 or so on a used beginners bike to learn on. Most of the beginner sportbikes I have recommend (Ninja 250/300, Buell Blast) can all be found used for between $1500-$3000.
If you do it right, buying and selling that first bike is actually quite painless. Ever bought or sold a car? Its more or less the same process. Used VS new? Id argue used is actually a little bit less painful, as you don’t have to deal with a dealer and their fiancé department.
Selling? Even easier. Here is the thing: beginner bikes are CONSTANTLY in demand. They spend their lives migrating from one owner to the next as cheap, simple, low powered beaters used to learn how to ride. Its not strange for a Ninja 250 or something to see 6 or 7 different owners before the poor thing is scrapped, wrecks or turned into a track rat. There are a lot of people out there looking for inexpensive, reliable bikes to put around the city in as well, and all of the beginner recommendations fit into that category.
If you buy a used Ninja 250R for $2000, ride it for a season or two, you can be almost guaranteed that you will be able to resell that bike for $1500 or so when you are done with it provided you take care of it. And on a bike like the Ninja 250R, the average turnaround on such a sale is two to three days. With my Buell, I posted on my facebook that I was thinking about selling it. On Facebook, of all things. 5 hours later, someone I knew was coming over to look at it. Believe me, the demand is there.
And look at it this way: For those one or two seasons of riding using the above example, excluding maintenance and insurance costs which you have no matter what, you will have paid a net cost of $500 to ride that Ninja. That is extremely cheap for what is basically a bike rental for a year or two. Considering it can cost $300 or more just to rent a 600cc sportbike for a weekend (not including the $1500-$2000 security deposit), that is economic value that you simply cannot argue with.
The beginner bikes you recommend are dated and ugly looking.
I want something that’s modern and stylish.
I want a bike that looks good and that I look good on.
I call these the vanity arguments. These are probably the worst reasons you can have for wanting a particular bike.
I can not (and will not) disagree that the way a bike looks plays a huge part in the machines that we like. Motorcycles are the ultimate expression in personal taste in vehicles. Far more than cars. Bikes are more personal and the connection between rider and machine is far more intimate on a bike than a car. On a bike, you are part of the machine, not just a passive passenger.
That said, as your entry into this world, coupled with the temporarily status that most beginner bikes have in our garages, looks shouldn’t even be on the list of stuff to worry about. As long as the bike is in good condition and mechanically sound, that is all you need from that little ride. Most riders are happy to ride and they will ride anything given the choice between riding or not riding.
If you are looking at motorcycles mainly because of how it good/badass you will look doing it and how others will perceive you on it, Stop. Take a good, long, honest look as to why you want to ride. Lots of guys buy things strictly because of how it makes them appear in the eyes of others. It’s shallow and vain but it is a fact of life. It shouldn’t be a factor in choosing that first ride but it is. I won’t deny that. Hell, its part of the reason mercedez and BMW get to sell so many cars.
Here is the difference… a BMW or Mercedes won’t leaving you hanging on for dear life if you stomp on the accelerator or throw you into the road if you slam on the brakes a little hard. You have a safe cage and state of the art electronic nannies to save your sorry behind, not to mention a nice wide and long foot print.
A motorcycle? Ehhhh. Not so much. Virtually every sportbike made in the past 10-15 years will do both of those things given a chance to do so (for reasons that will be explained later in this column).
The majority of people will think you’re cool and look great on that brand new sportbike and compliment that shiney new ride Those compliments can quickly turn to screams of horror if, in your valiant attempt to impress the ladies (or the guys), you crash your bikes and start surfing the asphalt. Will you still look cool with thousands of dollars in damage to that once-beautiful sportbike and with all of the signatures of your well meaning friends (and dicks from your less well-meaning friends) drawn all over your casts?
t-shirt? check. streched sport bike? check. no gloves? check
I’m a big rider so I need a bigger bike to get me around.
I’m a tall rider and all of those beginner bikes just don’t fit me the way the sportbike does.
I’ll look huge and foolish riding on such a small bike.
My friends will laugh at me for riding something so small.
