The Goldilocks Motorcycle Experiment
Deputy Editor Josh Condon tries three very different Kawasaki models to find out which type of motorcycle is just right (and only crashes one of them).
Try as I might, I can't remember anyone telling me that 37 years old was the exact right time to get into motorcycles. And yet, that's the age at which I found myself puttering around a sweltering convection oven of a New Jersey parking lot on a rotation of old Honda CBs, learning enough to get the "M" stamp on my license with the rest of the noobs.
And among my fellow novices, who were mostly (though not completely) male and mostly (though not completely) in their 20s, the talk turned, as it does, to the type of bike they were going to buy. Overwhelmingly, votes were cast toward the barely-tamed racing bikes of the world—the Ducati 1199 Panigales and Yamaha YZF-R1Ms and KTM RC 390s—which to me sounded like exotic alphanumeric nicknames for Certain Death. In fact, I was the only person without a bike preference, because I knew I had access to an incredible resource not available to the other students: The Drive west coast editor and lifelong motorcycle enthusiast Chris Cantle, who could not only speak knowledgeably and from first-hand experience about a wide number of bikes, but took a personal interest in helping me find the type of motorcycle that suited me best.
Helping out was Kawasaki, who provided three different bikes for testing purposes. All are around 600cc, but the riding characteristics between the high-revving, track-focused Ninja ZX-6R, the low-key and comfortable Vulcan S cruiser, and the upright, adventure-ready KLR 650 were wildly different. Over one day in LA, I had all three bikes on tap—and a surprisingly light amount of traffic, for LA standards.
So, how did I do?
To be fair, this only applied to the first 30 minutes or so, during which time I grabbed too much brake on a painted bit of asphalt and the KLR 650 slid out from under me at a downtown LA stoplight. Both the bike and I were (mostly) unhurt, but here's a simple takeaway for fellow novices: don't wait to ride on public roads for the very first time until three months after your licensing, at which point you pull into LA traffic and attempt to start the process of shooting a video about motorcycling. You're going to be rusty, and it might not end well.
Back to the bikes. The Vulcan S was kind of perfect for an LA ride—loose, relaxed, a breeze to ride. That being said, the foot-forward and almost literally laid-back riding position was a bit disconcerting, especially on the throttle; the cruiser position took a little getting used to.
The complete opposite of that was the crouched, hunched-over position of the Ninja, which felt like balancing on a toy bike while puttering around but became incredibly stable and secure with even a hint of speed—completely locked down to the asphalt, as befits its reputation. However—and despite my proclivities for stupidity—I just don't think I'm a sport bike guy. I came to the hobby too late in life, too little enamored with outright speed or accelerative ability to really appreciate the incredible engineering that goes into a machine like the ZX-6R. I want a motorcycle to get out more, to see more and appreciate more and see things in a different way. Turning the whole world into a blur doesn't get me that. Also, that amount of bike would just be wasted on me.
Which brings us to the KLR 650, the bike I laid down and which I absolutely loved. I loved the visibility from the higher riding position (good god, I sound like a crossover-driver), the torque-y four-stroke single-cylinder and the long-travel front fork—a bonus when you live in a pothole-gutted urban wasteland like New York City. Plus, it's a dual-purpose bike that works for long-range adventure touring or around-town commuting. Practical, fun, comfortable, capable. I found my bike.
Next step: staying upright.