Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What I want: Moto Guzzi Griso 1200 SE

There's something rather lewd about its look: all that engine spilling out of the frame and those Dali-esque pipes stretching its length. It's alluring. It feels indecent. It's like seeing a giant poster of Dita Von Teese in a public place, peering down at you while you and your wife walk through a shopping centre in search of mundane things like spatulas and a card for your Uncle Leroy's birthday. Deep down in your conscience, some part of you rumbles and tries to make you look away. 

"Don't just stand there and gawp, man," your brain shouts. "Show a little decorum. Stop being such a perv."

But you can't stop looking, can't pull your eyes away. Each curve and line captivates you, hypnotizes you, and draws your eyes to the next. You stare and stare and stare as if trying to memorise it all. In the case of the Von Teese poster you might try to play it off, might try to tell your wife you were looking at something else (a), but in the case of the Moto Guzzi Griso it's OK to keep staring.

This is a bike that I want if not simply to be able to sit and look at it.

Although, the Dita Von Teese comparison is not quite right. The Griso's beauty is thuggish. And to just look at it is to miss all the fun. Its engine is equally thuggish, and the infamous transverse air-cooled V-twin kicks out a whopping 110 hp at 7,5000 rpm. It also produces a hefty 80 lb.-ft of torque. Those are damned good numbers for a 1200cc engine, y'all (compare them to the 61 hp and 67 lb.-ft of torque delivered by the equally 1200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster).

I've been consumed with thoughts of this bike for a few months now and have found myself reading every review I can find, watching every YouTube video. You know you've got it bad when you're willing to sit through a video of Germans in ill-fitting fedoras trying to be hip just for the sake of seeing and hearing the bike on the move.

When it fires up, the Griso's unique engine set-up causes it to shake from side to side. Moto Guzzi fans refer to that as "character" and I think I'd be perfectly fine with it because: a) it goes away once you're on the move; b) that shaking-at-idle sensation is something I thought was cool about riding a Harley-Davidson. I kind of like the idea of sitting on a machine that is so eager to hurtle me forward it cannot sit still.

And, as I say, once you give in to the bike's desire to move it apparently does so quite well, delivering –– according to reviews –– sporty performance in higher gears. Though, admittedly, in the low gears there can be a certain amount of lash from the Griso's shaft drive. I can't decide whether that would annoy me. I guess it depends on just how much lash there is and whether it would prevent me from feeling comfortable filtering through traffic.

But if it's just a matter of "quirkiness" and "character" and other diplomatic words to describe an engine that's behaving the way it looks then I suspect I might fall in love with it. I still often pine for the rodeo-bull nature of the 1969 Ford F250 pickup truck I used to drive in high school. A friend of mine commented at the time that the truck's suspension seemed to consist solely of the springy bench seat that bounced you up and down at speed.

However, as much as I love character, I have a pretty hard-line stance on anti-lock brakes. The Griso comes with a number of desirable features like shaft drive, LED lighting and dual front brake discs, but those brakes are not anti-lock. Because of this, I had somewhat dismissed the Griso as a machine that I'd ever spend my own money on.

But then Moto Guzzi announced that another bike I love the look of, the V7 Stone, will soon be equipped with ABS and traction control. Why a 48 hp bike needs traction control, I don't know; but it struck me as a big announcement because I think most people assumed that manufacturers of "modern classics" like the V7 Stone, the Triumph Bonneville and the Kawasaki W800 would hold off on adhering to upcoming EU regulations for as long as they could, milking their standard braking systems for one more year.

"Hey, wow," I thought upon learning of the changes coming to the V7 Stone. "Perhaps this could be my next bike. It's definitely got the look and style; now it's got the brakes I want."

And, indeed, the V7 very well could be something I'd get. Though I'm still a little put off by two issues: a) the whole 48 hp thing; b) it requires bias/cross-ply tires. It's always been my understanding that bias are dangerously inferior to radial tires (b).

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that if Moto Guzzi is planning to update its most classic bike for 2015 it should almost certainly do the same with other models, including the Griso. I would expect full details to come out this week at the INTERMOT show

So, the Griso is back on my list. The question now is how to pay for it. Like other Italian motorcycles, Moto Guzzis do not come cheap.


(a) I'm very lucky that in this particular case I would not have to manufacture a lie. My wife used to be a burlesque dancer. So I could just outright point at the poster and say: "Babe, we need to get you a bustier like that!"

(b) If anyone would like to shed light on whether I am wrong in this, please do so in the comment section. I really don't know that much about tires.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Stuff I don't know: Why not use aluminium?

"Man, if I had the money, I think I'd get one of those Honda F6Bs," I'll sometimes tell myself.

Effectively Honda's Goldwing grand tourer sans top box, the F6B is, after all, a good-looking machine. And from everything I've read it's a hell of a lot of fun to ride, with handling that belies its massive weight and size. Ever since the bike was released a few years ago I've been daydreaming about owning one and riding it all over North America.

"But, actually," I'll say, continuing the thought. "If I had the money I can't imagine that I ever actually would spend it on an F6B. Because plastic."

Having seen one of these beasts in person I couldn't help but notice that it possesses quite a lot of plastic -- something that puts me off for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it feels wrong to pay £20,000 (a) for a motorcycle with that much plastic. But more importantly because of what plastic does when stressed: it cracks.

Drop the F6B or accidentally whack it with a hard object and you'll be left with cracked bits of fairing that will fall off and cost you hundreds upon hundreds of whatever currency you use to get it fixed. Whereas if said damage were to occur to a metal part the result would be scratched paint and possibly a dent. Which might add a certain emotional value to the thing. Scars are cool, after all.

I'm picking on the F6B a little here simply because it has so much plastic, but the truth is that plastic is a feature of a great many bikes. I'm in stupid love with the Victory Cross Country, for example, but I know that if you fling that bike on its side the result will be quite similar as with the F6B: lots of cracked plastic (b).

My question is: why?

Not why does plastic crack, but why do modern motorcycle manufacturers use so much plastic? Or, rather, isn't there anything else they could use instead?

I understand that plastic has a fair few advantages: it's relatively cheap to make (and therefore less cost is passed onto the consumer) and it's light. Both very good things. But would it be possible to use some sort of other material, like aluminium? Why not make aluminium fairing? Is that possible?

It seems to me that aluminium would be more or less as light and as cheap as plastic, but with the advantage of being less likely to crack. Or, what about magnesium, which weighs a third less than aluminium?

Is plastic really the best solution? I feel, however, that if my aluminium or magnesium idea was valid somebody would be doing it by now. So, there must be a good reason; I just don't know what it is. Anyone have an answer?

I'd love to know.


(a) I can't help noticing that it costs $20,000 in the United States, which is terribly unfair. Because $20,000 is £12,263. If offered here at that price it would be a damned reasonable machine. That price difference is so huge, I wonder if you'd ultimately come out ahead buying an F6B in the United States and importing it to the UK.

(b) Actually, no, I don't think that would necessarily happen, because I'm pretty sure the Cross Country comes with those kick-ass Victory floorboards that keep the bike from going all the way over.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ride review: Honda CBF600SA

Honda CBF600SA
It occurred to me today that with all the bike reviews I've written (something I really like doing because it inherently means riding different motorbikes) I've never taken the time to review the one I know best –– my own.

