Friday, 31 May 2013

Pining for a Royal Enfield

I'm going a little crazy for Royal Enfields these days. If you're just joining the party, I've decided recently that I want a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI. Or something. To be honest, I'm having trouble determining what the difference is between a Bullet Electra EFI and a Bullet 500 EFI, apart from paintwork. I am inclined to say I'd be happy with either. Or, indeed, most other Royal Enfield models (1). Since I'll be getting a secondhand bike, I don't think I'll really have the option of being too picky.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a secondhand Royal Enfield costs roughly the same as a secondhand Honda Varadero, with both the insurance costs being similar, as well. Beyond that, however, the bikes are not really comparable. With the Varadero one gets modern technology but a weak engine. With a Royal Enfield one gets decades-old technology (2) but a slightly less weak engine, plus the benefit of riding a machine that looks really cool.

Sticking with Lucky's advice of choosing a bike that puts the biggest grin on my face, I find myself far more interested in the Royal Enfield. I suppose all of this is subject to change once I actually get a chance to sit on one, but already the arguments in the bike's favour are piling up.

For one thing, Royal Enfields appear to be durable as all get out. They are the go-to machines for a number of tour operators that lead motorcycle excursions in Nepal and the like. Go to YouTube and watch the countless videos of people putting the bikes through hell in the Himalayas. Although Royal Enfields are apparently items to be treated with kid gloves in other parts of the world (hence their low insurance rates in the UK, I assume) they are workhorses in their native India.

This is one of the reasons the bike hasn't changed much: it is first and foremost designed for a market in which the bikes are beaten up and used and used and used and used. It is expected that bits be relatively interchangeable, which is why some of the parts you find on a 2014 Royal Enfield are exactly the same as you might find on a 1954 Royal Enfield.

Royal Enfield's factory in Chennai, India, churns out roughly 250,000 motorcycles a year. With the company now expanding to African and South American markets there are plans to increase that to 500,000 motorcycles a year. That's a lot of spare parts. Not to mention the countless aftermarket companies, like Hitchcocks here in the UK, that produce and source their own Royal Enfield parts.

As an extension of that, the bikes are loved both by classic bike enthusiasts and as a traditional foundation for cafe racers, so the amount of mechanical know-how available online is extensive. With the bike not changing much over the years and dozens upon dozens of owners keen to share their knowledge I feel I'd have a fair chance of keeping the thing running. And possibly even daring to make a few modifications.

I want to wrap the exhaust pipe. I'm just stating that right now; I think it would look cool.

All of this backup and parts availability makes up for the fact that dealers of Royal Enfields are somewhat sparse in the UK. Indeed, back in February Royal Enfield lost its UK distributor for a short while, with a new distributor sorted out only a few weeks later. The fact that such a thing happened at all, however, strikes me as kind of sad. And perhaps it is an equally sad commentary on the state of motorcycling in the UK.

As you may able to guess from the name, Royal Enfield used to be a British company. It started building motorcycles in the 1890s. Over the years, Royal Enfield secured a number of contracts with military and police forces worldwide, which is what eventually led to the company being bought by the India government in 1949 as British operations faltered.

OK, true, Royal Enfield is, these days, in no way a UK company, but I still find it sad that the brand would fall from grace in its original country to such a point that a distributor would back out. Though, to be fair, it seems Royal Enfield's former distributor didn't fully understand the bike: what it is and what it can be. That erstwhile distributor, Watsonian Squire, seems to be primarily concerned with producing motorcycle sidecars.

And in as much, Royal Enfields in the UK seem to have fallen into the category of being quaint little things to be kept in heated garages by old men. By and large, the sportbike-driven motorcycle culture is dismissive of the Royal Enfield's heritage and tradition. I often get the feeling that most UK motorcyclists don't necessarily choose a bike based on their heart or similar intangibles.

And if that's true, perhaps it partially explains why motorcycle numbers are on the decline. It rains all the time in the UK. One needs to maintain a certain level of passion to stick with it through the constant rain and cold, and I'm not sure Britons have that.

Or perhaps it's just the Welsh. After all, the UK is home of Triumph. And if any company knows how to make a bike that is really cool it's those guys. But I don't often see Triumphs trundling past my office window in Cardiff. It is a load of SV650s and Fazers, the occasional R6 and a handful of Chinese 125s. Bikes that, for the most part, were bought because of price. And perhaps they're decent bikes, loaded with quality features that I won't have on a Royal Enfield. But I can't really get excited about them.

The Royal Enfield, however, I think about constantly.

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(1) It's a damned shame Thunderbirds aren't sold in the UK. I think they look pretty cool.

(2) I wonder how Royal Enfield will handle the 2016 European regulations requiring all bikes to be equipped with ABS.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Arai Helmets - Jay Leno's Garage

I really like the motorcycle stuff that Jay Leno does. I think because he's a little more calm about things; there's no thumping soundtrack; he doesn't dress like an astronaut; he doesn't try to make himself any cooler than he is (which, of course, is what actually cool people do).

