Friday, 29 August 2014

Thoughts on Harley-Davidson's 2015 line up

2015 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy Lo
Randy Newman was clearly wrong. Short people do have somebody to love. Or, at least, it appears they have somebody who loves them: namely, America's largest motorcycle manufacturer. Harley-Davidson's recently announced 2015 model year line up is so littered with "low" models you'd be inclined to think we are suffering some sort of worldwide shift in people's stature.

Well, actually, we are. Over the past several decades -- thanks to improved health and better diet -- the average person's height has increased, with the typical American male now being roughly 5 feet 10 inches tall (a). When Harley-Davidson first went into business more than a century ago, the average dude was a good 4 inches shorter.

I suppose some might argue Harley-Davidson has decided to just ignore this data and chase after the dwindling number of short fellas with a Napoleon complex: offering large, loud, shiny things for tiny men seeking to compensate for something. But, of course, the truth is that H-D is clearly chasing after a different demographic, the average American variant of which is 5 feet 4 inches tall: women.

For all the criticisms people may have about Harley-Davidson, it is hard to fault the company for its efforts to attract females to riding. I've seen no other manufacturer even make an attempt. While many other motorcycle companies still treat women as slutty accoutrements Harley-Davidson is hosting Garage Parties and teaching them how to ride.

So, huzzah to Harley-Davidson. Huzzah to it for working to make motorcycling better (because more people and more kinds of people make just about anything better). But if you're a 6-foot-1 chap such as myself, all these shorty options can leave you feeling a little, well... low. Or, at least, unimpressed. There's not anything that's really new in the 2015 line up.

Harley-Davidson Freewheeler
Well, perhaps that's not true. The Freewheeler trike is brand new, but, again, I'm well out of its intended demographic. Or, I'm pretty sure I am. In truth, I'm not certain about trikes because... uh... ehr...

OK, I'm going to have to stop right here and admit that what comes next is a major violation of this blog's standard code of not doing a tinkle on anyone's parade. Generally, I try very hard not to be judgemental of what a person rides (though I will occasionally be critical of how a person rides). If you like it, ride it.

But trikes, man. Ugh (b).

Actually, no. Not ugh.

See, I can get with the idea of something like a Can-Am Spyder. No, it's not exactly my sort of thing but I can sort of kind of see its appeal. If I stare at it long enough I can almost make myself like it (until I look at the price tag). And, indeed, I can foresee a time -- maybe 30 or 40 years from now -- when I might not trust my spindly old-man legs to adequately balance the weight of a two-wheeled vehicle, but I would still want to enjoy a motorcycle-like experience.

In that scenario, the Can-Am's charms grow on me considerably. I can picture myself wearing a modular helmet (replete with fuzzy microphone headset) and a neutral-coloured textile jacket or full Aerostitch, trundling across the great North American landscape -- from one Good Sam Club campsite to another -- on a luxuriant Spyder RT, and feeling perfectly OK about it. In part because I would know that the vehicle I was on, though offering a motorcycle-like experience, was not trying to be a motorcycle.

There is a massive difference between the three-wheeled
Can-Am Spyder and the three-wheeled Harley-Davidson Freewheeler: only one of those things is trying to be something it's not.

To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, take a look at the two pictures on the left. Both pictures are of buses that are short. But there's a big difference, isn't there? Not just in look but in character. One of the short buses takes "special" kids to school, and the other one takes corporate executives to the airport.

Therein you have the difference between the Freewheler and the Spyder. Sure, both vehicles have three wheels but the former looks as if it was made for people who have trouble figuring out how to tie their shoelaces.

That's a brutal and cruel thing to say, I know. And perhaps one day when I'm 80 years old and riddled with gout, I will have a change of heart. Perhaps I will take to calling Jenn "the old lady." I'll wear a bandanna. And on the Freewheeler's waterproof trunk (in which we store our Depends) we'll have a bumper sticker that says: "We're spending our kids' inheritance."

But for now: no. As far as I'm concerned, that thing is just a great big bunch of no.

Speaking of things that are aesthetically displeasing, for 2015 Harley-Davidson has also brought back its Road Glide model. On this one, though, I am happy to accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people may love it. To me, the fairing makes the Road Glide look like Bender from "Futurama". But all the press I've read about the bike suggests it's a quality machine. And I suppose you don't really see how a bike looks when you're riding it. So, like having sex with an obese person in the dark, the newly returned Road Glide is probably enjoyable if you don't ponder the aesthetics.

Sadly, a model that Harley-Davidson has not brought back is the Nightster, something that I think could (temporarily) compete with the new Indian Scout if adequately loaded with H-D bells and whistles like keyless start and anti-lock brakes. And everywhere else in the 2015 model year line up it's just a case of aesthetic changes and CVO models.

2015 Harley Davidson CVO Road Glide Ultra
I refuse to take CVO offerings seriously. If you've got that much money I suggest moving to Detroit, where the asking price of a CVO Road Glide Ultra (c) will instead get you a three-bedroom house. Once you move in, I suspect one or two of your new neighbours will be able to get you a slightly used Harley-Davidson at an incredible "discount."

Overall, although it is still easily more impressive than Victory's 2015 line up, I have to say I feel disappointed by what Harley-Davidson plans to offer in the next year. Or, at least, deflated. I guess I had hoped that with the resurrection of Indian there would be a constant flow of ever-more awesome things.

However, maybe I'm looking at it too narrowly. I mean, the Street models are also part of the 2015 line up, and to that end, it's not as if all the models of a model year are announced at once. For example, the 2014 Lowrider didn't get added to the line up until Daytona Bike Week.

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(a) Bafflingly, statistics show the same average height for British men. I find that interesting because I feel much taller here than I do when at home. Perhaps this is because "home" for me is Minnesota, where so many people are of Scandinavian stock. There, despite the fact I am 6-foot-1, I tend to think of myself as a smaller guy.

