Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

Simon Hargreaves
By Simon Hargreaves
SimonHbikes Simon rides motorbikes, and then writes about them. He also co-presents the Front End Chatter podcast and plays bass guitar rather well.

 

Yamaha’s NIKEN is an MT-09 motor wrapped up in a heavily modified frame and with the notable addition of a remarkable, leaning-and-steering dual-wheel front end, designed to offer the advantage of 80% more front-end grip but without losing any of the leaning and cornering dynamics of a motorcycle.

Yes, that’s three wheels in total.

It’s clever, innovative and bold move to put such a machine before the motorcycling public – partly because Yamaha has a long and noble history of trying out new ideas (some of which are more successful than others) and partly because us British motorcyclists are a fairly conservative bunch. We know what we like and, as a rule, it has two wheels, not three. But that hasn’t deterred Yamaha, who have an eye on European sales as a whole (our continental brothers and sisters are a bit more broad-minded).

Yamaha know they can talk all they like about the NIKEN ‘feeling’ like a bike, handling like a bike, and fitting every legal and technical definition of a motorcycle right up to the point you actually count its wheels – but the proof is in the riding, so to speak. A NIKEN test-riding road-show of Great British biker spots has recently concluded, with hundreds of punters taking the NIKEN for a spin to find out the truth for themselves.

Here at BikeSocial, we’ve decided to hold our own version, inviting ten readers to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire to spend the day getting to know the NIKEN, and finding out if it feels like a motorcycle, and do they feel like motorcyclists when they’re riding it – among many, many other questions.
So here, at length, are all the answers to all the questions you might have about the Yamaha Niken.*

We start off with the daftest, but most-frequently asked, questions first! 

*If you have more questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch below, and we’ll try and answer all we can.

 

Yamaha NIKEN (2018) road test review

Full test of the 2018 Yamaha NIKEN, one of the most intriguing new bikes for a decade. Are three wheels a match for two? | BikeSocial

 

Q: Can you wheelie the Yamaha NIKEN?

A: Yes.

Why is that the first thing everyone asks? Yes, it wheelies. No, it doesn’t feel any different doing it, or require a superhuman effort. No, it doesn’t wreck it when it lands. You trickle along in first gear, drop the clutch and ping the throttle on the bottom of the torque curve, and up it comes. It’s actually fairly docile and easy to manage mid-air. Feels like a bike even when it’s on one wheel.

 
Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: Can you get your knee down on the NIKEN?

A: Oh god yes.

Look, I thought this was going to be technical. Yes, you can get your knee down – and it’s really, really easy because you have no fear of losing the front. The NIKEN will lean up to 45° before the front end runs out of clearance. The pegs touch down before it does, as a warning.

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered


Q: Hang on, so what happens if you plough into a corner and you want 48° of lean to make the exit? Will you just run wide?

A: Not necessarily.

If you’re at 45° of lean carrying too much speed (i.e. you need more lean) you have two options, both of which are surprisingly intuitive. You can either brake – the NIKEN has so much excess front grip it can manage braking while leaning and simply slows down, but holds the line – braking and steering forces are separated, much like BMW’s K-series.

Your other, more fun, option is to gas it up and powerslide the back end, oversteering and shortening the corner. This sounds and feels dramatic, but with traction control on minimum, or off, it’s easier than you think. In fact, it’s the most fun thing about the NIKEN, along with its ludicrous front end grip. There’s so much front grip, the rear feels positively tail-happy. What it really needs is an extra wheel at the back (nooooooo!).

It is possible, with TC off, to highside a NIKEN. I have the underpants to prove it – but, sadly, not the recorded evidence.

It’s worth noting Yamaha are at pains to stress the NIKEN isn’t a track bike. I mean, it can go on a track-day because it’s a motorcycle but it’s slow where other bikes are fast, and fast where other bikes are slow.

 

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: Say that again?

A: It’s slow where other bikes are fast, and fast where other bikes are slow.

Presumably because Yamaha are very, very keen to ensure no-one has any issues whatsoever riding the NIKEN, it’s actually a very conservative motorcycle. It’s limited to 117mph (127mph on the speedo) – yes, electronically held back so it won’t rev out in top. It gets there very quickly, as a 113bhp, inline triple MT-09 motor should. But you’ll get stuffed on the straights on track. And then, thanks to its bonkers front end grip, you’ll probably be stuffing everything on corner entry.

 

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: Right, so how do you say the name? Is it Ni-ken or Ni-ken?

