Thursday, 20 February 2014

A bonny adventure awaits

Lake District National Park
When I first applied for my current job, the phrase that stood out to me most in the job description was: "Occasional travel required." My mind looped and soared on the implications of such a statement, because I have always wanted a job that demanded I not stay in just one place. Unfortunately, it turns out my business travelling is rather less occasional than I would like, but, hey, I still get paid to go awesome places.

And in May I'll be going several awesome places back to back, which is resulting in the potential to have quite an awesome adventure. I plan to take my bike. 

This will be my first trip to Scotland
I generally think it's a bad idea to mention one's employer on one's blog, but I may have slipped at some point or you may have guessed, so I should stress that standard policy in my office is to travel as sustainably as possible. More often than not, this translates into our getting places via trains and buses. But in working out logistics for this particular trip I've figured out that it will be cheaper, more efficient and thereby create a lesser carbon footprint for me to travel via motorcycle.

Sorry, I just felt obligated to point that out. Anyhoo, in May I'll be heading to Lake District National Park and Perth, Scotland, thereafter. If you're not too hot on British geography, the Lake District is in the northwest corner of England, and Perth is roughly 200 miles further north. Heading there and back (making a deliberate detour through Northumberland National Park) will see me tackling a hearty 1,000 miles. 

For those of you playing along in the United States, that round trip from Penarth to Perth and back is roughly the same as the distance from Bloomington (Minnesota) to Bozeman. Or Nacadoches to North Charleston. It is 200 miles greater than the distance from Portland to Provo, and double the distance from San Diego to San Francisco. It is a long-ass stretch, in other words, and will require back-to-back days of riding, as well as covering one-day distances greater than I've ever done before.

I have for a while been working to improve my riding endurance but now I have a specific reason for doing so, as well as the challenge of planning for a big road trip. I've got a solid three months to plan this trip, but even with all that time I feel a little overwhelmed and don't really know where to start. That's where I'm hoping your advice will come into play.

I'm incredibly excited, as I've never really had a chance to explore either place and the conferences I'm attending will allow me to do that. In total, I'm going to be away for eight days. Though, obviously, I won't be riding for the majority of those days. For these conferences I'm going to need business attire, clothes and gear for hiking, and casual clothes. That's going to eat up a lot of space on my bike, so I've decided not to attempt camping on this particular trip.

I probably don't need to pack this much.
Where I'd like your advice is on what else to bring. Rain gear, obviously. And chain lube. I suppose it might be a good idea to bring a tire pump. What else, though? What makes sense, and what should I leave at home?

Additionally, on one day I have no choice but to tackle 250 miles. So, I'm wondering how best to prepare. (Keep in mind that travel time tends to double in the UK over what it would be in the United States, because of the poor state of our roads)

So, what would you do? What would you avoid doing? I'd like to know.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Ride review: Triumph America

2014 Triumph America
Find yourself a sofa -- the comfier the better. Take a seat on the edge of the cushion, in such a way that sweet tushy of yours is supported but your thighs are not. Keeping your feet flat on the floor, now recline your back until it just barely touches the back cushion, but do not put any of your weight on it. At this point you should find your abdominal, back and neck muscles straining to support the weight of your torso. Welcome to the strange core workout that is riding the Triumph America.

It breaks my heart to tell you of how unpleasant is the experience of riding an America. I would almost prefer to lie, or narrowly focus on good things whilst conveniently ignoring any negatives. Like the seat. Golly, that seat is comfy. Oh so lovely and comfy. Sure, it is angled in such a way that you need the abs of King Leonidas to be able to sit on it for more than a few minutes, but in and of itself, it is a great seat.

The reason it breaks my heart to speak ill of the America is that I have loved this bike from the very moment I saw it. Before this blog even existed, the Triumph America was at the top of my wish list. The image of the America served as a nucleus around which my plans to get a bike were formed. Then, about a year ago, I spotted its almost identical twin, the Triumph Speedmaster, in a car park in Bristol and the beauty of the machine almost spoke to me.

The Speedmaster became a go-to dream bike. Search through this blog and you will see it mentioned over and over again -- even more than the Victory Judge or Indian Chief Classic. I love the look of that machine; it is a piece of art. And it was the Speedmaster that I had asked to ride when I went up to Bevan Motorcycles recently. But they didn't have a demo Speedmaster available and offered the America instead.

I happily agreed. After all, the Speedmaster and the America are almost exactly the same bike. Even more so than the Victory Judge and the "new" Victory Gunner. Basically, the only differences are paint and chrome. But because I did not actually ride a Speedmaster, I am going to cling to the desperate hope that it is still, somehow, the perfect bike for me. Whereas the America is not.

In fairness, you could resolve the America's seating issue by simply forking out the extra cash to get a different seat -- one with a back rest, perhaps. There are plenty of aftermarket options available. But the discomfort of the standard ergonomics seemed to open the floodgates for me. Slogging through corners and feeling the ache in my lower back intensify, I found myself having flashbacks to riding the Harley-Davidson SuperLow 883 and the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200

In those test rides there had been some intangible thing that had kept me from thinking, "I need this in my life." I loved them, but did not really find myself thinking seriously about replacing my Honda CBF600SA, as I have with the Triumph Bonneville. That intangible thing is this: I don't like cruisers.

Gasp.

I remember exactly where I was when those words formed in my head. Trauma has burned the moment into memory; I almost pulled to the side of the road and wept. Because it is not really that I don't like cruisers, but that I don't like the way they handle. As things to look at and hear, I love them. But as things to ride, I find them awkward and unpleasant.

In fact, so strong is my love for the cruiser aesthetic that I am refusing to accept my own conclusions. I have decided that it is not that I don't like cruisers, but that I don't like cruisers in Britain. Roads here are surprisingly narrow, crowded and in increasingly poor condition (a). Here in Wales, I am willing to bet, not a single road exists that offers a full mile of straight.

