Monday, 9 January 2017

Review: 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide

Man, what a difference a year makes.

You may remember I spent a day with the 2016 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special in early spring, and the tl;dr version of that review is that I was not a huge fan of the bike. It was cramped, hot, caused physical pain, and - although I enjoyed its hayride-like performance in urban areas - was ill-suited to its stated role as a touring motorcycle.

I had wanted to love the Street Glide, feeling a sense of obligation to do so because it is wildly popular in my home nation of Texas, but had come away feeling let down. For the 2017 model year, however, Harley-Davidson has dramatically updated its touring line-up, replacing the Twin Cam engine it’s been relying on (in one form or another) for the past 17 years with the new Milwaukee Eight, as well as overhauling the bikes’ suspensions.

Needless to say, I was particularly eager to throw a leg over the new Street Glide to see if these changes to the bike would change my attitude toward it.

First Impressions 
Getting a chance to spend some time with the new Street Glide wasn’t easy. It is an unquestionably gorgeous, badass-looking machine; no doubt that contributes to its being one of Harley’s most popular models - not just in Texas but in moto-journalism circles. During Harley’s two-day press event in Washington state, mo-jos were encouraged to be good little boys and girls, and share the large fleet of press bikes equally. For the most part, we did. But getting folks to let go of the Street Glide’s ‘bars took an extra level of pleading or planning. On one of the days, Common Tread’s Lemmy* had to go so far as to wake up before sunset to commandeer the Velocity Red Sunglo model you see pictured in this article.

The 2017 Street Glide looks almost identical to the 2016 Street Glide but for the presence of the 107-cubic-inch Milwaukee Eight in place of the old Twin Cam 103. Speaking from a male perspective, there is something about that batwing fairing that connects to the little-boy soul: the part of you that never stopped wanting to pitch for the Astros, the part that thinks being able to juggle or pick up a rattlesnake with your bare hands is the apogee of coolness. I’ll bet Dallas Keuchel can pick up a snake with his bare hands, and he sure as heck looks like the sort of person who would ride a Street Glide.

If he does, the 6-foot-3 starter probably feels pretty cramped. The Street Glide’s ergonomics have not changed for 2017, so the dash still seems too close for those who are long of leg and arm. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, I feel scrunched when nestling into the bike’s pillowy saddle. It’s not awful - if someone gave me a Street Glide I’d learn to live with it - but it’s not ideal. Many riders, of course, won’t have these quibbles. Harley-Davidson is a worldwide brand, after all, and not all of us come from Northern European stock. For many, the Street Glide will be a perfect fit.

Engine and Transmission
As mentioned in my review of the 2017 Road Glide, the Milwaukee Eight is the main attraction to Harley’s updated touring line-up. The four-valves-per-cylinder V-twin is both rubber mounted and counterbalanced to help quell vibration while maintaining a distinctly Harley rumble at idle. The bike shakes at stoplights, but not in a bad way.

There is a certain oddity to the fact the shake is deliberate, that Harley-Davidson spoke to hundreds upon hundreds of owners and non-owners determining exactly how much the Milwaukee Eight should shimmy. The Teutonic, stoical part of my brain thinks: “Wait, you could have made an super-smooth engine but you chose not to?!”

But then I remember that the stoical part of the brain rarely plays a leading role in motorcycle-related decisions. Emotion and feel are massively important in motorcycling - Harley-Davidson is just honest enough to admit that. And clever enough to capitalize on it.

The Street Glide is not wholly impractical, however. Along with meticulously working out just the right amount of vibration to keep purists happy while luring new riders, Harley has also improved performance and decreased the amount of heat the rider experiences. On a dyno, the Street Glide probably still wouldn’t impress those for whom horsepower is über alles, but Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski points out that such numbers can often fail to translate into an enjoyable on-public-roads experience.

“We give you performance all the time,” he said. “A lot of torque, and torque throughout the range.”

He’s right. Heaps of delightful, smoothly delivered torque (Harley claims a peak figure of 111.4 foot pounds) are available pretty much anywhere the tachometer needle happens to be pointing. Meanwhile, Harley doesn’t offer horsepower figures, but my Screamin’ ChrisCope ButtDyno™ tells me the number is in the mid to high 80s. Which is enough to get the Street Glide over the legal speed limit and keep it there. One of the things that annoyed me most about the 2016 Street Glide Special was its unwillingness to travel at the typical UK cruising speed of 80 mph. That problem is gone; the 2017 Street Glide will cruise comfortably 10 mph in excess of any speed limit in the United States - including rural parts of my home state (where the limit is 85 mph). Uncomfortably, of course, it will go much faster.

Harley’s claim of reduced heat also holds true. Temperatures during the two-day press ride never exceeded 80º F, but that was warm enough to be able to spot the difference. Less sweaty riding is achieved via a number of means: improved ignition timing, cooling in the heads, and relocation of the catalytic converters. The end result is a bike that no longer serves as a roadside cooking device.

The transmission is smoother - less clunky - and clutch pull oh-so-slightly lighter, but a strong left hand is still needed to navigate through stop-and-go traffic. Perhaps Keuchel, a left-hander, really does ride a Street Glide.

Ride Quality and Brakes
Despite maintaining its awkward-to-me ergonomics, the overall Street Glide experience is more pleasant thanks to Harley’s decision to upgrade the suspension on its 2017 touring models. Showa dual bending valve forks tackle bumps from the front while a tool-free adjustable preload system in the rear better ensures individual comfort. Harley has done away with its old air shock system and replaced it with an easier to understand and more reliable emulsion shock with hand adjuster. A guide in the owner’s manual helps riders determine exactly what setting they should aim for based on weight, number of passengers, etc. The International Chiropractors Association will probably send hate mail to Harley-Davidson HQ, but everyone else will appreciate the changes.

The improved suspension also affects handling, of course. You won’t be doing any Marc Marquez-style elbow dragging, but corners can now be approached with greater confidence and zip. As long as it’s not raining… One of the biggest disappointments to be carried over from old to new Street Glide is the choice of tire. The stock long-life Dunlop Multi-Tread Blackwall tires do the bike a disservice in the wet, sending the bike squirreling at even the mention of road markings. It can be difficult to drive a hard bargain in a Harley-Davidson dealership but I would try to get more suitable shoes at the point of sale.

Reflex Linked ABS brakes come standard, with the system electronically determining the correct amount of front and rear brake to use even if you are deploying only one of the braking methods.

Comfort and Features
With the improved suspension, reduced vibration (especially at higher speeds), and reduced heat, the 2017 Street Glide is vastly more enjoyable to ride than it was even a few months ago. It is still a great vehicle for rumbling through urban areas, being seen and admired and sought out by folks who need a rattlesnake removed, but it’s now a viable choice for longer hauls. Each of the bike’s waterproof hard panniers is large enough to hold at least eight full-size Western Diamondbacks. Maybe more. And all kept in place by a simple latch. More practically, I was able to store my Kriega R20 backpack in a pannier, with enough room left to squeeze in a large bottle of water.

The fairing and stock windscreen keep a good bit of the weather off without causing any head wobble or overly unpleasant buffering. Though, wind noise at highway speed was pronounced enough that my Auritech earplugs weren’t really up to the task. Speaking of wind, the Street Glide lacks the Road Glide’s spiffy fairing, so back pressure is a (very minor) issue.

