Friday, 24 October 2014

Thoughts on the Kawasaki Vulcan S

Here's a question: Is a Harley-Davidson a cruiser, or is a cruiser a Harley-Davidson? In other words, which is the Form?

In Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy there is the concept of the Form: that all things and, in fact, concepts, have Forms which are the "true" representation of their reality. So, for example, imagine if I were to show you a picture of a beagle, then a whippet, then a dalmatian, then a poodle, and thereafter ask you: "What did I just show you?" 

Your answer might be, quite simply: "Pictures of dogs."

In this case, "dog" is the Form. It is the thing that all the other things are in their essence. We have in our minds an idea, an understanding of what a dog is and we are able to apply it to thousands upon thousands of images despite the fact these images can vary greatly. 

So, again: is a Harley-Davidson a cruiser, or is a cruiser a Harley-Davidson? Which is the "true" thing? Which is the Form and which is the representation of the Form? 

More specifically, what is the Form of a cruiser? Is it a motorcycle, or is it a Harley-Davidson? My instinct, of course, is to claim the former –– that a cruiser is a type of motorcycle and that a Harley-Davidson is a type of cruiser.

But it seems a whole hell of a lot of people believe the latter. You can see this in internet forums and website comments sections; read between the lines of criticisms of, say, an Indian Scout and you will see many critics are just upset because it doesn't look/perform enough like a Harley-Davidson.

It's important that you have a solid grasp of what you believe (and belief is really all it is since even the Form of "motorcycle" can be questioned by the advent of things like the Can-Am Spyder), because it will dramatically temper your interpretation of machines like the newly announced Kawasaki Vulcan S. If you are of the camp that believes Harley-Davidson is the Form, and therefore to make a cruiser is to make a truckling homage to Harley-Davidson, you probably won't like the new Vulcan S.

Personally, I do like it. To me, this bike is really interesting and part of what seems like an exciting movement in the cruiser genre to push away from the old thinking in which Harley-Davidson is the Form. Interestingly, Harley-Davidson itself is part of that movement, but I'll get to that in a second.

The Vulcan S was announced rather suddenly a while back at the AIM Expo in Orlando, although a few websites, like Biker News Online, had picked up rumours of its existence about a month earlier. Those rumours were quite excited because the Vulcan S is powered by the same 650cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin engine that can be found in the Kawasaki Ninja 650 and Kawasaki Versys 650. And as such, it delivers roughly the same amount of power as is enjoyed on those bikes.

On the surface, taking a platform that has existed for years and dressing it up as something else doesn't sound terribly revolutionary, but such is the overly conservative nature of the cruiser world. For decades, manufacturers held to the idea of a Harley-Davidson as the cruiser's Form. Which, if you think about it, was a really stupid thing to do for everyone who wasn't Harley-Davidson (or, perhaps Triumph); you can't out-Harley the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. If you're any other manufacturer and you're setting out to create a Harley-Davidson you're inherently going to fail.

And even when companies appeared to be breaking from the same old routine, such as when BMW made the R1200C, they weren't really –– still adhering to the Form ideas of a cruiser as heavy, underpowered for its engine size, and expensive.

But in the quite recent past, we've seen a small movement to make cruisers that are lighter, less expensive, and that deliver more power with smaller engines. To my mind this started with the Honda CTX700N, a bike that looks as if it was designed to be used in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which is to say, it looks as if someone in the 1990s was trying to imagine what cruisers would look like in the future.

Next to lift its head was Harley-Davidson itself, with the Street 500 and Street 750 models. To me, though, these bikes look a little confused. It's as if Harley-Davidson wasn't prepared to commit to the idea of a motorcycle that looked like anything other than a "traditional" Harley-Davidson.

I think the look of the Vulcan S is the best of this new school. Its headlight takes a little getting used to (it reminds me of Cobra Commander's face shield) but once you break from the emotional need for a round headlight on a cruiser you can see that it fits the overall look and feel of the bike.

With its engine set to produce 61 hp, the new Vulcan S will deliver roughly the same amount of power as the Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200. It will have anti-lock brakes and a few other modern touches, such as its digital dash, but the thing that really strikes me is that the ergonomics will be highly adjustable. Moving the pegs and seat to a variety of combinations will, Kawasaki says, allow the Vulcan S to accommodate a large spread of heights. And Kawasaki says these ergonomic adjustments will come at no additional cost.
I also like that the exhaust is placed underneath the bike, creating a little more space for lean and lessening the chance of the rider or passenger burning his or her leg, a la Road Warrior Animal in SummerSlam 1992.

