I got a question from one of my subscribers about my thoughts on choosing a motorcycle. I wanted to take a few moments and share things I’ve learned along the way that others may be able to use as guidance.
The early days
Motorcycles have always fascinated me. I can remember as early as elementary school thinking bikes were cool. As I got older, that curiosity only increased. I loved riding a bicycle in motorcycling was the natural extension to that. I was working late with another coworker of mine in high school and my car was parked on the way at the other end of the parking lot. He asked, “Want to ride on the back of my bike?” All I could say was “Hell yes!” And even though it was only about an eight second ride, it was one hell of an eight second ride on a 1984 Honda Shadow 750.
Verdict: I’d love to find one, even if it’s just nostalgia!
Florida, much like California has always seemed to have interesting laws across a very diverse state. Later on in high school, some friends of mine were down in Panama City Beach vacationing. I drove down from Destin (about 60 miles away) to meet them for the day. Somehow the chaperoning parent thought it was a good idea to unleash us all on small motorcycles that day. God bless her! We all walked down to the DMV to get a Florida driver’s licenses so that we could ride those crotch rockets.
That day changed me. It was the first time I actually sat on my own bike. I spent many nights as a kid learning about motorcycles, clutches, problems, and all the different things that make bikes, bikes. But today was the day I’d throw my leg over the saddle and experience it myself. A few of the guys got 125cc dirt bikes and I had a Yamaha YSR50. It was definitely bigger than a pocket bike but still small by today’s standards. Once the clutch handle went out, I was hooked.
Every spring break and every summer vacation, I’d make the pilgrimage down to Panama City Beach to go ride motorcycles. I’d use that money I had earned mowing lawns and then go blow it on that two wheeling thrill! Over the years I got to ride a number of bikes: YZF50, Honda 125cc something dirt bike with street tires, Honda Shadow 600, Honda CBR 600 (gawd help me).
Verdict: Not for me!
Loud pipes don’t save lives
I was in South Africa for business helping install some software at South African Airways. It was about a month-long venture in Johannesburg and I was able to take a few days vacation in Cape Town. Lo and behold I found a place that did motorcycle rentals in Africa! Harley-Davidson was the bike of the day. This particular shop did tours as well as rentals. I figured it’d be easier to go with the tour as I would see better country and be aware of the local laws. South Africans drive on the left side of the road rather than the right so the extra guidance was appreciated. All in all the tour on Cape Town was amazing and reminded me a lot of my trip to San Francisco a few years before.
Having only had experience on lighter Japanese motorcycles, the Harley felt heavy. The cornering didn’t feel near as crisp as the bike lumbered along. Some of that likely was due to inexperience, being in a foreign country, and on a new bike. That being said, Harleys are going to out ride a sports bike.
Back home, I got a second chance to ride Harley Davidson. During college, trips down to the Florida Panhandle were significantly less frequent. I wanted to ride locally as there were good roads in the mountains that I remember when camping up in that area. The only game in town for motorcycle rental didn’t come on the scene until late in my college career. That was Eagle Rider.
The only thing they had for rent at that time were Harley-Davidson motorcycles. I wound up with a HD Dyna Wide Glide. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time and truth be told I still don’t. Harley-Davidson has always had a bizarre set of acronyms for their motorcycles. Mine was a FXDWG. Since I’d ridden a Harley before, I knew what to expect on the big bike. This particular model though had the loudest pipes I ever heard. By the time the ride was over there was ringing in my ears and I had a headache. I don’t think I even rode that far. Note to self: keep to the factory decibel level when changing exhaust.
Right as I was outside my destination for the night, the electrical system in the place quickly went dark. I was riding along and it almost sounded like the motorcycle ran out of gas. The speedometer faded, the lights went dim, and the bike finally died. I had to call the rental agency to report the malfunctioning bike. The tech had to drive all the way across the state to come fix it but it turned out the electrical connection between the alternator and the battery came loose. About 10 years later a rider on one of the rides I was on had the exact same issue.
2001 Vulcan 750: My first real motorcycle
As a teenager I mowed a lot of lawns. I had a goal in life, to own my own motorcycle. I’m sure my folks encouraged me to spend my savings as they weren’t exactly an agreement with my life goal but were clear I could do whatever I wanted after college. I worked and saved and worked and saved and worked and saved some more.