(b) Needless to say, all my criticism of trikes is automatically rescinded for any individual who rides one because of disability. If I were missing a foot or suffered spells of vertigo or some other such thing that affected my balance and dexterity you can bet your prosthetic tushy that I'd happily be seen on a trike.

(c) Again, Harley-Davidson insists upon giving its bikes names that sound like condoms or dildos.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A letter to Harley-Davidson

The Iron 883 is one of Harley-Davidson's coolest bikes.
Dearest Harley-Davidson,

Here's the thing: the Iron 883 is easily one of the coolest-looking bikes you make. The Forty-Eight and Seventy-Two hold their own, and I certainly wouldn't turn my nose up at a Low Rider, but for me a simple denim black Iron 883 still takes the sexiness prize. Meanwhile, within its price bracket the Iron 883 is the undisputed champion across all brands when it comes to looks. Sure, just about any Honda can outrun it, a Triumph Bonneville can compete in the vague terms of "authenticity," and a Yamaha XV950 offers an improved overall experience, but in the battle of aesthetics and fit and finish the Iron 883 reigns supreme.

And clearly I'm not the only person who feels this way. According to statistics from the UK Department for Transport, you sold 429 Iron 883 models in Her Majesty's United Kingdom last year, considerably more than any other Harley-Davidson model. The next best-selling model was the Forty-Eight, with 259 units sold. I'll get to the Forty-Eight in a moment.

Keeping in mind the UK is a relatively small market and so many people here claim to dislike cruisers (for example, Triumph sold just 175 Americas and a whopping 1,386 Street Triples in 2013), the numbers are damned impressive. I have no doubt that in the larger, far more pro-Harley market of the United States the Iron 883 is hugely popular. You must know that you've got a good thing on your hands.

But the reason I'm not presently riding one around is, well, you know what I'm going to say, don't you? It's a little underpowered. I mean, yes, I realise that Leslie Padoll rode across the United States on one, but in my own experience of riding the SuperLow 883 (which is just a less attractive Iron 883 for short people) I found the engine somewhat wanting at motorway speeds.

That was less the case with the Sportster 1200, though, and ever since you started offering that bike with anti-lock brakes (thank you) it has danced constantly in and out of the top slot of my What I Want list. I worry somewhat about overcoming wind blast and the less-than-generous travel of the bike's rear shocks but the main thing that puts me off (the current face of) the Sportster 1200 is its looks.

And that brings me to the point of this letter to you: Would y'all please consider offering an Iron 1200?

The Forty-Eight is sexy but mostly pointless.
OK, yes, I realise that your response to such a request might be something along the lines of: "Well, actually, Chris, we sort of already do. It's called the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight."

Fair enough. The Forty-Eight is indeed a great-looking bike and has a number of the same styling aspects as the Iron 883.  But that tank, guys; it only holds 7.9 litres (2.1 US gallons). And those marshmallow tires. And those intolerable rear shocks with only 1.2 inches of travel. That's not really a bike for riding any further than one would travel on a bicycle.

See, what got me thinking about all this is the new Indian Scout. That thing should be making you nervous. 

Officially, Indian says the Scout isn't really designed to compete against the Sportster. But in the same breath it will happily point out that the Scout and Sportster are similarly priced. And, indeed, in internet forums and such most people can't resist making the comparison. So, regardless of whether you like it or whether it's fair, the Sportster is going to have to compete against a machine that can run rings around it.

Ultimately, in order for the Sportster to survive, you are going to have to develop a different engine. But that costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. In the interim, an intelligent move -- something you could initiate immediately -- would be to create some sort of Iron 1200. Here's why:

A lot of sane people and a lot of cruiser riders (note those are two different categories) are content to accept they don't really need a bike that delivers 100 horsepower. The 67 hp delivered by the Sportster 1200 engine is probably just enough -- especially when packaged in a bike that offers a number of the standard Harley-Davidson features, such as anti-lock brakes, gear indicator, and keyless start. All of those are things that don't (yet) exist on the Indian Scout (a). And all of those are things that the economy of scale would allow you to deliver at a price considerably lower than the Scout.

I guess what I'm saying here is this: Please bring back the Nightster. An updated (i.e., better paint scheme) version with as many of your modern bells and whistles as you can throw at it while still keeping the price below that of a Scout. And maybe a better suspension. And maybe don't call it a Nightster because that sounds like the name of a condom.

Bring back the Nightster.
_____________________

(a) ABS will be standard on Scouts sold in Europe since the feature will soon be required by law. Notably, and perhaps as a result of ABS, the Scout will cost £1,200 more than a Sportster in the UK.

Friday, 22 August 2014

What makes a rider-friendly region?

The Spinnaker Tower, as viewed from Old Portsmouth.
Last weekend I got a chance to spend a little time in South Downs National Park and the surrounding environs, including my old stomping grounds of Portsmouth -- where I attended university in the late 1990s. It was that year in an exchange programme that initiated my love affair with Britain and eventually resulted in my moving back here just shy of a decade later.

I feel inclined now to do a bit of self promotion and point out that I used a number of my experiences from that exchange year in my first novel, The Way Forward, which you can buy for Kindle from both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

But I digress. The point is simply that while I was in that particular part of the world I couldn't help observing it contained a hell of a lot more motorcyclists than Wales. And it was not just that Southern England appeared to have more riders but also a greater diversity of them. Whereas Wales is the land where Bandits and Fazers come to die, Southern England delivered sights of Moto Guzzis, top-tier Ducatis, the first VMAX motorcycles I've ever seen on actual British roads, and a great contingent of Harley-Davidsons, as well as the usual parade of Triumphs and BMW R1200GS machines.

Meanwhile, there were signs of greater acceptance of motorcycles. Cars were quicker to shift over in their lane to give me space when I was filtering and more businesses had motorcycle-specific parking. At Gunwharf Quays, for instance, they had provided not just special motorcycle bays but lockers for helmets and gloves, as well as chains to secure your bike against theft. Oh, and parking for motorcycles was free. It all made me feel like a welcomed and valued customer -- not something one necessarily feels in South Wales.