A: It’s Ni- (as in high), -ken.

NIKEN is the English translation of a Japanese word combining ‘ni’ (two) and ‘ken’ (sword), from the 17th century art of fighting with two swords, and now applied by Yamaha’s marketing department to a motorcycle with two front wheels.

 

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: A-ha! A three-wheeler! So is the NIKEN a motorcycle or a trike?

A: It’s a motorised cycle, so yes, it’s a motorcycle.

Etymologically speaking, the NIKEN isn’t a motorbike because ‘bike’ is a contraction of bicycle, itself derived from bi- and cycle; ‘bi’ meaning two. So, if we’re being pedantic, the NIKEN is a motortrike, not a motorbike. But it’s still a motorcycle.

And it is legally, too – the front wheels aren’t far enough apart (410mm) to be classed as a three-wheeler; you still need a bike licence and you still need a helmet. You can park in motorcycle bays and go on motorcycle track days. There’s nothing to stop you entering it in a race, should you feel so inclined.

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: Okay, but does the NIKEN feel like a motorcycle?

A: So, yes and no – but that’s ‘no’ in a good way.

Yes, because the NIKEN needs a sidestand or it’ll fall over, it steers and leans like a bike, it brakes like a bike – basically, if we rode it blindfold, we’d swear we were riding a bike. It has all the dynamics of a normal motorcycle. We can even fall off it, nearly, ahem.

But the way it doesn’t feel like any bike we’ve ridden before is when we get into a corner – the NIKEN is claimed to have 80% more front-end grip (ask me why in a moment) and we can tell it instantly and instinctively from its front-end feedback. It’s absolutely glued to the road, and generates astonishing and immediate confidence and reassurance. No other bike can do this. It’s simply – trust me – mind-blowing. And it’s worth noting it has amazing ride quality as well – bumps just disappear. And by golly it’s comfortable.

 

Q: Yeah, right, how much did Yamaha pay you to say that?

A: Nothing. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

Let’s ask a team of BikeSocial test riders, selected at random from BikeSocial’s Facebook page, who’ve just come back from their first-ever ride of the NIKEN. To a man and woman, they have the widest of grins and are all babbling incoherently. After they calm down, we get a more considered opinion:

• “It doesn’t feel like it has two wheels on the front at all. I expected to feel something a bit different, but it isn’t at all; it feels just like a bike...” – Tony Charlton (49, Michelin Technical Manager, rides a KTM Duke 690 R)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “As soon as you start to flick it around, it does everything you expect a bike to do. It gives you all the feedback you like; the stuff that’s fun, and you’re still the one in control – but you’ve got a lot more control to muck around with....” – Daniel Moth (27, R&G Racing Design Engineer, rides a Honda CBR600 F4i)

 

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “Leaning into a corner, it feels just like a motorbike. But when you accelerate or brake it doesn’t dip or dive; totally neutral. And through corners, it feels like you can really power on and drift out. I was having to lift my foot off the pegs because they were decking out, I was that far leaned over. Never once felt intimidated by it. It’s great. I’d be as happy riding that in winter as I would a normal bike in the summer...” – Graham Mudd (38, Comms Engineer, rides a Kawasaki Versys 650)

 

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “Once you’re into the corner, it really does feel just like a two-wheel bike. You don’t notice it’s got two wheels at the front...” – David Willougby (40, Civil Servant, rides a Suzuki GSX-R1000)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “I just went for it at the first corner and had confidence straight away. As soon as I got into the corner it was fine – it holds a line beautifully. Leaning, leaning, leaning, holding a line...” – Cliff Galloway (57, semi-retired, rides a Honda Africa Twin)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “You tip it in and... it’s just incredible. It’s so confident. It feels like a skid-pan test rig – like you can’t actually crash it. I was leaning as far as I dared and it didn’t feel uncomfortable...” – Steve Lamb (47, Defence Contractor, rides a Ducati Scrambler)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “Going around corners, it just keeps going. Really, I never felt I couldn’t just keep leaning. I deliberately rode over some bumps but it feels great...” – Patricia Stiemke (53, Biomedical Scientist, rides a Kawasaki ZX-6R)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “You turn it into a corner and... oh my god. I’m by no means a track day rider, but it’s like you can turn in with the confidence of car. It just keeps gripping; you think, “This isn’t possible.’ I’ve never had my boots on the ground on a bike, and I was, ‘God, what’s that?’ It was my boot scraping on the ground...” – Scott Guthrie (51, Race Car Restorer, rides a BMW K1300S)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “It feels like a bike – normal, not like it has three wheels at all. Completely conventional. Incredible stable too – over all the changes of road surface, you don’t even notice it. It’s very confidence inspiring. Very positive...” – John Mansfield (43, Bike Instructor, rides a Kawasaki ZZR1200)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