In the United States, the ABS version of the Vulcan S will be priced at $7,399 (and £5,899 in the UK), which still puts it at $100 less than the H-D Street. The latter bike offers less power and does not (yet) have an ABS option. Considering the half-hearted reviews the Street has received so far I think the Vulcan could stand out as the king of this little group of sub-800cc liquid-cooled machines.

However, although I definitely like the concept of the Vulcan S and will certainly make an effort to test ride one as soon as it arrives in UK dealerships, there is not really anything about the bike that makes me think: "I need this in my life."

But that is generally how I feel toward Kawasakis. There's just something about them that feels a little "meh" to me. Great bikes, without doubt –– along with the Vulcan S, I'd love to be given a Z1000SX or Versys 1000 or 1400GTR –– but they aren't really bikes that make me want to spend my own money.

My hope, though, is that the Vulcan S and the Street models and even the dog ugly CTX700s will succeed. I think these are machines that can help widen the appeal of motorcycling just a little more. And I hope, too, that their success would draw Yamaha into the field, making use of its fantastic MT-07 platform.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Love for the Can-Am Spyder

Can-Am Spyder F3

The UK motorcycling community hates trikes. Actually, that scorn extends beyond motorcycling circles. I once heard someone who doesn't ride describe trikes as "belonging to that section of motoring marked: 'Only For Men With Ponytails.'"

This colours my own attitude toward trikes, of course; we are affected by our surroundings, regardless of whether we want to be. And I will admit my own opinion of traditional two-wheels-in-the-back trikes is particularly negative. I think this is because they remind me of Big Wheels: transport of choice for discerning 4-year-olds. And when I see an adult on a Harley-Davidson Tri-Glide or converted Honda Gold Wing I can't help but imagine them to have the same traits as a 4-year-old: blindly self-focused, incapable of intelligent conversation, not terribly coordinated and inclined to wet the bed.

For some reason, though, my opinion changes if you switch things around and put the two wheels at the front, creating the Can-Am Spyder. Does this make sense? No. It's just how I think.

I'm not sure Brits share my view. According to official government statistics, Can-Am sold just 31 Spyder vehicles here last year. That's not a lot. Admittedly, a lack of dealerships may also be part of the problem. Can-Am has just four in the whole of the country. But then, MV-Agusta also has just four dealerships and managed to sell 184 models last year.

Maybe low sales are more to do with the fact that a Spyder is so utterly pointless in a UK context. With its 5-foot-wide stance, it is too broad to filter and as such serves effectively as a compact car. It's a Vauxhall Corsa with three wheels. But for the fact that the cheapest Spyder costs roughly £6,000 more than a standard Corsa, lacks the weather protection of a Corsa, can't haul nearly the amount of stuff or people as a Corsa, and gets just half the mpg of a Corsa. Top Gear described the Spyder as having "none of the benefits of a car and all the disadvantages of a bike."

Can-Am Spyder RS

The vehicle apparently sells pretty well in North America and Southern Europe, though -- places that have more sun and more open roads. And when I ponder what it would be like to own a Spyder I always picture myself back home.

I alluded to this in my post about the Ducati Scrambler: the idea of heading off on some epic, meandering journey a la Steve and Sash. One of the variants of this fantasy is the idea of Jenn and I trundling across the North American continent on a ridiculous behemoth of a machine that could hold all the things two people need to live on the road indefinitely, and with the sort of weight to resist the toppling winds that rip across the great flat spaces of the Plains States, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, et. al. Something like an Indian Roadmaster or BMW K1600GTL usually comes to mind.

But this past summer, Jenn and I were in the United States visiting family and two things happened in relatively quick succession that got me thinking about such big bikes. Both happened at the Minneapolis Farmers Market (another of the quadrillion things about the Twin Cities that makes it better than wherever you live).

First, I spotted a woman riding a Can-Am Spyder RS. I had yet to see one of these in person and was taken by the fact that: a) it is massive; and b) it is a lot less stupid-looking than I had thought. I mean, a lot. To the point that it looks strangely... cool? I'm pretty sure that's not the word I want to use, but I can't think of one that it is more appropriate. The woman steering that dry-land snowmobile through the heavy farmers market traffic looked... cool.

The second thing happened a few minutes later, as my dad, Jenn, and I were walking from one row of stalls to the next. Misjudging a curb slightly, my dad caught his foot and performed a spectacular Dolph Ziggler-esque fall onto the pavement. It wasn't just a stumble; it was as if he had launched himself to the ground.