So, when you look at a bike like the Triumph America, the clue is in the name: these are machines made for a different country, a different continent, a different attitude. A place of grids and straight lines, where a large hunk of metal with all the responsiveness of a sedated horse makes sense. Take this motorcycle to the smooth, straight back highways of Minnesota or Texas or the like and it will be comfy bliss (assuming you have a backrest).

Only good on British roads if those roads have been closed
for photography purposes.

In another place, the America would be a lot of fun to ride. Gears are announced with a reassuring "clunk" and there is a comforting grumble within the bike's stock exhaust. It is loud enough to sound like a cruiser but not so much that it hurts the ears or will damage neighbourly relations. Sitting behind the enormous chrome headlight and gripping the bike's wide bars, I felt a bit like Flash Gordon on his weird flying motorcycle thing. The machine has a commanding presence.

The engine's power is similar to that of the Triumph Bonneville, which is not surprising because, you know, that's what a Triumph America is. Indeed, in some circles the America is known as the "Bonneville America." The engine is exactly the same and pulls with with the same useful strength. You have roughly the same amount of torque as with a Harley-Davidson Sportster but it is delivered in a more pleasant way; you don't feel as if your arms are going to be ripped from their sockets; motorway speeds are comfortably achieved, maintained, and exceeded.

At that speed, the bike made my heart ache for the wide concrete rivers of home.  This thing would be so wonderful to ride up to my friend's cabin in Forest Lake, Minnesota, gently navigating the I-35 up from my parents' house in Bloomington, or even trundling up via Highway 61. In the clogged tributaries and streams of Britain, though, constantly shifting was not made easy by the America's stiff clutch and occasionally hard-to-find shifter.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the speedometer, dashboard information is placed on the tank, where it is completely invisible to a rider in motion. What's the point of having a neutral light if you have to be stopped and staring straight down to see it?

Although the bike's weight and bulk made me feel a little more authoritative on the road, it did not leave me feeling as if I could tackle the road with authority. The brakes required more force than I would have anticipated, and on one occasion I found myself floating out into a roundabout because the bike simply was not able to stop in the space I had given it.

And it was more or less at that point that I gave up on the America. In another roundabout I stalled the engine trying to get the bike to jump too quickly from the line and I learned it has a rather stupid safety feature of not being able to start when in gear -- even though I had the clutch pulled in. So, I had to stare down at the tank and dance the shifter until I found neutral, then start it up and put it into gear, by which time the tiny window of opportunity to enter the roundabout had passed and the patience of the driver behind me had utterly dissipated.

I felt frustrated and completely deflated. Maybe my expectations had simply been too high. Having been so near and dear to my heart for so long, maybe no machine could have actually lived up to what I had hoped for the America. But at the end of the ride I found myself quite happy to get off and walk away without so much as a backward glance.

So, you can guess it doesn't fair well in answering my three question test:

Does it belong in my garden?
No. I'd love for it to be there, for me to look at, but it would almost never get used. This is not a bike for this country. I don't fault Triumph for that. In their launch of the latest Thunderbird models they have flat out said they are targeting the United States with their cruisers and aiming to one day be the no. 2 company in the cruiser market there. That's fine. More power to them. And if you are reading this in the United States, I'd suggest giving the America a test ride (just make sure you allocate plenty of space in which to stop). In Triumph's home country, however, these bikes are not fit for purpose. 

Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. That may surprise you to hear me say that. Objectively, though, I enjoyed riding the America. It was a huge disappointment for me because of what I wanted and what I expected, but in and of itself the riding experience is a lot of fun. The engine is smooth and powerful, but just better enjoyed in a standard Bonneville.

Is it better than my current motorcycle?
No. It sounds better, has a (potentially) comfier seat and looks cooler but it is outperformed by my Honda in all the ways that matter to a person riding bad roads on an overpopulated island. In terms of braking and manoeuvrability it is even outpaced by the Harley-Davidson Sportster.

Maybe the Speedmaster is different. Maybe, somehow, it doesn't feel as heavy and the riding experience is more nimble. Maybe, somehow, it stops better. Maybe. Perhaps, though, I'll just hold onto the dream of it as a perfect bike, rather than ever test riding one and risk learning otherwise. The America was enough heartbreak for now.

___________________

(a) Seriously, roads here are awful and many councils have admitted they are simply giving up on maintaining them.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Ride review: Triumph Bonneville


"OK," I said. "I want one."
"Well, you know, maybe you should ask your wife first."
"She loves Triumphs," I said.
"Still, Chris. You should give it a think. Go home, discuss it with your wife, give yourself a chance to think clearly. After all, this is one of Triumph's most popular models; there's plenty of stock available."

The voice of reason in that conversation was Drew, the salesman at Bevan Motorcycles. He was doing his best to talk some sense into me after my test ride of the 2014 Triumph Bonneville. I was wild-eyed and yammering like a teenage boy who has touched boobies for the first time. This, my friends, is what the Bonneville does to you. It is an instantly rideable, instantly enjoyable, instantly lovable motorcycle that surprises you in just how good a simple motorcycle can be.

The Bonneville, of course, is a storied machine that's been around in one form or another for 55 years. It is a classic. Partially because of that, some part of me was expecting the Bonneville experience to be equally "classic" -- and "full of character," and various other cliches that are tactful ways of saying "not terribly pleasant."

Another reason I thought this is that the Bonneville produces the same amount of power and torque as the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200: a bike I absolutely loved riding but which had a few "character" issues that would make it difficult for me to love in the long term. Specifically, I am thinking of how unpleasant was riding at high speed, and the Sportster's ergonomic ability to make me sore in all kinds of places (knees and back, primarily).

The Sportster, too, has a heritage extending back to the late 1950s. So, I suppose that's what I was expecting when I hopped on a Bonneville and set out on a quick tour of the Vale of Glamorgan last week. But it turned out to be something rather wonderfully different. The Bonneville is nimble, fun and sexy, feels lighter than its weight would suggest, and is just so damned easy to ride.

