Monday, 31 March 2014

Patience is a virtue

You could have been mine...
I never really told the story of my almost buying a Bonneville, did I? Back in February, I took a test ride on the Triumph Bonneville and was instantly enamoured with the idea of owning one. Triumph's TriStar financing would have been necessary to make it happen. The sales guy drew up a quote for me and I went home to mull it all over. 

In my retelling of the test ride on this blog, I took a little literary license in expressing my enthusiasm. I would like to point out that, in fact, I had arrived at the dealership having already decided I would not make any buying decisions on the day.

Still, I did love the bike, and it took a while after I got home for me to get my head into a balanced state to really consider things. First off, there's that whole issue of financing; I'm not against paying for things on credit, but all those years I lived with a Mormon (they don't see debt as outright sin, but they're pretty strongly against the idea where it can be avoided) had their effect. Also there was the issue of no anti-lock brakes, and the Bonneville's rather stiff suspension. I waffled for days. 

Then it was announced that one of the people in my office was being made redundant ("laid off," for those of you playing along at home). My job, I was told, was safe, but I took the experience as a sign from Jeebus that it might be a good idea to hold off on big purchases for the time being.

A few weeks later, I took my trusty Honda in to have the brakes serviced. When I picked it up afterward, the mechanic complimented me on how well I kept my bike.

"Genuinely can't fault it, mate," he said. "You know, we kinda look for extra things to fix. This one's solid, though. You must tuck it into bed with you at night or something; she's like new."

This was, in a way, disheartening to me. Especially in the face of my desire to buy a Bonneville. I mean, yes, my Honda CBF600 is 9 years old, but it is in "like new" condition with only 11,000 miles on the clock. And, compared to the Bonneville, it is more powerful, it has better suspension and better brakes, and it has wind protection and heated grips. There is simply no good reason to rid myself of it but for the fact that I just really want to.

So, begrudgingly, I formulated a plan to put into a savings account the money that I would have spent on financing each month. Keeping in mind the nature of Hondas and my apparently excessive nurturing of mine, it is safe to assume that by the time my bike actually gets to the point where getting rid of it makes sense I will have saved up a deposit greater than the bike's present value. In other words, I should stick with the plan I had a while back of waiting until my 40th birthday to buy my next bike (I turned 38 last week).

Something worth waiting for?
Emotionally, I hate this plan. Me want new thing now. Me want buy new growly thing go BAHROOM! This is what I was trying to get at in my post about the Great Harley-Honda Dilemma. I think a lot of people read that I was pissing on a particular brand of motorcycle. No, the rules of this blog are that I will do my best not to piss on anybody's choice of machine (unless it's a Boss Hoss, in which case, you are everything that is wrong), and, in fact, there are many Hondas that I like. The dilemma is one of trying to come to terms with those conflicting emotions of wanting and not needing.

But there are some things that help me stay the course. Beyond simple financial sense, there are reasons to wait a few years, reasons to look toward the future. For example, from 1 January 2016, anti-lock braking systems will be mandatory on all motorcycles above 125cc in Europe. I know some readers feel I'm being silly in placing so much importance on that particular feature, but, well, I'm sorry. It's really important to me. And sometimes safety features have as much value in peace of mind as in actual use. Airbags, for instance. I have never had one deploy –– hopefully I'll never be in a situation where one would need to deploy. But that doesn't mean I'd buy a car without airbags. As Jesus is for the Doobie Brothers, safety is just alright with me.

With this in mind, as well as the knowledge/hope that I should be in better financial standing in two years, the imagination begins to stretch out a little. It mixes with emotion and delivers me again to the door of Victory motorcycles.

And as it happens, that company is giving me some good reasons to wait. I'll explain what they are in my next post...

Thursday, 27 March 2014

What I want: Honda NM4 Vultus

Honda NM4 Vultus
EDIT: This bike is set to arrive sooner than any of us would have thought. My local Honda dealer is already taking orders.

"Sometimes we make a certain machine simply because we can and because we want to." -- Keita Mikura, project leader for the Honda NM4 Vultus.

First of all, take a moment to think about just how bad ass that statement is. Sometimes Honda makes a certain motorcycle simply because it can. Because it is bigger and better than everyone else in the game. Who's this bike for? Who cares? Honda will build it just because it can. Has Harley-Davidson ever done that? Would it? Could it? Nope. Nope. Nope.

Honda can. Honda does. That is rock n' roll. That is Bob Dylan saying "Play it fucking loud" in response to the folk purists who called him Judas for plugging in his guitar. That is when arguments of the Great Harley-Honda Dilemma fall apart. Because maybe those of us who think Honda isn't cool are just so stupid and so stuck in a singular mindset we just can't see it.

And perhaps that's something to keep in mind if this blog post is the first time you've heard of the Vultus. I'll admit that my first reaction was something of a groan. I saw a little picture of the bike on the CycleWorld website when reading a ride review of the Harley-Davidson Street 750 (really a shame to hear the brakes are so crap), and I thought to myself: "What is that? I don't even."

But the next day, I looked at it again and I decided the Vultus is, in the craziest sort of way, a really cool motorcycle. Really cool. Take a moment to stare at it. Here's a large image of it: take a moment to really examine the bike. Look at every feature; it grows on you, doesn't it? After the initial visual shock something creeps into you and thinks: "Ooh, I want to ride that thing."

Shotaro Kaneda and his bike
Upon reading of the philosophy behind it -- that some dudes at Honda were sitting around watching Akira and thinking: "Dude, Shotaro Kaneda's bike is awesome. We should build that bike. No, dude, we should totally build that bike! Simply because we can and because we want to." -- I found myself liking it even more.

For instance, I like the idea of a lit-up dashboard. Perhaps it's a cheesy gimmick, but the Vultus has LED highlight trim on the dash that can be adjusted in 25 different shades to suit the rider's mood. That strikes me as pretty cool. I realised I like this sort of thing recently, when riding at night with my sat-nav on ("GPS" for those of you playing along in the United States). The eerie glow from the screen added to the feeling of being ethereal as I glided along the M4 toward home. I can just imagine sitting "in" the Vultus and speeding through the night with an LED glow just at the bottom of my field of vision.

Well, you know, speeding as fast as 54 bhp will carry you. The Vultus engine is the same one used in the popular NC series of bike (e.g, the NC750X): a 745cc parallel twin that's fuel-efficient and placed in such a way to create a low centre of gravity.