It has to be said that Dad has never been athletic. He tells a story of himself as a chubby boy at a swimming pool wearing an inner tube that fit rather snugly. At one point he got turned upside down in the water, and lacked the physical wherewithal to right himself. A lifeguard had to jump in to save him from drowning. Now almost 65 years old, he suffers the same low-level clumsiness as always but increasingly lacks the agility and reflexes to correct such missteps. So, when he caught his foot and started to fall, he wasn't quick enough to bring the other foot forward and catch himself; he just went crashing down.

He ended up with a massive gash down his right forearm, another down his left knee and shin, and a few minor cuts on his hands. Fortunately, a paramedic team was stationed at the market and they were able to patch him up with a stack of bandages and some gentle humour.

Can-Am Spyder RT

You see where I'm going with this, right? If I want to keep riding past retirement, and especially if I want to live out that "Jenn And I Ride Across North America" fantasy, I need to accept that at some point in the future my balance, agility and reflexes might not be up to the task of manoeuvring a massive two-wheeled machine without incident. And at that point I will be left with just three options: give up riding, have expensive and morally questionable surgery to transplant my brain into the body of a 20-year-old, or get a three-wheeled bike.

The third option is the most viable. And because I find the aesthetics of a Spyder to be strangely appealing I'm OK with that. In some small way I look forward to it. I can see us now: wearing matching Roadcrafters and modular helmets with intercom systems, happily cruising across the plains of Kansas or badlands of the Dakotas on a Spyder RT -- a Wall Drug bumper sticker affixed to the top box.

But why wait until my autumn years? Jenn and I are still hoping to move to Minnesota in 2019 and I often ponder how I will deal with the fact it is a place that can see snow for 7 months out of the year. Do I just fall in with the fairweather majority, or do I become a motorcycling legend like Chris Luhman of Everyday Riding? He lives in the Twin Cities and rides through the winter on a Ural Patrol.

There's no denying the ready-for--a-zombie-apocalypse coolness of a Ural, but for me I'd prefer a Spyder as the tool for riding through the months of King Boreas' reign. It has traction control and apparently (because people in Canada have done it) it's possible to put winter car tires on the thing. So riding in winter kind of makes sense. After all, the Spyder is, as I said, a dry-land snowmobile; it is made by a snowmobile company.

So, ride on all your Spyder riders. You look ridiculous but who cares? Maybe one day I'll join you.

Can-Am Spyder snowplow. Because why not?

On a related note, it's been reported that quite a large percentage of the people buying Can-Am Spyders are women and individuals who have never ridden a motorcycle before (in many countries -- the UK included -- you do not need motorcycle qualifications to ride one, just a driver's license). I think this is great. Generally, I think that anything putting more motorcyclists or quasi-motorcyclists on the road is a good thing because it leads to normalisation, greater overall awareness by other road users and, ultimately more and better choices for consumers.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

What I want: Ducati Scrambler

Before I address that beautiful thing pictured above, I'm going to step back to Intermot very quickly, I got some of what I wanted out of it; I had been looking forward to the large European motorcycle show for a number of reasons, eager to see what each manufacturer would reveal. 

Victory delivered an ABS-equipped Gunner to absolutely no fanfare (I had to divine the information from their website rather than any news outlet). I am delighted they have done this but not terribly delighted by the bike's price (£10,399 in the UK -- the exact same as the Indian Scout). Meanwhile, there was no adventure tourer from Yamaha, and Suzuki didn't manage to offer anything they haven't already been offering in some slightly different form for the past 20 years. BMW produced a cool-looking R1200RS that I would love to have but that will almost certainly come with an unholy price tag, and Kawasaki managed to make its Versys models quite a bit less ugly.

The two biggest things to come from the show for me, though, are:
  1. Triumph chose to sit on its ass for another year in terms of the Bonneville. It offered no updates to the popular model, not even the ABS that will be required in 2016. To mask this laziness, it revealed three identical "new" models, which are differentiated only in paint, wheels and seat. I mean, remember how I got angry at Victory for putting a big wheel on the Cross Country and calling it something different? These Bonneville models are even lazier than that.
  2. Ducati made Triumph look like damned fools by revealing a Bonneville-killing Scrambler model, and, oh my gosh, do I want one.
But hang on, the Bonneville is a great bike in a lot of ways. I test rode one earlier this year and loved it enough that, had the salesman not calmed me down, I would have signed loan papers right then and there. My relentless sense of practicality eventually killed the bike for me but that doesn't change the fact that it is delightfully fun to ride, listen to, look at, and be seen on.

And that -- that spirit -- is at the heart of why I think the new Ducati Scrambler is the bee's motherhugging knees. Just look at that thing. It's so simple, yet so intricate. Everywhere you look there is something to hold the eye for a moment.