It’s not an issue that creates discomfort, per se, but riding in wet weather will result in the raindrops-from-every-direction experience. If one of those raindrops happens to land on the too-tiny digital display housing the bike’s gear indicator it will manage to obscure said indicator from view. That display is housed in the speedometer, which, along with the dashboard’s other analogue dials, looks good but doesn’t really offer information as clearly as I’d like. Maybe it’s simply that I’m aging into Harley’s core demographic, but I feel the dials’ numbers are too small. The large infotainment touchscreen in the center of the dash is easier to read, however, so you’ll have no trouble tuning in NPR as you roll toward your favorite road house.

Speeding through the back roads of Washington state, I chose to blare Sam Cooke, whose rasp I could hear over the wind, through a closed modular helmet while wearing earplugs. I’m guessing that means everyone else in a quarter-mile radius could hear him, too.

Passenger accommodation is sub-par, but, you know: customization. Harley’s all about that sort of thing and fat pockets will allow you to hit the Street Glide with the mightiest of bling hammers. A quirk of Harley bikes is that leaving the kickstand down will not cause the bike to shut off when it's in gear. So, it's possible to roll off with the kickstand scraping away. It's not an immensely important thing, but just sort of strikes me as odd. (After I published this review on RideApart I had many readers suggest I was wrong about Harley's lacking kickstand cutoff; it may have been that for the sake of ease Harley had disabled the feature on its press bikes, but I definitely saw a few mo-jos riding with their stands down.)

As I say, the Harley-Davidson Street Glide looks damned cool. I am particularly fond of the (admittedly cliché) Black Denim color scheme. There is something about this bike that draws and holds the eye. It’s the sort of motorcycle that makes you appreciate stoplights, so you can sit there staring at the tank, or the curve of the handlebar, or the way sunlight glints off a lever. You sit there and think: “Man, I wish someone would take a picture of me on this thing.”

Plenty of bikes look cool, but few can stand up to the test of both far and near observation; the Street Glide you can appreciate from just inches away. People put thought into this thing. A rider may disagree with certain stylistic choices, as I do with the gear indicator or kickstand or the use of two turn signal switches rather than one, but I’m willing to bet there’s someone in Milwaukee who could write an entire dissertation on how and why each decision was made. The build is robust, the hard luggage looks and feels durable, switches and buttons feel as if they will stand the test of time. Regular maintenance will probably result in your being able to pass the bike on to following generations so that they can one day be like Panhead Jim, travelling the country on an 80-year-old machine.

Of Harley’s two fairing-laden baggers I’d rather own a Road Glide. That bike’s ergonomics are better suited to my frame and its weather protection is slightly better. But the Street Glide still takes the Most Improved prize for transforming from a motorcycle that was good for posing to a motorcycle that is good for posing AND going places. As a Polaris dork, I wish Victory would put this level of work into the Cross Country.

There is a part of me that looks at how my opinion of the Street Glide has changed so rapidly and thinks, “Golly, isn’t it surprising what two little changes can make?” But, of course, an entirely new engine and an overhauled suspension are hardly little changes. Perhaps this is part of why Harley-Davidson gets hit by critics as being “stuck in the stone age” or what have you: because the differences can be hard to spot. From across a parking lot, I doubt anyone would be able to tell the difference between the bike I rode in April and the bike I rode in September. Hell, even those of us who are supposedly in the know are easily confused by ultra-subtle differences that Harley employs. When I initially wrote my review for the 2017 Road Glide I referred to it as the Road Glide Special. It took an eagle-eyed reader to help me get things straight.

With the 2017 Street Glide, Harley-Davidson’s giving off the appearance of not having changed since the days when people thought Gallagher was funny (Yes, I know the Street Glide was only introduced in 2006, but the batwing fairing has a distinctive 70s/80s feel to me), but in truth the company has delivered a motorcycle that is modern, high-quality, and good right out of the box - no “Harley Tax” required.

The Three Questions 

1) Does the Harley-Davidson Street Glide fit my current lifestyle?
Well, as I said in my review of the Road Glide, it's a bike that surprisingly could meet most of the demands I have for a motorcycle at this point in my life, i.e., that it be able to take me pretty much anywhere at pretty much any time of year. But, for me, the Road Glide could meet those demands more effectively, being the more comfortable of the two.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Of course it does. That's something that's always been a pretty much guaranteed part of the Harley experience (initially, at least). The Street Glide definitely delivers on intangibles.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
Uhm... As I mentioned in my review of the Road Glide, that's a difficult question to answer because it creates such an apples-to-oranges comparison. But because I like the Street Glide less than the Road Glide, I can more confidently mutter: "no." I mean, in looks and sound and badassness and resale value, the Street Glide is an infinitely better ride than a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, but it's not as all-round useable, affordable, powerful, or (out of the box) comfortable. As I say above, if someone were to give me a Street Glide I would happily learn to live with its imperfections, but if I were facing a cross-country adventure and had the keys to both it and a 'Strom, I'd start packing my stuff onto the latter...

No, actually, that's totally untrue; I'd choose the Street Glide regardless. If I had to pay for the Street Glide, though, that's when I'd go to the 'Strom. The Harley costs more than twice the price of the Suzuki but is not twice as good.

Rider Stats
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender

Helmet: BMW System 6 EVO
Bluetooth: Sena 10C
Jacket: Hideout Touring
Back protector: Knox Fastback
Gloves: Held Air N Dry
Jeans: Draggin' Classic
Boots: Corcoran Jump Boots


*Lemmy, by the way, is as cool a dude as you could ever hope to meet. One of the highlights of my burgeoning moto-journalism career is that I get to meet people whose work I appreciate. And it always delights me when these people also turn out to be cool. Evans Brasfield and Kevin Duke from, Mike Armitage from Bike, and Lemmy from Common Tread are just a few of the folks that I've really enjoyed getting a chance to meet. Fact is, I've only ever encountered one unpleasant person (though, he is such an asshole, he probably counts as six unpleasant people), and most of the guys and gals who do this job are like me – in love with bikes and feeling stupidly lucky to be able to make a living out of riding them.

Friday, 6 January 2017

2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide – Ride Review

Sitting on the new Harley-Davidson Road Glide atop Hurricane Ridge last September, in the northern part of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the ridge was living up to its name.

I was amid a small but hardy group of moto-journalists waiting to ride past photographers Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles - each crouched in the mud further down the road, waiting to make us look good. The temperature here was several degrees cooler than it had been at the bottom of the mountain and we were more exposed to the rain. It seems I had brought the British weather with me.

As the intensity of the rain increased, the plink-plink sound of raindrops against my helmet was surpassed by howling laughter from’s Evans Brasfield: “Ha! The glamorous life of a moto-journalist!”

His laughter caused a flashback to a moment from earlier in the day, when we had been speaking to Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski. In response to a question about the new Milwaukee Eight engine’s performance in the rain, Boz had levelled the instigating journo (who shall remain unnamed) with a look that suggested a desire to answer not with words but a slap to the back of the head.

“This engine is not challenged by rain,” Bozmoski deadpanned.

Up here, the bike was living up to that claim. Visibility reduced to just a few feet, my waterproof gear began to falter, journos scrambled to the visitor center for cover and coffee; the engine, however, was unfazed. Like Brasfield, it was laughing at foul weather.

