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Beginner's bike comparison, 2 v. 4-stroke discussion, and suspension lowering

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aka Firecracker

Finding the right bike is a challenge for any new rider, and especially for women since we are often smaller than men. Of course there are exceptions, but the average height for women seems to be 5’3” to 5’7”. Also, women typically have less muscle mass than men—even the physically fit ones.

So, the initial question of: “What bike should I buy?” or “What bike should my wife/daughter/girlfriend/sister buy?” is always a hot topic around here.

There are a few other factors that influence buying besides size, however. Attitude and personality also matter a LOT. A new rider should honestly evaluate her athletic ability and her mindset when shopping for a bike. If you’re the angry or stubborn type, go for a more aggressive bike! You’ll learn fast enough to work through the less-forgiving aspects, and will appreciate the higher performance attributes. If you get intimidated, get a more forgiving bike that you’ll be comfortable on. There is nothing wrong with that—the careful people might have slightly longer learning curves, but they also spend less time in the emergency room. It’s just a difference in perspective and mindset and you should honestly analyze what type you are.

I will try to explain the two stroke—four stroke thing. Two stroke engines make horsepower in a very startling way. Throttle control is key when riding one! If you grab a handful of throttle, the bike does not accellerate in a linear fashion. This isn’t necessarily a barrier that can’t be overcome, but it does make learning harder. The advantages to two strokes is that they will start very easily, cost very little to repair and don’t weigh as much. Smaller four strokes and trail bikes are air-cooled (no radiator). They weigh a little bit more and some of them can be a [@#$%&*!] to start. But, the horsepower delivery is smooth and calm. This is a very good thing for beginners.

The new four stroke race bikes fall in between. They’re still slightly heavier than two strokes, and they still don’t start quite as easily (sometimes) but they are fast AND smooth(er). Also taller. Very fun to ride, however.

I’ll use a rating system of 1-10 to describe weight and horsepower, with 1 being lower in weight, and 10 heavier; and 1 being little horsepower, and 10 being lots of horsepower. All seat height specifications are from the manufacturers’ Web sites.

Here’s a rundown of a few common beginner bikes, and their advantages and drawbacks.

Four strokes


1. XR 100/CR100F. Seat height—30.5”. The XRs have been around for years, with a long history of happy customers. They don’t boast much in the way of suspension or horsepower, but they require little maintenance and can take a beating that would amaze you. I’ll put them around a 2 on the scale for both weight and horsepower. They have drum brakes, which aren’t extremely effective. There are very few aftermarket parts available for them; once a rider is ready to move up, it’s easier to sell than to modify. They aren’t the sleekest looking bike out there, but that’s not too important—well, maybe a little bit. The CRF is nearly identical with a few minor updates. The XR will probably be phased out very soon.

2. CRF 150. Seat height—32.5”. This is Honda’s new and improved version of the XR. Still an air-cooled four-stroke, they make a little more horsepower and boast better suspension, disc brakes in front and sleeker bodywork. Let’s put them around 3 for horsepower and 4 for weight. There are quite a few aftermarket parts available through BBR, White Brothers, and a few other sources.

3. XR 200. Seat height—33”, give or take. This is the big sister (or brother, if you prefer) to the XR100. Same everything, but heavier, and more power. Pretty common beginner bike, with all the same advantages and drawbacks as the XR 100. I’d say it’s maybe a 5 for power, a 8 for weight. They are no longer being produced, but there are still plenty of them out there.

4. CRF 230. Seat height—34.1”. Another newish offering from Honda, the CRF 230 is an updated version of the XR200. It’s not much lighter, but it has electric start, disc brakes, better suspension and new pointy racy plastic. Power—6, weight—8. There are quite a few aftermarket parts available through BBR, White Brothers, and a few other sources.

5. XR250. Seat height—36”. This is a pretty heavy bike, but has better power and suspension than the XR 100 and 200. If you’re tall and strong this is a great bike—but the weight and height are pretty intimidating for a smaller rider. Power—6, weight—9.


1. TTR 125E and 125LE. Seat height—125E, 30.5”; 125LE, 31.7”. It’s a perfect fit for many women with its light weight and clean look. The shorter version has drum brakes, the taller has a disc brake only in the front. Horsepower—4, weight—4.

2. TTR 225 and 250. Seat height—225, 34.2; 250, 36”. They’re heavy. Really heavy. A lot of women have gotten them due to the electric start and low seat height, but they’re heavy. Many ended up trading for a lighter model. Did I mention they weigh a lot? Power—6, weight—10!!!!

