Can There Be A Perfect Motorcycle For A New Rider?

Or is that even the right question to ask?

Let’s admit straight off that there’s no right answer here. The best bike for a rider, new or experienced, is completely up to the individual behind the bars.

In the past few years though, the topic has been fueled by a surge in new sub-500cc machines and the argument that these types of motorcycles are ideal for the new rider due to the absence of arm-yanking power, lighter weight, and a more affordable price tag. On the other hand, there are so many bikes available now at the upper end of the displacement range with electronic safety aids like traction control, engine maps, and ABS that a beast-of-a-machine can be tamed with the push of a button. Even in the absence of elaborate electronics, there’s also a case to be made that a rider who accepts and stays within the limit of their ability can learn to ride on just about anything.

So why even bring this up, if there’s no definitive answer? Primarily, because I think about this question a lot and want to hear your opinions on the topic. I’ll give some of my thoughts on the various points of view I’ve come across and look forward to your take in the comments below.

Considering power and price, a 1290 Super Duke is more bike than a new rider would ever need. But the sophisticated suite of rider aides could be a boon in a tricky situation.
Considering power and price, a 1290 Super Duke is more bike than a new rider would ever need. But the sophisticated suite of rider aides could be a boon in a tricky situation.KTM

To start with, I’m a big fan of a whole bunch of the small-displacement bikes on the market. The Duke 390, the R3, the Ninja 400, Honda’s 500s. You can have a lot of fun tackling your commute, carving a mountain road, or logging laps at the track on any of these.

There are some shortcomings though, the most obvious being a lack of available power. This becomes really noticeable on the freeway when you’re cruising at 70 mph in sixth gear and you need to roll on for a pass. In a lot of cases, there’s not much there. It becomes an even more troublesome issue on two-lane highways when you move to pass a semi, for example, and are stuck in the wrong lane for longer than you’d like. Positioning yourself in safe zones relative to the traffic around is part of riding defensively (a smart thing for any rider to do) and is most effective when you have a stock of evasive maneuvers. Sometimes it’s safer to throttle past a situation than to hammer on the brakes or swerve.

Now, for a rider fresh from the intro MSF course, this power deficiency might not be that big an issue. Ride routes may stay limited to quiet back roads and surface streets in town for a while. But at some point skill will improve to the point where more aggressive acceleration becomes part of the program.

A machine like this can put stars in the eyes of a new rider, but it’s probably not ideal for mastering the basics.
A machine like this can put stars in the eyes of a new rider, but it’s probably not ideal for mastering the basics.BMW

This leads to the inevitable addendum to the argument that small-displacement bikes are the best place to start for the newbie; once you’re more experienced, you can trade up for something bigger or more powerful.

But you could also argue that going a bit bigger from the start, with a 650 or something in that ballpark, would give the rider something to grow into and add longevity to the initial investment. Take the Kawasaki Ninja 400, for instance, an estimated 366-pound bike priced at five grand (new), against the Yamaha MT-07, which is $2,600 more expensive but weighs just 37 pounds more. You get more than twice the engine in the MT compared to the Ninja and aren’t having to muscle a bike around that’s 100 to 150 pounds heavier.

Another aspirational bike for a lot of new riders that can be decent enough to learn on if you ride within your limits.
Another aspirational bike for a lot of new riders that can be decent enough to learn on if you ride within your limits.Harley-Davidson

What is good, in my opinion at least, about the small-displacement options is that riders will be forced to work the transmission more than on a larger-displacement machine. This is a great benefit to motorcyclists starting out because refining the clutch/gear shift/braking/accelerating/decelerating dance is important to practice and refine. If you get a high-power bike that has gobs of torque throughout the powerband and can touch 90 mph in second gear in the time it takes to blink an eye, there’s going to be less need for such constant engagement with the machine in day-to-day use. It’s also nice for a newbie to be able to pull too hard on the throttle and not face a disaster.

And of course, there’s also less chance of a huge, grotesque get-off at absurd speeds on a smaller bike since many, in the 300 range and below anyway, will barely exceed 100 mph stock. The problem here is that a crash at 25 mph can be just as devastating depending on the conditions of the incident, so again it comes down to the rider and his or her awareness of the potential perils of the road and respect for the machine.

On the opposite end, advising a brand-new rider to go out and finance a completely decked KTM 1290 Super Duke doesn’t seem wise to me in most cases. But I’ll even grant that in this example, for the rider with a sound enough head on their shoulders that even this bike could be just fine for the newbie. Lean-sensitive ABS, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, I mean, electronics like these would be fantastic in helping to keep a new rider out of trouble in some circumstances.

A bike like the Super Duke is a pretty big investment for a rider who may or may not yet have the lifelong addiction to two wheels. I also wouldn’t want to encourage someone to go into that kind of debt if they weren’t completely sure about their relationship with motorcycles.

The Ninja 400 is a great machine and has some big pluses for newer riders, but bikes like these don’t have to be the only option.
The Ninja 400 is a great machine and has some big pluses for newer riders, but bikes like these don’t have to be the only option.Kawasaki

The type of large-displacement bike makes a lot of difference as well. A rider who has visions of himself with a knee down on a mountain road should not start on a literbike. There might be an argument out there to convince me otherwise, but I doubt it. There’s just too much potential for the machine to get out of control.

But I also know a guy (we all know a guy, right?) who passed his intro course and promptly went out and bought a really well-maintained 2005 Harley Fat Boy. He had six hours’ experience in a parking lot under supervision the first time he set out on that 1,449cc bike, but he’s approached riding deliberately and with caution, accepting his limited experience and keeping to roads and scenarios he’s comfortable with. His skill has improved greatly in the time since and he is now an incurable two-wheeled addict. Plus, he has a bike that will be part of the family for years.

Obviously, such a singular instance doesn’t make a rule, and I know of three times as many people who got on a bike that was above their skill level and within a few weeks were picking themselves and their wrecked machine up off the pavement.

Factors like size, weight and seat height are all important to consider in addition to a rider’s disposition. A shorter rider on an adventure bike isn’t likely to develop the same level of confidence trying to balance a tall, top-heavy machine on her tiptoes as she would on a smaller motorcycle. A taller rider might be too cramped on a KTM RC 390.

For me, this approaches one of the most important aspects of advising a new rider on the bike that should come first. They’ll have the best chance of enjoying motorcycling if it’s on a bike that gives them confidence and makes them happy. It’s less a question about displacement and performance than it is about a bike that will fit the body type, the personality, and the ultimate aims of the rider. Riding a motorcycle is a constant learning exercise, so stressing the importance of retaining the humility of a student could prove more effective advice than drawing boundaries around the proper displacement for a new rider. Let us know what you think in the comments below.