What Size Motorcycle Do I Need?


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Last Updated: 10th September 2021

One of the first questions that comes up when you get into motorcycling is what size bike do I need?

Well, here I am with an article that will cover all the key things you need to think about before pulling the trigger on your new set of two wheels.

Let’s get started.

 

Legalities

Let’s get the somewhat boring part out of the way, and before we start, yes, the UK licensing system for motorcycles is a bit of a complicated mess.

Have a look in-depth at the up-to-date UK licensing laws for motorcycles and mopeds here.

In short, if you are over the age of 24, you can legally ride any size motorcycle, providing you complete your full-motorcycle test to obtain your full license.

Aged 19-21, get your A2 license, and you can ride bikes restricted to a power output of less than 35kW (47bhp). If you are 17-18, you are restricted to 125cc and at 16, you can only ride a 50cc moped.

So you have got to grips with which license you have and you’re legally ready to ride, but now what?

What do you want out of your bike? What are you ready for? What do you need it to do?

These are the questions you should circle back to in each of the next sections, as they will help you narrow down your options.

Let’s face it, there are hundreds of amazing bikes out there, and I have not yet met a biker who is happy with just one motorcycle; narrowing it down can be pretty hard.

However, these questions applied across the next few sections will help keep you practical.

The good news is when it comes to bikes, being practical never means boring!

I was like a child at Christmas when Suzuki announced the return of the Hayabusa, but the reality is I can’t trust myself with that amount of power. Ergonomically I think my spine would finally give up and desert me.

 

Engine Size

Engine size is a controversial topic, and it really shouldn’t be.

It does not matter what your mate says or the guy on YouTube; you do not always need the biggest CC engine available.

If you read a lot of motorcycle reviews, you will often find the mid-weight bike in the line-up is much more fun to ride than the flagship headliner because the power is more usable in real-world conditions.

For example, take the Ducati Panigale V4 with 214 horsepower. Can anyone tell me how and where you will tap into that much power on the street?

Whereas the Ducati 950 with 110 horsepower is much more usable and accessible.

Let’s look at various motorcycles across the different categories with pros and cons for each engine size.

 

Lightweight Motorcycles 125cc – 500cc

British Seven 125

This is where I thrive and what I love the most.

I also strongly believe that regardless of the license held, all riders should spend some time riding a lightweight bike as it is the best way to hone their riding skills.

Even 125cc bikes are fully-fledged motorcycles; if you are out on two wheels, you are a biker, no matter what anyone says.

Pros:

  • Smaller engine naturally equals a lighter-weight bike overall. This makes them easier to handle at slow speeds, manoeuvre around the drive etc.
  • Bikes in this range have the power to get you where you want to be, and the power is controllable, easy to manage, most suitable for newer riders.
  • Chasing the red line on a small capacity bike is so much fun.
  • Small bikes can do big tours – I’ve been there, done that and the slower pace means you get to enjoy the surroundings more rather than just rushing through.
  • Lightweight bikes tend to be cheaper.
  • Lightweight motorcycles force you to work through the gears and are pretty unforgiving, so spending time mastering the basics of riding will put you in good stead for when/if you want to move up to a bigger capacity bike.
  • With BMW, Royal Enfield, Kawasaki, Honda, among others, already producing bikes with 300cc engines and continuing to do so year after year, there is a healthy market for them. Harley Davidson and Triumph are rumoured to join the small capacity ship, which suggests small bikes are on the takeover, and I am all for it.

Cons:

  • Some taller/heavier riders may struggle to find a lightweight motorcycle that fits them right. Smaller engine capacity does mean manufacturers tend to produce smaller machines overall. Although, if this is a problem, the BMW G310GS might be worth looking at.
  • Smaller engines do mean your rides will be slower. Bikes in this category may struggle with lots of motorway miles and not feel the safest in those situations. This is where you need to question what you will be using your bike for. These bikes come alive on the back roads with the occasional dual carriageway/motorway as a means to an end.
  • Not always the best bikes suited for riding with a passenger regularly. The extra weight puts a strain on the engine and can slow things down considerably.

Options to consider

 

Middleweight Motorcycles 500cc – 1000cc

Middleweight motorcycles are booming right now, with bikes like the recently discontinued Harley Davidson Sportster dominating V-twin circles.

Scramblers in the mid-range like the Ducati Icon Scrambler are selling like hotcakes, and since the invention of modern-day sports bikes in the early 80s, the range of 600cc machines continue to flourish.

Middleweight machines are perfect for those who want a little more power and are prepared to take on the extra weight that comes with a bigger engine.

Pros:

  • Plenty of usable power for every situation.
  • Many mid-range machines are affordable versions of bigger options in manufacturers line-ups, so are far more accessible financially.
  • Middleweight sport bikes are great options if you want to start track days as the power is there to get your heart racing, but you don’t have to fear the bikes capabilities if you grab too much throttle like on bigger bikes.
  • Many bikes in the middleweight category can be restricted for those who hold an A2 license, so you can get your hands on a truly big bike to get used to the weight before the power restrictions are lifted on completion of the full test. This extra time riding a heavy bike is a valuable experience before more power is unleashed.
  • Scramblers and Adventure style bikes in this category are lighter than their bigger siblings, so if you take your bikes off-road, this is particularly beneficial if you are likely to drop the bike in the mud or need to ride through it.

Cons:

  • The price difference between middleweight and heavyweight bikes can be small, leading riders to opt for a bigger bike when perhaps they aren’t quite ready.
  • Some bikes, despite having smaller capacity engines, can still feel very heavy. For example, while marketed as an entry-level bike, the Harley Sportster still weighs in at over 250kg. That is a lot of weight to move around at slow speed, especially if you are new to riding.

