Size matters

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By Jenner

It was unusually calm and quiet at Windy Ridge as I shut down the Bandit. I had just arrived and was glad for the break. It had been a while since I had ridden the twisties, I mean really ridden them. I have been spending a lot of time riding the commute, or doing short sport-tours, places where the Bandit 1200 really shines. You really can't knock that big motor and, when you really need to pass that big rig on I-5, two up with all the bags full, the 100+ horsepower does come in handy. But I hadn't ridden the twisties in a while and frankly, I was rusty, stiff and needed the practice.

As I pulled into Windy Ridge, located at the end of Forest Road 99, off of Forest Road 25, in the Gifford Pinocot National Forest, I realized I wanted a smaller bike.

There, I said it. I wanted a smaller bike.

As I sat there looking over the devastation from Mt. St. Helens my riding partner remarked, "Man, the horsepower it took to level that..." Those words sank in as I thought of my ride up to the Ridge. I had needed to fine tune my twisty road skills and I'd brought the wrong bike. I should have been on another bike in my garage, a Ninja 250.

Oh, it's not that I can't handle the horsepower of the Bandit, and it's not that I didn't enjoy keeping up with the other riders; one on another Bandit 1200 and the other on a ZRX1100. The little Ninjette would have been hard pressed to reel them in on some of the straight stretches of Highway 12. But in the twisties, where the road is tight, cambered well, even though slightly bumpy, the Ninjette would have shined.

Dollars to donuts too, I wouldn't have been as tired when we hit Windy Ridge. So, why in the heck would this Bandit 1200 rider want to give up that performance for a little, 29hp on a good day, Ninja 250?

Simple -- I didn't need the Bandit's horsepower, or it's weight, for those roads. As a matter of fact, the 100+ horsepower of the Bandit was a hindrance on those roads, even to my usually conservative throttle hand. Just look at the (estimated) numbers:

Suzuki 1200 Bandit

  • Weight (including me): 800 lbs
  • Horsepower (estimate): 110 hp
  • Horsepower to weight ratio: 7.2 lbs/hp
  • Gas Mileage: 31mpg

Kawasaki Ninja 250

  • Weight (including me): 550 lbs
  • Horsepower (estimate): 29 hp
  • Horsepower to weight ratio: 19 lbs/hp
  • Gas Mileage: 70mpg

On the cold numbers, the Bandit 1200 looks like a better deal. It pushes half the weight with each horsepower. It also weighs over 200 lbs more. Oh, and then I have to fill up the tank every 115 miles. On a nice level road, or even in the long sweepers, the Bandit is in its stride. When the road is so tight it literally goes turn...turn...turn, the Ninja really shines. The 110 hp and the extra 200 pounds aren't missed in the corners. There, where you are full lean left, then upright, a little front brake, then full lean right, then upright, then... well, you get the idea... in those corners, I knew the Bandit was there. I had to press the bars right, then left, leaning it onto corners. I could feel the suspension working to keep a 600 pound bike and 200 pound rider in check over the somewhat frequent mid-corner bumps and ripples. On those corners, I know the Ninjette would have been almost unnoticeable under me. I would have been concentrating more on the road and less on what the bike was doing.

I rode the Ninjette at an SIR track day last year, and that bike just disappeared beneath me. All that was left was me and the track, turning this way and that. I felt more like a runner, more like a bicyclist, connected to the asphalt. On that bike, I would have ridden a better ride to Windy Ridge and a better ride back down. I think I would have been cornering better, late apexing as I should. I would have been smoother on the throttle, keeping the bike more stable and arching though the turns better. I would have kept my cornering speeds higher, and the lines would have been cleaner. Less horsepower does that, at least for me. On the twisty stuff, I become a better rider. I have no doubt if there were another me that day, riding the Ninjette, the Bandit would have been the second bike to the top.

So, why the size thing, then? Why do I own a Bandit 1200 and a Ninjette 250? If I love the Ninjette so much, why deal with the expense of the Bandit, the lower gas mileage, the wearing out of tires, chains, my driving record...

I can hear myself saying, "Well, a smaller bike makes me a better rider. I don't need more horsepower. On a twisty road, that bike is all I need. Even for commuting, that bike is faster than almost every car on the road?"

Then I hear the other voice sneering, "Well, you guys with smaller bikes always say that."

Waitaminnit? Who said that? I know where the first statement came from. It came from my head. I thought it. It was rational. It made sense. So, if the Ninjette came from the head, the thinking one, where did the other... oh, I know. I know exactly where it came from. Sometimes you think with your head and sometimes you think with your...

Horsepower does that to you. So does liquor.

The thing is, I know my talk of the Ninjette sounds a lot like a smallishly endowed man making excuses for the lack of personal equipment by touting his skills. However, he makes some sense, even to the pulse of my heart. There is a ring of truth to the allure of a small bike. Notice the last number in the comparison? The Ninjette gets 70 miles a gallon, no matter how hard you flog it. I put 15,000 miles on that bike and it never returned less than seventy miles per gallon. A set of tires lasted me 14,000 miles. I paid $3,000.00 for that bike, brand new.

It is often said that motorcycles are cheaper than cars. Most of the time, especially today, this is a myth, a fallacy, a rationalization.

Anyone ever add up the costs of a new bike, counting purchase price, tires every 3,000 miles, valve adjustments, chains, gas mileage, insurance, helmets, and riding gear? Ever compare it to a car? Do the math some time. You may be surprised.

A $3,000.00 bike that needs only two services in 15,000 miles, uses only one set of tires, one chain, and returns 70 miles a gallon does compete with the car. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Does your cake have to be bland? Does your bike have to be slow?

What is slow? How do you define slow?

This Bandit rider knows what slow is. It's almost any bike or car that isn't my Bandit. However, that speed and that horsepower come with prices, those being either eternal vigilance or a quick trip into the back of a slower car or the side of a hill. My right hand is connected to my destiny in a much more immediate fashion on the 1200 than on the 250.

So, is the 250 slow? Someone will call it that, I'm sure. Can it go on longer rides? Some will say it cannot. They should have followed me around the Cascades Loop a few years ago, as I led most of the way. Is the Ninjette busy at speed? Sure it is. Does it matter? Not when you get used to it. What really matters is that it is fun.

In my ride up to Windy Ridge, some of the corners weren't fun -- they were work on the Bandit. They wouldn't have been on the Ninjette. So maybe, next time, I take the little guy. I realize that the bigger road thugs will pull away from me. On the longer sections of Highway 12, on the way eastward from 123, towards the turnoff to Forest Road 25 and Windy Ridge, I will be in the back. But then the road turns tight and it is corner after corner. Then all you see is drop off, then rock wall, then drop off. Then the turns come so fast you can't count them. Then I don't have to roll off the throttle on the Ninjette, I don't have to brake between apexes, then... Size Matters.

Along with the size of the grin on my face.