Why You Should Consider Riding A Small Bike For Your Adventures - ADV Pulse (2024)

Small on size, big on adventure. Ready to join the small-bore revolution?

For decades, the adventure motorcycle industry’s mantra was “There’s no replacement for displacement” … or, “Go big or go home.” But is that really good advice? A small-bore revolution has been picking up steam for years now. Bikes in the sub-500cc category are better than ever, and people are reconsidering their attitude towards smaller motorcycles. Here are good reasons to take a minimalist approach when shopping for your next adventure bike.

Overall Affordability

We might as well say the obvious part first. If you’re cash-strapped, a small-bore bike costs less than a larger machine. This is somewhat less noticeable on the used market, but when you’re buying new, something like a KTM 390 Adventure is going to cost you a lot less than its 790/890/1290 big brother. In our increasingly cash-strapped economy, this could be the difference between owning a motorcycle, or forgetting about riding altogether.

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The savings with a small bike really start after the purchase. You’ll notice it as soon as you sign your new insurance policy; you’ll pay less for a small bike. The difference between a 250cc and a 1250cc is significant.


Those savings continue, every time you throw a leg over the seat. Every motorcyclist has to buy gas; your small-bore bike needs a lot less dino juice than a big ADV. Every motorcyclist needs to buy tires; with your lightweight, lower-powered machine, you can use cheaper tires and they’ll still give you plenty of life. Also, tune-ups, replacement parts and general maintenance is typically less costly.

If you’re commuting on your bike, those savings add up. For instance, if you’re traveling long-term, a dollar saved on gas is a dollar more you can spend on other expenses—you can stay on the road longer, or go farther. Some of the best-known ADV travelers of the past decade are riding small machines, and no doubt this is a big reason why. Check out Itchy Boots, or Steph Jeavons to see how well their small bikes worked for their big trips.

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And as mentioned above, the difference in pricing between smaller and larger bikes is less noticeable if you’re buying used, but that’s only really true of newer bikes. Older air-cooled bikes like the DR350, XT350, DR200 or XT225 are often extremely affordable, and easy for a shade tree mechanic to maintain themselves as well, with minimal dealership expenditures.

Easier To Ride

A small-bore bike weighs less than even a middleweight ADV; they’re much easier to manhandle than a full-sized bike, and they stop more easily. Power delivery is generally a lot less abrupt—not that you can’t get yourself into trouble with the throttle on a 450, or even a 150, but it’s less likely. For beginners, this is especially important, but even experienced riders can appreciate a more relaxed ride, especially if they’re switching to off-road riding after a career on the street. ADVers at the tail end of their careers might also appreciate an easier-to-manage small bike, as aging riders don’t necessarily want to dead-lift a 550-pound behemoth if they fall off in the woods.

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Mind you, a small engine doesn’t necessarily mean a low seat height, and some smaller bikes still have a tall saddle height—the Honda CRF300L, for example, has a 34.7 inch seat height. But, the OEMs are starting to smarten up here, and we see the little Honda now coming in a lowered version. Same for Kawasaki’s KLX230. Royal Enfield offers the Scram 411, a lowered, scramblerized version of the Himalayan 410. Expect to see more of this in the future.

Of course, if you’re looking for something really easy to ride, Yamaha’s trusty TW200, with its fat tires and 31.1-inch seat height, might be the funnest bike in the world to ride slow. A Suzuki VanVan is pretty much the same idea, if you can find one.

Good For Developing Your Skills

When you’re on a small bike, you can’t solve as many problems with a twist of the throttle. Where a big bike can use gobs of engine torque to overcome tough off-road climbs, a small bike must conserve momentum, or carefully pick an optimal riding line.

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On the street, if you want to maintain a fast pace, you’ve got to keep your corner velocity up, since you can’t just whack on the gas to make up for the speed you just scrubbed off before the apex. You’ll have an almost symbiotic relationship with your engine, knowing the perfect shift points.

This can all make you into a much smarter rider, and you’ll understand why savvy veterans often say it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow.