The CBF600SA is no longer part of Honda's lineup, having been available from 2004-2013, but they are damned durable machines and as such will be floating around in the used market for quite some time. Midway through its run –– in 2007 –– the model received a handful of relatively unnoticeable updates with the major difference being the engine. Mine is a 2005 model, running on a detuned engine from the venerable CB600F Hornet. From 2007, the CBF600 carried a detuned CBR600RR engine.

In both cases, the Honda CBF600SA is an interminable workhorse, producing 76 hp and about 43 ft.-lb. of torque. Those are decent enough numbers. As I've said many times before: in reality, that level of power is all you need.

However, maximum horsepower is achieved at 10,500 rpm, which means you will almost certainly never actually experience all 76 of the Honda's horses. Things get way too vibey and wheezy before that. Maximum torque is reportedly found at 8,000 rpm, which is right about where things get ridiculous. You'll find life easier when pushing the engine less. 

I'm not one to care much about numbers, though. I'm the sort of guy who often focuses on intangibles. And the narrative of what the CBF600SA is can be encapsulated, I think, in two personal experiences:

1) My brother owns, but very rarely rides, a Honda CBR1000RR –– arguably one of the greatest sportbikes ever made. However, the reason he rarely takes the bike out, he told me, is that he has yet to figure out how to ride it without suffering so many accidental wheelies.
"What do you do to keep that front wheel from coming up so much?" he asked.
"That has never ever happened to me," I said. "I'm not entirely sure I could wheelie if I wanted to."

2) I rode to Scotland and back not too long ago, putting more than 1,000 miles on the odometer. More recently, I clocked up roughly 600 miles on a jaunt to Yorkshire. I've also done long runs to West Sussex, North Wales, the Midlands, the West Country, West Wales and dozens of other places you've likely never heard of if you're reading this in the United States. In all that riding, in all those thousands of miles, I have not had a problem with the bike.

Maintenance is relatively easy.
So, the story of the CBF600SA is of a machine that is lacking in character but that will take you wherever you want to go, as far as you want to go, whenever you want to go, and never let you down.

That's more or less what Honda intended. Never released in the cruiser-focused U.S. market, the model was dually aimed at newish riders and no-frills-needing commuters. It doesn't do wheelies but its 19-litre tank (5 US gallons) will carry you some 220 miles before the fuel light comes on. It is a legitimate "big bike," with all the weight and mass that entails, whilst remaining smooth and forgiving of mistakes. Almost to a fault.

Of course, the CBF600SA was/has been my first big bike and I chose it in part because I had learned to ride on a naked version of it: the uninspiringly named CBF600N. So, it was an issue of choosing the devil I knew. I knew how it responded to certain situations; I knew I could spend a decent amount of time in its saddle.

Theoretically, that saddle is adjustable to three different heights, but long-legged dudes like me (I'm 6 foot 1) will find the highest setting hard to achieve. The seat's not-at-all-easy-to-access bolts aren't long enough; you'll need to find different bolts to make it work. And once you do, you'll find the aesthetics of the bike negatively affected, with the ugly bottom seams of the tank suddenly visible. Because I care about how things look and I'm too lazy to go hunting for different bolts, I live with the standard middle setting.

Also adjustable is the bike's windscreen. Again, there are three different positions, but in this case making changes is far easier. After experimenting with different heights I settled on the highest position, which puts wind at about face-shield level for me.

Honda used to label the CBF600SA as a sport tourer, which is a stretch in one sense of the category if not both. But I suppose if they'd labeled it truthfully as a two-wheeled mule it might not have sold well. 

On the sport end of things, the bike doesn't churn out nearly the horsepower of the bikes from which it gets its proverbial Adam's rib. Also no longer on the lineup, the CB600F Hornet in its heyday gave 100 bhp; the CBR600RR pushes closer to 120 bhp.  So, the CBF600SA is a distance from where it could be and, as I said, wringing all 76 horses from it is a hell of a challenge.

Loaded with gear in Scotland.
Meanwhile, although it handles like a dream when compared to something like a Victory Jackpot, the Honda is not as flickable as many other bikes I've ridden and strikes me as unnecessarily top heavy. It is not awful, but simply not as good as it could probably be. 

However, lamenting its lethargy on twisty roads is probably missing the point. This bike was always targeted newbies and commuters. And back when I first got it –– when I was a newbie, often overcome with nerves at the mere fact of being on a bike –– it had all the power I could possibly want. I mean, hell, the thing can go 140 mph! (a)

In situations more familiar to newbies and commuters –– obeying the speed limit, straight lines, slow-speed manoeuvres, filtering, etc. –– the CBF600SA performs admirably. And to that end, it better supports the "tourer" side of Honda's definition. The liquid-cooled inline-four engine can happily drone on and on and on, easily cruising at or above motorway speeds without complaints or surprises. On long hauls I tend to peg it at 75-80 mph, which puts the rev counter at or below 6,000 (depending on wind resistance), and a safe distance from the high-rev vibration I mentioned. Passing at motorway speed comes easily, with a generous twist of throttle springing you past that texting driver or out of the way of that lane-changing National Express bus. 

Perhaps in part because it weighs 225 kg (500 lbs.), the CBF600SA is rock solid at those speeds. The half fairing helps, too, of course, keeping wind off your upper body. If you lean forward and lay your chest on the tank, peering through the windscreen, you find a decent-sized pocket of undisturbed air to hide in when riding home from Bristol in 1º C (33º F) weather. Though you will look a bit silly when doing so, because the natural seating position of the CBF600SA is upright –– again, more "tourer" than "sport."

Add heated grips and the Honda's touring credentials are bolstered a little further. Additionally, it takes soft luggage well, has a number of places to hook bungee cords, and possesses a passenger seat that is sized for an actual human being. 

"I have plenty of room there," my wife told me. "A few inches between your bum and my... you know... and then a few more inches behind. So, I can move around a little."

There is equally a good amount of space on the seat for a rider to move around. Which is fortunate because the seat is not the most comfortable for long hauls. My wife can last roughly 50 miles before she starts to get antsy and needs a break; I can manage about double that. I sometimes think, because of its size, durability and fuel efficiency, the CBF600SA might be a good machine on which to attempt a Saddle Sore 1000 ride. However, I will definitely need to find a seating solution first. 

It's not sexy, but it helps me feel free.
On the go, moving through the bike's six gears is simple enough. First is a little short for my liking and pushing it too hard can result in second being hard to find. This is really only an issue, though, when you have gotten into a pissing match with a guy in a Ford KA and are launching from a stop light to prove to him how much more manly you are. Yes, you'll beat him across the intersection but thereafter watch him wheeze past as you are forced to bring the revs down to wiggle out of neutral.

Shifting can also be less than silky when the bike is very hot.

The brakes, though, are always good. Two discs up front mean stops can be delivered easily with just two fingers on the lever. And the otherwise-unobtrusive ABS has been damned useful in the handful of times it has deployed. So useful, in fact, that I will not consider buying any motorcycle without it.

Motorcycle suspension is still something of a dark art to me, so I can't really say much beyond the fact that the CBF600SA has an adjustable rear suspension that I've never felt the need to adjust. It's handled all the situations I've put it in, and deals with the third-world state of British roads decently well.

"Decent" is a word that could be used over and over when describing the CBF600SA. "Well-mannered" is another superlative that comes to mind. Especially when talking about the bike's sound. Push the engine way, way too hard and you can get it to sound a bit like a tortured robotic cat, but during normal operating conditions the exhaust note is far more like a low-powered vacuum cleaner being used in an adjacent room. At motorway speeds I cannot hear it at all.

