Buying Budget Bikes: Tips for new bikers

When it comes to entering the bike market, what should you look for?

The Suzuki GW250 (via suzukigw250.org)

If you had to choose one bike to fulfil all your biking desires — your dream bike — what would it be? The correct answer is, ‘Do I have to choose just one?’ Yet even if money were no obstacle and you could put five bikes in the garages of your palatial home, I reckon you’d still find that there are some riding conditions that none of your bikes are much good at.

Given that money is an obstacle for most of us, bikes are not a luxury toy but increasingly the only kind of transportation people can afford. So as demand for commuter motorcycling increases as new car prices increase, what riding conditions does your bike absolutely have to be good at, and what doesn’t really matter? What things should you as a new rider be looking for in a budget bike?

Price

Most entry-level riders choose a bike based on price. That makes sense of course— why would you pay R30,000 for a small-engined Japanese bike when there are Big Boys and Enzos to be had for a third of that?

The logic of this seems solid, but in reality, there are much more important issues that should come into the equation first.

I remember once browsing at the hardware store, when a customer came in holding a hatchet with a blade that had snapped right through the middle. He said something like, ‘The first time I hit a piece of wood the axe head exploded.’ The shop attendant — and I kid you not — responded ‘Yes but that’s a really cheap axe. You should have bought axe x or y.’ The suggestion was that if the customer wanted an axe for wood-chopping, rather than, say, custard-chopping, he should have considered not buying the cheapest one.

This story (and I have several others like it) illustrates for me what is a sad fact of manufacturing these days: many objects are made entirely to do a passable impersonation of the real thing. One would think that a wood-chopping tool should at bare minimum be capable of chopping wood, but it is apparently no longer that kind of world.

And so it is with bikes. A R10,000 bike that needs servicing every 2,000 kms and that needs replacing after about 20,000 kms is not actually that cheap — especially not when Japanese bikes for merely twice that price might last you 60,000 or 100,000 kms.

Conversely, the Zero electric bikes were retailing here upwards of R130,000, which is obviously a huge amount of money. However, after the capital outlay, the costs are almost flat. They are low maintenance and cost as little as 6c a kilometre. If you plan to drive it for more than 100,000 kms, what you have saved in petrol costs makes it virtually free. So maybe it’s cheap at the price after all.

Economy

How important should fuel economy be to your bike purchase? When I was considering buying my first bike, I broadly assumed that all bikes fell into the ‘fuel-saver’ category. The truth is that bikes differ vastly in economy. If you’re thinking of biking to save money, check the servicing interval and cost before buying, and bear in mind that several bikes may not be much less thirsty than your average VW Polo. I considered buying a 2nd hand shaft-driven 400 cc until I discovered that it was only getting 14 kms to the litre!

If you’re trying to get around cheaply, you can expect most bikes over 200 cc to get somewhere in between 20 and 30 km/l. The smaller-engined bikes may get you in the 30s or 40s, or (like my Indian-made Bajaj when it was new) somewhere between 60 and 75 km/l.

The only trouble with the little bikes is they demand to be ridden gently and slowly. What you gain in economy you lose in performance.

Speed and Agility

A prospective biker said to me that he thought it would be a good idea to start out biking with a little Chinese cheapie, and that the slowness of it would probably be a good thing for a novice.

Again, that sounds like solid logic, but the truth is more complicated than that. The safety people tell us that speed kills, but as was evident in the case of the cyclist that was killed in a nearby town (prompting that very public 1.5 m safety campaign) going slowly is as dangerous or worse if it means getting nicked by a passing bus.

To be safe on a bike you should not avoid speed, you should avoid the temptation to be reckless. And in fact, speed is an important safety feature, because the greatest danger to any biker is a dopey four-wheeler. If you have the ability to accelerate quickly away from traffic and to overtake swiftly, you have the best chance of keeping some critical distance from the cocooned oblivious driving around in their cars.

Conversely, being on a slow-ish bike (such as mine) means that freeway rides become tense affairs. Being overtaken by trucks and buses puts one more in harms way than one would like. Much of the Chinese rubbish masquerading as motorcycles seem not even to be able to cope with residential speeds, and while they still take their riders from A to B, I’m just glad it’s not me.

On the other hand again, big bikes have another disadvantage: being too big and too heavy is quite limiting. Being unable to wind one’s way through gridlock is a serious commuting disadvantage and it forces riders to suffer the inconvenience of sitting in the traffic.

So, for my money, I’d buy a quality small-engined or a nimble mid-engined bike for commuting. It would be better to borrow money to buy something ideal, rather than buy something outright that is not able to do the job.

The Yamaha YBR 125 (via yamaha-motor.eu)

Reliability and Replacement Age

Motorcycling is fun, convenient and relatively cheap, but it is a little more dangerous than being in a car. To state the obvious, you’re being suspended in the air by only two wheels, and failure of either one of those wheels is… well… problematic.

In a car, reliability is largely a convenience issue. Reliability in a bike is a safety issue.

I’m sure there are horror stories from quality vehicles too, but I’ve come across a guy who bought a new Chinese bike that had a jammy throttle and sped into the bushes on his first try (he immediately assumed that this is what all bikes are like and sold the thing), and another guy whose bike folded in half while he was riding because the swing-arm came apart.

These bikes are cheap because they are generally poorly made (I was told that Vuka died as a brand here not for lack of market-share but because the number of returns and complaints made them unprofitable). They also tend to start failing quite comprehensively quite quickly, with replacement ages often as low as 20,000 km.

You might be able to buy one for silly money, but you’re not just riding the thing, you’re entrusting your well-being to it too.

So, don’t choose a bike based on the price on the showroom sticker alone. In the long run it’ll cost you, whether on safety, or maintenance, or even just on enjoyment. Don’t buy the cheapest bike you can find and hope that it meets your needs; find a bike that does all of the things that you really need, and pay whatever that costs.

Happy riding.

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