Choosing a Motorcycle

There is no one bike for everyone, because everyone wants different things. Motorcycles can be designed for:

  • Speed (sports bike)
  • Rough terrain (off road bike)
  • Touring comfort (touring bike)
  • Ease of use (scooter)
  • Appearances (chopper)
  • Or any combination of the above.

There are many reasons to pick a bike other than safety, but do you want a high performance death trap? No-one looks cool in a hospital bed. You decide, but here are some things to consider if safety is a factor:

  1. Size and Power: Power to weight ratio
  2. Width: Keep it narrow, so you dont "clip and flip".
  3. Front light: Powerful, good high beam, to be seen.
  4. Rear light: Wide big red light, extra bright braking light
  5. Indicators: Big, good flash, stick well out, bendy
  6. Horn: As loud as you can get.
  7. Mirrors: Big enough, stick out, both sides.
  8. Brakes/Suspension: Get the best system you can.
  9. Seat: Comfy, wide
  10. Battery: Holds a big charge
  11. Foot pegs: Large enough to stand up on
  12. Tires: All weather

Size and Power

Motorcycles can be:

  • Small (150cc or less)
  • Medium (up to ~400cc)
  • Large (is 500 – 900 cc), and
  • Very large (1,000+cc).
Can you pick the bike up if it drops

A factor is choosing bike size is your size. How big are you? Can you pick the bike up if it drops? There are many reasons to drop a bike, mostly harmless, but if you cant pick it up, that’s a problem. Smaller people are less for the bike to carry, so may not need as much size for the same performance.

Heavier motorcycles tend to be safer

Heavier motorcycles tend to be safer as they absorb more in a crash, and have better brakes, suspension and lights. Also, they avoid the small bike "insecurity complex", so you ride them more sedately. Do people on little motorcycles feel they have to go faster to prove themselves ? I dont know - but sometimes it seems that way. However bigger bikes are also more powerful, which can mean more powerful crashes.

Put a powerful engine on a lightweight bike and you get a death trap

Most important is the power-to-weight ratio (PWR). A big bike with a weak engine has a low PWR, not much power and a lot of weight. It is "sluggish", and doing anything takes a while. This can make it safer, especially for beginners. A high PWR is a light or small bike with a powerful engine - now the slightest accelerator touch gives an immediate response. Such "racing" bikes are dangerous for beginners, who dont have the necessary control. There is nothing wrong with a powerful engine on a powerful frame with powerful brakes. However put a powerful engine on a lightweight bike, and you get a death trap.

Width

The fatter the bike, the less maneuverable it is

A big bike need not be “fat”. The fatter the bike, the less maneuverable it is, and so the more unsafe it is. It doesn’t take much to tip a bike, as only balance keeps you up. So you don’t want things sticking out the side that can catch and drag you down. This is why most indicators are bendable.

In an emergency, you may have to swerve to avoid the car or truck ahead. A fat bike cant do this so well. If the cars ahead stop suddenly, a narrow bike can swerve into a tight gap between two cars. In a sudden swerve, inches can be the difference between coming off or slipping by. For safety, choose a narrow bike over a fat one, as narrower bikes are more maneuverable.

Wheels

A motorcycle’s stability comes mainly from its wheel’s rotation. The bigger the wheels, the more stability they create when moving. Strangely, scooters with little wheels are less stable (though they look more stable). If you ride a scooter, be careful of the gravel on the edge of the road, as they tip easily. However scooters are also closer to the ground, and generally don’t go as fast, so riders who fall off often just get back up. Scooters are designed to be easy to ride rather than safe, as you just step through them, and they have an automatic clutch.

Height

Every bike has a center of gravity (COG) and a ground clearance. A high COG makes the bike easier to tip. However if a bike is too low, it has poor ground clearance. If you have to ride over a ditch or a kerb, it can snag and bring the bike down. You will hear a "clunk" as the bike scapes the ground, and the jolt can thow you off balance. Off road bikes have a high COG and clearance to avoid this. Touring bikes have a low COG, as it is assumed they will always be on flat highways. For safety choose a lower COG bike which also has good ground clearance.

Balance

"Easy rider" bikes look cool, but are unstable

The bike COG should be mid-way between the front and back wheels, to give both wheels traction. Then when you apply both brakes, both wheels have stopping power. When you sit on the bike, your center of gravity should sit over the bike's COG. If you sit too far back, as in “easy-rider” type bikes, the rear wheel has traction but the front wheel is “light”. It can lift when accelerating, which is not good. When cornering, handling is bad, because you need front wheel traction to guide the bike round the corner. "Easy rider" bikes look cool, but are unstable.

Conversely if you sit too far forward, as in badly designed sports bikes, a sudden stop can lift up the back and put you over the handlebars, which is also not good. The ideal is to balance the weight, so you and the bike feel as one, making the combination as stable as possible.

Main Lights

Get a powerful headlight, then they will see you coming

Your lights make you visible, so others see you and don’t crash into you. So look for big, bright lights. Tiny lights make you hard to see. When drivers hit motor-cycle riders, the most common comment is: “I didn’t see him ”. So get a powerful headlight, then they will see you coming.