The immature side of me laments this, but I have to admit there are some solid benefits. Firstly, I don't need my own engine noise to remind me that I'm moving. And with the CBF600SA running so quietly I can hear instead the engines and sometimes even tires of other road users, giving me a greater sense of awareness. Loud pipes do not save lives; knowing what the hell is going on around you does. Secondly, the Honda's quiet engine means I have never had a single complaint from the senior citizen couple whose bedroom window is right next to the shed where I park my bike. 

Overall, the Honda CBF600SA is sort of the motorcycling equivalent of Europe. No, not the continent but the 80s hair rock band. Do you know anyone who owns a Europe CD? Yeah, me neither. Yet all of us can rock out to "Final Countdown" if needs must. Are Europe's riffs as good as AC/DC's? Nope. Do they have the depth of Metallica? No, sir. But they do the job. You can still air guitar, and you won't run the risk of upsetting your mom.

My first bike and me
I find it slightly difficult to understand why anyone ever bought a new one, but when purchased second-hand these machines are incredibly good value for money. Service intervals are every 4,000 miles and much of the work can be done yourself with a little bit of patience and a Haynes manual –– even if you are something of a mechanical moron like me.

In the end, the Honda CBF600SA is a pretty good motorcycle. It's a dependable all-rounder that may start to bore you after a year or so, but will simultaneously raise your standards as you look for your next machine. Good for commuting, well suited to new or returning riders, and passable as a light-duty practical tourer. It's pretty good. And depending on your experience/demands/finances, it might be good enough for you. Just don't expect it to necessarily set your heart on fire.

Though, having now written this review I feel inclined to take it out for a ride.


(a) So they say. I can't verify that personally, as I don't have the cajones to go that fast.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Looking forward to INTERMOT

Bring this bike to the UK, Victory!
For those of us riding in the northern hemisphere, cooler weather is beginning to creep in. Especially in the mornings, some folks are already clicking on their heated gear. Within the next month or two, leaves on trees will change, providing visually stunning riding for those lucky enough to live near a deciduous forest. 

Autumn is a great time to ride, but it brings with it a kind of melancholy because it means the return of what the ancient Celts used to call The Long Dark: winter. Here in the UK, most of us can ride through those months but it is often an unpleasant experience. In other parts of the northern hemisphere, snow will fall, ice will form, and only those with the greatest of derring-do will venture out on two wheels.

Thankfully, this time of year brings us a few things to keep our spirits up: trade and consumer motorcycle shows, where the newest and coolest bikes are most often revealed. 

One such show is Motorcycle Live, which takes place in Birmingham in November. I'm considering going because the event includes the opportunity to test ride a number of bikes whilst also trying out top-level gear. Tickets to the show cost £17 (US $28) and getting there will inevitably mean doing the 125-mile ride to Birmingham in the rain. So, whether I am motivated to go will depend to a certain extent on what happens at a different show: INTERMOT.

One of the world's largest trade fairs for motorcycles, INTERMOT will take place in Cologne, Germany, during the first week of October. The event draws roughly 250,000 visitors and is generally the point when we see a whole host of new models revealed. In the build up to the event there have been all kinds of leaks and rumours, to the extent that I'm half inclined to ride all the way to Germany just to be a part of it.

Maybe next year. Such a trip would require far more planning and money than I have right now, so I'll just have to live it vicariously. In the meantime, here are a few things I'm hoping to see come from INTERMOT:

An ABS-equipped Victory Gunner
I'm probably the only who cares, but Victory are announcing their European 2015 model year line up at INTERMOT. I'd expect it to be pretty similar to the disappointing line up already announced in the United States. But it's worth noting that the 2014 European line up was not exactly the same. The Gunner still hasn't shown up on our shores, whereas we have three different versions of the Hammer (as opposed to one in the United States). Additionally, many manufacturers offer slightly different specs on European models than those sold in the United States. For example, ABS is already standard on all Harley-Davidson machines sold; it will be standard on the Indian Scout when it arrives in March. So, I'd love to see the Gunner finally brought over here -- equipped with the ABS that will be required in the European Union from 2016.

Some sort of magical other thing from Victory
It was about this time last year -- at EICMA, another major European show -- that Harley-Davidson first announced the Street series. That bike, of course, is targeted primarily at audiences outside the United States. If Victory were going to do something incredibly bold and offer a smaller-displacement, liquid-cooled bike, here in Europe might be the place to do it. However, I'd say the odds of such a thing happening are very minimal.

Image of a planned adventure-tourer using the MT-09 engine.
A middleweight Yamaha FJR
I mentioned this in my previous post, but Yamaha is working on two new platforms for the engine currently being housed in the MT-09: an adventure-tourer and something else. I blow hot and cold on such things, admittedly, but lately I've been all hot again on the idea of owning a middleweight sport tourer like the BMW F800GT. But that thing costs too much. So, what I'm hoping to see from Yamaha is a lighter, more affordable version of the FJR1300. Motorcycle cops in the UK are big fans of that bike and I trust their opinion. Although the MT-09 is a disappointment, I am certain Yamaha can still get it right with that three-cylinder engine. INTERMOT may be a little too soon for us to see such a thing, though. So far, I've only heard talk. One would expect spy shots to have been leaked if an actual bike were imminent.

A BMW adventure sport tourer
What are we calling these things? The bikes that, like the Ducati Multistrada, look a bit like offroad machines but are definitely not supposed to be used offroad? I'm not sure of the name being used for them. Nonetheless, there are spy shots of this one and I suspect a German event would be the ideal place for BMW to finally reveal it. I suspect, too, that it will turn out to be a hell of a machine. I'm not terribly hot on the look of adventure and adventure-tourer bikes, but when they are put together well I can't help but respect them. It's a good bet the Beemer will respectable. It will probably also be ungodly expensive and something I'll only be able to admire from afar.

A fleeting glimpse of the new Kawasaki Versys
A revamped Kawasaki Versys
Also spied recently, this time in Romania on what appears to be the site for a promotional video, is an updated version of the venerable Kawasaki Versys. The Versys and Versys 1000 have been around for a while now. Both are top-notch machines by all accounts -- the Versys 1000 especially. It has a whopping good amount of power, a load of bells and whistles, thought-out passenger accommodation, and a pretty agreeable price. But great googly-moogly is it ugly. I mean, even by adventure-tourer standards it's ugly. It looks like it was built by robots. And not even smart robots. The new version appears to have a little more fairing and has done away with the weird death ray headlight. It still looks goofy, but nearly as goofy as it used to.

Something from Suzuki that doesn't suck
I don't really know how things are going in the United States but here in Europe Suzuki is really hurting. In the UK, the company has earned a reputation as the brand of choice for chavs and gypsies, and despite offering massive rebates on its models it is not in the top 10 of motorcycle sales. Reportedly, Suzuki is keen to reverse its dire situation and plans to release at least a dozen new models over the next two years. Perhaps one or two of those will be revealed at INTERMOT. One hopes it will actually be a new model, rather than another reworked Bandit.