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This applies to more than just the riding skills themselves—small bikes are also good for helping you learn how to be a better navigator, at least for street riding. If you don’t want to take your small bike on the freeway, you’ll have to learn another way to get from A to B. You’ll be forced to take small byways, back roads and even gravel tracks that you might never have discovered otherwise. The journey may take longer, but you’ll become a much better-rounded rider if you aren’t just solving every problem with horsepower.

The same goes for other motorcycling smarts. Do you bring too much stuff with you when traveling? A small-bore bike forces you to be better at packing, since too much junk in the trunk will slow you down a lot.

More Capable Than Ever

For a long time, small-bore machines were built to a price point, and performance wasn’t important. That’s not the case anymore; although a sub-500cc bike doesn’t have the power of a big bike, the latest liquid-cooled engine designs are made like the old Timex watch ad said: They can take a licking and keep on ticking. Tolerances on the new designs are much tighter, and better thermal management plus improved engineering means the engines have a longer lifespan.

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Consider the Honda CRF300L. It’s derived from the single-cylinder CBR250 design, an engine that was flogged on roadracing tracks around the world through spec racing programs. The big-bored version is certainly capable of lasting for many years of riding, as long as you don’t mind life in the slow lane. These aren’t the throw-away bikes that little thumpers used to be. Most of the new small-bore bikes can keep up with the slow lane on the interstate, at least, with the occasional pass, as long as you’re willing to flog the engine.

And now we can buy purpose-built adventure travel bikes in the under-500cc bracket, including the G310GS, 390 Adventure, Versys-X 300 and now the new Himalayan 452 and CFMOTO 450 Ibex (both on their way to North America soon). There haven’t been a whole lot of small-bore travel bikes in the past—but now the Japanese and European manufacturers have been bringing in more choices in the past few years, and China’s OEMs are starting to get in on the Adventure Bike action too.

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Manufacturers are packing a lot more technology into small bikes as well. EFI is standard on almost all machines sold in western markets. That means no re-jetting your carburetor for riding in the mountains, and a lot less fussing around with gunked-up internals. Switchable ABS is available as an option for almost every new small bike—leave it on for street riding, turn it off so you can steer with the rear in the dirt. Traction control is even becoming standard on smaller twin-cylinder machines; experienced riders might not need it, but it will provide a lot of peace of mind on slippery, rainy streets or in other sketchy scenarios. KTM’s 390 engine even has a quickshifter—a feature that was only available on expensive race bikes only a decade ago.

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The aftermarket has gotten better at servicing the small-bore bike market, too. Companies like Happy Trails, Cycle Racks or Dirt Racks offer plenty of luggage capacity. Check out Pro Cycle, RMATV/MC or other online retailers and you can easily find all the farkles you need from skid plates to crash bars to windshields.

Some Things To Consider…

In the developing world, you see whole families moving around on small sub-250 motorcycles, but in those countries, traffic is often slower and expects to see those riders everywhere. Several small bikes like the KTM 390 and Himalayan 452 can hold their own on the freeway but if you’re going to ride a small bike that doesn’t have sufficient power to keep up with North American highway speeds, you will need to ride a bit more defensively, or even better, find a new route.

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Also, gas stops might be more frequent if taking a long journey on enduro-style bikes. However, there are several small bikes that have similar mile ranges to their bigger cousins. And you can always get a larger aftermarket tank or carry extra fuel if needed.

Why Else?

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Small bikes are also just plain fun. It’s almost like the rules change when you go small. Without the weight and size of a larger machine, you’re less on-edge, even if you’re riding hard. You’ll take more chances, have more fun, jumping curbs or perfecting wheelies or power-slides or stoppies—and if things go wrong, there’s usually less consequence, due to reduced speeds and lower mass flying around unpredictably. Get together with other small-bore riders, and you’ll have even more fun tackling the trails or exploring remote backroads; there’s nothing like sharing a challenge to add to the fun. There’s a reason things like the Smoky Mountain Small Bore Rally exist!

What are some of the reasons you ride a small bike? Let us know in the comments below!

Photos by Spencer Hill, Stephen Gregory, Royal Enfield and CFMoto

Why You Should Consider Riding A Small Bike For Your Adventures - ADV Pulse (2024)
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