Which Dirtbike is For You? What You Want Versus What You Need

Dec. 01, 2004 By Rick Sieman
A whole bunch of the e-mail we get ask the same question: "Which is the best bike (dirtbike, motorcycle) for me?" Many of them provide information that they feel is supposed to aid us in telling the reader which bike to choose. Example: "I'm five feet six inches tall and weigh 124 pounds. Which bike should I buy?" [Like, for example, the two persons that read this article and then immediately asked that exact question and gave Super Hunky that exact same info to work with! Read the article again, boys...]

That is one tough question, and one that does not have a cut and dried answer But we can offer some solid advice on which bike you should choose. Often, however, the bike you "want" and the bike you really "need" are worlds apart.


Your skill level will have a lot to do with the bike you really need. There's no way in the world for example, that a beginner would need something as violent as a 500 Motocrosser. Yet, how many people are willing to admit that they are beginners?

Want a big heavy bike that's reliable? Try an XR 650.

What you want to do with the bike is also critical. If you spend most of your time fun riding or trail riding with your friends, you certainly do not need a full-blown racer.

If you are now racing or are considering starting racing, then you should get a real racer, not a trail bike. If you're not sure of what you really want to do, then you might consider a more-or-less all-around bike.

You might even have to make sure that the bike you buy is street legal, because it might be your sole source of transportation to work and back, or to school.

So, with all these things in mind, sit down with a sheet of paper and make a list like this:

  1. How much money do you have to spend?

  2. Will you have to finance the bike, or can you pay for it in cash?
  3. What is your riding skill level?
  4. What kind of riding will you mostly be doing? MX? Trailriding? Some street and some dirt?
  5. Are you good at maintenance?
  6. What shops (by brand) are relatively close to where you live?
  7. What kinds of shops are they? Mostly street? Heavy into dirt? A good mixture? Is the dealer race oriented?
  8. Are you growing in height or weight at a regular pace? Or are you pretty much stabilized?
  9. What do you weigh and how tall are you?
  10. What is your physical condition? How strong or athletic are you?

You now have to sit down and honestly answer these questions. No one is grading you on this test but yourself. Cheat on it, and you cheat yourself.

  1. Money. Can you afford what you want? If you have 500 bucks to spend, don't chase around like a Loony Tune trying to buy a brand-new 125 whatever. Use your head and buy the cleanest and best-conditioned bike you can buy for the money.

    A good solid older bike is a YZ 400 or 465. Stay away from the 490.
    There are no magic deals in the real world, and you are not going to find some chump who'll give you a perfect bike for low bucks, If you're on a budget, buy a bike you won't have to spend a lot on. And do not buy a bike that has expensive parts.

  2. If you have to finance a bike, your choice will be limited by several things. Many dealers will not be able to finance a bike unless it can be licensed. This means a street-legal, dual-purpose bike if you plan to venture off-road. Many riders buy such a bike, then strip it down a bit, add real knobby tires and go have a lot of fun riding.

    If you find yourself in such a position, then the bike you choose should be more dirt than street oriented. If you have to buy a street-legal bike and want to ride it in the dirt, think about bikes in the 250cc range. No matter what anyone tells you, the big 500 and 600 cc street-legal trail hikes are really piles off-road. Some are better than others, but any decent 250 will run circles around one of these lard buckets when the trail is get the least bit gnarly.

  3. Just about any used RM 250 is a viable candidate.
    Skill. Do you have any? Or are you just getting into the riding sport? If you re new, get a mellow bike and you'll probably learnt better riding skills in direct proportion to the number of hours you spend in the saddle.

    Get a bike that's way too much or your skills, and you'll spend most of the time in an advanced state of terror, or picking your new bike up off the ground. A bike that's easy to ride will encourage you to try things and to explore the outer edges of your expanding skills.

  4. Types of riding. If you're genuinely going to race motocross, then by all means, get a MX bike. If you plan to mostly trail ride, then get a fun, trail bike. The XRs and such are good for this.

    If you want to ride some enduros or hare scrambles, then an enduro bike is the direction to go. They also make excellent trail/play bikes and can be successfully raced in desert arid cross-country in relatively stock trim.