Obviously, from its simplicity, styling and marketing, the Ducati Scrambler is being aimed at that same young, neo-classically inspired demographic being targeted by machines like the Bonneville, Harley-Davidson Iron 883, Kawasaki W800, Yamaha SR400, Moto Guzzi V7, and Royal-Enfield Continental GT. You know, the hipsters, the kids, the Instagram mega-pros, the Vimeo auteurs.

That's cool with me, because I already hover around that world (though, I will never ever, ever wear skinny jeans). But also because I feel that world helps to draw new people into motorcycling.

And I don't just mean young people. There are loads of more modern, even more affordable bikes for young people (or the young at heart) that are practical (e.g., Honda CB500F) and awesomely fun (e.g., Yamaha MT-07), but by and large I feel those are bikes aimed at young people who were already attending the Church of Two Wheels. Whereas the neoclassical machines and the hipsters who love them, I think, help to reach beyond traditional motorcycling circles.

One of my laments, however, is that often these hipster machines aren't very good. I mean, I get the idea of authenticity, but I can't help feeling that a skinny-jeaned noob on a bike that's rocking drum brakes and bias tires is only going to get himself authentically maimed (a). And here is where the Ducati Scrambler is so awesome. It is not a throwback but a progression.

Ducati says this Scrambler is its vision of what the bike would be today had the line not been discontinued some 40 years ago. It's similar to the thinking behind all of Indian's bikes. I'm not sure I entirely buy Ducati's rhetoric but, who cares? It's a lovely bike.

Ducati Scrambler Urban Enduro

A lovely bike that is almost certainly not supposed to tackle anything more challenging than a fire road, despite its looks and tires. But, again, that's OK by me because the Scrambler appears to be a solid machine for road use. Its 803-cc V-twin engine pumps out a claimed 75 hp, which means that, although it's also not designed for long-haul journeys, if some dumb-as-I-was-in-college hipster kid decided he or she wanted to travel America on the thing he/she would at least have more than enough power to do so.

In addition, said hipster youth (or youth at heart -- hell, I'd probably still attempt such a road trip) will be aided by anti-lock brakes, LED lighting and a USB charger under the seat. That last feature is so obvious and simple that you kind of feel embarrassed for motorcycle manufacturers that it hasn't already been standard for the past half decade.

It is a feature, too, that speaks to the fact Ducati has gotten it so right with this model. Or, should I say, series of models. Because Ducati has cleverly seen where Triumph has benefited from dressing up the Bonneville in different guises, and will be offering several variants of the Scrambler right out of the gate. Along with the Scrambler there's the Scrambler Classic, the Scrambler Urban Enduro, the Scrambler Full Throttle and the Scrambler Grand Slam Breakfast with your choice of hash browns or toast.

OK, I made that last one up.

But the point is that Ducati seems to have put a lot of effort into this venture, taking the time to consider the little things. And still the price is not as brutal as you'd expect. Here in the UK, the standard red Scrambler will cost £6,895. Compare that with the £6,799 being asked for the heavier, less powerful and technologically inferior Triumph Bonneville.

This bike, y'all. I am so enamoured of this bike that I can't even think of intelligent things to say about it. That's part of what I love about it. It's the sort of machine that just sends your imagination spiralling off into that happy place of "My Life Could Be Like This!" Like when you visit a new town and you find the perfect restaurant or coffee shop, so you sit there and imagine what your life would be like if you lived in that place.

And of course you don't think about the day-to-day stuff. You don't think about bills and commutes. You don't think about house prices and finding good schools for your kids. You think about the cool places you'd eat, the fun events you'd go to. In your imagination, every day in this new city would be cinematic and amazing.

So, you look at a Ducati Scrambler and the happy-excited part of your brain goes: "OMG! I could put a rack and a screen on that thing for cheap, load it up with luggage bought at an army surplus store and travel to... uhm... I don't know! Hell, who cares! I'd just head out without a map. I'd find my way to places by asking directions, and if the directions were wrong that would just add to the adventure!"

See, this happens to me all the time. I've experienced some variant of that fantasy with every bike on my What I Want list. The beauty of the Ducati Scrambler, though, is that once the day-to-day creeps back into your thoughts -- once you realise that you have to pay for groceries regardless of whether you're living in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas -- you are still left with a beautiful and practical machine. A machine that will help make the day-to-day routines more tolerable.

I want this thing in my life. Someone give me the money to buy one...


