Every one of these bikes has one or two cylinders. Don't even think of getting a four cylinder bike.
Honda Rebel 250
Honda Rebel 450
Honda Shadow VLX
Kawasaki Eliminator 125
Kawasaki Vulcan 500
Suzuki Boulevard S40
Yamaha Virago 250
Yamaha VStar Custom 650
Honda Nighthawk 250
Kawasaki Ninja 250
Kawasaki Ninja 500
Kawasaki Ninja 650
Suzuki VStrom 650
BMW F650 GS
Honda XL250, XL350
Kawasaki KLX 250
Kawasaki KLR 650
Suzuki DR 200
Suzuki DR Z400
Suzuki DR 650
Yamaha XT 225
Any Harley big twin, any British, Japanese or German bike 850ccs or over, any Ducati. These bikes are heavy, powerful, and expensive to fix when you drop them. And you will drop them.
Honda CBR anything; Kawasaki Ninja ZX anything; Suzuki GSXR anything; Yamaha YZF or FZ anything. Any Japanese bike with an in-line 4 cylinder engine of 600ccs or more. These bikes will kill you. Even the cute little 600s. These are the most popular bikes made, but try to find one used: most of them have total loss crashes in the first year. Usually the engine can be salvaged and used in a competition go-kart. Call your insurance agent and ask for a quote on comprehensive coverage. Those crash pictures that circulate on the Internet are all on one of these bikes.
Yamaha YZF R1
A few of these bikes are pictured above. Every one of these bikes will go at least 155 mph. Two of them, with very minor modifications, will go over 200 mph. If you have better reaction times and athletic ability than Ben Roethlisberger (QB for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Broken jaw, three lost teeth, nearly bled to death) and Kellin Winslow (TE for the Cleveland Browns. Three broken ribs, collar bone, damaged knee, lost a year of football), perhaps it will be different for you.
A recent report by an insurance funded organization says that the death rates on four-cylinder race replicas are four times higher than other bikes. They're also about seven times more likely to get stolen.Report.
Beginners should wear protective gear, in my opinion. This means an armored jacket, gloves, and a good helmet, minimum. Ear plugs are highly recommended. You might also consider boots. The menu at the left has links to long descriptions of this type of gear under the heading "Riding," following is a short summary. All motorcycle dealerships sell this stuff. BMW and Harley dealers have upscale stuff for more money. At your local grocery store you can get a copy of Motorcyclist or Cycle World magazine, these are full of ads from mail order dealers with discounts. Also check EBay, sometimes there are really quite good deals there. I recently (4/10) bought $575 carbon fiber helmets for my son and myself, $450 on sale at the local dealer, $200 each on EBay.
Your helmet should be new, and have a Snell sticker. Old helmets are not guaranteed to be safe. Helmets without Snell stickers are not guaranteed to be safe. All helmets with a Snell sticker offer equal protection, more expensive helmets don't protect better. I like the Korean helmets, HJC and KBC, I think they're an excellent helmet at a reasonable price. You need to find out your helmet size by trying on a few. The helmet should be quite snug - like new shoes, it will form a bit to fit your head in a week or two. Expect to pay $80 to $120 for a good new Snell approved full face helmet. You can easily pay more, but there's no point as far as safety goes. Keep your helmet with you at all times, if you leave it lay around it will get stolen.
Jackets come summer and winter. You can get a good armored jacket on EBay or at NewEnough.com, about $100 for a summer jacket, about $150-$300 for a winter jacket. A good summer jacket is Joe Rocket. Other brands are fine too. Summer jackets are perforated so they don't hold air or heat, just armor. Winter jackets are waterproof and have thick liners. There are lots of good brands, go to a couple dealers and try stuff on until you find one you like. Then check EBay and the internet for pricing.
Summer gloves should cost $10-$25. Winter gloves will be a bit more, be sure they're waterproof. I recommend gauntlets, that is winter gloves should cover your wrists and your hands both.
For most people, the best ear plugs are the foam 32dB plugs available at any drug store, or in bulk on the internet. I buy these 200 pair at a time and leave the box next to the garage door. My boys and I take a new pair every few days.
If you want boots for the street, you can buy motorcycle boots for $100 to $200 at NewEnough.com. Or get Response Gear Tactical Footwear steel-toed half boots, about $60 at Big-5 sporting goods, about $25 if you get them on sale.
For dirt riding you must have boots. I recommend O'Neal Element boots, about $80 - $110 on-line.