I thought this video was a good follow-up to the post I had about wearing gear, but also it features some interesting facts about helmets that contradict what I've always been told by the ATGATT contingent. The first is that if you set your helmet on your bike and it falls off, it's not necessarily ruined. The second is that painting your helmet doesn't necessarily ruin it, either. 

Monday, 27 May 2013

What I want: Royal Enfield Bullet Electra

Many moons ago –– before I started this blog –- I created for myself a little ladder of motorcycle engine displacement that I intended to climb during my riding lifetime. The ladder went like this:
– Royal Enfield Bullet Electra
– Triumph America

Or, in other words: 125cc, 250cc, 500cc, 900cc, and 1800cc. I knew that I didn't want to just jump on some monstrosity of a bike and hurl myself at death, and reckoned that the safe way to get to that ultimate goal of being a Victory rider (1) was to do so very slowly. But, of course, now actually having had an opportunity to ride bikes (specifically a Honda CBF600), my attitude has shifted.

For one thing, I sometimes wonder whether I'll ever really need a massive 1800cc engine. Also, I find I am not at all averse to modern technologies such as ABS, traction control or even automatic transmission –– which is not something seen in my original cruiser-laden ladder. But most importantly, training on a 600cc bike effectively eliminated anything smaller from my wish list.

But lately I've found myself again pondering the allure of the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra, thinking: "Actually, perhaps I really would want one of these. I mean, a secondhand version might make the most awesome first bike ever."

I'll get to my reasons for thinking that in a second, but first let's just acknowledge the drawbacks, namely: even if you buy a brand-new Royal Enfield you are still effectively buying a motorcycle that is 50 years old. Drum brakes, a kick starter and just 27bhp.

I don't really understand engines or the terminology associated with them, but I have managed to work out that the number followed by "bhp" seems to have direct correlation to how fast the bike can go, even more so than the number followed by "cc." Both the Royal Enfield Bullet and the Honda CB500F are 500cc bikes, but the Honda somehow gets 47bhp –– some 20bhp more than the Royal Enfield Bullet.

Which, in simple Chris terms, means: "Bullet no go very fast." Indeed, in bhp terms it is far closer to the Honda CBR250R, which gets 26bhp.

(Feel free to try to explain to me how cc doesn't seem to have as great effect on bhp, and thereby top speed, as I would have thought)

But we're comparing apples to orange juice in pitting a Royal Enfield against a Honda. It's like asking whether Stone Cold Steve Austin is better than Nolan Ryan. Sure, both are Texans but there's no legitimate way to compare them. Equally, there's not really a fair way to compare a Royal Enfield motorcycle with almost any other motorcycle being built today (except, perhaps, a Ural). There are intangible qualities that can't be judged via numbers or side-by-side comparison. To me, the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra is a gorgeous machine, with a certain mystique and timelessness that supersedes its ability to get me stopped for speeding on the motorway. And as I say, lately I've been thinking a secondhand version might be an ideal first bike.

This thinking started after a conversation I had with Jenn (aka The Voice of Reason) in which she pointed out that, yes, I may be able to get a POS motorcycle at a low price but I need to realistically consider the costs thereafter: insurance, petrol, etc. That 23-year-old rat bike cruiser that only costs £500 might turn out to be impossible to insure, tax, and MOT. Let alone the cost of maintenance.

Maybe, I started to realise, it would be better to wait just a bit longer to get something a little newer and –– unfortunately –– a little less powerful. Smaller engine = smaller insurance payments.

So, I began re-evaluating what I want and need in the Right Now. Sure I may want a bike with which one could traverse the Cairngorms, but, realistically, I'm probably not going to do such a thing straightaway. As a new rider, I am far more likely to stick to roads where I will rarely, if ever, go above 60 mph. What's important is that I be on a bike.

A Honda Varadero (2) can meet those requirements easily, and its 125cc engine keeps insurance premiums low. This, I decided, should be the bike to aim for: a sturdy, simple 125 that allows me to ride in both an actual and financial sense. It's not my ideal situation but, hey, it's better to be on a bike than walking and dreaming of a bike.

But then I happened to spot something, thanks to the MCN reviews page: a Bullet Electra is in the same insurance category as a Varadero!

My mind went boom.

Then I noticed that the cost of a secondhand Bullet Electra is roughly the same as the cost of a secondhand Varadero.

My mind went boom again.

If we accept the theory that a Varadero is somehow an attainable bike for me, then so, too, is a Bullet Electra. Of the two, the Bullet Electra is somewhat faster, with a larger engine more capable of carrying a passenger, i.e., Jenn. And it is infinitely cooler, with a look and aura far more likely to make Jenn want to be a passenger. Additionally, the Bullet Electra's old technology is, according to at least one person who rides and loves the bike, something of an advantage because it is easier to tinker with.