First Impressions
But for its engine, the new Road Glide looks the same as the old Road Glide. It still has that love-it-or-hate-it front end that Harley enthusiasts describe as a shark nose but which I feel more accurately resembles Bender from “Futurama.” Personally, I kind of like the look, but if someone were to disagree I’d understand why. Compared with Harley’s other faired bagger, the Street Glide, the Road Glide is the superior overall motorcycle but definitely requires an open mind when it comes to aesthetics.

Ease into the large, cosseting, primarily-designed-for-one seat, and the first thing that strikes you is the tank. It forces a wide splay of legs that may be a tad uncomfortable for the gentleman who prefers tight trousers. The bike’s dashboard dominates the lower half of one’s field of vision with clean dials and vibrant touchscreen display. There’s chrome, but not so much that it is distracting or annoying to those of us who are chrome-averse.

Engine and Transmission
The presence of the new Milwaukee Eight engine is, of course, the big story of the Road Glide. Harley-Davidson has chosen to equip all its touring line-up with the four-valves-per-cylinder engine (hence the name) for 2017, leaving other bikes with the same powerplants as in the 2016 model year. In the “standard” Road Glide, the Milwaukee Eight manifests as a 107 cubic-inch (1753 cc) twin-cooled V-twin.

“This is the most analyzed motor, I would say on the the planet, but definitely in our history,” explained Bozmoski. “It’s really a new generation for Harley.”

Though, long-time Harley-Davidson fans should not be too worried. Press the starter on the new Road Glide and it rumbles to life with a signature old-school agricultural feel. Gentler, perhaps, than the shuddering of the outgoing Twin Cam-engined models, but not so smooth that you could successfully play a game of Operation from its saddle. This vibration is by design, according to Bozmoski; the Harley faithful expect it.

“Our core customer was telling us: ‘Don’t touch it,’” he explained.

However, it’s no secret Harley is eager to reach beyond its core customer base. To do so, the company felt its new engine needed to avoid some of the tractor clichés of old (though, I still say tractors are awesome).

“Wannabe riders would look at [a Harley’s vibration] and say: ‘Hmm, that don’t look right to me,’” Bozmoski said.

Such is the challenge of many manufacturers, especially those who make cruisers: the people who have been buying the product don’t want change, whereas the people the company wants to lure expect change. So, Harley-Davidson went to great lengths to find a happy medium: a bike that moves a little at idle, that feels like a Harley, but that won’t rattle loose any dental work. Harley, not surprisingly, feels it has “nailed all of what the customer wanted,” and, on the whole, I’m inclined to agree. 

No, it’s not a Honda engine; if you want a Honda engine, buy a Honda. But the Milwaukee Eight is a modern, fully functional, does-what-you-expect-it-to-do engine. It feels solid (and according to Bozmoski, it is, with test units having been put through 1.5 million miles of hard testing) and it feels “right” for the cruiser/tourer experience. 

Meanwhile, whether it’s the four valves per cylinder or four extra cubic inches in engine size, the new Road Glide performs better than Harleys of recent memory. This is a motorcycle you can live with, something you don’t have to make excuses for or describe in befuddling “if you don’t understand you’ll never understand” platitudes. It no longer feels like it’s gasping at 80 mph.

Harley’s love of hyperbole goes so far as to occasionally describe the thing as “sportbike-like;” that description should be taken with a block of salt, but performance is noticeably improved.

The rev limiter is found far too easily in first and second gears, but there’s still plenty of oomph to get the bike’s considerable girth (929 lbs wet) moving in the right direction ahead of most other traffic. Throttle response is smooth, and if Harley-Davidson spent so much time making sure engine vibration would please the faithful you can be damn certain that torque is available pretty much anywhere in the rev range.

Clutch pull still demands an Asgardian left hand, but shifting seems a little smoother. The clunk of first gear arrives with less drama while maintaining the mechanical, “here’s a thing that’s made of metal, by god” sound that I enjoy from a big machine. As I say, tractors are awesome.

Ride Quality and Brakes
Along with the new Milwaukee Eight all of Harley’s touring models have received upgraded suspension for the 2017 model year. And it’s here, even more so than with the new engine, that the differences between the 2016 and 2017 model years are most obvious. You’re never really going to drag a knee on a Road Glide (if not simply because you’d need to be a pretty tall drink of water to touch a knee down before floorboards/highway bars/panniers/etc.), but tipping the bike into a corner induces less skittishness than it once might have. The bike feels well planted... At least when it’s dry.

Awful Dunlop Multi-Tread Blackwall tires are awfully awful in the wet, but that’s not Harley’s fault. The Dunlop touring tires one finds standard on Indian and Victory motorcycles are equally abysmal in wet weather. The real person to blame in this case is the average American consumer, who values tire life over tire performance.

Hitting reasonable bumps with the new suspension no longer requires an immediate phone call to one’s chiropractor, and adjusting the suspension is now considerably less of a hassle. Hitherto, rear suspension adjustment was done by a special air pump that Harley found its customers were losing and/or failing to understand. Additionally, customers weren’t regularly re-adjusting the system, which had a tendency to lose air over time, thereby decreasing effectiveness.

The new system is a good ol’ fashioned hand adjuster. It’s easy to figure out and, according to Harley-Davidson Director of Motorcycle Product Planning Paul James, “the setting will not change over time, as you get with an air shock.”

Maybe it’s the old man in me, but I personally prefer this. I’ll admit to being dazzled by the likes of BMW’s electronic suspension adjustment, but sometimes technological whizzbangery feels like technological whizzbangery for the sake of technological whizzbangery. If your hand is strong enough to pull a Harley-Davidson clutch lever it’s strong enough to turn a knob.

ABS comes standard with the Road Glide, with Harley-Davidson using a linked system that electronically determines the right percentage of front and rear brake to use according to road conditions.

“The linked brakes system really goes a long way to making an average rider a great rider,” said James.

Brake performance is at the high end of what I’ve come to expect from cruisers. You won’t be doing stoppies, but the two front discs and single rear disc deliver an acceptable amount of whoa for real-world application.

Comfort and Features
Comfort-wise, there are a lot of things to like about the Road Glide, so let’s start with the stuff I don’t like and get it out of the way. That tank: it’s too wide.

I am 6 feet 1 inch tall, so when I spread my legs there’s plenty of space in the knee-to-knee region. There’s probably enough room for your average Olympic gymnast to perform a little jig. Astride the Road Glide, that space is occupied by the fuel tank. Female riders may not be bothered, but males will find that keeping their legs that wide open initiates a tightening in the gusset of one’s trousers. Stay seated on the Road Glide for a few hours and it causes a certain discomfort.

The standard windscreen left me wanting a little more weather protection, but, you know: Harley-Davidson. Any time you criticize a standard feature on a Harley, the faithful brothers and sisters of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-Day Davidson will run roughshod over you with their trademark-littered talk of customization; you can buy a different screen. And, in fairness, the standard screen, with its unique venting system, was good enough that I didn’t experience head wobble or excessive buffering.

The good news is that the bike is otherwise conducive to hours in the saddle. When I rode the 2016 Street Glide Special about a year ago, the summary of my experience was that I felt it was a touring bike upon which touring would be pretty unpleasant. After just 60 miles of highway riding my back hurt, my jaw was sore from having teeth bang together on every bump, and I had a headache. On the 2017 Road Glide I suffered none of that.