These arguments are as bad, if not worse, then vanity arguments. The difference being is they simply show a lack of motorcycle knowledge for the most part.
Unless you are over 6’3” tall or are extremely overweight (meaning well over 300lbs), even the smallest 250cc motorcycle will be able to accommodate you without difficultly. To provide an example, the Ninja 250R has a load limit of 348 pounds. That is more than sufficient to accommodate a bigger rider in full gear and still leave plenty of space for cargo in tank, tail and saddle bags. Or enough to allow two-up riding between two average weight individuals.
The idea that bigger riders need bigger bikes is almost laughable. It’s like saying my skinny 140lbs ass needs a Honda Civic, but some dude who weights double that needs a Hummers to get around. Or a sports car with enough power to push them along. It is only because of the (relatively) small physical size of bikes compared to their users that this train of thought even exists. It simply doesn’t doesn’t make sense. A look at any motorcycle owner’s manual will confirm that for you.
Tall riders suffer more from fit issues than weight issues. On this, they do have a point. I’m a average guy (5’10”) . I can ride more or less any motorcycle i can think of. My 6”2” friend on the other hand, had a hard time sitting on my buell blast. his knees hit the handlebars at full lock. On a ninja 250 however, he fit just fine.
For taller riders, a much better beginner fit is a dual-sport machine rather than a sport machine. They offer the high seat heights that make them comfortable rides and their power is well within acceptable limits. Once you get past a certain size range, you will not find a bike that fits you stock will have to do modifications. GASP, modificartions on a brand new bike!??!? I couldn’t! Here is the thing…Bikes are designed for 90% of the population. It simly isn’t worth the cost for the manufacturer to engineer the bike to fit someone who is 6’ 7”.
As for peer pressure, I admit to taking my fair share of ribbing from guys on 600cc when I had my blast. Some of it good natured, some of it not. In the end, this argument falls into the vanity arena. Which is more important: Your safety and comfort on a bike or what your friends think?
There is a VERY simple method to deal with friends giving you a hard time about a smaller ride. Tell them to ride their rides and you’ll ride yours. It’s your ride, after all. Most true riders will accept other riders, no matter what they are on. Only posers and losers care that your ride doesn’t measure up to their “standards”. And if so, do you really want to be riding with them anyway? It’s more fun to stand out than to be a member of a flock anyway. And if they don’t buy that line of reasoning, try this one: “Well if you don’t like my ride, why don’t you go buy me something that you will like?”. THAT will shut them up REALLY fast. It works too. Unless their name is on the title, it shouldn’t be their concern.
If your friends can’t deal with your decisions, you’re probably better off looking for new friends. And if you can’t deal with the peer pressure, then you are putting your own safety at risk solely because of what others think. Revisit the vanity arguments above and think about why you want to ride.
I’ll take it easy and grow into the bike.
I’m a careful driver so I’ll be a careful rider and not get into trouble.
I drive a fast car so I’ll be able to handle a fast bike.
Other people have started on a 600cc sportbike and didn’t get hurt. So why can’t I?
These arguments are the most common ones put forth. They also happen to be the hardest ones to deal with. These are the words that start flame wars. Why? Because you have to convince someone that they are completely wrong on what a ‘beginners bike’ is.
These arguments often come around in what I call the “justification mindset”. Many newcomers have their heart set on a specific bike (for whatever reason…usually because that’s the company Rossi was racing for that year). They then go on forums not to get any real advice but to get confirmation that their decision is right. In cruisers, standards, scooters and dual-sports, more often than not these “pre-decisions” are generally good ones. In sportbikes, more than 3/4 of the guys are trying to get the community to approve their choice of a 600cc machine as a first ride. Their shock is quite real when they are barraged with answers that don’t meet their expectations and that is part of the reason this column is being written.
I’m going to tackle each argument one at a time now, just so we are perfectly clear on them.
I’ll take it easy and grow into the bike.
The whole purpose of a first bike is to allow you to learn basic riding skills, build confidence and develop street survival strategies. You don’t grow into this bike. You develop your skills on it. As your skills develop, so does your confidence and with it, your willingness to explore what the bike is capable of.