Motorcycles need their oil changed about every 2000 miles for 200s and 250s, about every 5000 miles for larger engines. They need synthetic oil. Get Mobil-1 Turbo Diesel 5w-40 oil at Walmart, about $23 / gallon, or Shell Rotella Synthetic 5w-40, about $20 per gallon. They need tires and chains about every 10,000 miles. You will have to learn to do basic bike maintenance, like changing oil and adjusting controls, and removing wheels to take them in for a tire change, or you will pay exorbitant shop rates at the dealer.
You can skip this section if you prefer to simply believe that four cylinder engines are bad choices for beginners.
Engines have pistons that move up and down in cylinders. The gasoline and air burn in the cylinder, and this is what makes power. The bigger the pistons, the more air and gasoline they can burn at a time, so generally bigger engines make more power. The number on most motorcycles like 200, 600, 1300, tells you how many cubic centimeters is available in the cylinders and therefore gives you a very rough idea of how much power the engine makes. A 1400cc engine is 1.4 liters, which is about the same size engine some very small cars have. However, the 1.4 liter car engine makes about 75 horsepower; the 1.4 liter motorcycle engine makes perhaps as much as 200 horsepower. And the motorcycle weighs ¼ as much.
There is a limit to how fast a piston can move - any faster, and the piston more or less melts due to friction with the cylinder wall. The faster the piston moves, the more often it can burn gasoline and the more power it can make. So, for any given engine size, an engine with more cylinders will have smaller pistons that can move at higher RPM. For example, a Harley Big Twin has about 1600ccs and two cylinders. The Harley has a top engine speed of about 6,000 RPM, revolutions per minute. The Harley engine makes about 75 horse power. A Kawasaki ZZR 1400 has a slightly smaller engine than the Harley, but it has four cylinders. The Kawasaki has a top engine speed of 11,000 RPM, nearly twice as fast as the Harley. The ZZR 1400 makes about 190 horse power, a bit more than twice as much as the Harley. The Harley has a top speed of about 115 mph. The Kawasaki is electronically speed limited to 184mph; with very little trouble and expense you can remove the limiter and get this bike to over 200mph.
For a given engine size, more cylinders means the engine can spin faster and make more horse power. More cylinders also means more moving parts, so the engine is more expensive to manufacture. Engineers are very aware of this and so they only design four cylinder engines when they want to make a lot of horsepower.
A very popular engine size for a Japanese motorcycle is 600ccs. A motorcycle with a single cylinder 600cc engine, for example the Kawasaki KLR 650, has a maximum engine speed of about 7500 RPM and makes about 40 horsepower. The Kawasaki Ninja 650 has two cylinders and a maximum engine speed of about 11,000 RPM and makes about 70 horsepower. The Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R has four cylinders and a maximum engine speed of 15,500 RPM, and makes about 103 horsepower. The KLR, a single cylinder bike, has a top speed of about 100 mph. The Ninja 650 has a top speed of about 120 mph. The ZX-6R has a top speed of about 160 mph. The very fastest motorcycles made right now are the 800cc MotoGP racing bikes. These motorcycles produce about 220 horsepower and have a top speed of about 220mph. So now I hope you can see why I state most emphatically that beginners should stay away from four cylinder motorcycles.
As we have seen, different engines of the same size can make very different amounts of horsepower. In spite of this, I'll tell you about how much power to expect from a given engine size. A 125cc bike makes about 10 horsepower, and will have a top speed of about 55mph. This bike cannot legally travel on most freeways. A 200cc bike makes roughly 18 horsepower and has a top speed of perhaps 72mph. This bike is also typically illegal to ride on freeways, but it can (barely) keep up. A 500cc single cylinder bike makes about 40 horsepower and has a top speed of nearly 100 mph. A 600cc single cylinder bike makes almost 50 horsepower and can go almost 110mph. A 650cc two cylinder bike makes roughly 70 horsepower, and can go about 120mph.
These days, Americans are accustomed to great excess. I'm frequently asked if a 650cc bike can actually keep up on the freeway or safely travel moderate distances. In the 1960s, the British 600cc twin cylinder motorcycles were the largest fastest things made, and people considered them expert bikes. Today this same bike would make my beginner list - this is perhaps an indictment of my judgement, but that's how things are today. When Robert Persig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) put his son on the back of his motorcycle and rode from Minnesota to San Francisco, he was riding a Honda 305cc two cylinder motorcycle, a bike with performance comparable to a 500cc single and far inferior to any of the 650 twin cylinder bikes listed above.