Monday, 29 December 2014

Sexism and motorcycling: a frustratingly cosy pair


Above is a picture from Victory's UK Facebook page, taken at a motorcycle show in 2014. Can you identify what's wrong here? If not, let me phrase the question differently: How many women do you see in this photo?

I see two: the eye candy. Everyone else in the photo appears to be male. Now, take into consideration the fact that statistics show more and more women are buying motorcycles and ask yourself again: What's wrong with this picture?

I have long felt frustration toward the latent sexism in motorcycling. In fact, I tend to list that among the myriad reasons I spent so many years not riding after I earned my license at age 18. Sure, I dated a girl who rode a Kawasaki Ninja, but overwhelmingly the riders I encountered were male (and white, and usually 20 years older than me), and much of their world seemed to objectify and demean women. 

Remember that I grew up in the American Midwest, the same region in which you will find Sturgis, South Dakota. If you disagree with my suggestion that the motorcycling culture of that region is demeaning to women, I dare you to type the words "Sturgis women" into an image search and view the results at work.

Even as a young man I couldn't see how that world would attract the sort of girl I was inclined to chase after.

Older and living in another country, I now accept that the Midwestern BS is only one facet of motorcycle culture. Additionally, I am mature enough to not see the world in absolutes; just because I share certain interests with people doesn't mean I have to adhere to all their beliefs and ideologies. But even so, I am made uncomfortable by the general level of sexism I see in motorcycling.

Too many manufacturers and motorcycle racing organisations treat women as motorcycle accessories -- as if the whole point of being a female is to accentuate chrome. I understand the idea that sex sells, but I feel that this kind of selling actually damages the companies who use it, as well as motorcycling overall.


Don't get me wrong; I like what I see. I'm not a prude and I am highly appreciative of the female form. But I am equally appreciative and respectful of the female mind, and it seems to me that such an intense focus on the former is an insult to the latter.

I've found myself thinking about this a lot lately, ever since I visited the Victory display area of Motorcycle Live, where I wanted to strangle the company's marketing guys for their boneheaded strategy. The area had a handful of underfed girls in inappropriate clothing (it is never warm enough in Britain to prance around in nothing but Lycra, but that is especially true in late November) who were there for nothing more than idle titillation. 

If you wanted, I suppose you could have gotten your picture taken with them, then showed it to all your buddies to falsely present yourself as a lady's main, a la Cool Hand Luke. But had you tried to ask them questions about the product whose name was stretched across their chests, you would have gotten blank stares. At one point there was a demonstration of Victory bikes and I saw a guy teaching one of the girls how to start a motorcycle. THE GIRL SHILLING MOTORCYCLES DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO TURN ONE ON!

And when I see crap like that, I can't help but think of how my wife would respond. Imagine if I wanted to buy a Victory motorcycle (which, actually, I do -- despite their poor marketing). 

It makes sense that I would want my wife's input; I love her and care about her opinion. Plus, her support of my buying decisions help prevent domestic arguments. This is one of the reasons I am so particularly fond of Triumphs. My wife loves them, and that means she won't necessarily see my owning one as frivolous or wasteful.

So imagine that I take Jenn to some sort of Victory event, so she can see the bikes in person -- perhaps even go on a test ride with me. And when she gets to said event she sees these Lycra-wrapped anorexics and a bunch of men muttering crass things about them. What she doesn't see is anything that necessarily appeals to her as a female. And subtly, therefore, the message is communicated to her that she is effectively pointless. Her role is to serve as accoutrement.

I cringe to think of the sort of whithering sarcasm I'd face if I were to thereafter suggest a desire to meet Victory's asking price on a new model. Not to mention how much an experience like that would put her off motorcycling in general. How would I be able to convince her to take up riding herself if that were her impression of the motorcycling world? Who wants to be part of something that devalues you?

