Moving Weight is What Horsepower is For, Amirite?!
There are those out there that have been called to ride, their hearts are set on swinging a leg over a two wheeled beast with an engine, and their right wrist is aching to twist a throttle. Except… like me, they are on the heavier side of things. Personally, I float between 255 to 270 lbs overall, and for the purposes of this article, I am going to consider heavy as anything over 200 lbs.
For full transparency, I also have the misfortune of being over 6’1” tall, which does affect my personal valuation as I can’t fit on some bikes. I will try to keep an open and objective mind about things, however, so I will attempt to find the best bike in each class or category for a beginner to intermediate rider to buy. For this article, I have spent about a week asking on reddit, on bike forums, and speaking to some larger fellows about their bikes so that I could get the widest demographic of opinions as possible.
The question that any potential rider needs to ask themselves, however, is as pertinent for a heavy rider as it is the lightest weight rider:
What style of riding are you looking to do?
We are a bit lucky in 2020 to have a variety of styles to ride. You have your aggressive supersports, the slightly more relaxed sport bikes, the pared-to-the-bone nakeds, the powerful cruisers, fun adventure bikes, and emerging a bit over the past couple of years, the sport cruiser style.
The big point for heavy riders is that any bike will get you moving. Even a 125cc engine will get you where you need to go, but it will not be as efficient or even as comfortable a ride as using a slightly higher displacement engine. This is why for heavier riders, the general consensus that almost everyone agreed on during my research was that 500cc should be your starting point for fun, efficient, enjoyable riding.
2020 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R
96 lbs-ft torque
636 cc displacement, inline-4
Keep in mind, any supersport bike is something to be treated with respect and a healthy dose of caution, and the ZX-6R can and will bite your head off if you are stupid with it. However, despite the bike being only 430 lbs in weight, it has an impressive engine that can find torque all across the rev range, and does have a much gentler torque spike than comparable supersports like the Honda CBR600RR and the Yamaha YZF-R6.
A supersport will also never lack for power, but the riders weight can and does affect the acceleration, braking, and overall rideability of the bike. It’s for this reason that a smaller bike like the Honda CBR500R isn’t really in the running here. Having those extra 150 cc’s on tap does make an appreciable difference, as it will give you the performance feel you expect with a supersport.
SPECIAL NOTE: Despite recommended higher displacement, it is not recommended that a heavier rider start on a 1000 cc or greater bike in the supersport class. These bikes are snarling torque monsters that require a skilled hand to tame, and are generally recommended as a second or even third bike for supersport riders.
2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
49 lbs-ft torque
649 cc displacement, parallel twin
Two Kawasaki’s in a row? Yes. Kawasaki has a really good hold on the taller and heavier rider segment of the sportier side of things. Unlike the supersport bike recommendation, however, we recommend the Ninja 650 simply because it is a very good jack-of-all-trades. You can ride it upright in a standard position for touring, you can tuck down to the tank for some sporty riding, and it also won’t try to actively bite your head off like supersports do.
Despite being nearly the same weight as the ZX-6R, this Ninja 650 has half the horsepower and half the torque, which follows because it has half the cylinders. This makes it a very approachable beginner bike, with a very linear torque curve and enough power for you to have fun. It also cruises incredibly well, allowing for longer rides without hurting your wrists or backside.
2020 Suzuki SV650
47 lbs-ft torque
645 cc displacement, V-twin
I’ll make it clear from the get go: this is not only a great beginner bike for heavier riders, this is a great beginner bike, full stop. For years, it has been one of the top recommendations for a new rider to learn on, and that tradition continues with only a few minor adjustments for the 2020 model year.
The SV650 has a gentle but still grunty torque curve without any sudden torque spikes whatsoever. It also has enough power to get you going despite the aerodynamic deficiencies that a naked bike has, such as no cowling or wind deflector to help it cut through the air. Add that power and torque to a chassis that is easy to ride, giving you lots of feedback, and you have a bike that is known as a legend for a reason.
You have to give it to Kawasaki, they make a heck of a lot of beginner friendly motorcycles!
The Vulcan 900 Classic is a very friendly cruiser with a ton of grunt down low in the revs to get you going, and more than enough power to keep you cruising for mile after mile. It also ranks as a middleweight, meaning it’s not too hard to get some cornering fun as well.
It’s also great for heavier riders because it is designed specifically to be a great first bike for the widest range of people as possible. Kawasaki really did their research when they made the Vulcan line, and it shows.
2020 Honda Rebel 500
32 lbs-ft torque
471 cc displacement, parallel twin
The Honda Rebel 500 is one of those bikes that comes along every few model generations and is just the absolutely perfect bike for a beginner. Easy to handle, very forgiving, torque absolutely everywhere along the rev range without any peaks or spikes to scare you, and enough power that even a tall, heavy guy wearing a backpack full of bricks can get this little monster rolling at a decent clip.
What Honda did with the Rebel series is make sport cruising fun and accessible again to new riders. In years past, there was a big jump from low powered “small 250 cc” sport cruisers up to the big boy mainstream cruisers with engines over 900 cc. The Rebel slips into the middle perfectly, and is friendly to all levels of experience riders.
2020 Honda CB500X
32 lbs-ft torque
471 cc displacement, parallel twin
Over and over during my research for this article, the Honda CB500X was recommended as the best beginner adventure bike for all sizes of people. Tall, short, light, heavy, it didn’t matter, it was just “the bike” that was recommended the most.
And after reading some of the stories that people shared, I can see why. Legendary Honda reliability with a bulletproof engine, refined suspension and handling that it will easily commute on the road as happily as it will tear down a gravel or dirt road. As well, the CB500X has more than enough poke to handle both highway speeds on long journeys while at the same time being able to scramble at low revs over rock fields.