All of this got me to thinking: what makes one area more rider friendly than another? Are there certain factors that lead to an environment that is more conducive, more welcoming to motorcycling? To some extent, these are questions fellow blogger MotoCynic asked himself after a recent visit to New York City. There, he found far more riders than he sees in Los Angeles, despite the latter being theoretically a better place to ride (legal filtering, year-round sun, etc.)

Rockers were once a common sight on Britain's South Coast.
To some extent, motorcycling is just naturally more entrenched in Southern England than in Wales. After all, the South Downs borders the town of Brighton: home to the famous mods and rockers fights of the 1960s. And, of course, ever encroaching on the South Downs' northern border is the London metropolis: the culture king of the British Isles for roughly a millennium. It seems somewhat logical to think that cultural richness would result in a higher rate of motorcycle ownership. That would certainly back up MotoCynic's observation of New York City having more riders than Los Angeles (a).

Though, it wouldn't explain why New Hampshire, Iowa and South Dakota are the top three states for motorcycle ownership in the United States. Nor would it necessarily explain why I encountered so many riders in Hampshire and West Sussex -- counties that are well outside of London (b).

Possibly it is another kind of richness that comes into play. The average income in Southern England is considerably higher than in Wales, so perhaps a motorcycle-friendly community is borne of a people with a good deal of disposable income. But, again, that doesn't seem to fit terribly well with U.S. figures. Los Angelinos are not exactly impoverished compared to New Yorkers, and I can't think of a great many wealthy South Dakotans. Tom Brokaw and Brock Lesnar, I suppose (c)

(Though, perhaps it is worth noting that in the United States, none of the 10 poorest states are in the list of 10 most motorcycle-owning states)

Similarly, statistics in the UK also don't seem to back up the "wealth = motorcycles" theory. Yes, four of the top 10 motorcycle-owning postcodes in the UK are in London but three other top postcodes are in far-less-posh Leicestershire (d)

To that end, population density doesn't seem to have much to do with things, either. I had thought it might, since Southern England has the highest population density in all of Europe. And certainly there are more people crammed in per square mile in New York City than in Los Angeles. But it doesn't explain South Dakota nor why nearly 1 in 10 people in Southport (in northern England) own a motorcycle.

Generally, the only constant I can find is geography. It would appear that, contrary to what you might think, motorcyclists live in areas that aren't terribly hilly. There are some exceptions to this rule, too, and clearly it is not the only factor, else Indiana would be the motorcycling capital of the USA.

So, what is it? What makes a city or region motorcycle-friendly? What magical thing or things need to exist to create a true motorcycle-enthusiast scene? Is it just random, inexplicable luck? Or is there something to it? Of the places you've been where motorcycles and motorcycling were popular, what were the commonalities? I'd like to know, if not simply to help me choose where to visit.

____________________

(a) Los Angeles may be big and may be home to Hollywood but it is nowhere near as culturally rich as New York City.

(b) Distance is always a strange thing in the UK. In actual terms, no part is so very far away from another. But things can feel far away. Perhaps the best way for an outsider to understand this distance is to add a 0 to whatever mileage exists between point A and point B. For example, Cardiff is only 150 miles from London but it feels 1,500 miles away. So, physically the South Downs may be just 50 miles from London's centre but they feel 500 miles away.

(c) Both of whom were born in Webster, South Dakota -- a town of 1,800 people which is also, strangely, home to two different women I have dated.

(d) Possibly there is a connection here in that Leicestershire is home to the headquarters of both Triumph and Norton, as well as two of Britain's most famous motorcycle race tracks: Donnington  Park and Mallory Park.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gear review: Michelin Pilot Road 4 tires

It appears Bibendum (aka "the Michelin man") is attempting to kill these people by throwing tires at them. 

It's been a few months since the good folks at Michelin gave me a set of Pilot Road 4 tires, and in that time I've managed to clock up roughly 2,700 miles on them, in pretty much all weather, so I thought now might be a good time to offer a review.

If you have attention deficit disorder or don't like to read, the short version of my review is simply this: Buy yourself a pair.

I say that without reservation for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was the Pilot Road 4 that taught me tires do actually make a difference. Oh, sure, I had read plenty of articles in which moto-journalists were yammering about the feel of a tire and how long it takes to warm up and so on, but my general feeling was that this was gibberish -- stuff they were just saying because, you know, they've got to say something. Or, perhaps, I felt, if it was not total gibberish it was irrelevant to anyone who rides a bike at anything near legal speed.

I mean, a tire's a tire, right? I've replaced plenty of tires on my cars, pickup trucks and bicycles over the years and I honestly could not tell you what brand I used on any of them. Had you asked me, I would have said: "Uhm, the one that fits and that costs the least."

It's like regular oil. Don't buy an expensive bottle of the stuff just because you've heard of the brand name. That's stupid. Oil is oil. It all comes out of the ground. There's no difference (a). And I figured rubber couldn't be too terribly different, either. Certainly I had not noticed a difference between the Bridgestone Battlax tires that had been on my Honda and the bargain-bin things that had been on the bikes I used in my training courses. Nor had I noticed differences in the tires on the various bikes I had to that point test ridden (b).

But then I had the Pilot Road 4s fitted to my bike and suddenly, instantly, I understood that a tire matters.

The main selling point of Pilot Road 4 tires is that they perform 17 percent better than the competition on wet roads. As luck would have it, I got to test this claim right away because it was raining on the day I had the tires fitted (of course, it is always raining in Wales). Despite the tires still being well within their break-in period, I could feel the difference in the first roundabout I navigated. The tires just held.

A few months later, as I was riding through torrential rain in Scotland, the tires just held. Through mud that had washed onto the road, or cow manure left there by inconsiderate farmers, and on the overpainted surfaces of British roadways, the tires have just held. Obviously, I am continuing to be cautious in these scenarios but the difference in feel, and the confidence that delivers, is notable.

