Dr. Frazier AT Motorcycles – Size Matters

November 13, 2009
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Adventure riding lean and mean on a 110 cc Suzuki motorcycle meant leaving a lot of what many motorcyclists consider absolutely essential for adventure travel at home.
Adventure riding “lean and mean” on a 110 cc Suzuki motorcycle meant leaving a lot of what many motorcyclists consider absolutely essential for adventure travel at home.

MOTORCYCLE SEX or Freud Would Never Understand The Relationship Between Me And My Motorcycle is a book I wrote nearly 20 years ago. Researching it found me sometimes immersed in finding an elusive answer to the question of size and perceptions. Today I am still lectured to by self-proclaimed adventure riders that big is better, and thus their reluctance to travel to destinations where size is limited to small-displacement units. Researching a new book titled MOTORCYCLE SEXPEDITION – ABSOLUTE RIDING finds me revisiting the quandary about the elements of size and perceptions that make up parts of the adventure-riding equation.

Does size really matter? Is a mega cc “adventure” motorcycle truly needed to experience a motorcycle adventure? Followers of various psychological doctrines could suggest that those motorcyclists fixated with the need to have the biggest displacement adventure unit with which to do their riding are afflicted with Short Man’s Complex or a Napoleon Complex. A motorcycle economist could suggest that a real or perceived budget surplus leads to a Propensity To Spend for larger units.

The Kawasaki 250 cc KLX S packed a full load  maintained 70 mph on the major highways and was easily managed through the tough stuff like mud  sand  and rocks in Alaska.
The Kawasaki 250 cc KLX S packed a full load, maintained 70 mph on the major highways and was easily managed through the tough stuff like mud, sand, and rocks in Alaska.

Looking at my personal choices for the many adventure models I have used, one could opine I suffer from the Propensity To Save, opting for small versus large. In reality what I discovered was that some ego-swallowing, bare bones packing and thinking outside the box led to small being better than no-adventure or wallet-draining experiences with big.

A recent relationship using a small unit for adventure found me piloting a 2009 250cc Kawasaki KLX S. It carried me and considerable gear for 2,000 miles, one-half on main paved highways, the other half being serious off-road driving through murky mud wallows and deep beach sand in Alaska. With the six speed transmission I could shift down to fifth when I needed a little more power when going up hills or to keep up with a 650 cc model I was following one day. Even fourth gear at 60 mph was not over working the engine. When I got to the foot deep mud through the tundra, or the soft beach sand, I was happy to have the lighter Kawasaki instead of my own 1000cc BMW GS model. The KLX was also much easier to pick up when pilot error or large slippery rocks and slick tree limbs hidden in the murky waters caused the Kawasaki to lie down.

200 cc Kawasaki versus my travel companions 1200 cc BMW - a sprinting tiger versus a wallowing water buffalo in Cambodia.
200 cc Kawasaki versus my travel companion’s 1200 cc BMW – a sprinting tiger versus a wallowing water buffalo in Cambodia.

For seven years I have been bouncing around the south and far eastern parts of Asia using 400cc or smaller motorcycles, the smallest being a 50cc SYM in Taiwan. Some of these expeditions would not have been possible on a larger displacement motorcycle due to import size limitations. Another serious limitation was the large amount of money required to rent, purchase or import a big displacement unit.

An example of a budget buster was when I was given a $15,000-20,000 estimate for what it would cost to temporarily import my 500-lb BMW into Vietnam and then have to use a government guide as a schmoozer and fixer while spying on me. Added to that was $5,000-7,000 to fly the BMW in and out. My exercised option was one of renting a local 125cc Minsk in Hanoi for $5 per day, plus $1 per day for the rental of saddlebags, which left enough money in my wallet to have a wild adventure. In fact, there was enough money remaining afterwards for me make a second tour in Vietnam two years later, with possibly some residual for a third and fourth tour.

One of my Harley-Davidson riding pals said, when I told him of the Minsk adventure (riding and maintaining a Minsk is an adventure in itself), “I’d not go anywhere I can’t ride my own Harley or rent one.”