Anti-lock brakes on Triumph's Bonneville range
I've fallen out of love with the Triumph Bonneville, especially since learning that its front tire is bias and the rear radial (why?!). But you'll remember that my first real issue with the otherwise beautiful machine is its lack of anti-lock brakes. I'm a stickler on that feature and it annoys me that Triumph has left it off its Bonneville range, i.e. Bonneville, Thruxton, Scrambler, America and Speedmaster. Whereas it is available on all other Triumph models. Although I've cooled on the Bonneville I am still very much in love with the Speedmaster (which receives normal radial tires on both front and rear). With only a year left before the European Union requires it, and several years having passed since the Bonneville range received any real updates, I'm hoping Triumph will be announcing it has extended ABS to all its models.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


The lads of El Soliario
Here are a some miscellaneous things that have been on my mind lately:

Farewell Bob Skoot
It would appear that Bob Skoot, author of Riding the Wet Coast and avowed Crocs lover has died. Within the tiny sub-culture within a sub-culture that is blogging about motorcycles Bob was well known as the guy who would actually read posts and leave thoughtful comments. I didn't interact with him as much as I now wish I had, but he was a definitely a good man. 

Victory's hard sell
Victory is offering some pretty hefty rebates on all of its models at the moment -- up to $2,000. This rebate applies to a huge swathe of models, going back to those from the 2012 model year. Any time a manufacturer has to slash prices it suggests all is not well, but what's particularly telling to me is that there are apparently so many unsold models from years past. Perhaps that's behind Victory scrapping so many models for its 2015 model year line up: it simply wasn't selling the models it was making. And that certainly makes one concerned for the company's future. However, if you're looking for a silver lining, maybe Victory is doing its best to sell old stock because it knows that something considerably better is just around the corner. Perhaps a higher-performance engine that would make older models considerably less desirable? And anti-lock brakes on all the models?

Someone at Yamaha is listening
I suggested in my review of the Yamaha MT-09 (aka the Yamaha FZ-09) that its engine would be better suited to a different format. Unlike the delightful MT-07, the larger MT-09 doesn't have the character and spirit to make you overlook the shortcomings of a naked hooligan-targeted bike (e.g. no viable passenger accommodation, no wind protection). Instead, the MT-09's triple strikes me as better suited to bike suited to motorway (freeway) commuting and light touring. It seems Yamaha has gotten the message. Not too long ago it registered a trademark for an adventure-style sport tourer -- something similar to a Suzuki V-Strom or Honda Crossrunner. Then, this week CARB documents revealed that Yamaha is working on yet another platform for the MT-09's triple. Motorcycle.com notes that both new bikes will be given an FJ designation (FJ09FCGY and FJ09FCR). I am really bad at divining stuff from motorcycle names but my hope is that all this means Yamaha will be developing a lighter (and cheaper) version of its venerable FJR1300. Something on par with the Honda VFR800F or BMW F800GT.

Keanu's bike costs three times as much as a house in Detroit
Many moons ago, I sang the praises of the Keanu-Reeves-backed Arch KRGT-1. My primary point in liking the bike was the fact that it was American and it was new. At the time, the Polaris Indians had yet to be revealed, so I was simply happy to see someone attempting to move the American motorcycle discussion forward. But then Chief and Chieftain showed up. Then Harley-Davidson introduced Project Rushmore, made improvements to all its models, introduced the Street line, and went all-in on developing the Livewire. Then Indian released the Scout. Now Arch has finally announced it is ready to sell the KRGT-1 and it is a chain-driven, no-ABS, disappointment that looks like something Roland Sands would do on a budget. And Arch is asking $78,000 for it. 

El Soliario has a big set
CycleWorld has called El Solitario's Impostor custom BMW RnineT "the world's most hated motorcycle." El Solitario is a builder based out of Spain that's on the forefront of the custom scene that I love so much -- the Wheels & Waves scene of grizzled Gringo-helmet-wearing Europeans speaking in viscidly poetic terms about motorcycles and souls. Well, them and Roland Sands. Anyhoo, a while ago, as part of its launch for the bike, BMW gave a number of these custom builders an RnineT with which to do as they please. Germany's Urban Motor turned it into a muscled flat tracker, Roland Sands decided to use the bike as an exercise in subtle beautification, Over in Japan, builders transformed the RnineT into sleek cafe, racing and new wave machines. But El Solitario, what did they do? They took a brand new high-performance machine and made it look like a Mad Max prop that had been kicked off a cliff and abandoned for several years. They went rock n' roll; they went punk. Whereas all the other builds effectively help BMW sell its bikes, the El Solitario Impostor is a big middle finger to that idea. Which inherently makes it a thing of particular beauty.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The forgotten names

How many have you heard of?
  • Abingdon 
  • Advance 
  • AJS 
  • Ariel 
  • Arno 
  • BAT 
  • Beardmore 
  • Beeston 
  • Brough Superior
  • BSA
  • Centaur
  • Chater-Lea
  • Clyno
  • Cotton
  • Coventry Eagle
  • CTS
  • Douglas
  • Excelsior
  • Garrard
  • Greeves
  • Grigg
  • Grindlay Peerless
  • Humber
  • Hyde
  • Invicta
  • James
  • Lea Francis
  • Levis
  • Marsh
  • Martinsyde
  • Matchless
  • Minerva
  • Montgomery
  • N.U.T.
  • New Comet
  • New Imperial
  • NLG
  • Norman
  • Norton
  • NVT
  • OEC
  • OK Bradshaw
  • OK Supreme
  • Panther
  • Quadrant
  • Rex
  • Reynolds
  • Rover
  • Royal Enfield
  • Rudge Whitworth
  • Scott
  • Singer
  • Sunbeam
  • Triumph
  • Velocette
  • Vincent
  • Wilkinson Sword
  • Wooler
  • Zenith
This is Part III of my Yorkshire Dales trip.

I was up early on the trip's final day. Showered and with all my gear packed before breakfast, I was keen to be on the road by 9 a.m.  Because I ended up fussing over my tank bag, however, actual departure time was on the lateish side of 9:30.

I have an Oxford X30 magnetic tank bag, which is a damned useful bit of kit but for the fact that it causes paint damage. I'll write a full review at some point in the future but I can tell you simply the bag is so useful that even when it starts making tiny little scratches on your tank you'll find it difficult to replace. All those pockets come in handy.

On the way up to Yorkshire I had strapped it instead to the rear rack. That removed some of the bag's functionality (e.g., I couldn't just pull to the side of the road and dig out a map or bottle of water without getting off the bike) but I thought it worth it for the sake of my paint job. At the end of that day's ride, however, I noticed the bag had shifted to the left quite a bit, despite being held down by a number of bungee cords.

Because I was using the Oxford X30 to carry my laptop, I found myself fretting too much when packing up for the ride back. Better to suffer scratched paint than the loss of a MacBook, I decided. Though it took me half an hour to make that decision.

Yorkshire Dales
Finally on the road, I learned Yorkshire Dales National Park on a weekday is absolutely one of the best places in Britain to ride. The roads were perfect and so quiet I was able to loop back and re-run certain sections, pushing my skills while staying within my comfort zone. 

For instance, I found a great section of switchback curves that I initially hit at about 45 mph. Traffic was non-existent, so I was able to go back and do the section again and again, slowly working up to taking it at 60 mph.

After a while I made my way out of the country roads to the bustle of Leeds, stopping to check out one of the physical shops for GetGeared, sort of a UK version of Revzilla. In my head, this shop was going to be ginormous and burgeoning with the toys and accoutrements of motorcycling –– a place where I could see and touch all the things that are sold on the GetGeared site. But, of course, it wasn't. 

