I don't understand cruisers. Now, I know quite a few people reading this will probably own cruisers, and I have friends with cruisers, so I don't want to upset anyone with this. But I just don't understand them! Don't get me wrong, I understand what they are all about, and what their intended purpose is, but what I don't understand is they don't seem to be designed properly to perform that purpose.
There was a time when I thought my ideal bike would be a cruiser. The bike I had at the time had a slight chopper-ish style to it, and I'd kitted it out with panniers etc, so the thing had a certain "cruiser" look about it. So I was starting to get into the idea of cruisers.
I was past the boy-racer stage (if I ever actually went through that), done the trail-riding thing for many years, and so the idea of a cruiser appealed to me. Here would be a bike that you could cruise along on in a relaxed manner, just enjoying the scenery and the ride. Something with a big comfy seat, a comfortable ride and still enough power and performance to be interesting. Yep, I reckoned I was really into cruisers. In fact I reckoned my ideal bike would be a Yamaha Virago 535. Coming from a background in smaller type bikes (like trailies and small-capacity road-bikes) I didn't want anything too big, and I reckoned the 535 would be powerful enough for me. And I didn't like the styling of the bigger Viragos anyway; to me they look like something heavy has fallen on them and broken their back in the middle! So for me, I reckoned the mid-size Yammie would be ideal - until one day I took one for a ride.
First impressions were good; it was comfortable to sit on, with that big soft seat, and felt good with it's up-right riding position. The bars on this particular example were of the pull-back-and-down variety, which, despite the owner's insistence that they provided a more natural hand position, I didn't like - and they made U-turns quite difficult. But that was only a minor thing with this particular bike.
Taking it for a ride confirmed that, while certainly no rocket-ship, it had enough power for what I wanted. What surprised and disappointed me though, was the ride. The front was okay, but the back was quite harsh. Why? If these things are supposed to be something you go for a nice relaxed cruise on, why do they have such an uncomfortable ride? So I got looking at specifications. And it didn't take long to discover the reason. The Virago had twin-shocker type rear suspension - as do almost all cruiser-style bikes - while most other bikes had mono-shock rear-ends. That might be a pointer to the problem, but the key to the issue is suspension travel. The Virago had just 85mm of rear suspension travel, while most other bikes in that mid-range size had around 110mm - 115mm. That's about 40% more! And if you look at specifications of cruisers in general this limited rear suspension travel is pretty normal. And limited suspension travel means limited comfort. The spring units have to be fairly stiff, otherwise they'd bottom out as soon as you sat on them; or at least as soon as you encountered a bump. So you have a rear-end that has very little compliance and tends to bounce over bumps rather than absorb them. And to my way of thinking that is totally opposed to what these bikes should be all about!
And that's what I don't understand about cruisers! Why aren't they designed with plush long-travel suspension to provide that comfy relaxed ride that their style and purpose would suggest should be mandatory? Why is it that bikes that are designed to be so easy-riding in all other respects end up being so uncomfortable? Why is it that something that should be so relaxed and pleasurable can easily end up being, literally, a pain-in-the-butt? I don't know! But it turned me off cruisers as my ideal bike, and I ended up with a sports-tourer.
Now, I reckon that the more you look into cruisers, and the more you ride them, the more anomalies you find. At first the up-right riding position - often with the legs angled forward - seems very comfortable. But sitting vertical to the road means that all road shocks (of which there are many, thanks to the rear suspension design!) are transmitted directly to the spine. A slightly more lean-forward position is actually more comfortable and the bumps have less direct impact on the spine. A significant consideration - especially for old blokes with crook backs!
One slight reservation I had about cruisers before I'd even ridden one was the handling. Most road tests tended to put handling ability pretty low on the list of their capabilities. Although I kept telling myself that shouldn't worry me particulalrly; after all, "cruising" was going to be more my style, not playing boy-racer. But an incident shortly after buying the sports-tourer I ended up with instead, proved the worth of having high reserves of handling. I was coming down a narrow, winding mountain pass, and as I rounded a corner I met a car coming the other way and cutting the corner. There was still room to get past, but I panicked and hit the brakes - hard! The bike dipped it's nose but stayed perfectly on line and stable. And, as I chided myself for my reaction, it occurred to me that the result might have been different on a bike with less handling capabilities. It's good to have high reserves of handling. It's safer because, riding in a moderate manner, you know that even if you misjudge a corner or do something a little bit silly like this, you aren't likely of over-stepping the bike's handling capabilities. Put another way, it's good when the bike's handling capabilities are greater than your riding style is ever going to demand of it.
Another problem with cruisers is ground-clearance; or lack thereof. Of course you aren't supposed to be riding it like a sports bike, so achieving spectacular lean-angles isn't going to be a high priority. But, it does mean that on a twisty road you do have to consider the ground-clearance you have available. Sure, the foot-boards on most cruisers hinge up if they hit the road, but still, having your bike scraping the road as you corner isn't a relaxing situation! So again, compared to a more "normal" bike, it isn't as relaxing, because on a "normal" bike ridden at the same speeds you don't have to worry about anything touching the road. So the "normal" bike in this situation is again more relaxing and stress-free to ride. And a relaxing, stress-free ride is exactly the sort of thing that you'd expect - from it's stated intention of use - for a cruiser to have!
There is so much about cruisers, for an old bloke especially, to like. I love the huge comfy seats, easy-going engine characteristics, and the whole "sit-back-and-relax" nature that they are intended to promote. But the reality is that they are compromised - mainly by their rear suspension, but also by ground-clearance and other considerations. Thankfully, there are bikes coming out now that are breaking the traditional cruiser-style mold and that do provide high levels of comfort and handling etc. It's just a pity that they carry such high price-tags! As for the rest of the cruiser machines, I reckon, especially if you're an old bloke, they aren't really the bike for you. Well, they aren't the bike for me anyway; because I reckon their design lets down their intention. And I just don't understand why that is!
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