(a) Credit should be given to Harley-Davidson here because it's offered ABS on the Iron 883 for more than a year. Additionally, it can run with radial tires.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Join us

British weather is proof that there is a God and that he does not like you. When you are caught in the middle of some interminable squall, the misery is just too great for such phenomena to be random. No; a higher power crafted this. Some great and awesome mind invested tremendous time and effort fine tuning every tiny aspect to ensure maximum displeasure. 

Sitting in my living room that morning, prolonging breakfast for as long as I could, I had known it would be awful. Now, narrowly skirting yet another completely distracted driver on the A4232, I realised I had underestimated just how great the potential for this ride to suck.

My bike was due its 16,000-mile service and I was on my way to Fowler's of Bristol. The 16K service is the biggest one as far as the Honda CBF600SA is concerned, and committing to having it done is inherently an act of committing yourself to the bike for a good while longer. It's like paying for your wife to have breast implants. You don't fork over that kind of money for the sake of someone else reaping the benefit.

After weeks of actually nice early-autumn conditions the weather had turned brutal overnight. High winds shook everything that weighed less than a building, and splatty cold rain worked its magic -- obscuring visibility and seeping into the clothing I had failed to re-waterproof after my trip to Scotland

It was all too much for many of my fellow road users. Despite the fact they live on an island that is world famous for having crappy weather, they drove as if having never before encountered wet conditions. On the A4232, a car in the lane to my left suddenly slammed on its brakes for no discernible reason, throwing itself into a skid. On Newport Road a car drifted back and forth across three lanes of traffic. On the slip road ("entrance ramp," for those of you playing along at home) to the A48, some cars attempting to join the hardly-moving flow of traffic had managed to position themselves sideways.

Typical traffic on M4 between Cardiff and Bristol

It is in moments like these that you realise the complete breakdown of society is never really so far away. But, hey, at least human kindness will persist. I found a surprising amount of it as I weaved my way down the A48 and onto the M4. Traffic was completely stopped at some points, moving at a snail's pace at others, so I took advantage of my right to filter through it -- easing the Honda down a narrow corridor between the endless rows of cars and vans and lorries. Many drivers spotted me and shifted their vehicles to allow a wider gap.

In the 48 miles between Penarth and Fowler's I'll bet I was filtering at least 70 percent of the time. Mile after mile after mile after mile of slipping past immobile cars. When you do this, you feel shocked and empathetically sad for the drivers who put themselves through such frustration just to get to work. Part of me wanted to stop and evangelise. Tap on their windows and say: "Hey, do you not see what I'm doing here? See how I'm getting places and you're not? Stop doing this to yourself. Stop living this miserable car-bound life. Join me on two wheels."

Attempting to testify in this weather would have been a challenge, though. And to that end, I was perhaps fortunate to be stuck in a filtering situation. Moving slowly through rows of giant metal windbreaks was helping protect me from the worst of the gale-force winds. I didn't realise this until things loosened up and I sped toward the Severn Bridge.

"RHYBUDD: CYFLYRAU GYRRU PERYGLUS" blinked a highway sign. (Warning: dangerous driving conditions.)

"No shit," I muttered, as the wind bounced me around in my lane and rain splattered my visor with an audible clack-clack-clack.

When we had still been stuck in heavy traffic, a small caravan of motorcyclists had formed -- about eight of us moving through the filtering corridor, taking turns as leader. Now, as speeds picked up everyone was spacing out, each taking a lane to him- or herself and settling into individual cruising speeds. A litre-sized CBR had long ago shot off. Everyone else was moving away from me at a more leisurely pace (You can take the boy out of America but you can't take the America out of the boy; I have a lot of trouble ignoring speed limits as flagrantly as Brits do).

The Severn Bridge on a good day

The Severn Bridge is a 1-mile span that soars above the wide and tumultuous mouth of the River Severn as it becomes the Bristol Channel. Crossing it is always a bit of an experience because of high winds, especially if you are sitting atop a 600cc dandy horse.

As the road arced toward mudflats and the straight approach to the bridge, the first truly brutal gusts hit us. I saw the bikes in front of me wobble a tiny, tiny bit against the wind blast. Then, the riders visibly taking in deep breaths of resignation, tucking in and throttling forward. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

I did the same, laying my chest on my tank bag and bringing my elbows in. I moved to the middle of three lanes to give myself some hope of avoiding trouble should I be blown completely out of my lane -- the other lanes had guardrails to punish me if I drifted too far. 

And, indeed, at one point I did drift too far. Jostling to get out of the turbulence coming off a cattle truck, I was slammed by a gust right as I moved past the giant, stinking vehicle. My bike heaved right and slipped across the dotted white lines into the next lane. Pitched at a 30-degree angle I fought against the gust to get back into my own lane. As I hit the white lines at that angle, my tires wobbled a little before finding better grip. 