I mean, hey, I already know how to fix drum brakes: my pickup truck had them!

So, this is my new daydream, the thing I think about all the time. I see myself putt-putting through narrow hedgerow lanes of the Vale of Glamorgan, or through the streets of Canton, Pontcanna, Roath and Cathays with Jenn holding on to me. Perhaps I'll occasionally even use the full of those 27bhp to get the bike onto the motorway for the short trip over to Bristol. And won't I look cool doing it?

–––––

(1) Keeping in mind I've never actually seen a Victory in person, let alone ridden one. So, my opinion of the bike is subject to change.

(2) Anyone else noticed that Honda seems to have become my measuring stick for all things motorcycle?

Friday, 24 May 2013

Going clutchless

Aprilia Mana 850
"Motorcyclists are so traditional. It's almost impossible to sell them something new." –– That's a comment made by Jay Leno in a recent episode of Jay Leno's Garage. He was talking about the Aprilia Mana 850.

The Mana is one of a slowly growing number of motorcycles with automatic transmissions. Apparently it has been around since 2008 but, not surprisingly, hasn't done well enough in the UK that Aprilia is selling them here anymore. The two things the British hate most are change, and spending money; so getting them to suffer the latter for the sake of the former is always going to be an uphill battle. 

And if their attitude toward cars with automatic transmissions is anything to go by, automatic bikes may never catch on over here. A few months ago, my wife and I rented a car to drive down to visit her grandparents in Devon. When I arrived at Avis to pick up the car I was upgraded to an Audi A4 because it had an automatic transmission. The fella at the counter told me other customers had refused the car because they felt they wouldn't know how to drive it, but he reckoned I'd be OK because I'm American.

As I was recounting this story to Jenn's family her grandmother, who may have had just a bit too much wine, butted in and asked: "Yes, dear, what is it about Americans and automatic cars? Is it because you're all lazy? The only people I know with automatics are little old ladies who, quite honestly, dear, probably shouldn't be driving in the first place."

I have no doubt most British motorcyclists feel something quite similar, if not vehemently so: that if a person has an automatic motorcycle he or she shouldn't be riding in the first place.

This hasn't stopped Honda from offering the DCT version of the NC700X in her majesty's United Kingdom, but it appears that much of the automatic transmission push is toward customers in North America.

Honda's new CTX700N
For instance: according to all the press I can find, there are no plans to bring Honda's new CTX700 range to Britain. Which is a shame, I think, because it is a pretty good-looking bike. And I think an automatic transmission would be a valuable asset when navigating Britain's inanely tiny, counterintuitive and outdated (1) road network.

When I wrote my post on the NC700X a while ago I said that I'd prefer one with a manual transmission. But lately I've been thinking: why would I prefer that? Is there really anything so wrong with an automatic-transmission motorcycle? Perhaps, in fact, such a thing is a really good idea.

With the NC700 and the CTX700, Honda seems to be leading the charge on this trend. And the general consensus seems to be that the manufacturer is targeting that ever-challenging on-the-fence demographic: those riders who would like to ride but...

That's a category into which just about all my friends fall. Every time I've mentioned this whole motorcycle journey to one of them they've confessed that they, too, have often daydreamed of getting a bike.

In the UK I think one of the things that stops them from fulfilling that dream is the cost and complexity of the European licensing process. In the God-Blessed United States of America, however, things are a little easier and Honda seems to think that the phrase that comes after, "I'd like to ride a motorcycle but..." is: "I worry that motorcycles are complicated."

They are. There's no denying that. Body popping your way into and out of junctions takes a certain Jesus Take the Wheel faith that many people don't feel comfortable with. Taking some of the dancing out of the experience might be just enough to encourage more people to give it a try. Especially when combined with other safety features such as ABS and traction control.

Yeah, British bikers complain about those things, too. For my part, however, I would love to have them on my bike. I like being safe, amigos. And what appeals to me about motorcycling is that simple feeling of being on two wheels: in the open, able to glide along almost by thought rather than action. That's a feeling not necessarily tied with jiggling my left foot and cramping my left hand.

Honda NC700X
My default response to a bike with automatic transmission is to think: "Well. it's a good enough idea. And if gets more people riding I suppose that may have an overall positive effect. But, you know, it's not for me."

But why not? Why isn't it for me? The more I think about it, the less I can come up with an answer. I've already said I'd love to have an NC700X, so it's not a matter of not liking the look of a bike in which automatic transmission is offered. And if I'm honest with myself, removing the Gear Change Two-Step from the whole process of riding would probably give me a greater confidence.

Living in the UK and working under my current budget constraints it's unlikely that I'll have the opportunity to make such a choice anytime soon, but if I had the option of riding automatic I think I might just give it a try. Perhaps, though, that's because I'm a lazy American. 

