Let me guess: The coronavirus pandemic has you reconsidering your staid life choices and you’ve decided that now’s the time, at long last, to ride a motorcycle. You're in good company, as motorcycle sales over the past 18 months have been stronger than at any time in the last decade. So, probably, you’re reading this guide to familiarize yourself with the whole moto space, right?
Actually, more than perhaps most product categories, motorcycles are remarkably consistent; what a new rider (or newly returning one) should look for in a bike hasn’t changed dramatically. This guide will familiarize you with several example bikes across multiple categories, but the keys for you aren’t radically different from what we would’ve advised a decade ago.
New riders need to feel comfortable. Think: toes, knees and nose, all in alignment — the “athletic” posture you’re in when you’re throwing a baseball or doing a squat. The foot pegs of a motorcycle and the handlebars alter that posture somewhat, however; the more advanced you become, the more comfortable you’ll be on bikes that change this alignment up. Still, riding a motorcycle takes more strength than, say, driving a car; you'll need to use those muscles, and aligning your body is one step of that.
One part of the equation has less in common with throwing a ball and more in common with that squat: height and weight. The taller and heavier you are, the more you can heft — and the heavier and taller bike you can ride, even as a relative novice. Bigger bikes can be fine for learning if you’re 6’ 3” and 220 pounds — but they're not great if you’re 5’ 6” and 145 pounds.
Whether you’re shorter or taller, when you’re new to riding, you need to be able to stand over a bike as close to flat footed as possible or no worse than standing on the balls of your feet. A bike with a seat height that forces you to tip the machine significantly over to one side or the other to get control at a stoplight is going to feel way too lopsided for you to control, and since a lot of the hazards of riding come down to slow-speed maneuvers, you need to be able to easily dab a foot to regain control at a light, and then take off again from a standstill, or crawl through stop-and-go traffic, “paddling” your feet along at times to navigate tight spots.
By the way, a lot of that transfers for off-road riding, too. There, you’ll need more ground clearance, so a taller seat height might be a necessary compromise — but then it becomes even more critical that you have a bike that’s light enough that you can control it even at slower speeds.
Note: This guide is meant as a starting point, not the be-all-and-end-all guide to motorcycles for beginners. A good example of why is that if you’re taller, a bike with a low seat height might feel super easy to ride, but if you put in long miles, your hips are going to seize up from having your knees really high. Do your homework and measure that seat height, reach, and bike weight to ballpark what might fit you best. And it’s totally fine to think of what’s here as your “starter bike.” Get comfortable, then graduate to more power or a taller seat height.
Also, while you’re at it, if the bike you buy has a rain mode and it’s a higher horsepower model — especially— switch that on. It’ll reduce output a bit, helping you to stay safe until you're ready to graduate to full juice.
And don’t forget that motorcycles can be adjusted in many ways. Many brands offer lower or taller seats, or aftermarket bars that can add or drop reach if you’re feeling cramped or stretched out by the stock setup. Likewise, adjustable clutch and brake levers are a must, so that your fingers are in the best position to avoid fatigue. A bike isn’t “done” when you bring it home from the dealer; part of the fun of ownership is customizing it here or there, which is ultimately how you’ll become “one” with your moto.
Standard / Naked Motorcycles for Beginners
Naked basically refers to a bike having less aero treatment — fewer fairings and less plastic. Standard refers to a default seating position, where the rider is (roughly) more upright — versus the cruiser position with forward pegs and the crotch-rocket race bike bent-over stance.
Regarding the naked part: Note that you can frequently add wind protection later. Even if that messes up the rad vibe of your bike, it’ll make covering longer highway miles a lot more comfortable.
While the MT-03 looks menacing, 37 hp and a relatively flat torque curve from a small twin engine argue differently — and that’s a good thing, because smooth power delivery is what you want in a starter moto. The twin part of the equation is a steal at this price, too, since you’re more likely to find a buzzy single-cylinder model in this lower displacement arena; it’s also great that it comes with a six-speed, to save you gas at highway speeds.
Bonus, too, for the low-ish 30.7-inch seat height and roughly five inches of travel from the front/rear suspension, so you’re not getting hammered on longer-mile rides. Standard ABS front and rear also buys you more control, even during hard stops.
Triumph Trident 660
There are many arguments why not to start with this Triumph: the first is the price; the second is that a triple-cylinder 72-hp bike is more than the average beginner should have on tap. The counter to that is that if you’re heavier, you could want more muscle. And the Trident’s triple is super-fluid, so it’s not going to get away from you.
