You’ve got to have balls of steel to properly test ride the Yamaha Niken. We’re talking Jordan Szoke balls. Marc Marquez balls. Even – gasp – Costa Mouzouris balls. [I’ve seen Costa’s balls and they really are made of steel. –Ed.]
The thing is, this bike is all about having two wheels at the front, and the sole purpose of that is to increase traction at the front. “I didn’t know people were asking for this,” said the grizzled guy who ran across the road in Bewdley to look at the bike. “I’ve been riding for 50 years, and I’ve never had the front end slide out.”
But I guess some people have, so I went looking for slippery, sandy roads to push the bike just a bit too far, to see what happens.
Costa was the guinea pig. We sent him to California to ride the bike at its launch, then prayed to the rain gods to dump water on him everywhere he went. They did this, and everyone was happy. Except Costa.
Then I borrowed the $21,000 Niken from Yamaha’s Toronto press fleet and spent the next seven days explaining it to people. It’s not too far off the mark to say that it’s a Yamaha Tracer 900 with an extra wheel at the front: It has the same 847cc inline-triple engine, with slightly different mapping for its 113 hp and a stronger crankshaft, and a wheelbase that’s only 10 mm longer. It weighs about 40 kilograms more.
What is it?
Physically, from the engine back it all looks about the same as the Tracer, but the front end changes everything. The 18-litre gas tank is spread wide and integrates into a broad swath of plastic fairing, so from the saddle, you can’t see there are two wheels down there. The front suspension is similar to the new Honda Gold Wing, with the handlebars connected via linkages to the wheels, not directly. It would be nice to see those linkages bouncing up and down in action, but they’re hidden by the fairing.
Nothing’s hidden to anyone else, though. Those two front wheels really stand out.
The 15-inch Bridgestone Battlax tires are 410 mm apart, which classifies the Niken as a motorcycle with Transport Canada, and not as a trike. If the tires were 460 mm apart or wider, like the Can-Am Ryker or the Polaris Slingshot, the machine would move into a grey area of some provinces needing helmets and others not, or needing a car licence or not. It can be even more of a bureaucratic headache in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the Niken is safely within the definition of a motorcycle.
It rides like a motorcycle, too. It leans and leans, and if you don’t put your foot down at a stop, it’ll fall over. Which is the whole point.
Does it work?
Yamaha says those two front wheels “reduce the effects of changes in the ride environment and inspire front-end confidence when turning.” This is why I went to one of the gnarliest, most slippery roads I know, to see if I’d be inspired with front-end confidence when I leaned into its first sandy corner. There’s always sand on this road, and broken pavement too. The local farmers don’t seem to care and although it’s twisty, it keeps the damn noisy bikers away.
Not me though; not on the Niken. I rode slowly through the first left-hander – no worries there. A little quicker through the right-hander and still no drama. I kept the pace through to the end of the road, for about two kilometres, and all was well. No surprises. So then I turned around and rode back, more quickly this time.
The Niken has two levels of traction control and I had it set to “I’m not brave – rescue me!” It also has three electronic Ride modes and ABS brakes; when I hit the binders on sand, the front wheels wouldn’t actually lock up. What does usually happen with a front-wheel skid, however, is that if the bike is off-centre by even a fraction of a degree, which happens very quickly, then it will tip and slide and that’s that. Staying upright is more luck than happenstance.
I went back and forth on the road, a little faster each time, and yes, the front wheels would squirm when one slipped on a sandy corner. Just squirm though, as one of the two wheels held course. I wouldn’t want to slide the bike, or attempt to drift as I might something that doesn’t lean, but I could certainly travel more quickly and more confidently on the skittery surface.
Then I moved on to a full-bore gravel road, same deal as before, several passes, a little quicker each time. Where a regular two-wheeler might start digging a shallow groove in the loose surface, creating a tendency to slew and perhaps grab while at an angle, the Niken slewed but stayed exactly as I wanted it to.
The long story short is that yes, it was predictable on a loose surface, both upright and leaned, which would presumably include a wet, greasy road. It could still be pushed too far, so I wouldn’t want to ride as fast as I might drive in a car, and I’d always be aware of the slippery traction, but there was considerably more room for error.
And all the rest of the time, on a normal, dry road, the Niken behaved exactly as you’d expect of a motorcycle. It will lean all the way to 45 degrees, which is beyond the footpeg feelers and probably farther than you’ll want to go, even if you do have balls of steel.
Is it worth it?
Is this worth the premium over the price of a two-wheeled Tracer? That’s up to you. In Canada, the Niken is only available as the more luxurious GT model, so you have to get the bags and the heated grips and the taller windscreen and the cruise control. Americans can forego these niceties and save themselves $1,300 USD, but we can’t. Yamaha sees this as an aspirational, relatively low-volume motorcycle, and believes riders will want the extra amenities.
Unfortunately for a $21,000 investment, this isn’t really a luxurious bike. The saddlebags are flimsy and not waterproof; the paint on the tank scratched easily; the monochromatic instrument gauges literally paled next to the full-colour TFT displays of most similarly-priced competition; the cruise control on my test bike didn’t work and would have to be fixed under warranty.
After all, if you don’t care for the luxuries, and you just want a Yamaha Tracer with the same engine and only two wheels, you can buy a new bike for almost half the price. Even the loaded Tracer is $6,000 less. That’s a lot of money for an extra wheel and fancy front suspension.
But if you’re concerned for stability on gravel roads (Yes, Liz Jansen, I’m talking to you!), or worried about traction when things turn slippery, then Yamaha has a solution. It’s a brave new step to answer a question that most people aren’t asking, but kudos to Yamaha for bringing the Niken to market.