Over and over, when the bike leapt to well above the speed limit, when it flowed through curves, when it danced through traffic, when it cruised at 70 mph without strain, I was hit by the impression of just how easy it is to ride a Bonneville. This is what motorcycling is supposed to be. Rather than asserting your will over the fire-driven dandy horse -- as was my experience in riding Harley-Davidsons and is even the case when muscling my Honda CBF600SA through certain tight spots -- you simply connect with it. You think; it does. Simple. Beautiful. Easy. Indeed, those three words sum up the Bonneville perfectly.

Simple

The stock Bonneville is, admittedly, a no-frills affair. You get wheels, an engine, brakes, a seat and not a great deal else. The dashboard consists of an analog speedometer face, within which is contained a small digital odometer. That digital display has two trip settings and a clock. Also within the same face is a tiny low-fuel warning light. Next to the round face are four lights to tell you: when you are in neutral, when your turn signal is on, when your high beams are on, and when you're running low on oil.

There is a tremendous selection of aftermarket goods available for the Bonneville, so a tachometer can be easily had for those keen to spend a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros more.

The aftermarket caveat applies to every aspect of the bike, but in stock form the Bonneville also lacks any wind protection. However, I found this to be surprisingly less bothersome than I would have thought. Perhaps because of the seating position I felt the wind most at my stomach and did not feel a need to keep a death grip on the bars. Leaning forward just slightly made it even more tolerable and I felt I could comfortably handle a solid 40-60 minutes of nonstop motorway riding before needing a tea break. By comparison, I would expect to last 60-90 minutes behind the windscreen of my CBF600SA.

The brakes consist of just two discs -- one up front and one in back -- and there is no anti-lock option available. This is probably my greatest concern about the Bonneville, but the brakes perform so well that I find myself willing to overlook it.

The single seat offers plenty of room to move around when riding, and for a human-sized passenger. It's a good bet passengers will feel more comfortable on the Bonneville than on other bikes because most will be able to touch their feet to the ground. However, it has to be said that the seat is quite firm, as are the standard shocks. I deliberately hit pot holes on my test ride and can confirm that doing so is not terribly pleasant. As a regular cyclist (on a road bicycle that has no suspension), I didn't find it unbearable, but those of a more sensitive nature may want to factor in the cost of a new suspension when considering this motorcycle.

Beyond a grab rail on that seat there aren't a great deal of places to strap things to the standard Bonneville. But, again, the aftermarket comes to the rescue with endless racks and sissy bars and panniers.

Beautiful

There's no denying that the Bonneville is a joy to look at. It is a machine that elicits a sort of warmth and approval from everyone. Or, at least, that seems to be the way of things in Britain. It has a certain quality that draws the eye, that makes you want to trace the lines of the frame and fenders and handlebars. It is the sort of bike that men speak to and whisper "baby" at: "Come on, baby, let's show 'em what we can do."

Jay Leno often says he prefers a motorcycle you can see through, meaning that it is uncluttered by body work, and that is certainly true of the Bonneville. The parallel twin engine serves as a showpiece, with the exhausts swooping forward, then dipping below your feet. Indicators and lights have utilitarian beauty. Everything is there because it's supposed to be. Even when it's not; the carburetors are purely aesthetic on this fuel-injected bike.

I found the sound of the exhaust to be delightful: growling enough to let me know I'm on a motorcycle, to send those silly manly shivers up and down my spine, but not so loud or obnoxious that it would upset my 75-year-old neighbours.

Easy

The Triumph Bonneville has an incredible get-on-and-go quality. With anything -- a car, a motorcycle, a bicycle -- there is a certain space of time in which you adapt from one version to the other. For the Bonneville, that adaptation time consisted of seconds. Everything was just there, it just worked. It felt right. It was instant zen.

The bike weighs 225 kg (496 lbs.), roughly the same as my Honda CBF600SA but somehow manages to wear that weight so much better. That is true both in terms of handling on the road and in physically moving it about. After the ride I hopped off the bike without putting down the kickstand; the bike started to tip but I caught it, one-handed, and comfortably pushed it back upright from an angle that quite possibly would have been the point of no return on my own bike.

And, as I say, the same lightness shows up on the road. Corners and curves were easily navigated; roundabouts suddenly became fun. When I wasn't aiming at pot holes for the sake of testing the suspension, they were no trouble to dance around.

In city sections, filtering was so natural it felt almost like filtering on a bicycle. Jumping from the line (i.e., accelerating from a traffic light) put me well ahead of traffic and out of danger, and did not require rapid gear changing. First gear goes a lot further than on my existing bike, probably even further than I realised because I never heard the engine strain.

Getting up to motorway speeds was, in fact, easier than on my bike and holding that speed put no strain on the engine. Drew, the aforementioned level-headed salesman, made the comment that the Bonneville can "cruise the ton all day" and I'd certainly believe it. I pushed the bike to 90 mph at one point (a) and could tell the engine still had plenty more to give. The engine was not screaming, the way a Sportster does at such speed, nor was there any noticeable vibration (beyond the obvious vibration that would occur on any object travelling that speed).

I felt confident the Bonneville would have no trouble delivering Jenn and I to the beach or a country pub. With a little aftermarket love, it would be equally up to the task of carrying me across the length and breadth of Europe. And certainly I wouldn't be the first one to try such a thing. In looking more into Bonnevilles I find that quite a few people choose them as touring bikes.

And in that sense the Bonneville is easy to transform into whatever motorcycle you want it to be. Need a bike that makes you look cool? This is it. Need a bike you can beat to hell going back and forth across continents? This is it. Need a bike that can zip you through traffic and tiny filtering gaps? This is it. Need a bike that won't look silly in 10 years (as opposed to any sport bike)? This is it. Need a bike you can actually afford? This is it.

Only two complaints

As I alluded to above, the Triumph Bonneville is not the perfect motorcycle. My main issues with it are:
1) I don't own one (yet)
2) Anti-lock brakes are not available.

But for me, the overall experience of the bike is so incredible that I find myself almost willing to overlook my set-in-stone rule for bikes and brakes. I felt totally confident in the Bonneville's standard brakes and I am notoriously cautious in my riding. Perhaps. For such a wonderful machine, perhaps I'd break my old rule...