–––––

(1) Look at this map of roads that were built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago. Compare it with the major roads used in the UK now. Note that the routes are EXACTLY THE SAME.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Fox family and their wall of death

An interesting little film, worth the 14 minutes I think. It speaks to a different time, a different sort of England that existed before the country turned itself into America Part II.

UPDATE: I've taken down the video embed because the damn thing was playing automatically and I couldn't figure out how to make it stop. So, here's the URL instead. Go watch the film. It's worth your time.

Monday, 20 May 2013

How much is enough?

I've never really understood why a person would want to ride without a helmet. It's just one of those things that makes obvious sense to me; why wouldn't you wear a helmet? Specifically, why wouldn't you wear a full-face (or flip-front) helmet? I mean, even setting aside the totally useful safety aspect, a full-face helmet makes sense because it prevents you from taking small objects to the face, like insects or rock chips or litter.

Plus, high-speed wind makes your hair all poofy. It's not like you're going to come out looking any better than had you worn a helmet. And the latter ensures that you don't arrive at your destination with a bee embedded in your cheek. A bee to the face, y'all. No one wants that.

Well, actually, it seems that some do. All across the United States, there are organisations that work hard to protect motorcyclists' right to consume dragonflies at 80 mph. In the great state of Wisconsin -- home to McCarthyism and the highest number of binge drinkers in the country -- the badly named motorcycling group ABATE (1) takes great pride in keeping helmet laws at bay. Despite the fact that three out of every four motorcyclists killed in Wisconsin accidents were not wearing helmets.

This article suggests ABATE uses underhanded lobbying to achieve its goals but the thing that irks me most about the group is its name. Why would you give your organisation a name that sounds vaguely like a solitary sex act? What names did they go through before arriving at that one, I wonder. How about ALINGUS or UTTSEX?

I digress. The point is that, in general, American motorcycling attitudes toward safety strike me as a bit silly.

But often I feel the prevalent attitudes here in Britain are a step too far in the other direction. Here, the motorcycling press is dominated by racing wannabes who insist upon dressing up like astronauts and who will claim with no apparent irony that a Victory Judge is not a proper bike (2). Helmets are legally required and there is forever talk of making certain protective clothing equally compulsory.

It is said that if you turn up at a UK motorcycle testing centre without protective clothing (jacket, gloves, boots, trousers and high-vis vest) they will refuse to give you the test, despite the fact that such clothing is not required. I'm inclined to believe that is true because when I first took the Mod 2 the examiner grumpily pointed to my trousers and said: "That's not protective gear."

"No," I said. "These are just waterproofs. I've got Kevlar jeans on underneath."

He gave me a look that communicated to me he doubted the veracity of Kevlar jeans and later flunked me.

My feelings on all this are mixed. On one side I can see the value of safety clothing. It is a fact of motorcycling that people sometimes go down, and they often have a lot less trouble getting back up if they're wearing good gear. But on the other side I feel that placing so much emphasis on safety gear can ultimately hurt motorcycling by making it feel too exclusive.

I mean, if I am taken by the idea of the open road and you tell me first I need to invest several thousand dollars/pounds on making myself look like a member of Daft Punk it's going to dampen my spirit. Equally, I'm likely to get spooked at the thought of why I need so much gear; the constant yammering and horror stories may lead me to feel that sliding across the road is far too common an occurrence for my tastes.

The truth is that although bad stuff does sometimes happen, it doesn't always happen. The British ATGATT mentality could lead a novice into thinking otherwise.

But, then, a body covered in road rash is equally dissuasive. And it's important that riders have a reasonable understanding of what they're getting themselves into. Where to draw the line?

For my own part, I like riding with a helmet. Even in my short riding experience I've had things plink off it, so I feel it is a wise choice. Additionally, I wear a scarf (to protect the skin of my neck from windblown items), a leather jacket, gloves, Kevlar jeans and a pair of kick-ass boots. If I had the money, I might buy something like the BMW Summer 2 trousers that is protective but not comical. I think all that gear might make me ATGATT by US standards but there are plenty of UK bikers who would ridicule me into the ground for being too lackadaisical.

How about you? What do you wear on the road? What's "safe" in your opinion? And what's over the top?

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(1) ABATE stands for "A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments," which is a name that has the two-for-one effect of both sounding really gay and really crazy.

(2) I will never stop hating you, Liam Marsden.

Friday, 17 May 2013

What I want: Victory Judge

Would you like some awesome with your awesome?
Yeah, I'm not really sure who they're trying to sell to, either. I imagine at least one member of the marketing team for Victory Motorcycles has a mullet, and that all of them can sing Bob Seger or Bachman Turner Overdrive tunes from memory. Victory's headquarters is in Iowa, after all. And its parent company is on the frontier of outstate Minnesota (1).