Here is something people do not realize. You are now in a contract with the bike. It is two-way. You expect the bike to act on your inputs and the bike is going to respond. The problem is, your skills are still developing but the bike doesn’t know that. It just does what it is told. You want a partner in a contract to treat you fairly. On a bike, you don’t want it fighting you every step of the way. And like most contracts, the problems don’t start until there is a breakdown in communication or a misunderstanding.
In sportbikes, the disparity between a new rider’s fledgling skills and the responsiveness of the machine are so far apart, your film that run-way sence from fast and furious 6. Ideally, you want your bike to do what you tell it and do it nicely. You never want the bike to argue with you. Modern sportbikes, despite their stunning handling will often argue violently right at the moment a new rider doesn’t need them to.
Remember, riding is a LEARNED skill. It does not come naturally to the majority of us. Just like riding a bicycles. It must be practiced and refined. Riding is counter-intuitive to most new riders. It doesn’t happen the way you expect. For example, at speeds over 25mph, to get a bike to go right, you actually turn the bars to the left. It’s called counter-steering and it eventually comes naturally as breathing once you’ve been in the saddle for a while. But for new riders, it is utterly baffling.
You want your skills to grow in a predictable manner. You already have enough to be afraid of when your riding on the street. The last thing you need is to be scared of the machine you are on.
It is interesting to point out that only one manufacturer, Suzuki, explicitly states in their promotional material that their GSX-R family of sportbikes are intended for experienced riders. This also applies to several of their larger, more powerful machines (such as a GSX-1300R Hayabusa). If Suzuki issues such a warning for its top-flight sport machines, it is reasonable to say that the same warning would apply equally to similar machines from other manufacturers.
Granted, this is only promotional material. Most dealers in my area are pretty good when it comes to selling bikes. Whenever I drop by my Suzuki dealer, I’m greeted by the manager as he trys to sell me a sport bike. If there is some other kid in their at the same time, he [the kid] will ask to buy that bike. Manager will shoot him down. Kid will proceed to ask why the manager didnt shoot me down. Manger then points to the SV650 sitting outside and informs the guy that I’ve been riding for 4 years and I know my way around a bike (it helps my case that I have a slip-on on my bike and makes it sound a HELL of a lot meaner then it actually is)
I’m a careful driver so I’ll be a careful rider and not get into trouble.
This is what I call the “I’m responsible and mature” argument. This one is a general excuse and does not apply to sportbikes in particular.
Here is the thing… 90% of all drivers feel that they have average to above-driving abilities compared to other drivers on the road (which, to be entirely fair, most of the readers of a site like this probably are). These drivers also said that they think 60% of those on the road are less skilled than they are. It’s an interesting mentality that everyone else is sub-par, not you. Obviously someone has to be wrong because the percentages just don’t add up.
The correct attitude towards driving as well as riding is important. But these same drivers who see themselves as superior also engage in dangerous driving habits (aggressive weaving, illegal passing, bad merges, following too close, lack of attention to traffic/road conditions, etc). Very few drivers are truly honest with themselves and their ability to handle a vehicle. I can name at least 4 people off the top of my head who are worse drivers then they think they are.
Here is the thing. On a bike, the perception that you are responsible is not enough. On a bike, you HAVE TO BE. You either learn to be responsible or you are going to be in trouble really quick. In talking with other riders I have found that they tend to be much more defensive and thoughtful drivers behind the wheel because riding raises their perception of their surroundings.
Ultimately, responsibility and maturity does not equate to riding skill. It has nothing to do with it except how you will approach riding in general. You want to know the sign of a responsible rider? Look at their gear. Watch them ride. If you are seeing them turn their heads to clear their blind spots, making careful and smooth maneuvers, leaving a nice, safe amount space around them and working to maximize your chance of seeing and knowing what they are doing, then you are looking at a responsible rider.
Now do the same exercise and watch the drivers around you. How many turn their heads to check their blind spots, signal lane changes, leaving several car lengths of space in front of them, or don’t weave in and out of traffic? I’m willing to bet it’s not going to be a pretty significant percentage. Now imagine these same individuals on a bike. I’m sure you’ll be able to spot more than a few of these types on bikes to (just look for the T-shirts and flip-flops as they blast by you at 100mph on the highway on the right).