• “Because of my job I’m on different bikes all day but this was just so easy. Some bikes have their quirks but this just pulls away. It’s great.” – Nick Nomikos (40, Motorcycle Dealer, rides a BMW K1200GT)

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

So that’s fairly conclusive in a ten-out-of-ten kind of way; we might not like the idea or the concept, or find trying new things a bit scary – but when ten random riders of different ages, preferences, height, experience and gender say the NIKEN feels like a bike, chances are it feels like a bike. Because, dynamically, that’s exactly what it is. If that doesn’t convince us, not sure what will.

 

Q: I bet they’d say all that if you got them to ride any new bike.

A: Maybe, but there’s more anecdotal evidence.

Personally, I’ve been going to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire for 25 years, often with groups of readers, and usually to ride something new or different. And I’ve never, in all that time, known a group of ordinary riders come back from a first go on a new bike having got the pegs down, or scraped boots, or be doing feet-up, full lean, full-lock U-turns on Bruntingthorpe’s admittedly sketchy, patchy surface. And no-one fell off. The confidence the NIKEN’s front end delivers isn’t just imaginary – it’s real. In fact it’s so good, the nearest anyone (apart from me) came to falling over is pulling up to a halt – it’s so balanced, some riders seemed to expect the bike to stand up on its own.

And it’s so good it’s worth reminding yourself when you get back on a normal bike not to go bananas.

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: But why do I need two front wheels in my life?

A: You don’t ‘need’ them...

You could say, ‘The NIKEN is an answer to a problem I haven’t got’. But motorcycle development doesn’t wait for us to stop being satisfied. If it did, we’d still be riding around on horses, or rocks. Or Honda CX500s (hang on a second, I really like them – Ed).

For example, riders happily enjoyed drum brake technology in the 1960s, and it worked very well. No-one asked for disc brakes and, when they arrived, they were at best only as good as drum brakes in terms of performance, and then only in the dry; in the wet they were terrible. But their theoretical advantages meant they were worth persevering with – and, in the end, we got amazing disc brakes that far exceed drum brake performance. Or take the first ABS systems; crude and heavy – now, they’re amazing, light and, in many cases, almost undetectable to the rider.

So we can look at all development two ways – with a suspicious, dismissive, ‘I don’t need that’ attitude, or an engaging curiosity to find out what it’s like – and then accept or reject it.

 

Q: What I meant was, I don’t habitually lose the front...

A: Lucky you!

We might not appreciate it, but we demand a staggering amount of performance from a very small contact patch under the front tyre – we expect it to support camber thrust, steering and suspension forces, among many others, while cornering, as well as changes in velocity – sometimes we might want to add a bit of braking as well, or acceleration. The rear tyre has it comparatively easy – it just has to sit there and push.

What the front tyre is doing – the level of support and confidence it’s giving over surface changes, in the wet, under braking, during cornering – soaks up a lot of our attention (or it ought to). That’s brain power we could be deploying elsewhere, like assessing hazards... or, er, riding even faster. Ahem.

And let’s face it – who doesn’t want more grip? That’s like being happy with less (off-road riders can ignore that bit). 

 

Q: Okay, so the NIKEN ‘feels’ like a bike and magically adds grip and confidence. Why does it need two front wheels to do it?

A: Because a problem shared is a problem halved.

Engineers strive to work out new ways to support safer/faster riding – new tyre technology, engine tech, suspension tech, electronics etc. Now, in terms of riding dynamics there are five or so basic, overlapping phases – upright, braking, steering, cornering and exiting the corner. That describes riding at its most simple, and engineers apply new technology to augment all of them so we can be safer, faster and/or happier.

Materials technology, steering geometry, weight balance, suspension, aerodynamics and tyres all solve most of the problems with upright stability – most bikes ride in a straight line without weaving, wobbling or tank-slapping. Under braking, we have ABS which helps optimise grip at the front tyre and suspension/weight balance package – so anyone can reach optimum braking without crashing, even in a corner, with cornering ABS.