Much of the credit has to go to the improved suspension, but it’s also the case that the Road Glide’s ergonomics are better suited to a person my size. Hands fell relatively naturally to the ‘bars (were it my bike I’d make slight adjustments) and I didn’t feel as cramped as I have on many other Harley-Davidson models. The seat is ultra comfy but passenger accommodation is clearly not a priority. See the above statement about customization, though; if you’ve got the money, honey, Harley’s got the time.

The Road Glide also has a unique system of moving air through the fairing, which eliminates the back pressure that can come from more traditional windscreen set-ups. I’m not clever enough to fully understand how it works but I do know it works well. The bike’s easy-to-remove panniers (makes getting to that suspension adjuster relatively pain-free) are just large enough to hold a Kriega R20 backpack. Compartments in the fairing are large enough to hold a phone and wallet or a small bottle of water. Or two chipmunks.

The touchscreen display delivers a wealth of information, and the infotainment system of which it is part offers connectivity options up the wazoo, including USB hookup, AM/FM/SiriusXM radio, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio, and GPS. I’ve always felt dubiously toward the idea of stereos on motorcycles, but I have to admit that being able to blare Metallica as I rolled through Tacoma offered a certain joie de vivre. The two too-tiny buttons to scroll through all these options are located on each handlebar - one on the right, one on the left. The buttons are less than intuitive and I found it mildly infuriating that both buttons are sometimes required to perform a single function, e.g. using the radio. I don’t understand the point of having the buttons spread across both ‘bars.

I guess that’s just a Harley thing, similar to the company’s strange insistence upon putting the indicator switches on each ‘bar. The end result is your right thumb ends up having to do a lot of work while the rest of your right hand tries to keep the throttle steady. To give Harley-Davidson credit, though, its handlebar switches are better integrated with the look of the bike than similar switches found on competing Indian and Victory motorcycles. And unlike Indian/Victory, Harley is intelligent enough to put the cruise control switch on the left side.

Like every Harley-Davidson (save the Street 500/750), the Road Glide is one of the best put together motorcycles you’re going to find. Harley has its fair share of haters (James accused me of being one when we first met) but I’ve found very few people who will criticize the fit and finish of its vehicles. There are no flimsy parts, no switches or compartment doors that make you think: “Well, that’ll break before next spring.”

Paint, as you would expect, is rich and deep. To the extent that there is a certain irony in the fact so many Harley owners are meticulous in their cleaning regimen. As with its engine, the Road Glide’s paint is not challenged by rain. Every part of the bike feels solid and robust. And the experience of watching one of my fellow journalists drop an Ultra Limited, yet not finding a single scratch afterward, suggests there is truth to that feeling of robustness. No, you can’t win the Dakar on this thing, but I have no trouble believing it will provide many happy journeys to South Dakota and back.

As an avowed fan of Indian and someone who’s been accused on various occasions of having a beef with Harley there is a very tiny, tiny part of my soul that feels I’m wussing out when I tell you that the Road Glide is a good motorcycle. The hate-everything rebel teenager in me wants to lock onto the same old things that critics always lock onto - weight, low horsepower, the fact a modern bike looks the same from 100 feet away as one from two decades ago - but the truth is that, looked at through honest and fair eyes, those are tired tropes that are irrelevant to the context.

In other words, unless you personally refuse to accept it as such, the Road Glide really is a good motorcycle. Is it $21,800 of good? Well, if you’ve got $21,800 - yeah, maybe. It is a solid, comfortable, well-equipped touring motorcycle that also happens to carry oodles more credibility with non-riders than any other brand.

I mean, can you imagine pick-up trucks pulling over and waving by a group of Yamaha FJR1300 riders? Can you imagine children jumping and cheering at the sight of a passing Honda Africa Twin? But that's what happened when I rode the Road Glide.

Most importantly, this is a Harley-Davidson that I feel doesn’t need to be “fixed” right away. You can add a better screen and a passenger-friendly seat if/when more money comes along. But you don’t have to immediately invest in products that sound like sex toys (e.g., Screamin’ Eagle Heavy Breather) just to get a decent bike. It’s good out of the box. It is a bike that is not challenged by rain, and it may challenge your perception of what a Harley-Davidson can be.

The Three Questions

1) Does the Harley-Davidson Road Glide fit my current lifestyle?
This surprises me a little bit, but, to be honest, with better tires it actually could. The Road Glide is comfortable, has more or less enough grunt to satisfy my needs, decent weather protection (that can be easily improved), and hard luggage. It's well built and could tolerate year-round use as long as I maintained the same cleaning standards I have for my other bikes.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. Without a doubt. I spent the first hour or so of my day with the Road Glide literally hopping up and down with excitement. I spent an hour after that laughing like a maniac, and a few hours beyond that feeling like the world's biggest bad-ass.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
That's a tough question to answer because it's very much an apples and oranges comparison. The Road Glide costs more than twice as much as my Strom, is far more difficult to maneuver in a parking lot, is not as responsive, and won't take corners as well. But, damn it, it's a Harley. Its seat is more comfortable, it is far easier to customize, and it delivers intangibles on a scale that Suzuki cannot imagine. If someone were to argue that the Road Glide is a better bike, I wouldn't disagree – but I also won't be spending my money to buy one.

Rider Stats
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender

Helmet: BMW System 6 EVO
Bluetooth: Sena 10C
Jacket: Hideout Touring
Back protector: Knox Fastback
Jeans: Draggin' Classic

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Help Me Understand, America

Last summer I spent a month driving across the United States, exploring 10 states –– Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas –– in the iconic road-trip machine that was my mother’s Toyota Prius.

Oh, sure, it’s not a ‘63 Mustang or a Harley-Davidson FLXWTFBBQ –– a Prius may not be everyone’s go-to choice for a road trip –– but I counter all criticism with the fact I was able to drive from Minneapolis to Kansas City on just $20 of gas. (Travel tip: Pay cash at Pilot) Plus, my parents don’t have a motorcycle that I could have borrowed. It was the Prius or walk.

Still, my mind remained two-wheel focused and I soon found myself using the 4,500-mile peregrination as an opportunity to observe the state of motorcycling in my homeland. I may not have visited your particular neck of the woods, but based on my observations I'd say that overall things are pretty good. Certainly, they are better than I remember from even a few years ago. And by "better" I mean "more diverse." Diversity is a good thing. Cities with diverse economies are more vibrant; ecosystems with a diverse plant and animal species are more resilient. A diverse motorcycling world is better.

There's nothing wrong with with white men on Harleys, but there is something wrong with nothing but white men on Harleys.

From my observation it appears there are more genres of bike out on the road. Cruisers still dominate, but in some urban areas –– in particular my old stomping grounds of Minneapolis and St. Paul –– that dominance is not nearly what it once was. I saw sportbikes, of course, but also dual sports (man, Americans love a Kawasaki KLR650), standards, retros, super nakeds, sport tourers, and whatever we're classifying the Ducati Multistrada as these days. I saw a Moto Guzzi Griso in Hannibal, Missouri; I had to pick my jaw up from the sidewalk. I wouldn't have thought Moto Guzzi owners would even know where the Show Me State is, let alone choose to live there.

Additionally, overall numbers of riders seemed to be up. Yes, a lot of those riders were eligible for AARP discounts, but increased numbers are increased numbers. So, things are good or getting better. But I'll admit that there are some aspects of American motorcycling that my years of living outside the Trump Wall make it difficult for me to understand. Things that I suppose I never thought about before moving to the United Kingdom, but which now befuddle me.

