A reader gets in touch to ask whether one of Harley's more popular Softail models is a good choice for a first bike.
Ask RideApart: Is a Harley-Davidson Breakout a Good First Bike?
Reader's local dealership told him it's a bad idea
I am a 32-year-old guy, 6 feet 2 inches tall, about 200 lbs, and I am dead set on getting a bike. The first one that caught my eye was the Breakout. I went to my local Harley-Davidson dealer but the guy sounded like it wasn't a great idea for a first-time rider to get a Breakout due to handling. What is your feedback on this? I also like the Fat Bob but they have completely different looks. I grew up riding dirt bikes, so I'm familiar with a clutch, but don't want to make the wrong investment.
Jason, take a deep breath. Based on where you’ve set your sights, I’m guessing you’re pretty damned excited about getting into street riding. That is awesome; the motorcycling industry needs you and your enthusiasm. And, yes, a lot of the decisions we make in motorcycling are emotionally driven. But it’s a good idea to try to see this particular one with as clear eyes as possible.
I suspect you won’t want to hear this, but your local Harley dealer is right. Actually, though, that’s good news. The salesman you spoke to has put your interests, your safety, and your happiness ahead of his making an easy US $19,000+ sale. So, you may be able to rely on him to help you decide what really is right for you.
First, let’s start with why the Breakout is a bad call right now (keep in mind that doesn’t mean you should never get a Breakout).
I don’t want to sound patronizing, but I hope you’ll understand that there are far greater challenges to street riding than simply being able to work a clutch. There’s no doubt your childhood experiences put you ahead of someone who’s not ridden at all, but you will be out of practice and a Harley big twin is a dramatically different beast than a kid’s dirt bike. This is especially true of the 672-lbs big twin that is a Breakout.
As your local dealer points out, the Breakout handles a little differently than other bikes. With a design inspired by drag bikes, it has handling that somewhat mimics those enormous arm-ripping machines. Which is to say, cornering is not its strength. This is something even Harley-Davidson acknowledges. At the recent launch of the overhauled Softail line-up, a company engineer joked with me that: “the Breakout has all the lean angle you need… for riding in a straight line.”
Point is, you may find it difficult to even comfortably turn right at an intersection when astride the big, heavy, long Breakout. With some focus and saddle time on a different bike you can build your skills/confidence to ready yourself for the Breakout’s unique challenges, but let’s stop and talk about the broader issue of whether it's a good idea to choose a big twin as your first street machine.
I get it, Jason. You started your email with a physical description of yourself, which I interpret as your way of saying: “I’m a big guy. I need a big bike. Don’t waste my time telling me I’d be better off starting out with a Kawasaki Ninja 400 or something.”
As a 6-foot-1 guy, I understand where you’re coming from. Too many bikes aimed at new/newish riders seem ill-suited to those who are long of leg. (Although, be on the lookout for 6-feet-tall Adam Waheed’s report on the Ninja 400 in early February)
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Meanwhile, I’m also going to extrapolate that for you, only a Harley will do. So, the suggestion that some folks might make of getting a dual-sport or supermoto (both of which will feel more familiar to someone with dirt experience), will probably fall on deaf ears. Again, I understand. Brand can mean a hell of a lot to a person. It’s about more than just the thing with two wheels and an engine, it’s about all the emotions we connect to that two-wheeled thing.
However, you don’t want to end up being one of those cliche dudes who allows his love of an idea to blind him to the realities of his individual situation. There are sooooo many tales of dudes who go out, buy an expensive machine they’re not yet ready for, and end up crashing it within hours. Don’t be the guy who ends up on YouTube, Jason. The weight and handling of a big-twin cruiser takes some getting used to. Plus, you know, they’re pretty expensive and the odds of your dropping your first street bike are pretty high.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to start out on a 1868cc V-twin behemoth, just that it’s unlikely you’d be able to do so without encountering the sort of difficulty that causes many folks to give up. And that’s not what any of us want, Jason. We want you out there on the roads with us, having a great time. So, I’d strongly urge you to consider getting a different bike, en route to one day owning that dream Breakout.
I could list any number of bikes that might serve you well on that road – I’m sure folks in the comments will also have some good ideas – but since I imagine you’re a Harley man, let’s keep things exclusively in that realm.
For me, the 1200cc Sportster Forty-Eight probably best aligns with the visual spirit being evoked in the Breakout and Fat Bob. As a 6-feet-2 dude, you will find the Forty-Eight to be uncomfortable as hell, but I’ve got a clever tip that may work: get rid of the stock handlebars and replace them with mini ape-hangers, creating a riding position similar to the one I enjoyed on the Indian Scout Bobber last summer. You could also do the same thing with a more affordable and more manageable Iron 883 (or even a Street 500/750, though I'm guessing you won't like the looks of that model). Doing this will “open up” the riding position, leaving you feeling comfortable and in control.
No, a Sportster is not a Breakout, but take a look down for a second: Are you wearing your big boy pants? If yes, then you don’t need someone else or a specific engine displacement to define who you are. Besides, bike ownership is not Catholic marriage; you don’t have to pick one thing and stick with it for life. Going the Sportster route will allow you the authentic look, feel, and sound of a Harley in a package that is a little more manageable.
Side note: many people will argue that even an Iron 883 is a bad idea for a first street bike. By and large I’m inclined to agree with them, but I’m trying here to keep things relevant to the person who wants only Harley. Meanwhile, the strength of the Sportster route is that you should have little trouble finding a barely used recent model. This is because other folks will have done what I’m suggesting for you: get a Sportster, learn to ride the hell out of it, take a minor financial hit trading it in a year or two (or never – some folks discover they actually prefer Sportsters to the big twins), then – when you’re truly ready – get the bike you want with a greater sense of confidence and certainty.
I hope this helps, and I hope to see you out there soon.