And, once into a corner and powering through it, we have increasingly sophisticated electronic traction control backing up mechanical grip from tyres and suspension (and before you say it, yes, it makes biking safer. Does it make it less exciting? No – what we do is use that technology to harness more powerful engines, and then ride faster, further, more economically etc. If we complain traction control is unnecessary on a litre sportsbike, then we either aren’t riding it hard enough to tell the difference, or it’s getting in the way and we really should be racing).
But there’s a big gap in the chain of control: upright, fine. Braking, fine. On the gas, fine. But what about the moment of steering – the bit where we’ve pinned all our faith in that front contact patch? If you’re an engineer, how do you improve that part of cornering?

There’s no obvious electronic solution, short of some kind of power-steering system. And any kind of self-righting system can never take steering control away from the rider – which limits options. What we really need is more mechanical grip at the front. What we need is two tyres instead of one. Two tyres will have twice the contact patch and deliver around 80% more grip (it’s not 100% as much because with 15in wheels – same size as the T-Max so there’s tons of rubber choice – have smaller contact patches than a 17in).

Q: Okay, that’s the theory. But it looks complex – how does it work?

A: It’s not as simple as a wheel and a fork – it’s as simple as two wheels and two forks.

Two 15in wheels (chosen for optimum inertia and practicality) gripped by a pair of forks each – the rear, 43mm leg on each side has the springing and damping, adjustable for rebound and compression. The front, 41mm leg is just for additional stability.

Each pair of legs has a pair of yokes holding them together (like a conventional fork assembly, but side-on), and each assembly is connected to its own headstock, one either side, which allows the wheels to steer.

It’s helpful to separate the two processes – left-to-right steering on hand, and leaning on the other.

Steering effort from the handlebars passes through a lever to another, central, headstock, and onto the forks via a tie-bar (the bottom strut, looked-at head-on).

Leaning is managed by the big central and upper rocking arms which hold the fork assemblies at their headstocks and form a parallelogram – they don’t contribute to suspension: that’s all in the forks.
The whole assembly allows the front end to steer, lean and suspend. There’s some other stuff about Akermann geometry – it’s a clever principle of compensating for the differential in turning radius of an inner and outer wheel.

 

Q: Shut up about technical things now. Even if the NIKEN is as wonderful as you say to ride, will I still feel like a motorcyclist when I’m riding it?

A: Ah, now this is a good question.

Ultimately, it’s up to you – it’s all wrapped up in Freudian stuff, self-image, perceived self-image, self-expression, introversion/extroversion... why we all ride a bike is a psychological minefield that could keep therapists in business for years.
But a few of BikeSocial’s reader test teams confessed they felt a little self-conscious riding the NIKEN, and one had a giggle at how silly it looked with someone on it from behind. And they’re right – it does look odd, whichever angle you look at it. One thing’s for sure – you’d better enjoy talking about it with strangers.

Honda CBR600-riding Daniel Moth, from BikeSocial’s team of test riders, sums it up nicely: “You’d be the weirdo, but I think once your friends saw what it can do they might change their minds. I’d certainly feel like a motorcyclist riding one. Once you’re on the road, holding your own, they’d be surprised. And when you hit a bump mid-corner, the sort that normally throws your confidence and maybe makes you back off a bit – on the NIKEN you just give it a bit more because you can feel how much extra you’ve got.”

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: Right, I’m nearly sold. Tell me some bad news about the NIKEN.

A: Yes, I’m glad you asked that.

Because there is bad news. The main problem with the bike, sorry, motorcycle, is that although the front end is both amazing and great, it’s not attached to a motorcycle everyone will want. If the NIKEN had bloody great panniers, heated grips, a massive screen and was a touring NIKEN, or if it had a 160bhp motor and was a sporty NIKEN, it’d have more decisive appeal.

For example, one of BikeSocial’s test team, Suzuki GSX-R1000-riding David Willougby, is clearly a man with sportsbikes at heart – and he in particular found the NIKEN’s riding position odd (the reach to the bars is a long way, the seat is fairly wide) and thought the lack of performance was disappointing. “The two wheels on the front makes no difference. It’s a motorcycle. But it’s the rest of the bike I have issues with. It’s not really one thing or the other,” he says. “Imagine it with an MT-10 motor!”
Another, BMW K1300S-riding Scott Guthrie, admitted he could “...use another 50bhp more to be honest...” (worth noting Scott and David own the most powerful bikes present).

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

Q: The NIKEN looks too wide to filter properly, and I bet it’s a pig at low speed?

