Thinking Small, Take Two

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

Fast on the heels of my rant last issue about bikes getting bigger and the virtues of riding small, I just happened to find myself at three different events over the past few months, riding a different “small” bike at each one. I didn’t plan any of this, it just happened, a triple dose of serendipitous experiences that served to underscore, at least for me, why riding small can be so much fun.

The first dose was at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in early June, when I had the opportunity to ride a new Royal Enfield Himalayan to the track for Vintage Motofest/Rockerbox, picking the bike up at RE’s Milwaukee headquarters. I loved RE’s little adventure bike and the experience reminded me of how fun small bikes are riding back roads. My “collection” of bikes includes a 1976 Suzuki GT185, a fun little 2-stroke twin that simply begs to be ridden. Probably the most reliable bike I’ve ever owned it always starts first try, and like a dog eager for a walk it’s always happy to head out for a spin. A slow spin, actually, because while it will cruise along comfortably at 55mph, the GT185 is more of an around-town rider than anything else, where the Himalayan is actually highway capable, maintaining 70mph with seeming ease. And the Himalayan gets better mileage, too, returning 50mpg during the three days I rode it versus the GT185’s 35-40mpg.

A few weeks later I found myself in Chicago for the Motoblot Street Rally, my first visit to the Windy City in years and my first time to take in Motoblot. Anchored next to the All Rise Brewing Co. and the Cobra Lounge, Motoblot is more street party than vintage motorcycle show, and it’s a hoot. If I lived in Chicago, I’d go every year. And thanks to good friend Burt Richmond I was on another small bike, this time a 1971 Suzuki Stinger. The Stinger’s design cues — high, straight pipes, a flat seat and tank, and an almost horizontally configured 125cc 2-stroke twin that looks like it’s ready for the GP — suggest speed and track capacity, of which it has neither. Yet it’s one of the coolest little bikes I’ve ever ridden, and a reminder of how Japan’s Big Three got so big, their willingness to push boundaries and expectations delivering unexpected prizes like the Stinger. The little twin is as smooth as an electric motor, and it spins up quickly and happily, allowing surprisingly quick launches from stoplights, and the 5-speed gearbox shifts flawlessly. About the only letdown is the suspension (too soft) and the brakes (not strong enough). Throw on some serious binders and a bit of suspension and the Stinger would be one of the greatest little bikes ever built.

The weekend after July 4 found me in Lexington, Ohio, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Vintage Motorcycle Days. We’d scheduled a little show and ride on Friday, but last-minute projects meant we had to fly instead of drive to Ohio. That left the small problem of finding bikes to ride, but fortunately the guys at Janus Motorcycles came to the rescue, loaning me and ad man Shane Powers a new Gryffin and a Phoenix for our little blast through the surrounding area. I’d ridden the Gryffin before (we reviewed it in the July/August 2018 issue), and it was fun to swing a leg back over the little single to once again be reminded of how fun small can be.

Interestingly to me, but maybe not surprising given my old-school attitudes — and decided affinity for vintage over modern — my favorite of the trio was the Stinger. Avant-garde when new, it’s just plain odd looking to most people today. From its styling to its technical specifications, there’s nothing normal about the Stinger, which probably goes a long way in explaining why it was a flop. Yet it’s a spectacular little bike, leading to a new problem:

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