As I look back on my first motorcycle, a few key things came into play with a purchase decision:
- New – I wanted the bike to the new as I remember having lots of mechanical issues with jet skis growing up. I didn’t want to repeat that with my motorcycle.
- Cost – I was just out of college and not looking to go into debt. I wanted to pay for my bike in cash.
- Features – I wanted things like hydraulic valves, a gas gauge, and a shaft drive. I wanted motorcycling to be an easy thing and not maintenance intensive.
The Vulcan 750 was a great bike. It had plenty of power, was relatively maintenance-free aside from a few warranty issues and I purchased the bike out the door for about $5500. I kept hearing that it was important to buy a used bike first as you likely drop it (which I did), but I didn’t want to deal with mysterious maintenance issues. I had planned to tour the world on that bike and wanted it to be super reliable. The stock seat was hard as a brick, but given the bike had had 15 years in production there were a reasonable amount of aftermarket accessories. The problem was though Kawasaki’s attention was on the Vulcan 800. The accessories market was declining as this was not Kawasaki’s attention anymore.
Likes: Cost effective, comfortable, plenty of power compared to bikes in it’s class, easy to work on. The Vulcan was also a wonderful motorcycle to learn on as the seat height was low to the ground and the bike is generally forgiving.
Dislikes: Seat was too soft, several warranty issues (leaky shaft drive, stator went out, chassis cover fell off, and heads leaked). Each repair fixed the issue.
I eventually sold the bike after 16,500 miles as I never trusted it again after laying it down. I was riding up the freeway in relatively cold conditions and the bike died on me. The mechanic reported the float bowls were overfull with fuel but at that point I was ready to sell it. It was time to move on.
Verdict: A great first bike for me, but this one is quickly fading into motorcycling history.
2003 V-Strom 1000
After I sold the Vulcan, I was without a bike for a couple of months. I had read a review in Rider Magazine about the V Strom. In typical fashion, the magazine described it as the greatest thing to have ever happened to motorcycling. I’ve since learned, they do that for every bike.
I went to the motorcycle show that year to see what was cool. I saw the V-Strom up on the spinning display and instantly fell in love. Suzuki outfitted the bike with knobby tires, bags, and all the guards required for off-road use. My eyes instantly lit up and I was in love. Yellow was my favorite color which sealed the deal. Early next year I sold the Vulcan and started looking for a new V-Strom.
I found a dealer that had two bikes in stock at 2003 V-Strom 1000 in yellow and a 2004 V-Strom 650 in blue. Why wasn’t it a clear step towards the 1000 cc bike? Suzuki did a few updates in 2004 to address some of the issues from the earlier bikes. The 1000 cc model was competitively priced and the 650 cc had a clear premium on it. In the end, I went with the 1000 cc bike as it was the one I fell in love with at the motorcycle show and I just thought the yellow was hot. I tell everyone who’s interested in buying a bike, quote every time you walk into your garage, your heart should skip a beat and say – that’s my bike!” It was time to take my own advice.
The V-Strom was significantly different than the Vulcan. The V-Strom’s center of gravity is very high where the Vulcan’s center of gravity is low. The V-Strom’s seat height was significantly higher requiring me to be on my toes when holding the bike at a stop. I can remember my first ride on the bike feeling its power, girth, and torque beneath me. I knew I had a very different animal under me than I was used to.
It took me a long time to grow into that bike. Looking back on it I probably should’ve bought the 650 as it was lighter, more forgiving, and much more nimble. I can remember my girlfriend at the time basically telling me to “man up and ride that bike.” She could see some of my early tentative behavior and pushed me through it.
I’ve loved the V-Strom the time that I’ve had it. We’ve been together about 10 years and 98,000 miles. All of the maintenance issues have been normal wear and tear and I never had to use the $500 I spent on the factory warranty. It’s been a great tourer, commuter, and light-duty off-road bike. Part of me wants to say it does nothing well and everything mediocre but I think that doesn’t do the bike justice. The V-Strom is a generalist motorcycle. It has a foot in many camps but doesn’t specialize in anything. That’s one of the things I’ve liked about this bike.
