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Risk Hierarchy: Information - Rider Ed - Driver Ed - Conspicuity - Bike Defect - Ultra-Defensive Riding - Crash Avoidance - Injury Mitigation - Crash Scene
Buying a Motorcycle
Your First Bike
We recommend that you take the a basic rider course and get your motorcycle license before getting your motorcycle. About 20% of participants in basic training fail the course and end up not getting a motorcycle, and research indicates that they probably shouldn't. Buying your cycle before doing the course adds a level of commitment that makes it harder to move on and give up the motorcycle idea.
Even with training, you are in the highest-risk categories in the first six months of owning any motorcycle, and in your first few years of riding. Without training you are dead meat. A beginner crashing his motorcycle on on the way home from the dealer is a cliche. It took me about 5 seconds to find this example from a couple of days ago.
The choice of a first ride is important. Here's Chuckhawks.com's excellent article on the subject. We recommend you get a smaller bike, in the 250 cc class or smaller at first. You should probably get it used. You should avoid fairings and a lot of bells and whistles. Fittings and accessories get bashed around a lot when you drop your bike, and your first bike will be trashed inside a couple of years. Tupperware (fairings) are notoriously expensive to replace. We like 'naked' (standard) bikes and small cruisers.
Ok, what you really want is a 150 MPH sports bike or a 950-lb cruiser, and this isn't it, but big and/or fast bikes are not good to learn on. They are hard to control in some situations. Assume you will outgrow your first motorcycle in a year or so, and sell it for scrap in the end. Control your machismo. (Read our Biker Psych page for more on that).
When you are buying a used motorcycle, bring someone knowledgeable about bikes, or have it checked by a motorcycle mechanic, to ensure it is safe and technically sound. Here's Adam Glass's very useful article on buying a used motorcycle, if you want to do it solo. Sit on the cycle and make sure you can get both feet flat on the ground when in the saddle. Make sure the handlebars are in a comfortable position (no ape hangers or clip-ons). The handlebars should have a moderate rise and the forks should have a modest rake. Handlebars can be adjusted a bit to suit you, but there are limits.
If you decide to buy a new motorcycle for your first ride, be aware that motorcycle salesmen make a tiny commission on the small bike you need, usually as little as $10 (ten dollars). An honest sales person will realize that if he takes care of you now and sells you a modest, first-timer cycle, that you will be back in a year or two to trade it in and buy a bigger motorcycle, and that you'll be spending money on accessories, gear and service all your riding life. But some dealers don't carry cycles suitable for first timers,and others will try to up-sell, so be prepared to hold out and insist on what you want. If need be, go to another dealer. If you make it known that you will do this, maybe they'll do right.
Reserve some of your budget for your personal safety equipment - helmet, seasonally appropriate riding jacket/pants or coverall, gloves and boots with protection. Our injury mitigation section has more. You are probably going to take a spill fairly soon, so the protection will be used. If you need some incentive, check out Brittany Morrow's story.
If your gear is not bright and conspicuous, consider getting an ANSI vest in dayglo and high-vis. We recommend getting a white or bright-colored helmet, which have proven survival benefits. We also like full-face helmets, for the same reason. If you are in a no-helmet-law state, wear a helmet anyway. Even if you plan not to wear protection eventually, use it during the critical first six months (and maybe you'll get to like it).
Consider also making some of the bike improvements in our conspicuity section. You're going to need all the help you can get. You and your bike need to be as visible as possible, especially as your first small motorcycle has a tiny profile.
After training, while setting your bike up the way you like it, and in your initial adventures on your new motorcycle, you will periodically get over-confident and this is very dangerous.
When riding at first, avoid busy city streets. Practice in suburban roads, parking lots or rural byways until you have the controls sussed out and can control the cycle and simultaneously deploy the S-E-E strategies. Study this entire website and understand the importance of training and ultra-defensive riding strategies. Riding a motorcycle requires a lot of multitasking, and you need to learn a lasagna of skills at various levels to stand a chance of survival on busy city streets or rural highways.
We'll repeat this last concept, it is important. Riding a motorcycle safely requires multitasking. It needs motor skills, cognitive skills and reasoning processes stacked pretty high in your consciousness. You need:
- motor skills learned as 'muscle memory' for driving the motorcycle
- cognitive skills for seeing and evaluating objects and threats
- reasoning skills for analyzing the traffic and situational awareness,
Until you have all this figured out, there is a risk of overrunning your short term memory capabilities. This may result in one or more of these important processes being abandoned, or even in a 'panic-mode' freeze up. Either of these events can cause a crash. The trick is to practice the motor skills so they are in 'muscle memory'. You won't have to think when you use them, which makes your limited short term memory slots available for the cognitive and reasoning processes. Eventually, some of the cognitive processes become routine also. But you will always have to pay riding your bike your full attention.
When you feel comfortable enough to ride at moderate speeds on secondary rural highways, consider looking for a riding group (not sports riders) to ride with.