That's sort of the way with motorcycling, isn't it? Or, at least, that's sort of the way with motorcycling in the UK. You have to downscale your expectations. Things are never as big or as flashy as you want to be.

You go to a Sideburn event hoping for Wheels & Waves, but instead find it's just four dudes drinking cider next to a rat rod Harley. You go to a bike show picturing food vendors and rock bands and custom bikes and revelry, but instead it's just a dozen rollie-smoking middle-aged blokes in worn-out leather onesies eating bacon sandwiches and prodding Ninjas with all the enthusiasm and cheer of a wet cat. You go to the brick-and-mortar location of a large internet retailer imagining an endless wonderland of goods, but instead it's just a dusty shop in an industrial estate.

I looked at a few bags, bought a new pair of riding sunglasses for £14, and got back on the road.

The northern trunk of England is split by the Pennines, a mountain range of sorts oft referred to as the "backbone of England." The main transportation arteries in that part of the country run on either side. Dropping to Leeds and thereby following the eastern route home had tacked on an additional 20 miles to my journey home but I didn't have anywhere particular to be and it's always nice to see someplace new.

National Motorcycle Museum
Plus, this route took me past the National Motorcycle Museum –– a place I've been wanting to visit for a while. I've mentioned before that Britain has an incredibly rich motorcycle past, and that I find it sad so little of that spirit is felt in the modern era. The British archipelago was once home to hundreds of motorcycle manufacturers, and their products were an integral part of life here. From the Isle of Man TT to the ton-up boys, the motorcycle was for many decades intrinsic to the British character.

Take a look at the names listed on the right side of this post. They are the bike manufacturers you will find represented at the National Motorcycle Museum –– still only some of the names from the United Kingdom's amazing and largely forgotten motorcycling past.

I was excited to go to the museum to see these machines and learn their history, to learn more about the culture in which they existed (What factors led to the UK having so many motorcycle manufacturers? Why wasn't there a similar culture in the United States?), and the people of that culture. I wanted to learn about the ton-up boys, the rockers, the mods, the road racers, the war dispatch riders, the butlers on Royal Enfields, the fiery socialists who would speed from rally to rally, the wild poets who would fly down country lanes. These are all tales that I have heard pieces of, tales that have been features of greater tales, but not tales in and of themselves.

1934 New Imperial
I imagined spending all day at the motorcycle museum, getting lost in the story of each bike. But remember a few paragraphs ago when I was talking about downscaling expectations?

Yeah. That.

The National Motorcycle Museum is squeezed into a building that appears to be an abandoned Holiday Inn. Taking up three large conference rooms of this "hotel" is a great mass of bikes that are placed within inches of each other, the overall effect being that everything just sort of blurs together. The bikes feel more as if in storage rather than on display, with single sheets of paper identifying them. In most cases, these sheets of paper offer only the make, model, year and engine size of the bike –– no information about the bike's significance or history is given.

Basically, the National Motorcycle Museum is just a collection of things. There is almost no interpretation. A good example of this was the CTS motorcycle Robin Jac had ridden in the Isle of Man. I only knew it was his bike because on the seat had been placed a copy of Y Fellten Goch, the Welsh-language book about him.

1938 OEC
Robin Jac was an absolute nutcase who used to spray paint his racing leathers red and smoke cigarettes whilst racing. But what visitor to the National Motorcycle Museum –– located in  Birmingham, in the heart of England –– would know that? I'll bet the number of Welsh speakers who visit each year could be counted on one hand.

You could create an entire interpretive display around Robin Jac's motorcycle and the character who rode it. Pictures, perhaps video, and some text telling of his wilder adventures (such as the fact that he used to practice for the Isle of Man TT by screaming down public mountain roads in Snowdonia National Park). And that's just one bike among hundreds.

Within the National Motorcycle Museum there exists incredible potential for rich and fascinating storytelling. Thousands of tales are right there to inspire and excite the imagination. But as is, the museum is just a big warehouse full of oily old pieces of metal. Three rooms full of forgotten names. It is a great disappointment and not really worth the £9 admission price.

1932 Panther
On the floor above the museum I found a balcony where I sat and ate some food I had packed in the morning. Looking out across the car park, I saw two motorbikes trundling up, both dirty from the road and absolutely weighed down with gear. One was considerably older and rougher than the other, though: placing its rider in a cafe racer position, spitting smoke and growling its way through the car park.

I watched as the riders parked, dismounted and walked toward the museum to experience its disappointment for themselves. I tried to get my things together quickly enough to meet them downstairs and ask about their bikes but was too slow. Truthfully, though, one part of me was happy with this, though, because it meant I could scrutinise their bikes more closely, without worrying that I was making the owners uncomfortable by standing too close or paying too much attention to this or that aspect.

Arriving at the bikes, I could tell said owners would not have given a damn about my having a look. Both machines wore the black-and-silver number plates of a classic motorcycle. One was a late 80s Honda Revere, though: a 650-cc shaft driven lump of ugly that I personally feel fudges the definition of "classic." No doubt, the damned thing will continue to run for the next century, until it really is a classic.

Moving history
Next to it was a ridden-hard Triton. I mean, it had really been ridden hard. The air-cooled engine still tink-tinking with heat, it had already marked its territory with a few drops of oil. The rider had wrapped the grips in gaffer tape, with a dowel rod being taped to the throttle to serve as a homemade cramp buster. The tank was dented, the pipes were rusted, and it was clear the only time the thing saw cleaning was when it rained. But this bike told more of a story than any of those I had seen in the museum.

Walking back to my own bike I saw it now in a slightly different light. It's a workhorse is my Honda CBF600 SA. She's not sexy, she's not terribly fast, but she goes and goes and goes, and she takes me where I want to be. Maybe that's what I want right now. Or, at least, what I should be thankful for right now.

Sure, a BMW F800GT might do it better, an Indian Scout would definitely do it with more style, but the Honda is what I have. And the point of a bike is not for it to be just something to look at, to be something to put in a museum and have serve as a lifeless example of what a motorcycle looks like. The point is that it takes you places; it's the research tool for all the stories you'll tell.

The story I wanted to tell now, though, was one of being home, back in Penarth with Jenn. I covered the last 120 miles of my ride as quickly as I could, finding light traffic on the M50 and only stopping once to pee.

With the NATO summit now just days away, the area between Newport and Cardiff was crawling with security. Police officers were stationed on every single bridge that crossed the M4. But this somehow resulted in a more steady flow. It turns out all those traffic planners are right: if people would just stick to a consistent speed we really would get places faster.

A short while later, the sun was starting to set as I washed the bugs off my bike. I oiled the chain and went through my usual post-ride ritual of checking fluids and spraying bits with WD-40 to help keep away rust. The engine still had a tiny bit of warmth as I pulled on the bike's heavy cover.

"You're alright, girl," I said aloud to the bike. "Thanks for taking me on adventures."

Monday, 8 September 2014

Ay up

A stone wall near Grassington
This is Part 2 of my Yorkshire Dales trip. To read Part 1 click here.

One of the strange aspects of British life is that all 64 million of us are crammed into a space no larger than the state of Oregon, but getting around in that space takes an excruciatingly long time. And it feels even longer. As I've said before, the best way to think about it is to add a 0 to whatever distance you intend to travel. So, this 260-mile ride to Yorkshire Dales National Park felt like one that was 2,600 miles long.

