These days there are more options than ever for buyers looking for a beginner-friendly trail bike. Beginner bikes are available in a variety of sizes and displacements, and it can be difficult to decide which bike is right for you.
The ideal beginner bike is one that is easy to ride and has relatively mellow power delivery, but has the versatility to continue being fun as the rider grows more skilled. Size is an important factor as well – regardless of their height, a beginner will feel more comfortable on a smaller machine where they can easily touch the ground.
We have been riding Honda’s CRF230F for more than a year now, first on a Honda test unit and then on a bike we purchased for my mom Kim. In that time, we have been greatly impressed by the little bike’s power, handling, and durability.
Both Kim and my girlfriend Jessie (pictured in pink MSR gear) love the 230 – Kim is 5’3″ and had some previous off-road experience, while Jessie is 5’9″ and had never ridden a motorcycle prior to learning on the CRF. Both of them have ridden the bike extensively both on the trails and on the beginner/women’s track at Lake Elsinore Motocross Park.
Both ladies were happy with the seat height and general ergonomics of the CRF, and the only change we made was adding some Renthal aluminum handlebars to replace the easily-bent stock pieces.
The 230 is a fairly heavy bike, but it carries its weight so well that you hardly ever notice it (except when pushing the bike up a ramp into a truck). The handling is neutral, relaxed, and confidence-inspiring, with surpisingly good front-end feedback and plenty of grip available at both ends.
The suspension is obviously not up to the level of a full-on motocross bike or enduro racer, but considering what the bike is designed for and its price, the 37mm right-side up Showa forks and Showa rear shock do a more than adequate job. For beginner riders in the 100-170 pound weight range the 230 is just right as far as balancing stiffness and a plush ride. Faster riders may find themselves bottoming the forks on jump landings or when braking very hard over harsh braking bumps; however, this is not the type of riding the 230 was designed for.
Designed for it or not, the CRF is plenty of fun in the hands of a more experienced rider, and you’d be amazed at the things you can make this little bike do. The suspension might bottom but it never wallows, and you can slam the bike into a berm almost as hard as any 125cc motocrosser. The only area where it falls short is on flat turns – the rear end feedback can be somewhat vague when trying to slide the back wheel through fast, flat sweepers. Best to slow down a bit and keep both wheels firmly hooked up in the flat corners.
The motor is another area where the CRF impresses. The motors of many “beginner” bikes (particularly those smaller than 200cc) are so wimpy that a rider will quickly grow out of them as he or she progresses in ability. The air-cooled 223cc four-stroke motor in the CRF, however, has plenty of grunt to have fun with, even for bigger riders. Most of the power is in the low end, and the bike signs off rather quickly on top, but relatively rapid progress can be made by short-shifting and aggressive throttle application.
More important than outright speed is the mellow power characteristic that makes it a breeze for beginners to use most of the power available without feeling frightened or out of control. The power delivery is smooth, never threatening to break the rear tire loose or causing the bike to do anything unexpected. These characteristics, combined with the confidence-inspiring handling, are what make the CRF such a great beginner bike.
A word of warning to any beginners that buy a 230: don’t let your husband, brother, son, buddy, etc ride the thing, because once they try it you’ll be lucky if they ever give it back. More than once when the whole family went to the MX track, the full-size motocrossers sat idle at the truck while my brother, my dad and I took turns lapping the little track on the 230. In fact, I enjoyed riding the 230 so much that I sometimes didn’t even bring a full-size MX bike, preferring to ride the CRF when the ladies (Kim and Jessie) were taking breaks.
I doubt if any factory engineer could have anticipated the abuse to which we subjected the poor little Honda – with three full-sized riders switching off, the bike often saw 40 minutes of non-stop pounding with pauses only to swap riders. Despite all the abuse we could give it, the CRF never protested a bit. In fact, about the only thing that ever broke were the levers when we crashed it! The air-cooled four stroke motors in Honda’s XR lineup have a well-deserved reputation for being bulletproof, and as far as we can discover the CRF230F is just as tough. Just pour in the gas, and change the oil every once in a while, and you should be good to go!
If you read the third paragraph of this article then you already know how much we liked the CRF230F – when it came time to return our test bike, we went out and bought one almost immediately. It is by far the most versatile dirt bike in our garage, and has probably seen more riding time than any of the MX machines we own. If you are looking for a do-everything trail/track bike for a beginner rider, or just a playbike that’s bigger than a 50 or 110, you can’t go wrong with the 230.
The 2005 CRF230F continues unchanged from the 2004 model. The US MSRP is 3,599. For more details and specifications, visit Honda’s web site.