So, that brings us to the three questions that must be answered in any ride review:

1) Will it fit in my garden?
Effectively this is a question about practicality, i.e., am I able to incorporate this bike into my existing lifestyle? But whether you want to interpret the question literally or figuratively, the answer is yes. It is small enough and manoeuvrable enough to fit into the tiny space that is my garden shed. It is adaptable enough that it can fit my lifestyle.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Oh, hell yeah, it does. Salesman Drew had to calm me down. I spent the evening afterward showing pictures of the bike to my wife. I am sitting here, several days later, still grinning.

3) Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. There are a few points my current bike could score on a stock Bonneville in terms of heated grips and wind screen, but these are items that can be added. Beyond that, the only other sticking point is anti-lock brakes. But some part of me feels that perhaps the reason I've been so religious about ABS is that, deep down, I've not really felt 100-percent in control of my CBF600SA, especially in terms of its top-heavy nature. The Bonneville, meanwhile, feels lighter and made me feel more confident. Additionally, it is a better-handling motorcycle than my Honda, the pull of its engine is more thrilling, and its sexiness is infinitely greater.

The Bonneville has shown up quite a few times on my What I Want list. Now that I've finally ridden one I am very, very, very seriously considering taking it out of the realm of wishing and into reality...

_______________

(a) If you are a member of South Wales Police, this is a lie told for entertainment purposes only. I never exceed the speed limit.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Daydreaming my next bike: A real motorcycle

The goal...
Not too long ago, my wife and I were talking about setting goals. In trying to inspire my imagination on the subject, she asked me what bike I'd like to have. I danced around in my head for a few seconds and because I had recently written that post about sport tourers I found myself telling her I'd like a BMW F800GT.

"What is that?" she asked. "I don't know that one."

I quickly did an internet search on my phone and pulled up a picture.

"That looks like the bike you already have," Jenn said. "What about a real bike? A proper bike? This is supposed to be about setting goals; don't sell yourself short. What bike do you really want?"

I blinked at her for a moment. This exchange had illustrated two things:
  1. I don't aim high enough in my thinking. That is true in terms of how I think about my future, how I think about my career, how I think about my physical and mental self, and even in how I think about motorcycles. I mean, a BMW F800GT? That's the apex of my daydreaming? What?! Fuck that noise.
  2. My wife doesn't see my present bike, a Honda CBF600SA, as a real bike. I get what she means, and deep down in my soul I know she's right.

But does it come in green?
"Well, I guess the bike I really want is an Indian Chief Classic," I said.
"That's one from Minnesota?" she asked.
"Yeah, well, the parent company is based in Minnesota. The bikes are made in Iowa, but close enough. Both places are cold and flat, populated by heavy drinkers."
"What's it look like?"

I produced an image on my phone.

"That is a nice motorbike, babe," my wife said. "I really like that one. Can you get it in green?"
"Uhm, I think it's just black or red," I said (though you can also get it in blue). "I guess you could probably pay someone to paint it green."
"You should get it in green."

I've told the story before that, as a little girl, Jenn had a prized sticker book full of motorcycles. She had a soft spot for her father's Honda CB650, of course, but the machines she loved most were the classic Triumphs, especially those painted in British racing green.

So, yes, one day –– some day –– I will get an Indian Chief Classic and I may even have someone paint it green. I will put Jenn on the back and roar the engine and listen to the little girl in her shout and howl and cheer as we ride into the wind.

But, in the immediate future, although I accept the truth of what I just said about aiming too low in my thinking, it may not be realistic. I'm simply not in a position to produce the £18,500 that is the Chief Classic's asking price. Maybe in a decade or so. Right now, though, aiming for something that costs about £10,000 less strikes me as more do-able.


So, when I think about my next bike, what my next bike will actually be, whether it's a cruiser, or a sport tourer or an adventure motorcycle, I tend not to want to stray too far from that "realistic" price point. Fortunately, there are a lot of classically styled motorcycles that are up to the challenge. And for the last of my posts looking collectively at my biking options, that's the style I'll be focusing on.

There's a fine line between a cruiser and a classic/retro/standard, and some of the bikes I've added to the list below tend to straddle that line. Some are better than others in performance, but all are beautiful –– real –– machines. Here's a look:

Price: £5,199
Basic stats: 399 cc, 23 bhp
About: A cute little machine that for me produces memories of 1970s/1980s TV shows like CHiPs, in which plucky teens manage to escape comedy villain drug dealers by riding through a mall or across a baseball field. Yamaha pitches the bike as a platform upon which to build all your hipster dreams. Well, they don't quite phrase it that way, but I'm pretty sure that's what they mean when they say: "Create your own cafe, bobber or scrambler." Interestingly, though, Yamaha seems to miss a trick in failing to offer an accompanying accessory list. As stock, the SR400 strikes me as a good little bike for in-the-city commuting, though not much else.
Would I buy it? No. Only 23 bhp and equipped with a drum brake at the rear, it is just a little too genuine in its old-school credentials. And my financial perspective means it's very hard for me to appreciate a bike that can't serve a wide range of purposes. I can't afford a stable of bikes; I need a machine that can serve me in all paved situations, be it country lane or high-speed motorway. Also, I am not really creative enough to build my own cafe, bobber or scrambler. I never have been; this is why Lego is a bad choice when considering birthday presents for me.

