[this article is written for non motorcyclists, so if that's not you, just skip the obvious bits]
I live in the middle of a city that’s fairly cycle-friendly and so to save money I’ve just had a bicycle for a number of years now. I was starting to get itchy and there’s some places I wanted to go to do (non IT) training courses that would be away from train and bus routes. I could hire a car or get involved in some car-sharing scheme but there’s other complications with those situations.
We live in rented house, which shares a drive with four other rented houses, so the landlord and landlady aren’t too keen on everyone having a car as they wouldn’t all fit. They were fine at the suggestion of a motorcycle however.
Trivia: I hadn’t noticed it before now but in the photo above there’s something that looks like a dent in the fuel tank. There’s no dent – it’s actually just where the matte finish has been worn to a smooth finish by the riders knees and it causes an odd false perspective effect in the photo.
I rode motorbikes from about age 16-18. At first a 50cc and then later a 125. Both were two strokes (an engine design that’s good for high power in a light package but uses oil in the petrol and so doesn’t meet modern emission requirements for anything more interesting). I was mechanically minded enough to service them and in suburban/rural Gloucestershire they were a lot of fun. I passed my full Motorcycle (category A) and because this was some time ago I’m not covered by the newer restrictions with regard to what size motorcycle you can ride in your first X years after passing your test.
A normal everyday bike
I wanted something that wasn’t as frantic as a 125. On the smaller engines, in order to make enough power to overtake on for instance a rural A or B category rode, you need to keep the engine revs high because the engine only makes reasonable power in a fairly narrow band of it’s rev range. It’s tiring as you have to constantly work the gears and the road topography alters (for instance, small engines have low torque so you have to change down the gears on short inclines and similar), you can get bullied by other traffic if you don’t keep up and it’s not safe to be planning desperate slingshot overtaking maneuvers. It might sound odd, but I also wanted something with some physical size to it so that you’re more noticable and you’ll generally be given more room. Most 125s, 250ccs and similar are quite lightweight and narrow, which is fine for what they’re designed for but they don’t have the same presence as a larger bike on a dual carridgeway or motorway.
Looking around at bikes that people recommended for riders coming back into riding, the Suzuki SV650 gets mentioned a lot. It’s got enough torque that if you accidentally pick too high a gear for a situation the bike can pull through and it’s generally described as predictable to ride with the V twin engine adding some enjoyment (compared to high revving inline four cylinder road race style bikes which are quite ‘peaky’ to ride). I knew that the four cylinder road race bikes of 600cc and above were more towards the guided missile style of riding so I wanted to avoid them if I could.
I wanted to be able to carry panniers (luggage on the back) and possibly do some long distances so looked around the SV650 forums at photos for different peoples setups. They all looked like a fairly smallish low road bike with giant boxes on the back but it was do-able. People complained about the riding position not being ideal – wrist pain from the weight forward road race style positioning and similar, and discussed ways to modify the bike to be better for touring.
Getting the itch
So at this point I was browsing ebay for SV650 bikes, and visiting the local motorbike dealers. Buying a motorcycle helmet highlighted how out of touch I’d become with the motorcycle world. I was fairly open minded about what helmet to get but I knew I didn’t want an open face one (as I like my jaw and don’t want to lose it in an accident) and I knew I didn’t want one of those flip-front helmets that old people have (more on that shortly). The conversation went a bit like:
Me: “Hi, I’m after a motorcycle helmet. Here’s a few I was interested in from your website, just to give an idea.”
[I look around at the in-store range. I remember Arai and Shoei helmets from when I was riding last, but don't recognize any of the makes on display]
Me: “So I haven’t ridden for a long time but when I was riding last it was the case that for safety you avoided Polycarbonate [plastic] helmets and went for composite [glass reinforced plasic, kevlar and/or carbon fibre weaves] ones, is that still the case?”
Assistant: [slightly puzzled look from the assistant] “Not really, for instance all these polycarbonate helmets are Gold ACU race standard [the highest standard possible when I was riding], it’s more about weight, the composite ones are lighter so you get less neck fatigue”
Me: “Oh, I guess things have come on a bit”
Assistant: “They all have washable and replaceable liners, most of them have pin lock fittings, some of them have the sun visors”
Me: [slightly gobsmacked] “You can take the helmet liner out and wash it?” [note: in my day your helmet absorbed whatever hair gel and face-grease was applied to it and that was it because the liners were fixed - it's such a simple requirement but so helpful]
Assistant: “Of course”
Me: “erm, what’s a pin lock?”