250 cc Honda in Myanmar  Burma  did equally well on or off-road  rented for  35.00 per day.
250 cc Honda in Myanmar (Burma) did equally well on or off-road, rented for $35.00 per day.

I told him that it might be a long time before he could do that in Vietnam, although the Harley-Davidson Company had some years earlier announced it had signed a deal with the Vietnamese government to allow the import of motorcycles. That deal has been slow to be implemented and well before the recession caused the Motor Company to rethink its mere survival in the global market.

My research on motorcycling in Myanmar found it was going to be nearly impossible to enter and widely or freely explore with any motorcycle. For that adventure I flew into the middle of the country with my riding gear and a wallet filled with US dollars. Once there I did a private rental deal with a 250cc Honda XR owner to use his personal motorcycle. While I had to leave a hefty deposit in fresh $100 bills in case the authorities confiscated the $3,000 Honda, it was returned in its entirety after I eluded the import and customs officials as well as several curious roadside police.

110 cc Hehsim  Chinese  in Myanmar  Burma  kept up with traffic  passed trucks and nimbly dodged potholes. It was friendly to the wallet for a rental of  10.00 per day.
110 cc Hehsim (Chinese) in Myanmar (Burma) kept up with traffic, passed trucks and nimbly dodged potholes. It was friendly to the wallet for a rental of $10.00 per day.

Another rental I found in Myanmar was a Chinese-made 110cc Hehsim. This deal was first arranged through a black market money changer on a street corner, then completed in a back alley next to a mosque, again using fresh US dollars. No deposit was required for this rental but I did have to write my own rental agreement and sign it. For $10 per day, I likely rode in part of the world where few American motorcyclists travel but where I was warmly welcomed by everyone I met.

With severe travel restrictions in Myanmar for foreigners, as well as for the local residents, and near zero allowance for the temporary importation of foreign motorcycles, using what motorcycle I could find locally inside the country was the only way I could explore this most interesting and secretive country. It will likely be another lifetime before my Harley-Davidson pal will be able to ride a Harley in Myanmar.

Kawasaki 200 cc KMX wallowed slightly through the slippery mud in Cambodia.
Kawasaki 200 cc KMX wallowed slightly through the slippery mud in Cambodia.

Malaysia was another tough country to explore by motorcycle. On one occasion I easily entered Malaysia with my Thai registered 200cc Kawasaki KMX. The 200cc two-stroke model did everything from the 60-70 mph super highways to the slippery jungle tracks. Admittedly, I was passed a few times on the paved roads by big displacement motorcycles, like BMW R1200GS Adventures, but these were most often foreign registered and piloted by non-Malaysian owners, touring foreigners like myself. A nearly 100% import tax on foreign manufactured motorcycles makes them quite expensive in Malaysia, but they were there, even a few Harley-Davidsons for my pal.

Malaysian Borneo and Brunei presented a bigger problem. Purportedly there were no rentals available there, nor could a foreigner on a tourist visa purchase a new or used motorcycle. To get my Thai registered Kawasaki 200cc KMX into the country was a possibility, but it was going to take me nearly a week of boring highway riding and ferry boat travel to get to Borneo from my base in northern Thailand, and

The road or track through this mud track is the footpath to the left of the water-filled ruts  something the 110 cc motorcycle could tackle. This narrow slippery footpath is not something I want to try on a 900 cc adventure model.
The “road” or track through this
mud track is the footpath to the
left of the water-filled ruts,
something the 110 cc motorcycle
could tackle. This narrow slippery
footpath is not something I want
to try on a 900 cc “adventure”
model.

another week to return. The two weeks to and from Borneo was going to cost me hard cash of nearly $1500 plus serious wear and tear on the Kawasaki. When I added in the loss of 14 days I could see merely getting to my riding destination on Borneo was going to be expensive. Flying or shipping my motorcycle in and out was going to eat even more money.

