Motorcycle Classics Blogs > Black Side Down

Digestible Speed: Starting Small

I like going fast, but as a street rider my opportunities to wick it up safely are limited. Out on the track, you’re free to push as hard as you please to find the edge of traction and control, a point appreciated by editor Landon Hall in his newfound interest in track days. But out on the street, in the world of erratic delivery vans, old ladies in Chryslers and teenagers on cell phones, pushing the edge can put you on a line to trouble faster than you can get out.

During a recent back road blast in a Subaru WRX STI, my foot buried in the throttle to push the Subaru’s 310 horsepower out to its four wheels, it struck me that today’s high-performance cars and motorcycles are so competent, so incredibly capable, that by the time you get to the point of trouble, it’s too late. You’re going so fast, everything is happening so fast, that you don’t have time to digest it. The point of no return becomes a knife edge, and unless you’ve honed your skills, you can pass that point before you even know it.

Increasingly, the bikes available to us are more competent than their riders. They’re faster and heavier, making them harder for inexperienced riders to master because the learning curve from zero skill is steep. I’ve always been a proponent of starting small for the simple reason that your chances of success, of learning how to master and control your bike, rise in reverse correlation to a bike’s engine capacity. Bikes like the venerable Honda CB350, puny by today’s standards but considered midsized back in the day, were and are a perfect learning platform.

A mainstay of the motorcycle market during the boom years of the Sixties and Seventies, the over 250cc but under 750cc motorcycle had almost been marketed out of existence. Recently, however, there have been encouraging signs the market for smaller-bore bikes is starting to come back. Honda can’t make enough new CBR250Rs, the CB500F is getting great reviews, and Harley-Davidson, the poster child for big-bore battleships on two wheels, has started producing a new series of 500cc and 750cc street bikes. After years of chasing the go-faster and bigger crowd, manufacturers are re-examining the market for smaller, and yes slower, motorcycles.

Royal Enfield CEO Siddhartha Lal thinks the midsized market is where the fun is, a point he stressed during the U.S. launch of RE’s new Continental GT. Ironically, the 535cc single-cylinder Continental GT is the biggest motorcycle the Indian manufacturer has ever made. Be that as it may, Lal is chasing the midsized market because A) it’s where RE already lives and B) he sees opportunity in expanding the category because it represents accessible motorcycling. "There's space in the market for something that's less intimidating," Lal says.

Lal shares my conviction that riding slow can be just as fun as riding fast. Sixty miles an hour on a Yamaha R1 is boring. But 60mph on a Honda CB350 — or a Royal Enfield — can be a hoot. I got to spend a day on RE's new bike, and pitching the Continental GT into a series of decreasing radius, sometimes off-camber turns on a twisty back road reminded me of just how fun riding small can be. I might have only been going 40mph, but it felt like double that as I leaned over and squirted through the turns.

My pace was fast enough to be exciting, but slow enough to let me digest every bit of the road and surrounding environment. And unlike the flyboys on their Gixxer’s, if a dog ran out, I’d be able to get out of the way. Speed's fun, but on the right bike, so is going a little slower. – Richard Backus