Like the NC series, the Vultus also comes with a fair bit of integrated storage. That huge front end is not just for show; there are compartments on either side of the fairing, one of which offers a 12v DC adaptor with which to charge phones or the like. There are also some pretty slick, seamlessly fitting panniers that can come with the bike, furthering the futuristic, covered-up look. It's hard to tell from photos whether it will also have the instead-of-a-tank compartment that exists on the NC750X and NC750S (a). If it does, this thing will be a beast for storage. And if all the bike's storage were not enough, imagine how cool it would look with a Kriega bag or two strapped to the back.

To fit the bike's futuristic look are a number of modern bells and whistles. Study the bike's dashboard and you'll see there are lights indicating it comes with anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control; heated grips are available as an extra. Honda's press release says the Vultus will get 66 mpg.

Coming in at 540 lbs., the Vultus weighs about 60 lbs. more than the NC750X, but with all that storage space I guess it's to be expected. And having kicked the tires of the latter machine, I'm pretty sure the Vultus' low centre of gravity will mean additional weight is hardly noticeable.

Honda NM4-02 -- the Vultus with panniers
All of this makes me think the Vultus would be the perfect tool for a road trip: fuel-efficiency and storage galore, combined with a massive front end to block the wind. Seating is feet-forward, so you very much sit "in" the bike in a cruiser-like, sitting-on-the-sofa position. If you've read my review of the Triumph America, you'll know I have my doubts about sitting in such a position because there's no support for your back. Honda has remedied this by having a passenger seat that flips up to serve as a backrest. Additionally, the backrest can be adjusted a bit to suit people of different heights.

Honestly, the more I look at this bike, the more I like it -- the more excited I am about the idea of it. I want it to exist now, so I can test ride one. Though, as I say, it took me a while to come around to that way of thinking. And perhaps therein is one of the most appealing aspects of the Vultus: for some people it is simply beyond their capacity for comprehension. It is future beat poetry and they will never get it. You can see this in the comments sections of websites that have done stories about the bike. Some people respond to it with such intense vitriol you'd think the Vultus had bullied them as a child.

It would be kind of cool to own a machine with that sort of punk spirit. Perhaps I'd add a different exhaust to give it a little more growl than Honda would likely allow such a machine to have. I could give it the Shataro treatment and put a load of stickers across that wide front. Rolling around on that thing, I would be pretty damned unique.

That all said, however, there are some possible drawbacks to this bike:

1) It has a chain. Look at this machine, yo. Does the chain look at all easy to access? Honda says in its media release that it is targeting young, tech-savvy types with the Vultus; is that really a demographic you think will want to get its hands dirty? By covering everything up, Honda clearly expects people to adapt a "take it to a mechanic" attitude toward maintenance and service. But does it actually expect people to go to a mechanic every 600 miles? This thing should be belt drive or shaft drive.

2) It has Dual-Clutch Transmission. I've written about automatic transmission motorcycles before and as I said then, I'm not inherently against them. In fact, living in a country where we are so tightly packed in that one is constantly shifting gears, I can really see the benefit of life without a clutch. Especially considering that Honda's dual-clutch transmission is not CVT; there are real gears and real revs and the real feel of a "real" motorcycle. In his review of the Honda CTX1300, Adam Waheed even laments the absence of DCT in that particular model, saying the feature offers "thrilling acceleration."
I've read positive reactions to Honda's DCT system in other reviews, as well. Plus there's the fact that if you really feel so inclined, you can shift the gears with buttons on the grip. In which case, really all you're doing is transferring control of the gears from your left foot to your left hand. But, still, there's some nagging part of me that persists in thinking: "Gee, I don't know..."
Maybe that's just me being an old man, lambasting the new or the different solely because it's new or different. That kind of mindset is how you end up with 90s nostalgia (b). Or maybe I'm not secure enough in my manhood and subconsciously believe that my ability to flick a piece of metal with my foot is a statement of virility. Whatever my hang up, I'd need a decent test ride to really make up my mind on DCT.
The dash of the Honda NM4 Vultus
My concern about the DCT on the Vultus, though, is simply in placement of the buttons. Take a look at the picture on the left; you may want to click on it to enlarge the photo to be able to study it. When you do, focus on the left grip. There, you see buttons for shifting up in gear (the button on the back of the housing which would be pulled with your index finger), high and normal beams, hazard lights, horn, signals, and down shifting. That's a lot of crap in one space.
If you've ever ridden a Honda, you'll know that the signal and horn buttons are pretty close together, and that signals are cancelled by pushing the button in. This means that if you are wearing winter gloves, or are just being a bit lazy, you will occasionally find yourself honking the horn to alert everyone that you've completed your turn, i.e., you accidentally push both buttons at once. So, what happens when the down shift button is there?

3) She's a big girl. According to the Honda media release, the Vultus is 3 feet wide from mirror tip to mirror tip. That's quite a lot of space, yo. Great for wind protection, but not so much for filtering. I suppose it won't matter in places like the United States, where the practice is no-go in 49 of 50 states, and will help add to visibility. But here in the Soggy Nations, one of my favourite aspects of motorcycling comes in being able to squeeze through traffic.

4) Only 54 bhp, though. I don't want to be a horsepower snob. The fact is, I'm not the sort of person who goes all that fast in the first place. I still have not pushed to the 100 mph mark. My CBF600 is fully capable of hitting t least 150 mph, but its rider is a little shy of such things. But, still. Only 54 bhp. With all its luggage and such, I'd expect to use the bike for road trips; would it have enough horsepower to manage long stretches of motorway/freeway? I'd like to see at least 10 bhp more, if not 20.

5) They should have kept the original name. Apparently, Honda originally planned to call this bike the Blackcrow, which is a pretty bad-ass name.


__________

(a) EDIT: I've found a photo that suggests it does not have tank storage but, in fact, just a gas tank.

(b) My Facebook is littered, nay befouled, by people I went to high school with incessantly posting links to witless Buzzfeed-esque lists positing the idea that the early 1990s were somehow the golden era of anything. When the fact is, it was a terrible, lulling decade for everything. No, genuinely, everything. Take music for example: things were so bad that we thought the discordant feckless caterwauling of Nirvana was cutting edge.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The great Harley-Honda dilemma

A group of Harley enthusiasts smash up a Honda.
No doubt the Honda still ran afterward... 
"Sounds to me the CBF600 has everything you want in a bike except for the image you seem to be looking for."