By the time I had escaped the northern reaches of Birmingham I was stupid with boredom. Traffic had been slowed to 50 mph thanks to congestion and roadworks. The flow of traffic was steady, so putt-putting along at about 4,000 rpm was doing wonders for my fuel consumption, but it was heavy enough I could not take my eyes off the road. I wasn't able to look at the surrounding countryside, just the Land Rover ahead of me, the impatient Audi behind me, and the various cars we passed as we put faith in the "10% + 6" equation (a).

My knees were aching again and I was having that particularly male issue in which "the boys" refuse to settle. If you are female and don't know what I'm talking about, don't read that sexually. It simply means I was uncomfortable. Doing a full stand-grab-and-adjust manoeuvre is difficult and dangerous when travelling at speed and wearing full gear, so I was left to constantly shift around on my seat.

To keep my mind occupied I had "conversations" with drivers and passengers in the cars around me. They couldn't hear me, obviously, because I was talking in a normal voice with a helmet on and their windows were up.

Also, I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether this trip would be more enjoyable if I were on a BMW F800GT. Or perhaps an R1200RT. A number of the cops I had passed earlier in my journey had been on R1200s and had looked pretty cool. Sure, those things are stupid wide but they have a real presence on the road. And I bet they're a hell of a lot of fun. I bet, too, they'd be more comfortable for Jenn than my existing bike.

This led to the inevitable lament of my not being able to even imagine a time when I could afford such a bike. Jenn and I are severely strapped for cash these days and I've had to dip into some of the savings that I was slowly, slowly accumulating toward a new bike. I try to take solace in the fact that my Honda is still relatively low mileage and is, after all, a Honda. Which means I can continue to ride the thing until Jesus comes back. But that doesn't satiate the emotional need for a new bike. I want a garage full of bikes and I want it now.

Back in the real universe, I pushed on into Lancashire before stopping. Increasingly, I find the north is my favourite part of England. The accents strike me as more engaging than in many other parts of England and Wales –– you enjoy just listening to people speak –– and there are often semi-poetic turns of phrase, such as, "T'wer like suppin' lead," to describe something as difficult.

If you like narrow streets you'll love the Yorkshire Dales.
At Charnock Richard motorway services I supped hot chocolate and put away a piece of lemon cake Jenn had sent along with me. In the last few miles before stopping I had been able to pick up speed and again my right arm had been hurting. I thought of Curt Carter's recent post, posing the question no motorcyclist really wants to consider –– How long will I be able to ride? –– and that again kicked up thoughts about all the different bikes I wish I owned.

I often feel a sense of urgency toward motorcycling: I need to go everywhere now; I need to ride all the bikes now. This comes as a result of my having gotten into things so late. Though I've had my motorcycle endorsement since I was 18, I didn't really start riding until I was 36. Optimistically, that gives me a roughly 40-year riding career, maybe 50 if I stay lithe, keep my brain active and can one day manage to convince myself that a Can-Am Spyder is cool. I guess that's a decent amount of time, but it doesn't feel enough. I lament the 20 years in which I could have been riding but did not.

Back on the road, I was soon zipping along the delightfully open space of the M65. Near Burnley, a Volkswagen Polo came up hard behind me in the fast lane, flashing its lights as it approached. I shifted left (into the slow lane here in the UK) and nodded at the car to go on by. As I did this, though, I twisted the throttle and kept pace. I looked over at the driver and nodded again, as if to say, "No, really, go ahead," and again accelerated to keep pace. I did this a few more times, making grand "Go ahead, after you," gestures but always remaining side by side with the Volkswagen. When we reached 110 mph the car's driver finally got the joke and waved a playful middle finger at me. I waved back and eased up, letting him speed on (b).

Within a few minutes I was off the motorway and into the land of the white rose. God's own Yorkshire. The kingdom of Jorvik. The part of England that is, in a way, the most English and yet unlike any other part of England.

The roads of the Yorkshire Dales made for great riding: lots of curves, relatively well-maintained roads, and good sight lines. I swooped and soared my way to Grassington, where I would be staying the next few nights, all too quickly. When I pulled into the driveway of my B&B, the owner was already out the door and saying hello before I could cut the engine.

"Y'alright Chris?" she said. "Good ride up, was it? Shall I get you a cuppa tea?"

Yorkshire hospitality. I thanked her profusely and started unloading my gear. When I got up to my room, there was a fresh pot of tea and a slice of lemon cake waiting for me. I lingered on these things as long I could. The last part of the ride had offered up some beautiful scenery but I was exhausted.

Honest food: pork belly on black pudding with gravy.
A while later, cleaned up and in comfortable clothes, I walked to the village square to find a pub where I could have dinner. The B&B's landlady had described The Forester's Arms as "a bit worn around the edges but with honest food –– you know, proper portions for a lad."

It was in better condition than many high-end pubs in Wales, but she had been right about the food. I filled up on pork belly and black pudding, the latter of which gets a lot more love in the north than down where I live.

For those of you playing along in the United States, black pudding is a sausage of sorts. There's no meat; it's effectively just oatmeal soaked in pig's blood and stuffed into sausage casing. There's absolutely no way to make it sound tasty, but it's actually pretty good when used in combination with other proteins such as eggs or pork. Washing it all down with a cold beer I started to feel like a proper Yorkshireman (c).

I decided to head out for a walk across the fields south of the village, my belly full and my head spinning from tiredness, happiness, and a few pints of beer. Quietly to myself I had started talking in a Yorkshire accent and commenting on just how beautiful everything was.

Occasionally, I would drift out of the Yorkshire patois and hear my father's voice rising up in me. He loves Britain; I sometimes wonder if I stay here just so he'll have the chance to visit. The late-day sun had turned everything golden and I knew my dad would be going crazy for it.

"This is just so great!" I said aloud, channeling his kid-like enthusiasm. "I mean, gosh! Wow!"

I came to a river and walked along its banks a while, eventually passing an old man out walking his dog.

"Ay up," he said.

I grinned. It was the first "ay up" I had gotten in Yorkshire –– a phrase that's a bit like "howdy" in Texas: a part of speech so iconic it's almost caricature.

You can see why I love it.
"Ay up," I said back.

And we each walked on in the Yorkshire sunset.

To be continued...


(a) If you are caught speeding at 10 percent of the limit plus 6 mph you can avoid getting points on your license and instead take a traffic safety course. This means that in a 50-mph zone you can try your luck and go 61 mph. In some constabularies, the rule is "10% + 9", but reliable information on exactly which constabularies adhere to this rule is hard to find, so it is best to stick to the lower number. Of course, the even better bet is to simply not speed and save yourself the trouble, which is, of course, what I always do because I'm a good boy.

(b) If you are a member of law enforcement in the UK, please note that this story is totally made up. I always ride according to conditions and never above the national speed limit.

(c) Actually, I suppose a proper Yorkshireman would have been drinking ale, not that Nancy-boy lager stuff they drink in London.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

It's (not at all) grim up North

My route
It is roughly 260 miles from the quaintly crumbling South Wales town of Penarth to the Yorkshire village of Grassington. That's assuming you do most of your travelling via motorway, which is what I tend to stick to when I need to get to places on time.

