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Buying your first bike

By Paul Peczon

The first thing you need to know about your first bike is that you're doomed to drop it, most likely in a parking lot or maybe at a stoplight. It is inevitable, since your legs fall asleep, the streets are dirty, and bikes get very heavy once they've leaned over more than 15 degrees. The second thing to realize is that an attractive member of the opposite sex will always witness this tragic event, and that you will be humiliated and traumatized. Maybe you'll have a really hard time picking it up, which leads to the corollary that you shouldn't buy a bike you can't pick up. That aside, it suddenly becomes clear that one's first bike should be used, since you'll dent it anyway.

The most important consideration is how much power your first bike will have. Too much and you'll end up in the hospital, and too little and you'll hate it right away once Deb from Chi Omega out drags you at a light in her Cabriolet. I'm a big believer in the 450-600 range, depending of course on the bike. This is adequate power, usually, to get you out of trouble. A motorcycle's only line of defense is evasion, more frequently achieved through throttle than through braking. My mother doesn't believe it either, but its true.

The second consideration is riding style, which runs the range from full crouch, kiss-the-gas-tank-see-you-at-the-finish-line Ninja type stance to the full on lean back EZ rider Sunset cruiser. There are standards (ride normal), on/off road bikes, touring (huge), and the numerous hyphenates which fill the numerous niches in between. This is a major consideration for most beginners, and I usually recommend an old standard. Standards are less sensitive than sportbikes, more responsive than cruisers, and generally cheaper since Japan sold a lot of them back in the golden years of the bike market. The attached spreadsheet details the predominant model names with their category. A lot of the classifications are my personal judgment, and a lot of the models changed over the years from one type to the other.

When you check the want ads, you'll want to check your preferred models, and evaluate the prices, since non-professionals offer everything from giveaways to rip-offs. The key to getting a good feel is to scan the papers, hopefully with someone who can tell you the difference. A good trick I personally invented is the "cc multiplier." The multiplier runs pretty much from 1 to 8. A one year old GSX750R in great shape with some goodies will be six times the 750 cc displacement, or easily $4500. Old GPZ's have like a 1-2 multiplier. Five year old Ninjas are maybe a 3. Old junkers rarely drop below a 1. I don't know if I explained it well, but it works for me.

One thing to watch out for is the bike that has been in storage for a long time. When a bike sits around without running for a year or more a lot of very nasty things happen to it. The battery dries up and becomes a little piece of toxic waste to call your own. The tires and gaskets dry up and become brittle. Little stuff that would ordinarily get noticed as rattles or leaks decays undetected. All the gas in the tank slowly drips into the carburetor, where it dries up and coats everything with varnish. The jets clog up, and yes, it'll cost you big bucks at the shop. These are usually advertised as "low mileage, just needs new battery."

You don't want a bike that is badly damaged. A couple of dings, maybe a new tire or a tune-up, OK. Look for bikes that seem to have been well cared for. Check out the previous owner to see if he (or she) seems meticulous. Bikes can be ridden hard, as long as they are well maintained, and they'll be fine. Look out for the ones that need all the minor consumables (like tires, brakes, chain, sprockets, etc.) replaced. That stuff adds up and when it all happens at once, most people who know what's what will try to unload the offending item. Frame damage, a poorly repaired crash or overall neglect, do NOT get involved, no matter how cheap it seems, unless you're a great mechanic and have a good line on cheap parts. And if this is the case, tell me about that great parts connection.

All the usual stuff about buying a used car apply as well. The seller should have a good reason for selling it. This should be asked while looking right into his eyes. You can look at bikes by yourself, but when you close the deal you should have an expert with you to really check it out and ride it. Don't buy something that an experienced friend hasn't taken around the block. Dealer used bikes are not as cheap as bikes off the street, but they are generally in cherry condition. Watch out for the repaired junkers with ³Salvage² stamped on the title (they can be awesome deals, but not always). Junkers always die when you're in a bad part of town late at night when the cannibals come out.

It's common knowledge that bikes actually last a lot longer than cars, given proper maintenance, and that all new bikes have to fight the huge used market for customers. The misnomer that Japanese bikes are disposable arose during the seventies when price and engineering wars made bikes significantly cheaper and better every few months. Honda sold more CB 350's in 1973 than the entire Honda motorcycle output for 1990. Old CB's are like the Volkswagen Beetle of the bike world. So, if you're willing to ride a possibly unstylish old standard for awhile, you'll spend as much on it as you sell it for, even after you dump it in the parking lot at Circle K. By Paul Peczon

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Write to me! mildly updated Dec 09.


Created by Paul Peczon