 

Heavyweight Motorcycles 1000cc +

Once you are looking at bikes with 1000cc plus engines, you are looking at the creme de la creme of all things two wheels.

The two key things to note:

  1. They are going to be heavy machines.
  2. They are going to be powerful machines.

Once you have acknowledged this, accepted it, and are ready for it, then your world of bikes opens up.

Pros:

  • Almost an unlimited amount of power for use in real-riding conditions. No matter your situation, you will have enough oomph to get you where you want to go. Crunching miles on the German Autobahns? No problem, the Indian Challengers 1769cc will cruise all day long. Off-roading in Scottish mountains? Your GS1250 will have rolling through the mud and rain as long as you can stand it.
  • Manufacturers tend to use the most premium parts on their heavyweight machines; you should notice a step up in quality and detail at this point in the line-up.
  • They are top dogs on the road and demand respect. Most times, somebody looks at a Harley Electra Glide or Kawasaki H2 and respects the engineering behind the beasts even if the style of bike wasn’t to their taste.
  • Once you have ridden a 1000cc plus machine, you can always work your back way down in engine size if you want; the skills obtained at riding a big capacity bike will only improve your riding on smaller bikes.
  • Big engines are built for big trips; these are the kind of engines you want if you plan on doing a lot of long-distance touring.

Cons:

  • Expensive. You get what you pay for, and these top of the line bikes just don’t come cheap.
  • Maintenance is more expensive, usually because premium parts have been used more often than on smaller capacity bikes.
  • Heavy. Big engines make for heavy bikes.
  • Powerful. Lots of power on tap can lead to riders getting themselves in trouble if not reserved and sensible when it comes to riding.

 

Riders Height, Weight, and Ergonomics

Of course, engine size isn’t the only thing you need to consider.

Something really important to think about is your height and weight.

There are so many types of motorcycles that there will be options for riders of any height and weight.

The great news is that manufacturers often offer different seats and handlebars that will suit different sized riders.

Where this isn’t feasible, there is usually an aftermarket supplier that will sort things out for you.

The most important thing to do is go and sit on many motorcycles and test riding them where you can.

If you pick an appropriately sized bike for your height and weight, then you will be comfortable. Being comfortable instils confidence, and you can put all your focus on riding and having fun.

I encourage you to take into consideration these points when sitting on potential options for your new bike:

  • When sitting on the bike, can you flat-foot the bike? If not, is the bike light enough to manage on your toes or hold on one side? If the bike is too heavy to instil confidence in your ability to hold it when stationary, then it isn’t the one for you.
  • When you are in a riding position with feet on the pegs, are your knees bent to the point that you feel cramped? Will this position get uncomfortable after a short while? If you are on a cruiser, can the pegs be forward mounted to give you extra legroom?
  • Are you stretching for the handlebars? Or are the bars too close, and your arms are bent at an awkward angle? Can this be adjusted, or the bars swapped out?
  • Are the clutch and brake levers within easy grasp, and are they heavy? Will your hand get fatigued if you get stuck in traffic, thanks to a heavy clutch?
  • Can you move around on the seat? Having a little bit of movement can go a long way to keep you comfortable on a long ride.
  • Can you move the motorcycle around either by paddling it when sat on it or when you are off and pushing it into position? Your own strength will come into play in situations when you are out riding. You may need to paddle around into a parking space or move the bike on the drive or in the garage. Is the bike’s weight appropriate for your physical strength?

This tip is most relevant if you are looking at a small capacity motorcycle; consider the maximum weight of the bike.

If you are on the heavier side, it will affect a small bike’s performance, and you will find it slower/more sluggish than perhaps the specs stated.

In this case, going up a bit in power where possible will be beneficial for you. The same rule applies if you plan on doing a lot of touring with lots of luggage or with a pillion rider.

 

Riding Style/Purpose

The last thing to think about is your riding style or your purpose for riding, as this will determine what size motorcycle you need.

Commuter

If you are commuting into a town/city every day, the last thing you want is to be on a heavy bike with lots of power that doesn’t want to stop/start in traffic, stuck in 1st/2nd gear.

You want to have something lightweight that you can filter through traffic and get to work with relative ease.

If your commute involves some dual/carriageway, you will want to consider upping the power a little, so you aren’t struggling on the fast straight stretches of road in rush hour.

Tourer

You will want to go for a comfortable bike, which gives you plenty of room to shuffle around in the seat and has enough space to strap on all your luggage.

It is important to remember that when you load the bike up, the power-weight ratio can be affected, so make sure you pick a bike that has enough engine capacity to haul you and your load as far as you want to go.

Weekend Rider

If you plan on buying a motorcycle, really just for a weekend toy and maybe a bike night in the week. Then it doesn’t matter what bike you go for.

Pick the one you know you can handle from a power perspective and a physical standpoint, then go for it.

You won’t be doing hundreds of miles a week, so comfort doesn’t necessarily need to take priority; just shoot for the bike of your dreams because why not?

Track Day Thrill Seeker

Want to spend some time on the track and pretend you’re Rossi?

Opt for a bike that you are confident on in the riding position. One that you feel you have full control over at any speed.

Don’t buy the biggest bike you can get your hands on if you have only ever ridden a 125cc.

Work your way up, hone your riding skills through the ranks, and take your time.

When it comes to riding an R1, you will be ready to put it through its paces with the proper skill and attention required.

 

Final Thoughts

There are many things to consider when deciding what size motorcycle you need; I have covered most of the important factors in this article.

The trick is to use your common sense and choose a bike that feels right for you, be sure to go try it out first; make sure it fills you with confidence and is fit for the purpose you require it to be.