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Top FIVE Reasons for Small Motorcycles. Minimalist Motorcycle Touring - and Daily Riding!

Updated: Jul 5

Why many motorcycle touring riders choose small and less expensive cycles.

Have you noticed: Motorcycles have gotten bigger, more complex, and MUCH more expensive? Years ago, many riders bought motorcycles to SAVE money! Motorcycles used to be cheap to buy and economical to ride and maintain. Where I live in Wisconsin, a motorcycle is a seasonal mode of transportation - and then stored with the insurance cancelled during the Winter!

Very few motorcycle riders in North America don’t also own a car or truck. With the current inflated prices, the majority of these motorcycle owners are typically financing BOTH their vehicle and bike!

But there are alternatives. I’m not talking about rebuilding a classic “project bike” that you found in your uncle’s barn. These projects often take years and end up costing as much or more than new cycles. No, I’m making the case for intentionally downsizing and simplifying your choice of motorcycle. There are an increasing number of minimalist options that are not only economical for commuting and sightseeing but are equally suited for multi-day tours.

In this article, I will cover the Top Five reasons why many motorcycle owners choose small motorcycle models for their daily riding AND touring.

1. Lower Purchase Cost for Small Touring Motorcycles


The first and most obvious reason to “Go Small” is the lower purchase cost. Nearly every brand is offering (or reintroducing) a low-priced motorcycle model. Sales numbers painfully confirm that the purchases of the biggest and most expensive models are flat or declining. New riders aren’t looking for $30,000 to $50,000 bikes. Baby Boomers are no longer the reliable market for 600-pound cruisers.


Motorcycle manufacturers followed the auto brands by continually offering bigger models with more expensive technology. Similar to add-on “convenience packages” on new cars, you can now buy motorcycles with thousands of dollars of electronic monitoring systems, traction control, suspension, navigation, etc. Then, before you can actually take off on your adventure, add several thousand dollars in racks, luggage, and protective accessories.


If you over-spend on an expensive “adventure bike”, will you actually be forced to limit your vacation time? If you “need” to add every conceivable FARKLE to your expensive purchase, you may never set off on your dream adventure.


Sadly, some prospective motorcycle tourists have put their dreams on hold indefinitely. They simply can’t justify the high price of the latest “adventure” motorcycle on the magazine cover. It’s also true that many riders who CAN cover the cost are financially astute and realistic. They have the cash but know this isn’t an appreciating investment.


Just like cars and trucks, that expensive motorcycle is worth 25% less the day after you drive it home – but the payments continue for years (typically adding 50% to the total purchase price). Sadly, the extra money you spend on most bolt-on accessories will add nothing to the resale value of the motorcycle.


People with the means to spend BIG BUCKS on a motorcycle know how hard it is to save that amount of after-tax disposable income. They also know that your memories are not determined by the cost of the motorcycle. Can you travel five times farther or faster on an expensive motorcycle? Do you see more scenery, sunsets, or wildlife? NO - a small touring motorcycle can help create MORE memories!

Adventure motorcycle travelers have been sold the lie that enormous machines are required for touring. The Long Way Round movie popularized the idea of extended cross-country motorcycle travel. Most of the problems that Charley and Ewan had to overcome were self-inflicted by their grossly overloaded motorcycles. Then, when the frame on Claudio’s big, expensive bike finally broke in half, he completed the Russian leg of the adventure on the “Red Devil”. This generic 125cc bike went mile for mile with the lumbering 1200cc high-tech pack mules.


For perspective, you should know that the Number One mode of motorized transportation in the world is the 50cc scooter. Millions of people in developing countries LONG FOR the means to acquire a scooter to travel farther and faster than by either walking or bicycle. If they are in the next higher income bracket, they buy a 125cc motorcycle. You will often see photos of entire families on a little motorcycle, and many of these small cycles are converted into three-wheeled delivery trucks and taxis.


Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people are traveling for fun as well as daily transportation on motorcycles that cost less than what the modern “ADV” rider spends on luggage or clothing.

Big bikes are NOT required for big adventures! Mike Saunders, Lost with Mike, rode from Key West to Alaska on a 50cc scooter! Riders have completed the cross-country Trans-America Trail on 125cc cycles. Riders have toured the Continental Divide route on small enduros. "Round the World Paul" completed a 12,000-mile circumnaviagtion of the Lower 48-states on a 125cc trail bike. Don’t forget that thousands of people complete these same tours each year by bicycle! In comparison, a modern, fuel-injected 250cc motorcycle seems like a space-age alternative!