A: Yes, it does look wide, and can’t blame you for thinking it’ll be heavy at low speed.

Dimensionally, the NIKEN looks wider than it is, partly because of the sheer mass at the front of the thing. But bar end to bar end, it’s 3.5cm wider than a Tracer 900. You’d have more trouble filtering on a panniered adventure bike.
And as for low speed handling, it’s not noticeably sluggish – front grip is so immense you should be able to sling it about with abandon anyway. But to make sure, we set up a short slalom course for our BikeSocial test team, let them ride it on their own bikes to get a feel, then do a lap on the NIKEN.

“The more you ride it, the more it feels like a motorbike,” says Nick Nomikos. “But I’ll be honest, it wouldn’t tick my boxes in terms of what I use a motorcycle for. I live in London and I think it’s just a bit too wide to get around – it’s not so much actual width at the front, but it feels wider. And that perception matters when you go for gaps. And I’d need a top box for it, and I’d need more legs from the engine.”

 “Weird. It feels odd. Just different,” says ZZR1200-riding John Mansfield. “The riding position is more upright than my bike, but the NIKEN feels a bit heavy, like it doesn’t want to do it.”

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

“I thought it was bad on my GSXR, then I tried the NIKEN,” says David Willoughby. “You need to steer like a steering wheel, rather than lean it. I found myself turning more than I was leaning. I think the wheels being that far apart makes it feel wide in your head, and you can’t actually see them as you ride. I think filtering you’ll be okay, but flicking from behind one car to another, I’m not so sure.”

“I prefer my Scrambler,” says Steve Lamb. “The NIKEN’s not bad, but that confidence it won’t fall over disappears at low speed.”

“And I prefer my Versys 650, to be honest,” says Grahame Mudd. “The NIKEN’s not bad, but my bike is lighter, got a big steering lock, and the clutch on the NIKEN is so light it puts me off.”

“No problem for me,” says Tony Charlton, who rides a KTM 690 Duke. “I’m more comfortable on my bike, but it’s easy on the NIKEN. In terms of steering and grip, I’m happy.”
“I’d need to get used to it and I preferred my ZX-6R, but I can feel the potential,” says Patricia Stiemke.

“I can flick my bike because I know it, but you get a sense of the wheel not being in the middle,” says Daniel Moth. “You know you can get closer than the width of the fairing on a normal bike, but on the NIKEN the wheels are the widest point. That makes a difference. You’ve less room to manoeuvre when you’re cutting it close.”

 

Yamaha NIKEN: all questions answered

 

The Yamaha NIKEN Verdict

Haters gonna hate. But through all this a couple of things are clear:

1) The NIKEN handles like a normal bike for at least 99.9% of all riding – during cornering it’s significantly more secure (and riders of all experience, from novice to expert, can appreciate it).

2) The only time it feels weighty or wide is during tight, low speed manoeuvring, when the extra grip at the front requires the NIKEN to be steered more obviously than a normal machine, and the combined width of the front wheels can be off-putting.

3) The rest of the time, the level of composure and confidence delivered by the front end is utterly, utterly remarkable and offers a new level of safety (and naughtiness).

3) Despite that, the NIKEN as a whole struggles to be pigeon-holed – what kind of bike is it? Is it a tourer, a naked, a sportsbike. Where does it fit? This is as likely to be as big a problem for Yamaha as actually persuading people to try it out.

2018 Yamaha NIKEN spec

Engine type

liquid-cooled, DOHC, 12v inline triple

Displacement

847cc

Bore x stroke

78.0mm x 59.1mm

Compression ratio

11.5:1

Power

113.4bhp (84.6 kW) @ 10,000rpm

Torque

64.5 lb.ft (87.5 Nm) @ 8500rpm

Transmission system

6-speed, chain

Frame

Diamond

Track

410mm

Front suspension

Double usd KYB forks (43mm & 41mm)

Adjustment

Preload, compression and rebound damping

Fork travel

110mm

Rear suspension

KYB Monoshock

Adjustment

Preload and rebound damping

Rear travel

125mm

Front brake

2 x 298mm discs, four pot calipers

Rear brake

282mm disc, 2-pot caliper

Front tyres

2 x 120/70 R15

Rear tyre

190/55 R17

Length x width x height

2150mm x 885mm x 1250 mm

Rake/trail

20º/74mm

Wheel base

1510mm

Seat height

820mm

Kerb weight

263kg

Fuel tank

18 litres

Price

£13,499


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