A rain mode allows you to ease into the bike’s power delivery, and the reasonable, 427-pound weight is plenty approachable, especially given the 32.2-inch seat height, that should make the 660 comfortable for a sweet spot of riders from 5’7” to 6’2”. ABS is standard, too, as is traction control. And of course, the main reason to want the Trident is that this bike is flat gorgeous, and gorgeous sounding. If part of the reason that you’re shopping for a naked bike is the aesthetic, there’s nothing on the market as thrillingly cool (that’s also fit for newbies) as the Trident 660.
Supermoto / Dual-purpose / Adventure (ADV) Motorcycles for Beginners
ADV bikes are suddenly very popular, and the spectrum of what’s really an adventure “light” bike and what’s borrowing that geometry but is closer to a supermoto, and what’s just a dirt bike with signals and place for a license plate is—moot. We’ve mashed this section together because what fits a certain label and what doesn’t isn’t really the point of a beginner’s guide: What’s approachable to newbies is the point.
Every bike here meets on the X/Y axis of approachable, upright-ish rider position and not-scary powertrain. The bulk of our picks gets a windscreen of some kind and luggage mounts — or at least make it easier to add them on.
Pay extra-close attention to seat height when choosing in this category. Added ground clearance of these breeds tends to bias (some) of these bikes toward taller riders. But there’s a hack for that: Lower saddles and lowering links can also make tall-riding machines more friendly for shorter riders.
If you’re in the know, you’re aware that the DR-Z400 is more of a 50/50 (or even 40/60) street/dirt bike. But by inverting the fork, widening the wheel spoke pattern, increasing the front disc rotor size, and adding wide, meaty road rubber, the SM becomes the supermoto version of its grime-focused cousin. We’d never point this one toward anything grittier than a very smooth dirt road, but with 10.2 inches of travel up front and 10.9 in the rear, the SM is a bike that can handle even the worst urban environment, curb hop without blinking and put you in the same athletic riding position you’d be in for tackling forested singletrack. Drawbacks? It’s geared for back roads, not interstates, and a 35-inch seat height makes it tougher on shorter pilots.
BMW G 310 GS
If you’re buying because you might ride a bit of unpaved road but you’re mostly attracted to the riding options and the ability to extend that adventure into a bit of weekend touring, the GS is an eminently logical purchase. The 32.8-inch seat height isn’t too low for riders up to six feet or too tall for riders as short as 5’6”, it comes out of the chute with adjustable levers, to dial in reach, and the 34-hp single-cylinder motor is smooth-revving, with easily accessible torque that won’t punish you for missing an up- or downshift. The suspension is friendly with 7.1 inches of travel — and BMW, like the Royal Enfield below, comes stock with ABS as well as luggage mounts.
It’s not a legit MX bike made street legal like the Honda at the other end of this spectrum, but that’s not the appeal of the G 310 GS. The comfortable, all-day riding accessibility and safe, upright rider position for the pavement is what you’re after, as well as a readily affordable sticker from a steadfast label.
Royal Enfield Himalayan
The merely 25-hp Himalayan has won over critics for good reason: it’s a remarkably capable and especially comfortable motorcycle. The seat height of 31.5 inches is almost identical to that of the Yamaha TW200, and suspension travel is a mellow 7.8 inches front, 7 rear, with 8.6 inches of ground clearance. But what the numbers cannot show you is that the Himalayan is supremely smooth and balanced. What it lacks in horsepower, it makes up in accessible torque, which is what you want in a bike that will be ridden in dirt at least some of the time. And although it’s porky at 439 pounds, it carries that weight well (meaning, relatively low). When touring, the lower-revving single won’t vibrate your joints to bits, either.
Speaking of which, it comes with front racks (rears are a cheap add, too), so it’s all ready to take panniers. You get a standard engine skid plate and switchable ABS, for more safety, and a four-gallon fuel tank with more than 200 miles of range. By the way: versus that Yamaha TW200, the longer-legged engine of the Himalayan is better for sections of higher-speed pavement.
With huge rubber (the rear is basically an ATV tire), a 31.1-inch seat height and a ridiculously affordable $4,799 price, the “Teedub” is as venerable and approachable a bike as you’ll find anywhere on this list. Those fat tires are forgiving: they make slow speed maneuvers especially easy, and the low standover allows new riders, and riders new to riding technical, rocky, rutted terrain, to get far more comfortable with going slowly and carefully. While the TW isn’t a highway cruiser by any means, at just 278 pounds, it’s an ideal learner’s ADV bike for a smaller, lighter rider who will venture off pavement and wants to get comfortable on all conditions.
