Blog: Size matters, can I have less of it please?

Steve Rose


‘Shrink it and Pink it’. It’s a phrase I only heard last month and it’s how some in the bike trade describe their ‘not-at-all-patronising’ approach to making clothing for women.

I was thinking about this as I cuddled an enormous BMW R 1200 GS Adventure test bike through some Northamptonshire twisties. The GSA has so much presence that I imagine you’d need planning permission to leave it outside your garage. If I were shorter, older or slightly less confident on a bike I can’t imagine ever going near anything that enormous.

Which would be a shame, because the GS is one of my favourite bikes ever. But on BikeSocial’s recent test, two of the riders couldn’t ride it because it was taller than they were and that’s crazy. The (literal) rise of the adventure bike has been interesting to watch. As much for the absolute lack of imagination from the manufacturers as anything else. They’ve applied the same formula to development as they did to muscle bikes in the 1970s; make it bigger, make it more powerful and make it heavier. This year’s bike is obviously better than last year’s because it makes ten more horsepower, blocks out another three feet of the sun and (and this is the new bit) has an additional fifteen stages of traction control, three anti-wheelie positions and eight riding modes. Plus, the obligatory aluminium luggage (which adds an additional 20kg) now has a built-in submarine, microwave oven and satellite dish.

Sadly, the biggest adventure for most of us will be trying is to swing a leg over it in a gravelly car park. And the only difference that extra bhp makes is that you’ll put a bigger dent in the side of the Transit when it pulls out of the side road.

Manufacturers love big adventure bikes. Slow-riding, off-roading, bucket-list fantasies are less likely to bring restrictive legislation than all that knee-down nonsense we used to obsess about. And all those fancy electronics and wires sticking out of your fork legs allow sky-high prices on a machine that’ll rarely be ridden to the edge. Most of the people who buy them are beyond that crazy phase; what they really want is a big tourer, with a nice, low seat height, but can’t face the image problem that comes with it.

At some point, someone in the industry will do a ‘FireBlade’ to the adventure market and make a bike that weighs considerably less, has a seat height in the same postcode as the brake discs and is infinitely more manageable, while making almost as much power with none of the fripperies.

Of course, such bikes do currently exist. Triumph’s Tiger 800, F850GS and even Yamaha’s Tracer all fit this bill and are all bloody good bikes. Sadly though, in the modern world an 800cc machine is laughingly seen by many as something for new riders, because ‘proper bikes’ must have at least a million cc.

And for those riders with a shorter leg, a bit less confidence or missing a Y-chromosome, there’s not a lot of choice if you fancy a full-fat tractor or tourer. Interestingly, Honda’s new Gold Wing has just done the ‘FireBlade’ thing in the touring sector. In the World-of-Wing it’s relative and the new sharper, lighter GL1800 still weighs as much as two Fireblades, but losing 37kg is a couple of Spaniels less to lug around. One of the biggest drivers for the Wing’s development team was an awareness that owners are getting older and less comfortable shoving all that weight around. It’s something happening across biking and affecting adventure bikes just as much as tourers.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of the manufacturers are bold enough to build a full-fat adventure bike with considerably less weight and just enough power. Something like a 120bhp, BMW R-Nine-T GS-SP.  Air-cooled simplicity in a lightweight, stripped down chassis with simple, lightweight conventional suspension, naff-all electronic assistance and a wet weight of 195kg. Let’s call it the HP5 just to save BMW some work. An updated, version of that crazy HP2 Megamoto they sold a few years back. That’d be worth a test ride.