The whole not-wearing-gear thing, for example. Throughout my travels, the most geared-up people I saw were a group in New Orleans: a quartet of gentlemen from the Ruff Ryders crew. Their flak-jacket-style leather vests left their arms uncovered but they had helmets, gloves, the aforementioned vests, jeans, and boots. Elsewhere, I observed that women were more likely to wear helmets than men, but by and large folks everywhere chose to ride sans protective gear. Extreme examples came in the form of leathery old dudes I saw in Louisiana, Iowa, and Minnesota who were riding shirtless.

I don’t understand this.

I get the idea of Freedom. I'm a big fan of Freedom, and from a purely philosophical standpoint I would even go so far as to say I passively agree with the argument against helmet laws. You have a right to expose your bald head to the Lord and sundry while speeding down the interstate at 80 mph, and I don't want to take that right away from you. But just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean you actually have to do it.

I mean, you also have the right to insert your index finger into your anus, then immediately place that same finger in your mouth. You have the right to do that over and over again. You have the right to use other digits, if you so choose, and the right to place those digits in other chosen orifices (as long as they are your own). God granted you those rights, son. They are inalienable, and ain't no government fat cat that should tell you to stop. But that doesn't mean any of it is a good idea.

I am baffled as to why so many American riders choose to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and at least some basic gear. You don't have to squeeze yourself into some ridiculous $5,000 CE-approved Power Ranger wündersuit, but at least wear something better than Dockers and flip flops. 

I must be missing something. Just as I’m clearly missing the reason American riders are so obsessed with highway pegs. For the uninitiated, highway pegs are the footpegs that cruiser riders place on their engine bars so they can splay their legs out as if preparing for a gynecological exam. They make a person look ridiculous. Yes, I realize, as one who was observing all this from within a Prius, I have little ground to stand on when it comes to declaring things to be ridiculous. And just as I’ll defend the Prius on the grounds of practicality I can at least understand why a rider might want highway pegs when crossing the vast American expanse. I’ve had plenty of long-distance days, so I’m familiar with the ache that can develop when keeping legs in the same position for too long.

What I don’t, get, though, are the dudes (and it was always a dude) who insist on using highway pegs in urban areas. For example, the owner of a shiny new Indian Chief Vintage who had his legs akimbo while in Houston traffic. Have you ever driven in Houston?! No one is paying attention; they are all on their phones, Snapchatting about how awful Houston drivers are. That is not the sort of situation where you want to prop your foot far away from the rear brake (which is traditionally the more effective brake on cruisers).

In Memphis, I witnessed a man in stop-and-go traffic who insisted upon swinging his feet all the way to his highway pegs between bouts of duck walking his bike forward. Why? What’s wrong with just placing your feet at the controls? I realize that not every American has received high-falootin’ rider training. Or even wants it. (My brother vehemently refuses to take an MSF course despite the fact I’ve offered to foot the bill.) So, not everyone has been schooled in the Right And Proper Way To Do Things. But I can’t imagine a teaching-yourself-to-ride scenario where an individual would come to the conclusion that keeping his or her feet far from a bike’s controls is a good idea in slow-speed maneuvers or heavy traffic.

The logic behind these two practices completely escapes me. But I feel that because so many riders do it there must be something I’m failing to take into account –– some “Oh, that totally makes sense” facet of riding through traffic gearless with your feet on highway pegs that I’ve simply overlooked. Please, America. Help me understand.

Friday, 2 December 2016

The race that won't stop killing

Five* racers were killed in 2016’s Isle of Man TT races. That’s a few more than average, but nothing anyone's getting uptight about; ferry bookings to attend next year’s event have already sold out.

That people have died and will die –– lots of them –– is just the way of things. It’s an accepted truth. There will always be Tuesdays; oranges are orange; men and women will die in horrific crashes at the TT. And perhaps I’ve lived in these parts for too long that I hadn’t really considered how deadly the TT is until RideApart asked me to write a piece about it back in the summer.

By “these parts” I mean the British Isles: the archipelago that also includes the United Kingdom and Ireland. And, to a lesser extent, I mean the Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man, a tiny strip of land sitting in the Irish Sea –– only 14 miles across at its widest point –– holds the status of UK crown dependency. Which means that it can make most of its own laws but its Olympic athletes compete under the United Kingdom’s flag. It’s that element of self-governance that is at the heart of why the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race, to use its full name, even exists.

Back in 1907, clever local officials saw that the United Kingdom had a national speed limit of 20 mph (cars and motorcycles were newfangled contraptions and British roads ill-equipped to support them), so they scrapped their speed limit entirely in hopes of drawing wealthy thrillseekers. This year marked the 97th running of the TT, folks having taken a few years off here and there to fight each other in the world wars.

Over the TT’s history, some 146 competitors have died. That doesn’t count the spectators and race officials who have also lost their lives by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Add those in, along with amateurs outdone by the course when it’s been opened up to the public, and the death toll climbs closer to 270 (though, I can find no reliable figure for the exact number of total deaths that have occurred during the TT period). It is, as the man in this video says, “totally out of order.”

To put it into perspective, consider the closest thing the United States has to an equivalent: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In its 92-year history only six competitors have actually been killed. Just three of them were motorcyclists, but that’s been enough for the PPIHC to make rules about bikes’ handlebars and even consider banning two-wheeled machines from the event.

Part of what makes the TT so incredibly dangerous is the fact it’s run through quintessential British Isles-style towns and villages, on the same streets that Isle of Man residents use throughout the year. The course consists of nothing more than public roads blocked off for a few hours each day. It’s similar to when roads in the United States are blocked off for parades. But instead of the local belly dancing club and a high school marching band, it’s a motorcycle zipping past your house.

Actually, it’s a little more like having that motorcycle scream down your driveway. When American friends visit me in the UK they’re surprised at how narrow the roads are, how close houses are to those roads, how stone walls and hedgerows seem to creep in, and how generally unforgiving of mistakes is the whole set-up.

That officials allow motorcyclists to hurtle themselves themselves through all this is, as TT organizers readily admit, madness. It’s hard to imagine a race track being allowed to operate after it’s claimed 146 lives. Heck, it’s hard to imagine a sport being allowed to carry on with so many fatalities. For example, in the history of NASCAR –– across all race series in all venues –– with its long reputation for rag-tag reckless maniacs, only 83 drivers have died.

And yet the chances of the TT being called off grow less each year. Part of it, of course, is money. The Isle of Man is somewhat difficult to get to and sits in a part of the world that is more often than not cold and wet. It has no real industry to speak of, apart from being a tax haven for the wealthy. The TT brings tourists and money. Lots of tourists and lots of money.

But greater than money is tradition. “We’ve always done it that way” is a perfectly acceptable argument in the British Isles. Outside of the progressive metropolises like London, Dublin, Edinburgh, etc., folks prefer their change to come slow, if at all. That’s why people here don’t drive cars with automatic transmissions. It’s why you can find buildings that have stood derelict for 100 years. It’s why many pubs, restaurants, and hotels (far more than you’d ever imagine) still don’t accept credit cards. It’s why calling a woman you’ve never met “love” or “darlin’” is as socially acceptable as saying “hello.”

The TT has been run for a long time. Back in 1907, when motorcycles were little more than glorified bicycles, the course probably didn’t seem all that wild or insane. It was likely more a test of endurance than anything else. By the time technology had progressed enough to make the course truly dangerous the power of tradition had already grabbed hold.