Drawbacks? Sure. If you’re much taller than 5’ 8” this bike can feel cramped, and a carbureted rather than fuel-injected single with this small displacement simply isn’t suitable for long, multi-day rides that feature lots of blacktop. But around town, or ducking into and out of the mountains, the desert, or just a bunch of fire roads? This is the entry ticket.
Honda CRF300L Rally ABS
Honda’s dead-nuts reliability, and the fact that they’re selling this bike with switchable ABS, a fairing, nearly 11 inches of ground clearance and (especially) a Showa suspension at a price that European competition just cannot touch all speaks to what Honda does so well. Extra credit, too, for the six-speed gearbox and light clutch feel.
Note, though, that this is the most “serious” ADV bike here, with the highest seat height of 35.2 inches. So shorter riders probably need not apply, and if you don’t plan on riding dirt at all, there are other options that give you the ADV vibe, minus the truly focused capability on offer here.
Touring Motorcycles for Beginners
If the goal of getting into riding is putting in longer miles, or you just have a longer commute, touring bikes are pretty appealing. They’ll feature more weather protection, and a lot like in the ADV category, put the rider in a more upright stance. You’ll ordinarily find decent passenger space, too, as well as room to add cargo. While you may eventually want to graduate to a bike with more displacement, start with less, so that the weight/balance equation won’t overwhelm you.
Kawasaki Versys 650 ABS
With 60 hp from its parallel twin and a massive torque curve from 2,000-8,000 rpm, this engine alone should make newbie riders happy. Flexible power is always preferable for novice riders, because having to keep an engine on the rivet isn’t enjoyable when you really should be more focused on the road ahead. Keeping that in mind, we do like that this bike comes stock with dual front discs with lots of bite, as well as ABS.
Will it fit? The 33.1-inch seat height means riders shorter than about 5’7” might struggle, but anyone taller will find the cockpit comfy — especially because both rebound and preload are adjustable at the fork, and preload is adjustable at the rear, so you can dial in the suspension feel for your rider weight, or if you add a passenger or luggage. One other factor is weight; with this bike gassed up, it’ll tip the scales at about 500 pounds, which isn’t light, and so the shorter or lighter you are as a rider, the more you should measure yourself against handling the Versys, especially at slower speeds.
Cruiser Motorcycles for Beginners
The main appeal of a cruiser is the riding position. Lots of riders find them more comfortable because you sit low, your arms are more outstretched and you steer a bit more with your hips. They also can look cooler than many bikes — and if you’re more about getting there in style rather than in a huge hurry, cruisers, as the name implies, are just plain fun.
Honda Rebel 500 ABS
Because the Rebel 500 ABS gets, yes, anti-lock brakes, but also a slipper clutch (which allows a lot less clutch effort between shifts), this is an ideal beginner bike. Horsepower from the parallel twin is modest, at 41 hp, and the torque curve is relatively flat, too, so you’re not going to get jerked around. But power arrives relatively early in the rev range, and the meat of that torque curve is broad, which makes keeping the engine on the boil less of a chore.
And although some cruisers can have near zero suspension travel, the Rebel 500’s 3.8 inches in the rear and 4.8 inches up front is enough to keep all but the worst expansion joints and potholes from upsetting handling. A 27.2-inch seat height and relatively neutral peg position mean so smaller riders should find the Rebel 500 ABS kitten-like to handle, despite the punk-rock looks.
Indian Scout Bobber Sixty ABS
If you’re a bigger rider and are all in on the cruiser vibe, the Bobber Sixty is dripping with cool, old-school, naked machine looks. The V-Twin sounds great, and 78hp will give you plenty of power. Even shorter riders will fit, though, thanks to a very low, 25.6-inch seat height. Note that the riding position is fairly stretched for a lot of riders though, with more reach and forward pegs (both fixable post purchase). This is all about the cruiser vibe though, so just know that’s part of the equation.
Speaking of that, travel is scant at the shock (just three inches), so you will feel potholes, but the fork has nearly five inches of very well-damped travel. We’re listing the more expensive ABS edition, too, because especially new riders should get as many safety features as possible. Oh, and what about that five- rather than six-speed? Don’t sweat it. Gears are widely spaced and meaty torque is plentiful, so you’ll have lots of power and won’t be winding out fifth gear unless you’re breaking every law in the land.