How you approach the task of driving is how you will approach riding. Attention to the task of riding is the number one way you avoid trouble by not getting into it in the first place. Study your own driving habits. Good habits will definitely keep your chances of getting into trouble but they have little to do with controlling a motorcycle. Any motorcycle. Many lax drivers often become much better drivers as the result of riding a motorcycle. It is far less common for it to go in the other direction.
I drive a fast car so I’ll be able to handle a fast bike.
Of all the excuses and justifications, this one is my personal favorite. It is in the top three most common excuses given and it shows a complete and utter lack of motorcycle knowledge. It is a statement made out of naivety rather than ignorance.
Most of the folks who make this statement own fast cars (Corvette, Mustang, Acura, modified Civic, etc) or think they do. The belief is that if you can drive fast in a car you can handle a bike that can go fast. I would argue unless these folks race cars on weekends, driving a car that can go fast does not make them a experienced high-speed driver. And for those that do understand how to handle a car at high speed, it gives you knowledge of braking and traction but even that knowledge is useless for one simple reason:
Bikes are not cars.
Braking, traction control, acceleration and handling are totally different on a motorcycle. Cars do not lean. Bikes do. When bikes lean, it changes the part of the tire contacting the ground (the contact patch/ring) and changes the stability and dynamics of the bike from moment to moment. The physics of motorcycle control are in a league of their own. Even the ability to race cars will not give you instant godhood on a motorcycle.
Like being responsible, the ability to handle a car at high speed has nothing to do with handling a fast motorcycle. You are missing two wheels, a cage and a seatbelt on a bike. You have no steering wheel, they are now bars. You control the front and rear brakes seperatly. Did you know the clutch on your left hand and it your foot the does the shifting? Turning at 70mph becomes a whole different world on a motorcycle compared to car. Braking is a different experience too. It is fairly hard to stand a car on its front fender if you stomp on the brakes. It can be done with two fingers, a good amount of speed and a moment of panic on a sportbike. The only cars that have brakes equal or better than that of a sportbike built in the last 10 years are thing like the Audi R8, or the Carbon ceramics on a BMW M4. And even those wont stand the car up on its nose under hard braking.
The skills to handle the potent combination of acceleration, instant-on power and brakes are best learned on a smaller machine so when you finally get on that ultimate sportbike, you have an idea of what to do and how to handle the machine. Driving a car won’t give you that. Only time in the saddle will to that. The more, the better.
Other people have started on a 600cc sportbike and didn’t get hurt. So why can’t I?
This is probably the number one reason that pops up. However, it isn’t so much a reason as an observation. And it is a true one. Every year, lots of new riders go to their local dealerships or scour their local ads and bring home a brand new or used 600cc sportbike. And many of those riders do successfully manage to get through their learning process on these machines.
The purpose of a first ride more than any other is to get the risk of riding for the first year or two as low as possible. You want your margin of forgiveness in the bike to be as wide as possible. A 600cc sportbike gives you very little of that. Yes, a 600cc down low is a tame if sensitive machine. However, it takes very little twist on the throttle to induce a large jump in rpm’s. A brief bump on a pothole with a death grip on the throttle can introduce a 4000rpm jump in the blink of an eye. In an experienced rider’s hands, this is alarming but recoverable. A gentle rolloff or a little clutch feathering manages the surge nicely. In the hands of a newbie trying to figure out the best reaction to such a scare, a rapid closeoff or a panic brake is often the result and can get you into trouble very, very quickly.
In the end, to deal with this line of reasoning is going to involve the new rider, not the one giving the advice. No one can stop that person from going out and buying a 600cc sportbike as a first ride. And maybe they will succeed and crow about all the bad advice they received on starting small. Great! They were the exception.
What you don’t hear about are the non-exceptional people. Very, very few new riders who start on 600s come back to talk about their experiences if they aren’t in the “I’ve had no problems.” group. On the forums recently, there have been a couple folks who admitted they got 600cc sportbikes to start on and indicated that it had been a less-than-ideal choice. This type of honesty is refreshing and it is very, very rare. I am grateful these riders stepped up.