The reason the tires stick so well has to do with the siping and the rubber compounds used in the tire. If you're like my spell check and have never seen the word "siping" before, that's OK. I hadn't heard of it either until one of the Michelin guys spent some time explaining that they are the lines in tires that push water away. The siping on the Pilot Road 4 is so effective that it results in my one and only, and very insignificant gripe about the tires: Your boots and trousers will get a little more dirty because of all the stuff the tires are pushing away.

Meanwhile, the rubber compounds are magical in the sense that just in touching the tires they feel sticky.

They stick amazingly well to dry roads, too. And the confidence they have delivered has had a dramatic effect on the quality of my riding. OK, yes, my chicken strips are still pretty wide but it is now incredibly rare for a car to catch up with me in corners. Whereas not so long ago, a ride on a twisting Welsh highway would have involved frequently pulling over to let other traffic pass.

The other selling point of these tires is that they last 20 percent longer than their predecessors, the Michelin Pilot Road 3. What that actually means, though, is hard to gauge. When I had the opportunity to share a few beers with (c) some of the Michelin folks they were pretty unwilling to give me any sort of mileage figure. Different people ride differently, after all. And on different road surfaces and with different bikes.

In my own case, I have, as I say, put roughly 2,700 miles on the tires so far. Within those miles are some pretty long stretches of motorway, a goodly amount of curving A roads (i.e., two-lane roads with a limit of 60 mph), some even curvier B roads (roads most Americans would describe as a bicycle path), plenty of crumbling urban surfaces, and even a tiny bit of off-road stuff. Despite all of that, the tires still look quite new. I'm certain I'll get another 2,700 miles out of them, at least, and wouldn't be at all surprised to not find myself even considering replacing them until they've gone past the 10,000-mile point.

Another positive, which may just be luck on my part, is that they hold pressure quite well. I check my tires before each ride and have found myself making far fewer adjustments with my Michelins than I was with the Bridgestones.

Michelin Pilot Road 4 tires do tend to be a little more pricey than some others but I feel it's worth it. Honestly, I love these tires so much that they affect my thinking about which bike I want next. For example, the BMW F800GT stays on my list simply because it comes equipped with Pilot Road 4s as standard.

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(a) Note that I am talking about regular oil here. I pretty much feel the same way about synthetics but if someone I trusted had a strong argument in favour of a specific synthetic I'd probably take his/her advice.

(b) Admittedly I'm not terribly aggressive when I test ride a bike. I don't want to end up having to pay for any damage.

(c) And by that, I mean they drank me under the table.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Ride review: Yamaha MT-09 (Yamaha FZ-09)

Yamaha MT-09
The Yamaha MT-09 (aka the Yamaha FZ-09) looks almost exactly the same as the Yamaha MT-07. It has a similar name and is targeted at the same young, urban audience. Internally, of course, it is quite different -- being powered by a three-cylinder engine rather than a twin -- but after getting stupid giddy for the MT-07, I had figured the MT-09 would be pure joy.

After all, some people insist a triple is the best of both worlds: the fun pull of a twin with the smoothness of an inline four. I'll admit my experience with triples is limited, having only ever ridden that engine configuration during a long day on a Triumph Tiger Explorer XC, but it had instilled in me a respect for them. Firing up the MT-09, my heart was pounding in anticipation. 

"This is going to be a blast," I thought.

I was wrong. The MT-09 manages to capture all of the negative aspects of the MT-07 with very few of the positives.

You, too, could look like a villain in a Captain America film.
The MT-09 is part of Yamaha's "Dark Side" line of bikes, clothing and accessories aimed at, well, probably the same sort of demographic that the Honda NM4 is targeting. Or, perhaps the more hooligan side of that demographic: youngish people who live in large urban areas and have figured out how to ride their bikes in ways not taught in an MSF course. Indeed, when I visited the Dark Side Tour in Birmingham recently, Yamaha had a bike rigged up to teach people how to do wheelies.

Additionally, the tour featured a stunt rider doing burnouts, stoppies, wheelies, and donuts around a scantily clad model. The rider was dressed in all black, with a visor so dark you could not see his face. He was a sort of ninja with a motorcycle. It was all a bit silly, and , as I say, out of my personal personal demographic. But if you look at the success of moto-vloggers like Jake the Garden Snake or RoyalJordanian, it's clear that being a faceless, slightly hooligan rider appeals to many people.

With its 850-cc engine delivering a whopping 115 horsepower, you'd think the MT-09 would be the ideal machine for hooligans of all variations, slight or otherwise. But the way in which that power is delivered ruins the experience.

I've read a few other reviews of the MT-09 since my ride and it appears that the problem is down to the MT-09's fuel mapping. However, phrases like "fuel mapping" are too technical for me. I don't know what it means. I spent a little time on Wikipedia trying to figure it out, but I still don't feel I can legitimately discuss it without sounding like a child who has just learned a big word. So, my apologies for putting this in Big Dumb Chris terms: the MT-09 has different riding modes and none of them are all that great.

On the right handlebar of the MT-09 there is a little button that says "Mode." Press it, and you will see a display on your dashboard switch between "A" "STD" and "B" modes. I'm assuming STD means "standard" rather than "sexually transmitted disease."

In salesman speak, setting the bike in A mode results in a "sharp" throttle response. However, the word I would use is "jerky." Really jerky. Really, really jerky. I'm guessing this sort of thing could be useful for people attempting wheelies from a dead stop, but for anyone hoping to get from one place to another it is annoying as hell. Increasing or decreasing throttle even the tiniest little bit results in your almost being thrown from the bike.

Not as cool as its little brother. 
Meanwhile, also in salesman speak, setting the MT-09 in B mode results in a "smooth" ride. I found that the actual word to be used for it is "boring." With the press of a button, the hooligan-inspired MT-09's ride was transformed into that delivered by my Honda CBF600.

My Honda is an inline four. There's definitely nothing wrong with that. Straight four engines are renown for their smoothness, and the one in my Honda is wonderfully forgiving of accidental throttle blips or too-quick roll-offs. But as I've mentioned before, it lacks any sort of real character. There's not a lot there to make you shout "woo!"