Assistant: “It’s like an anti fogging system that puts a layer of plastic within the inside of the visor”
Me: “Oh like double glazing I guess?”
Assistant: “Yes sir”
[I wanted to say "so why not call it visor double glazing instead of pin-lock" but I didn't want to test the limits of his politeness]
My old helmets had all been the traditional race style. I tried one on. If you push your hands against your cheeks and move them forward in a comedy fashion, that’s what it was like.
Me: “Er, I’m not so take with the fit. I know different manufacturers sometimes have different helmet fits, do you have anything slightly different?”
Assistant: “We have some of the flip front helmets behind you, they’re popular with glasses wearers as they tend to find them easier to put on and off”
“Hmm, ok I’ll try one one” [puts on the helmet, everything goes suddenly quieter - this isn't the case with the race helmets]
Assistant: “mmmhm mhmmhmm hmmhmh”
Assistant: “This one is intended for touring so it’s wind tunnel tested and has improved sound deadening. The slide brings down the sun visor, the button releases it. Bluetooth compartment is to the side.”
[...fast forward 10 minutes or so...]
Me: “Erm, can I have the flip front helmet in the Matt black option?”
But it’s not just helmets either. The “armoured jeans” that were first coming out when I started to ride got quite poor reviews (compared to thick leather trousers) but now they’re all approved to various ratings, with four rows of stitching to keep it all together in an accident. The textile jackets have armour systems, goretex and similar fabrics.
At least I know what bike I want
So I sat on a second hand SV650 at a dealers. I could reach the floor easily, the controls fell to hand. All the dealers agreed it was a good first big bike for getting back into riding, with no nasty surprises. Getting one that hadn’t been thrashed might be an issue. One dealer himself owned an SV650 “I’m on my forth engine” he said. He had the look of someone that you would ask to deliver a bike a days ride away, and then have it arrive 30 minutes later with the engine glowing red hot. I found one SV650 with one lady owner from new, but the dealer wanted a lot of money for it for the age that it was – as each year went by the model was improved, with fuel injection for instance, and this was quite an old one. Everything else seemed to have an ominous after market exhaust, and some of the wording of the private adverts reminded me of the mechanic on his 4th engine.
I spoke to my dad on the phone, whilst happy to discuss motorbikes, he was very carefully avoiding anything that might sound like encouragement.
“Have you though about an adventure style bike instead? They’re quite popular”.
“Oh what, like a scrambler – enduro road bike thing? Hmm nah”
A few days later I idly googled for the adventure style bikes to see what was going on nowadays. One of the first things I bumped into was the Suzuki DL650. It’s essentially the same engine as the SV650 but with a milder camshaft (slightly less peaky), and of course mounted in a semi road-offroad frame. There’s a couple of owners forums. Looking on ebay I found a few interesting bikes for sale, including one which was very cheap for a 2008 model but wasn’t cheap for the high mileage it hand – there was a compromise going on. I couldn’t help but notice it was in zombie-apocalypse-mad-max matte black (it’s an official colour for 2008, not a respray). I knew the 2008 model had an upgraded alternator to handle more electrical output (such as heated grips, GPS systems and similar) which previous models suffered from, and the high mileage seemed to be work out as commuter miles so wasn’t too odd and checking the forums it wasn’t excessively high for the engine to cope with – lots of other people had higher mileage DL650 bikes. I asked the dealer a few questions.
* it could be delivered to me at half the normal delivery price
* they would put a brand new back tyre on (a decent make)
* they’d also service it, it would have a new MOT
* they’d would throw in a bike cover
* they’d give a 30 day warranty for any issues
Obviously, using all my advanced motor trade haggling skills I looked at the zombie-apocalypse black bike and drove a hard bargin, something along the lines of:
So it arrived in the back of a van. The bike mechanic unstrapped it, we did the paperwork. I looked at my wooden gate.
“I looked up the specs online beforehand, the bike is apparently 33 inches wide, I measured the gate at 35 inches, now I just have to see if it’ll fit”
“Oh, do you want me to ride it though?”
[At this point I think of myself trying to do it with the 200kg bike I'm not familiar with, the narrow gate, the gravel drive, the slippery wet metal inspection cover the other side and the fact that he's fully insured]
“Er, yes that would be great”
Weirdly, something that makes an immediate difference is the fuel gauge. When I first rode, the amount of petrol you had was found by
- you sat on the bike with feet spread out either side
- you opened up the fuel cap
- you looked inside whilst moving your hips side to side to see if you could see how much petrol was sloshing about, or once you know the bike by the amount of weight/resistance to your movements
Now I have a fuel gauge, which reduces the chances of the ancient fun activity of cutting out from lack of petrol and pulling over to put the bike onto reserve tank, only to discover it’s accidentally been on the reserve tank all along and so has drained the main and reserve (reserve is like a subcompartment of the main tank) and you now need to find a friendly motorist to help. I think I only did this once, which was a bit of a miracle for a sleepy 17 year old.