Victory's advertising strategy is frequently outdated and sexist. And it's difficult to guess who, exactly, is being targeted with crap like this. Stereotypical Harley riders? Guys who live on 1980s action-adventure movie sets? Even Harley realises there's not much to that market and has (wisely) broadened its focus. Is Victory trying to garner those last few big-bellied weekend road pirates who have yet to have hip operations?

Rather than trying to garner Harley's sloppy seconds, Victory should be focusing on the fact that it has a superior product: a legitimately American motorcycle that is made of awesome. The Victory Judge is my money-is-no-object bike, the machine that I see myself riding when I daydream of being like the Road Pickle kids. 

I mean, just look at it. Take away the idiot image that Victory is trying (and failing) to sell, and look at the motorcycle itself. It looks good, it sounds good, and by every account I've seen or read it is great to ride. I think one of the best testaments to the Victory experience is this video of an Australian fella test riding a Vegas 8 Ball and loving it, despite being a sport bike rider (he even earns himself a speeding ticket).

And to speak to the bike's reliability, this dude rode a Vegas 8 Ball from London to the Iraq border and back –- 13,000 miles in total. With at least 1,000 of those miles being on dirt roads.

There is so much wrong with that name, by the way: Vegas 8 Ball. Why, Victory? You're a company from Minnesota/Iowa. Why not show a bit of pride in who and what you are? The Victory Judge is a good enough name, I suppose, but why not something truly local like the Victory Hiawatha? The Victory Hawkeye? Seriously, yo. The Victory Hawkeye. That is a bad-ass name. One that fits a bad-ass bike.

As I say, I like to daydream of owning a Victory Judge, strapping a bit of gear to the back and setting out to navigate the great American rivers of concrete. True, I've never seen one in the flesh, so it's possible I'd change my mind, but my gosh is it a beautiful thing.

I'm not entirely sure what it is about the Judge that appeals to me more than other Victory models. All are effectively the same bike, with a 1737cc engine (106 cubic inches) and similar frame. I can't really see why you would pay you would pay £5,000 more for a Vegas Jackpot (idiot name!) than for the Vegas 8 Ball. Apart from the fact that the dude in the Vegas Jackpot promotional photos is clearly riding through downtown Minneapolis.

And perhaps therein you can see one of the biggest appeals of the bike to me: it's made in the region in which I am forever pining to return. When I imagine myself on a Victory Judge, I imagine myself first and foremost riding up to my best friend's cabin in Forest Lake, Minnesota. It is an American motorcycle that comes from the part of America I know and love. And, yes, that is a bit overly sentimental and patriotic, but I don't care. I love these bikes and I want one. It is a bike that definitely passes the Chris Jericho test.

It will be a while, though. At the moment I am some £11,000 short of its asking price.

–––––

(1) Minnesota, of course, is my adopted home state. I was part-raised in the Twin Cities, the region's cosmopolitan centre. For us Cities kids, the great spaces of Minnesota that are not within 45 minutes drive of either downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul are known as "outstate." As with Ireland's concept of things beyond The Pale, anything outstate is a hinterland: a lonely agrarian wasteland of classic rock and the previous decade's fashions.

Monday, 13 May 2013

What would I do if I could do?

A 1990 Virago I saw auctioned on eBay.
I bid £400 for it but was unsuccessful.
And another thing is that I don't really like the look of sport bikes.

Oh, I should probably back up that train of thought a little since you're not privy to the conversation that's been running in my head the past few days.

In my previous post, I talked about the dead-end feeling of not having a bike, nor the money for a bike. I ended the post, though, with the observation that –– with a bit of effort –– I can probably dig enough from my very tight budget to have £500 by the end of the summer. I name that figure because it seems to be the watermark on eBay and BikeTrader for bikes that (allegedly) run. And, indeed, it is an optimistically low figure, with a more decent choice of bikes found at the £900 mark.

"Well, you know, if the bike actually runs, why not?" I've been asking myself. "The point is to be on a bike, and if it's a POS, well, that's just storytelling fodder."

Afterall, my first car was a rusted-out 1969 Ford F250 that I bought for $300. It held up for about a year before I sold it off for scrap. But a year is a year, right? And thanks to that old truck I learned a lot about working on cars because I had no fear of permanently messing things up.

In my present situation I don't need a bike for commuting; I don't need something I can depend on to take me to Spain or some such thing. Sure, I'd like something like that, I'd love something trustworthy and reliable. But reliability costs money and I don't absolutely need it right now. In my present situation, I probably wouldn't do rides much greater than 30 miles –– mostly down to Southerndown or up to the Brecon Beacons. Bristol occasionally, or perhaps Abergavenny.

My bank gives me RAC coverage for free, so if I broke down there'd be someone to come pick up me and the bike. And if the bike decides not to start one day, I live within pushing distance of a small motorcycle garage. With the most important thing for me at the moment being the simple act of being on a bike, why not buy a POS?