It all happened too quickly to be scared. But as my brain processed what had just happened I realised that the driver of a large white van into whose lane I had accidentally flown must have sensed such a thing might happen. He had held back as I passed the cattle truck. And now he chose to straddle his and my lane, using the mass of his vehicle to block other cars from riding up on me, thereby eliminating a lot of stress.

I kept my tuck and shouted out "Thank you" as loud as I could, hoping he could somehow sense that I was saying it and how much I meant it. With him and the cattle truck effectively covering my six, I made it the made it the rest of the way across the bridge without incident. As we came off the bridge and into the wind-blocking hillocks of the English side of the river, I dropped into the slow lane, sat up a bit and waited for the van to come alongside. I saluted. He gave a thumb's up and sped off.

A few minutes later I was on the M32 and back in the "safety" of filtering through Bristol rush hour traffic. Weaving onto the surface streets and through the incongruous maze of Bristol city centre I felt alive and excited. The city was vibrant. Everything was moving. Rain was falling -- heavily enough that I could hear it on my helmet -- but lightly enough that everything was clear.

Bristol is about triple the size of Cardiff and infinitely more cosmopolitan in its mindset. So, I wasn't the only one filtering, nor was there just a single filtering corridor. Between all the cars ran flowing streams of motorcycles, scooters and bicyclists. Trickling through Cabot Circus I caught glimpse of a woman in a red Volkswagen Golf, its windows fogged on the edges by conditions. You have never seen a woman looking more miserable. Not sad or grief-stricken or angry or upset, just miserable. Flat out 20-foot-thick misery.

I felt so badly for her. And for all these other people trapped in their cars, trapped doing this every single day -- year after year. I wanted so much to let her know things didn't have to be like this. I wanted to tap on her window and say: "Hey, do you not see what I'm doing here? Stop doing this to yourself. Stop living this miserable car-bound life. Join me on two wheels."


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Feeling practical

I talk a lot about the bikes I want. It's one of the main facets of this blog; there are just so many amazing and cool motorcycles out there, and I wish I could own them all. My daydream is that I could be like Jay Leno and possess a seemingly infinite garage full of bikes. But I'm not a celebrity; I'm just a low-tiered public relations hack with the salary to match.

So, the fact is, almost every bike I swoon over and declare to be The One For Me is, in fact, totally beyond my reach. I don't have the money to buy it and in many cases I don't have the space to store it. Even reasonably priced machines like the Yamaha XV950 are a solid £3,000 beyond the realm of Maybe Possible With A Bit Of Luck as far as I'm concerned.

This is a truth that I find incredibly depressing to accept, so, by and large, I do my best to just ignore it whilst trying to convince myself that the bike I have is better than I give it credit for being. And, indeed, I've been teaching myself over the past few months or so that by revving it harder I can get my old Honda to perform much better than I had previously thought possible.

But, still, the Honda is a little long in the tooth (it will be 10 years old in a few months) and I can't help wishing for just a bit more horsepower to better serve me when loaded up with luggage and taking my wife places. And as such, I have told myself that I would very much like to find a way to replace my existing machine shortly before its next MOT and tax payments are due.

(For those of you playing along at home, vehicles in the United Kingdom are taxed on an annual basis. In order to be allowed the privilege of paying said tax you also have to pass and pay for a Ministry of Transport test to ensure your vehicle is road worthy.)

That means I'd be looking to buy sometime in early summer 2015. That's a pretty tight time schedule -- quite possibly unrealistic -- but hope springs eternal. If I want to have any chance at all of achieving that goal, however, I have to accept that Indian Scouts and Moto Guzzi Grisos are simply out of the picture. As is any other bike that's new. So, I've been spending a lot of time looking at used listings.

Slowly, slowly, slowly over the past few weeks I've been working on developing a fondness for the Suzuki GSX1250FA. Possessing as much sex appeal as a good pair of wool socks, the GSX1250FA is essentially a Suzuki Bandit with full fairing. Which means that if you were to buy a brand new one you'd be getting a motorcycle that was effectively designed 20 years ago.

Partially it is because of that old technology that you'll find a brand new GSX1250FA to be surprisingly affordable -- undercutting competition by thousands of pounds/euros/dollars/whatever. And on the used market, aided by the fact that Suzukis have terrible resale value, you'll find them to be flat out cheap.

