“Why is it so heavy?” Asked my wife, as she struggled to help me lift my bike up after I’d dropped it turning into the driveway. “Because it is.” I replied. (Well, what was I supposed to say? I suppose I could’ve pointed to the big lump of a 4-cylinder engine, the 21-litre fuel-tank which I’d just filled, and… but I didn’t). “Why don’t you get a lighter bike?” She suggested. Now, there’s an invitation! And if I could find a bike that was as practical, as comfortable and pleasant to ride, and had the same sort of power, maybe I would. But that’s the rub; while the weight of big bikes might be a problem, there are certain advantages that those of us who own them like and would find hard to give up. But the weight of big bikes can indeed be a problem. And as we get older, the problem of weight becomes more pronounced. The weight of my bike is sometimes a bit of an issue for me now (obviously I suppose!), and, while I’m not looking for a smaller replacement at the moment, the day will probably come when I’ll want to take up that offer of getting a lighter bike. Of course it’s never us, is it, it’s always the bike. We say, “The bike is getting too heavy for me now.” We don’t say, “I’m getting too weak for the bike now.” But, of course, that’s what it is. Our ageing arms aren’t as strong as they used to be. Add in other conditions of deterioration (such as dodgy back, crook knees, wonky hips or whatever) and our ability to man-handle a few hundred kilos of motorcycle can be increasingly left wanting. We’re okay when everything is upright and going straight, but when it comes to low-speed manouvres, that’s when it can give trouble. And that was what happened in the incident I mentioned above. You can read more about this in the November 4, 2012 entry in my Blog, but basically what happened was I turned into my driveway at the wrong angle, somehow managed to stall it and when it leaned over I couldn’t hold it, and had to gently lay it down. It can happen while you’re pushing it around in the shed, or when you’re parking it on uneven ground etc. Recently a reader had the bike fall on top of him while he was trying to lift it onto the centre-stand. The bottom line is, if you get the bike a bit off-balance it can be too heavy to hold up. And the heavier it is, the more likely you are to get it off-balance. Even out on the road the weight is still an issue. Control is what it’s all about: you have more control over a lighter bike than you do over a heavier one. For example, try carving through the twisties on a 150kg bike and try the same road on a 250kg bike. You’ll be able to flick the lighter bike easily from side to side and adjust its line through corners, but the heavier bike will require more muscle to toss around. So we could conclude that we would ride better on a lighter bike, because we have more control. Another issue is running costs. As I detailed in my article on Mid Size Bikes, when we look at the cost of fuel, tyres, insurance, registration and so on, all these will be higher on a big bike than on a smaller one. As I mentioned in that article, mid-size bikes make a lot of sense, for many reasons, with running costs being one of the big ones. That article on Mid-Size Bikes is a good one to flick over to when considering this subject, by the way. Now, I should stress that I’m not trying to say that everyone should ride a mid-size bike – that’s not what this article is about at all! If a big bike is your choice of machine, and you are happy with that and the size doesn’t present any problems for you, then that’s fine. Motorcycling is all about choice – or should be! – and we should all be free to choose whatever we want to ride, be that a tiddler scooter or a behemoth cruiser! No, what this article is looking at is the situation where the bike is too big for the rider to comfortably handle, and down-sizing becomes an issue that the rider has to seriously consider. So, let’s get into it.
DO WE REALLY NEED THAT BIG BIKE?