And still there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, either. Bland and smooth can be OK if it exists in a package that is useful -- for instance, a bike that can take you long distances. But that's not the case with the MT-09. Like its little brother, the MT-09 is quite tiny, has no weather protection, offers a passenger seat so minuscule it is only suitable for pre-teens and anorexics, and looks to have been designed by Pablo Picasso during his cubism phase.

By the way, the difference between B and STD modes was indistinguishable. I tried switching between the two in several different scenarios and genuinely could not sense a difference. Both modes turned the MT-09 into a CBF600. All three modes turned the MT-09 into a disappointment.

Other negatives included a dashboard that is not within your line of sight when riding, meaning you have to look down and take your eyes off the road to know your speed or RPM, etc. And I found the MT-09's brakes to be a little too grabby. Possibly that feature, like the obnoxious A mode, is useful for performing stunts, but it creates an awkward situation when trying to come to a gentle stop.

For me, then, the MT-07 is the better bet. It gives you the same look while costing a lot less and offering up a hell of a lot more fun.


UPDATE: According to Motorcycle.com Yamaha has registered a trademark in the European Union for a sport-touring model based on the MT-09. This makes a lot of sense and the designs show a decent-looking machine, assuming the passenger seat is big enough for adult bottoms. I'm still not totally convinced on the look (that strange shard-of-glass windscreen, for example) but perhaps with some panniers it would look OK. If the price were right that might help one overcome the looks.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Woe to Victory, the unloved child of Polaris

I miss this logo.
My father was his mother's favourite son. As the offspring of said son, my brother and I were always able to pick this up in subtle ways; the affection we got from our grandmother seemed a little more effusive. But a guest to the house might have picked it up as well, just by looking at the walls. 

In the living room, in plain view of any conversation, was a large, framed photo of my father taken in his senior year of high school. In the afternoon, the sun would hit the photo just right and my father's radiant 18-year-old face would beam with the same intelligent smile that later helped him win a job as a television anchorman.

On an adjacent wall, tucked into a corner that got no sunlight, and not generally within one's line of sight, were two smaller frames containing the senior pictures of Dad's younger brothers. No one ever drew attention to this reality and it is a credit to both my father and his brothers that there has never been any bitterness from them nor air of superiority from him.

I'm sure if you had asked my grandmother about it she would have claimed to have loved all her sons equally. But sometimes it didn't look that way to me. And that's a situation to which I feel certain members of the Polaris family could relate.

Minnesota-based Polaris is, of course, the parent company of both Indian Motorcycles and Victory Motorcycles. Victory is Polaris' own offspring, whereas Indian is adopted. So, it is inaccurate to describe Victory as the red-headed stepchild, but goodness me, that does seem to be how it's getting treated. As Indian continues to wow customers and investors alike, helping increase Polaris' motorcycle revenue by 79 percent in the last year, Victory, it seems, is being shuffled into a small corner.

A few months ago, I got really excited over leaked images of the bike we now know to be the new Indian Scout. At the time, though, just about everyone assumed these images of a water-cooled V twin were of a forthcoming Victory. It made sense. After all, hadn't Polaris VP Steve Menneto told Forbes that Victory planned to focus on "performance and innovation" in the wake of Indian joining the family?

"When we acquired Indian, that allowed Victory to really go all out," Menneto said.

Those of us with a bit of a crush on Polaris dared to dream of Victory really, really going "all out" and producing not just better cruisers but maybe the kind of bikes that are popular in NotAmerica: ADVs, sport tourers, or even just a standard. But let's take a look at what Victory has actually done since Polaris acquired Indian in 2011:
Motorcycle design by Ryan Black-Macken. Is it a future Victory
or an abandoned Scout design?
  • For its 2012 model year line up (announced in 2011), Victory introduced... uhm... no new bikes. It did, however offer the Cross Country, Vision, Hammer, Vegas and Cross Roads with 8-Ball and Ness paint schemes.
  • For its 2013 model year line up, Victory brought out the Judge and the Boardwalk. Both bikes carried the Freedom 106 engine that had been introduced in 2010 -- the same engine used by all Victory models.
  • For the 2014 line up, Victory gave us the Gunner, a stripped down version of the Judge, and made the Judge indistinguishable from other bikes by scrapping its mid-mount pegs.
  • For the 2015 line up, Victory put a massive wheel on the Cross Country and called the "new" bike a Magnum. It scrapped the Cross Roads, Judge, Jackpot, Hammer and Boardwalk. It changed the paint scheme for the High Ball almost unnoticeably, dropped the last of the Ness paint schemes and reduced the 8-Ball offerings to just one machine: the Cross Country.

This is going all out? This is performance and innovation? Really? To me, it seems as if Victory is being left to whither on the vine. All the technology and passion is going to Indian. That's OK, I guess -- I want to see Indian succeed -- but as someone who has long held goodwill toward Victory, it is very disheartening. I feel most badly for those poor souls who got Victory tattoos.

And when you think about it, it's hard to guess where Victory can go, what it can do without stepping on the toes of (or, more accurately having its toes stepped on by) Indian. America's First Motorcycle Company, as it likes to call itself now, has big plans. In an interview last year, Indian Director of Product Gary Gray told CycleWorld: "We don’t want the brand to pinned down into cruisers, baggers and touring like everyone probably expects. We want to go beyond that. That won’t be a quick process. It’s not going to happen next year, it’s going to happen over fives and tens of years."

The Scout suggests a first step in that direction. Yes, the Scout is still a cruiser, but very definitely not the cruiser that people would have expected. Meanwhile, in a different CycleWorld interview, this one taking place last week with Scout design team leader Rich Christoph, you get a tiny glimpse at the fact Indian is not looking only at Harley-Davidson when it thinks about competition. Christoph also mentions BMW.

It's easy to imagine, then, that Indian would like to become a true motorcycle brand: a company on par with BMW or Triumph, offering several types of bike under the same heritage banner. I'd certainly love to see that. I'd love for an American company to produce bikes that could compete outside of the AMERICA pastiche. But if that happens, what's left for Victory but to die away?