For example, I recently spotted a 2011 GSX1250FA with just 3,000 miles on it that is equipped with hard luggage, a centre stand and heated grips for £4,500. The cheapest Triumph Sprint GT that I can find which compares in age, mileage and accoutrements costs £6,500. The cheapest equivalent Honda CBF1000SA costs £6,750. The cheapest Kawasaki Z1000SX (aka Ninja 1000) costs £7,000. And the cheapest BMW F800GT costs £9,000. In other words, the Suzuki is an incredibly good deal.

As long as you can get over how generally unsexy it is.

I think I could. Partially because of that 20-year-old Bandit engine. One of the reasons Suzuki hasn't updated it much over the years is that it is beloved by a large segment of the motorcycling world. Delivering whopping torque for an inline four (about 75 lb.-ft.), it will pull from a dead start in fourth gear and has a reputation of being pretty much bulletproof. The fact that you see so many dirty old Bandits growling through South Wales is certainly evidence of the engine's durability.

In the real world the engine puts out about 95 hp, which is a bit wheezy when compared with equivalent bikes in the awkward middleweight all-rounder sport-tourer category, but still a solid 20 hp more than my current machine claims, and enough to push the Suzuki to 150 mph without  much effort. 

Equipped with anti-lock brakes and a simple dashboard that offers gear and fuel indicators along with all the usual info, the bike has plenty of room for a rider and passenger whilst managing to not be huge. I made a point of checking one out in the showroom of Fowlers of Bristol recently and was intrigued by the fact the GSX1250FA is not a whole lot bigger than my Honda (a). Compare that with the Triumph Sprint GT which seems to have been made extra large just for the hell of it. 

Sitting on the bike, I was quite pleased with the ergonomics, which are just a little better suited to my 6-foot-1 frame than those on my Honda. The seat felt a tiny bit more comfortable, as well. The screen isn't adjustable, so inevitably I'd find myself having to splash out on an MRA touring screen, but those don't cost too much.

Gas mileage is reportedly less than with my Honda, but 41 mpg is still decent. The Suzuki is also a few pounds heavier, but I guess that's to be expected from a bike that carries an engine that is 650cc larger.

In short, it's a pretty damn good bike at a pretty damn good price. So my question is: Do you own one, or do you know anyone who does? 

I'd really like to hear about long-term experiences with this motorcycle. Obviously, I'll test ride one at some point in the future, and availability of finances will be the deciding factor but I find myself genuinely considering this machine and want to know if it's a good idea.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

An addendum to that by the way: if you're going to do that thing of saying: "Don't get that bike get XX instead," please be aware that XX needs to cost the same and have the same safety features (e.g. ABS). Muchas gracias.


(a) My initial impression was that the GSX1250FA is bigger than a CBF600SA, but it is actually 1.5 inches shorter in length. It is only 0.20 inch taller and just 1.2 inches wider. In other words, it is basically the same size as my existing machine but with a far larger and more powerful engine. Basically, this supports my feeling that the CBF600SA is unnecessarily bulky. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Are American motorcyclists retarded because of Harley-Davidson?

Man, if that headline isn't link bait I don't know what is. But let me explain: I love Harley-Davidson bikes, but I have a theory that motorcycling in the United States has suffered retardation, i.e., stunted development, as a result of Harley-Davidson's dominance over the past 30-odd years.

When I use the word "retard" I mean it in the technical sense –– not as a schoolyard taunt or politically incorrect description of someone who is mentally disabled. To retard is to "slow down the development or progress of something," according to Merriam-Webster. And that's what I'm asking: Has Harley-Davidson's overwhelming success in the U.S. market slowed down the development or progress of motorcycling in that country?

But, you know, obviously I could have chosen other words when asking that. "Impede" would work just as well, or "hinder," and so on. The word "retard" comes with a negative-value meta-narrative and its use implies a bias in the person asking the question. Guilty as charged, mis amigos. As someone who carries a latent pro-America stance I can't help but feel a little annoyed when I am forced to admit that my native land is not The Best at a given thing. 

And the painful truth is that Americans are not the best when it comes to making unique and different motorcycles. Not at the moment, at least. I think there is potential within the American landscape for rapid and dramatic change, but right now we are decades behind the curve. And I feel that much of the blame for that falls on the shoulders of Harley-Davidson. Well, no. Not Harley-Davidson, but the fact that there has for so long been no one but Harley-Davidson for a patriotic rider. 

In the United States, Harley-Davidson dramatically outsells all other brands. In 2013, Milwaukee's most-famous company was responsible for more than 51 percent of the street motorcycles sold in the country. And of the street bikes sold last year that were not Harley-Davidsons, quite a large percentage had been designed to look and ride like them. Los americanos les gustan las Harleys. 

