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Motorcycle 411

How to pick the right bike

Mar. 29, 2009 - 01:41PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 29, 2009 - 01:41PM  |  
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Buying the right motorcycle can be a challenge. Whether it's looks, operating characteristics or "ergos" (how the bike physically fits your specific body type), buying a bike is more like buying a custom-tailored suit you plan to wear often and pssibly for hours at a stretch. Buy the wrong "size" and you'll be as unhappy as the guy who took home an off-the-rack tux.

All about ergos

If you can't comfortably ride the bike, it's not just uncomfortable it's unsafe. If your feet barely reach the ground, it's likely you'll drop the thing one day. The bike also could be too heavy for you, making turning safely an issue. The bottom line is you want a bike that doesn't beat you up and one that fits your body.

How do you know?

You need full contact to be able to safely stabilize the bike when it's not moving and also to "reverse" it. Most bikes (excepting the Honda Goldwing) have Fred Flintstone back-up mechanisms: You use your feet. That means you need leverage, and tippy-toes won't cut it.

Next thing to check is how the controls feel and whether they all fall to hand (and foot) readily and comfortably. It's no good if you find out on the road. If the handlebar is too low, bar risers might fix it, but you need to be sure before you take the bike home.

If that all checks out, you're ready for a test ride. Some stores balk at test rides. If the store you're dealing with does, find another store. No serious buyer should be expected to buy a bike he hasn't done more than sit on. (Two caveats here: You should be a serious buyer looking to buy, not just try, and you should expect the salesman to ask to see your motorcycle endorsement and proof of insurance. Both are reasonable requests.)

Operating characteristics

Bikes can vary wildly in their power output/delivery, suspension/handling and ride quality and numerous other ways, too. For example, some bikes have weak low-end torque and high-RPM power; some have the reverse. Bikes can weigh as little as 250 pounds and as much as 900 pounds "fully dressed." Big, heavy cruising and touring bikes can be a handful in city stop-and-go traffic. Sport bikes will handle superbly but may be too sharp or aggressive-feeling for some riders.

The main things you want to look for:

Is it too heavy? Try cutting a low-speed U-turn at an intersection to see how the bike does.

Is the power/power delivery too much, not enough or just right? Sport bikes with 160 horsepower and 12,000-RPM power bands are not for everyone. Get the bike and the engine that fits both your skill and comfort level. Also, check for vibration (especially through the grips/handlebars; too much can numb your hands), and noise (too loud and your neighbors will despise you) and wind.

Lastly, there's looks

Most of us naturally gravitate toward one type or class of bike, whether it's sport bikes, standards, nakeds, cruisers, touring bikes or dual sports. The heart wants what it wants. But most of these bikes are highly specialized they're designed to do one or two things well but aren't so good at other things.

So, while looks are definitely important, a bike should be examined the way you might size up a potential spouse: Appearances do matter, but substance is the key to a long and happy partnership.

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of the book "Automotive Atrocities." He drives a Carousel Red 1976 Pontiac Trans Am with a street/strip 455 V8 under the hood.

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