Royal Enfield Continental GT
Royal Enfield Continental GT
Price: £5,199
Stats: 535 cc, 29 bhp
About: You could pick any of Royal Enfield's roster for this classics list. So, I went with the one I like most: the Continental GT.
It is Royal Enfield's newest model –– in both real and design terms. Other REs have been around more than half a century and remained relatively unchanged in all that time. Certainly there's a romantic appeal to such an idea, to the extent that for a while I was very seriously considering getting one. However, that was when I was weighing it against the possibility of a 125cc Honda Varadero. Despite being the newest of Royal Enfield's lineup, the Continental GT holds proper old-school credentials with its single-cylinder air-cooled engine, kick starter, and 1960s styling.
Would I buy one? No. Sure, it looks the part, but the reporting is that it is under-powered and quite possibly incapable of "doing the ton," which, of course, is the philosophical purpose of any cafe racer. Additionally, it comes from a company with an unsteady reputation when it comes to quality. Some of the parts are said to be cheap, and it remains unknown as to whether the Continental GT will fall victim to some of the same horror-story flaws you hear about other Royal Enfield machines produced in the modern era (e.g, cracks in the frame). Additionally, it's clear Royal Enfield is selling an idea as much as they are a machine. The landing page for the Continental website is a collage of pictures in which the only things that are clear are the Royal Enfield logo and sexy people's faces. You have to click elsewhere to see the actual bike. It almost feels as if the Continental GT is a clothing line, with the bike serving as an afterthought.


Moto Guzzi V7 Stone
Moto Guzzi V7 Stone
Price: £6,932
Stats: 744 cc, 48 bhp
About: Hey, would you like some sexy with your sexy? Honestly, if you can look at this bike and not have some part of your brain yelp, "Me want!" you need to seek psychiatric help. You are mentally imbalanced; you are a danger to yourself and others. Because the V7 Stone is a sexy muthahugga of a machine. Of all the bikes on this list, the V7 Stone is undoubtedly the most art-like piece. There as an attention to just about every detail. That's it's Italian heritage showing, perhaps. The bike is unique in that the look-at-me air-cooled engine spins a shaft drive, eliminating the old-school tediousness of fussing with a chain. It has good brakes and, according to most reviews I've read, handles a little better than the bikes that compete with it in looks/price/power. There are conflicting reports as to the bike's reliability, however.
Would I buy one? Yes. I'd be just a little wary because the Moto Guzzi dealer network is a little thin. There doesn't appear to be a single Moto Guzzi dealership in the whole of Wales. But, hey, Wales is a great big poop hole when it comes to just about everything that can't be bought at Asda (the British face of Walmart). My only other concern comes in the fact that when I look at the bike on Cycle-Ergo.com, it shows my knees/shins banging up against the engine. I have heard that the V7 Stone isn't exactly tall-person friendly, so a test ride might clarify my view. 


Captain America astride the Harley-Davidson Street 750
Harley-Davidson Street 750
Price: £?,???
Stats: 749 cc, ?? bhp
About: I mentioned earlier the fine line between cruiser and classic/retro/standard. Let's imagine that line exists at knee angle: a bend of more than 90 degrees means a cruiser, and a bend of less than 90 degrees means something else. Based on that, the Street 750 is a standard. Or, at least, it is when being ridden by Captain America, and I'm perfectly happy to have Captain America serve as the definer of all things. How do you correctly load a stapler? The way Captain America does. What's the correct pronunciation of "poinsettia?" The pronunciation used by Captain America. So, if his knee angle suggests he's riding a standard motorcycle, head-on toward a giant hovering gun ship, the Harley-Davidson Street 750 is a standard.
The bike has yet to be released (and won't be in the UK until at least 2015) but Harley-Davidson is clearly expecting it to be a success and throwing the weight of its PR machine behind the project. I think a big factor will be how much power the 750cc engine produces. With a radiator, one would expect it to produce at least 55 bhp, but that would mean its outclassing the XL883, which is one of Harley-Davidson's best sellers.
Would I buy one? No. I've written about the Street 750 before and my objections to the bike have nothing to do with the existence of a radiator or the fact that it will be made in India. Harley-Davidson seems desperate to twist what the definition of "is" is and suggest differently, but, come on, we all know those are going to be India-made bikes. And that's OK. India is awesome. My problems with the bike are threefold:
1) Per a comment from Lucky, the bike's ergonomics suggest it is top heavy and awkward to ride.
2) A somewhat unofficial ride review of the 500cc version of the bike suggests it is like a match involving WWE superstar Big Show: lots of hype, but ultimately disappointing.
3) The more I look at this bike the less I like the look of it. That's purely subjective, I know, but when you're considering a classic/retro/standard a big part of the consideration is the way the bike makes you feel.


Kawasaki W800
Kawasaki W800
Price: £6,899
Stats: 773 cc, 47 bhp
About: Usually mentioned in the same breath as the Triumph Bonneville (see below), the W800 is the quintessential classic bike. Strangely, the bike is not available in the U.S.-market, where I think it could perform well. Americans take a certain pride in being an emotionally driven people and it's no secret they're the catalyst for the current classic/retro/standard craze. In the countries where it is sold the W800 has earned a decent following, with most reviewers making a direct comparison to the Bonneville. In recent years this comparison seems to have become lopsided, as the W800's power output has been reduced to make it adhere to A2 licensing standards. The engine is air cooled and the retro authenticity extends all the way to the bike's rear drum brake.
Would I buy one? No. Drum brake. Additionally it is less powerful than the Triumph Bonneville, doesn't carry the same legacy, and costs more.


