Honda Ruckus vs. The Dragon

How far can you push the “Slow Bike, Fast” concept?

Joe Gustafson riding a Honda Ruckus
Is five hp enough to have on one of the most legendary roads in America?Killboy

“The Dragon” is where the idea of your riding skills and reality collide. Riders trek to challenge The Dragon’s 318 curves that slither along 11 miles through eastern Tennessee and into North Carolina, and leave with tales of apex dominance and feats of derring-do. And to finish the ride in one piece, too.

I too went there to join the challengers. But I would not have 200 hp, ABS, or a bank of IMUs. I would not even have quarter of that amount of power.

I would have five hp and two drum brakes. I would have a modified Honda Ruckus. The reason is twofold: firstly, to explore Grom/Ruckus culture at one of its best gatherings, and secondly, to see if there is a limit to the "slow bike, fast" concept. The overall question was: Can you have big fun on a small motorcycle, on one of the most legendary sporting roads in America?

Over a year ago, I met Greg Hatcher, founder of MNNTHBX (Man in the Box). His business started as a small hobby on the side and blossomed into a full-time career offering parts for Groms, Rucki, the KTM Duke, RC390, and the Kawasaki Z125 Pro. MNNTHBX is separate from the fold for a few reasons, but the main is that they put outright fun over becoming kings of the scene. They also throw one hell of a party.

Smokey Mountain Crawl event scene
Gang's all here. There's about as much displacement in this photo as one R1.Greg Hatcher

He and co-owner Kevin Estep host a hallmark event for mini-motor love, the Smokey Mountain Crawl. The inaugural event was last year, and takes place near and on the Dragon for a three-day festival of riding, shenanigans, and cruising.

Last year 300 riders turned out. This year, I wasn’t going to miss it, and nearly 500 were expected to show. He said he would even have a bike waiting for me—being the absolute best stereotype of Southern hospitality.

custom green Honda Ruckus side view
Green, buzzy, and awesome, this lightly modded Ruckus would be my partner for the Dragon.Joseph Gustafson

The bike was MNNTHBX’s shop Ruckus scooter.

It’s a perfect example of a lightly modded Honda Ruckus, with touches that put fun over fury. Let’s call this the gateway drug to Ruckerdom. The hallmarks are the MNNTHBX-designed DORF seat frame and MFuego light setup. From there, superfluous parts have been either tossed or minimized.

The gauges have been biffed. A new handlebar is added, and smaller turn signals, a smaller rear LED light, and plate mount keep everything tidy. Other than a hi-flow air filter and a louder exhaust, there are no major power modifications. The only concession to comfort is the addition of foot pegs for more leg room.

It’s also sprinkled with a radiation-green powdercoat. If the apocalypse includes a rave, this would be a fine way to get there.

Smokey Mountain Crawl event participants
Individuality is preferred at the Smoky Mountain Crawl.Joseph Gustafson

Although mild, my ride pales in comparison to the breadth and variety of customs on hand.

They come in all flavors of ratty, rusted, neon, chromed, chopped, slammed, stickered, and splayed—sometimes all at once, and from all over the country. Performance is also well represented. Some are two-stroke swapped. Some feature big-bore kits, nitrous, and other power adders. Here, if you have a mechanical kink, you can apply it and no one will bat an eye. The only defining trait among the riders here is a vape habit.

Honda Ruckus burnout
That's not the smoke from vapes, but a two-stroke modded Ruckus.Joseph Gustafson

And soon, all this weird pours out as a buzzing horde to defeat the Dragon.

Unlike other events, guides direct you to the dragon, but from there, you’re free to ride as you please—as fast or as slow as you want. This is a wonderful aspect since most large motorcycle gatherings have more in common with a field trip than a gathering of adults, moving only as a group from one stop to the next.

As I buzz to my dance with the Dragon, I wonder, would so little power waste my possibly one chance with this road?

close-up of custom Honda Ruckus exhaust
Come as you are, ride how you like.Joseph Gustafson

The initial uphill was not a promising start.

The Ruckus’ powertrain screamed into a battle pace, but velocity was nonexistent. In fact, I was bleeding speed at a painfully slow rate as I crawled up a hill. A Ninja 250 rider passed me at a dizzying speed. Shame washed under my helmet. And then I crested the hill and began my descent.