Since Suzuki updated the V-Strom it was hard to find accessories for the older model in the areas were Suzuki changed it. While I don’t regret buying the bike, had I bought the 2004 model there would’ve been more options for customizing the bike period.
The big Achilles’ heel with this motorcycle, was the buffeting of wind at freeway speeds. Just about everybody that rode the bike mentioned it and their solution for fixing it. I dealt with it the first 27,000 miles owning the bike. I found someone in San Diego who made custom order windscreens and claimed to fix the issue. The good news is, he fixed the issue and the bike was a whole different motorcycle to ride.
I found the default riding position on the bike to aggressive so I added bar risers to move the bars up an inch and back an inch. That reduced all the strain on my neck and shoulder when riding the bike.
The V-Strom is a chain drive bike which never sat well with me. Every 600 miles I’d have to clean increase the chain and every 20,000 miles I’d have to replace it. Shaft drive bikes require much less maintenance and is a feature I’m looking for in my next motorcycle.
Likes: Plenty of power, rock solid reliability, yellow (which isn’t a common color for motorcycles), fun to ride, and versatile.
Dislikes: Clutch chudder (though it never stranded me), buffeting, chain drive, fuel economy (38mpg), weight and girth reducing its nimbleness in the corners.
Verdict: I can’t over criticize its weaknesses, as we’ve been together nearly 100,000 miles. It’s been a great bike.
Two Ninja 250s
The Ninja 250 is a cult motorcycle. It’s the single most recommended motorcycle for those new to riding. One of the biggest reasons I recommend this bike is that if you buy it used and then later upgrade, you can recoup most of your original spend on the bike.
The other big benefit to the Ninja 250 is that it’s light. The Ninja 250 easily corners has a very gentle corner cadence and surprisingly, is fun to ride. I’m not the lightest of guys clocking in at about 230 and the Ninja was fine for me in the twisties. It reminded me of the fundamentals of motorcycling: slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Obviously, the big downside to the bike is that you have to wind it up to high RPM to generate power. It’s not uncommon to ride the bike between 7,000 and 10,000 RPM to get to a comfortable speed. The bike is crazy good on fuel economy. It barely sips fuel on a fun Saturday ride.
Verdict: I wholeheartedly recommend the bike for new riders, but I enjoy the power from a bigger bike.
Coast and Volcanoes – the ride that foreshadowed my next motorcycle
For a couple of years makes Mike Zeminsky and I ran a ride that was targeted for riders who had never done an overnight on their motorcycle. In 2010, we did a trip across the volcanic and coastal areas of California. What was unique about that trip is many of us rode each other’s motorcycles and it was a great way to get a sense for very different motorcycles in a condensed period of time. I got to ride a number of bikes!
Honda CBR 600 RR
Mike and I swapped motorcycles first. We were riding a desolate section of highway 96 in extreme northern California. The Honda had so much power at the rear wheel I clearly had to be gentle. The power band was smooth but didn’t come alive until about 7000 RPMs. You could then feel a significant increase in the amount of power the bike produced. The bike was clearly an aggressive race bike and after about 10 miles I was ready to switch back with Mike. My body test wasn’t designed nor strong enough for that bike. The problem though was that Mike rode my bike like his RR and it wasn’t until 40 miles later that I caught up with him!
Verdict: Not for me!
I knew a couple guys that ride the K1300S and love it. When I got on the bike, I could instantly feel BMW polish. Everything on the bike seem to have such a touch of refinement that my V-Strom lacked.
There were options to control traction, way more technology on the dashboard, shaft drive, just to begin with. The engine was super smooth, the handling was responsive, in the fun factor was definitely there. It had all the fun of the 325i, just on two wheels. It wasn’t near as high strung as the CBR 600 RR which was a good thing.
The problem was, I had some of the same aches and pains I experienced on the CBR 600 RR. The bike was just too sporty and aggressive for what I was looking for. Also, I liked the wood paneled station wagon look of the V-Strom. It meant that a scratch here and there wasn’t a bit deal and strapping camping gear on the bike felt natural. It doesn’t feel right to me as a tourer, even though it makes a great touring bike.
Verdict: Not for me!
