Top Bikes for Returning Riders

By: Buddha, Photography by: Supplied

With more and more guys and gals looking at getting back into motorcycling after a break to raise the family and such, we thought we’d let you know our thoughts on which steeds would be perfect to get you up and running again

Top Bikes for Returning Riders
Top Bikes for Returning Riders

Buying a bike these days is a pretty easy process, but with the advance of technology it can be hard to spot a dud.

And, let's not forget: while you think you might be able to handle that new Kawasaki ZX-10R because back in 1975 you used to race around on a Honda CB400F, things have changed.

You're older for one thing, probably bigger, and motorcycle technology has advanced to the point where the top sports bikes of today are far faster than the top race bikes of yesteryear, let alone the road legal ones you grew up on.

So ideally, you want a bike that won't scare the crap out of you, that's not too heavy, but that keeps you entertained for longer than the average action flick.

Below are my picks for the best ten bikes I personally think are spot on for the returning rider. I've left out those big bore cruisers over 1100cc as I believe if you're coming back into the sport you need to re-learn how to ride and the smaller cc bikes in this class are far better for that than some of the behemoths I like riding.

Remember: this is only my opinion. Your best bet is to have a think about exactly what type of riding you want to do then test several different bikes before settling.


Harley-Davidson Sportster 883

  • Likes: Torquey motor makes clutch easy to master
  • Dislikes: Pricey for content, neutral can be tricky to find
  • Buy This Bike If: You're getting back into biking with a view to a bigger bike later.
  • Price New: $13,750
  • Price Used: Ten year old 883s start at around $7-$9k-mark

Harley Davidson Sportster 883s are good bikes for the shorter man. Their V-twin motor makes a decent amount of torque at low RPM, so stalling the bike as you let out the clutch is hard to do. Their low seat height makes them user-friendly, even for riders like me with the stumpy-leg syndrome. And what's more, being a Harley they retain a good re-sell price.

The downsides? At 264kg it's not the heaviest bike in Harley's stable, but you'll probably need help picking it up the first time you drop it. Finally, like all low-to-the-ground cruisers, you'll be scraping footpegs even at modest lean angles.

Honda VT750C Shadow

  • Likes: Used examples are a dime a dozen, dealers are plentiful
  • Dislikes: Lacks personality compared to the Harley
  • Buy This Bike If: You want Honda reliability in a cruiser style motorcycle
  • Price New: $14,495
  • Price Used: Nine-year-old Shadows should be around $6-7k

The 750cc v-twin is small for a middleweight, but offers enough grunt to keep new or returning riders happy. Best of all is Honda's dealer network; no matter where you end up, chances are good you'll find a Honda dealer locally.

The Shadow Spirit 750 won't set any styling trends with its blend-into-the-background lines and quirky paint schemes, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Ditto on the motor: it's smooth, but lacks the personality you'll find with other V-twins. Your trade-off is Honda's typical reliability, so if you don't mind the bland your payback is likely to be low ownership costs. It's not too heavy at 248kg wet, and the seat height is a very low 652mm, which makes it easy for riders of all size to handle.

Others worth mentioning - Triumph America and Speedmaster at $15,990+orc & $16,995+orc respectively, Yamaha V-Star XVS950 at $16,349, Kawasaki's Vulcan VN900 at $14,995, Suzuki's Boulevard C50 at $15,495 and also the Hyosung ST7 at $13,295.


Triumph Bonneville

  • Likes: Traditional styling hiding a technically modern bike
  • Dislikes: Not many here to be honest
  • Buy This Bike If: You yearn for yesteryear without the oily hassles
  • Price New: $12,995-$15,390+orc, depending on the model
  • Price Used: A decent used bonnie a few years old will run around the $10k mark

The Triumph Bonneville comes in several models: the basic, the SE, and my personal fave, the T100. All still maintain that uber-classic retro look from the 60s and 70s. The SE and T100 add some slightly different styling and design to the basic model. The classic gas tank design, short mudguards and color schemes give it a 70s look.