I plunged down a seemingly gigantic decline, and the rule of the day was set—momentum at all costs. As I entered the Dragon, I was going as fast as the scooter would allow. Bereft of gauges, I’m guessing it somewhere between glacial and amusing.

close-up of Honda Ruckus 50cc engine
50cc's of angry bees and noise.Joseph Gustafson

The Dragon began to close in around me, and Greg’s warnings beeped in my head: “Watch your entry speed, the corners are tighter than they want you to believe.” Trees shut out yawning vistas, rock replaced sky and wide-open expanses, and the road curled in on itself. The first hairpin lay ahead. It was time to slow down.

motorcyclist meeting up in the parking lot
The end of The Dragon is great to meet other riders, but there are better places to hang down the road.Joseph Gustafson

On your right hand is the front brake like a traditional motorcycle. On your left the rear brakes since the scooter doesn’t have a sequential transmission. Both levers are mere suggestions to the drums that they should operate.

Even at a moderate pace, the brakes on a Ruckus will make you reconsider your entry-speed decision. The neon leprechaun gave me the slightest bit of stopping power, but made it very interesting along the way. The conversation between me and the bike went like this.

Joe: Hey, do you want to stop right now? That corner looks tight.
Ruckus: I don't know what do you feel like?
Joe: I feel like stopping.
Ruckus: I don't, maybe later.
Joe: How about now? Those double yellows are coming in close.
Ruckus: I'm tired, maybe tomorrow.
Ruckus: Ugh, well just for a few minutes.

And then you slow down just enough to make it to the apex. Once there, you reach for the gas and forget that power is not there. This would be the order of the day: battling the dumbness of drum brakes with the lack of any power whatsoever. You also battle the additional footpegs, which cost you precious ground clearance. They also don’t flip up, so once they scrape, more lean will have me basking in the beauty of TN scenery face first.

custom ADV Honda Ruckus motorcycle
ADV Grom sending it.Joseph Gustafson

The result, three corners later, is a total mindset shift. You stop listening to the whispers of the red mist, and settle into working with what you have. It’s a change of pace from the scenery blitzes of the average press trip.

On the Ruckus, the scenery was absorbed, and the road learned. Crests, bumps, and tar snakes are identified, a rhythm develops, and you and the Ruckus become allies in the developing shitshow, as you play a game with wallowing suspension, inadequate brakes, and no power.

As you tread ever deeper into the maw of the road, the variety and explicitness of stupidity is on blatant display to rolling GoPros and camera shutter chatter. Mustangs cross double yellows, baggers tackle corners without leaning, and add in a dash of a couple hundred small bike owners, and the scene becomes comical.

Harley and Ruckus side-by-side
Culture clash, yes. But everyone is having a good time.Joseph Gustafson

To come all this way on something purpose-built to exploit this road, and be confronted with the amount of traffic, law enforcement, and congestion, would be a huge disappointment. On a Ruckus, though, it’s amusing. With no power and nothing to gain, you sit back, relax, and savor the corners as you roll back the throttle all the way to chase down the lumbering retirees. There is also no damage to ego to pull over and make way for sportbike pilots as they fight tirelessly against the slow speeds of everybody else.

You do fear a Mustang bumper to the face, but so does anyone who goes to Cars and Coffee.

And then, it’s over just a short few minutes later, and you pull off at the Tail of the Dragon Store. Here the true culture clash between small bike and bagger is clear as day—each rider looking quizzically but friendly at the other’s choice. But don’t stay for long. It’s just touristy schlock, but is a good place to fill your tank. Instead, head three miles down the road and into North Carolina to the Historic Tapoco Lodge. The food is better, the roads are just as provocative as the Dragon, and they’re empty.

Tapoco Lodge scenery
Tapoco Lodge is just 3 miles away from the tourist traps, and offers much better food and scenery.Joseph Gustafson

In fact, the roads around the Dragon are increasingly empty and awesome the farther you head out. They feature the same technical curves and views, but without the parade of stupidity. The whole area is like an amusement park, but instead of, "Which roller coaster are we going on next?" it's, "Which road are we riding?"