BMW R1200 GS
BMW invented the adventure motorcycling market with the Gelände/Straße (GS for short) in 1980. The bike has done extremely well over its lifetime and is known as the standard for adventure bikes worldwide (except for Austria who makes the KTM). Doug had the 2006 standard GS model. In a lot of ways it felt like the V-Strom except the clutch chudder wasn’t there. Much like the K1300S, there was a level of polish beyond what I had on the V-Strom.
The GS felt like it had a touch more power than my V-Strom but the handling and ergonomics felt very similar. The GS has additional features like traction control, ABS brakes, and the coveted shaft drive. The problem is its almost 2 1/2 times the price of my current bike. That cost extends into parts, maintenance, and insurance as well. It significantly more over the lifetime of the bike. That being said, you live once. Ride the bike you love!
I haven’t ridden the Triumph Tiger Explorer but I’ve heard good things about it. I consider it after the first major “bug fix” release. I learned my lesson from buying 1.0 bikes with the V-Strom.
Verdict: It could be the next bike!
Yamaha FJR 1300
I really wanted to like it had all the features I was looking for: shaft drive, a great tourer, plenty of power, good storage space, an easily configurable windscreen, and really good reviews. The thing that I couldn’t get past though is that the steering felt extremely heavy. I found it hard to weave through turns as it required a lot of effort to manhandle the bike in and out of corners. I’m not sure if it was my physique, body positioning, or just the character of the bike.
The other party that is at the motor is almost too smooth. It didn’t feel like it had any soul as the motor just purred along click your average household vacuum cleaner. It was reminding me that I liked the V-Strom’s rough edges. I needed an engine that had a throaty rumble under its breath.
Verdict – Not for me!
2001 Triumph Speed Triple
Serafina had a 2001 Triumph Speed Triple. I never really considered the British bikes. It had always been Japanese or German for me. As soon as I let the clutch out, I fell in love with this bike. The motorcycle was actually fairly simple. It didn’t have much instrumentation and was still carbureted. But that was the beauty in it. It reminded me of all of the joys of motorcycling in a very simple fashion.
I was riding this bike along highways 1 and 128 and I didn’t want to give it back. The air around me was clean and had no touch of turbulence. The motor hummed effortlessly underneath me as we wandered through the twisties. It was like being back on my first bike experiencing all the senses for the first time again. The power train was smooth and never complained about rolling the throttle coming out of a turn, even at less than 3000 RPM. Had I been smart, I would’ve begged to buy the bike then and there.
I’ve done some research on these bikes and they do have their flaws: chain drive for one, they eat tires, and they’re not the best bike for long-distance rides ergonomically. Typically I get 8000 miles out of the tire and with the Speed Triple I could expect 2500 miles out of a more expensive tire.
Verdict: Absolutely! I would just have to pair it with a distance bike like the BMW GS or my V-Strom.
For further reading
I’ve had the opportunity of riding a few other bikes namely the BMW S 1000, Suzuki V-Strom 650, and the BMW F650. I’ve linked to more detailed articles about each of the these bikes, but they deserve a quick summary here. The BMW S 1000 has a lot of the same issues for me that the Honda CBR 600 RR had. The ergonomics are just too aggressive. The V-Strom 650 felt very similar to the 1000 cc bike, but clearly had less power. I was finding myself shifting earlier and pushing the bike to higher RPMs. I got a much more maneuverable bike in exchange for the lack of power. The BMW F650 was a great bike to ride around Australia, but I felt like it lacked personality much like the FJR. It’s lack of power was apparent and just didn’t feel “sexy” as a motorcycle.
I always come back to reminding new riders of two simple truths in motorcycling. Only by a bike you can afford and one that always makes you smile when you come into the garage. I’ve lusted after a number of motorcycles in my career. Some are “hot” (Honda XL 650, Speed Triple), some are functional (BMW GS, V-Strom), some bring back memories (Honda Shadow), and lastly, some are just not for me.
But at the end of the day, I’m not riding your bike, dear reader, it’s you. Know that no bike is perfect and it will have its fatal flaws. The good news is, most fatal flaws can be fixed with a little care and a little cash to make your bike perfectly yours.
Drop me a line and let me know what you wind up with!