Of course, the "on time" concept is often a fuzzy one for me. I am a strong adherent to the Ride Your Own Ride school of thinking and one of the ways in which that manifests is in how long it takes to do certain things. Some days I move pretty fluidly -- stops for petrol or food are well-coordinated and efficient. On other days, I seem inclined to spend upward of 10 minutes adjusting my scarf before putting on my gloves. Such was the case this past Sunday when I set out for northern England.

Grassington is one of the "honey pot" villages of Yorkshire Dales National Park, which is to say it is one of the places that sees the most visitors. For those of you playing along in the United States and other countries where governments actually adhere to IUCN categorisation, a national park in Her Majesty's United Kingdom is not what you might expect. Here, national parks are, in fact Category V and Category VI protected areas. In truth, there are no real national parks (Category II) in Britain, we just like using that phrase because it sounds good. 

The best U.S. comparison to a British "national park" that I can think of is the area that falls under the purview of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in California and Nevada. Except, much of that area is far more wild and I would argue that the TRPA does a better job at pro-actively protecting landscapes (a).

I realise all this is off the point -- this is a motorcycle blog, after all -- and that I have mentioned it before, and that on the Venn diagram showing motorcyclists and environmentalists the space where those two circles intersect is probably not very large, but that doesn't stop me from being annoyed by the whole thing. So, I rant about it at any opportunity. The United Kingdom needs to try harder to protect its natural spaces.

That's not to say British national parks aren't lovely, though. They are. If you want to be guaranteed of enjoying the very best that this tiny archipelago has to offer in terms of scenery, landscape, and hospitality, head to one of the 15 UK national parks. Before Sunday, I had visited Brecon Beacons, Cairngorms, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Lake District, New Forest, Northumberland, Peak District, Pembrokeshire Coast, Snowdonia and South Downs. With the Yorkshire Dales I've now visited an even dozen.

Timing is everything when it comes to visiting any outdoor space in Britain. The weather can make it the best or worst experience of your life. So, I accept that my personal list of favourites shows bias toward places I've visited on warm spring/summer days. But even so, I think the Yorkshire Dales is the bee's knees. 

Getting there was easy enough. As I mentioned, I was in a somewhat relaxed mood when I set out. So, my intended departure time of 10 a.m. became 11. And by the time I was actually fuelled up and properly under way it was edging close to 11:30.

Security forces have erected barriers and a 9-foot fence to protect a castle...
Traffic was light, but for the first time in my eight years of living in this country everyone was sticking to the speed limit. I suspect this had something to do with the ever-growing police presence coming that had come in preparation for the NATO summit taking place a week later. More than 67 world leaders are attending the event, including President Barack Obama, so all the security bells and whistles were being brought in. A 9-foot-tall fence had been erected around Cardiff city centre, Cardiff Bay and Celtic Manor in Newport; seven NATO warships were stationed in Cardiff Bay; and more than 10,000 police officers from all parts of the UK were being brought in.

Ten thousand. Riding up the A449 and M50 I encountered several hundred of them en route to their posts: great convoys of police riot vans and Land Rovers, as well as the lightning-quick packs of motorcycle police, riding two abreast and looking like DayGlo versions of the Nazgûl.

I am in the process of training to run a marathon these days and had run 15 miles the day before, so by the time I was nearing the southern edges of Worcestershire my knees were aching, and the right arm thing that happens from time to time was worse than usual.

Sometimes when I ride it feels as if a nerve in my armpit is being pinched; it causes slight pain in my bicep and elbow, and results in my losing feeling in my fingers. I can never really figure out what causes this, though I have noticed it more since I started wearing a Knox Fastback gilet.

Based on that, one automatically assumes the Fastback is to blame, but it's not pinching me at all and is comfortable to wear. Also, I started wearing the Fastback right when I started taking longer journeys -- first throwing it on when I rode to the Peak District back in April. So, perhaps the issue is not with what I'm wearing on the bike but how long I'm on the bike. Additionally, the pain and numbness really only seems to show up when my Honda's engine is turning above 5,000 rpm; perhaps buzzing in the handlebars is the true culprit? If anyone has any input on what might be at the heart of my right arm thing I'd be glad to hear it.

Regardless, Strensham motorway services was my first port of call. The sun was shining and the weather warm. I chose to sit in the grass near where I had parked my bike and eat the sandwich Jenn had made for me. This somehow communicated to everyone who walked by that I wanted to answer any questions they might have about motorcycling, as well as hear stories about the bike they used to have.

More often than not I enjoy this aspect of motorcycling -- that everyone wants to talk to you -- and was happy to indulge it today. A mother took a picture of her son sitting on my bike. A man told me of the Fazer he had owned before "the wife" made him sell it (b). Another man asked if I thought the Honda CBF600 SA was the right size bike for him, as if he were shopping. But the best moment came as I was packing up to get back on the road.

"My dad's a biker," a balding man said, walking up to me. "Well. Was. He's 93 now, he is. But, you know, in his heart, yeah, he's a biker. Loves his bikes, him. Listen, mate, you wouldn't mind coming over to have a chat with him would you? Only take a moment and it'd mean the world."

He pointed to a car parked a few yards away in a handicapped spot. It was close enough to just wheel my bike over, but when I started to do that he stopped me and asked that I pull up at the passenger side of the car with my engine running.

"Really give 'er a good rev," he said. "Dad'll love that."

Not wanting to scare a senior citizen to death I waited until I was alongside the old man before even touching the throttle. The car's door was open and I pulled up to within arm's reach. The old man was weak and frail and pretty much asleep. Then he caught sight of me in his peripheral vision and rolled his head toward me.

"Go on, mate, give 'er a good rev," said the old man's son.

The old man lifted a bony hand and waved it as encouragement. Stock Honda pipes are not exactly renown for their sound but I gave it my best shot. I clicked the bike into neutral and held in the clutch just in case, then twisted the throttle back as hard as it would go. The inline four's engine jumped to 9,000 rpm and let out a roaring whine that probably frightened me more than anyone else.

A British dispatch rider in WWII.
The old man was grinning now. He motioned for me to kill the engine. He wanted to tell me about his motorcycling days. He had started riding bikes in World War II, as a dispatch rider in Italy. He had been seriously injured four times in crashes because they would have him ride at night without lights and inevitably the dispatch riders would end up crashing into shelling craters.

"'Course, you'd rather be thrown from a motorbike than shot," the old man explained. "So you kept going, didn't you?"

He talked for a good 45 minutes -- about riding in the war, some racing he had done, and listing off just about every machine he'd ever ridden or encountered. His body was beat up, and he did little more than move his head and weakly wave his right hand, but he wasn't a 93-year-old man. Not in his eyes, at least. When I glanced at the man's son, the one who had insisted I come over, I saw in his eyes, too, a much younger person. I saw a little kid looking up to his dad.

The old man spoke until he wore himself out, mumbling and beginning to retell the story of his breaking his leg because he was thinking too much about a girl and not the moonlit Italian road he had been speeding down. His son smiled warmly and cut him off. He thanked me for taking the time and told me to ride safe.

I pulled on my helmet and fired the Honda to life. The old man came back around and said something unintelligible, but reading his face I guessed it to be a joke. I laughed as loud as I could, to be heard through the helmet, then waved goodbye.

A few seconds later I was out of the car park and on the M5, settling into an 80-mph cruising speed. I thought of Italian girls and felt thankful that British potholes aren't quite as bad as they could be.

To be continued...


