Why I ride a “small” motorcycle

I’ve lost count of how many motorcycles I’ve ridden over the years, though I was able to add up the number of brands, which came to 14. Those hundred-plus motorcycles (all of them street-legal, by the way) ranged in size from 50 cc to an 1800 cc Honda Gold Wing. In the U.S. of A., “real men” tend to look askance, if not with horror, at anything in the lower half of that 50-1800 scale. Yet the motorcycles I’ve owned, the ones I actually paid my own hard-earned dollars for, have all been less than half the displacement of that Gold Wing. The biggest is the old 885 cc Triumph Speed Triple still hunkered in the corner of my garage, enjoying light duty in its semi-retirement years. When I owned a Harley it was the “girl’s bike” of the lineup. My sportbike falls into the lesser 600 class. And as for my touring bike, well, for most people in this country, it can’t even be considered a proper touring bike.

Speed Triple on a camping trip

The 1997 Speed Triple is not a bike many would consider suitable for touring, but that hasn’t stopped me from taking it a lot of memorable rides. Getting caught in unexpected snow on a fall camping trip is one kind of memorable.

Yet despite the obvious allure of power, sophistication, comfort and peer approval that comes with today’s modern sport-touring machines and big-dollar, he-manly cruisers, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that I’ll probably never own a bike bigger than that old Speed Triple. And never want to.

There are reasons for all this, of course. I am a convert to the religion of light weight. The heavier the motorcycle, the more powerful the engine has to be to move it, the better the brakes must be to stop it, the stronger the frame must be to ensure stable handling, and suddenly you’re hauling around more metal than two guys in a stolen pickup truck who just stripped the plumbing from a vacant house. As I described in another post, I went through this decision-making process a few years back when I needed a bike that was capable of touring. I briefly considered some of the liter-plus sport-touring machines, and even found a used one that was priced enticingly. Bikes such as the Kawasaki Concours 14 are impressive machines, packed with technology from electrically adjustable windscreens to slipper clutches. They’re comfortable and powerful and sophisticated and I love them. But 700 pounds? Really? In the end, I knew myself. I recognized that I generally prefer the simplest tool to do the job, not the most expensive or most impressive tool. If I was ever trying to impress anyone (other than my wife, back when she was my prospective wife), I’ve long since given up. And I knew that I would be happier if I never owned a motorcycle over 500 pounds.

Versys at Words End State Park

As far as I’m concerned, the Versys can be ridden to the ends of the earth.

That’s how I ended up with the Kawasaki Versys, which I bought new for the same price as the used 1200 cc sport-tourer I’d briefly considered. I don’t think there’s any doubt I made the right choice for me.

Others have doubts, though. Riders just a little older than me remember when a Triumph 650 cc twin was a fire-breathing performance bike. Today, the Triumph Rocket III has a bigger engine than any car my wife or I have ever owned. Today, when I tell people I’m taking long trips on a 650 cc Versys, they wonder. Is it too small? Does it have enough power? Will it stand up to high-mileage use?

What has me thinking about all this right now is a really satisfying story I just wrote for Accelerate magazine about Steve McCaa and his Versys. McCaa is part of that avid subculture of riders who are part of the Iron Butt Association, and their biggest challenge is the Iron Butt Rally, which calls on riders to travel about 11,000 miles in 11 days while navigating the continent to find specified sites and rack up bonus points. It’s a task that requires the ability to navigate and plan a complex route despite fatigue, the pure cussed stubbornness to stay on the motorcycle for days at a time, and an inhuman lack of need for sleep.

McCaa estimates that he rode his Versys about 30 days last year. Nothing unusual about that. Lots of motorcyclists in this country consider their bike a toy that emerges only for social rides on nice days, maybe 30 times a year. But the difference is that on those 30 days McCaa rode about 14,000 miles.

Steve McCaa

Steve McCaa does thousand-mile days on his Versys without hesitation.

McCaa has become the first person to qualify for the Iron Butt Rally on a Versys, a bike with about half the displacement of most of the motorcycles that will start the 2013 Iron Butt Rally this July. He says he does not feel he is at a handicap to the 1200 cc BMWs and the 1800 cc Gold Wings. I believe he’s right and I’ll be rooting for him.

But either way, I’m happy to have written the article. I can point to it the next time someone tells me that everybody knows you can’t do big miles on a “little” 650 cc motorcycle.


One Response to “Why I ride a “small” motorcycle”

  1. Rod says:

    I 100% agree with you concerning why you ride a “small” motorcycle. I grew up riding MX and made the transition to road bikes 4 years ago while working in the UK. I picked up a CBF125 (road legal) and was smitten by how I could bomb about at 75mph and get 90mpg all day. When I moved back to the states 2 years ago I was desperate to continue riding on the road. I rode pretty much everything in my friend’s Honda dealership. Being 25 at the time I had mentally placed myself on a CBR. Then I became attracted to a VFR800 but I could never find exactly what I wanted. One day John, my dealership owner friend, called saying he had something I should look at. It was an 09 Versys in blue. I was not enamoured by the looks but I was coerced to borrow it for a day. After an hour I was back inquiring after a price. It had 1400 miles on it and spotless. After another hour had past I was 4k poorer and the proud owner of a Versys. That was last May. The V now has almost 20k on the clock and has made the vast majority of my friends who ride believers. Having said that I also have had to put up with a lot of machismo BS about the capacity. Mostly from a particular BMW RT guy I know who spends most of his time leaned against his bike at Starbucks. To make a conclusion, you are not the only one out there and its great to hear I’m not a stubborn ass trying to keep up with bigger bikes.