When it comes to Harley motorcycles, there’s two main ways to start ‘em up: Harley starter drives or foot-powered kickers. On the street, kickers pretty much saw their last usage in the 1980s, with the occasional curious exception, like Urals and the Yamaha SR400. However, in the off-road world, the kicker has endured a bit longer for a few reasons.
The first off-road machines were all kick-only, simply because that was the most reliable way to get a bike to start. As starters became smaller and more efficient, though, it made sense to include them on some off-road bikes, as well. Harley starter drives and the requisite batteries and wiring did impose a weight penalty, but it was sometimes worth it. Motocross racers didn’t necessarily want the extra lard, but for a woods rider, electric start could be nice. Starting a bike mid-hill after a stall with just a push of a button had some appeal, as did not having to kick a bike after laying it down several times in a short period when attacking challenging sections of trails.
In some cases, electric start supplanted kickers, rather than joining them. Some manufacturers offer both options, which can be helpful for those who are far out on a trail and may have suffered a bum battery.
The switch to four-stroke engines also increased the desirability of an electric starter. Four-strokes are considerably harder to kick, due to greater compression. Kicking a two-stroke in most cases is not too objectionable for most riders, but a four-stroke generally requires more effort — not a good thing when you’re pooped on the side of the trail. And this was the way the world worked until recently. Big trail bikes slowly moved from being kick-only, to either electric and kick, or even electric only. Motocross bikes, being race machines, still included kickers to keep weight down. Once the bikes are started, they usually run until the race is over, and any extra weight is dead weight. Now, we're starting to see electric start on some motocross bikes. Why the change? There are a few reasons.
Having a battery onboard can provide a few advantages beyond starting. A battery serves to help “smooth” electrical pulses; motocross bikes are becoming more complex electrically. Modern Harley bikes have fuel injection and light off their mixture using electronic ignition for ease of maintenance and accuracy in timing. Fuel pumps and CDI boxes are exceptionally sensitive to voltage changes — a battery can make them more effective and longer-lived. Increasingly, electronic rider aids are showing up on these machines, as well, which makes a battery pretty appealing from an electrical standpoint. If a battery must be present, why not trade the kicker cover, gears, and lever for an electric starter, eh? Similar weight, less work for the rider.
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