Three Great Starter Motorcycles for Heavier People
So you’ve been bitten by the bug I call motorcyclus riderus and as a result have come down with a serious case of the bike fever, eh? It infects all different kinds of people, from many different walks of life and body types. The joy of riding knows no bounds and is blind.
After many hours of careful consideration, research and talking to heavier riders about their first bikes, I painstakingly narrowed the vast field of possibilities down to three: Kawasaki 900 Vulcan, Honda 800 Interceptor and Victory Cross Country Tour
There are so very many different bikes to choose from that will get you the thrill you’re after. Whether you’re 6 foot 6 and 280 lbs or 5 foot 10 and 280 lbs, being above average weight and/or size means taking a slightly different approach in making your choice.
However, there is always the standard question (that is still important) to begin with:
What Style Suits Your Fancy: Cruising, Sport Riding, or Touring?
The main difference you’ll need to realize is that in order to get the same performance as a lighter rider would, you’re going to need a somewhat larger displacement engine.
At first thought, it may seem such small vehicles with small engines wouldn’t be powerful enough to bring excitement. The truth is that most any bike has a surprising amount of jam. A 250cc will move you around, but the goal is to find a more ideal size to match you. We can use numbers to understand better how that is true in looking at something called power to weight ratio calculations.
Calculating the Power to Weight Ratio
If we take the horsepower rating of a vehicle and divide that by its weight, the result is the ratio of horsepower per pound (AKA, the power to weight ratio). Basically, the higher number you get from the calculation, the more powerful a motorcycle will feel and perform.
To get an idea what this looks like, let’s compare a 2017 Volkswagen Golf GTI equipped with a turbocharged 2000cc engine to a 2017 Kawasaki Vulcan 900cc motorcycle.
- VW Golf with 210 horsepower at 3031 lbs = 0.069 : 1 power to weight
- Vulcan 900 only has 48 horsepower at 610 lbs = 0.080 : 1 power to weight
This illustrates why motorcycles nearly always leave cars behind. Even though the GTI is turbocharged, and has more than twice the engine of the Vulcan, all that power is tamed dramatically by the fact the car weighs almost 5 times more.
Looking to Cruise? I Pick the Kawasaki Vulcan 900
Kawasaki Vulcan 900 – Quick Facts
- 46 horsepower
- 58 ft-lbs torque
- 610 lbs
- 4.5L/100 kms / 52 mpg
The interesting part about this comparison is that the Vulcan 900 isn’t a bike known for high power or speed. It’s a comfortable, middleweight cruiser, ideal for learning to ride on.
It’s not comparing apples to apples putting it against the sporty Golf GTI, but most people are familiar with the GTI and would describe it as a “peppy” sportscar. Golf GTIs are reasonably fun to drive, and so even a bike built around comfort and cruising will be arguably more fun to ride than the GTI because of the higher power to weight ratio.
The 900 Vulcan has ample power to be a great choice for a new rider of any size and not just because it has the ponies to move you. It also generates 58.2 foot pounds of torque at 3500 rpm. Yeah, it’s not a number that at first sight blows your hair back, but that amount of torque moving a 600 lb machine translates to grins on the rider’s face… and GTIs lagging behind.
That amount of torque moving a 600 lb machine translates to grins on the rider’s face… and GTIs lagging behind.
A friend of mine just learned to ride last year on a 2008 Vulcan 900, in fact. He’s 6’2, 260 lbs and the bike performed perfectly for him. The controls were spaced well keeping him comfortable, and the low seat height of 26 inches was ideal for gaining confidence right from the get go as he could easily plant both feet flat on the ground. The centre of gravity is set low in the Vulcan, making it feel lighter than the 610 lb weight suggests.
A first bike should be one which won’t surprise as you develop riding skills and that’s exactly how my friend described the Vulcan. Predictable, smooth power, quite nimble and easy handling.
The Vulcan line has been around for many years and hasn’t changed a whole lot, because if it ain’t broke why try and fix it? It’s a versatile machine and great whether you are riding in the city or out on the highway. It is known to give excellent fuel economy of approximately 4.5L/100 kms or 52 mpg.
These bikes can be had for a very reasonable price on the used market.
Tangent Alert! Your First Bike: New or Used?
I would encourage anyone to purchase their first bike –regardless of whether it’s a cruiser, sportbike or whatever else– used instead of new, because learning to ride often involves the bike getting dropped at low speed or sometimes at no speed.
