We Ride Three Unusual But Very Capable Yamaha Nikens
We rolled into the parking lot of Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, anticipating an enjoyable walk back through the annals of American motorcycle history. As with everywhere we rode the Yamaha Nikens, a gathering of gawkers closed in, slack jawed and cameras snapping. An old curmudgeon in a “brand specific” shirt shuffled up to Ted, who was still removing his helmet, and loudly asked in a deep Southern drawl, “Whut da hail is ‘at??” Ted smiled and replied, “It’s a Yamaha Niken.” Before he could offer any details, the old codger declared, “Ha, more like a Yamaha Nuthin!” There was a brief moment of stunned silence on our part, as he ambled around the bike, chuckling. Did this clown really just insult the motorcycle of a total stranger??
What went through my mind, fortunately didn’t come out my mouth.
I did, however, step up to him and assert, “That Yamaha ‘nuthin’ will outperform anything you’ve ever ridden before, pal.” I don’t remember anything else of the conversation, as I walked away while Ted & Phil remained much more mature and amiable than me.
The days our Road Dirt crew spent with a trio of Yamaha Nikens drew a wide variety of responses, questions and comments everywhere we rode them, though none as thoughtless as that old dude. So many had never even heard of this motorcycle, much less ever beheld one up close. Bystanders, fellow bikers, everyone who laid eyes on them did a double take, and most wanted to know more. Which meant every fuel stop, refreshment break, and scenic overlook pause turned into a Q&A with the curious, yet we were more than happy to oblige. These bikes are extraordinary, and we were grateful for being entrusted with them by Wolf Creek Motorsports Rentals in Robbinsville, North Carolina.
A bit of backstory, if I may. Road Dirt had been invited to spend a week at Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge & Resort in Robbinsville, and they had offered us the use of the Nikens, via their sister establishment Wolf Creek, in exchange for our reviewing them, writing about them, snapping photos and footage of them, and sharing our resultant content with them. None of us had ever ridden a Niken before, so few have made it Stateside and sold here, so we eagerly jumped at the chance.
Our group consisted of our PNW writer Ted Edwards, Associate Editor Phil Gauthier, my lifelong friend Lyle Branton, and myself. Phil would film and the three of us would ride, each bringing a unique perspective to our review of this most fascinating motorcycle. Ted has mostly ridden sport bikes and sport tourers, Lyle has been a standard and cruiser rider, and I’m the one that’s ridden a bit of everything. This promised to be an entertaining motorcycle review.
The Niken strikes a formidable stance. Photo by Ted Edwards.
First introduced as a 2019 model, the radical Niken and sport touring Niken GT are unlike anything Yamaha has ever built before- or any other moto company, for that matter. The proprietary LMW (Leaning Multi Wheel) chassis up front is absolutely striking when first approached. The mass-forward design, twin front wheels each with paired fork tubes and steering linkages, the tires lean in unison, and yet articulate independent of each other. If one hits a bump or wet patch, the other is unaffected. The stability of this system is unparalleled- double the contact patch, and yet the Niken turns and leans like a sport bike. When riding, I couldn’t see the twin tires out front doing their thing, but I could feel them. So planted in curves, I was diving deep into corners and hard accelerating out with no fear of washing the front. Yamaha claims the Niken tips 45 degrees max lean angle, and I think we verified that- or at least Ted did!
The power is made by Yamaha’s CP3 motor, made popular in their MT-09. It’s a triple cylinder, 847cc mill, with DOHC heads, an oversquare 78mm x 59.1mm bore and stroke and 11.5:1 compression ratio refined with additional crankshaft inertia for smooth starts. Very linear torque, very natural feeling ride, the Niken also holds a geared counterbalancer to minimize engine vibration. Never felt buzzy at speed, in any gear, at any RPM. Six-speed gearbox, slip-assist clutch, quick shifter (mostly for upshifting; had to blip shift for down shifting), the Niken features a 3-into-1 exhaust with a mid-ship muffler to centralize mass. I love the exhaust note of that triple- positively howls, and begs to be wrung out in each gear. I’m telling ya, smiles in the helmet with every throttle roll-on. I’ve developed “The Joker” cheek wrinkles, I swear.
Smiles in the helmet with every throttle roll-on.
The stopping power upfront is substantial. Mounted outside of each front wheel are disc brakes with four-piston radial calipers, matched to a large rear disc brake, complete with Yamaha’s switchable ABS. Boasting Yamaha’s D-Mode system with three throttle valve control maps, you get a different throttle response in each at the push of a button. They essentially are a standard riding mode, a sport mode, and a rain mode, pretty typical on most modern machines. The Niken rolls with a switchable, dual-setting Traction Control as well. If you’re feeling froggy and want to let the rear step out a bit in corners, like Ted and I did on occasion, just switch it off even while riding. I preferred it on, even if in the least intrusive setting, TC1. Ted’s slightly more hooligan than me, I suppose. The whole setup is so confidence-inspiring, even cruiser guy Lyle was hauling-a on the Niken, thrashing it about like no bike he’d ever ridden. Freaking hilariously fun, for all three of us.
