I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago that shopping for a motorcycle would be harder — and more stressful — than learning how to ride. Finding the right bike became an education in itself on multiple levels.
I don’t know what I don’t know but here’s my credit card anyway?
It’s hard to shop for a bike when:
- You don’t know how often you’ll ride. Would I ride only on weekends? Every day? Monthly?
- You don’t know what kinds of rides you’ll want to do. Long-distance? Around town? Occasionally off-road?
- You can’t test ride the bike at a dealer. Not sure if this is an NYC thing, but no dealer I visited in the metro area allowed test rides.
- You don’t have a license. Although I passed the road test via a class in November, I couldn’t get a DMV appointment to take the written test until March. As such, I couldn’t legally test ride even a used bike from a private seller, let alone a legitimate dealer.
So despite being a mostly sensible and largely frugal person, I found myself uncomfortably contemplating spending thousands of dollars on a dangerous and expensive hobby I wasn’t sure I’d stick with. But my small taste of motorcycling to date had thrilled me enough that I knew I wanted to at least try it, even if there was the possibility that I’d lose interest later.
True to my nature, I tried to create some parameters to keep the process sensible and frugal. I knew I didn’t want to spend too much money in case I lost interest in six months, but I also didn’t want to spend too little and get stuck with an unsatisfying machine. I also had to factor in the additional costs of parking, insurance, gas, and most of all, all the safety gear and garb I’d also have to purchase.
It seemed like this would be at least a $10K adventure, whether it lasted six months or a lifetime. I mentally prepared myself. It had literally taken me a decade to emotionally and financially commit to spending $2,000 on a bicycle (my now beloved Brompton), so in comparison this was really fast-tracking things.
To make bike shopping a little easier, I began the search with a few general preferences that I thought would greatly narrow the choices available:
- Maximum list price: approximately $5,000
- Condition: new or used
- Not too powerful or hard to control
- Good for city riding but powerful enough for highway riding
- Built by a company with a reputation for reliability
I quickly discovered that there’s a ton of bikes both new and used that meet these criteria. The next step was narrowing down the choices by learning about the many different types of street-legal motorcycles.
If you don’t know anything about motorcycles (like me a few months ago), you probably think there’s only three types of motorcycles in the world:
- Japanese racing bikes
- Off-road motorcross bikes
Of course, the reality is much more complicated. I soon found myself immersed in motorcycle websites and YouTube videos learning about the merits of the many different kinds of bikes:
- Adventure – street-legal but off-road capable. The SUV of motorcycles. Like most SUVs, most adventure bikes are probably purchased for the rugged look first and the theoretical off-road qualities a distant second.
- Cruiser – the “Harley-Davidson” style bike, laid back and cool. Wearing leather optional but strongly suggested.
- Standard – the classic motorcycle style, upright seating. Sometimes these bikes look retro but have throughly modern mechanicals. Sometimes the mechanicals are retro too.
- Sport – racing-style bikes with full aerodynamic fairings and leaned-in riding position. The guys that dangerously weave in and out of traffic on highways at high speeds always seem to be riding these bikes.
- Naked – you can see these as either racing-style bikes without the fairings and an upright seating position or a standard bike with modern looks.
- Touring – large bikes with storage space and comfortable seating, designed for long-distance highway riding. Most popular with the 55-and-over crowd, average net worth above $5 million.
Shopping while Sitting
Over the fall and winter, I sat on a few dozen bikes at different dealerships to learn what types of bikes I’d find most comfortable. It was clear from early on that the standards, nakeds, and cruisers felt best for my 5’8″, 145 pound frame. Their upright seating position was comfortable and the low seat height on the smaller-displacement models meant I could “flat foot” when stopped, a huge confidence-booster for newbies like me.
Early on, I thought the 2021 Honda CB300R might be a good match. The price was within my budget, it looked great, the reviews were good, and I’ve been a fan of Honda since my one-and-only experience of car ownership, a new 1987 Honda CRX si. It also felt good when I sat on it, although it was a little taller than I expected.
Using the CB300R as a baseline, I looked at other naked bikes with small-displacements (under 500cc)t. These included the Yamaha MT-03, the KTM 390 Duke, the Kawasaki Z400, and the Husqvarna Svartpilen 401, among others. I also looked at cruisers and standards like the Honda Rebel, the Kawasaki Vulcan, and the Royal Enfield INT 650.
SIDE NOTE: Let’s be honest about something: motorcycling is so inherently cool that just sitting on a bike will improve your mood and will instantly raise your self-esteem by a minimum ten points. If you’re ever questioning your self-worth, I highly recommend visiting your local dealership and sitting on bikes even if you have no intention to buy. Once you see yourself on a bike (the salespeople are more than happy to snap a photo), you might find yourself seriously contemplating a purchase. If nothing else, you’ll feel better. Trust me.
After several weeks of window shopping, I found myself deep in analysis paralysis. There were just too many choices, all of which were impossible to make on sensible/frugal criteria alone. Fortunately, I met an experienced biker with some words of wisdom that helped me see things clearly. I’d come to meet many more like him during the process — bikers are a philosophical bunch, apparently:
At one dealership, the manager (he might have been the owner, actually) listened as I contemplated aloud the costs and other attributes of the various bikes I had just sat on.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m Asian like you and I can see that you’re trying to make the numbers work for a rational decision.”
I smiled underneath my mask. He had read me perfectly.
“It won’t work,” he continued. “You’re buying a motorcycle for fun. You just need to be OK with that and not try to justify it.”
Of course, he was 100% right.
For those about to ride, we salute you
In the end, after window shopping for months, I put down a deposit for a 2021 Yamaha MT-03 in February and rode it off the lot on March 6, 2021. I chose the Yamaha because of the company’s reputation, the good reviews, and because it had the lowest list price. Sensible and frugal criteria for an apologetically fun purchase.
As of today, I’ve put over 600 miles on the bike and I couldn’t be happier. I may feel differently as I evolve as a rider, but so far I love this motorcycle. It’s fun, fast, and easy to ride — everything I wanted in my first bike.
Could I have been happy with another bike? Now that I’ve ridden a little bit, I can say absolutely.
There’s a ton of great choices out there at every budget level, but there’s no perfect choice — at any price.
If you’re a beginner like me, by all means have fun shopping but know that at some point you gotta stop shopping and start riding.
Whatever bike you do that on is the right bike.