Digestible Speed: Starting Small

| 6/12/2014 10:55:00 AM

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.

7/7/2014 12:36:03 PM

It's nice to go fast sometimes, but for the most part, motorcycling, for me, is much more of a Zen experience. The sights, the smells, the sensations of riding a bike, leaning through tight turns; that is what it's all about.

6/22/2014 8:40:40 AM

I can personally attest to the advantages of starting small. I started riding in the 1970's. Started on a Honda CA160 to a Honda CB350, which I had 3 minor crashes, to Honda CB550,Suzuki GS1000 and finally a Kawasaki Ninja 900. The progression let me hone my skills safely as my riding improved. I've had one major crash in my career when a deer ran out in front of me. I'm now 60 years old. Several years ago I realized the Ninja was scaring me because my reactions aren't as sharp as they used to be. I sold it and now ride a Honda Silver Wing. The auto trans, fuel injection and effortless riding are appreciated by someone who has been shifting gears for 45 years. Contrast my story with the story of one of my coworkers. He was 26 with his first good paying job. He wanted to get into riding badly and wanted a Hayabusa. I questioned him about how long he had been riding. He said I've ridden this buddy's bike and this other buddy's bike, but he had never owned his a bike himself. I implored him NOT to get a Hayabusa, those a great bikes, but NOT beginners bikes. He ignored my advice and bought one anyway. 3 months later he was dead. Overshot a curve 3/4 of mile from the plant on the way home and hit a tree.

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