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Common Tread

Why some riders are downsizing to smaller motorcycles

Apr 07, 2017

Can less be more? Can you get something from a smaller bike that is missing from some of the beasts on the road today?

Probably my favorite bike I ever owned was a 1996 Harley-Davidson Road King I purchased new and rode coast to coast. But when I look at my garage and everything that’s been in it for the past decade, I realize that I’ve been gravitating towards smaller bikes and I started to wonder why.

While asking this question of myself, I came up with some of the same answers that Jonathan Krause touched on when he wrote about downsizing to a KTM 390 Duke. Smaller bikes can be cheaper to buy or own and there’s that oft-used phrase: “It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow.”

But I felt like there was more to it. I wanted to hear what others were thinking, so I sought out long-time riders who had the means and ability to own larger bikes but had decided to go smaller. I got lots of answers.

Some people like smaller bikes because they physically just fit them better, while others go smaller as they age. None of us are getting any younger.

Chuck Stottlemeyer and his Moto Guzzi 650 Lario
Chuck Stottlemeyer has owned more than 20 motorcycles but these days he most often rides his smaller Moto Guzzis, such as this 650 Lario. Photo provided by Chuck Stottlemeyer.

Chuck Stottlemeyer has more than 40 years of riding under his belt, and has owned more than 20 bikes, ranging from a Bultaco 250 cc to a BMW R 1200 RT. Chuck currently has four bikes, three of which are under 700 cc, like his Moto Guzzi Lario 650 or Monza 490. He still loves his Moto Guzzi Scura 1100 (which is still not a very big bike), but he finds himself riding the other three most of the time.

“Well, let's face it, Kev, the motorcycle-riding public is aging,” Chuck told me. “Even the go-fast guys I see out in SoCal are normally ‘older’ guys. As we age, along with wisdom comes a lessening of physical ability. As I, er... mature, that’s the word, I find myself taking the Lario out more and more. It weighs considerably less than the Scura, and with some modifications is quite a capable bike, considering the antique suspension.”

Chuck isn’t the only one who has noticed the aging demographics in the motorcycle industry. Most people talk about new riders and young riders when discussing the increasing number of small motorcycles the manufacturers are offering in this country today, but it may not be just young people who are interested.

It’s not just about age, though. Some guys tried bigger bikes and just found they liked the feel of something smaller better.

Brad Weir has had 15 bikes over his lifetime, ranging from a 65 cc Benelli to a Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide with a TC88 engine, but he sold that Dyna to return to a Sportster.

Brad Weir and his Harley-Davidson Sportster
After years on a Harley-Davidson Big Twin, Brad Weir went back to a Sportster. Photo provided by Brad Weir.

For about nine years, Brad was riding the wheels off his Sportsters, touring about 10,000 miles a year.

“I sold my Sporties for a Dyna, but two years later I'm back on a Sportster,” Brad explained. “It's cliché to say this, but it just has a feel that I like. The Dyna was fine on the open road, but in tighter confines and city riding, it was to slow to respond to my input. It just felt sluggish.”

And I think Brad might be touching on something familiar. The bigger the bike, the more it takes to ride it. Some riders talked about how it was just easier to hop on a Vespa for a short ride than to gear up and pull out the sport bike.

Taking that further, I think the bigger and fancier the bike the more it can isolate you from the experience. Sure, it’s comfortable on the highway and it usually has better wind protection and accessories, but that means you feel less of what the bike is doing. In contrast, on a smaller bike you may feel every bump and wisp of wind, but that means you’re also more a part of the experience.

David Seale has been riding for more than four decades, and though he spends most of his time on his Harley Road Glide, he feels his Sporty chopper is more “the epitome of what a bike should be.”

David Seale's Ironhead chopper
David Seale built this 1969 Ironhead chopper from boxes of parts. It gives him an elemental ride he appreciates. Photo by David Seale.

“The 1962 Ironhead Chopper was my first Harley,” David said. “I paid $600 for it and hauled it home in seven cardboard boxes. After riding it for a couple of years, I did a full custom job on it. I hand made many one-off parts for it. There is so much of me invested into the construction of this bike that there is no way to divorce myself from it.”

Beyond the personal connection, David appreciates the simplicity.

David Seale
David Seale and his home-built chopper. Photo provided by David Seale.
“When I kick it over and settle down on the solo seat, I drop back in time to a much simpler world and life,” he said. “I can get on the road and there's no cell phones, no radios, no one to distract me or complicate my life. It's my time machine to escape the everyday world.”

Call it the Zen of riding or becoming one with the experience. What was I saying about bigger bikes sometimes isolating you from the road? There is no way you’re going to feel that on a 1962 Ironhead.

The question is not always one of either/or. Some people have a big touring bike, but they can’t get rid of their beloved smaller bike, either. Darmie Rudisill has a Honda Gold Wing, but he most often rides his Moto Guzzi V7.

“Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy our Wing,” Darmie said. “At 940 pounds, it's a different class of riding, although you can still get jiggy with it.”

But, he explained, “I just love the ease of cornering and the fun you can have on a low-weight bike.”

And really, that’s what I was trying to find out in the first place. There may be many reasons to consider a smaller bike — rider fit, rider abilities, costs, the Zen of riding, and more — but at the end of the day there’s one main reason to do it: fun.

Are you thinking about downsizing? Or have you already done it? Let’s hear about it.