I went to Plan C, also known as the Cash Plan. With another wallet stuffed full of US dollars, I flew into Kuching carrying my riding gear, tool kit and some leads on where friendly rental places might be found in a country known widely for not having rental motorcycles. Once on the ground, and given some excellent advice away from the Internet, I rented for $10 per day a 110cc Suzuki with a hand clutch and six-speed transmission. My Harley-Davidson pal would say I looked like a gorilla on top of a football but I cared less what I looked like and more about the motorcycling.

In both Cambodia and Laos I have rented 250cc Hondas. Another time found me temporarily importing a rented 225cc Yamaha TTR into Laos from Thailand. None of these motorcycles have cost more than $20 per day to rent. Another time I flew into Cambodia with my riding gear, travel kit and dollars, then rented a 400cc Honda Transalp for $35 per day.

400 cc Honda rental in Japan for  150.00 per day was a bargain for Japan. It easily held or exceeded posted road speeds and could carry one or two persons plus luggage.
400 cc Honda rental in Japan for $150.00 per day was a bargain for Japan. It easily held or exceeded posted road speeds and could carry one or two persons plus luggage.

In early 2009 I rented a new 250cc Kawasaki KLX in Thailand for $30 per day. The KLX easily kept up with all traffic on the main roads and did equally well off-road through the jungles.

Japan found me on a 400cc Honda which rented for a whopping $150 per day. However, given the money it would have cost me to get my own big motorcycle in and out of Japan, either flying or shipping it, plus the time and money the paperwork and handling involved, the $150 per day was a deal. It left enough money in the wallet for an airline ticket for me in and out of Japan, plus comfortably eating and sleeping. The 400cc Honda could have easily carried two people and their luggage if set-up right, and met all posted speed limits. When I inquired about a Harley-Davidson rental for my pal I was told, “Yes yes, can do. Bring gold, much gold.”

There are some downsides to using the smaller motorcycles for adventure and fun, the first being a possibly hurt ego. I have a BMW traveling acquaintance who insists the only real adventure riders use their own big displacement BMWs. He scoffs at anything smaller than 650cc, saying they cannot keep up with traffic or carry the required travel gear, tools and spare parts. He closes his argument by saying, “It’s really all about the journey and the journey is made up of the proper presentation, proper machine, proper gear, and following a proper plan.” Sometimes I suspect he has a proper BMW logo tattooed on the inside of his eyelids. For both he and my Harley-Davidson pal the journey seems to be more about the size and make of the motorcycle than movement over the land in the wind and through the culture, the journey.

An AIRHAWK  air filled  seat from Aerostich makes sitting on the board hard seats on many small displacement motorcycles bearable  and is now part of my standard carry-in kit.
An AIRHAWK (air filled) seat from Aerostich makes sitting on the “board hard” seats on many small displacement motorcycles bearable, and is now part of my standard carry-in kit.

To make the journey on a smaller displacement motorcycle means re-thinking what is absolutely needed. Over the last 20-30 years I have developed what I call my “carry-in kit.” This varies from country to country, but usually includes my own riding gear, tool and tire repair kit, and sometimes a tank bag, saddlebags and often a handlebar mounted windscreen.

For my 250cc Kawasaki KLX S in Alaska, I had most of the add-ons sent ahead by US Postal or UPS. I carried in my Aerostich riding gear, plus my Nolan helmet and camping gear. Once in Alaska I built a spare tool kit from supplies purchased at Wal*Mart, a motorcycle dealership and several auto parts stores.

Usually smaller displacement rental motorcycles have seats as soft as a 2” x 6” pine board, not being made for long-distance touring. To make sitting more comfortable, or bearable, I carry in an Airhawk inflatable seat. While a sheepskin pad is sometimes an option, the Airhawk seat ranks highest on my list.

Nolan N43 helmet with removable chin guard  allows for more flow-through air in hot and humid countries. This is my current choice for a carry-in helmet.
Nolan N43 helmet with removable chin guard, allows for more flow-through air in hot and humid countries. This is my current choice for a carry-in helmet.

