That title might be the title of a romantic novel by Jane Austin, but I’m applying it to bikes. And I reckon it’s appropriate, because bikes can have very different characters (just like the people in the novel!) and also bring lasting love, or heartache, depending on our choice and the reasons for our choice.
The novel (for those, like me, who haven’t read it), revolves around two sisters; one named Elinor, who’s character responds more to reason and practicality (or “sense”), and one named Marianne, who’s character responds more to emotion and passion (“sensibility”). And when it comes to choosing a bike, we can be an Elinor, or we can be a Marianne.
Manufacturers tend to aim their products at Mariannes; because we (the buying public) are more likely to respond to emotions than to practicalities. Can you imagine a manufacturer advertising their latest model by saying that they’ve deliberately restricted power to make it easier and more practical to ride; and deliberately softened the handling to make it more comfortable? No, I don’t think so! Look at almost any add and you’ll see an appeal to our emotions. It might be a sports-bike with the rider in a racer’s crouch carving up a winding ribbon of road, or some other such image that is designed to appeal to our “racier” emotions. But you won’t see many (if any) adds that are designed to appeal to our sense of practicality. That’s boring! And even for those people (like me) who write about them, calling a bike “sensible” can be akin to giving it the “kiss-of-death”! Today, bikes are increasingly designed to appeal more to the Mariannes, and less to the Elinors. As Motorcycle Trader’s Spannerman wrote in a recent article, “what we’re witnessing now is the invisible hand of market forces creating a demand and then matching it”.
Okay, so what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making bikes that appeal to the emotions? After all, we’re all passionate about bikes aren’t we? Well, nothing; provided you’re buying a bike to satisfy a particular desire, purpose or passion. But if your intended use is more general, then buying on passion rather than practicality might not be such a good thing. For example, put Marianne on a sports-bike and get her to do an interstate trip, or even a long day-ride, and see what happens. (Okay, let’s assume she isn’t 25, got a cast-iron butt and a back made of spring-steel!). At the end of the ride she’ll be looking for the nearest chiropractor!
At the 2006 Sydney Motorcycle Show, the most comfortable bike I sat on was the Yamaha XJR1300. It looked so “retro” you’d think it’d been dragged in off the nearest 2nd-hand lot! But it sure was comfortable! And, according to reports, it’s also a good bike on the road; not for blasting around Eastern Creek at ten-tenths, but for everyday real-life type riding.
The Suzuki GSX1400 (pictured on the left and at the top of this article) is another retro-style bike; and one that a couple of regular readers own. Take a look at it. Look at the seat – wide and comfortable. Check the riding-position – up-right, with just enough lean-forward to take the weight off the spine. And being a naked means that engine-heat escapes easily. Fully-faired bikes are great on the open road and expressways, but around town and at slow speed they trap engine heat and become very hot for the rider. A naked or semi-faired bike can be a lot more sensible. Yes, naked bikes start to get uncomfortable at high speed from the wind, but fitting a screen – as the reader has in the photo on the left – goes a long way towards curing that problem.
So am I saying that we should all be riding naked retro-style bikes? No, not at all! If a sports-bike is what you really want, that’s fine! Or if your preference is for a cruiser, or a trail-bike, again that’s fine! It’d be a boring old world if we all rode the same sort of bike wouldn’t it! And, depending on your point of view, for you a “sensible” bike might be a bike to buy, or it might be a bike to avoid! But what I’m saying here is that in many cases bikes have evolved into more specialist beasts; specialist beasts that are less suitable for every-day riding than their predecessors. That’s because manufacturers often develop one aspect of a bike at the expense of others.
