Thinking Small Can Bring Big Benefits

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

Like cars, new bikes seem to keep getting bigger. Driving to work on the super slab here in the Midwest, the few bikes I see during my daily commute are usually big cruisers; either Harleys or BMWs, with the occasional V-Strom or similar thrown in. That makes a certain sense, because with the average rate of speed approaching something like 80-85mph these days, you have to have something big and fast to ride safely in those conditions. Those two elements — speed and safety — seem contradictory to some people, but if you can’t keep up or get out of the way, you’re definitely at higher risk.

Which probably goes a long way toward explaining what has seemed like an inexorable increase in motorcycle girth — and engine size — over the past few decades. The problem is, big, heavy bikes are harder to ride. They steer slower, often brake slower, and when they fall, they can be nigh on impossible to pick up. That last point is important, because if you like to tour solo, it’s a factor worth considering when buying a new machine. Yes, there are strategies you can learn for righting a fallen leviathan like a 770-pound BMW K1600 GTL or a 937-pound (!) Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, but they usually rely on the rider actually being fit, which is not always the case.

Motorcyclists are often horsepower obsessed, but there’s a simple way to get more, and that’s with less. “Less weight equals increased performance, gas mileage and riding fun,” opines fellow weight-watcher Brian Slark of the Barber Motorsports Museum, who says he doesn’t look at horsepower anymore when looking at a new bike. “Every bike has enough power. But weight becomes more important as we age. Anything over 500 pounds is out. Four hundred, thinking about it. Three hundred, definitely interested. The new Bonneville is nudging 500, the original about 400, that’s a huge difference.”

Yet there are some positive signs in the market. Over just the past few years, smallbore, high-performance singles and twins from Honda and Kawasaki, in particular, have been grabbing attention, but even they seem to be trending toward bigger and heavier. Kawasaki’s pint-sized performer, the EX250, was a perennial slow seller in the U.S. before morphing into the slightly larger — and heavier — EX300, now around 365 pounds dry versus the earlier EX250 at around 335 pounds dry. Yes, top speed went up, and so did, impressively, fuel economy, but the rider now has another 30 pounds to wrestle, which demands the extra horsepower.

Attending this year’s 10th Annual The Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Monterey, California, friend Stewart Ingram, a lover of small European singles from the Fifties and Sixties (check out his incredible 1961 DKW Hummel) loaned me his 2016 Ducati Scrambler — oops, my bad, Scrambler Ducati — to ride from his place in San Francisco to Monterey. By current standards, the 73 horsepower output of its 803cc engine is considered only average, but its claimed weight, 389 pounds dry, puts it at the light end of the spectrum for modern 750cc to 1,000cc motorcycles. Suzuki’s V-Strom 650 weighs in at around 475 pounds, ditto Kawasaki’s cool new Z900RS, and Yamaha’s XSR900 comes in around 430 pounds. Except for a light-switch sensitive throttle, the Ducati was lovely, agile and easy to ride, just the thing for blasting down the California coast. It’s heartening to see a mid-sized machine that seems to eschew the bigger-is-better template, and Ducati has just introduced an even lighter 399cc version, along with a 30-pound-heavier 1,100cc model. If American tastes hold true, the latter will probably be their biggest seller. — Richard Backus

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