My own helmet is included in the kit, not a new one, but one that has been broken in earlier. I have tried buying helmets locally to save weight and space on the airplane, but usually found what I purchased new was painful to break-in, if it ever did. Several times I have given away the locally bought helmets to the rental agency owners not to have to wear them again. The helmets rental agencies sometimes rent, or let renters use, have likely never been cleaned and sometimes are likened to egg shells in terms of safety. They may meet the local legal requirements for wearing a helmet, but they can crack like an egg when they hit the pavement. Most do not have chin guards and the face shield may look like it has been cleaned with sandpaper. My current favorite helmet is the Nolan N43. It has a removable chin guard, flip-up face shield with a built in darkened flip-down screen for bright days. For hot and sweaty climates it has the added attraction of having an easily removed liner for washing.

These Combat Lites boots from Aerostich  www.aerostich.com  with cleated soles are my current choice for carry-in boots.
These Combat Lites boots from 
Aerostich with cleated soles are
my current choice for carry-in
boots.

I now carry in my own boots. Several times I thought I could purchase some riding boots locally but again the break-in period was painful and sometimes nothing was available to purchase that was my size. Once I had a pair of riding boots handmade, only to give them away a week later to a hotel busboy, and thanking him for accepting them. They hurt so badly I cast safety to the wind and chose to finish the trip wearing jogging shoes. Lately I have found the Aerostich Combat Lites the best boot for my needs.

The ShockStrap from Simply Brilliant  www.shockles.com  is far superior to any bungee cords provided or sold by rental companies. These are almost guaranteed not to let luggage slide off the motorcycle.
The “ShockStrap” from Simply Brilliant is far superior to any bungee cords provided or sold by rental companies. These are almost guaranteed not to let luggage slide off the motorcycle.

A new part of my carry-in kit includes tie downs for luggage. My current favorite is called a ShockStrap. These are made of 2,000-lb, sun-resistant nylon webbing with fully anodized 600# test aluminum carabineers at the ends to secure them. An internal shock-cord is not subject to sun or abrasion and a “StrapWrap” system secures the loose or excess strap ends so they do not fly about or have to be shortened. These luggage straps are tough stuff, tough enough to be used to slowly pull your buddy’s broken motorcycle to a nearby pit stop.

For luggage I usually carry my gear in Ortlieb waterproof bags from Aerostich. These come in three different sizes and are easily used as checked-in luggage on airplanes or strapped to the back of a motorcycle seat or rear luggage rack.

Tools and small carrying bag on the right came with the 250 cc motorcycle. My additional carry-in built-up kit is on the left. Not shown are the glues  patches  electrical wire  duct tape  spark plug  tire repair kit  hand air pump  misc. nuts bolts and spare cables also carried-in or purchased locally.
Tools and small carrying bag on the right came with the 250 cc motorcycle. My additional carry-in/built-up kit is on the left. Not shown are the glues, patches, electrical wire, duct tape, spark plug, tire repair kit, hand air pump, misc. nuts/bolts and spare cables also carried-in or purchased locally.

If I know I am going to have a gas tank in front of me on the motorcycle I will be using, I have found the tank bags from Wolfman the best for my needs. Their adjustable straps and flexible non-slip base allow them to fit on numerous styled tanks. Mr. Wolfman has figured out the multiple-use tank bag system.

A tool kit with some spare nuts, bolts, washers, cable ties, glues, wire, and cables is part of my carry-in kit. With it are inner tube patches or tubeless tire plugs, hand air pump and real motorcycle tire spoons. Sometimes, if I have the space and know the tire size of what motorcycle I will be using, I will add inner tubes. Having a spare inner tube is a nice safety net, especially when slowing with a deflating inner tube that has caused the tube to move inside the tire, ripping out the valve stem, a non-repairable problem.

Another tip to having an adventure on a smaller motorcycle is to seriously consider cash. The credit card adventure rider will have little adventure in Myanmar or Cuba. Unless they consider trying to find an ATM in a country that does not have them an adventure.

So does size matter? I would submit that it does, however not in the traditional sense of big being best. Rather than big being better, if one really does lust for adventure riding, small can be as much fun, and in some cases more fun. Like when big means none.

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