Supermotos. It wasn't long ago that it seemed you couldn't move around the UK's cities without either falling over one parked artistically on the pavement or leaping out of the way as some lunatic (wearing camouflage clothing, of course) wheelied past. They caught a certain wave in popular biking cultire and they rode it all the way onto the beach. Where, it seemed, they stopped dead and faceplanted in the sand. Recent times have been less kind to the genre, and while everyone made a hairy, fire breathing monster you now have to look quite hard to find them.
Maybe it was the way that they really didn't work unless you rode like a complete tool wore a little thin. Or the way that the manufacturers slapped a hefty premuim price tag on anything supermoto like. Or perhaps it was the peanut sized fuel tank or the cripplingly uncomfortable seats which made you grateful for the short range. Because a proper supermoto was thirsty - it had a big carburettor that gulped fuel when it was wide open, and because of the way you rode it was always wide open. Whatever the reason, almost overnight they disappeared from the showrooms and shortly after that they vanished from the streets as well.
Now SWM are almost single handedly reviving the breed. They have a brilliant 125 Supermoto which seems to sell pretty much as fast as the dealers can get them and they have this 500cc offering. Elsewhere (well, here actually) we talk about SWM, their history and their current situation, and I'm not about to repeat it all again as that would be tedious.
Instead we'll have a look at this, the SWM SM500R. Unlike the Gran Milano 440 reviewed in the linked article above, this has a brand new motor and gearbox derived from the Husqvarna TE510. Just put together better and with most of the little foibles designed/engineered out. And that's from someone who genuinely liked Husqvarnas. What we have here is the bike that the TE510 would have been had anyone invested the time, engineering expertise and money into making it right instead of just getting it out the door to cash in on the supermoto craze. That also means 50bhp in a very light bike. That doesn't sound much, but it's certainly adequate. SWM will make it quicker if you ask them nicely, and there are already lots of bolt-ons available. But I'll come back to that.
Approaching the 500R, one thing is very obvious even from a distance. This is no bargain bin Chinese knockoff. And I mean no disrespect to Chinese bike manufacturers, they just tend to produce machinery that is rather obviously built to a budget and may perhaps lack originality. This, on the other hand, shouts quality. And as you get closer it shouts louder. Styling is a little derivative, it's true, but then again it's also a supermoto so options are somewhat limited really.
Once you get up to it something else becomes clear. It's quite big. Not fat, just tall. The good news is that the suspension is pretty compliant and, once you've managed to haul yourself aboard, it all drops to a sensibly managable height. Flippant comments aside, it's actually quite easy to deal with, even for someone on the low side of average height like me. It's also surprisingly light, which helps. Sensible engineering means that the stand is positioned in such a way that you can raise it and put it down while seated on the bike - another benefit of some smart design thought and definitely handy if you do happen to be struggling to get a foot down from the seat. Like on a funny camber, for example.
The view from the seat is commanding, as you'd expect from being quite a long way up. The clocks are simple but give you all the information you need, and are clear. The mirrors (the bike pictured doesn't have them fitted, the UK demonstrator does) give a good view behind and the seat has at least enough padding to justify the term. The motor starts easily from the button, and a sign of SWM's intentions and confidence is that there is no kickstart, even as an option. The gearbox is light and positive, even on this almost brand new bike. and the clutch offers lots of feel. Switchgear is solid and logically placed.
Riding the beast is a bit of a revelation. Because, um, it isn't really a beast at all. It's a fairly powerful 500cc supermoto so it will, obviously, lift the front without too much provocation. It has some nice sticky tyres and a big front brake so the rear gets distinctly light if you're that way inclined. Up to a certain speed it will live with just about anything and it makes a nice noise. But it's not offensively loud and it still works when you're not treating it like a neanderthal. There's another (free) engine map which ties in with the Arrow exhaust available and liberates an extra dollop of power as well as making things quite a lot noisier. You can shed some weight from it as well, making a harder and more raw experience. But I'm not certain that's a great idea.
As it stands, the SM500R makes absolute sense as a fairly short distance open road fun bike. It's quite fast, it has ample performance reserves to make overtakes clean and positive and it has great brakes for the moments when you really do need to shed some speed. Handling is very good, with a surprising amount of feel through the bars, despite the long travel forks. You can lean it over forever - if anything touches down then you have fallen off. The tank will, I guess, give you about 80 miles before needing a stop, which will probably tie in with your neck and backside.
I really liked this bike, and I really didn't want to because all my preconceptions say that a supermoto should be rubbish. And actually I think my preconceptions are right. The problem being that the SWM doesn't fit the mould. It's true that it might not be very good for town work, despite the number of supermotos that used to be there. The bars are just too wide for filtering effectively, though everything else would be perfect. And the small tank range would make long distances a bit of a drag. The seat, which was fine for an hour or so at a time, would elevate a long journey from being inconvenient to being a pain in the backside. Literally. And yet it's brilliantly made. It's civilised when you want it to be and it's ridiculously easy to ride. The LED lights are effective, as are the mirrors within the limitations of any big single. And it was genuinely fun to ride.
Now we get to the real kicker. One of the things that killed supermotos off before was their stupid price tags. There are no such worries with the SWM. At under £6500 on the road, this well made, well equipped, well designed supermoto is an absolute steal.
Thanks to Inta Bikes in Maidstone for their demonstrator. They are the main SWM dealer for the South East of England and probably the best in the country for advice and information. You can reach them on 01622 688727