And yet...

The thing is, I don't want to give up hope. I want to believe that Menneto was telling Forbes the truth. Sure, Victory has spent the past four years giving us little more than bling and Jacqui van Ham (a), but good things take time, y'all. Especially when your parent company is busy re-launching a heritage brand that has the potential to kill you dead.

Design by Salvador Gonzalez
Maybe greatness really is right around the corner for Victory. Maybe Polaris' first-born can still live up to its potential. And there are a few shreds of evidence to support such a belief:

Exhibit A: The whole retooling thing. I've mentioned this before; earlier this year Victory cancelled an annual event at its manufacturing plant in Spirit Lake, Iowa, because the plant was in the process of restructuring to be able to take on increased demand. I would suspect the increased demand is coming from Indian (whose bikes are also manufactured in Spirit Lake) but possibly this process has particularly affected Victory, not allowing them to move forward with plans for performance-and-innovation-related projects. Once the manufacturing lines have been transformed, maybe truly new Victory machines will come forth.

Exhibits B, C, and D: Those sketches we saw back in April. Along with the sketches of the bike we now know as the Indian Scout, designs for three other bikes were leaked a few months ago. The designs were all for a water-cooled V twin with a single front disc, so it is possible that the sketches by Rich Christoph, Ryan Black-Macken and Salvador Gonzalez were just rejected versions of the Scout. But maybe not. Certainly some of the designs seem to wander too far away from the heritage look that Indian would have almost certainly wanted from the very beginning. Perhaps one or all of the additional sketches are of future Victory models. Perhaps they have not yet been introduced because Polaris wanted Indian to get the credit for introducing a water-cooled middleweight.

Exhibit E: I'm not sure Sturgis is really Victory's thing. There's a general feeling -- though I'm not sure I've ever seen this actually stated by them or Polaris -- that Victory would like its focus to be on younger riders. Occasionally you can see suggestions of this in Victory marketing and promotion, though it is very stop-start (b). If Victory really wants to get a younger audience, it'll need to produce a few bikes that cost less than £9,500 (in the US, the cheapest Victory model costs $12,500). But I digress. My point is that my lamenting the future of Victory comes on the heels of an Indian announcement at Sturgis.

And with all due respect to those who attend, I wouldn't really class Sturgis as a young person's event. Take a look at photos of participants and there don't appear to be a whole hell of a lot of them who wouldn't remember the Gulf War. Well, OK, perhaps some wouldn't remember, but that has to do with their consumption of adult beverages. You get my point. Besides, Indian seems keen to reclaim the event as its own, making its biggest announcements during the week of the rally. So, perhaps it is not that Victory has nothing new to offer but that it doesn't want to offer it at Sturgis.

After all, such was the case with the reveal of the Gunner. It didn't slot itself into the 2014 line up until early February.

Design by Rich Christoph
Exhibit F: These things take time. I'm not sure where I picked up this little factoid, but apparently the average time from concept to completion for a motorcycle is 5 years. So, if Polaris really did allow Victory to "go all out" when it acquired Indian in 2011 maybe not enough time has passed for us to see the fruits of that decision.

It's been five years since Victory introduced the Freedom 106 engine, the powerplant behind all its existing models. That was effectively the last time it did anything more than aesthetic changes. Keeping in mind Victory's past history of launching its new models late (its timing with the Judge was similar to what it did with the Gunner), maybe a new -- truly new -- machine will show up within the next six months. Maybe even a few new models: that could account for having taken the axe to six models for 2015.

If Victory doesn't do this, however, I'll be ever more inclined to fall in with the cynics who say Victory is in the death throes. You can't build a prosperous future simply by slapping on a new coat of paint. Personally, I hope it pulls something out of the bag. Although I can't quite picture what Victory could be were Indian to become a full, multi-bike-type brand, I'd certainly like to see it try.

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(a) Not that I'm complaining about the latter. I've got a crush on Jacqui van Ham.

(b) Additionally, there is often a latent sexism in Victory's marketing that I'm not sure works well with younger crowds.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

What makes a biker-friendly pub?

Not too long ago I wrote a post for the Express Insurance blog about finding a biker-friendly place to eat or hang and how the challenges in accomplishing such a thing start right at the very beginning: What does "biker-friendly" mean?

The blog post was aimed at the UK audience, obviously, but I think it apples to motorcyclists in general. Here's a link:


For those of you playing along in the United States, I'd be interested to hear how you go about finding places to ride to, what you expect, and what you would like.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ride review: Yamaha MT-07 (Yamaha FZ-07)

Yamaha MT-07
One of the clichés of motorcycling is that it attracts a fair few older guys and gals. I suppose, since I am well past the target demographic for the WWE, you can loop me in with that crowd. Though, I don't like to admit it. None of us do. One of the appeals of motorcycling for the old and busted set is that it is, in part, a means of ignoring the truths of our chronologies.

Until I test rode the Yamaha MT-07, however, the feeling had always been one of general youthfulness. No bike had taken me back to a specific time in my life, made me pine to be that particular age again. This did. Chris Cope, aged 18-25: I have found the perfect motorcycle for you.

For those of you playing along in the United States, the MT-07 is known there as the Yamaha FZ-07. I don't know why Yamaha insists on using different names. Istanbul is Constantinople. Whatever you call it, the bike is a twin-cylinder joyride producing roughly 74 horsepower, about 50 lb. ft. of torque, and who knows how many devious little smiles beneath the helmet.

The MT-07 is part of Yamaha's "Dark Side" line of bikes, clothing and accessories, and is unashamedly targeted at the sort of person too young to ever once have thought to him- or herself: "You know, actually, the Honda GoldWing really has a lot of good qualities..." 