Kawasakis and Suzukis

1. KLX/DRZ 125 and 125L. Seat height—30.5” for the standard model, 32” for the L model. These two models are darn near the same for all intents and purposes except colors, and are pretty close to the TTR as well. There are two models, only differences being wheel size and brakes. The larger model has a front disc brake and the smaller one has a drum. Horsepower—4, weight—4.

2. KLX 300. Seat height: 36.4”. This isn’t really a beginner bike for most, but I do know some who made it their first off road bike. It’s fairly heavy and a little hard to start, from what I have heard. Power—6, weight—9.

Other 4-strokes

1. Four-stroke CR, YZ, RM and KX 250s. These aren’t bad choices for longer-legged riders. While they are race bikes, they do not have the lightswitch-like two-stroke powerband. They’re certainly not slouches but they are much smoother. They are also lighter than many of the above mentioned 4-strokes. The Honda and Yamaha models are also available in off-road modesl with trail gearing, lights, big gas tanks, kick stands and electric start. Horsepower—8, weight—7.

2. BBR 120, 150, 200, 220, 230, 250 et all. Brown Brothers Racing is a company begun by two brothers who started modifying bikes in middle-school shop class. They’re not cheap. There are enough of them out there that it’s possible to find used ones every now and then, but they’re certainly not common. The Browns do an amazing job of making a handmade bike feel like an extension of your hands and feet on the trail. If you can afford one and are 5’5” or shorter, they are AMAZING. They don’t really make tons of horsepower, but you do get the best of both worlds—the suspension far surpasses the TTRs and CRFs of the world, but in a small enough package that the inseam-challenged can feel comfortable. The small size does make them feel “twitchy” in the woods or a rough MX track, just as any other small-wheeled dirt bike would. Horsepower—4, weight—3.

Two strokes

Suzukis and Kawasakis

1. RM/KX 100. Seat height—34.3” The KX 100 has been out for a few years, and has a strong following of loyal riders. It’s pretty peppy—maybe too much for some beginners, but a determined rider could definitely get used to it. It’s also not one you’d outgrow too soon, since I know gals who race them who can keep up with much bigger bikes. It’s got that two-stroke zip, but there are a few accessories available for it. One is a flywheel weight which would tame down the power. Also, big gas tanks are available too for trail riding. Horsepower—6, weight—3.

2. KDX 200 and 220. Seat height: 36.2”. These are a great bike engine-wise; you get a near-perfect combination of four-stroke smoothness and two-stroke response, but the bike is a little on the heavy side and the suspension could be updated. The other problem is that while they sit a hair below most “full size” bikes (like half an inch shorter, maybe) they are pretty wide, so they feel even taller and bigger. However, I think their other qualifications can overcome that if you’re willing to deal with the size. Already set up for offroad, they come with lights, big gas tank, trail gearing, etc. Starts easily. The 220 isn’t much different from the 200. In fact some say the 220 is a little smoother. They weigh darn near the same. Power—7, weight—8.


3. KTM 105. Seat height—900mm, which is about 35”, I think. This is a new model, built for motocrossing, so I would expect a zippy powerband, which will make it difficult to manage for a while. I’m told by a KTM rep that it’s smoother and more powerful than an 85, but still a handful for a total beginner. Probably not a bad choice for a second bike or a determined rider. Parts could be hard to find.

4. KTM 200 E/XC and M/XC. Seat height—36.4”. This is a fairly aggressive bike for a total beginner. If you are tall, or really really stubborn, go for it; but while it is the same size as the KDX 200, it is not as smooth. It’s still smoother than a race bike, but not much. It IS a race bike—just built for the woods. However, despite that warning, the KTM is an excellent machine. Light for its size, powerful, and with all the off-road accessories you’d have to buy separately for a MX bike. The suspension, in comparison with the Japanese models, gives the bike a tendency to “push” or go wide in the corners but with a few adjustments or an all-out revalve, this can be corrected. Horsepower—8, weight—5.


1. EC 200. Seat height—940mm. Reportedly somewhere between the KDX and KTM 200s as far as height and power characteristics. The power is said to feel more lively than the KDX, not as abrupt as the KTM. I might worry about parts availability somewhat. Horsepower—7, weight—5.

2. Pampera 250 and 280. Seat height—860mm, which is around 33”.This is a great bike especially for trail riders. It’s low to the ground and while it is a two stroke, the power is very smooth, maybe even a bit “flat.” It’s an odd kind of cross between a trials bike and an enduro bike. Aggressive riders may find the suspension somewhat limited, and I have heard rumors of some issues with low quality parts. It is reportedly difficult to start due to high engine compression, so it might frustrate a shorter rider or one who hasn’t developed “kicking” leg muscles yet. However it fills a great niche for short-legged trail riders. Power—6, weight—maybe a 6?