2. Lower Operating, Maintenance, Repair, and Insurance Costs of Small Touring Motorcycles


Expensive motorcycles are as complex as modern automobiles. Everything from electronic traction modes to computerized suspension has eliminated the repair and maintenance capacity of most owners. With shop rates pushing $150 per hour, annual inspection and routine service can cost more than $1,000.00!


Inexpensive generic parts and accessories typically don't fit the most expensive motorcycles. Many high-priced bikes require proprietary parts, circuits, emission sensors, and even specialized tools to perform routine repairs. In addition, the more elite the brand, the fewer and more widely spaced are qualified service centers.


In terms of maintenance and repairs, less expensive motorcycles are less complex and more accessible to the owner or an independent cycle shop. In the “middle of nowhere” you may find generic parts to complete repairs, plus there are numerous online sources for universal motorcycle parts. Likewise, simple motorcycles do not require premium gas.

Expensive motorcycles also command expensive insurance rates. Like modern automobiles, even a minor crash can involve many thousands of dollars in parts and labor to restore the bike, and probably a towing expense as well.


A $2,500 motorcycle costs much less to insure than a $25,000 motorcycle. That is one reason that smaller, less expensive motorcycles are often purchased by riders who already have other bikes. It costs less to buy and own two smaller motorcycles to fill riding subcategories.

3. Safer Riding on Small Touring Motorcycles - Especially Older, Smaller, and Solo Riders


When you ride a heavy motorcycle, you are subject to the simple Laws of Physics related to momentum and inertia. It takes more speed and power to navigate an uphill switchback. It requires harder braking to come to a stop. It also requires more physical strength. Double the complexity when riding in the mud or sand or rocks. When – not if – you tip over, your body and the fragile exposed parts of the bike are driven into the ground with exponentially more force on a heavy motorcycle.


Even a middle-weight motorcycle weighs much more than any of us can bench press. But levering a 350-pound bike back onto its wheels is infinitely easier than a 700-pound monster. Where are you likely to fall over? Hopefully, it won’t be in the dealership parking lot. More likely, it will be on a steep switchback or a muddy side road. I’ve seen slick mud that required four men to stand a big adventure bike. A solo rider would be in for a long hike!

If you have experience riding a bigger motorcycle, smaller cycles will feel nimble and “flickable” in comparison. With less mass you will have better control in corners, when braking, and in rough conditions. Heck, simply parking on an uneven surface is impossible with huge motorcycles.


Lighter motorcycles may offer distinct advantages in adverse conditions. I’ve been stuck in mud with a big bike when my riding partners (on smaller cycles) rode circles around me. Don’t forget that all touring motorcycles are ONE-wheel drive. Eventually, you will reach a challenging riding destination and meet fellow tourists who arrived in compact cars – or worse – minivans!


Riding a smaller motorcycle is a choice reflected in your riding style. You ride less aggressively, allow more room for passing other vehicles, and simply enjoy a slightly slower pace. You tend to plan your routes to avoid the hurried drivers on the freeways, thus drastically reducing the volume of traffic you encounter. Of course, this casual pace pays off in much improved fuel mileage.


4. The Simplicity and Minimalism of Small Touring Motorcycles


What is required for traveling by motorcycle? Far less than we picture in our minds when thinking of a touring motorcycle.  Americans are quick to jump to the largest and most expensive option when solving any question. Bigger is Better is the advertising message. But many are now converting to Less is More.


As mentioned previously, the smaller motorcycle is not only less expensive to own and operate, but also less intrusive and allows us to be connected closer to the sections we are traversing. After all, isn’t that why we are travelling by motorcycle in the first place?

small motorcycle touring

Andrew Pain is the author of Going Small (and the updated 2.0 edition), described as “The Argument for Small Roads, Small Budget, Small Motorcycle”. He advocates for getting off the freeway, setting a slower pace, and enjoying the journey. He encourages riders to choose the smallest motorcycle to cover the miles, and then pack as light as possible. Every gas stop and local meal will provide the opportunity for interactions with local residents. Smaller motorcycles are non-threatening (and typically much quieter!)


If you think you NEED a huge motorcycle for extended tours just do a Google search for bicycle touring to learn how these adventurers pack for extended trips. Then add a few motorcycle tools and your riding safety gear and you have a packing list for a minimalist motorcycle trip that can span weeks or months. But unlike bikepacking, you don’t have to supply the muscle to carry the weight!