Check the high beam throws a good extra surge of light that gets attention. The rear light is even more important than the front light, so people don’t hit you from behind. Check the rear light is big, bright, and red, not just a designer’s afterthought. When you touch the brakes, it should glow extra bright.

Indicators

Indicators should be large and noticeable

Your indicators tell others you are turning. Some bikes have tiny dot indicators on tiny stalks, that faintly flicker when you try them. These bikes are clearly not designed with safety in mind. I would never choose to ride such a bike. Indicators should be large and noticeable, because it is very important that other road users know when you are turning. They should stick well out from the side of the bike, and be visible. Check they are bendy not rigid, so if swiped, they don’t pull the bike down.

Horn

Beware big bikes with baby horns

Your horn is a way tell other drivers “I am here!”. It should be as loud as possible. When a car starts to move into your lane as you pass it, a horn is the best and quickest response. Horns are also useful for warning wandering pedestrians and wavering bicyclists. A tiny horn on a big bike is a sign the designers dont care about safety. What other corners have they cut? Beware big bikes with baby horns.

Brakes and suspension

A good braking system stops you in a controlled way

Brakes and suspension work together to stop you in an emergency. Good front and back disc brakes give stopping power, but good suspension absorbs the shock of stopping. Without suspension, the sudden shock of stopping could throw you off the motorcycle. If you hit a sudden bump, or stop suddenly, you will find out if the bike has good suspension. Rocking the bike can give you a feel for its suspension, but to really evaluate brakes and suspension, read the bike specs. A good braking system stops you in a controlled way.

Battery

Not all batteries are borne equal

When you buy a bike, you don’t know how good the battery is. Often the factory battery is not the best, for cost reasons. I usually replace it with the best battery I can get. Why? Not all batteries are borne equal. Some hold charge better than others. Iif your battery fails the bike wont start. This usually happens at the worst possible time (like at traffic lights). You need a good battery if you:

  • Ride lots of start-stop short hops
  • Spend time idling in a toll lines (with your headlight on)
  • Have a big bike (starting a big bike takes a lot of power)
  • Have an older bike that needs two or three tries to start

If you press the ignition and the engine slowly turns then dies, you need to buy a better battery.

Seat

You realize how important the seat is when you go on a long trip

The seat supports your backside, which supports your body, which controls the bike. You realize how important the seat is when you go on a long trip. Body discomforts (like an itch, ache or soreness) are the number one distraction causing accidents.

Comfort helps safety, and a good seat avoids discomfort. Its shape should fit your shape. A tiny or narrow seat won’t do (unless you have a tiny or narrow backside). Some seats are custom shaped, which can be nice, but they hold you in a fixed position. I prefer a flat seat, so I can move backwards and forwards to adjust my riding position. This is important if you are a different size from normal, which I am.

Foot pegs

Foot pegs keep your feet from hitting the ground and touching the hot exhausts, so make sure they are not too small. Sometimes you want to stand up on a bike, so the foot pegs must give a solid platform to stand. Make sure the foot pedal is "full-foot", not a little half-wide knob, that your foot can easily slip off.

Mirrors

Mirrors help you see all around, like an extra pair of eyes

Your mirrors must be big enough, and be on both sides. They must extend out far enough to give a clear view behind. You have to sit on the bike to check this, as it depends on your size. If your arm blocks half the mirror, that’s still ok, as you can pull your arm in when you view the rear mirror. Mirrors help you see all around, like an extra pair of eyes.

Getting a better set of mirrors doesn’t cost much, and they are easy to fit. When buying a bike, ask the dealer for better mirrors for safety reasons, and it will be thrown in for free.

Fairings and windscreens

Cross-winds can turn a fairing or wind-screen into a sail

Fairings and windscreens affect wind flow over the bike. They can reduce wind drag, making the bike faster, and the ride more comfortable. If you choose a windscreen, keep it small, as high winds can blow a bike around. This is not a problem when riding into the wind, as windscreens are aerodynamic to front winds. However when crossing a river bridge cross-winds can come from the side. A sudden wind side gust can turn a fairing or wind-screen into a sail, that sweeps you off-course. If you encounter strong wind gusts, choose a bike without fairings or screen, so any side gusts just go through the bike.

Tires

There are many tires, but two main types:

  • Fine weather tires are hard to minimize friction give better speed.
  • Wet weather tires have more friction to give better stopping power in slippery or wet conditions.

A wet weather tire will “grip” the road when a fine weather tire will slip. Wet weather tires have more friction so grip better, but for the same reason are slower, and wear out quicker. Fine weather tires have less friction so go faster, but equally slip more in wet weather. Until we get “smart tires” that change with the weather, the friction no-friction conflict, between speed and stopping power, remains. To go really fast, ride hard high-speed tires. To be safe, always ride tires with some wet weather capability.

Get the best tires you can afford - on a bike, everything rides on them

So called all-weather tires give good fine weather performance, but also work in the wet. They can be expensive, but are worth it. Get the best tires you can afford, because on a bike, everything is riding on them. Since you only have two tires, make them good ones. When you buy a bike, have a mechanic check the tires are not just fine weather tires. If they are, change them!