Now, as I said above, that’s okay if you buy a bike for one particular riding-style or purpose; and some people buy a number of bikes, each to fulfill a specific purpose or riding style. But if you can only afford one bike, and you want it to cover a wide variety of riding duties, then you can find yourself being disappointed. For example, if all you want your bike to do is take you for a quick blast along a winding road, or fang around on a track-day, then the latest super-sports will do you fine! And if what you’re into is long-distance touring, then a big tourer will satisfy you very nicely. But what if you want a bike to commute around the suburbs during the week, carve up some twisty roads or go for a long day-ride on the weekend, as well as do some touring on the annual hols? Well, that’s when the compromises begin to show! And that’s where the trend away from “sense” and towards “sensibility” starts to be a problem.
You’ve just got to look at how sports bikes (particularly the “super-sports”) have developed to see what I mean. Great for ultimate performance, but for anything other than a race-track they are really becoming quite impractical. In many cases anyway. And you see the same trend, to a lesser degree, in other bikes too. In my test of the Suzuki Bandit(which, I hasten to add, remains a very sensible bike!), I mentioned how the up-dated styling now included a seat that was a little less comfortable than the previous model’s. A case of style taking precedence over function. Another example of style taking precedence over function is the current trend to under-seat exhausts. Yes, they look very neat, but if you’re stuck in traffic on a summer’s day in Queensland then you’re probably not going to be liking them very much!
An example of how sensible bikes can develop into something less practical was the 2005 Triumph Sprint ST. They up-dated the styling and improved the bike’s dynamics, making it more sporty. Yep, looked much better, and also handled better. But in the process it became less suitable for touring and every-day riding. I reckoned it was a backwards step for what had been a superlative sports-tourer. Apparently many owners and potential owners felt the same. (And to their credit, Triumph responded by changing the seat and bars to restore the touring / commuting comfort of the previous model. Although the under-seat exhausts remain).
The Yamaha FZ1 is another example. That was a bike that I used to like. It was comfortable to sit on, had a good riding-position, and a small fairing. Then in 2006 they changed it. They made it more sporty. Now it feels cramped and not as comfortable as before. Previously it had been a good muscle-bike and also a good sports-tourer; but now it’s pure muscle-bike.
Becoming more focused on one area naturally does detract from a bike’s over-all practicality. In the April 2007 edition of Two Wheels, columnist Kevin Ash was calling for sports-bikes to become more practical; in particular with regard to their ability to carry luggage. You see, Kevin likes sports-bikes, but he wants to be able to ride them to some distant location to enjoy their abilities. But as he says, “If you can’t even strap your lunch to the seat of your R1, you’ve reached the point where (even) a day trip is starting to stretch your bike’s utility”. It’s a good point. Not being able to carry luggage is a definite limitation I reckon. In my article “A Bag On The Back” I wrote about the advantages of having some carrying-ability on your bike. Somewhere to put the bread and milk that you’ve got to pick up on the way home, somewhere to put your lunch on your day-ride, as well as carry “essentials” like wet-weather gear, a first-aid kit, and so on. But if you can’t fit a bag to your bike, then you severely limit it’s practicality. Kevin Ash concludes that, “Modern sports-bikes are little more than toys, which is a wicked waste of the best engines and chassis in the history of motorcycling”.
Personally, as I’ve already mentioned, I reckon sports-bikes aren’t practical bikes to own for every-day riding conditions anyway – even if they did come with some luggage-carrying capabilities. And a letter published in Cycle Torque a little while ago expressed the same sentiments: “True sports bikes are only suitable for track work and shortish rides”. But it’s not just sports-bikes. Let’s look at the other end of the scale, cruisers.
The same letter also criticised cruisers. The writer said that he got back into riding with a cruiser, but found it created back problems. “They cause you to slump”, he said. He now owns a naked bike with a slight lean-forward riding-position, which he says is “ideal for posture”. Cycle Torque’s Chris Pickett, in responding to the letter, agreed with the writer. He said, “I also have back problems when riding some cruisers and sports-bikes. I slump when on a cruiser, which causes me grief with my back; and when on the latest crotch-rocket I get pain in my neck, wrists and bum”. Now I know there’ll be people reading this who ride cruisers, but I’m sorry, I have to agree; cruisers aren’t “sensible” bikes! I’ve gone into more detail on this in my article “Cruisers”; but to briefly summarise, the inferior handling and ride quality, together with the lack of cornering-clearance, means that they are often uncomfortable on our less-than-perfect roads, they demand more concentration to ride, and are less forgiving in corners. That’s why I reckon they’re not “sensible” bikes. (But I do understand why people like them!).