Triumph has done its best to maintain the retro styling while still updating the bike to the latest technology. For example, the new full injection system is designed to look like the old Triumph carbys. It's nice and light too at 225kg wet and has a low seat height at 740mm.

Kawasaki W800

  • Likes: Again, old school looks wrapped up in a modern package
  • Dislikes: More costly than the Bonnie it's competing against
  • Buy This Bike If: You once had an old W650 and long for the classic look again
  • Price New: $16,995
  • Price Used: These bikes are a new model but there are still a few older W650s out there from around the $6k mark

It's hard not to compare The Green Machine's latest retro offering to the established Bonnie from Triumph. After all they are of the same ilk: both have oodles of retro appeal, both are powered by the same engine format, both feature modern technology and all that. So it will come down to the individual buyer as to which modern classic you prefer.

The Kawa is lighter at 217kg than the Bonnie and has a shorter wheelbase which makes it a tad better through the corners. But it's not as powerful, with 773cc compared to 865cc, is slightly taller at the seat at 790mm and, what could be the real decider, is $4k more than the standard Bonnie. Ride them both then decide would be my advice.

Others that might make a good retro would be the Harley Davidson Forty-Eight at $16,595, the Moto Guzzi V7 Classic at $14,990. For those whose back isn't put off by the classic café racer look, try Triumph's Thruxton at $15,390+orc or the new Guzzi V7 Racer at $21,000.


Ducati Monster 796

  • Likes: User-friendliness of the 696 with the sports character of the 1100
  • Dislikes: Not cheap
  • Buy This Bike If: You've always fancied a Duke but can't fold yourself into a Desmosedici
  • Price New: $19,990
  • Price Used: There are heaps on the market in various cc ratings, from as low as $7k

The 796 Monster is the half-way model between the 696 and 1100 Monsters, offering more performance than the big bike novice 696 without the sometimes intimidating grunt of the 1100. The riding position is more upright and urban friendly than the 1100's too, with 20mm higher bars due to taller risers, and a 10mm lower seat, due to lower suspension. It looks great, and thanks to a huge aftermarket parts department you can change the appearance whenever you like as the tank and rear panels can be switched to any colour you want. It's full of character and lots of fun.

Yamaha FZ8N

  • Likes: Useable power with great looks and reasonably priced
  • Dislikes: Not many, if any
  • Buy This Bike If: You like the whole naked bike movement and want something that's not that common
  • Price New: $16,349
  • Price Used: Another of the new models but used ones should be near the $14k mark

The Yamaha FZ8N is one of those all-purpose type of bikes, equally at home pottering through rush-hour traffic as it is grinding footpegs on a Sunday jaunt around your favourite piece of tarmac. An excellent mid-range bike, not hard on the wrists or back and with plenty grunt on tap, delivered very smoothly.

Other nudies that may help you indulge your inner hooligan are Honda's CB1000 Predator at $15,325, Kawasaki's Z750R at $16,995, Harley-Davidson's XR1200X at $18,350 and for the more experienced hoon Triumph's new Speed Triple at $20,690 and BMW's F800R at $17,730.


Triumph Sprint GT

  • Likes: Stylish, comfortable, practical, with character and exciting performance in a well-put-together package
  • Dislikes: None really, it's a pretty bloody good touring platform
  • Buy This Bike If: You're after a bike that's comfy for pillion and rider and can carry a week's worth of clothing/toiletries with ease
  • Price New: $22,990+orc
  • Price Used: Sprints are a dime a dozen so you'll easily be able to find a good used one for around the $10k mark

Take Triumph's superb Sprint ST and make it more adept at touring and also pillion friendly and what do you end up with? A Triumph Sprint GT, that's what. Sounds easy enough but in practice Triumph had to revise the Sprint's chassis in a major way. So with a longer swingarm and steel subframe the GT becomes uber-stable when decked out with 117 litres of luggage, a pillion and 20 litres of juice. Lower seat height, a wider, more comfortable pillion seat, built in grab rails on the topbox mounts and revised footpeg positions, and it all works well.