Triumph Bonneville
Price: £6,549
Stats: 865 cc, 67 bhp
About: The very definition of a "real" motorcycle, according to my wife, the Triumph Bonneville is pretty much at the heart of the classic/retro/standard class, the way a Harley-Davidson is at the heart of the cruiser class: it is the machine by which all others are measured. Slightly notorious for a less-than-spectacular suspension, it is otherwise beloved by riders and motorcycle journalists alike.  Especially those that live in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One of my favourite tales is of the Bonneville owner who put too-loud pipes on the bike and found that even little old ladies were still giving him warm nods of approval –– such is the love of Triumph's old-school legacy.
Triumph Bonneville
The Bonneville has already shown up twice (here and here) on my What I Want list, not to mention the times it has shown up in the guises of the America and Speedmaster, which have the same engine. Time and time again it served as inspiration in my wanting to get my UK license and though I really do value my Honda CBF600SA, I'd be lying if I said I don't wish –– every time I ride –– that I had instead ended up with a Triumph.
Indeed, I may end up correcting that "error" sooner than expected. My wife, of course, is among the millions of Britons carrying a deep love of Triumph and she recently suggested I test ride a Bonneville. She didn't have to say it twice: that night I booked on for a demo ride. And since then I've been reading more about the Bonneville and falling even more in love with it.
An air-cooled twin, the stock Bonneville is, admittedly, a little no frills. It has that less-than-spectacular suspension, of course, and lacks a tachometer. Little things like clocks and gear indicators are equally nonexistent. But the bike serves as an easy platform to infinite modification. Type the phrase "Bonneville accessories" into Google and you will find company after company dedicated solely to helping you make your Bonnie exactly how you want it to be. It is a popular bike, so there are a lot of parts available.
And perhaps because of that it seems to be a frequent choice for long-haul riding. I had read reviews lauding the Bonneville's nimbleness in curves and urban situations, but in my recent research I have also found quite a lot of people who will just as quickly sing its praises as a means of getting from one end of a continent to the other.
Would I buy one? Yes. Have you read this blog? You bet your boots I'd buy one. Indeed, I get the shakes in thinking about my upcoming Bonneville test ride because I just may not be able to resist.


Indian Scout
Price: £?,???
Stats: ??? cc, ?? bhp
About: At the moment, the Indian Scout is nothing but a rumour. And not a very solid rumour at that. As best I can tell, only one media outlet is reporting that a new Indian Scout is in the works, but that's enough to get me excited. And when you think about it, the Scout is an obvious choice as Polaris-backed Indian expands its range. After all, Burt Munro's 1929 Scout is one of the most iconic motorcycles in history –– something Indian acknowledged in building its one-off Spirit of Munro motorcycle. What I'd like to see is something smaller and more affordable than the big, beautiful machine that sits at the top of my list of goals. If I could have my way, the Scout would be a machine to compete against the Bonneville or Honda CB1100 (see below) in terms of agility and price point. I'm perfectly happy for it to have a radiator, like the aforementioned Harley-Davidson Street 750, but I'd hope that more effort would be put into style and performance than with the HD. I want something that's really worth wanting. And like the Triumph I'd like the new Scout to be a proper all-rounder: the kind of bike you can ride to the bar to look sexy, or strap bags to it and follow the North Star.  
Would I buy one? Yes. Oh hell yes. All that gushing praise I spilled out for the Triumph Bonneville? Forget it on the day a new Indian Scout comes into being. Honestly, I love Indian motorcycles so much that I would be willing to pay a deposit on one today, right now, without any idea of what it will be or when it will be available. Just promise it will exist and take my money.


Honda CB1100
Price: £9,199
Stats: 1140 cc, 88 bhp
About: The CB1100 is kind of the motorcycle version of what happens when Mormons produce hip hop: there's a little too much dedication to message over medium. And what is the message of Honda, whether in motorcycles, cars or riding mowers? It's basically this: "We make efficient, reliable, modern products at an agreeable price."
You will note the absence of emotive words in that message. There is no silliness about freedom or personality or feelings. No, Honda makes objects that are designed to get you from point A to point B, and it sells 18 million such objects each year, thank you.
But you meet the nicest people on a Honda, and nice people want you to be happy. And, well, if you want a bike that looks like the thing your dad had to sell in order to pay for your MMR shots back in the 70s, OK. Well, maybe. Because Honda can't quite remember the bike your dad rode, so it's cobbled together a bike that's a bit like the radio stations your dad listens to: All the hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s and today!
It is a bike that lacks a certain amount of soul. In terms of efficiency and reliability the CB1100 is superior to most of the other bikes on this list, but it is down there with the Harley-Davidson Street 750 in lacking any real kind of soul.
Would I buy one? Maybe. Honda struggles a little bit in this genre of motorcycle because it can't quite let go of what Honda is to be able to embrace the coolness of what Honda was. And what it was is what it is: a company that produces efficient and reliable machines. In the 60s/70s/80s, from which the CB1100's style cues are drawn, those bikes were the most efficient and reliable around. They became cool through the power of hindsight. For example, in the present, Robert Pirsig's CB77 Super Hawk is cool; it wasn't in 1964. It was efficient in 1964; it isn't now. This creates a challenging dichotomy for Honda: how to put together a machine that is efficient and reliable by modern standards whilst still somehow capturing the unintended coolness of a machine that was only ever supposed to be efficient and reliable. By and large they seem to have aimed for the middle ground and hoped for the best.
All that said, I do like the look somewhat and I'm a proven sucker for efficiency and reliability. The question I have, though, is whether it all adds up to the price tag. I don't think it's £9,199 of coolness, and I don't think it's £9,199 of reliability and efficiency. But maybe, possibly, it's enough of both.


BMW R nineT
BMW R nineT
Price: £11,600
Stats: 1170 cc, 110 bhp
About: If Honda is struggling to cram together its modern and classic selves, BMW is making valiant efforts to offer a modern definition of "classic." The newly released R nineT (a homophonic tribute to the old R90 S) is very clearly a machine of the present day, but with a deliberate aim of becoming the sort of machine over which old men swoon and tell exotic tales. You can see that in the way they promoted the bike by taking Roland Sands and dudes from Blitz and El Solitario, and a few more whom I can't really name off the top of my head but recognise as gods of the custom-build scene, out to some scenic location to ride the bikes around and drink beer. One could argue that this is the new Scout as it should be, just made by a different company. It is beautiful, powerful, agile, and easy to customise.
The bike is not yet out but reviews are soaring in praise. Motorcycle News went so far as to suggest BMW had "completely nailed the modern rider's desires" with the bike. In talking about its ergonomics, VisorDown said "the bike was just too engaging for any trace of discomfort to register." 
Would I buy one? I'd like to. I mean, truth is, if I had nigh £12,000 I'd probably be spending it on a making a solid deposit toward an Indian Chief Classic, or perhaps on creating the most swagged-out Bonneville ever. I could buy two Continental GTs and ride them like a team of horses. But there's no denying the R nineT is a sexy thing. It's got a certain something that reminds me of the Arch KRGT-1 but, you know, cheaper and almost certainly more reliable. If anyone wants to give me one, I promise not to complain.