That's a comment from Steve Johnson in response to a previous post about reconsidering my opinion of the Harley-Davidson Sportster. It's always interesting when someone is able to do that: when they're able to deliver an absolute truth in a single sentence. When they're able to get at something about you faster and more directly than you could.

Because, yeah, what he said is pretty much dead on.

The other night, I found myself riding along the motorway in the clear quiet of late evening. It was the middle of the week, the moon was out, and I had the road pretty much all to myself –– to the extent I was able to relax a little, to expand my thoughts beyond the constant spinning of: "What's in front of me? What's behind me? What's beside me? How's the road surface? How fast am I going? What's in front of me? What's behind me? What's beside me? How's the road surface? How fast am I going? What's in front of me? What's behind me? What's beside me? How's the road surface? How fast am I going?"

I was able to look up at the vastness of the night sky, take in the gentleness of my Honda's 6,000-rpm thrum, appreciate the constant steady feel of the motorway, and so on. I was able to enjoy motorcycling on that very basic, "natural" level. And in that moment I looked down at the glowing dashboard of my bike and said with melancholy: "There's absolutely nothing wrong with you."

It was a statement made with a feeling of sadness because, even as I'll sit here and acknowledge that the bike I have is, technically, the bike I want, I'll also tell you that I am actively plotting to get rid of it. There's no reason to get rid of it. On paper, it ticks all my boxes. It can do all the things I want it to do, and it can do them well. But it lacks that something, that whatever it is, that je ne sais quoi.

I thought about this as I sped along the cold and empty M4: the dichotomy in my thinking about motorcycles. Ask me what I want in a motorcycle and I will usually end up describing something like the Honda CBF600 SA –– the bike I have. But if you change the wording of the question slightly and ask not, "What do you want in a bike?", but instead, "Which bike do you want?", then mention of the CBF600 and its ilk (such as the Yamaha XJ6 or Suzuki SV650S) will completely disappear.

This, I decided, is the Great Harley-Honda Dilemma. The battle between heart and mind, between art and reason, between style and substance. And it is a dilemma I find myself incapable of resolving. It is a dilemma that extends across every brand of motorcycle (would I prefer a Yamaha or a Moto Guzzi?), but that I think is best represented in the differences between those two massive brands sharing the eighth letter of the alphabet.

The Honda NT700V Snoozeville Deauville
A great machine, but not likely to help you score.
We're painting in broad strokes here, of course. But overall, Honda machines occupy that left side of the brain. They are machines –– things that do. And in the case of Honda, things that do quite well. A particularly keen long-time reader of this blog might have noticed that I no longer refer to my bike as "Aliona." It was a too-exotic name that just didn't fit. The CBF600 is a piece of machinery. It is an object of function with wheels and gears and metal and plastic and rubber. It sits without sentience in my garden until I make it do something. It is a large chunk of invariant mass, and nothing more.

In truth, the exact same is true of a Harley-Davidson. But it doesn't feel that way. A Harley-Davidson has a certain intangible something, or an idea of something –– a spirit. You may not like that spirit. You may think that spirit is one of corporate nonsense. But most people agree that there is something there, as if there is an extra, magical ingredient in the paint: an aura to which a rider can connect on varying degrees, depending on desire to connect.

That's a big part of what Harley-Davidson sells: story. Triumph and Indian do the same thing –– the mystique of "authenticity." Even when that "authentic" and "classic" American or British machine was manufactured last week in India.

I have a relative who fixes clocks for a living. People come to him with little boxes of gears and springs that are in some cases hundreds of years old and he returns them to working order. The other day he was telling me about how each of these clocks have a personality of sorts.

"I don't mean that you carry on conversations with them or any such thing," he said. "But it's as if they carry a residue of experiences. You get the same thing with old watchmaker's tools. Bits will have been worn away by human hands and in some inexplicable way you can feel the story of those hands."

This past weekend was the first time I had met this relative. He is the husband of the daughter of the wife of the uncle of my wife; it generally requires a very large family gathering to run across a relative so extrinsic. But my wife had been keen for us to meet because he, too, is a motorcycle enthusiast. Able to list off an alphabet soup of sport bikes he has ridden and crashed, he grew far more poetic in talking about the 1995 Harley-Davidson Low Rider that he had ridden from England down through France across the Pyrenees into Spain and back.

The New Harley-Davidson Low Rider
The brakes should be a little better now.
 
That Harley had a front brake that was "useless" in the rain and a rear brake that was "either on or off, no in between," but he loved it. That bike was more than a machine, it was a symbiotic narrative device telling a story about the rider, who was at the same time helping to write the story.

I sound like I should be working in H-D's marketing team, don't I? But there's a certain truth of it. That kind of motorcycle is one that is easier to make "your own." You see it in just the options available for customisation. The ways in which you can change the look of such a bike are practically limitless. For example, let's say I give in to my desire to buy a Sportster and thereafter decide that I, too, want to ride to the mountains of Spain. A quick look at VikingBags.com shows me some 54 different types of saddlebag to suit the Harley-Davidson XL1200.

Whereas there is just one universal saddlebag option for bikes like my CBF600. On a side note, Viking Bags recently sent me a set of those AXE saddlebags for my bike and I plan to use them on my trip to the Lake District next month. I'll do a full review of the bags thereafter.

Also, temporarily sticking with the whole saddlebag theme and the idea that the multifariousness of bags somehow equates to the dynamism of a bike's character, it's worth noting that Honda sells far more cruiser models in the United States than here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom and the corresponding luggage options for those cruisers are equally diverse.

And I suppose that speaks to a possible response to all this ethereal Harley blather suggesting that Hondas are without personality and spirit and story. First of all, there are many different types of Honda; perhaps I've just not encountered the ones that are true storytellers.

Or maybe Hondas simply tell a different story. Imagine two motorcyclists pulling up to a set of traffic lights: one is astride a brand new Harley-Davidson Road King Classic, the other is sitting on a brand new Honda F6B. Be honest with yourself: if you were told that one of those riders was an advanced riding instructor, which one would you say is which?