Other 2-strokes

1. KX, CR, RM, YZ and SX 125s. I’m going to discuss all of the various 125 two strokes here because while there are some differences, they’re pretty darn close. Most are between 36 and 37” in height, which is kinda tall. Most have pretty abrupt power—it’s either on or off. Most have wonderful suspension that will seem stiff at first but soon allows you to go over things you might have to go around on lesser machines. If you’re gonna trail ride one even if it’s NOT your first bike, I’d highly recommend a flywheel weight and different gearing, otherwise you’ll be stalling constantly. They’re not completely out of the realm of possibility but it takes a very determined person to learn to ride on one. Again, height makes a lot of difference. If you can touch the ground on one, it helps a lot. If you’re trying to tiptoe from the seat AND learn to ride, things get complicated fast. Horsepower—7, weight—4.

2. CR, YZ, RM, KX and SX 80 and 85s. Here we’ve got the same principle as above—hard-to-control power, great suspension, light weight, but in a smaller vehicle. Now the seat height might fit some gals much better, but the engine is even worse than the 125 as far as being either ON or OFF. Again, for some riders these are the hot ticket, but for others, it might ruin the riding experience. Not for the faint of heart. Horsepower—5, weight—2.

Things to think about

In addition to weight, suspension and brakes, another important thing about a bike is its ergonomics. The “rider compartment”—industry jargon for the seating and handlebar position—can make quite a difference as you learn, but in the beginning it isn’t super important. For instance, some people like narrow bars, some wide; some move the bars forward, some back; some like hard seats and some soft. Every rider is different and there are a few ways to customize your bike. The cheapest, easiest way is to try different bends of handlebars. You can also experiment with different grips; harder compounds can cause blisters, but provide better grip when covered with mud. Softer grips are easier on your hands but wear out really fast. Also, any bike can be modified to your preferences. Different sized sprockets allow you to change the gearing for your riding terrain AND riding style; “taller” gearing is better in wide open spaces. You’ll have a higher top speed, but climbing hills can be more difficult. “Lower gearing is the opposite; you can climb like a mountain goat, but might get left behind in the desert. The best thing to do is try everything and do what works for you, even if your friends or significant other or whom-else-ever says “it’ll never work” or “it will cause problems like . . . “ I hear that all the time about my bike set-up (tall, narrow bars, levers rolled way down) but hey, I like it.

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Most people here are aware of the benefits four-strokes have as beginner bikes: Typically mellower power, and so forth. Some models have e-start, and it can be argued that the maintenance is lower, certainly for the older air-cooled models and in some cases for the newer ones.

However, four strokes have their drawbacks too. Some of these include being heavier, having a higher center of gravity and being difficult to start when hot (in non-e-start form). Further, many of the models favored for beginner riders have inadequate brakes and suspension.

Keeping the rider’s size, overall athletic ability, any prior experience with street or dirt bikes in mind, two strokes have advantages to a beginner that are often ignored.

A two stroke is lighter, which is beneficial to someone who will probably be crashing and picking up their bike frequently.

They are, when in good running condition, easier to start hot OR cold. They will also bump start more easily.

A beginner is not going to replace pistons in a two stroke at the rate a fast rider would, which negates many of the maintenance complaints. Also, while people sneer at the thought of mixing gas, in reality this is a task which takes approximately 30 seconds and is not difficult to do.

The same touchiness of throttle which is commonly thought of as a bad thing, can also save a rider in a tough spot: A quick blip of the throttle can sometimes pull you out of what could have been a bad situation. It is known by most riders with even a small amount of experience that the throttle will save you more often than it will get you in trouble. Being able to loft the front tire or even just keep the front end light may make a tough section of trail easier to conquer. When a rider is just beginning, and doesn’t yet have the judgment or ability to read a trail and pick lines accordingly, this can be quite beneficial. I can count the times I chose a perfectly rotten line and was able to get the front wheel over a rock or root (that I could have gone around) in time to save myself from a fall.

Most current models of two strokes are ones that include higher quality, modern, adjustable suspension and disc brakes front and rear. Additionally, plastic and other accessories are more readily available.

If a rider feels a two stroke may be what they want but are turned off by MX bike characteristics, remember that a two stroke that has been geared down slightly won’t be nearly as prone to low-speed stalling; some riders also add flywheel weights, though those have arguments both pro and con that are worth considering before you take that step.

There also no longer seems to be a separation between motocross and trail riding when it comes to bike selection. Two strokes are found in plenty both at enduros and at MX races. Bike selection is far, FAR more dependent on rider PREFERENCE than it is, size, weight, riding ability, riding experience or gender.

So when shopping for a first bike, or when you’re ready to move up a step, don’t discount two strokes until you’ve ridden one. Despite the current popularity of four-strokes, “smokers” aren’t dead nor will they be.

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