In addition to all this is the great British Isles affection for those who do stupid/not sane stuff. People of this archipelago love a poorly conceived feat of derring-do. That’s always been the way of things, but has grown especially true in the post-war, post-industrial age.

In the 1970s and 80s motorcyclists here fell in love with the likes of Barry Sheene, but also Joey and Robert Dunlop: Northern Ireland racing brothers who both ended up being killed in crashes. Robert’s sons, William and Michael, are current racers. William helped Victory earn a podium spot at this year’s TT; whereas Michael set a new TT superbike lap record.

In the 1990s, British Isles culture celebrated guys who consumed ridiculous quantities of drugs. In the 2000s, the “Top Gear” mindset of a person placing himself in a doomed-to-fail situation became all the rage, along with watching Bear Grylls drink urine from a dead camel’s bladder.

These days, bike magazines are filled with tales of guys riding clunking, 30-year-old bikes to Africa. It all has the same theme: an appreciation for those who look a bad idea squarely in the face and think, “Yeah, I’ll have a go.”

Though, TT fans prefer to think of it as bravery: a willingness to push to the very limit of human capability.

There are occasional calls to ban the TT, usually after a better-known racer is killed, but they never carry much weight. The tradition is too strong, the fans’ desire too great. And we know that many of the racers also believe it’s worth the risk. Isle of Man TT Racer Allan David Jefferies was killed at the 2003 TT. Famously, this quote from him is written on his gravestone: “Those who risk nothing, do nothing, achieve nothing, become nothing.”

The TT is dangerous. Racers have died; racers will die. It seems, though, that people here are willing to accept that. It’s just the way of things.


*NOTE: The figure of five deaths in this year's TT period comes from a report by the BBC. However, the folks over at Asphalt & Rubber take issue with this, pointing out that the death of racer Dean Martin took place at the Pre-TT Classic, which, they point out "is a different race, run on a different race course."

ALSO NOTE: At no point in this article do I suggest that the TT should be banned. When the article was originally published on RideApart I had kickback from a number of people who lack reading comprehension skills, getting their undies all twisted up over comments that were never made. If you're one of those people I suggest you chill the fuck out and sit the hell down.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Doing an Iron Butt ride was utterly pointless

Back in June I took part in my first-ever Iron Butt ride.

Ostensibly, I took part in the ride to help raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, a charity initiative that helps the UK’s military and veteran communities. The Poppy Appeal is a good cause (A special thanks to those of you who donated) and an Iron Butt is something I’d wanted to do for a while, so I jumped at the chance. 

 Now that I’ve done it, I’m pretty certain I will never do it again. 

Turns out I don’t actually enjoy riding 1,000 miles in less than 24 hours. It’s not my thing. It’s tedious, exhausting, and runs contrary to many of the things I love about motorcycling. Of course, I never would have known that unless I’d done it. So, while I’ll readily tell you an Iron Butt is a waste of time, I’ll also tell you that you may need to learn that for yourself. 

My ride started at 5 a.m. on the outskirts of the Northern England city of Leeds, at a place called Squires Cafe. I had ridden up from Cardiff the day before, about 250 miles away, and hit surprise heavy rain en route. I’d spent the night running up Holiday Inn’s electricity bill, holding a hair dryer to my clothes, and by the time I had to get geared up and go my stuff had almost but not quite dried out.

It was raining again –– lightly –– when I pulled up to the starting point, my Suzuki V-Strom 1000’s panniers full of spare gloves and extra layers. I was wearing a one-piece rainsuit. My heated grips were on low. To the bike’s rack I had strapped a 5-liter bottle of water. In the months before this ride I had intended to sit down and read the reams of advice offered by the Iron Butt Association UK, but… ah… I didn’t. The only nugget of wisdom I’d managed to pick up was that I should stay hydrated.

A Royal British Legion volunteer checked me in, wished me well, and I was off. I would not return until almost exactly 21 hours later. Of those 21 hours, I’d say roughly 20.5 were spent in rain or fog –– usually both.

As I approached Manchester, thick fog, illuminated white by my headlight, limited visibility to about 100 feet. I sped onward into the unknown, because “Making Progress.” Less than 50 miles into the ride, I had already stumbled upon an aspect of the Iron Butt experience that makes me never want to do it again. Throughout the day, “Make Progress” was my mantra. I had to keep going, had to keep pushing forward, because I was against the clock. And that mentality negatively altered my riding style; I took fewer breaks and greater chances.

The only real break I took during the Iron Butt ride was a stop for breakfast, shortly after crossing the Scottish border. Looking back, it was one of only a few enjoyable parts to the experience.

By the time I was 270 miles into the ride, I had abandoned my usual rules for filtering, aka lane splitting. Normally, I won’t filter above 30 mph, won’t take gaps between two moving semi trucks, won’t ride more than 10 mph faster than surrounding traffic. It’s a prudish technique, perhaps, but I’m relatively confident that if things go wrong under those conditions I’ll survive. That was all gone as I ripped through Glasgow.

Effortlessly, mindlessly, I slithered through the city’s traffic. Tearing through the chaotic wind tunnels between trucks, shooting within inches of cars’ mirrors. It was, as I say, stupid. Looking back, I’m disappointed in myself and embarrassed. You know those jackass riders whose idiot behavior spoils it for everyone else? That was me. I was that jackass. Somewhere in Glasgow right now there’s a motorcyclist getting all kinds of daggers from the eyes of drivers who think one of us is all of us, and it’s my fault.

North of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and northward toward Inverness, the roads turned to two-lane winding routes that would have been fantastic on another day: a day when it wasn’t raining, a day when I didn’t feel pressed for time, a day when the road wasn’t clogged with tourists hauling camper trailers.

Make Progress. Make Progress. Make Progress. My mind was locked into this course of action now. On blind corners I passed four or five cars at a time. I swooped into too-tiny slots to narrowly avoid oncoming traffic, then dove back across the not-always-dotted lines. These actions blur together in my memory now: all one big fluid bad call.

The one moment that stands out came along the shores of Loch Ness. I leapt out from behind a motorhome without looking, right into the path of a BMW 4 Series. I tried to swing back into my lane but by this time had already come astride the motorhome. My pannier bumped against it. The BMW didn’t slow, didn’t swerve –– I’m not sure the driver ever saw me. Somehow I slipped through. I didn’t die.

I made Wick –– roughly the halfway point in the ride –– just before 5 p.m. At a grocery store where we had to check in I snapped one of only two pictures I took that day. Usually, what I love about motorcycling is that it connects me to the world, helps me take more of it in and appreciate it all. Not here. I was a drone, ignoring everything but the space in front of me and the miles I needed to cover.

Behold the glory of a Tesco in Wick, Scotland.

The other picture I took that day was of my breakfast (see above). By the time I hit Edinburgh, pushing back south toward Leeds, I had gone roughly 13 hours without eating. For a tiny moment I looked up, stepped out of my mental cocoon, and saw the new Queensferry Crossing bridge being built over the Firth of Forth. In the rainy early-dusk light it looked strangely beautiful and special. I felt lucky to be there in that moment. But once it was out of sight I slipped back into my idiot state.