And that's the list. I've now gone through All The Bikes. All of them. There are no more bikes. Ever. I can pretty much shut down the blog now.

Erm, maybe not. Perhaps, though, I'll not do any more massive every-bike-I-can-think-of-in-a-given-class posts like this. They are a bit long. But, at the same time, I think they illustrate the underlying truth and philosophy of this blog, which is that motorcycles are awesome. All motorcycles. Even the ones with drum brakes.

That's a philosophy that I picked up from Jamie Robinson, of MotoGeo fame. I've mentioned many times before that the video of him exploring Sequoia National Forest was (and remains) hugely influential in my thinking about motorcycles. At the end of each video Jamie does, he stresses the value of simply getting on two wheels and going somewhere. It doesn't matter the two wheels, it doesn't matter the where, just twist the throttle and go.

For me personally, that philosophy is easiest to grasp when I think about cruisers or classic/retro/standards (can someone please tell me the real name for this class of bike?). That is a reflection of my perspective and my experience, or lack thereof, I know, but these are the bikes that get me the most excited. The bikes that make me giddy. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Robinson explored Sequoia National Forest on a Triumph Bonneville?

So, when I think of my top three from this list, the Triumph Bonneville comes first (with the caveat that it will be bumped down to the no. 2 slot as soon as the Indian Scout exists). After that, I'd choose the Moto Guzzi V7 Stone and the BMW R nineT.

What do you think? Have you ridden any of these? Are there any modern classic/retro/standards that I've left out? And if you could design the new Indian Scout what would it be?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Stuff I don't know: suspension settings

Random unrelated cool motorcycle picture
I may have mentioned before that I am a fourth-generation journalist. My great-grandfather was editor of a newspaper in Concho County, Texas, my grandfather was a sportswriter in San Antonio, my father was an anchorman in Austin, and I have worked just about every side of the field imaginable from North Dakota to California to Wales.

One of the little tricks you pick up with such a pedigree is the automatic ability to speak/write with an authoritative voice. When I talk about something -- pretty much anything -- I have a tendency to make it sound as if I really know what I'm talking about. Even when I really, really don't. I once managed to convince a friend that Jimi Hendrix was the original lead guitarist for Metallica.

It's a useful little trick that serves me well in job interviews or managerial situations, but it can backfire at times and result in my being totally ignorant about something that, really, would be helpful to know. A person will hear me speaking on a subject and assume I'm already aware of whatever fact they might have to contribute. Or, worse yet, I'll start to buy into my own nonsense, start to think I really am as knowledgeable as I sound, and I'll forget to ask questions.

I think the latter happened to me just a little bit in the past few weeks. I've been writing gear reviews and broad overview posts about given classes of motorcycle (eg. ADV bikes), and that has somehow accidentally given voice to that deep, dark Wes Siler that lurks within all of us and says: "I Know All The Things."

But then Bob Skoot happened to make a comment about his DL650 burning oil when being run at high RPM and I suddenly thought: "Oooooooooh. My bike does that, too."

Not too long ago I had discovered the CBF600 was a quart shy of oil. I filled it back up but I didn't take the time to ask myself why it was a quart shy. There are no signs of oil leaking from the bike, so where did it go? That is a good question to ask. If oil just sort of disappears from your bike, you really, really should understand the reason. You should understand why it goes and how fast it goes. Failing to do so could result in it being gone and your standing on the roadside in the middle of nowhere.

We could all stand to learn a little more...
But I didn't even think to ask those questions. Perhaps because, with the swagger of a whopping 2,700 miles of riding under my belt and a head full of words, I had unintentionally told myself I was a Knower Of All The Things.

I'm not. Not even close. I'm a newbie, and it's quite possible I will never know even as much as someone like Steve Johnson has forgotten (and I'm pretty sure he would tell you he doesn't know all that much).

The underlying purpose of this blog has always been about learning. So, I'd like to get back to that right now and ask you guys a question:

Suspension. What's the deal with that stuff?

According to my manual, the rear monoshock of my CBF600 has seven different settings. And the bike comes with a nifty little tool to allow me to adjust those settings. But I've never messed with them because I have no idea what I'd be trying to achieve. Nor how any given setting is supposed to affect the ride. When I try to read up on suspension settings I too quickly get lost in technical lingo and talk of sag and suggestions of having three blokes sit on my bike and blahblahblahblah white noise, and I end up needing a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

I am stupid, but I at least understand the concept of hard and soft. So, I'm hoping you can help me fill in the blanks:
- When I'm riding a typically uneven, pot-hole-laden British road my suspension should be _____.
- When I'm riding on the motorway at speeds up to 90 70 mph, my suspension should be_____.
- When I'm riding on a really curvy road my suspension should be _____.
- When Jenn joins me on the bike and we carry luggage my suspension should be _____.

I'd appreciate your help. Thanks.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Gear review: VikingCycle Hammer motorcycle jacket

An interesting thing about this particular gear review: I didn't pay for the gear myself. Normally that's not the case; in previous reviews, the stuff I've talked about is stuff I bought with my own hard-earned money. And often that can be an important factor in determining the real quality of an item: it may be good, but is it good enough for you to spend your money on it?

In this case, however, MotorcycleHouse.com got in touch with me and offered to send me an item if I'd take the time to review it. By effectively eliminating the question of whether I would spend my money on the item, no doubt they were hoping I'd see the product in a more positive light. I'd like to think, though, that I've looked at the item honestly and that this review is as truthful as any other I've done.

Please Hammer, don't hurt 'em.
The item in question is the Exelement VikingCycle Nomad USA Hammer motorcycle jacket -- it goes by a few different names. In all cases, it is a surprisingly affordable combination leather-textile jacket with incorporated armour in the shoulders, elbow and back.