Honda VFR1200F

  • Likes: A beautifully built motorcycle that drips quality and substance
  • Dislikes: Fuel tank is just a little too small for serious touring
  • Buy This Bike If: You like the reliability of a Honda with the carving ability of a CBR1000RR
  • Price New: $29,645
  • Price Used: Another of these newbie bikes so not many used ones there yet. However its smaller brother the VFR800 is prevalent and cheap, from around $8000 for a 2000 model.

Honda's concept for the VFR1200 was "sport and touring with premium quality," and within those terms it has certainly succeeded. Honda haters may deride its appearance, but seeing the viffer in person brings into focus its high level of fit and finish and its graceful design. That said, its droopy headlight and layered fairing won't be everyone's cup of tea. Overall, it's too large to be a sportbike, and it's too sporty to be a luxurious sport-tourer. But for some, it might just be perfect combination of both. At $29,645 it's up there, especially when its competitors have a longer range fuel-wise.

Other touring bikes that are good at eating the miles two-up but keep that sporty feel are Yamaha's FJR1300 at $28,850, the venerable Suzuki GSX1250FA at a super cheap $16,495, Moto Guzzi's Norge 1200 at $26,990 and Kawasaki's big Concourse 14 at $29,995. Or, out of left field, why not try a Can Am Spyder at $26,990? It makes an awesome tourer.


Kawasaki KLR 650

  • Likes: It'll get you to the ends of the earth and back, you can fix it with a hammer and duct tape, huge aftermarket support
  • Dislikes: No shorties allowed and can be top-heavy with a full tank
  • Buy This Bike If: You want the ability to go anywhere your sense of adventure dictates
  • Price New: $10,995.00
  • Price Used: $5k and up, depending upon age and condition

The Kawasaki KLR 650 may just be the most versatile motorcycle on the planet. It's equally comfortable commuting (where the seat height allows you to look over cars in front of you) or bombing along game trails in the Amazon (there probably isn't an accessible spot on the planet that hasn't been visited by someone on a KLR 650).

The big single defines simplicity, and the bike can be fixed in the field with tools at hand. Down sides? At 175kg dry, it doesn't sound heavy until you realize that a full tank (22 litres), will add almost another 23kg of weight at the top of the bike. Still, if you can get used to the sheer size, the KLR650 is a bike you won't outgrow any time soon. Used examples are plentiful and cheap, but beware of heavily crashed or heavily modified versions.

Triumph Tiger 800 XC

  • Likes: Four-bikes-in-one, making it a pretty cost-effective package for today's cash-conscious consumer
  • Dislikes: Slightly weak brake package
  • Buy This Bike If: You want the go-anywhere ride without the expense or size of a BMW
  • Price New: $20,490
  • Price Used: There are a few of the older Tigers lurking around if the purse strings won't stretch to a new one - prices start from around the $10k mark for a 1999 Tiger, through to $18k for a 2008 1050 version

An extremely practical all-weather commuter, whose tall seat will let you see over traffic, great steering lock for ideal manoeuvrability and light, precise steering to let you carve a line round city corners. Plus it's a great Sunday morning ride-along-racer, leaving Supersport competition of equivalent performance for dead through tarmac twisties. And you have the bike the new Triumph was most of all designed to be, a capable adventure bike that can make dreams of crossing continents and exploring the world come true.

This is one of the fastest-growing segments along with cruisers for the returning rider and there are plenty more to choose from. Like Suzuki's V-Strom 1000 at $17,495, Honda's Varadero XL1000V at $20,445, Yamaha's Tenere and Super Tenere at $14,500 and $25,539 respectively, the latest Multistrada from Ducati starting at $27,590. Don't forget the collection from the grandfathers of adventure touring, BMW, with the G 650 GS at $15,295, the F 650 GS at $17,850, the F 800 GS at $22,308 and the big boys, the R 1200 GS and Adventure models at $30,885 and $34,000.

So, there you have it. I didn't include a sportbikes category, only because they wouldn't be my first choice. If you want to go that route, stick to a 600cc bike to re-learn, preferably a used one. Whatever bike you opt for, plan on dropping it once or twice until you learn things like "never park a bike on the sidestand in neutral" or "rain really does make the center part of the lane slicker than owl snot".