In consulting one of my ancient Cycle World Buyer’s Guides from the last century—yes, these sacred texts have survived five moves and two trips across the U.S. in Mayflower trucks—I can’t help but notice that there are almost no bikes depicted that would now be considered “large.” Middleweights and lightweights rule the universe, and really big bikes are as rare as monster trucks at a Sierra Club meeting.
The Buyer’s Guide I’m looking at is from 1976, and the only two large bikes I can find within its 202 pages are a Harley-Davidson FLH1200, which weighs in at a then-astounding 722 pounds, and a 583-lb. Honda GL1000 Gold Wing. The Gold Wing is a naked bike, still frozen in that era when few manufacturers made their own fairings. Even the BMWs are all unfaired, except for the 474-lb. R90/S with its small, café-racer handlebar fairing, and it is the company’s most massive roadburner. Everything else in the issue is as diminutive as—or much smaller than—what we would now call a middleweight.
What was I riding that year? Well, I had a 1975 Honda 400F and a 1975 Norton 850 Commando, the Interstate version with the big tank. I thought the Norton was a big fire-breather at the time, but when you look at one now, it seems as small and spare as a bicycle. But big motorcycles were anathema then, almost a contradiction in terms. You might as well have tried to sell the public a Pitts biplane “now larger than ever and packed with ground-hugging concrete” or a 30-foot whitewater canoe made of solid bronze. Bulk and density were not wanted by most riders in a sport that was understood to be fun only within a narrow range of physical law. Even the Harley FLH, which existed in a subculture of its own, had a low seat and a low center of gravity (then as now) and was quite manageable by shorter and lighter-weight riders.
People, of course, were a little smaller then, too. Obesity was considered a tragic anomaly rather than a lifestyle choice among the American population, and most of my riding friends and I looked like starved greyhounds by comparison with our present selves. I’m now only 12 lb. heavier than I was in 1976, but some of the weight seems to have shifted a bit; so, when I sit on a Honda 400F today, I feel that either I’ve doubled in size or the bike has somehow shrunk in the clothes-dryer of Time. So—oddly enough—have my old racing leathers…
But bikes have metamorphosed, too, and our big cruisers and touring bikes are a lot more massive than anything imagined in 1976. Also, we have a whole class of large-displacement adventure-touring bikes that—even if not excessively heavy—are very tall. I have a Buell Ulysses that’s reasonably compact and agile for its displacement, but it wouldn’t break my heart if the seat were 2 or 3 inches lower. This bike is just millimeters below what I consider an attainable pole-vaulting record.
No surprise, then, that this past summer, I’ve done about 80 percent of my riding on my 1975 Honda CB550 and now the ’08 Triumph Bonneville I recently bought, simply because they’re easier to throw a leg over and move around the garage. And, once in motion, maybe a little more adaptable to sudden changes of plan—such as turning around in the middle of the highway to go back and take a look at that CB350 (perhaps the most popular light-middleweight in history) for sale in the farmyard. Sometimes, bulk and height on a motorcycle can act as a subliminal barrier that keeps you from riding as often. It’s like the old rule in sailboats: For every two added feet of hull length, you’ll sail half as often.