That's the argument I've managed to build up over the previous few days. Hitherto, I think I was too locked on the issue of quality and everyday reliability. In March and April I had interviews for jobs in Bristol and Swindon respectively, and imagined myself using a bike to commute. For that sort of journey I knew I would need something I could 100-percent depend on, and which preferably had antilock brakes. But with no such job opportunities on the horizon, I can shift my focus and dramatically lower my standards.

A 1982 Yamaha XJ650 rat bike advertised for £600.
Note the seat consists of electrical tape.
So, after a long conversation with myself I started dwelling at the bottom end of the classified ads, looking at what is (and isn't) available. Doing so has introduced me to a world of sport bikes from the late 80s/early 90s, and adverts so badly spelled as to be almost indecipherable. Old sport bikes, yo. Or bland all-rounders dressed up with sport fairing and terrible "sport" paint schemes. Honda CBRs, Yamaha Fazers, Suzuki SV650s, Kawasaki ZZRs and on and on and on. This is clearly the kind of bike that Britons like. Indeed, some refuse to accept there can be any other kind of machine; a blogger for Motorcycle News recently suggested a Victory Judge is "not a 'proper' bike."

(I now refuse to read MCN as result of that comment)

And certainly I can see the appeal of a sport/sport-like bike. When it's new. But when it's 30 years old, its fairing cracked and faded, its technology now awkwardly out of date, and its look so painfully stuck in a specific era, my emotional response is: "No thanks."

To me, those bikes just don't look cool. They don't meet the Chris Jericho test.

Chris Jericho is quite possibly the greatest professional wrestler of all time, and he said the key to his incredible success was developing a character that guys wanted to be like and girls wanted to be with. When I'm on a bike, ideally, that's how I want to feel. 

When I was learning to ride, in shop windows I caught vision of myself on the CBF600s my training school used, and I wasn't ticking the boxes. Maybe other people would, but I didn't. I didn't look sexy or threatening; if I saw me riding past, I wouldn't turn gay for me. Sure, I'll happily suffer such a fate if my bike's got ABS and 70 mpg. But without it, it becomes a thrift store Cosby sweater whose irony I am unable to appreciate.

So, I find myself looking at old cruisers. The pickings are incredibly slim. But maybe, maybe I'll find something. And then won't I look cool standing on the roadside, waiting for the RAC to come pick me up?

Friday, 10 May 2013

OK, now what?

Let's go back several months to when I first started this blog, where I identified the three things that were standing between me and taking to the road on a motorcycle. Namely: lack of a UK motorcycle license; lack of money; and lack of support for the idea from my wife.

Much to my surprise, the last of those issues was the first to be resolved. Jenn came on board very quickly once she saw that it was something that meant a lot to me. When I had first started talking about motorcycles one could have described her attitude as "vehemently opposed." Without being willing to admit she was doing it, she seemed keen to draw a line in the sand on the issue and declare that ownership of a motorcycle was infinitely selfish and should fall into the same priority list as ownership of a private island.

Jump forward from that point several months, however, and her attitude had changed. On the day I finally passed the Module 2 exam, one of the first things she said was: "Now we need to get me a helmet and jacket, so you can take me places."

I had thought getting Jenn on board would be the hardest part of all this; it turned out to be easiest. Meanwhile, the part I had felt would be most straightforward, the exam, turned out to be incredibly challenging. But, as I say, the obstacle was finally overcome last week. That leaves just one thing standing between myself and taking to the road:

Money.

Which is an obstacle that is never easy, for anyone.

I simply don't have the money to buy a motorcycle. I'm trying, but can't seem to get anywhere. In the past few months, I've managed to get interviews for three different jobs, each of which would have resulted in a yearly pay increase of at least £8,000, but have each time been passed over. The emotional effect of all this defeat has been pretty devastating and the end result is that I still don't have a bike.

Don't get me wrong here. I suspect that from my What I Want posts a person could be led to believe that I'm being picky, that I've got my heart set on owning a brand new bike as my first. Not at all. I'd settle for a 13-year-old Yamaha or what have you, but even there I do not have the cash. Presently, I have just £350 that could be put toward a bike -- money I have managed to squirrel away bit by bit since December. At my present rate of saving, I will have enough for the aforementioned Yamaha in October 2015.

I feel I'm stuck at the bottom of a pretty high wall here and I can't figure a way over it, which is frustrating, to say the least. I worry about skills loss, and thereafter a loss in confidence and willingness to get on a bike. I am afraid of slipping into whatever it was that prevented me from riding after I got my U.S. license at age 18. 

There are a few dealerships around that have demo bikes. For example, I know that Thunder Road has several demo NC700X bikes, and that Suzuki has a number of test ride events taking place throughout the summer. Kawasaki also allows people to book test rides, as does Yamaha. But these are resources that I suspect will dry up very quickly, and it's certainly not the best way for a person to go about gaining the hours of experience that one wants and needs as a new rider.