The Honda "spirit", I feel, is one of efficiency –– of having all the right tools in the right order. True professionalism. And I'll admit that appeals to me as much as the "Being your own person (in a very corporate way)" message of Harley-Davidson. I look at a bike like the new CTX1300 and I think: "That's the guy I want to be. I want to be riding around on my CTX, wearing all the right gear and always prepared with Leatherman tools and multi-use lubricants. I want people to look at me and think: 'That guy really knows his stuff.'"

There's something appealing about that. About being Mr. Prepared. Mr. Efficient. Mr. Johnny On the Spot. I like having anti-lock brakes. I like having wind protection and lots of backlit dials on a dashboard. But then, there's also something appealing about the guy on a rumbling machine, not really knowing or caring where he's headed. The Great Harley-Honda Dilemma. Which story do I want to tell?

And do I really need any specific bike to tell it?

Monday, 17 March 2014

Through the fog

The view from my house, before things got bad.
Fog is a part of the British experience. It works its way into countless Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle tales, serving as a sort of plot device to allow terrible things to be done unseen. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, pollution-laden fogs known as pea soups brought inhalant death. In 1952, a crippling fog that hung over London from the 5th to the 9th of December ended up killing upward of 12,000 people. 

Even without pollution the fog kills. In 1991, a heavy fog in Berkshire resulted in a 51-car crash that killed 10 people. In 1997, a 160-car fog-induced pile up killed three people in Worcestershire. Just a few years ago, seven people were killed in a 51-vehicle crash that occurred within a great abyss of fog and smoke from a nearby bonfire. 

That last one took place just a few miles from where I was headed Thursday night.

I was going to Bristol, to a literary event at Cube, in the city's centre. Lately I have been trying desperately to kick start my literary career, trying to make happen my dream of being a professional author (rather than just someone who writes a lot) and part of that process is forcing myself to attend things like this.

Most literary events in Cardiff are poetry-driven and I hate poetry. I'm a prose guy. So, I widened my net and found events in Bristol and Bath. And, in a way, that feels appropriate. I am trying to make something happen, wanting to put my all into this goal, so why not drive 50 miles just to be able to listen to some folks read some things what they wrote? And why not do it in the fog?

When I woke up on Thursday my phone's weather app claimed the fog would burn away and yield to brilliant sunshine within a few hours. Those few hours passed, the fog remained, and the weather app updated to say that the fog would burn away in a few more hours. And on and on through the day. Looking out my window at work I watched the building across the road disappear and reappear into grey-white mist but the fog never lifted.

You will, know, of course, that riding in heavy fog is poop. Give me rain over fog any time. In rain, at least, the water pushes along the curve of my helmet's visor and my vision isn't too badly affected. From time to time I may need to wipe the visor with a glove but generally progress continues unimpeded. The mist of fog, however, attacks the visor. It covers every micro-pixel of vision with watery residue and leaves me hurtling forward into a complete unknown. You can wipe it away but usually it will return even before you put your hand back on the handlebar.

Sitting in my office in Cardiff, I considered abandoning the event, but traffic cameras on the Severn Bridge, which I had to cross en route to Bristol, showed clear sky, so I decided to head out –– the last fragments of daylight fading away as I began my way toward the M4.

For those of you playing along at home, the route from Cardiff to Bristol is: A48 to the M4, across the wide and tumultuous Severn delta, then down the M32 to the heart of Bristol. The Severn Bridge is a mile long and crosses over a river with the second highest tidal range in the world. There are times when the tide changes so dramatically that it causes a phenomenon known as the Severn Bore –– a great rolling wave that pushes for miles and miles. Here's a video of some surfers riding the Severn Bore for roughly 20 minutes. None of this has anything to do with my ride. I just find it really interesting.

Crossing over the Severn was uneventful. It had turned dark but visibility was good. Someone from Minneapolis would say the traffic was heavy; someone from Bristol would say it was light. I moved along easily until just before the exit for the M32. Then, suddenly, rolling out from the trees, a great, heaving mist swallowed up the road. Brake lights illuminated in the cloud, everyone slowed and I thought of that crash just a few years ago. I kept an eye on my mirrors, searching for whatever might be coming up behind, and another eye on every available gap ahead of me –– every possible route of escape.

I flipped up my visor to allow myself to see. Within a second my face was completely wet, my eyes watering from the wind and the cold. The fog was rolling in great plumes and I couldn't even read the road signs as I passed underneath them. Within a few minutes, the traffic had come to a complete stop. I slipped into a corridor between two rows of cars and began to filter along at 20 mph, through an eerie tunnel of hazy orange and red and white light. It was quiet, and even though I was riding through endless rows of cars and trucks and buses I felt totally alone.

In hindsight, I am particularly glad I had chosen beforehand to park at Cabot Circus, a large shopping area about half a mile from Cube. Sure, I could have parked closer to the place I was going but Cabot Circus has an enormous, well-lit, safe parking structure that is easy to find. I had never gone to Cube before and didn't want to be riding around in a busy city in the dark, amidst notoriously impatient British drivers, trying to find a good place to put my bike. The fog ended up reinforcing this decision. As did the discovery that Cube is atop a rather steep hill, and the road leading to it is narrow and cobblestoned.

Additionally, Cabot Circus parking for motorcycles is great. There is a designated space for bikes between two low concrete walls, which means cars can't get near your bike to accidentally knock it over. Additionally there is railing to chain your bike to, and lockers that are specifically for helmets and gloves. There are attendants walking around all the time, it is clean and very well-lit. Oh, and motorcycles are allowed to park there for free. Choose Cabot Circus for all your motorcycle parking needs.

But walking half a mile to Cube resulted in an extra adventure later in the evening. As the event was taking place a heavier fog rolled in, turning the city into the stuff of Victorian horror fiction. When I stepped out of the building, I could barely see across the beer garden. Within a few steps of walking down the cobblestone road I was totally disoriented; there was nothing ahead of me, nothing behind me –– just a mysterious orangeness from unseen street lights. I got down to a road wide enough for two cars and couldn't see across it. There were voices of people going about their evenings but all of them unseen. And soon I was lost. I found myself having to stand almost within touching distance of shops, staring at them and thinking: "Did I pass this way?"

