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Freedom. Independence. Exhilaration. Peace. There are many reasons why people start and enjoy riding. In today’s fast paced world full of the constant noise of cell phones, the news, the Internet, etc. motorcycles can be an oasis of contentment. With today’s motorcycle’s capabilities, that experience is being sought in the dirt as well as on the street. However, the wrong choice of motorcycle can turn a great experience into an unpleasant one.

There is a high competition for the leisure dollars people have available to spend. In order to get the most for their money, many people try to start out in motorcycling with a “one-size fits all approach”. They will purchase a motorcycle they can use to commute during the week and find the trails during the weekend. In most of the cases, those motorcycles don’t fulfill either need well.

A better solution is to purchase two smaller motorcycles which each focus on a different surface. There are plenty of less expensive street bikes that have an engine size of 500cc or less that are great first rides. Don’t let people convince you that these smaller bikes don’t have enough power. My Ninja 500 goes as fast as I want it to go, which on certain occasions, such as a street bike scavenger hunt, will, hypothetically, hit triple digits on the speedometer. They are also less expensive which can allow you use the available dollars for 2 smaller versus 1 large motorcycle. As an added bonus, they often get better gas mileage as well.

For riding off-highway, or on the dirt, smaller is better. A friend of mine who has been riding close to 50 years likes to say that for dirt, riding a small bike as hard as you can is much faster, and more fun, than trying to ride a large bike very carefully. To determine how small, you need to decide where you are going to spend the most amount of your dirt time. The smaller the width of the path you are traveling, the smaller the motorcycle should be.

Is the flow of a trail winding through the trees calling to you? The best motorcycle experience on single-track is a type of bike called a dirt bike. Sometimes, these are called a trail bike. Most of the time, these motorcycles are not street legal; without lights or turn signals. They need to be trailered to the riding location. There are both 2-stroke and 4-stroke versions. 2-stroke being more digital (on and off) in its power delivery and a 4-stroke as being analog like. Four-stroke motorcycles are much more forgiving and the best type of bike to start on. Stay with an engine size of 350cc or less.

Do you envision yourself exploring the nooks and crannies of minimum maintenance or smaller forest roads? There are some smaller dual-sport (bikes built for on or off pavement use) motorcycles that can easily take you on these smaller dirt roads with minimum maintenance and can occasionally take you onto single track. These bikes are between 250 and 450cc. The design of the bikes, with larger gas tanks, less aggressive tires, and less protected equipment such as turn signals make them less enjoyable to long miles of single-track.

Or do you just wish to be able to go where the moment takes you from rural routes to country lanes? These are adventure type of bikes which, for most people, are great for street riding and gravel roads, but any route smaller, which usually have varied surface conditions, can get difficult very quickly. Their engine size of 500 to 1200cc are powerful enough to easily travel highway speeds with ease. It also makes the bikes wider and heavier. To take on the larger roads, these bikes are geared higher and are equipped with tires called 50:50, which means they are set up for pavement half of the time and gravel half of the time. When the smaller routes show signs of less maintenance, the tires no longer provide the traction, so the riders must compensate. The compensation is done mostly through body position and strength. The heavier and more top heavy the bike, the harder it is for the rider to compensate. The higher gearing also makes it harder on the bike to travel at the slower speeds needed when there is less traction.

Take your time to find the bike that will fit your needs the best. Start small; you can always work your way up. Then find your freedom on the back roads and trails.

Karen Umphress
UP! Outside
On-road and off-highway motorcyclist


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One Response

  1. " Freedom. Independence. Exhilaration. Peace. " Captures why I ride whenever I throw a leg over the bike and get going. Nothing like the open road riding in the elements.

    And I agree with the logic of finding a bike that's small first and then work upwards in size as you the rider gets more comfortable.

    Happy trails,


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