Doing damage to a 2008 Vulcan 900 which you paid $3,500 for is a hard pill to swallow, but goes down WAY easier than doing it to your brand new, 2017, $10,000 bike, in my humble opinion. I never did drop my first bike while riding it, but I learned the hard way parking on hot asphalt in August can easily lead to your kickstand sinking in, the bike tipping over on its side and smashing turn signals, fairings, foot pegs and mirrors.
My Pick for the New Sporty Rider: The Honda VFR 800 Interceptor
Honda VFR 800 Interceptor – Quick Facts
- 94 horsepower
- 52 ft-lbs torque
- 536 lbs
- 5.1L/100 kms / 42 mpg
Choosing a sport bike with an appropriate amount of useable power to learn on is perhaps easier for a heavier rider. The rider’s weight will adversely affect the acceleration, braking and overall performance of a bike. That may sound negative, but that means it will also smooth out the power curve making the bike more manageable and predictable.
Sport bikes never lack for horsepower, but in smaller engine sizes can lack torque, so choosing one at least 600ccs or bigger helps to minimize that issue by getting a better ratio of power to weight.
Some tall and heavy riders choose the really big bikes like the Kawasaki ZX14 or Yamaha R1 because they want a larger framed machine to stretch out on and power they won’t outgrow. While that does make sense and many of these riders do just fine with the big bikes, I feel a more conservative approach is wiser.
You can always resell your bike when you outgrow it and move up, but I have talked to more than a few people who scare themselves right out of motorcycling because they start off “overbiked” (and in some cases have accidents as a result).
Ideally, your first bike will be one you plan on spending a lot of time riding. More time in the saddle to hone your skills and enjoy our short riding season. The mind can only absorb as long as the posterior can endure, so comfort has to become something of a factor, even when sport performance is the goal.
For those reasons, I would highly recommend starting with a sport TOURING bike like the Honda VFR 800 Interceptor over a pure sport bike.
Similar to the Vulcan, the VFR bikes have been around a long time because they are excellent all around. First, back in the early 1980s as 750cc, but went away for a while only to reappear in 2002 as an 800cc. You can still find and buy them in all years of production to fit your budget on the used market.
The engine powering this bike is a V-four design (four cylinders in a V configuration), giving it a beautiful, low, roaring exhaust note when the throttle is twisted. That deep voice stands out distinctively in a crowd of inline 4 sport bikes, which is part of its charm. These bikes will really grow on you if given a chance. They showcase perfectly the standard of Honda builds: quality, reliability, smooth shifting transmissions and comfort.
These bikes will really grow on you if given a chance. They showcase perfectly the standard of Honda builds: quality, reliability, smooth shifting transmissions and comfort.
With any V engine you’ll get strong torque numbers, and compared to V twins, the 4 cylinder Vs also have high horsepower. The 2015 VFR 800 comes in at 94hp and 52 foot pounds of torque. That is a really balanced mixture of power at low and high rpm for a rider to work with. Many other sport bikes are noticeably lacking torque in the lower rpm range, but then come to life around 7,000 rpm or so. There’s nothing wrong with that as it’s exciting when you hit the “sweet spot”, but the lack of lower end torque can make the bike feel weak at slow speeds, and a bit crazy for a new rider coming into the power suddenly, especially at an inconvenient time during a ride.
Consistent and predictable power throughout the rpm range is better to work with. Even as an experienced rider, I prefer linear power in my ride.
The 2015 VFR 800 is relatively heavy for a sport bike at 536 lbs (full of fuel), giving it a power to weight ratio of 0.175. The weight isn’t necessarily a problem as it will feel more stable at speed than some lighter machines will. It won’t get blown around as easily when winds gust and trucks pass you in the other lane for example.
The suspension preload is adjustable front and rear to better set it up for a heavier rider, as is the seat height on the deluxe model. It can be put as low as 31 inches in height, making it comfortable for shorter riders. The seat was designed with comfort and performance in mind, and is comfortable unlike the majority of sport bikes.
The riding position is a more upright thanks to the handlebars being mounted up higher than many sportbikes, again resulting in greater rider comfort.
The sport touring bikes like this one have optional, hard plastic saddle bags which can quickly attach/detach from the sides.
