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Best bikes for new riders

Steer away from faster, heavier breeds when starting out, experts say

May. 9, 2013 - 08:26PM   |  
Suzuki GW250
Suzuki GW250 (Manufacturers' photos)
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Buying tips

For those new to bike breeds, street motorcycles break down into four basic types:
Standard:Generally considered easier to control for new riders, and their upright riding position makes you more visible in traffic, a good reason they’re considered the go-to bike for commuters. Harley-Davidson’s Buell Blast, in production from 2000 to 2009, remains among the most-recommended bikes for new riders. If you’re looking for something new, consider Suzuki’s GW250.
Cruisers: With lower seats and a longer wheelbase, these bikes often are considered better for short riders, but their heavier weight — often as much as 900 pounds — means they’re harder to maneuver and keep under control. Yamaha’s V-Star 250 and Honda Rebel are solid entry-level bikes for newer riders.
Sport bikes: Most models have a seat height of 32 inches or more, making it difficult, if not impossible, for shorter riders to keep both feet on the ground at stops. Experts suggest the Kawasaki Ninja 250R or Honda CBR250R for new riders.
Touring: The biggest bikes on the road, these provide plenty of storage, and their comfortable seating make them great for longer road trips. But — because of their size — they generally are not recommended for new riders.

If you’ve ever ridden a horse, your first time in the saddle probably wasn’t on a big, hot-blooded racing stallion.

The same should be true for first-time motorcycle buyers, riding experts say.

“Get one you can handle, one that isn’t too big for you physically or horsepowerwise,” says retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Kurtiak. He should know — he’s been riding and racing bikes for 40 years and runs the Army’s Motorcycle Safety Program at Fort Rucker, Ala.

Kurtiak suggests starting with a sturdy 250cc-500cc steed before considering the faster stallions.

That advice may sound obvious, but the majority of military motorcycle injuries and deaths come atop high-strung sport bikes that trade weight for faster speeds and greater horsepower. A total of 102 service members were killed in motorcycle accidents last year, with another 832 injured — more than half on sport bikes, according to Pentagon records.

That’s why most experienced riders will suggest the standard bike for first-time buyers.

“The two things most likely to add to a new rider’s confidence level are light weight and the ability to get both feet on the ground at a stop,” states the American Motorcyclists Association’s primer for new riders. “Lighter is always better when you’re still learning to balance, steer, accelerate and brake. And while experienced riders often learn to become comfortable just getting one foot down at a stop, it’s more reassuring to plant both feet when you’re just getting started.”

Before you buy

Before heading to the showroom, your first question shouldn’t be which bike to buy, but whether you’re really the right person to be riding at all. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has nine no-nonsense questions in its self-assessment for potential new riders.

First on the list: Are you a risk-taker?

“If you tend to need a thrill while driving a car and have aggressive or risky tendencies (following too closely, turning without signaling, talking on a cell phone, getting angry at other drivers, etc.), motorcycling may not be for you,” reads the tip sheet, which can be found on the MSF website.

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Other questions to consider: Are you a focused car driver, or do you often find yourself slamming on the brakes because you were caught off guard? Do you operate other machinery — lawn mowers or chain saws, for example — with respect? Do you handle driving emergencies well?

If you’re still sure a motorcycle is right for you, the next thing you’ll want to think about is what you can afford. This isn’t just about budgeting. It’s also about making sure you’re leaving enough to buy a good helmet and other personal protection gear. Expect to spend at least $500 on the extras.

Putting on the brakes

As you consider models and options, look for bikes with anti-lock braking systems. Long a smash-preventing feature in cars, ABS is increasingly becoming a lifesaving technology on bikes, as well.

“Antilock brakes cut crashes for motorcyclists of all abilities, but the benefit is especially large for those new to riding or to a particular bike, new analysis of insurance claims suggests,” according to a May 2012 insurance industry report.

Riders with ABS are 19 percent less likely to have to file a crash claim in general, but new riders are 30 percent safer with ABS, the Highway Loss Data Institute found. Medical claims were 34 percent less frequent for ABS-equipped riders.

Those findings were in line with earlier research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which showed that riders of ABS bikes are 37 percent less likely to die in a crash.

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