That’s probably the first question we should ask, and the answer is, no, of course we don’t: we don’t need it! But when has motorcycling been about what we need rather than what we want? Well, maybe what we want can be provided by a smaller bike. Let’s look at some of the issues. I mentioned things like practicality, comfort, and power as reasons why we would be reluctant to give up our big bikes, so let’s look at some of those. We’ll take power first. How many times do you have the throttle wound against the stops? I’m guessing that, apart from those occasional fun blasts of acceleration, the answer would be, “Very rarely.” That would be my answer. Now I have to say that I love the low-down grunty power of my bike. I love the way that it pulls effortlessly up the steepest hills without even thinking about having to change down; the way that overtaking is just a twist of the wrist, again without having to change back. It’s enjoyable, it makes it easier to ride, and it introduces a greater level of safety by having a greater ability to get out of the way of danger. But I very rarely, if ever, have the throttle against the stop. So I could have a bike with less power and still get the same performance: it would just have to work harder to achieve it. And really, preferred characteristics aside, what’s so bad about having to kick it back a gear to overtake anyway? So yes, I prefer the big-engine torque, but I could do what I do with a bike of less power. And I think most people with big bikes would be the same, if they were totally honest. I should say too that power is actually one aspect that older riders sometimes become uncomfortable with. I’ve had readers say that they reach a point where they aren’t confident with handling the power that their big bike has. So, while personally I think the answer to that is just not to turn the right hand as much, for some people, having less power is not a compromise, it might be the main reason they are looking at down-sizing. Practicality is another issue. But practicality is not the exclusive domain of big bikes – far from it! Practicality is down to the type of bike, not the size of the bike. I ride an old-style retro, and this style does make for a practical bike – especially in terms of riding-position, ease of maintenance, ability to carry luggage, and so on. But a smaller bike of the same type would have the same level of practicality. Well, no, actually mid-size bikes have much greater practicality, especially when, as I mentioned above, we look at running costs. The most practical bikes, arguably, are scooters: so if we’re talking about practicality we’re not really talking about big muscle bikes! Apart from maintenance issues with some models, scooters – especially the larger ones where highway cruising is not a problem – are the pinnacle of practicality. So you can’t really claim practicality as the reason you own a big bike! Comfort was another thing I mentioned. Ah, here we come to one of the main reasons I went big! And in the photo below is a reader, Peter, looking happy aboard his big Honda. Bigger bikes are, in general, more comfortable. Okay, I know that’s a broad statement and a generalisation that I shouldn’t really make. And yes, I could name big bikes that are far less comfortable than some mid-size ones I could name. But as a general principle, if we’re looking for comfort we’re most likely to find it on a big bike rather than a small one. That’s partly because the big bike can have a bigger seat that provides greater comfort; but also, the greater weight allows it to sit on the road better – it isn’t as easily unsettled or thrown about by the humps and bumps. In many cases the suspension will be adjustable too, allowing you to dial in your preferred balance of handling and comfy ride. Also, the larger size means there is more room for you to stretch out; smaller bikes can feel cramped. So this issue can be a tough one, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker when thinking of down-sizing. There are smaller bikes out there that provide a good level of ride comfort, and also ones where the suspension is adjustable to further refine the comfort of the ride. So, we can work around these issues that we might hold up as reasons for riding our big bikes; we just need to adapt, perhaps compromise a bit, and choose carefully when we do make the switch. Choosing the right bike is the big thing: buy the wrong bike and it can be an exercise in frustration and pain – literally! Get it right and you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the switch years ago.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR
As the main reason we would want to down-size is probably weight, let’s look at that first.
The first thing to say here is that all weight is not equal. To paraphrase an old oil add, “Kilograms ain’t kilograms, Sol!” Sure, the numbers are the first thing to look at when assessing a bike’s weight, but that is just one aspect of weight. As I said, all weight is not created equal! That’s because the effect of the weight will depend on where most of those kilograms are located. Cruisers and scooters are heavier than you might expect, given their size and power, but they are usually easier to handle than other types of bike of the same weight. That’s because the weight is carried down low, giving the bike a lower centre-of-gravity. If the weight is carried higher up – as with sports-bikes etc – then it’s a bit like a reverse pendulum effect; the bike will feel “top-heavy”, and will be much more difficult to handle, requiring more strength to hold up when it’s at an angle. But the numbers are still important. For example, that full-dress Harley might be fine on the road (although you might struggle to toss it through the twisties) but it’s still going to be heavy to wheel around the garage, or push backwards if you happen to park slightly down-hill, or even hold up if you happen to stall it on uneven ground. So you’ll want to reduce the actual weight, but you might not have to reduce the numbers by as much as you’d expect because manageability can be achieved by having that weight carried lower down, giving the bike a lower centre-of-gravity. Another aspect that makes a huge difference is the location and width of the handlebars. Low, short clip-ons might make for a sporty ride, but they don’t offer good leverage on the bike. Conversely, bars that are high and wide provide much greater leverage, thereby making the bike feel much more controllable. The real test, of course, is to sit on the bike and wobble it from side to side. Perhaps wheel it back and forth a bit in the showroom and assess how manageable it would be for you to wheel around in your shed.