(a) British conservationism is too often nothing more than a happy side effect of protracted bureaucratic ineptitude. It's similar to the way a massive insurance snafu that keeps you from driving for six weeks would help to "preserve" the engine life of your car.

(b) Usually when I hear these stories I suspect the truth is that "the wife" is, in fact, "a temporary fit of intelligent self awareness." I imagine the individual realised that his combined lack of skill, immaturity, and unwillingness to subject to the "embarrassment" of learning was eventually going to get him killed, but to admit any of this would be emasculating so he blames his partner.

Monday, 1 September 2014

What I want: BMW F800GT

I've been talking a lot about various cruisers lately -- lots of posts on Harley-Davidson, Indian and Victory machines. I think that may be the residual effect of having visited home earlier this summer: cruisers on the brain.

For reasons that I can't quite determine, that style of bike is king in the Land of the Free. Meanwhile (and this may be one of those chicken-or-the-egg things), the American landscape is one that is particularly hospitable toward cruisers. As I've mentioned before, that's not necessarily the case here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom. Nor many other places in Europe. Our narrow, winding, millennium-old roads and multitudinous roundabouts are not exactly the best places to be navigating a lumbering piece of machinery that weighs more than a high school girl's basketball team.

Yet, there is still a big part of me that wants to get one (a cruiser, I mean; I wouldn't know where to put a high school girl's basketball team). Part of that, of course, is because I'm American. On some weird subconscious level I seem to see owning a cruiser as a declaration of nationality -- a loud, chrome-laden means of saying: "I will never give up my US passport."

But on a larger level, especially as pertains to Harley-Davidson and Indian, the appeal for me is that weird concept of heritage: the idea that by purchasing a particularly assembled collection of metals, plastics, rubbers and toxic fluids, you are tapping into some kind of narrative, that a company's history and aura somehow runs through every bike and its owner. Yes, I know that is nonsense. I am a rational human being with a functional brain, who understands that inanimate objects do not have a soul or spirit or character, etc. But I am a sucker for the idea of it nonetheless.

I'm in the right place for such thinking. I live in Europe, for the love of Pete. This place is nothing but heritage. Triumph, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Ducati. Hell, even KTM is 80 years old (a). But for me, the company with the weightiest heritage -- the greatest veritas -- is a little German outfit that's been producing motorcycles since 1921: BMW.

I feel John -- in blue jeans, black leather jacket and sunglasses --
is the cooler-looking one in this picture.
When I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance it was with John Sutherland (b) whom I most identified. I like good things and I'm willing to pay for quality. I, too, would be wary of using a beer can to fix my bike. And like John, there is something about BMW's heritage of quality, of making really good products, of paying attention to small details, that appeals to me.

And when I think of bikes that I would want that are not American cruisers, machines that are, in fact, appropriate to the riding conditions where I actually live and to the kind of riding I actually do, I most often come back to BMW (and Honda, but more on that in a future post), because it possesses that element of heritage that is so strangely important to me.

Specifically, the bike I keep coming back to is the F800GT. One of the more affordable models in BMW's stable, it is a hell of a lot of bike for the money -- offering 90 horsepower, 63 lb.-ft. of torque, and fuel efficiency upward of 70 mpg for £1,000 less than a Harley-Davidson Sportster.

True, it doesn't look as good as a Sportster (to me) but over time I've found that the F800GT has grown on me. It first started showing up on my radar about the time I was comparing various middleweight sport tourers and I'll admit my initial reaction to it was lukewarm. Something about that front end wasn't quite doing it for me. It looks just a bit as if the front wheel was an afterthought. But then I started reading about the bike -- about its performance, its low centre of gravity, its bells and whistles, its belt drive (no more fussing with chains!) -- and slowly, slowly it started looking better and better to me.

For instance, I'm now kind of fond of that enormous hump of a tank (that's not really the tank). It looks like the hump of a Brahma bull. I could ride around pretending I'm Guilherme Marchi. Or, actually, not really. Because the 798cc beast that is the F800GT only weighs 470 lbs. (less than my Honda CBF600 SA) and is, by most accounts I've read, a joy to be astride. And the parallel twin engine performs a hell of a lot better than a bull, too. Here's a video of Adam Waheed going nuts on one at Mulholland. If you've got the cajones to lean so hard you drag panniers, the F800GT's got the goods to let you do it.

It's highly unlikely that I'd ever push a motorcycle to such extremes but increasingly I do enjoy a good curvy road or two, and all that performance can be useful in other ways. I'm doing more travelling for work these days, and that means longish jaunts across the country at European highway speeds (i.e., upward of 75 mph). Having the ability to dance out of sticky situations quickly is obviously an advantage.

I've not yet had the chance to test ride an F800GT myself but I have sat on one in a showroom and the ergonomics worked surprisingly well for me. If I remember correctly, my exact words when sitting down and placing my feet on the pegs were: "Oh. Oh, yes. This is me."

A nice machine for going long distances.
Needless to say, that kind of comfort would come in handy when making a run up to Scotland or out to Norfolk. Plus, it's a BMW. When you travel for business you generally want to present the best side of yourself in all ways. And I kind of like the image of myself that I get when I imagine riding a BMW. Is that petty? Hell yes, it is. But that doesn't keep it from being something I think about. I suspect some of the people I interact with might think of it, too.

That said, if everything were equal in the world I'd still choose an Indian Scout, which has similar engine performance and an American heritage and Minnesota connection that makes me swoon. But the fact is, a BMW F800GT costs £2,100 less than an Indian Scout.

That comes with a bit of a caveat, though, which leads to the handful of things that sometimes make me question whether I'd really want the Bavarian sport tourer. The standard price of a BMW F800GT in the United Kingdom is £8,290. That's a decent value. But conveniently that price does not include a whole host of the bells and whistles that make the bike so appealing. Things like traction control, electronic suspension adjustment, heated grips, centre stand, and so on. To get all the proper features you'll need to pay £1,200 extra. Thereby pushing the price up to £9,500. If you want panniers, tack on £500 more. Suddenly, your "affordable" BMW costs £10,000.

Of course, that's still less than a stock Indian Scout, and who knows how much less it is if you consider that the Scout I'd want would have a passenger seat, passenger backrest and screen (I want the one that's in this picture). But still. When priced at £9,500 the BMW loses some of its lustre for me. I'm not sure it's sexy enough to cost that much.

And those kind of costs make me wonder what sort of costs I'd encounter in the future. I'm like John Sutherland, remember? I'm not going to take on valve clearances myself. How much will paying a mechanic for such a thing set me back? And speaking of servicing, BMW has had a number of recalls in the past few months, is it possible the reputation of quality and durability is a myth? I'd hate to find that out the hard way.

But most importantly, is the BMW image that I have in my head really one I want to portray? The bike has heritage, without doubt, but do I want to be a part of it? I suspect only time (and the availability of quality used F800GT models) will tell.


(a) OK, well, that's a stretch. The company traces its history back to 1934 but in truth the KTM name didn't exist until 1953, and KTM as we know it didn't come around until 1992.

(b) In doing some research on Sutherland I learned that, although a Minneapolis native, he had a number of deep ties to my beloved St. Paul, Minnesota. Additionally, he died in November 2012, which is exactly when I was reading Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, the book that obtusely made me realise I needed to get a motorcycle. If you are keen to read into coincidences, all this means that I have been infused with Sutherland's spirit and my desire to get a BMW is an obvious and natural expression of that.