Small Bikes. Big Fun.

Forgive me a little trip down memory lane. Like many people of similar age, I started my motorcycle journey young, and on small motorcycles. Back in England, when I was sixteen years old, the biggest bike we were allowed to ride were 50cc mopeds. Given this restriction, I was faced with the very real and terrifying prospect of inheriting my father’s step-through moped—a Puch MV50 in British post office livery—and I wasn’t happy about it. Puch MV50That machine sufficed for when I was fourteen or fifteen. I would play truant from school and take it out of the shed while my parents were at work, and gun around town—mercifully disguised behind a helmet. License? Insurance? Old enough to even have a license? Pfft. Mere details. I was nearly old enough to ride. It was fun and it beat the hell out of my bicycle, but that kind of machinery wasn’t going to cut the mustard when I reached the heady age of sixteen. Oh no.

One of my closest escapes was when I actually rode past my father on his own moped one day. I sometimes wonder if he took notice, and thought: “Oh look. I have one of those.” I got away with that one because the inevitable thrashing didn’t occur.

Suzuki AP50
Suzuki AP50. Photo courtesy Brett Jordon under the Creative Commons License

Mercifully—and in the nick of time—the Japanese (and some European) manufacturers took pity on us spotty biker wannabes and started to produce a range of much more palatable bikes such as the Yamaha FS1E, the Suzuki AP50 and the Honda SS50. Now, those things looked more like a real motorcycle. You didn’t mount these beasts by gathering your petticoats and daintily stepping through them. Oh no, you swung your leg over these with a nonchalant swagger only matched by the likes of Marlon Brando or James Dean. You didn’t change gear by awkwardly twisting the left handlebar; You changed gear with your left foot—and there were four or five to chose from! Admittedly, with each gear the already insipid power became even less apparent, but eventually—with a suitable decline, proper atmospheric conditions and the merest whiff of a following breeze—that tiny piston’s frenetic whizzing would propel you to the intoxicating speed of 46 MPH. That was more like it. I was sixteen. I was a man, and I was ready for a real bike.

Yamaha FS1E
Yamaha FS1E. By Mick from Northamptonshire, England (Yamaha FS1E 49cc 1975) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In that manner which only teenagers can carry off, I immediately set about haranguing, plaguing, beseeching and generally annoying my parents until an agreement was extracted for my father to stand guarantor for a loan on a slightly used Yamaha FS1E. My motorcycling career had begun! I remember the day I rode it away from the motorcycle store like it was yesterday. A level of elation which I’m not sure can ever be matched this lifetime. Ah, those were the days…

Honda SS50
Honda SS50. Photo courtesy Steve Glover Creative Commons License

So, what has brought about this trip down memory lane? It is this: I have, of course, owned many, many motorcycles over the years since then. I currently ride a 1200CC motorcycle, but riding those baby bikes was the most enjoyable motorcycling I have ever experienced. I’m reasonably sure that my fellow riders who went through the same apprenticeship would feel the same.

Now, admittedly, the recollection will necessarily be tinged by nostalgia and the exuberance of youth, but it remains that there is something inherently enjoyable about riding a small motorcycle. I often say that it is more fun to ride a slow bike fast, than ride a fast bike slow(ly). Clearly, I cannot leave my house and twist the throttle of my 1200cc bike wide open without getting into super-legal and decidedly dangerous territory in very short order. But when riding a small-capacity machine the throttle becomes largely a binary device. I’m quite sure it could be replaced by a switch. Riding like that carries a degree of enjoyment that has to be experienced to understand.

It is more fun to ride a slow bike fast, than a fast bike slow.

True Grits 50ccRallyI live in the North Georgia mountains in the U.S. Every year we are visited by the True Grits 50cc Rally. Hundreds of riders bring their 50cc machines into the mountains and ride a timed road course of 63 miles. I know those guys are having a whole lot of fun. They are getting all the satisfaction of riding towards the limit of their machines and abilities without venturing into highly dangerous—not to mention highly illegal—territory. But, it is not only that this can be done safely and legally, it is a kind of enjoyment which is particular to smaller machines. Small bikes bring with them their own kind of enjoyment that simply can’t be had from larger machines.

Now, I’m not saying here that everybody should ride a 50cc motorcycle, but rather that we could benefit from stepping back from the urge to ride ever larger machines. Here in the states, a 500cc machine is considered small. I consider this preposterous. A 500cc machine is not small. It is actually quite large. A “small” motorcycle would be in the 125cc to 200cc range, in my opinion. Yet I regularly hear people advising new riders to avoid getting a “small” 500cc or 650cc first bike because they will bore of it easily. I shake my head and shudder to think of the consequences.

You will often see older, more seasoned riders riding smaller capacity machines. On the whole, this isn’t because of manageability. I think it is because veteran riders who have come up through the ranks of ever larger machines eventually realise that a litre-plus and 180HP bike simply isn’t necessary, or even usable. Further, I feel they have the experience to appreciate that there is at least as much—and often more—fun to be had on the smaller machines.

In closing, the point of this post is not to rally against larger motorcycles. That would be the height of hypocrisy—given the size of my own—but rather to state that there is a whole lot of enjoyment to be had from riding a smaller bike. For I remember so vividly those days buzzing around on my tiny bike. It was so much fun—as riding my 250cc scooter is now—and I’d hate for you to miss the opportunity.

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2 thoughts on “Small Bikes. Big Fun.

  1. I had a Honda folding ‘monkey bike’ for a while, that I used to commute about 4 miles to work. Had to abandon it when it failed the UK MOT (roadworthiness test) because of front fork wear. Couldn’t get the spares to fix it, and they’d probably have cost as much as I paid for the bike in any case. I remember having a problem because some gas station pumps had a minimum delivery that was more than the capacity of my tank…

    Some kids used to breathe on the motors of 50cc bikes, but most of their mods affected the noise and the fuel consumption more than they did the power.

    I’ve never ridden a big bike. The biggest was a 400cc Honda I bought in NY State, and I was surprised how low-powered that was. A few years earlier, back in the UK, I agreed to ferry a friend’s 125cc Honda back from his office, and it scared me (the only bikes I owned long enough to get really familiar with them were a 150cc Lambretta scooter and a James 197). A slight twist of the throttle in neutral had the motor instantly screaming at revs that I thought would blow it up, and the first time I took off from a traffic light the front wheel came off the ground…

    1. Hi Mike. Good to hear from you. Yes. Sometimes, it’s surprising how powerful the smaller engines are. I understand that the CC to power ratio is more logarithmic than linear, so a 250cc engine isn’t twice as powerful as a 125CC. Most of the power lives in the smaller engines. And certainly most of the fun!

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