I have seen bikes offered for as little as £500, which I could probably put together by the end of the summer, but these machines are more than 20 years old and have upward of 80,000 miles on the clock. I suspect I would almost instantly regret buying such a bike, as its demands would far outstrip my mechanical and financial abilities.

I feel stuck. Grounded. I've got my motorcycle license. But now what?

Monday, 6 May 2013

Shooting your own foot

It doesn't really make me feel much better, but I suppose it's worth pointing out that I'm not the only one. The United Kingdom's ridiculously expensive and arduous licensing process creates problems for thousands upon thousands of other people. To the extent some have clearly decided it's not worth it, which at best is a shame and at worst is an incentive for illegal behaviour.

The other day I happened to be looking at statistics from the Motorcycle Industry Association and was struck by the numbers given on test pass rates. In the 2008/2009 financial year, some 70,000 people earned a motorcycle license in the UK. That was before the current style of testing was introduced. 

In October 2009, the two-tier practical test was brought in; a single exam was broken into the Module 1 and Module 2 nonsense I've been going through lately. The new system had an immediate impact. The number of motorcycle licenses earned in the 2009/2010 financial year plummeted to just 30,000. For the next financial year things improved to 35,000 people passing their test –– still only half of those that passed before the change –– and things have remained more or less the same ever since. 

I would expect to see a further drop in the 2013/2014 numbers thanks to additional changes that were implemented in January of this year. Those changes had little affect on people such as myself taking a Direct Access route but made it even more difficult and impractical for a person under the age of 24. The United Kingdom is regulating motorcycling to death.

This is a truth evidenced in the numbers of bikes sold each month. MCIA statistics show sales have been steadily plummeting in the past years, with the only strength coming in sales of bikes that are 125cc or less, in other words, the bikes for which one needs only a day of training to ride.

No doubt this is why almost every motorcycle you see in London has L plates. Those people are avoiding the bullshit of the system by simply getting their CBT and leaving it at that. They will quite possibly never need the additional power afforded by larger engines and as such beat the system by staying in a permanent learner status (one can renew his/her CBT every two years indefinitely). Outside of London people are choosing to beat the system by simply ignoring it.

Thanks to my numerous failures I've had the opportunity to meet and chat with a lot of people going through the training process, and I've found that I am in the extreme minority in not having spent time riding a motorcycle unlicensed. It turns out to be a very common practice, with riders relying on the fact that police forces are too thinly stretched to do a great deal of traffic enforcement.

So, consider the situation being created: 

Potential riders who are rational and law-abiding look at the system and think: "No, it is vastly cheaper and easier for me to simply get a car driver's license and leave it at that." 

Meanwhile, some who still want to ride are choosing to do so illegally, a behaviour that suggests they are less likely to be well-trained or safe. It's a fair assumption that these are the riders most likely to be involved in or cause accidents.

So, the reputation of motorcycling continues to slide downward because it becomes ever more a hobby for the inconsiderate and criminal. No doubt government will respond to this with even more stringent regulations, which will, of course, only exacerbate the situation. I feel so frustrated and angry about the whole thing, especially when you look at riders' groups like the BMF and MAG, who dedicate their time to complaining about to possibility of having to keep their bikes well-maintained.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

FINALLY!

Myself and Curtis, who also passed.
I passed. Finally, I passed that damned Mod 2 exam and I am now fully licensed to ride a motorcycle in her majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as anywhere else in the European Union (1). I cannot tell you how relieved I am.

To some extent it doesn't quite seem real. I had started to feel that I was just forever going to be trapped in a loop of taking and failing the Mod 2 exam –– a kind of crappy, two-wheeled Groundhog Day that doesn't end with my getting to shag Andie MacDowell. When the examiner told me I'd passed I found myself just sort of looking at him, half thinking: "Well, that doesn't sound right."

But that said, I had a feeling this morning that things would go well. Right before bed last night I was watching "Fast N' Loud" and when I woke up in the morning I decided I would try to channel the cool of Aaron Kaufman.

"That's who I'll be on the bike today," I told myself. "I'll dig down to my Texas roots. I will be cocky/cool about this and I will pass."

And with each step it seemed luck was just a little bit on my side. The T-shirt I randomly pulled from my chest of drawers was the same I happened to be wearing the day I met Colt Cabana (2); it was also the same T-shirt I'd been wearing when I passed my Mod 1 back in March. When I got to the training school, where we meet before riding out to the DSA test centre, I was allocated a different bike. It was still a Honda CBF600 but one that was in far better shape than that which I had always ridden before. Surprise, surprise: a clutch that isn't poop helps to improve your riding.

The day itself was perfect from the start: warm, and sunny enough that I had to wear sunglasses. Within an hour, I was taking off some of the layers I had on and this left me feeling a little more agile on the bike, if that makes sense.