The enormous roundabout I had walked across to get to Cube, the towering Holiday Inn I had passed, the courts building -- all of them had been swallowed whole by the fog. A group of guys emerged from the nothingness singing "Flower of Scotland." I walked past them, then felt perhaps I was going the wrong way. I turned around and they were gone but for their voices bouncing off unseen buildings. Eventually, I had to navigate back to my bike using the Google Maps on my phone: eyes down, watching the little arrow move toward its destination and hoping the signal was accurate, that I really was where the phone thought I was.

I did make it back to the bike. I took my time getting geared up, and clicked on the sat-nav ("GPS" for those of you playing along at home) to guide me home. I couldn't see road signs or landmarks. I had to put all faith in the 4-inch screen of a TomTom.

According to that screen, the road I was on had a 70 mph limit. I was uncomfortable going more than 30. My visor was up and the freezing mist stung my soaking-wet face. I flicked on my hazard lights and slipped on and on into the ethereal unknown, keeping an alert eye on whatever might be coming up behind me. 

Before long, the streetlight-orange tint disappeared. I was far enough away from the city centre that there were no street lights. Now it was just darkness. I was a tiny ball of white and orange light, the blinking lure of a deep-sea monster. There was no sky. No anything. Every once in a while, a great wall of light would come up from behind me and slowly, slowly a car would pull up in the lane next to me. I would look over at the driver, staring intently into the nothingness, and ease off the throttle to make sure we weren't riding abreast. Everything was quiet, and slowly they would slip away.

I thought of the stories of the Mabinogion -- Celtic tales from more than 1,000 years ago -- and the heavy fog that would descend upon entering Annwfn, the other world. I watched the cars' tail lights fade and imagined them as eyes of the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd, out hunting for mortal souls.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Rethinking the Sportster

You know what would be really clever? If Harley-Davidson dealerships could issue false invoices that you could show to your wife. So, you could come home with, say, a $15,000 motorcycle but produce for your life partner a receipt claiming you had paid only $9,000. 

"Yeah, babe," you could say. "I talked 'em down."

In truth you would have paid full price, plus the Stage 1 tax, but your wife would never know. Except for your refusal to buy new clothes for the next decade or so.

In fairness, this is not something I would need for my wife. Recently I found myself thinking very seriously about getting a Triumph Bonneville, and even got all the way to the point of scheduling an appointment to go in and work out the financing. Over and over I gave Jenn the opportunity to kill the decision by telling me it was impractical. But her argument was that owning a motorcycle is in its nature sort of an emotional thing, so it's difficult to discuss the issue of practicality. She was supportive of the idea and, I suspect, looking forward to riding on the back of a Triumph. In the end, it was fate that waved me off the plan. My office was hit with lay-offs and though I'm not under threat I felt it best to wait until I'm sure I'm not under threat. 

Maybe in autumn. Maybe in winter. Maybe next spring. We'll see. But not getting the Bonneville has initiated some heavy rumination on whether it's really the bike I want. I mean, no ABS. That is a real problem for me. 

Last summer, I found myself making use of the anti-lock brakes on my Honda CBF600S when approaching a semi-truck at high speed on a typically gravel-strewn Welsh road. In thinking about the ABS-less Bonneville I tried to tell myself that I had been particularly inattentive that day and that I was really green in terms of riding. But the fact is, I am still pretty green and you cannot choose your panic situations. Every time I mention anti-lock someone rolls out a story about some MSF super-pro who can stop faster on standard brakes. But I'm not that guy, and that guy is not me. He's got 30 years of experience and is stopping under ideal conditions; he's not an easily distracted newbie in Wales, in the rain, on a tiny road that has been abandoned by maintenance teams.

And really, it is stupid and lazy that Triumph has not equipped the Bonneville with anti-lock brakes. The technology exists on all of the company's other models and as of 2016 will be legally required as a standard feature for all motorcycles sold in the European Union. Really, Triumph should have by now accepted the way of things and added the feature. Harley-Davidson has with all of its bikes.

You were wondering when this was going to get back to Harley-Davidson, weren't you?

I know that I keep saying cruisers aren't terribly well suited to UK roads but I don't seem willing to believe it. I don't want to believe it. I want to ride a cruiser. Surely it must be possible; according to a recent story I read on VisorDown, there are nigh 41,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles on UK roads. And lately I've found myself thinking a lot about the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200: the bike I got a chance to test ride last August.

I think a lot about how my riding style has developed since then, how I'm far more comfortable in terms of manoeuvring, road position, etc. I'm more confident in my actions, more sure of what I'm doing, and better tuned to the general experience of riding a motorcycle. And with this knowledge I find myself looking back at my criticisms of the Sportster:
  • I didn't like the fact that it did not have anti-lock brakes. But a week or so after my test ride, Project Rushmore was launched and over here in Europe ABS became standard on all Harley-Davidson models.
  • I felt the Sportster was a bit heavy. But not so heavy that I was really uncomfortable. Indeed, I filtered through traffic on my test ride -- the bike's low centre of gravity gave me confidence. And the fact is, at that time I was really green and still often feeling awkward on my Honda. So, it is entirely possible -- in fact, likely -- that I now wouldn't be too greatly affected by the Harley's girth. Or I could very quickly adapt. Either way, I think the Sportster is just "small" enough to manage a solid 90 percent of the traffic filtering situations that I tackle on my present bike. And for those other situations there's an argument that the presence of a Harley-Davidson would open up traffic gaps more effectively than the presence of an economy Honda.
  • I didn't like the fact that the Sportster is air-cooled. But, dude, I live in a country that is always cold. I can think of several times over the past few months when I would have loved to be able to reach down and warm my hands on a H-D engine.
  • I didn't like the fact that it does not have a tachometer or other dashboard information. But again: Project Rushmore. The Sportster set up now comes standard with a digital tachometer and gear indicator.
  • I didn't like the fact the Sportster has no wind protection. OK, I still don't really like that. But that wasn't stopping me from wanting a Bonneville. And, of course, the H-D extras catalogue offers dozens of screen options.
  • I didn't like the fact it doesn't get good gas mileage. But, turns out I was talking without checking facts on that one. According to Fuelly.com the Sportster gets similar MPG to my present bike (less but not a whole lot less).
  • I wasn't sure I'd like the engine's sound over long periods of riding. But at the time I wasn't regularly wearing ear plugs when riding. It's a good bet I now wouldn't notice (I am that one person who doesn't feel a Harley-Davidson needs to be any louder, so I wouldn't install new pipes).