  5. Unless the bike is well maintained, stay away from the older CR 250s.
    Can you handle wrenches? Are you good with tools? If not, consider a simple bike with very little in the way of trickery. An air-cooled two-stroke with no wild exhaust gimmicks is very easy to work on. A liquid-cooled four-stroke single is a nightmare when it comes to a basic top-end rebuild.

  6. If you live close to a savvy Yamaha dealer who's into dirt hikes, you're a fool not to take your business to this man. However, if you live close to a Honda shop that's bug-nuts over Gold Wings and has no dirt bikes on the floor, look elsewhere.

  7. Make sure that the dealer you buy your bike from is a heavy dirt bike shop. Some Kawasaki dealers, for instance, could care less about KXs and want to sell you bright new Ninjas that'll do the quarter in ten flat. Other KX dealers are proud to be Team Green boosters and will have all the inside tricks on how to make the best KXs in town. Investigate.

  8. Are you 14 years old and growing like corn stalks in a bucket of steroids? If you buy a mini, will you be too tall for it in six months? Only you can answer this. It's better to buy a bike that's a little bit too big for you than one that's a little too small if you're in the growing years.

  9. The CR 500 is good choice for a big two stroke.
    If you weigh 225 pounds and are six feet five inches tall, forget about 125s. Think large-sized 250s and mellow big bikes. The bike should fit you. One good rule of thumb is this: If you cant start the bike easily, don't buy it.

  10. Are you strong enough to ride a 500 all day long? Are your reflexes fast enough to deal with an explosive 250 racer? Can you take the pounding a big four-stroke will deliver over bad whoops?

    If you're not real strong, you must consider lightweight and easy-to-handle bikes. Big boys will want big toys. Again, one of he best gauges of whether a bike is too much for you or not is the acid nest: Can you start the bike easily? If you can't, look elsewhere.

Bottom line time. If you're on a budget, think mellow. middleweight, used enduro bikes. Just buy the best one you call find in your price range and go out and have some fun. Kawasaki 200s are perhaps some of the best buys and most underrated bikes in this group. They are also absurdly easy to work on, and parts are cheap.

Honda XRs also fall into this category, as do DR, and TT bikes in the 250 class. Stay away from the big bikes in this range unless you are a big, strong fellow with a strong leg.


Good used race bikes are not easy to come by. Budget racers will have to seriously consider two-or three-year-old Suzuki RM 250s, because they handle well, have good suspension, and parts are cheap. Consider a clean Yamaha if the price is right.

Nothing seems to be as tired as a used Honda 250, and a used KX 250 is like a hand grenade waiting to go off. Stay away from any used big-bore Kawasaki. Don't buy any used European bikes except for a KTM.


Good, reliable used minis are YZs and RMs. That's it. KXs get tired very quickly, and used CRs are pricey. The tried and true, good old Honda XR is a good bet - if the bike is in good shape mechanically. If it's clapped out, forget it. A bike that many tend to overlook is the Suzuki DS80. This little two-stroke will blow the doors off any XR and is dirt cheap to own and maintain.


European bike? Forget it unless it's a well cared for KTM.

If you want a good, solid used 125 MXer, grab a clean RM125 and jet it right, gear it for your needs, and have fun.

Used 250 MXer best buys would be YZ and RMs.

Used big bikes would XR 400s, 500s and 650s.

In the enduro bike market any late WR 250 would be a decent mount, but a KDX200, any year, would be a better bike.

If you must have a four-stroke, consider an XR200/250 or a Suzuki DR250. Dollar for dollar, it's hard to beat the value of a used Suzuki DR, but the performance of a KDX is almost inarguable.

For Street legal/dual purpose, the SP250 is our pick, used. New, the Honda XL 250 seems to have the edge.


Let's say you had to pick just one bike, and you weren't really sure what you wanted. You like to trail ride, perhaps race every once in a while, and maybe even want to spend a few bucks on making the bike faster.

Picking a used bike is confusing.

We have a suggestion. The KDX200. You could enter a National enduro with it and perhaps win the overall if Team KTM didn't show up that day. You could also go out and more than likely do well in a desert race in your class.

You certainly wouldn't give away too much in the Junior class at the local motocross on the KDX, even though it would be too slow in the Intermediates.

And for good old-fashioned trail riding, there simply isn't a finer machine, in spite of its few flaws.

You could do worse.

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