As I said above, most of us would rarely use all the power our big bikes produce, so we could quite easily live with a bike that produced less power. And remember, if we’re moving to a lighter bike you don’t need the same power to haul it around, so less power could well still produce the same level of performance. And even if it doesn’t, if we aren’t using all the performance we currently have available anyway, then it doesn’t really matter. The simple fact is that most mid-size bikes are more than capable of providing sufficient performance to keep all but full-on speed-freaks happy. On almost any mid-sizer, a heavy right-hand will have you in lose-your-licence land pretty quickly. And they will almost all treat hills like flat road, with just a bit more throttle applied. So what we need to look for is adequate power. You can go too far down, where the reduction in available oomph will be greater than you are happy to accept, and you’ll hate it. So look at the numbers (compare engine power to weight) and if that seems promising, give it a proper assessment when you take it for a test-ride. Remember that the power will be different in its character, but what you need to do is assess whether it is sufficient for your requirements in riding. Remember you are making a compromise here, but if you choose wisely, it will be a very workable compromise. If you’re willing to do that, I think you’ll very easily find a bike that goes hard enough to keep you happy.
This is an area where I’ve seen the downsizing experience become quite painful – literally! It’s stating the obvious, perhaps, but the two things to look at are seat and suspension. Now, I should say at this point that both can be improved. There are places that take planks and make them plush; and there are suspension specialists that will turn solid into supple. However, be careful. You know the story of the woman who marries a bloke and promises to change him into the man she wants? Yep, usually ends up in the divorce courts! And you can’t turn a bike into something it isn’t either; you can just improve what it is. If every ripple throws you into the air, and if the seat is starting to bite at the end of your 15-minute test-ride, then you’d be well advised to look elsewhere. You’ve got to start with something that is reasonable to begin with, and then look at things to improve it. If you’ve read any of my test-reports (and presumably you have!), then you’ll know that seats are a big issue for me. I’m a bit sensitive in the nether-regions, and a crook seat can be a real pain-in-the-bum – literally! Again, there are things you can do to improve a hard seat, from slipping on a sheepskin cover, and then even putting a piece of foam under that, to using an AirHawk. But, as I’ve said, look for something that is at least reasonable to begin with. For comfort you’ll want something that isn’t too narrow, and has some semblance of softness to it. Some shape is good, but be wary of seats that have a scooped-out shape that holds you in one place: you’ll be more comfortable if you can move around a bit. Suspension is usually fairly firm in standard bikes these days. On most smaller bikes all you’ll get is basic adjustment on the rear unit(s). Pre-load will be there on almost all bikes, and some might have rebound damping adjustment. If it does have rebound adjustment you’re at an advantage, because that’s at least one thing you can play with, in addition to the basic pre-load. Pre-load should, theoretically, be there just to accommodate different weight riders, not to alter ride characteristics; but we all know that varying the pre-load will make a big difference to ride. The point here is that you aren’t likely to get a lot of adjustment on smaller bikes, (super-sports are an exception – they’ll have a full range of adjustment available), but what extra adjustment is available is a good feature and puts you closer to achieving the ride that you want.
Okay, I’ve given you an idea what to look for, so how about some examples? Well, alright, if you insist! I’ll give you an example (or maybe a couple) that I think would satisfy most riders who are downsizing, in each major category.
