Back in the late 1990s, the vice-president of design for Bombardier Recreational Products came up with a challenge for his team: design an all-new product that could be licensed for public roads. It could not be a car or a motorcycle, because those were just too competitive and too expensive for a new manufacturer to bring to market.
That pretty much left the only option as some kind of three-wheeler. The Quebec-based BRP team was already experienced with snowmobiles and ATVs, but three-wheelers have their own issues. Traditional trikes with two wheels at the back are notoriously unstable, while those with two wheels at the front need greater effort for steering.
Even so, the team eventually came up with the Y-design Spyder, which has sold under BRP’s Can-Am brand since 2007. It proved immensely popular in Quebec, where only a car driver’s licence was originally needed to ride it, and now it’s popular throughout Canada and the United States and in various other countries.
The Spyder is classified everywhere as a motorcycle and can be ridden by anyone with a motorcycle licence; if you have only a car driver’s licence, you now need to pass a half-day theory and practical course to amend your licence to permit it.
Its main advantage is that it has all the wind-in-the-face appeal of a motorcycle while providing stability for those wary of keeping a heavy bike upright at a standstill. Its disadvantage is that it doesn’t lean around corners and is expensive: the cheapest Spyder has a list MSRP of $22,499, and the price can easily go well above $30,000.
So Can-Am introduced the cheaper Ryker model two years ago, with an MSRP now that starts at $11,399. It’s a stripped-down Spyder with a smaller and lighter engine and fewer luxuries, and that’s the model I reluctantly tested last month.
I was reluctant because I rode the Spyder years ago in Florida and was underwhelmed. Much of the pleasure of motorcycling comes from the comfortable balance of leaning into corners and that doesn’t exist on this three-wheeler.
As well, more recently, I rode a Harley-Davidson trike with the two wheels at the back and came away from that experience considering it to be a death trap. When you ride or drive into a corner and stay flat, much of the weight of the vehicle is shifted to the outside front wheel; when there is no outside front wheel, the inside rear wheel lifts up and threatens to tip over the trike.
Like the Spyder and any car, the Ryker does have an outside front wheel and you can’t tip it over easily. There’s electronic traction and stability control and ABS, and Can-Am’s clearly worked on this over the years – it’s considerably less intrusive than it used to be, when all the nannies took much of the fun out of the ride. Now, on the lighter machine, there’s lots of fun in the ride. Lots and lots of fun.
The Ryker is easy to operate. It has shaft drive and a continuously variable transmission, so there are no gears and you just twist the throttle as you would a scooter. There’s no hand brake, just a foot brake that applies to all three wheels. There’s also a parking brake and a lever that selects forward or reverse, and that’s about it.
The liquid-cooled engine is a choice between a 600cc Rotax twin and a 900cc Rotax triple. The smaller engine produces a claimed 50 hp while the larger engine produces 82 hp and costs an extra $2,000. The tester had the more powerful engine and it was plenty quick enough to pull away from traffic at the lights. It also had an optional passenger seat that cost about $1,200 extra.
The saddle is very low at just 26.5 inches (67 cm), and both the handlebars and foot pegs adjust quickly and easily to create whatever comfortable ergonomics suit you best. Once you sit down, you put both feet on the pegs and they stay there whether you’re moving or stationary.
I live in a small town and so I headed out toward my favourite twisting country road. The Ryker feels downright unruly, as if you’re driving something illegal, and if the weather is suitable, the wind washes over you just as it does on a motorcycle.
The key is to ride it like a snowmobile, so when you get to a corner, pull in your inside knee to support your shifting weight against the tank and lean into the curve. It takes some effort to push on the bars to turn those big front wheels, but you’re not going to tip over and if you do go in too hot, the traction control will tap the appropriate brake to keep things in check. It’s very cool to be able to watch the front wheels react on their wishbone suspensions, just as you might with an open-wheel racer.
The bigger challenge is to hold on tight enough to make sure your body isn’t thrown from the machine by the lateral G-force. I guess that could happen, but you’d need to be really cooking for it to be a concern. I did once get the front wheels to slide on a curve, and a few times I persuaded the fat rear wheel to fishtail under acceleration, but that was it.
As you can tell, I threw this machine around a lot, far more than the average car or motorcycle, because it was just so much fun. There are three drive modes that allow various levels of traction control and throttle sensitivity, and once I found the sweet spots on each type of road, I made the most of them.
I don’t think the larger, heavier and more refined Spyder would be as much fun but it certainly has its place: Can-Am says one in every three Spyder or Ryker owners is female, which is at least twice the proportion of motorcycle riders, and about half of all riders are from “diverse communities,” looking for an alternative to the macho image of motorcycles.
The stability of the Ryker meant it was just as comfortable on a gravel road as on asphalt, and for 2022, Can-Am is introducing an improved version of its Ryker Rally model, with off-road tires, longer and adjustable suspension, many additional features, and a Rally drive mode that allows even more sliding around on loose surfaces. That model lists for $16,999 and is equipped only with the larger engine.
I rode the Ryker for a week and never tired of it. I’d take it for quick 30-minute rides just because I could, and even went for a 300-km tour in which it was comfortable on both the high-speed highway and the back roads. Its major failing was its fuel consumption: a machine that weighs 280 kg dry should get better than the 8.5 L/100 km that I saw, though I rarely spared the horses.
It also was uncomfortable on poorly paved roads, because its wheels follow along three tracks, unlike the two tracks of a car or the single track of a motorcycle. This means that where there are ruts and bumps, one of those three tracks is likely to find them.
I would not replace my motorcycle with a Ryker or a Spyder, though. I still enjoy the feeling of leaning through curves and putting my feet on the ground at a pause. If I did own a Ryker, it would take its place in my garage alongside at least one or two motorcycles.
However, if I did own a Ryker, I’d probably ride it more than those one or two motorcycles combined. It’s just so much fun.
2021 Can-Am Ryker
Base price/As tested: $11,399 / $12,939, plus $325 commodity surcharge, and Freight and PDI
Engine: 600 cc liquid-cooled Rotax twin, or 900 cc liquid-cooled Rotax triple
Transmission/Drive: CVT / Shaft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): n/a (8.5 average observed, Premium fuel)
Alternatives: Can-Am Spyder, Harley-Davidson Tri Glide, Polaris Slingshot