All the promotional photos show faceless individuals, their features hidden by SWAT-looking Shark Raw helmets, performing stoppies and wheelies and burnouts and aggressive leans in urban settings. The bike's official promo video never actually displays the motorcycle, but instead offers a Japanese anime interpretation set amid a dystopian-industrial megalopolis. It's all very silly stuff and clearly not anywhere on my personal Venn diagram of youthfulness. To that end, it's the sort of bike that might have escaped my notice when I was young enough to be in the MT-07's target demographic. Which is a shame, because I would have loved it.

You make me feel so young

Firstly, I would have loved it because it is so incredibly easy to ride. Quite small as far as bikes go, but with ergonomics that still manage to be acceptable for a 6-foot-1 rider, the MT-07 is light and manageable. And it performs as well at 1 mph as it does at 70 mph. I can't speak for speeds above that because I was in a group of demo riders with strict instructions not to act like... well, like the bike made you want to act. But there was nothing to make me think it incapable of hitting the 130-mph top speed suggested by MCN

Though, I'm not sure how long you'd want to stay at such illegal space on a bike weighing only 180 kg (396 lbs.). Especially in the posture-posse-approved upright riding position the MT-07 places you in. Additionally, there is no wind protection to speak of. My bike had a tiny, almost unnoticeable windscreen (so unnoticeable I didn't realise it was there until I saw pictures of the MT-07 without one) that forced some air upward in a magical way I couldn't quite figure out: I definitely felt wind swirling around me but didn't experience the chest lift and head bobbing at 70 mph one normally gets on a naked bike.

And for the younger version of me who was living in the Twin Cities, and later San Diego, that wouldn't have really mattered. The bike has all the speed and power needed for aggressive freeway riding, just not the ergonomics or weather protection preferred for long-treks across the Great American Expanse.

It is at slower speeds that the MT-07 really amazes, however. Thanks to its wide handlebars, you can put the damned thing anywhere, making you feel like Lord of the Dance within traffic. Or, actually, a lot cooler than Lord of the Dance. My point is simply that you can hit any gap. It is almost as easy to move about as a bicycle, possessing a low centre of gravity, torquey acceleration and brakes that allow you to stop on a dime. Or a 10 pence piece if you live in the UK.

Additionally, the MT-07 is very well balanced. Which means slow-speed maneuvers were so simple I felt like some sort of IAM riding pro.

Another reason my younger self would have loved the bike is its sound. The stock exhaust offers a nice flex-your-muscles growl that is still gentle enough not to annoy the neighbours. But, then, when I was that age I actually enjoyed annoying people. Yamaha accommodates for this by offering a number of exhaust upgrades to suit whatever douchery level you may desire.

Lastly, my younger self would have loved the price of the MT-07. At £5,349 (or £5,448 if you fork out for that bafflingly magic windscreen) it is an absolute bargain. For that money, you get a legitimate "big"-engined bike (689 cc) producing all the power you'll ever really need, along with anti-lock brakes and an all-digital dashboard that offers a speedometer, tachometer, gear position indicator, clock and trip calculator.

Good even if you're old and busted

Not only "the kids" can enjoy the MT-07. If I lived in a larger urban area, such as London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, or any number of sprawling American metro areas (a), this would be at the top of my list. Fun and agile, it is also particularly fuel-efficient. Some owners have reported getting well above 70 miles to the gallon. That makes it great for commuting.

And though it lacks weather protection, the bike does come with a nice, wide seat to keep you comfy through long spells of traffic. The pillion seat is laughable for use with humans but it serves as a great place to strap a Kriega bag, which I think would fit the bike's aesthetic and feel perfectly.

As part of the demo ride, I got a chance to enter to win an MT-07 –– something I had originally told myself I would sell off and use as a deposit on, oh, say, an Indian Scout. But after having ridden and enjoyed the bike, I can't help thinking that I'd be seriously tempted to keep it. It's that much fun.

I will admit, though, I'm unlikely to spend my own money on one. As I say, I'm not the target audience. The bike feels very tiny to me, to the extent I imagined myself sitting on a unicycle. That's fine when trying to weave through traffic but not a feeling you want when traversing windswept swathes of open country. Especially without weather protection.

And as I mentioned above, the bike's overall teenyness extends to its passenger accommodation. I am not exaggerating when I say the pillion seat is the size of a DVD case. Even in my 20s I didn't know too many people with butts small enough to be comfortable on that.

Additionally, I'm not too hot on the bike's look. My wife referred to the MT-07's styling as "Soviet," which I can sort of see. To me, it looks bug-like and squished, as if the bike had been forced into a too-small box. I talk a lot about the importance of aesthetic and other unquantifiable aspects on this blog, so, as the old saying goes, your mileage may vary. I'm sure there must be out there a sizeable contingent of individuals who think the MT-07 looks cool.

But...

Ignoring the criticisms that stem from my age/personal preferences, I did walk away from my MT-07 experience with a few criticisms. Firstly, the bike seems to love false neutral. I experienced this mostly between third and fourth, but occasionally between fourth and fifth.

It's entirely possible, though, that this issue was specific to the demo bike I was riding. The Yamaha Dark Side Tour has been popping up all over Britain this summer and dozens of people had likely used and abused the bike before me. If I were considering buying an MT-07, I would want to test ride another one to be sure.

My other problem is with the placement of the dashboard: you have to tilt your head down to look at it, taking your eyes off the road. The dashboard has lots of useful information, including a tachometer, but a tach isn't particularly helpful when it's not within your line of sight.

Beyond that, it is a solid machine. If you are young and/or urban, and eager to experience the essence of motorcycling -- the thing that keeps all the old guys and gals lying about their age -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a better machine at a better price. And if some sort of tear in the space-time continuum results in my 20-year-old self suddenly showing up in the present day, I'll know exactly the motorcycle to get him.

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(a) Basically, if you live in a metro area where it takes more than 20 minutes to get from one end to the other, you should consider this bike.

Monday, 4 August 2014

What I want: Indian Scout

The new Indian Scout, bedecked with accessories
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to my next bike. I don't know when it will be available in the United Kingdom, nor how the hell I'm going to pay for it (a), but genuinely: this is the bike I want. This is the bike I need. As I said on Twitter, when I woke up on Sunday to learn of the existence of the new Indian Scout, I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. It's as if Indian pulled this motorcycle from my feverish, wishful mind.

