The Real Cost of Ownership
It’s not a surprise that when gas prices spike during the warmer months, so do motorcycle sales. And while it’s true that some motorcycles do get better gas mileage than cars, and that they’re often cheaper to buy, the fact is that the cost of bike ownership goes way beyond the MSRP and price at the pump:
Motorcycle prices can vary wildly, but on average, if you’re buying a new motorcycle fit for a beginner, you’re probably spending anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000.
If you are over 25 and have a spotless driving record, you can get a pretty decent rate on insurance, possibly under $500 a year. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more involved than simply your age and driving record—the population density of where you live, the theft rate of the bike model, whether Christmas falls on a Tuesday…when it comes to insurance, it’s Thunderdome. Shop around, obviously, but just know that you’re definitely going to shell out some cash.
Equipment and Maintenance
This is where things can add up. Cars go a lot longer between service intervals, not to mention things like tire, spark plug, and belt replacement. Tires can be especially expensive on motorcycles, running between $400 and $600 for a set. And depending on how hard you ride, you may have to change at least the rear tire every 3,000 miles or so. Chains and drive belts need occasional replacing, and those can cost between $140 and $250. Maintenance intervals can run anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 miles, depending on the motorcycle, but if there’s a valve adjustment involved, expect to pay anywhere between $800 and $1,500. Add in regular oil changes, chain maintenance, and various other odds and ends and, if you ride often, you can expect to drop at least $1,000 per year just on maintenance.
At the very least you will need a helmet, which can run anywhere from $150 to $900. But if a helmet is all you think you need, you should stick to four wheels. The smart rider who values his skin will also wear a motor jacket, preferably high-abrasion grade leather, gloves, and boots at all times. And while most people ride in jeans, the truth is, if you go down at any speed above 15 mph, jeans will come off like a wet paper towel; protective pants are highly recommended. Conservatively, you should plan to initially spend at least $800 to $1,200 on new gear, which, of course, will eventually have to be replaced as items wear out.
All right, so you’re still undaunted and have decided to take the plunge. So where to start? The best thing you can do for yourself, as well as everyone else on the road, is to sign up for the Basic RiderCourse at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. It usually costs around $275-$350, depending on where you live, but it’s a lot cheaper than a trip to the hospital because you had no idea what you were doing. The course consists of 10 hours of riding instruction, usually stretched over a weekend, and both motorcycles and helmets are provided (although if bowling shoe rentals give you the creeps, then you’ll definitely want to bring your own helmet. Just make sure it’s DOT or Snell approved). The class is generally taught in a big parking lot or other open space, so you have the benefit of making mistakes without cars barreling down on you. And in a lot of states, passing the class will count as your DMV riding test, which is worth the price of admission alone.
And if you think classes are for sissies, consider that in 2011, there were 4,323 deaths on motorcycles. Then consider that there were 81,000 recorded injuries as well, and that per vehicle mile, motorcyclists were 30 times more likely to die in a crash than passenger car occupants. Long story short? Take the class.
Getting a Bike
The best buyer is an informed one—and there’s this thing called the Internet with a lot of information on it, so you really have no excuse. Generally speaking, motorcycle salesmen are pretty knowledgeable, but they aren’t shamans, so you need to have an idea of what you’re looking for. And in the off chance that you get a clueless salesman, it’s even more important to be informed. If you know what type of riding you plan on doing—track days, commuting, cruising, touring, or just tooling around town—you can usually narrow your options before even hitting the motorcycle shops.
The first question is what size bike you should buy. As someone who’s worked in a motorcycle shop, my suggestion is to aim for the middle. You can start with a 250cc bike, which will definitely be the easiest to learn on, but you’ll probably outgrow it within a few months. Which means you’ll just turn around and want to buy another bike, ending up spending far more money than you planned to. Something in the 500-600cc range, on the other hand, will stay fun for a long time, even as your skills improve. Engine size isn’t the only factor, either: A Yamaha YZF-R6 is a 600cc, but it’s essentially a race bike capable of serious acceleration and high top end speeds. This is not a bike for beginners. A 865cc Triumph Bonneville, on the other hand, is a fantastic bike to start on.
The best thing to do when picking a motorcycle is to consider the seating position—standard is the easiest for learning—as well as the weight and power output, and how you plan to use it. And remember, just because your cousin let you ride his ’92 Ninja once doesn’t mean know how to handle a modern 180-horespower liter bike. When starting out, there is absolutely no reason to buy a big bike, whether a big Harley or a powerful sports bike. The learning curve is far too steep. If you need further proof of that, just check out these NHTSA statistics:
Fatalities by engine size:
Up to 500cc: 6%
500 to 1000cc: 40%
1001 to 1500cc: 30%
Got it? Good.