Oh yeah, along with the high-vis LCD display, the Niken employs a super simple Cruise Control, governed by Yamaha’s ride-by-wire Chip Controlled Throttle (YCC-T), which we engaged a few times while pounding pavement between our runs on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the fabled Tail of the Dragon US 129, and our favorite, the Cherohala Skyway. The Cruise Control activates simply and easily, as expected, and the Niken happily eats miles like a proper sport tourer, with a fairly upright riding position, comfortable reach to the bars and pegs, and a decent amount of wind protection (at least for my 5’8” height) behind the low non-adjustable windscreen. Cruising at about 65-75, the Niken’s triple hums along, sipping fuel conservatively.
Nikens in the Fall colors of North Carolina high country.
Now to the fun stuff…
We had all three bikes for two days, so we lit out for the “Big Three” here- the Blue Ridge, the Cherohala, and the Dragon. Arriving at the Tail of the Dragon about noon, this twisted piece of tarmac is a section of US 129 that holds 318 curves in 11 miles. Beginning on the Deals Gap, NC side, we snapped some photos, purchased a few souvenirs, and of course, stood around for half an hour chatting with the inquisitive. The Dragon is always treacherous, with commercial traffic still using it (like the Amazon truck I encountered in a blind corner), as well as the steady stream of “Dragon slayers” always running back/forth through the famous stretch. The double yellow and the speed limit postings are wisely heeded here, to avoid a crash or a dive off into the woods. Deals Gap’s “Tree Of Shame” is stark proof of this maxim. We rode the Nikens prudently, finding ourselves mostly behind relatively slower traffic anyway, but got a good feel for how the Niken fronts pitch and flow in tight, rapid switchbacks, the tires diving side to side with alacrity. The whole “superstructure” up front quickly flicks in tight corners, changing direction with easy bar inputs. Amazing.
We left the Dragon and rolled west to the Cherohala Skyway, a U.S. National Park Service Scenic Byway. Zero commercial traffic here, thankfully. This road winds it’s way across the tops of the Southern Appalachians for 43 miles between Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. Or in reverse, as we rode it. With seemingly endless wide, cambered sweepers, speed limits of 45 mph (give/take 15 or so), grippy pavement, and gorgeous overlooks, this is where the Niken really showcased her charms. We layered up, affixed our GoPros and lit out up the curvy tarmac, Phil giving chase and recording from his Harley Street Glide (the dude’s a wild man; we never lost him). Leaning over through the wide sweepers, then accelerating out, setting up for the next curve, down shifting, trail braking occasionally, diving into the turn, over and over. I found a rhythm with the Niken, a zone I rode in, man and machine in unison, curve after curve, mile after mile, across the tops of the mountains. It was glorious. Three Nikens in row, carving up the high Cherohala, under a beautiful blue sky, sun at our backs, perfect pavement beneath our tires.
Have you ever experienced a day, an event, a moment, that you didn’t want to end? That was our Cherohala ride, on the Nikens. Pure moto bliss, a mile high.
Returning to Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge that evening, we parked the Nikens in a row along the front driveway, and as usual, stood around chatting with the patrons who came over to have a look. Word had spread across the place that we were out on three of them all day, so we were peppered with questions of how they handled, were they scary or weird to ride, etc. And as everywhere else, we enjoyed the conversations about this unique machine.
Ride photos by US129Photos.com
Lyle had to leave a day early, but the remaining three of us rolled over to the famed Blue Ridge Parkway on Thursday, for Ted and I to spend another day astride the Niken. The BRP, another more famous U.S. National Park Service Scenic Byway, winds along the spine of the Blue Ridge, a mountain chain in the Appalachians, from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, 469 miles total. Like the Cherohala, the BRP also posts speeds not more than 45 mph, yet also boasts wide, well-paved sweepers, nicely cambered in corners. There are multiple tunnels in the southern section, beautiful to behold, but requiring care when running from brilliant sunlight into sudden, inky darkness of these unlit passageways through the mountainsides. Again, Ted and I danced with the Nikens through the perfectly arced curves as we did on the Cherohala, the bikes flitting back and forth like on rails. At one overlook stop, Ted asked, “Hey, you guys mind if I take off on ahead, and roll more aggressively on it for a bit? I’d like to see more of what it’s capable of.” Of course we agreed, knowing that if Ted wanted to air it out, we’d never be able to keep up. I know that from experience. We’d meet at the terminus in Cherokee, and make our way back to Iron Horse from there. Phil’s helmet cam caught the last sight of Ted on the Parkway, as he slid left from behind an SUV, accelerated and quickly disappeared from sight. The rest of the ride for Phil and I was a more leisurely pace, as I just savored the Autumn scenery, the sweet tarmac, and the hum of the Niken swinging back and forth in perfect rhythm with the undulating road.