That's not terribly surprising. People everywhere tend to cheer for the home team. Triumphs sell better than all else in Britain, BMWs sell better in Germany, and so on. However, Harley-Davidson's situation is unique because its sales dominance is so much greater compared to the successes of other manufacturers on their home turf. For example, BMW carves out just 17 percent of its local market.

My theory is that Harley-Davidson performs so much better at home because the United States was one of the few countries not to suffer an existential crisis after World War II. In other motorcycle-producing nations like Germany, Japan, Italy and even England the post war years forced serious re-evaluations of national identity. After all, it was nationalism and its ugly sides of xenophobia and racism that had fuelled the war. As such, patriotism isn't always an effective selling tool.

Whereas in the United States, the simple fact of a product being American is often reason in itself for people to choose it. Yes, I realise this is less true now than it used to be, but trust me, flag waving still delivers infinitely more marketing success in the United States than here in Europe. 

Through wit, hard work and good ol' fashioned dumb luck, Harley-Davidson found itself pretty much the only American motorcycle brand as it began its resurrection in 1981. Through the 1970s it had bumbled almost to the point of bankruptcy, unable to focus and therefore unable to compete against cheaper, superior foreign brands. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this rough patch had come during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, when the American psyche was suffering the closest it would ever come to existential crisis. It was a time when a product's simply being American wasn't enough.

But then, you know, "Morning in America" and all that stuff, and suddenly my grandfather was teaching me to check the labels of my T-shirts to see where they were made. And at the same time, Harley-Davidson lasered its focus to the types of model that had performed well in the past: "traditional" motorcycles. Bikes like those ridden by the modern cowboys who had captured popular imagination in the decades before.

And, of course, the American experience is always one of amalgamation. It is the melting pot. So, the society-degrading outcasts of one generation became the iconic symbols of American spirit for the next. Harley-Davidson brilliantly tapped into this and soon established itself in Americans' minds as not only as being the quintessence of America but the quintessence of motorcycling.

Growing up in the U.S. Central Time Zone –– in Texas and Minnesota –– there was only one kind of motorcycle. Well, maybe two: Harley-Davidsons (or foreign copies), and bikes for people who wore neon socks. Within my cultural understanding, it was Harley or nothing else. If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know that, after getting my motorcycle license at age 18, I spent almost two decades choosing the "nothing else" option.

I know that the mindset of my younger self is not unique. Take a look at motorcycle blogs, websites and forums and you will see it everywhere, every day. Take a look at the motorcycles on American roads. Lots and lots of Americans struggle to comprehend a world beyond the Harley bubble.

Again, I'm not complaining about an American company being successful, nor am I complaining about the kind of bikes that Harley-Davidson chooses to make (hell, I want one myself). What irks me is that Harley's tremendous success seems to have resulted in so many people being blind to everything else. And as a result, motorcycling in the United States has not moved forward at the same pace as the rest of the world.

Do you see what I'm getting at? Perhaps it would help to take it out of a motorcycling context. Imagine if Chili's were the only place you ever ate. Ever. I'm a big fan of Chili's, personally. Free refills on ice tea, good burgers, decent wings, awesome chili-cheese nacho dip, and the Southwestern eggrolls are the bomb. That molten chocolate cake, too, yo. When I was in college I got a job as a waiter at Chili's solely because it meant getting a discount at Chili's. I could and can stand to eat at Chili's a lot. But if it was the only restaurant I ever went to? After a few decades of that I would be suffering from culinary retardation. I wouldn't really know what food could be.

In that scenario, should Chili's change what it's doing? Nope. Not necessarily. Should people begrudge its success? Definitely not. But that doesn't make me any less stunted in my understanding and philosophy of food.

I feel Harley-Davidson's success has retarded American motorcycling both technologically and philosophically. It is not just that American motorcyclists don't care about things like liquid-cooling or traction control, etc., but that they can't see why they should care. Because to them (a) motorcycles are toys. Hobbies. Trinkets that –– like an NFL jersey or Tom Petty box set –– are reflections of the personality/character a person wants to portray outwardly, but which are ultimately not terribly relevant nor deserving of analysis and progression.

The end result of that is three American brands that lack any model diversity and an American motorcycling landscape where filtering is allowed in only one state and very few people ever ride unless it's hot and sunny. A motorcycling landscape where too many riders settle for an inferior situation and too many potential riders choose nothing.

UPDATE: On the same day I published this post, Wes Siler published this article on Jalopnik, which captures the same frustrated sentiment you see in my post but more detail. It's a good piece (I wish I had written it) and will get you feeling upset at the state of motorcycling in America.


(a) I'm talking in generalities here, speaking of the majority. Obviously, I know there are exceptions.