Friday, July 11, 2014

The weapon of choice

For the first time ever, I have a choice of two bikes. My trusted ‘02 Suzuki Bandit 1200S (173,000Km) or my wife’s ‘05 Yamaha Majesty 400 (33,000Km). A 110hp sport-tourer that took me across the continent twice without a single hiccup, or a 34hp single cylinder maxi scooter that we bought a year ago for my wife so she can finally start riding herself.

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No contest, right? Well, not so fast.

I was always curious where all those unpaved roads lead to because the more remote the road - the more unspoiled the scenery. Therefore, I often rode "Suzy B" on surfaces she was not designed for, like mud, rocks and salt.

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Such riding is possible and enjoyable, but it requires a lot of skill, experience (something I lack off-road), concentration and strength, not to mention a healthy dose of guts in some instances. I can easily tough it for a dozen kilometers, but not for few hundred, let alone a thousand. Also, it can get scary when the surface is too soft/deep. Picking up the fully loaded Bandit from the ground that offers no traction can also be a big challenge (take pictures, take all the luggage off, push-pull her up or find help, put the luggage back on, examine, clean, fix…).

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The bike is quite heavy (I estimate about 250Kg without luggage), the center of gravity is pretty high and I can barely put my feet on the ground for support. I have to be careful with the throttle, feather the clutch, pay attention to what gear I’m in and go very easy on the brakes - all at the same time. The power and torque of that engine can be quite counterproductive on loose surfaces. Packed dirt and gravel is fine, but the ride gets progressively more tiresome and uncomfortable when it gets looser and deeper.

On the other hand, maxi scooter is a very different animal. Power delivery is very smooth and controllable, mostly thanks to the CVT. Even if you whack open the throttle it won’t wheelie or power slide, yet the acceleration is strong enough to get away from most cars (many wannabe drug racers have been taught that fact by yours truly). The closest analogy I can think of is a slingshot with a long rubber and a heavy pebble. The acceleration starts gently, but raises steadily and ever more steeply to about 70Km/h. There it levels out a little, but it’s still good to about 120 or so. All the while, no shifting and no clutching, just open the throttle and let her go. On top of that, it stops better and easier than the Bandit, with most of the braking done by the rear wheel - a true advantage in the loose.

Ride comfort is noticeably better compared to the Bandit. Seat is wide, long, soft enough and low enough for both feet to reach the ground. Handlebars require no lean forward or back to reach them which drastically reduces arm, wrist and shoulder fatigue and makes steering more natural. I can shift my legs to several different positions, from sitting like on a park bench to the cruiser-style feet forward. Wind protection is very good, the wide and full fairing, tall windscreen and hand guards leaving only arms and knees somewhat exposed (but not nearly as much as on the Bandit). The center of gravity is low, the wheelbase long and steering rake  sharper, which should all help handling on gravel/dirt. It’s also much easier to pick up when dropped, and I can "Flintstone it" around if need be.

Of the negative sides, there’s less room for luggage, the top speed is about 140Km/h, the range is about 250Km, suspension is stiffer and with less travel, ground clearance is lower, wheels are smaller and I don’t have a good GPS for it. None of that should give me any trouble on this trip, except maybe tank capacity due to long distances between gas stations. Oh yes, it’s going to get a winter car tire on the rear (“darksiding” is a theme for a whole new article) which I expect to further improve both grip and handling off-asphalt.

All in all, the scooter is much less demanding and more comfortable to ride, with trade-offs of less power and top speed, less sporty handling and rougher suspension. I wouldn’t take it to the desert where I was often blasting at high speeds for hours, but I think it’s better suited for this trip than the Bandit. I rode it on some sections of loose gravel before and impressions are quite positive. Time will tell if I am right :).