So what is a “sensible” bike? Well, I reckon it’s a bike that is capable of doing a good job in a wide variety of riding conditions and duties; everything from commuting to touring to fun blasts along your favourite piece of curvy road. And it needs to be comfortable, so you don’t end up looking for a chiropractor after more than an hour in the saddle. So I suppose you could say that the ultimate sensible bike would be the ultimate all-rounder. And I reckon that for many – or even most – of us, who want to do all these things but can only afford one bike, then a sensible bike will make for the happiest choice.
Okay then, are there any out there? Well, of course there are! Finding a bike that perfectly fits the bill in each of the above areas is probably difficult, (Spannerman reckons such a bike doesn’t exist today!), but you can certainly get bikes that are sufficiently adept at all these roles to pass the test of being what I would term a “sensible” bike.
I’ve already mentioned the Yamaha XJR1300 and Suzuki GSX1400, and I reckon they’d fit the bill; although personally I’d prefer some sort of fairing. Which brings us to sports-tourers. Okay, maybe I’m biased; but I’ve ridden a lot of different bikes, from trail-bikes to sports-bikes to cruisers, and I reckon sports-tourers are great all-round sensible bikes. The good ones anyway. Some examples? Well, the Suzuki Bandit (despite it’s slightly less comfortable seat) I described as a very sensible bike – even jokingly suggesting that the “S” in it’s name stood for “Sensible”! It also fared very well in my comparison of sports-tourers; because it was comfortable, easy to ride in all conditions, and good at everything it did. (In fact it was so “sensible” that, at the time I rode it, I was tempted to buy it!). The Triumph Sprint ST, that won my vote as best of the bunch, I also consider to be an eminently sensible bike (especially with it’s standard panniers). And of course there are many others too that are comfortable, easy to ride, and do everything well.
Now I accept that many of you will hold different views to this. For example, a mate of mine who I mentioned in the article on “Power”, would disagree with my description of the XJR1300 and GSX1400 as being “sensible bikes”. In fact he’d probably disagree with the others I listed too, because he reckons mid-size machinery is where it’s at in terms of “sensible” bikes. Of mid-size bikes he says, “I can cruise all day anywhere up-hill and down-dale at the speed-limit, and easily out-accelerate the other traffic. They're big enough to be comfortable to tour on, but light enough to easily wheel around in the shed. Why would you want anything bigger?” He also points out that they’re cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain. You’ve got to admit he has a point! And as one who has spent a lot of time riding an XJ600 Yamaha (a very “sensible” bike!), I’m also a fan of mid-size bikes. Although I do find larger bikes (like those mentioned above) to be more comfortable, as well as providing that extra bit of “fun-factor” in performance. But you could certainly make a good case for the ultimate “sensible bike” being a good mid-size sports-tourer.
Okay, so where does all this leave us? Well, I suppose it depends on whether you’re an Elinor or a Marianne! And it also depends on whether you want a bike for a particular riding style or situation, or a bike to cover a wide range of riding duties. I suppose there’s a bit of Marianne in all of us, but if you’re buying a bike for a wide variety of riding conditions then it’s Elinor who’s going to end up enjoying the ride – every ride, in all conditions – the most. And I reckon that, especially as we get older, we’d do well to be an Elinor when it comes to choosing a bike. “Sense” and “sensibility”; it’s an important choice, and the secret to a long and happy relationship – not just in a romantic novel, but in motorcycling too!
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