Most of the time, we never learn the fate of those riders who start on 600s. Some make it and simply never bother to tell their tales except to friends. Some wind up scaring themselves so badly (by getting out of control or by actually dumping the bike and injuring themselves) that they sell off and never ride again. These types can be found. Just troll the ads for new supersports with one owner and low miles. The worst of this class of riders are the ones who become “born again safety advocates”. These riders who scare themselves out of riding occasionally become preachers that tell anyone who will listen that “motorcycles are dangerous and should be banned”. What they don’t tell those they are preaching to is how they got that way. It’s bad enough having to deal with the general public (who are at least honestly unaware of what riding is about) but a lot worse to be sabotaged from within by someone who did it to themselves and got in over their head.
Then there is the last group of these “started on a 600cc sportbike” riders that never tell us their tales. They never do because they can’t. Instead, they enjoying peaceful surroundings and occasional visits by family and friends they left behind. They made that one mistake, that one error that compounded into a tragedy of inexperience. They can never tell us what that error was so we can learn from it and maybe also tell us that they should have started on something smaller. They were successful right until the point their skills and luck ran out. This can happen to any of us on any bike. But, in the end, new riders on a powerful sportbike can be a recipe for disaster.
Be honest with yourself. Very honest. Take the advice and wisdom of others more experienced than you and consider what they are saying. They may have a point. Remember, even you think you arena ‘real’ rider by buying that 250, rest assured you will still be accepted as a rider and still encouraged to act as safely as possible at all times.
<this isnt going to end well
We’ve covered the reasons why people justify or want to get a 600cc sportbike. But we have one more thing to answer and it is simple: What makes these bad bikes to start on?
1: the power
This really doesn’t need any explanation. these are the most powerful bikes on the planet. Its like giving your kid a dodge viper to learn how to drive in. Terrible idea. Except in this case that viper can flip over backwards if you give it too much throttle and flip forwards if you get on the brakes too hard.
2: the ergos
These are bikes made to whip around racetracks as fast as possible. They dont car about your ‘natural’ riding position. You either bend over and feel the pain, or you get another bike.
3: the brakes
like the power, these bikes have the best of the best. If we dont look at the brand spanking new bikes with ABS, all of the super sports will flip you oer the front bars in a heart beat if you grab the front brake too much in a panic stop.
4: temperamental motors
The motors arent just dangerous in how much power they make, but also in how they deliver it. The power curvers on some of these bikes are INCREDIBLY peacky, so you could be riding around at 4000rpm and all is fine and dandy in the world. sneeze, and suddenly your at 6000rpm, the motor enters the powerband, and you are on your way to 100 miles an hour and potentiallys a visit to the nearest hospital.
5: the temptation
there is another thing most people dont realize. This bikes...they are ALWAYS straining at the rein. They will ALWAYS say to you: Come on, just a little more, come on, let me at ‘im, i can take him, come on, lets do this, come on. And all those words about being a safe and responsible rider go right out the window.
Technology has gone an amazing distance in twenty years. Performance and ability has almost doubled in that time. But rider ability has not and a new rider from 20 years ago would still have the same challenges then as a new rider would today on an R6.
The sportbike form evolved to meets its function: to win races. Always has, always will. And riders will lust after these technological marvels for that reason. But you can also pretend to be a GP racer on a smaller sportbike that gives up nothing to its bigger brothers where most of us spend our riding days. It is always more satisfying to smoke a 600cc or 1000cc sportbike in the twisties on a Ninja 250 or GS500 than a bigger bike.
But when you are ready to answer the call of the Supersport, they will be waiting for you and you’ll be better off having honed your skills on the smaller sportbike. Supersports are not beginner bikes. But they make great third bikes. I would personally recommend getting something in between, like a SV650, just so you dont jump 100+ HP from one bike to the next.
At the end of the day, I can not tell you which bike to buy. That decision ultimately rests on your head. And is your life that you are taking into your hands.