And before we go any further, I should add another caveat to this particular review and admit that I haven't actually used the product. MotorcycleHouse.com sent a jacket that was much too large for me, so I can't reliably speak to its fit, nor can I say how well it holds up against the elements. I mean, if I were to put the jacket on and go for a ride, all I would report back is that the jacket ballooned up and I was cold and miserable. But I would report the same on even the most expensive jacket if it, too, were the wrong size for me (a).

In terms of how the jacket looks, however, and based upon what I can gain by putting it on and wearing it around the house, I can say that if it did fit I would expect it to perform agreeably on the road. 

For the ATGATTer in you...

The leather part of the jacket runs across the top of the garment, covering the shoulders, collarbone and neck. It seems to me relatively durable leather (i.e., not fashion leather) and within it is a certain amount of padding of the sort that might come in handy were you to be attacked by children with sticks. True, that's not a lot of padding, but in terms of clavicle protection it is more than exists in my current riding jacket. And underneath that padding is additional shoulder armour, though it does strike me as just a bit small.

The rest of the jacket -- from about the nipples down -- is textile, made up of 600 denier "Tri-Tex fabric." Good luck determining exactly what Tri-Tex fabric is, but I'd say a good bet is that it's a fancy name for polyester. It feels very much like the Cordura used in the motorcycle trousers I wear. There is always a certain exchange made when it comes to wearing textile: it simply does not hold up as well at high speed as does leather, but it is lighter, easier to waterproof, cooler and machine-washable. 

Within the arms of the jacket is reasonably thick armour for the elbow that extends a decent way down the forearm, and on the jacket sleeve there is a large elbow patch that Exelement's promotional materials claim is Kevlar. MotorcycleHouse.com does not make this claim. Whatever it is, it's at least one more layer at one of the most common spots to earn road rash. And I suppose one more layer of anything goes that much further in helping you to avoid turning out like this guy.

There is a large pad in the back of the jacket, as well, but again I'd put that into "protecting you from kids with sticks" territory. If you are concerned about back injuries, you should probably just splash out and get a back protector. Or volunteer to have the Canadian government infuse your spine with adamantium.

Both the shoulder and elbow armour are CE marked. The back pad is not.

Multi-season comfort

If the jacket were to fit me, there are a number of features to help fine-tune the fit. There is a snap at the neck to help keep the jacket closed. There are zips at the bottom of the sleeves and Velcro to cinch them at the wrists. Additional strips of Velcro help to ensure a good fit at the waist and and forearms (useful in making sure the elbow armour won't slide around in a crash).

Stop. Hammer time.
For cool-weather riding, the jacket comes with a zip-out quilted lining that I found to be quite warm. With the lining in, the jacket has four pockets, each about large enough to hold a mobile phone or wallet, etc., and two strange elastic straps that I suppose would be useful for holding shotgun shells. Because you never know when you're going to need to MacGyver your way out of a bad situation with some shotgun shells and a can of WD-40.

You will only be able to do that in the winter however, because you lose two pockets in shedding the liner. For additional comfort in warm weather, there are two subtle zippers on the chest and one large one in the back to allow air flow.

There is also a zipper in the lower inside of the jacket that would allow you to attach it to a pair of motorcycle trousers, on the off chance that your motorcycle trousers have the same zipper set-up as VikingCycle's jackets. Mine do not, and it is my general experience that such zipper set-ups rarely work across brands. 

Keep it slow

There are one or two things I'll admit I don't really like about the jacket. Aesthetics, first and foremost. The leather on the shoulders is a little too "Star Trek: The Next Generation" for my tastes. Whereas those stripes across the chest take me back to JC Penney in the 1980s, and that's not really a place I want to be. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it may very well be that some people would look at this jacket and think: "That is the new hotness."

And in fairness, the look of the jacket has grown on me somewhat since I first pulled it from the box. If I were to have spent my own money on this jacket I would have done so primarily for its safety features and the stripes are a part of that. The big white stripe makes you visible day or night, and it turns out that light grey strip is reflective, running all the way around the torso and down the sleeves.

And in terms of keeping safe, I'd say this jacket is best suited to urban commuting, or otherwise travelling below 45 mph. This is purely supposition but I'd be concerned that high-speed abrasion might too quickly melt the jacket's polyester.

Lastly, I'm not sure how long the jacket's main zipper would hold up. But then, you get what you pay for; this is not a heritage item. I don't think anyone sees this as something they will be passing on to their children in their will.
 
Affordable safety

The best gear is the gear you actually use. Is this jacket as good as, say, an Aero Leather Cafe Racer? Nope. Not even close. But the latter jacket costs $1,050 (base price). Whereas for that same amount of money you could buy this VikingCycle Hammer jacket, and gloves and a helmet and motorcycle trousers and boots and a brand new Honda CG110

In other words, the Aero Leather jacket is better, but you're not likely to go out and get one. And the jacket you don't have isn't going to be of any use to you in a crash. If your budget can only be stretched to encompass the VikingCycle Hammer, I'm pretty sure it's better than riding around with nothing more than a hoodie and a heart full of hope.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the start of this review: Would I spend my own precious money on this jacket? Because of aesthetics, the answer is no. But if I could find no comparable jacket within my price range (and it would be hard to find a jacket so good for so little), or if my tastes were such that I liked looking like a JC Penney kid from the 24th century, then, yes, I would definitely fork out my own cash.

And I'd feel OK doing it. The jacket is made in Pakistan, a country that earns a 4.57 score on the Democracy Index. That's not as good as the United States' score of 8.11 but more positive than China's score of 3. If you can't buy local, try to buy democratic.

MotorcycleHouse.com offers a pretty large selection of jackets on its website, which includes their exclusive VikingCycle range.

__________

(a) MotorcycleHouse.com seems to really pride itself on its easy returns policy, but my situation is rather unique in that I live on the other side of the planet from where they are based. I'm in the United Kingdom; they are in the United States. And sending packages between these two places is an arduous process. It took roughly a month for my jacket to arrive. That's not their fault; it takes about a month for anything to get to me from home. I once had a package disappear for six months. So, sending the jacket back and having the correct size returned would have taken at least until March. Obviously, this would not be the experience of someone living in the United States.