This was a feeling enhanced by the fact that the sunglasses I was wearing were the ones I use when bicycling. Not because they look cool but because they fit right in my helmet. The unexpected side-effect was that now I was seeing everything around me in the same tint as when I cycle to or from work. My commute takes me through busy city streets and I have taught myself to just tackle them with arrogance. Having on the same sunglasses helped put me in that mindset.

The examiner seemed to be in a good mood because of the weather and I managed to get him talking about his personal motorcycle as I put on my gear. Charm works, y'all. Every Texan knows this. I have no doubt it is what resulted in him completely ignoring a slightly risky manoeuvre I pulled straight out of the test centre.

Or perhaps he was happy to see me moving with such confidence. The Mod 2 exam is basically just a 40-minute ride around a city –– Newport in this case –– with a bloke telling you what to do over a radio. My taking a small gap in traffic resulted in he and I getting separated, so I was just sort of driving around on my own for a bit. I suppose that shows the confidence they want to see: that I know what I'm doing and that I do it even when there's not an examiner on my ass. 

We moved along here and there and everywhere. At one point we came to the same spot where I had previously failed the test: a strange sort of junction that requires one to stop on a downhill slope. In that previous attempt I had made a bad call in attempting to stop for a light that had just gone yellow. Doing so, however, had resulted in my accidentally crossing the white line. This time I had the advantage of being stuck behind a bus and, as such, approaching the junction extremely slowly. Again the light turned yellow on me but this time there was plenty of time to stop.

The test seemed to drag on and I thought to myself: "Assuming you hold it together, I'm pretty sure you've passed. He wouldn't keep you out this long if you'd already failed."

At the thought of that, something in me just relaxed, and I found myself riding along singing "Have Love Will Travel," by the Black Keys, at the top of my lungs. I was in the middle of an exam, y'all, and I was singing. I got into it so much that I was actually bobbing my head whilst sitting at a traffic light.

"Whoa, that's a little too much," I thought, restraining the rock-out moment.

But already luck had stepped in to distract the examiner's attention away from me. Another motorcyclist had pulled up alongside him and was chatting with him. The two were lost in conversation.

Eventually we returned to the test centre. We stepped in the examiner's office and as I sat down he said: "Well, I'm very pleased to say you passed, mate."

"Oh man," I said. "I could hug you."

"Well, I'd prefer that you don't," he said.

–––––

(1) And, of course, I was already licensed in the United States. I am licensed to the wazoo, yo.

(2) I had damaged my finger the day before and when he shook my hand it hurt like hell, but I just grinned a fanboy grin and suffered through.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Ready

I like to do things by repetition. That is the way I learn, the way I perfect things. I do them over and over and over in my own time, at my own pace. That's how I taught myself to speak Welsh, for example. I downloaded a single lesson and I spent the whole week running through it, breaking it down, saying things to myself over and over and over -- as I ran, as I drove to and from work, as I showered, as I lie in bed at night.

My pace has not always matched those of others. This is one of the reasons I struggled in school. I'd miss an assignment, or not complete one in time, then another would pop up. And another and another. I'd slip further and further behind, get frustrated and think: "Forget it. I'll talk to girls instead."

But when I get the handle of things, I do them well. That is why I have a masters degree in Welsh. But it is something I accomplished more at my own pace. In the British university system one has just a single exam or essay that determines the grade for an entire semester. It is even less stringent at the post-graduate level. So, I was able to spend months and months pushing toward a goal, always working, always doing.

When I think about it, I was the same at age 15, when I had my learner's permit. For those of you playing along outside the United States, a person can get his driver's license at age 16, but he or she is allowed to drive under the supervision of another licensed driver from the age of 15. I got my permit on my 15th birthday and insisted that my dad allow me to drive him home. Thereafter I did little else but create reasons for my parents to have to go somewhere and for me to serve as chauffeur. I started going out with a girl in part because she had a car and she let me drive her around. So, when my 16th birthday finally came along, and I was eligible to take my driver's test, I felt ready.

My third Module 2 exam is tomorrow. And I have to admit that, in my gut, I don't feel quite as ready as I'd like. I feel confident; I have all the skills; there's nothing I feel that needs to be addressed before I can safely and reliably take to the road on my own, without having some bloke shouting in my ear. But I don't quite feel ready.

I haven't had the opportunity to prepare in the way that I am most comfortable. I haven't had the chance to ride day after day after day after day, haven't had the opportunity to transform a task into an innate ability. The fact is, that's just not possible in this scenario. I have had roughly 30 hours of on-bike time, spread out over a space of almost three months. If I were in the United States, I'd feel confident taking to the road and could be pretty certain that already I am more skilled and aware than any number of "squids" sharing the road with me. And, indeed, I feel equally confident here. But I don't quite feel ready to test myself by the standards of the British bullshit machine.

What else is there to do, though, other than try? I can't roll time backward and build up a wealth of experience back in the States. I can only go forward. Even if I'm not ready.