What is a good first motorcycle for a novice? A simple explanation.
Start small, live long!
If you live out of town then a 250 or 350 makes sense because even when learning you're likely to be doing fairly long journeys. However, if you're in town then start off with a 125. Plenty of people get hurt starting on bigger machines because it takes quite a while before you get used to just how quickly you can be going too fast to get round the next bend. Also, it enables you to get over the initial thrill and excitement of riding a bike whilst you can't go quite so fast. You need to learn just how vulnerable you are before you get on something that can do 90, maybe 100 mph. A 250 can accelerate far faster than virtually all cars and probably out-brake them too. This can give you a false sense of "invulnerability" which sometimes costs people their lives. Sorry to sound so melodramatic but if you start off right on a motorbike it'll stand you in good stead the rest of your life.
I started on a 50 sport before graduating to a 250 after a year or so. Then (after a long break) to a 600cc and now I'm on a Honda VFR 800 - but I'm rarely tempted to use it's max performance (I used to on the 250!).
Getting an experienced rider to guide you through the first stages (not to mention help you choose a bike) is one of the best things you can do. In fact formal training is, in my opinion, essential. In the UK, the BikeSafe scheme run by the police is a golden opportunity to get some real-world training and advice from people who ride all day, almost every day. These full-day courses are for people who have passed their test to get a full licence. I understand some local forces run similar courses in the US. Unfortunately, I can't speak for other countries.
Having had Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis over the years (and friends with Kawasakis) I would unhesitatingly recommend Hondas. Some of the others produce machines with more performance in certain respects but for reliability and longevity I don't think you can beat a Honda. Of course, if maximum fun and/or performance is what you're after then consider the others as well.
I just discovered that Honda don't do a 125 in the US - but they do did a 100cc sports bike up till last year. You can probably still find new ones at a good price and of course used ones - but watch out for bikes that have been thrashed. A small-engined sports bike like this has the advantage of better handling and brakes than you'd expect from such a small-engined bike making it more exciting to ride - but safer too!
One last thing - protective clothing. Never, ever, ever ride a bike without a full-face helmet, gloves and proper rip-proof motorcycling clothing. Open face helmets may look cool on a cruiser - but if you fall off you may easily lose all your teeth, not to mention get a broken jaw that can affect your speech. No matter how hot the weather, wear proper gear. Falling off and scraping away a large chunk of your body's biggest organ (your skin) can be lethal and can happen at just 30 mph.
Riding any powered two-wheeler is dangerous. There's no getting away from it. But the freedom, adrenaline and pure pleasure you can get from it, even riding safely, is incomparable.
Ride safely and enjoy!
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