May 4, 2015

#107 Too Big, Too Small, Just Right?

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

During a test ride last fall, I decided to compare bike butt sizes. You know what I mean. To answer the age-old biker question, "Does this bike make my butt look big?" I had, in my garage, a trio of dramatically different street bikes. Two that I loved and one that I didn't like so much.

There are a variety of reasons for picking a motorcycle. The older I get, the more limited my options become. As much as I love modern MX and DP bikes, I can't get my arthritic legs over the 36" and greater seat heights. I love 'em, but I can't ride 'em.

Or, at least, I can't get on and off of them safely.

Likewise, the low seat height of most hippobikes could be attractive, but riding in that straddle-legged, feet-forward position is too painful to describe without going all Eric Cartman on my gentle readers. The three motorcycles that co-existed in my garage for a few days span the range of what I can ride comfortably, dimension-wise: the Honda VT1300, my Suzuki 650 V-Strom, and my Yamaha WR250X (at the very back). The picture at left gives you a butt's-eye view of the difference between seat height on those bikes: 26.8" (VT1300), 32.3" (V-Strom), & 35.2" (WR250X). Seated, there is almost a whole foot of difference between the seat height of the WR and the VT.

Size-wise, there is weight and there is length to consider. Size is a big deal, in my opinion, and the VT1300 is flat-out huge with a 70.3" wheelbase (101" total length) and 712 pounds wet while the V-Strom is mid-weight at 434 pounds wet and a 60.6" wheelbase and the WR is downright diminutive at 56" and 298 pounds soaking wet. In the pork dimension, the VT1300 makes the other two motorcycles look bicycle-like. The bars, tank, seat, and saddlebag profile of the big Honda is as contraindicated for lane-splitting as a Ford E150 pickup. It's hard enough to share a lane with another VT, but sharing a lane with a full sized cage is out of the question. The other two motorcycles are lightweight and maneuverable enough to effectively commute in heavy traffic and to negotiate the quick maneuvers necessary to survive modern traffic situations.

Yeah, I'm biased. Deal with it. I don't know how else to ride a motorcycle. If a bike can't go where I want to go, why would I ride it? If I'm just as comfortable and capable in my crappy Escort Wagon, I'd rather be in the wagon with a heating system, decent surround sound audio system, and room for all of my stuff and two or three other adults. At the dead minimum, the roads I want to travel on my motorcycle require a decent suspension. The VT1300 has 5" of squishy, imprecise suspension and it is not only ungainly but uncomfortable on rough roads. That puts a damper on my interest in that kind of motorcycle.

Power-wise, what you give up in flexibility in the VT, you do not get back in power. The VT1300CT's rear wheel power delivery is a paltry 56hp. The V-Strom dyno's at about 56hp and the little WR puts out about 28 rear-wheel horsies. When you need to change speeds quickly, the VT is not much better at acceleration than the WR and the V-Strom is a world quicker than the big cruiser. Acceleration is all about power vs. mass and the more mass you're hauling, the slower you're going to go. All that goes a long ways in explaining why I am having less fun on a bicycle in my dotage, too.

It seems to me that the purpose of garage candy is to be seen riding, rather than to be riding. Since I'm inclined to go places where there aren't any other people, the "being seen" purpose is lost on me. If you can see me, I'm not far enough away, yet. I have a habit of riding my motorcycles anywhere I'd take a horse, if I rode a horse. Both of my bikes have bashplates because of that tendency. The picture at left illustrates why I spend most of my riding time on the WR250X and why the VT1300 would be unlikely to survive a weekend of actual motorcycling. The VT's ground clearance is a speed-bump smacking 5" (unloaded) and that design feature rears its head every time you try to turn sharply. The high price for that low 26.7" seat height is a motorcycle that is more inhibited than an Amish carriage on a NASCAR track. Riding the VT1300 constantly reminds me of being all dressed up with no place to go. No suspension and no ground clearance is the motorcycling equivalent of being wounded and blind. You can't look around because when you do all you see are places you can't go.

So, from the Goldilocks perspective it's probably obvious which bike was the papa bike--too big, too soft, and too clumsy for anything I want to do on a motorcycle--the Honda VT1300CX. Honestly, except for low density urban cruising, I don't think a bike like the VT is safe, let alone fun, in many riding situations. It is absolutely no fun to commute in heavy traffic on an 800 pound, 8 1/2' long motorcycle. The VT1300 is a two-wheeled car without the advantages of a car or a motorcycle. The bulk, cumbersome relationship between the controls and riding posture, and weight distribution all add up to too much motorcycle for me and about 99% of the people I see riding this kind of motorcycle.

The momma bike, the V-Strom 650 is just right for long distance hauls, especially with the Sargent seat upgrade. 434 pounds is not insignificant, but even a fat old dude like me can wheel it around and through slow moving traffic. Where it is legal, I do not hesitate to split lanes on the V-Strom. The 32" seat height is a problem for some riders, but I have a 29" inseam and I've lived with my V-Strom for 60k miles without the height being an issue. Sitting up almost a foot above the VT1300 puts me where I can see over and around a lot of traffic, which is a safety advantage. The "standard" footpeg/handlebar/seat design allows for aggressive braking and steering and a more natural posture, which is a big deal for long distance riding and safe commuting.

Depending on what you're planning on doing, the V-Strom is damn close to "just right." The baby bike, the Yamaha WR250X, might be as far from "perfect" as the Honda for a lot of riders. The 35" seat height is a hard bar to cross. The upright seating position, the quick steering, precise braking evenly balanced weight distribution (including the rider's weight) demands less from a rider than you might expect. Many of the complaints I've heard about motorcycles this small and lightweight are more directed at tires. With modern, sticky street tires, a bike with low weight and relatively wide tires will stick to the road, resist wind turbulence, and handle suspiciously like a larger, heavier motorcycle from 20 years ago. The WR's 28hp will haul my 200+ pounds at 70mph all day and will pass at speeds around 85mph on flat ground. It's not a race bike, but it is a pretty damn good commuter and its surprisingly fun on a 2,000 mile tour.

A friend, who is considering getting a motorcycle, told me he had to have a cruiser because he looks ridiculous on smaller bikes. Dude, a fat guy on a cruiser looks no sillier than that same chunk of meat on a scooter. It's not the bike that makes your butt look big, it's the big butt that does you in. The fact is, the skinny WR does make my butt look big. The V-Strom is probably "just right," appearance-wise. The VT just makes me look like a poser with an oversized garage candy budget. Think about it.

MMM April 2012

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