Also, apparently unique to H-D dealerships, I was treated really well by Swansea Harley-Davidson. And being treated well is the sort of thing that sticks with you. It makes you want to return. If you're treated really well, it makes you want to find ways to spend money.

And the more time I have to ponder upon the thing, the more I find myself thinking: "Yeah, actually, that Sportster was an OK machine. Maybe, just maybe, I'd like to have one of my own."

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ride by wire

Mission RS - Is this the mainstream future?
I tend to get pretty excited by the prospect of electric motorcycles. First of all, there is the fact they sound like a TIE fighter. How could you not want that? Sure, there is something cool about the low-rev grumble of a cruiser, but, dude: a TIE fighter.

Then there is the whole environmental aspect. I've been on the planet nigh 38 years and have seen it change in that time. I have seen cities expand, trees and fields disappear. I have seen former swimming holes turn toxic. I have seen the black dust of car exhaust gathering on my doorstep and eating the mortar of my home. The pessimistic side of me says there's not much I can do, that the best hope is in the fact nature has always proved more resilient than any one species. So, human beings will probably kill themselves off but the toughest of microbes, plants and cockroaches will survive and slowly thereafter reclaim everything and make it beautiful for insentient eyes.

I love motorcycling, I love the freedom and sense of independence it brings, but I will admit it induces in me a certain guilt. Sure, I feel less guilty than if I owned a car -- the fuel-efficiency of my trusty Honda (57 mpg) means less fossil fuel burned. But it would be nice to not burn any (a).

Meanwhile, rapid advances in technology mean that in terms of performance, some electric motorcycles are already capable of beating internal combustion engine bikes. They can be incredible rip-your-arms-from-your-sockets monsters in both torque and horsepower. The Brammo Empulse RR, for example, produces 173hp and 166 lb.-ft of torque. It's that last number that cruiser riders usually point to, the thing they care about. And the Triumph Rocket III, which has the largest production ICE engine on the market, has less torque than the Empulse RR! (b)

So, any time I read a story about Brammo or Zero or Mission or Lito Sora or Lightning or Energica or Voxan or Brutus or who knows how many others, I get all excited and think: "This is it! This is the future! And it's almost here!"

I'm not the only one. Many people feel we are only 10-20 years from seeing electric motorcycles as part of the mainstream. That would be an awesome thing because it would mean motorcyclists were leading the way (I think the days of mainstream electric cars are much further away). And certainly it's not an unrealistic prediction. Think back 20 years ago to 1994. Did you or anyone you knew own a mobile phone? I didn't. Did you or anyone you knew use the internet? I didn't; I was still a year from sending my first-ever email. I remember my father coming back from a conference in which they discussed the possibility of one day being able to transmit video to computers and both of us thinking: "But why?"

Twenty years ago, DVDs did not yet exist. CDs were still an emerging technology. And since then, both have peaked in popularity and gone into dramatic decline. So, if you ask me to look forward 20 years, to imagine what my 58-year-old self will be riding around on, I don't find it at all difficult to picture an electric future.

Zero S
But people have been declaring the imminent death of the internal combustion engine since before my parents were born; and there are some serious challenges to overcome. In terms of performance and look electric motorcycles have arrived but four major obstacles stand in the way of mainstream motorcycling acceptance:

Range

Obviously, how hard you push your bike affects how long it will go on one charge. Under ideal conditions, a Zero SR will reportedly deliver 171 miles on a single charge. At highway speed, however, that's reduced to just 88 miles. Fair enough, the Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two of which I am so famously fond won't get you much further than that on a single tank of gas. But it only takes a minute or so to "recharge" the Harley. Getting the Zero back up to 100 percent will take 9.9 hours (on a standard 110V charge). In other words, with the Zero you need to be content doing about 80 miles of riding in a day. 

The claimed mileage is similar with most other electric bikes. If you account for the usual jubilant optimism of vehicle manufacturers, it probably means you'd be feeling some deep battery anxiety in trying to ride from one end of the Chicago metro area to the other. And perhaps some people are happy with that. When I was a teenager, rarely doing more than travelling between lakes and girls' houses, that sort of range probably would have suited me just fine.

Most motorcyclists, however, are going to expect a bit more. Though, not terribly much more. From my own experiences and from talking to other people, I'd say that most riders prefer to ride no more 200 miles in a given day. Yes, there are those Iron Butt moto-gods who cover five times that amount. But I think it's fair to say that if a bike could actually and reliably deliver 200+ miles on a charge, many riders would seriously consider it. I certainly would.

And here is where I feel motorcyclists can lead the way to a mainstream electric future. At the moment, electric cars like the Nissan Leaf struggle to deliver the range of lighter electric motorcycles, but even if they could it wouldn't be enough -- we expect more out of our cars. I think they will need to achieve upward of 500 miles on a charge before they are accepted as mainstream transportation options.

The good news for motorcyclists is that there is already one electric motorcycle company claiming that all-important high mileage capability. The Brutus V9 claims an impressive range of 280 city miles and 210 on the highway. I'm assuming it has a bigger range simply because it is bigger. It is the only electric motorcycle I know of that is built as a cruiser, which allows for more space to hold batteries. If it really can deliver 210 highway miles I would want it as my next bike.

Cost

Or, well, what I just said about the Brutus isn't entirely true. I think it's a relatively cool-looking bike and I suspect I could live with its range, but there's no way in hell I'll buy one. Or, indeed, any electric bike. Not at the moment, at least, because they are ungodly expensive. Take the aforementioned Zero SR, for example.

Brutus V9
In spirit and styling, I feel its closest internal combustion engine competitor would be something like the Yamaha MT-07. The SR has more torque, and the MT-07 has a little more power, but, you know, close enough. If you wanted the version of the SR that can manage 88 highway miles you will need to fork over $19,500. The MT-07, meanwhile, is not yet sold in the United States, but, if you did a straight conversion of its UK price, would cost only $8,500.

That Brutus V9, meanwhile, with its larger range, will cost a whole hell of a lot more. The small-engined version will set you back $32,500. Considering that the Zero SR increases in price by 14.7 percent when you go with the long-range option, that means a 210-mile-capable Brutus would cost at least $37,200. In its look the Brutus V9 reminds me just a teeny bit of the Harley-Davidson Street Glide. That machine will set you back $20,400 and almost certainly has dozens of features superior to those offered by Brutus. Meanwhile the super-fast Mission RS electric sport bike will knock you back $59,000.