Hunger, exhaustion, stress, and mindlessness caused a meltdown. We use the C word quite regularly here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and on this day my use of it –– in conjunction with words that start with A, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, and W –– was abundantly liberal. When a sudden increase in the rain’s intensity caused cars in front of me to slow I started screaming the C word with such ferocity that my brain locked and I could only spit the first syllable: “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh-Cuh…”

I found food at a 24-hour McDonalds in the middle of nowhere. Another personal rule broken. As I inhaled chicken nuggets and French fries I was overcome by the deep, hollow pointlessness of what I was doing: 1,000 miles alone in a big, dumb, wet circle. Why?

Heavy fog made the night darker. My rainsuit was giving up on me. Two of my four pairs of “waterproof” gloves had quit entirely. As had the pinlock visor in my helmet. Mist collected on the outside of the visor; I kept it open to prevent fog from building up inside. Droplets of water splashed against my face.

The external temperature display on my dash told me it was 10ºC (50ºF). The Suzuki has always been an optimist, so I know it was colder. My heated grips were on high but I couldn’t feel my hands. My teeth clacked from shivering.

The last 200 miles were like the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a tunnel of colors and my mind coming undone. Orange. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Any light spread out across the fog that surrounded me. Beyond it, darkness. I could not see the road. I was riding by GPS. If the map showed a curve, I leaned into it.

Credit to the Iron Butt Association and the Royal British Legion for their organization in putting together this event. They were the ones who had gone to the trouble to create the GPS file that guided me through the night. And they were the ones waiting for the riders when I arrived back at Squires Cafe. As I pulled into the parking lot, a woman came running up to me, grabbing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes: “Turn off your engine and set your side stand down. There’s food over there and tea. You can warm up and they’ll take your paperwork. If you want to get out of the rain, you can eat under the awning just over there.”

I looked at her. She repeated her spiel. I blinked. She repeated it again. In my head I thought: “Why does this woman have a Yorkshire accent?” 

Squires Cafe is in Yorkshire. 

When she repeated her spiel yet again, I thought: “I wonder who she’s talking to.”

I looked behind me. No one there. By now she had recruited a man to push down my side stand and help pull me off my bike. I recovered enough to thereafter ride 5 miles to my hotel, sleep for 9 hours straight, then ride the 250 miles back home to Cardiff –– stopping five times –– before falling into my bed and sleeping another 9 hours.

Really, probably, I should be dead. I did so many things wrong on this Iron Butt ride. It was an elephantine string of bad decisions. I suppose I’m glad I did it –– I had always wanted to –– but I am nothing short ashamed of how it went. It was a challenge that created a perfect storm of pressure and fatigue, and within that situation I let myself down. I was neither the rider nor person I want to be.

Right now I’m inclined to say my first Iron Butt ride was also my last.

Monday, 28 November 2016

2016 Honda CBR650F - Ride Review

Touring Sport: Scotland on a Honda CBR650F

Summer in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more a state of mind than meteorological phenomenon. It can be 50F and raining in December or June, March or September.

But as that time of year approaches, residents of this soggy archipelago pretend things will be different this time. We dig out straw fedoras and shorts, and we hope. Motorcyclists optimistically remove insulated lining from jackets and pore over maps looking for places to visit.

I sometimes allow myself to be suckered by the glitz of the Global Motorcycle Conspiracy (they're all out to get you, man), so when I daydream about touring I tend to daydream about bikes that are big, heavy, and tech-laden: the venerable BMW R 1200 RT, perhaps, or Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT, or the newly refreshed Yamaha FJR1300AS. The problem with all these bikes, though, is they are also really expensive. Meanwhile, ever since I spent some time travelling on the relatively affordable Indian Scout Sixty I've been questioning whether the go-to bikes of my daydreams are really necessary. 

Cue the Honda CBR650F. Receiving a subdued reception when first released in 2014, the bike has been given a refresh for 2016. By which I mean "new graphics." Honda places the CBR650F in its sport category, but that's because Big Red doesn't really want to call it what it is: an all-rounder.

Honda's U.S website describes the CBR650F as "in a class by itself;" that's pretty accurate. More comfortable, less powerful and easier to live with than the CBR600RR it is an everyday, all-the-time tool –– a fact I think some U.S. reviewers missed upon initial inspection. When RideApart's Bruce Speedman reviewed the bike two years ago, he described it as "an excellent midpoint platform for those on the CBR300RR-to-CBR600RR vector."

I'm not sure what he means, but my general feeling is that to focus on the CBR650F's track worthiness, or lack thereof, is to miss the point.

First Impressions

After several hours of map gazing, I decide I want to run Scotland's North Coast 500, which the country's tourism officials refer to as "the Route 66 of Scotland." But first I have to pick up the CBR650F from Honda's UK headquarters in the English Midlands. As is usually the case when I borrow a motorcycle, I ride my own bike –– a 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– to the location and leave it there for the duration of the loan. 

"We'll keep it safe, mate," says a Honda rep, nodding at my 'Strom. "We'll just leave her out in the street with the keys in; no one's going to want that ugly thing."

Honda employees are like this: confident in the superiority of their product. Arguably, they have a right to be. Every criticism I have of the CBR650F is something another rider would not notice or would be happy to overlook. The essence of the bike is sound; everything works.

Looking a little small for my 6-foot-1 frame, it is surprisingly comfortable and instantly familiar. Light enough for me to spin on the sidestand using one hand, it has a low center of gravity that gives the rider instant confidence. As a touring rig, it lacks in passenger accommodation –– the seat is reasonably sized but the passenger pegs are too high –– but offers plenty of places to strap/bungee luggage. Its tank is metal, which means it will take a magnetic tank bag.

Handlebars are clip-on, but above the triple tree. My ever-present TomTom Rider fits easily on the left 'bar.

Engine and Transmission

From the Midlands I face a 325-mile sprint to my friend Cam's house in Glasgow. I settle into an 80-mph cruising speed, with the Honda's 649cc inline four spinning at roughly 6,000 rpm. The bike's redline comes in north of 11,000 rpm, which is right about where it hits maximum power output: 86 hp. Maximum torque of 46.4 ft.-lbs. comes at 8,000 rpm.

At 80 mph, the CBR650F is smooth, with none of the buzzing that put me off inline fours a few years ago. It's smooth at slower speeds, too, and stays relaxed as you push toward a license ban. Honda claims a top speed of 140 mph, which aligns more or less with the straight-line 135 mph I was able to achieve. (Under closed-track conditions, of course...)

Power delivery is syrupy. How power can be like syrup, I'm not sure, but that's the word that comes to mind. Twisting the throttle, feeling the bike push forward without effort or hesitation, the image that comes to mind is of a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's pouring onto a stack of pancakes. My one complaint, which is not really a complaint at all, is that this syrup isn't hot.

Honda's damnably brilliant engineers have made an engine that doesn't really get warm under normal riding conditions –– unfortunate as I cross the border into Scotland. It starts raining. From Gretna Green to Glasgow I get drenched and my hands lose feeling from the cold; pressing them against the engine accomplishes nothing. 

The transmission, meanwhile, is totally Honda. It makes sense as soon as you get on the bike and it's so slick that above third gear it's almost like having a quickshifter. The engine pulls from low in the rpm range –– I'm able to leave it in sixth while lazing along with 30-mph traffic –– but in the coming days I will find I enjoy keeping revs high and slipping up and down the gears on Scotland's winding roads.

Ride Quality and Brakes

The CBR650F falls into the "reasonably affordable" category, so you get what you pay for in terms of suspension. For all-round road use, though, it is above average.

