Six things to know before buying your first motorbike

Line of motorbikes all standing up next to each other.

Ian Munro

Posted October 30, 2017

Just got your motorcycle licence? Here are six tips for chosing your first bike.

An unintended advantage of barring novice motorcyclists from riding the most powerful machines is that it at least narrows the decisions to be made in choosing your first bike. But not that much, since the Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme (LAMS) lists more than 200 individual motorbikes, including mid-range bikes up to 660cc. Admittedly, that list includes vintage makes unlikely to have much novice appeal, but it also embraces contemporary models from BMW, Ducati and Harley-Davidson as well as the big four Japanese makers and other marques.

Manufacturers of renowned performance bikes, e.g. Ducati, and of big cruisers and tourers such as Harley and BMW, have extended their offerings into the learner market is a testimony to the growth of this sector.

LAMS bikes are determined by power-to-weight (and not just capacity)

Have a close look at the VicRoads LAMS register of motorcycles and scooters for new riders (although the list is not exhaustive and it gets updated, so check back).

 Restricting novices to machines of less than 260cc engine capacity some 30-odd years ago seemed to inspire a small bike ‘arms race’ among manufacturers competing to wring ever-increasing performance from their lightweight machines. Instead, learner-approved bikes now are assessed by their power-to-weight ratio, not simply engine capacity, and a handful of 250cc machines are denied LAMS accreditation.

Since October 2014, new motorcycle licence holders are restricted to riding only LAMS models for three years, so the choice is one you might have to live with.

The bike needs to physically fit your size

Rob Salvatore, chair of the Victorian Motorcycle Council, says the first step in choosing a bike is knowing what sort of riding you intend doing and how that corresponds with different models: cruisers, tourers, sports and commuters.

“Whether it’s a cruiser or a sports bike, it has to fit your physical size and your intended style of riding, and obviously, your budget,” Rob says.

“My advice is set a budget first and see if you can afford the bike that suits the sort of riding you want to do. That means a budget for that bike and a minimum set of protective gear. I certainly encourage all the people I mentor to always ride with protective gear, but not to rely on it. It’s a passive form of protection.”

Beware of used bikes without a roadworthy

Lucas Gordon, owner of Sixty Degrees Motorcycles in eastern Melbourne, says the most common mistake novices make is buying second-hand bikes without roadworthy certificates. Usually, they have taken at face value the seller’s claims that “it just needs a set of tyres for a roadworthy” or somesuch... to their later cost.

Budget at least $1000 for riding gear

Echoing Rob Salvatore’s concerns, Lucas says novice riders err in spending their entire budget on the bike, leaving nothing for riding gear.

Initially, it is best to allow $1000 for protective gear including a quality helmet, textile riding jacket, kevlar jeans, boots and leather gloves.

“We encourage them to think about what riding they are planning on doing, whether it’s weekend fun, daily commuting or a bit of both. If they want to do long highway cruising, then a sports bike is not the answer,” says Lucas.

There are many new bikes for new riders

Sixty Degrees repairs and maintains bikes but does not sell them, so Lucas has no vested interest when he suggests Japanese bikes – renowned as economical and reliable – are a good place to start looking.

That takes in a lot of machines such as Honda’s CB series of 250cc and 400cc bikes, Suzuki’s GS 500 and the smaller-capacity units of Kawasaki’s Ninja series.

“There’s no reason (novices) shouldn’t buy a new bike,” he says. “They are very cheap for what they are. You can still buy a very good-quality learner bike for $5000 or $6000. People who are older tend to take their time. They might be looking for something for weekend cruising, like the Yamaha 650.”

Cruisers, with their lower seat height, can also be an answer for riders of shorter stature. “One of the biggest issues for women and shorter people is being on their toes a lot,” Lucas says. “Cruisers like the (Yamaha) Virago 250 are an answer there.”

It's OK to change your mind

Rob Salvatore recalls mentoring a new rider who quickly switched from a budget 250cc bike to a mid-range 600cc. With the greater weight of the larger bike came the impression at least of better stability and braking, because something every rider has to decide for themselves is whether their object of desire has the right “feel” for them.

“The other question for young riders is that bikes are now offering ABS (anti-lock braking systems) as an optional extra for $500 or $1000,” Rob says.

“Fundamentally, I think riders should learn to ride and brake a motorcycle to a high skill level. They should never rely on the tricks or the technology. But a day spent testing a BMW ABS bike left me thinking that the most sophisticated modern ABS systems are really quite good.”