Oh, sure, in the United States you get a $2,500 credit for purchasing an electric vehicle but that hardly makes a dent. The price difference between electric and ICE is so extreme that to purchase the former you have to either be an idiot or so rich you no longer comprehend the value of money.

The good news is that the cost of electric bikes is very slowly dropping (very slowly) and the strong competition between brands may help a little more. But as a consumer, if I take into account the issues over range I can't help but feel that electric should actually be cheaper. At the very least, an electric bike needs to cost roughly the same as its ICE equivalent. I'm willing to inconvenience myself for the sake of the planet, but this level of inconvenience would make me bankrupt. 

Infrastructure

One of the greatest inconveniences in owning an electric bike at the moment would be figuring out where to charge it. I mentioned above that it takes 9.9 hours to charge a Zero SR on a standard 110V charge. That's the sort of charge you would get from plugging the bike into a wall socket at home, as if it were an appliance. This time can be reduced to 5.8 hours if you install a 220V hookup in your home similar to that used by a washer or dryer.

Charge time can be reduced even further by hunting down a CHAdeMO station. This is the type of system used by the Nissan Leaf and is probably the fast-charging system that will, eventually, be used by all electric vehicles. Though, it is not at present. Different manufacturers use different systems. So, the very first hurdle to overcome in terms of infrastructure is getting manufacturers to accept a universal method of charging.

Once that's accomplished it will be easier to ensure enough charging points exist. It seems reasonable to me to say that charging points need to be at least as prevalent as gas stations, if not more so. At the moment, charging points are few and far between. I just checked a map and the number of charging points here in South Wales can be counted on one hand. In my beloved Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul things are markedly better but there exists yet another problem: where the charging points are located.

Brammo Empulse
If you can find a CHAdeMO charging point, Zero says it will take just 90 minutes to get your SR back on the road. Allegedly, CHAdeMO is word play on a Japanese phrase that means, "How about some tea?", which offers an idea about where charging points should be located.

Bringing electric vehicles into the mainstream will require a shift in thinking about "refuelling" a vehicle. At present, charging points are often located at gas stations and car dealerships. But who in their right mind wants to just hang out at a car dealership for an hour and a half? On a regular basis?! Instead, charging points should be set up outside restaurants, coffee shops and shopping centres -- places where people can leave their bike charging whilst doing something else. It is really only then that one can honestly start to imagine electric motorcycles as a part of the mainstream. Credit to Ikea for already having figured this out.
 
Home viability

But even once you have your affordable electric motorcycle that is capable of 200+ miles, which you can leave charging outside your favourite restaurant while you take in a leisurely lunch, there's still a big problem: what do you do with the bike when you get it home?

If you own your own home and have a garage, the answer is: put it in the garage and plug it in. Simples.

But the majority of people -- especially those in urban areas, where an electric motorcycle makes the most sense -- do not live in houses. They live in flats or apartments or condominiums or town houses, etc. And as such they are unlikely to have a spot where they can conveniently run an extension cord out to a motorcycle. That would be especially true here in the United Kingdom, where even people with homes often do not have places to park a car or motorbike, since many homes were built long before anyone invented a reason to have a driveway.

And when I look at the issue of viability, along with the other obstacles facing electric motorcycles, I can't help but lose a certain amount of my enthusiasm. Suddenly, the electric future seems quite a bit further away. Things can change, infrastructure can be built and attitudes changed, but when you take everything in it certainly seems like a lot of work.

Maybe my 57-year-old self won't be whizzing around on a TIE fighter after all...

__________

(a) A common response to the green claims of electric vehicle proponents is to point out, correctly, that most electricity is generated in plants that produce all kinds of carbon. But if you live in a deregulated market like the UK, you can choose your provider and thereby the type of energy you use. Jenn and I get our power from a green energy provider.
 
(b) Admittedly, not much less. The Rocket III produces 163 lb.-ft of torque.
 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Dear Indian: Please make a smaller bike

The Chieftain's fairing is inspired by Streamliner trains.
It is also quite train-like in size!
I got a chance to see the new Indian motorcycles in the flesh today –– both the Chief Classic and the Chieftain. They are incredibly beautiful machines, but great googly-moogly are they massive. It is comically huge. I mean, this thing is gigantic. Colossal. Monumental. It is an informal monster.

Take, for instance, the Streamliner-esque fairing on the Indian Chieftain. It is beautiful and stylish, but it also contains a dashboard larger than that which you would find in an economy car. It is just this whopping great console right in your face. It is so big, and so loaded with bits of information, that I'd be worried about its obstructing my view. Since you really sit "in" a Chieftain rather than on one, it seems the Chieftain's dash would eat up 40 percent of your vision.

The Chief Classic struck me as even more enormous. Its alien laser cannon of a headlight is incredible. In-credible. It is too large to be a credible bit of a bike. I'm pretty sure that headlight assembly is larger than the entire tank on my Honda CBF600SA.

Beautiful and ridiculous. And in that Indian is the most American motorcycle I've ever seen. It is a perfect representation of a beautiful and ridiculous country. There's no doubt that I love both the Chief Classic and the Chieftain, but I'll admit my heart sank a little upon seeing them. Because there is no way in hell I would buy one.

At least not in Britain. As I mentioned in reviewing the Triumph America, cruisers are not well suited to the roads of Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Omnipresent roundabouts, and needlessly twisty, pothole-ridden narrow roads mean constantly having to shift a bike's weight and launch it into teeny gaps. I suppose a spirited and determined individual could perhaps get away with manoeuvring a small cruiser like the America around (I'm keeping hope alive for one day owning a Triumph Speedmaster), but anything larger is a fool's game.

On this tiny island of rain, I feel the Chief or the Chieftain would be an idiot's game. You could only ever ride the thing on the motorway –– all other roads are too small. Though, in riding back from the dealership I found myself on the motorway and even there thinking how inappropriate are Indian's products for this landscape.

Traffic on the M4 backed up to an almost complete stop for at least 12 miles. I slipped easily between the lanes, filtering, and passed car after car after car after car after car after car. At one point I found myself squeezing through a space in which my shoulder actually touched a semi-truck (it was stopped) and one of the guys in the van opposite (also stopped) said through the window: "Ya got balls of steel, mate."