We exited the Parkway and met back up with Ted in Cherokee, then rolled back for Robbinsville and our “home away from home” at Iron Horse. Upon returning at dusk and parking the bikes in front of the main lobby, I stayed and lingered over the bikes, reflecting on our two days astride these unusual but very capable motorcycles. Lyle originally had some reservations about riding one, I was intrigued but cautious, with Ted being the one eager to “thrash it in the mountains” from the beginning. As it turned out, despite our differing bike backgrounds, we each thoroughly enjoyed the Yamaha Niken for similar reasons. Their planted stability and traction, yet their swift flick-ability and quick reflexes, combined with incredible stopping power and comfy ergos, made the Niken a bike we each agreed we’d be happy to make room in the garage for. Ted’s simple summary really captured it for all of us- “It made me smile.”
Three guys, three bikes, nine wheels. One thrilling time.
Here’s some of Ted’s and Lyle’s observations and musings about riding the Yamaha Niken:
The Yamaha Niken (Niken means “two swords” or “two blades”) is like Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints- pretty good at everything, never earns a starting spot, yet manages to become a cult legend.
The Niken has the front end stability to be a good beginner bike but it’s tall seat height restricts it to taller riders. It has the gutsy 115 hp, 850cc inline triple from the MT-09 but power is muted by the additional weight of the front end.
It wears ADV rubber but only the brave would do serious dirt time on it. By the way, those Bridgestone A41 front tires are 15 inches and the only street tires I could find that fit the Niken, so plan tire changes carefully. You will never find 15” tires on the road.
It’s not a sport bike because in sport bike riding, you want the rear tire to do what it’s told and the front tire to talk to you. The front end mechanics mute front end feel too much to be a sport bike, in my opinion.
Yet I would make room for it in my garage. Once I reminded myself that I had two contact patches up front, I was plowing though wet leaves and over tar snakes drama free as the front tracked true. When pushed hard, the massive front end weight and gyroscopic effect of having two front wheels means it requires more effort on turn in, but it stays planted when in the corner. It has roomy ergonomics, a slick quick shifter, cruise control, three power modes and two level traction control. It is so roomy and effortless to ride that 300 mile days are a cinch.
I would add luggage and a taller windscreen (GT model) and tour on it without hesitation. Just make sure to leave 30 minutes for gas stops because it gets more attention than a car fire. Every time you stop the mob descends, cell phones get whipped out, pictures are taken and questions are asked by the curious.
I had questions too, until I rode it. Now all I do is smile when I think about it, and isn’t that what motorcycling is all about?
The first thing you notice are those crazy looking wheels. They’re both up front and sitting right next to each other- definitely not like a Can-Am. So you think, wow, that must be hard to handle! One fellow asked if the opposite wheel came off the ground in a turn.
Once past the intimidating look of the Niken (and you’ve been talked into giving it a ride), the second thing you notice are all the stares, small gatherings, and curious attention you suddenly are drawing. The Yamaha Niken motorcycle is a unique riding experience. And it should be! I understand Yamaha has only sold about 30-40 or so in the US. It’s kinda fun to realize you are one of only a handful of people in the country to throw a leg over one and take off. But it’s also a shame- I wish more people would give this bike a look and a chance.
After spending a full day riding one along with the Road Dirt crew, I gotta tell you, not only is it a ton of fun to ride, but it’s EASY to ride too! What appeared intimidating actually inspires a lot of confidence, particularly on the constant curvy roads of the beautiful NC mountains. By the end of the day, I had come to the determined conclusion that this would be a terrific motorcycle experience for the .. well .. less experienced, even beginning rider. Not only does that second wheel not come off the ground in the turns, it instead provides additional stability and traction for a safer feel. That’s invaluable for a new rider that wants to ride with the crowd, but feel extra safe too. And for all the experienced riders out there, it allows you to lean into those turns just a little bit faster and deeper, in all conditions- which is where the fun is!
*For an opportunity to rent/ride one up in the North Carolina mountains, definitely check with the good folks at Wolf Creek Motorsports Rentals. Tell them the Road Dirt crew sent you.
*For more on the Niken (yes, they are still available to buy Stateside), click this Yamaha link.
*For the best place to stay in the Southern Smokies, check out Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge.
The Road Dirt Crew
*Have a look, give a like to our YouTube ride & review below!