When I owned a Kawasaki Ninja ZX6R, I loved the bike, but hated trying to bring anything home from the store or even just my lunch bag to work as there was no storage on it. I resorted to unhappily wearing a backpack, but it was uncomfortable and cumbersome. The available saddlebags for the VFR would have been the perfect solution if some were made for the Ninja. Not the most sporty looking feature I admit, but sometimes flexibility and necessity have to enter into the equation.
It’s not a cheap bike to buy brand new with the deluxe model right around $13,000, but as I mentioned the older models are very good too and can be had for substantially less money.
My Touring Pick: The Victory Cross Country Tour
Victory Cross Country Tour – Quick Facts
- 94 horsepower
- 106 ft-lbs torque
- 876 lbs
- 5.1L/100 kms / 42 mpg
I’m sure this is a little surprising choice for a new rider’s tour bike, but if it’s a bona fide touring bike you’re after, it’s going to be fairly big and powerful to get the job done. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this bike to a new rider unless they had enough weight to tame the power band.
If you’re looking for a bike you can jump on and ride in comfort, all day, for a week long trip across the country, then this is a perfect one to do it on. The Cross Country Tour is a sleekly styled, powerful, smooth and option filled touring motorcycle. Here’s my list of notable features;
- 1731cc engine with 6 speed transmission means you can cruise at highway speeds effortlessly at low rpm to get about 40mpg
- Huge storage capacity in the trunk and saddlebags of 41 gallons total, which Victory claims is the most in its class
- 94 hp and 106 ft lbs of torque with a weight of 876 lbs giving this bike a power to weight of 0.107
- Dual zone heated seats and handlebar grips
- Premium stereo with Bluetooth
- Low seat height of 26 inches and the long foot boards ensure even tall riders have plenty of room to stretch out
- Cruise control (an absolute must on a touring bike)
- Air adjustable suspension to smooth out the bumps
- Several vents in the fairings for cooling air flow on the rider
Many other features are available and there are plenty of aftermarket upgrades and extras around to enhance the bike as you want to for your particular needs.
This is the first class of bike where I’ll touch on the subject of carrying a passenger. Not that the other two motorcycles I mentioned aren’t capable, but touring with your significant other is best done on a bike like this one. The Cross Country was designed with two up riding in mind when it comes to the rear seat comfort and with the Gross Combined Weight Rating.
Tangent Alert! The GCWR – “Gross Combined Weight Rating”
The GCWR is the maximum weight the motorcycle can equal when the following are added up;
- weight of the bike
- Any trailer being towed and gear in it
The GCWR of the Cross Country Tour is 1360 lbs, so after subtracting the weight of the bike you are left with 493 lbs to work with and for heavier riders, that should be plenty even with a passenger.
There’s no getting around the fact that a nearly 900 lb bike can be a handful, especially when you throw a bunch of gear in the trunks and then a passenger at some point after you gain skill and confidence. Victory did a great job keeping the weight low in the frame (similar to the Vulcan), so it’s not as hard as it sounds to keep rubber side down. Don’t feel intimidated by its weight or engine size since the power to weight number isn’t off the charts.
One Point Against the Victory
Sadly, after 18 years of production, Polaris (the mother company of Victory) recently purchased Indian and decided to discontinue the Victory line in favour of the more recognized and historic Indian. Parts, warranty and service will still be available for at least the next 10 years and the foreseeable future, but Victory dealers will surely be looking to blow out those bikes at better than average prices.
That is a major reason I recommend this as a good place to start in your touring riding. You can get a 2017 Cross Country Tour for way less than other comparable machines. List price for this model is $25,999, but I’m reasonably sure they can be had for much less, or with more incentives in features added, flexible financing and/or possibly riding gear. There are also used Cross Countries available which will be getting sold by owners for less too if your budget won’t reach the price of new.
These Three Are Great Choices, But There Are Many More Excellent Options Out There!
All in all, there are plenty of suitable machines out there to keep any rider happy and everyone is unique in their taste and natural ability to ride a motorcycle. It’s very challenging to pick just three and run them up the flagpole as the “best choice” for anyone. The three machines I have recommended are all excellent in my opinion and I would own any or all happily.
I would encourage you to go track them down at a dealership, swing a leg over them to test your personal fit. If possible, arrange a free test drive. Most dealerships are open to that and it’s the best way to know which direction to take, even if you don’t end up buying it new. That ride will tell you whether you’re on the right track and if you should find an older model of that particular bike, or something similar in your budget.
Happy riding my friends!