Those of you playing along in the United States will see the Scout arrive in dealerships in time for Christmas, according to Indian. So, you might want to make use of the interim time to ensure you've been extra good this year. And if Santa does roll up at your house with one of these, you will have in your possession a bike that is unquestionably the best in its class.

I say that with a caveat, of course. As of this writing, no actual ride reviews of the bike have hit the web. Expect to see them popping up over the next week or so, including a report from fellow blogateers Tina and Steve. But, based on how well received were the Chief and Chieftain (the former earning Cycle World's Best Cruiser of 2014 accolade), it's a fair guess that this thing will tick a lot of boxes.

In its own promotional material, Indian is pitching the Scout as "mid-size," which, in light of the amazing bike it's produced, is possibly a definition that is too confining. But, as I say, within such a class (mid-size cruiser/standard) it is unquestionably the best.

"I think it's f*ckin' sweet," said Rich Christoph, lead designer on the Scout.

The new Scout has a water-cooled, V-twin engine that houses 69 cubic inches of power -- or 1133 cc for those of us living in NotAmericastan. Keen eyes will note that the numbers "1200" are branded on the Scout's engine cover, which helps you to guess the bike most people see as the Scout's primary target in terms of competition: the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200.

I'm not sure Indian really sees it that way, though. If it does, it's brought a rocket launcher to a knife fight, because the Scout's water-cooled engine allows it to produce 100 horsepower. Whereas the Sportster's air-cooled V twin produces 67 horsepower. Indeed, using horsepower as a metric, the Scout even outclasses larger bikes. For example, the nearly 1800-cc Victory Judge (rest in peace) produced 95 horsepower.
  • The Scout out muscles the Yamaha XVS1300 (aka Star Stryker) by 28 horsepower.
  • It beats the much larger Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 by 27 horsepower. 
  • It beats the the Suzuki Intruder 1500 by 22 horsepower. 
  • It beats the Triumph Thunderbird by 14 horsepower. 
  • It tops the Honda CB1100 EX by 12 horsepower. 
  • And it even manages to churn out 4 horsepower more than the much-heralded Moto Guzzi California, a model that landed on a number of publications' best-of lists when it was re-launched a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the Scout produces 72 lb. ft. of torque, which is the same as the Sportster. It seems the only place Harley-Davidson has the edge is in price. In the United States, a standard Sportster costs $350 less than a Scout. Here in the UK, the price disparity is greater, with the Harley-Davidson managing to come in at £1,200 less than the Indian (b).

I love the look of the exhaust.

My guess is that the price difference is so much greater in Her Majesty's United Kingdom because our versions will come with anti-lock brakes. Or so it would seem if you look at the specs sheet on Indian's UK site. It lists ABS as standard (c). That makes sense; from 1 January 2016, anti-lock brakes will be required on all new bikes sold in the European Union.

This feature is not standard on the U.S. versions, however. Probably because Indian is keen to compete on price point. To that end, I'm very much looking forward to the ride report from Bryan Harley of Motorcycle USA, who told me on Twitter (d) that he would find out whether ABS will be offered as an option. I hope it will be. In everything else, I feel Indian has produced a bike that easily vindicates the steeper price tag. It is faster, it is lighter and, in my opinion, it is better looking.

Six speed, belt-driven, and offering an upright riding position on par with the Sportster, Bonneville or XV950, the Scout weighs in just shy of 550 lbs. No, that's not exactly scooter territory but it's still lighter than any comparable bike I can find. And it's just so much better than those bikes. I really can see this being the bike I've hoped for, especially when bedecked in the accessories you see in the picture at the very top of this post. I mean, can we just take a moment to appreciate how cool that bike looks? Click on that picture for a better view.

I think it's the woollen blanket that serves as the cherry on top for me. It's like when Lucky went into full geek mode for a Ural that was sold with a Pendleton blanket. Except, in this case Indian don't sell blankets (maybe it's a Fairbault Woolen Mill blanket), and the bike isn't woefully outdated.

I imagine those bags would look pretty cool after being distressed by British weather.

Not too long ago, I was lamenting the divide between my desire for a bike that I think looks cool and my desire for a bike that can function according to my existing environment and needs. On the face of it, the Scout (with accessories) is the bike to bridge that divide. The bike that can take me to Scotland and Ireland, etc., and the bike I want to be seen on.

I have already e-mailed the folks at Blade Motorcycles in Swindon to ask that they get in touch as soon as they know of the Scout's arrival in Blighty. I am desperate to test ride the thing and thereafter (most likely) hand over all my money to them. Though, there are a few things that I'll be paying particular attention to on that test ride:

Firstly, are those rear shocks sufficient? The same sort of question applies to the Scout's 3.3-gallon fuel tank: is the fuel consumption stingy enough to milk, say, 180 miles from a fill-up? And lastly, is that single front brake enough? It seems to me that 100 horsepower is a lot of "go" which really should have the additional "whoa" of two discs up front. 

Nothing, it seems, is perfect. The Scout, however, feels pretty close. I can't wait to learn more about its ride and performance in the coming weeks, and can't wait to test the bike for myself. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, I will be the proud owner of one. I certainly like the idea of such a thing: of being one of the first to take part in this reinvigoration of history.

The more I look at it, the more I love it.

____________________

(a) The longer it takes for the former to occur the more it will aid the latter, giving me time to save money.

(b) Typically, the numbers for dollars and pounds match up. That is to say, if something costs $100 in the United States it will cost £100 in the United Kingdom. That's somewhat unfair to us because the pound is actually worth more than the dollar. So, that $100 item is costing us $160. 

(c) I have a rumbling fear of this being a mistake. It seems to me the standard equipment blurb was cut and paste from that of the Chief Classic, because it also lists as standard a light bar and keyless start -- two things the Scout most obviously does not have.  

(d) Humblebrag