On the second day, Cam and I cut through Glencoe to Fort William, then push west to Inverness. It's a route that provides some good-quality high-speed bends. Cam, who likes to claim he's a riding novice (the man commutes 90 miles a day on a motorcycle) proves otherwise. His spirited pace allows me to really enjoy the Honda in its element. In Bruce Speedman's review he claimed pegs drag too easily, but for my tastes there is more than enough lean angle for anything you'd want to do amid the unpredictable nature and unreliable quality of public roadways.

Things only get unsettled once: when I suffer a brain fart and downshift two gears mid corner. My pride wants to place some of the blame for the resulting oh-my-god wobble on the suspension, but we all know that's unfair. 

The standard Dunlop tires do a good job of keeping me stuck to the road, even on the third day, when we spend several hours riding through unrelenting rain. During the deluge I am thankful, too, for the Honda's anti-lock brakes, which come standard in the European Union and are available as a $500 option in the United States. In dry or wet, the brakes offer plenty of bite without being overbearing.

Cam (right) and me before heading out on Scotland's North Coast 500 route. My clothes were still wet from riding up to Scotland the day before.

Comfort and Features

The bike's forward-leaning riding position means water dribbles into my gloves as we ride through the rain. I have ultra sensitive hands (I fell through the ice as a teenager and suffered nerve damage) but try to press on. My heart aches for the upright ergonomics, heated grips, and huge Givi AirFlow screen of my own bike.

The CBR650F is somewhat low-frills in that sense; it's a lovely motorcycle that goes fast, but don't expect bells and whistles. No slipper clutch (as I learned the hard way), no traction control, no rider modes. There is fairing to keep some of the weather off, but not much. The screen puts wind at my xiphoid process. The only way I can get completely out of it is to drop into a full belly-to-tank tuck, which feels silly at legal speeds.

When it's not raining, I'm happy to hang out in the wind, finding speeds above 60 mph to be preferable. The wind hits my chest and holds me up, taking the weight off my wrists. Lower speeds are tolerable. After four days on the road, I observe an overall lack of pain. No cramped legs, no aching back. My right wrist is just a teency bit tender but that has more to do with the fact this is not my usual riding position.

Cam and I are men who appreciate frequent stops for tea (such is the rock-n-roll lifestyle of married dudes, y'all), so I don't spend ultra-long stretches in the saddle, but there's never a point when my butt is wanting to quit. 

One of my two biggest complaints about the CBR650F is its dash. It looks too "built to budget." All the important information is there, though: speedometer, tachometer, trip meters, clock, fuel gauge, and so on. There is no gear indicator, though. The buttons to to use the dash functions are on the dash itself, rather than on the handlebar, which is annoying.

Mirrors offer a splendid view of forearms and elbows. Contortion is needed to spot what's actually behind, but when I find the right angle things are at least steady.


The whole purpose of this exercise is to prove to myself the viability of the CBR650F as an everything machine. I suspected it would be, and –– shocker –– it is. Most everything you could want to do on paved road can be done aboard this (relatively) cheap and cheerful Honda.

Down in England and through the gridlock of Glasgow the bike had filtered through traffic with stunning ease. Riding the NC 500 it's handled every sweeping curve, every hairpin turn, every wide-open straight, every crawling village lane. On the fifth day, we hit the infamous Applecross pass. The bike is so steady I'm able to do a section no-handed. This has the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of calming Cam's nerves (he's following me down and feeling stressed) he panics about the both of us.

Cam's riding a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which has a 20-liter (5.2 U.S. gal.) tank. The Honda has a 17.3-liter (4.5 US gal.) tank but the two of us are needing to fill up at roughly the same time. Ridden prudishly, the CBR650F's fuel economy is mystical. Ridden like a goof by someone who loves the tight roar of its engine at high revs, it still delivers a solid 190 miles before the fuel light.

Lubing the chain without a center- or paddock stand is a pain in the caboose, but people with far more expensive motorcycles face the same challenge. Cleaning the bike is simple enough, though I'd worry about the fairing's stick-on graphics coming off over time. Checking tire pressure is relatively easy; access to valves is uncomplicated and the bike light enough I can muscle wheels into position.

Inverness Castle marks the official starting point of the North Coast 500.

Build Quality

On the sixth day, Cam and I stop for lunch north of Perth. From here we'll go our separate ways: he back to Glasgow, me taking a slow route south via Northumberland National Park.

"So, what's your assessment of the bike" he asks. "Sick of it yet?"

"No," I say. "I'm pleasantly surprised. That dash annoys me. And I feel the frame welds and fairing decals are tacky, but that's really about it as far as downsides."

The decals are my second biggest complaint. They're just stickers, looking like they've been slapped on as an afterthought. In "matte gunpowder black" with "candy rosy red," though, the bike is overall gorgeous. With only one more day in my possession, I'm feeling sad about not getting to stare at it much longer.

That night I stay in a hotel and can see the parking garage from my room. I go back down to the garage and move the bike to the top level so I can sit and look at it from afar. There's something about the CBR650F's look that says: "Someone cool rides this bike."

Beyond the decals, all the bits and bobs are up to the standard I'd expect from Honda. Which means you could ride this thing around the world six times before needing to adjust the chain. OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift. Certain bits are plasticky –– this is an affordable bike, after all –– but it should all last a long time.

Final Verdict

My final hours with the CBR650F are spent covering 100 miles of motorway on an unusually cold morning. The bike is out-maneuvering everything else on the road and handily keeping pace with the Audis and BMWs that try to muscle their way down the A1. Zipping through traffic I'm able to hit gaps I wouldn't think of attempting on my own bike. The Honda has so much zing, fluidity, and ability to dance.

This bike really has done everything I've asked of it. I'll be honest: it hasn't cured me of my desire for technological and comfort whizzbangery, but I've really, really enjoyed my time on it. Meanwhile, the aftermarket offers all kinds of bike-specific accessories to help transform the CBR650F into something more tour-ready (add a set of Shad panniers and it will definitely look the part). No, two people wouldn't be happy crossing the continent on such a rig, but an individual may find it's everything he or she wants.

Cam (right) and me at John O'Groats – the furthest point north on mainland Britain.

I wish I could test this theory. I'd like to kit this bike out with hard panniers, a top box, heated grips, and a new screen, and ride it to Vladivostok. But too quickly I arrive at Honda HQ and am handing over the keys.

"I'll go fish your bike out of the [garbage] bin," the Honda rep says.

The Three Questions

1) Does the Honda CBR650F fit my current lifestyle?
For the most part, yes. If I had a version of this bike that was fully kitted out with all the aftermarket bells and whistles I could easily live with this thing as my everyday, all-the-time, go-everywhere bike. But it would fail completely to serve as transportation for both myself and my wife; our spontaneous trips to Devon would be no more.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Definitely. This thing has a fluidity and lightness that instantly feels right. It makes a great noise when revved hard but also provides effortless, genteel handling through urban situations.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. The Honda's a lot of fun, and if you hit it hard with an aftermarket-accessories hammer it could be damned useful, but it's simply not better than the 'Strom. That was instantly clear to me when I got back on my bike after riding through cold morning traffic. On the Honda I had been aching and losing feeling in my hands from the chill. On the 'Strom I was warm, comfortable, confident, felt I had power more readily accessible (the 'Strom hits peak torque at roughly 4500 rpm, after all), and, with the Givi AirFlow screen to protect me and my heated grips to warm me, I was much happier.