If you’re stepping down from a big cruiser, one logical bike to try is the one that is currently (late 2013) the biggest selling cruiser on the market, the Yamaha XVS650. By cruiser standards especially, it goes well, handles well, and is even quite comfortable. It also looks like a cruiser should. There are more to come though, and at the time of writing there is a word of a forth-coming LAMS Harley, which might be out by the time you are reading this. Even the current Sportsers are a significant step down from the big boys. The Fireblade getting a bit big and toey for you? Obviously any of the 600cc super-sports will do the job as a smaller replacement. They’re all quicker than you can ever use, but some might feel a bit cramped if you’re on the tall side. Try the Triumph Daytona, pictured here. It’s easy to ride, thanks to a well-sorted chassis and a surprisingly tractable engine. You won’t be left wanting for power either! Handling and braking are all up there, and it looks good too! There’s actually a pretty good choice for nakeds – they seem to be gaining popularity. Did I just mention the Honda CB500? Yes, and its naked stable-mate, the CB500F is a great choice for a smaller naked. Good performance, good handling, quite reasonable ride, and it’s cheap! (It's the same mechanically as the 500R model, so refer to that). Yamaha’s XJ6N is just a bit bigger in engine size and probably feels like a bigger bike without actually being much bigger. It’s a good one too! The Kawasaki W800 looks more Triumph than Triumph, and has the retro / nostalgia thing happening in spades! At around 200kg it isn’t exactly light, but if you’re coming from something like a GSX1400 or XJR1300, it’ll feel light! It’s well liked and probably a better bike than I gave it credit for in my test. The Honda CB400 is a great little bike. It’s a load of fun around the ‘burbs, and looks just like those great old Honda 4s of years ago. I think the low gearing limits it a bit if you’re going to take it touring, but otherwise it’s good. The king of the Adventure bikes is the BMW R1200GS, but it’s big and it’s heavy. So try its smaller brother, the F800GS. It really is a “mini-me” version of its big brother. As a dual-purpose machine it’s probably even more practical, when the going gets knarly, than the big bike! The Suzuki V-Strom 650 is pitched into this category, although not exclusively purchased as such, and is a great bike. It looks better than the BMW, goes well, and is comfortable. And it’s great value. There is a dual-purpose version of Honda’s CB500 too that is well worth considering. I just mentioned the Suzuki V-Strom, and despite its dual-purpose categorisation (or maybe because of it!), it makes a great all-rounder. As I said above, it goes well, it’s comfortable, and it handles well. Dual-purpose bikes, by their very nature, should be ideal bikes for Australia’s varied road conditions, and the Suzuki shows that to be true. In a different style, the Honda CB500R would make a decent all-rounder too. It’s easy to ride, goes well, handles well, and cruises easily. I reckon it’d be a good all-rounder; with a sporty bent. With the maxi-scoots getting up towards 300kg, you might find your big scooter is getting too heavy to push around the garage. Some people have also complained of the weight of these big scoots when parking on uneven ground etc. So some scooters too, can be too big for us. Stepping down while still retaining the maxi feel, you could go for the Yamaha T-Max, pictured here. That’s 530cc and about 200kg ready to ride. So it’s smaller than the big boys, but still nudging into the maxi class. The Honda NSS300 Forza still claims almost 200kg, but it’ll feel a whole lot lighter than, for example, a Suzuki Burgman 650. It’s 279cc engine gives it decent power, and it’ll still tour, and carry a pillion etc. I haven't ridden one though. Okay, so that’s it. I’ve said before that mid-sized bikes are very practical, and for many of us, there comes a time when they are a necessary step down from our heavy-weight haulers when issues of manageability, or even running-costs, become problematic. The good news is, if you choose carefully, you can do the down-sizing thing and still be happy!
To get some actual “case-studies” of people who have recently moved to a smaller bike, (or considering it), click here.
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