I knew I needed to be careful with my first ride as I hadn’t ridden for so long. As we’re on a fairly busy main road, inside the city ring road. The bike had been delivered with the fuel gauge showing a warning. Rather than get worked up about dashing to the petrol station and maybe ending up pushing a 200kg bike around a ring road roundabout, I just walked there and filled up a petrol can and brought it back.
I got all dressed up and prepared, went out to the bike and… then it wouldn’t start – the battery had gone dead as it had been stood and the weather had suddenly gone cold (including a proper storm). It’s a fuel injected bike so I believe bump starting is difficult as usually the fuel pump helps pressurize the fuel injectors. Plus bump starting a 200kg bike on gravel was not going to end well. Luckily I borrowed a charger from a nearby fellow motorcyclist and charged it up overnight.
I picked a time after the main rush hour and on a fairly calm evening. Low speed throttle and clutch control was fine/predictable for getting the bike out of the narrow alleyway. Pulling onto the main road I pulled off a little too wide, pressed the horn when I tried to cancel the indicators, and the bike rocked a bit as I changed gears. I quickly pulled into a quiet side road so noone could see me riding like a moron.
I pottered around the side streets for a bit, getting used to the slower speed behavior. I liked the upright riding position which kept your eyes ahead scanning for issues, like pedestrians stepping out or motorists pulling odd maneuvers. The levers needed adjusting as they needed to rotate down slightly so they were in line with my hands but otherwise it was fairly familiar (gear changing etc was second nature). The high up weight I need to get used to, especially low speed cornering or stop start turning maneuvers – I will lower the suspension slightly so I can reach the ground with the flat of my foot rather than just the toes/ball as otherwise I have to lean the bike slightly to one side when I stop which I could see otherwise leading to a (slow speed topple) mistake one day, such as the bike leaning to the right as it comes to a stop and my foot being on the right hand side on the brake pedal instead of down on the floor in time. The right hand mirror is great, the left hand one gives me interesting views of the tops of trees.
I went out again today early on Sunday when the roads are empty. I filled up in the petrol station without doing anything stupid, like dropping it. The bike is easy to handle as long as it’s moving, even if it’s just moving really slowly with the back break on. The balance really seems perfect when it’s moving slowly – when it’s stopped it becomes a big hulk of weight ready to fall on the floor the moment I don’t pay attention. I cycle every day so it could be all the times I’ve balanced my mountain bike on the pedals when stopped at red lights also helps with the slow speed bike balance. General roadcraft as well transfers from cycling, not perfectly but enough to be noticeable. The helmet and protective clothing reduces the situation awareness compared to cycling but the motorbike is more noticeable and doesn’t get bullied whereas people will try to push your bicycle to one side, even if it’s slow moving traffic with no possible advantage to them.
I went off down the A40 but although it was sunny, today was pretty windy and I didn’t turn it into a multi-hour ride as there were some strong side winds (the UK is currently having some interesting storms) and similar so I played it safe. A noticeable difference to my old 125 is that if I’m at 50, I can open the throttle and the bike will strongly pull to 70 with ease. The bike was happy to sit at 70mph and felt normal at that speed – I have friends who’ve test ridden sports bikes and said that they were riding at what seemed a normal speed, then looked down to see 110mph on the clock. So I’m sure the DL650 can go fast but it doesn’t feel like a license wrecker.
One or two bits on the engine and engine guards could do with a wire brush and lick of paint but otherwise I’ve no immediate mechanical concerns with the bike. I think the main improvements would be via the rider.
- Other than my helmet, my protective clothing is currently borrowed from a friend so I need to get my own
- There’s a motorcycle training company the other side of town that has a massive abandoned factory car park for low speed/stop-start practice and also does refresher/advanced training so I’m probably going to book a few hours with them just to remove any bad habits. I don’t have to do this but I recognize it’s a sensible way to reduce risk.
- I’m going to drop the suspension about one inch to improve my stop/start bike control, there’s a simple kit that does this.
- I’ll play to the bikes strengths to build my confidence by doing some longer distance riding on low traffic roads I’m familiar with