Most small motorcycles also have less capacity for racks and luggage. Again, this costs less to buy. Secondly, if you can’t fit all your stuff into these smaller sets of luggage, you are simply packing TOO MANY non-essentials. Use your smaller motorcycle to minimize your list of “necessities”.


5. Rider Maturity Often Matches the Small Touring Motorcycle


Ever since you put a card in the spokes of your bicycle as a kid, you wanted a motorcycle. You wanted the freedom that only a motorcycle can provide – that is, the ability to go almost anywhere. Just you and your plans. Maybe with a destination in mind. Maybe just for the joy of riding and to explore new roads.


Those of us who started riding motorcycles as a young person might have placed a higher importance on horsepower, speed, and noise. Manufacturers still happily provide motorcycles that jump high, race fast, burn tires, and roar loudly.

But some of us (not all, for sure) reach a point where we are happy to ride “five-over” the speed limit on the highway. We have outgrown the urge to ride wheelies or make long jumps. We aren’t focused on maximum mileage per day, but on sights and experiences. Riding really is the destination!


For dual-sport riders, how many cc’s are required to cruise at 25 or 45 miles per hour on unpaved back roads? BigDog, who is known in ADV circles for his rides from coast to coast and from Mexico to Alaska on a 250cc dual sport is famous for his quote, “Anything bigger than 250cc is just wheel spin.”


Here is a video that illustrates how motorcycle marketing often doesn’t match the NEEDS of touring riders on BIG touring bikes:

Does a smaller motorcycle fit your personality? Maturity may be a good way to describe setting lower mileage objectives. If you are obsessed with 1000-mile Iron Butt rides, you may not be a prospect for a smaller bike (although some distance riders on small cycles also take pride in logging the highest fuel economy). But if you are willing to be flexible you can magnify the volume of experiences you enjoy.


Small motorcycles are often labeled “beginner bikes”, but they will also extend the YEARS of riding that you enjoy.

Slow down. Take longer breaks, Enjoy a siesta. Start later, then quit earlier in the day. Remember: Less is More!


Barry Dwernychuk in his book, Easy Motorcycle Touring, recommends the following guidelines:

  • Don’t exceed 75% of the total weight capacity of your motorcycle (that is, rider and gear.)

  • Try to travel at 75% of your maximum top speed.

  • Refill your gas tank before you reach 75% of the maximum range of your cycle.


6. BONUS Reason: Smaller Touring Motorcycles - and Scooters - Are FUN!


It’s not surprising that most small motorcycle buyers have previously owned or still own much larger motorcycles. Many have decades of experience on large cruisers and adventure-style motorcycles. But most readily admit that the motorcycle that they ride the most is their small motorcycle. Why do these seasoned riders choose the smaller motorcycle over the larger, more expensive bikes? Because it’s fun!

When riding a smaller motorcycle (or scooter), many compare the nimbleness to a bicycle versus the 600-pound (or more) "hog". Riding a heavy motorcycle on rough roads transmits a pounding through your arms and back. Riding a heavy motorcycle off-road is very physically demanding. But a light cycle skips across rough sections with less stress to the rider and the bike.


Motorcycle riders ALWAYS use the word FUN to describe the experience of riding the smaller cycles.

RIDING a small motorcycle is a different sensory experience than DRIVING a huge cruiser or massive “ADV” bike. You might compare it to the difference between piloting a 2-seater sports car on a narrow backroad compared to driving a 4x4 truck.


Small motorcycles deliver more “Smiles per Mile”. If you have a super bike and the speed limit is 75 MPH across the desert, you’ll likely be screaming at 90 or more! But if you are riding a 250cc “retro” motorcycle you will be forced to average 55 or 60 MPH. Not only are you SEEING the scenery flow by, but you get to ENJOY the ride longer!

small motorcycle touring

 Easy Motorcycle Touring summarizes smaller cycles this way: A good touring bike is simply one that will safely, comfortably, and reliably carry you and the gear you need, across the distances and terrain you want to explore, at the speed you want to ride.


Barry continues, “Modern motorcycles in the 250cc to 500cc class can carry a solo rider, simple luggage holding a week’s worth (or more) of clothes and personal items, plus some basic camping gear at safe highway speeds, reliably, day after day.”


Small motorcycle riders share the opposite mentality of the buyers of big and expensive modern cruisers, elaborate ADV bikes, and high-powered sport bikes. Never before have motorcycle owners spent more money to drive MORE miles and tally FEWER experiences. But you now know that a relaxed and economical alternative exists!

small touring motorcycle

1 Comment

Apr 01

Ol' Man Ronin has a video that covers many of these same points:

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