That, and I've got a bike that can fit in such tight spaces. I'm pretty confident I could have cut the same line through traffic on a Bonneville. I might have been able to do the same on a Harley-Davidson 883. But had I been astride a Chieftain, I would have been several miles back, waiting in line with everyone else.

It got me thinking about what bike Indian will next produce. There are rumours that a new Scout is on the horizon, though only one website has reported the rumour. And there's no idea of when it might exist or what it might be. I know I've talked about this before, but my deep, abiding hope is that Indian will produce a machine to rival the Bonneville and 883 –– a machine that I could actually ride in Britain.

If they don't, I'll have to keep buying Hondas...

Monday, 3 March 2014

The motorcycling heart of America

People in cold places love motorcycles.
The other day I read an interesting article on Asphalt and Rubber that highlighted where America's motorcyclists are to be found -- both by volume and per capita. By volume, there is nothing surprising: California, Texas and Florida take the top spots. Shocker. California, Texas and Florida are also the most populous U.S. states. 

So, the existence of lots of motorcycles in these states isn't necessarily a comment on the states' consistently good riding weather or the attitudes of people there; it is just a reflection of a large population. More people means more things.

Per capita numbers, however, give a better sense of how popular something is. And in those we find that motorcycles are most popular in South Dakota, New Hampshire and Iowa. One in 12 persons owns a motorcycle in the Mount Rushmore State. Whereas the numbers are 1 in 47 in the Golden State. Sure, the actual number of motorcycle owners in California is almost equal to the entire population of South Dakota, but one could argue that it is in the latter state that motorcycles are more relevant.

Yes, bogglingly, motorcycling is more important in a state that is mostly flat and quite often intolerably cold than in one with famously good weather, world-class mountains and legal traffic filtering. And within that are a certain number of truths that I think say a lot about motorcycling in the United States. Chief among them is that the Upper Midwest is America's motorcycling heart; and it is to there we should look when we ask what motorcycling in the United States is and what it will be.

Asphalt and Rubber offers a list of all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. Per capita, the top 10 motorcycle-loving states are:
1) South Dakota
2) New Hampshire
3) Iowa
4) Wisconsin
5) Wyoming
6) North Dakota
7) Vermont
8) Montana
9) Minnesota (woot!)
10) Alaska

The states I've highlighted are those which comprise the Upper Midwest: flat states where snow can be found for at least a quarter of the year. Considering that the majority populations of Montana and Wyoming live in similar conditions (that is to say, both states have mountainous regions but most of the states' people live in areas that are flat [a]) I think it's fair to loop them in as well. I can't really speak to Alaska, Vermont and New Hampshire, because I've never visited those states, but it's worth noting that all of the Top 10 states for motorcyclists are those that experience real winters.

So, let's start there in trying to find the similarities, trying to figure out what truths can be offered about the American motorcyclist.

Where I come from, bigger is better.
From growing up in the Upper Midwest, I know that those brutal winters mean that a lot of people don't tend to vacation too far away from home. After suffering months of icy slings and arrows, Upper Midwesterners feel deeply entitled to the good weather of spring and summer. They don't tend to want to "waste" their home state's good days by heading some place else.

And from this you can see the value of a motorcycle. Firstly, what better tool with which to enjoy and indulge in the simple joys of not freezing to death? But secondly, because the average Upper Midwesterner isn't trundling off to, say, Europe, perhaps he or she is more willing to spend money on a vehicle that, for most people, has a limited range (i.e., most people don't tend to ride more than 300 miles in a day, whereas they would cover double that in a car).

Meanwhile, it's a good bet you could thin the population of Los Angeles by at least half by holding a gun to people's heads and asking them to identify the Upper Midwest on a map. And by and large Upper Midwesterners are OK with that. They're Americans, and fiercely proud to be so, but they're content doing their own thing, existing in their own space. They are independently minded in a true sense.

So often, when we say someone is "independently minded" we mean that they are hard to get along with or they don't want to fit in. Upper Midwesterners are perfectly happy to fit in (especially if "fitting in" means drinking beer and eating a lot of heavy foods) but they are accepting of those times when they do not fit in, and relatively tolerant of those who do not fit in with them -- as long as that tolerance goes both ways [b].

In other words, Upper Midwesterners are happy doing their own thing and they are happy doing their own thing. They're not necessarily averse to change or variation, it's just that often they don't see a point in it. And if someone comes along and insists upon a seemingly unnecessary change it can feel irksome. I mean, if I have steak every Thursday and I like having steak every Thursday, why the hell should I listen to someone who butts in and insists that I try salmon en croute? OK, maybe it is good. Fine. But I like steak. I had no problem with eating steak; just go away and let me enjoy my steak.

And inasmuch, is it any wonder that Harley-Davidson is based in the Upper Midwest? Does it not make perfect sense that the region is also home to Indian and Victory?

There is an old saying: "As California goes, so, too, the nation." But in the case of motorcycling I don't think that's true. I think we need to look to the Upper Midwest to understand what motorcycling is and will be in the United States.

The people amongst whom I was raised like heavy, loud machines; they dislike helmets; and that's just how things are. Those can be frustrating truths for people who see the value of a machine like, say, the Honda NC750X -- they simply are not the steak to which Upper Midwesterners have grown accustomed -- but accepting these truths is, I think, the first step toward seeing American motorcycling progress.

So, for instance, if you want to initiate positive changes in handling, performance, fuel efficiency and safety, you have to do it in a way that is palatable to Upper Midwesterners. If you want to see filtering accepted outside a niche of California riders, you have to figure out how to sell it to Upper Midwesterners. If a company is trying to develop products that will pull motorcycling from the hands of old white men, it needs to develop products that will appeal to young Upper Midwesterners. And if the exciting ideas of manufacturers like Brammo and Zero are ever really going to get off the ground, they will need to do so in the Upper Midwest.

Better roads and better weather may be found elsewhere, but America's motorcycling heart is to be found in its geographical centre.

__________

(a) Honestly, Billings, MT, and Fargo, ND, are almost indistinguishable from one another.

(b) My friend, Kristin, is a quintessential Upper Midwesterner. She doesn't care what a person does or thinks, as long as that person never, ever, criticises what she does and thinks.