Two years ago, in the depth of winter, I was wandering around a Honda dealership thinking about investing £8,000 in a new bike when something tucked away at the side of the showroom caught my eye.
There, incongruous among the sparkling new machinery, stood an eight-year-old BMW R1100RS sports tourer in what looked like pristine condition. It had ABS, panniers and only 15,000 miles on the clock. Even with frost twinkling on the pavement outside I could imagine belting through the Spanish Pyrenees with the sun baking my leathers. "We've had that hanging around since June," the salesman confided. He offered me a generous deal.
Reader, I bought it. I have gone through a couple of sets of tyres, doubled the mileage and not experienced a single mechanical fault. The technology is a decade old, but it is a fast, supremely comfortable, ultra-reliable motorcycle. I get a real buzz every time I overtake a rider on a state-of-the art machine.
It confirms my belief that few motorcycles are ridden to anything approaching their limits and that nobody need break the bank to have fun on two wheels. Winter is a very good time of year to put that theory to the test.
The number of used motorcycle transactions has risen from 330,000 in 2000 to 470,000 in 2005, but activity in the motorcycle market remains highly seasonal.
New bike sales are highest between March and September and the secondhand market follows that pattern. Two thirds of used bike sales occur in the second and third quarters of the year. January is a dead month for dealers. February is only slightly better. Most riders wait until they can feel the spring coming before changing or trading up.
The downside is that there can be a limited range of used machines on showroom floors. The positive perspective is that this is a tremendous time to look for bargains. I spent the first week of 2006 checking out major dealerships and was impressed by the range on offer. For speed fans, seven-year-old, low-mileage examples of Kawasaki's exhilarating ZX-9R can be snapped up for less than £3,500. For £500 more, you can get a five-year-old example of Honda's smooth V4 cylinder 100 bhp VFR800.
Similar money will buy an infinitely gentler, but distinctly practical Honda NT650 Deauville with full spec and low mileage. This much maligned but truly dependable commuter/tourer is eminently worth looking out for. Its replacement is about to reach the market and many loyal fans will be keen to trade up.
Triumph fans who cannot afford the company's latest offerings can do well too. The pre-2005 Tiger still makes a good, dependable adventure tourer and four-year-old examples can be had for around £4,000. Clean late-1990s examples of the ultra-fast Daytona 955i sell for around the same price. There are also bargains to be had on 1998-2004 Triumph Sprint sports tourers and on the unfashionable but impressive 2004 Suzuki DL650 V-Strom.
There are no guarantees, but buying a secondhand BMW from a Honda dealer or a Suzuki from Harley Davidson can work out well. No dealership exists to offer charity but as the high season looms some will be keen to clear floor space by shifting machines for which they do not stock spares or accessories.
Large-scale online dealers such as DK Motorcycles (www.dkmotorcycles. co.uk) sometimes offer clearance bargains. These are worth checking out. For a full range of values for all secondhand models dating back to 1993, visit www.parkers.co.uk. Parkers analyses 20,000 bike sales every month. Its valuations are impartial.
Nick Brown, director of research at the Motorcycle Industry Association, says increasing numbers of bikers prefer to buy new. "More than one third of bikes on the road are in the name of their original keepers and only 40 per cent have had more than two keepers."
If you fit into that category, winter is still a very good time to assess availability. There are bargains to be had because dealers can be frantic to clear remaining bikes from last year's catalogue to make room for the upgraded and replacement models that reach showrooms in the spring. Take advantage of an end-of-line bargain and you may find favourable warranty, finance and insurance deals offered with it.
But don't let fashion dissuade you from sampling the secondhand market. Born-again recreational biking has stocked Britain with a lot of high-spec motorcycles that have hardly been ridden. Riders on a budget can find three- or four-year-old motorcycles that look nearly new, have tiny (and genuine) mileages and are priced well below their new value.
I'm lucky. I get to ride dozens of new motorcycles every year. But I have never bought one. I prefer to let someone else run my bike in for me and suffer the most dramatic initial depreciation as well.Reuse content