At the end of lunch, we packed up and head back into the scrum—shimmying, diving, and scurrying our way through the pack, the low power ceiling opening up a world of opportunities that only feel illegal. For example, you have not lived until you can sit behind a cop car and go as fast as you want for over five miles and they are none the wiser. And made only more fun by being on something painted in lurid colors and as low as a grasshoppers eyeball.

motorcycles parked on a grassy lawn
End of day pow wow.Joseph Gustafson

Part 2 of the Crawl was about to commence. We would depart en masse to Gatlinburg for the Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park. This would be the largest group ride, and you could skip if you wanted and get to the park at your leisure. I decided to roll with the pack to steep myself in Ruckerdom. I made the right decision. With everyone being on evenly matched bikes, this was one of the mellowest and fun ever. No one rear-ended someone else trying to show off. Everyone was waving and respectful to traffic. The populace loved it. The group slithered their way along the river in a flurry of neon and a gentle buzz. This was a model example to show non-riders the fun that motorcycles can bring.

At the end of the ride waited an event space nestled in the hills with food trucks, rock climbing, bags, and good vibes. It was an unironic, un-curated good time. Everybody was relaxed, fun, and seemed like they’d known each other forever. There was even a stand-up bass. It was heaven.

motorcycle parked on a grassy lawn
Chillin'.Joseph Gustafson

My general rule for good motorcycle shows is the “IVI Rule.” Standing for “Instagram Vanity Index,” if there are more DSLRs than motorcycles, you’re at a fashion show not a motorcycle event. Here, everyone arrived to have a good time and celebrate the wee vehicles that they’ve sunk untold amount of dollars and time into. But how can everyone be having such a good time? Why is this so fun?

Kevin and Greg explained it thusly, “You can’t have an ego and ride a Ruckus. It’s not built to impress people, just perfect for having fun yourself, and that bleeds over into how people act at these events.” The combination of scenery, people, place, and bike made for a truly unique experience. A purely fun one. A truly rare one.

relaxing on the lawn with motorcycles
Only good times at the Smoky Mountain Crawl.Joseph Gustafson

None of this happened because of Honda’s marketing plans. The Ruckus launched in 2002 with purely function in mind, without an influencer campaign, and without the sheen of “youth-minded” motorcycle marketing. However, it was cheap, and easy to modify, and in turn, riders have responded by organically creating their own culture.

It shows that getting more people to ride isn’t hard, and doesn’t require marketing magic. Build something fun and cheap and more people will ride them. And these riders choose the Ruckus. Many have owned sportbikes, cruisers, and high-capacity ADV bikes, or even have them in the garage, but choose the smaller bikes because of the purity of the riding experience. And I can see why.

Honda Ruckus parked on a grassy lawn
Steezin' and in need of a new front tire.Joseph Gustafson

As for the second question, “Does taking a Ruckus waste going to a premier riding road?” No, it’s a better choice than most. Here’s why.

The Dragon is a gem of a technical road filled to the absolute brim with hairpins, elevation changes, and not a whole lot of room for error. It challenges you corner by corner, not in succession like faster roads like Mulholland Drive. For this reason, you are rewarded on slower and more agile bikes than you are by outright power and speed. You need torque, not 200 mph capabilities.

If anything, it’s a waste to bring something you can’t fully exploit in such an environment. If I’d brought an R1 here, with my knee pucks shiny and an attitude to get jiggy, only to be stuck behind a bagger that wouldn’t pull over, I would be furious. However, on a slower bike, you can take the road in chunks and blasts, and stave off disappointment.

It’s also a road that first time out, will absolutely punish you for too much ego with a litany of options; whether that’s a date with oncoming traffic, a ravine, or a tree. This makes a slower bike ideal for learning the road, enjoying it more, and making it out in one piece.

Was the Ruckus a little too slow? Yes. It strained in spots, and made it impossible to pass slower riders, but not slow enough to ruin the fun. It is further proof show that it’s still more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow.

It made a convert out of me, but for next year, I think a modded Grom or Z125 Pro is in order.

motorcycles parked in front of the house
Consider me a convert to the tiny cc lifestyle.Joseph Gustafson