An exception: Alicia Elfving runs the popular Moto Lady website.
I have no doubt many women feel similarly. And I have no doubt that many women over the years have simply turned their back on motorcycling as a result. There's no way you can say that doesn't damage motorcycling. Because you're not just pushing away women, but also the men who value and respect those women.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. There always have been. Some of the most inspiring riders in history have been female: Bessie Stringfield, Vivian Bales and Elspeth Beard immediately come to mind. Stephanie Jeavons is a modern inspiration who is currently travelling around the world solo. And, of course, don't forget Alicia Elfving or the Miss-Fires.

My frustration is that these women are too often an exception; they exist despite the marketing and mentalities that demean them. In some cases, they exist in deliberate rebellion of those things. But not everyone wants to be an inspirational trailblazer. Motorcycling needs to be more open and more accepting of everyday women. 

A few intelligent motorcycling companies (actually, I can only think of one: Harley-Davidson) have recognised that money from a female is just as good as that from a male, and that by welcoming and encouraging women into motorcycling they increase its overall appeal.

Statistics show more and more women are taking up motorcycling and I'd like to see that accelerated and expanded. Motorcycle manufacturers can help this happen (and, in turn, help themselves) by acknowledging that women have a worth beyond using their physical attributes. If nothing else, that's just good business sense.

I mean, imagine again the scenario of visiting a Victory sales event. And instead of being confronted with the assertion that she is nothing but boobs and butt for a bike, my wife is encouraged to consider the freedom, independence and sense of individuality that can come from riding a motorcycle. Rather than ruining a sale, they might earn themselves two new customers

Elspeth Beard rode her BMW R60 around the world.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

What I want: Triumph Street Tracker (which is probably actually a new Thruxton)


Let's start with the fact that I don't actually think the bike pictured above is the forthcoming Triumph Street Tracker. To me, it looks a lot like an updated Triumph Thruxton, and as such, what we're looking at here is an updated Bonneville platform. Whatever it's called, though, I want one.

Spy photos of the Triumph in question showed up on a number of motorcycle websites last week, including VisorDown, Cycle World, and Motorcycle.com. What strikes me about all the publications' stories about the bike is how consistent they are. All agree that this is an 1100-1200cc machine that is liquid-cooled and therefore capable of upward of 100 horsepower. All agree the bike will have anti-lock brakes. All agree there will be a standard and an R model. Most agree the bike will be called a Street Tracker.

Obviously, some of that information is educated guesswork. Back in 2012, Triumph went to the trouble to trademark the name "Triumph Street Tracker," so it seems to make sense that the name would be applied to this new machine. Similarly, ABS will be required on all new models sold in the European Union from 1 January 2016, so it's pretty much a given that every new bike we see from this point forward will be ABS-equipped.

Notes on the engine size, though, suggest a certain level of inside knowledge. And such loose lips from the Triumph camp suggests an imminent release date for this bike. Based on the rather finished look of the machine, I'd expect to see it announced and in dealerships in time for the 2015 peak riding season.

But, as I say, I'm not convinced about the name. Do a Google image search for the phrase "street tracker" and you will be presented with a whole bunch of customised bikes that don't really look like this one. The handlebars are different. On most street trackers the seat is different; quite a lot of street trackers use alloy wheels and have a flattened front that mimics where the number plate would go on a flat tracker.

Instead, this looks a whole lot like an updated Thruxton. In fact, let's just go with that: What you see here are spy photos of a new liquid-cooled Triumph Thruxton being put through its paces in Spain. And I want one.


I mentioned in my post about Motorcycle Live that I have fallen in love with the Thruxton recently. I have long admired its looks but had not before had a chance to really ogle the bike up close and in person. And I'll admit that I hadn't made much effort to do so. Having ridden (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Bonneville, I have no doubt that the current Thruxton is a joy to ride. But, like the Bonneville, it lacks ABS. Add to this the fact that its ergonomics require more of a forward lean and I had told myself I wasn't interested.

But then one day, back in mid-November, I found myself sitting in soul-destroying Cardiff morning traffic, en route to return a rental car I had used over the weekend, and I watched as a Thruxton slipped through the narrow alley between unmoving cars. 

"Ooh," I said aloud. "That bike filters well. And the rider looks so cool doing it."

With the possible exception of certain Victory motorcycles, I can think of no bike that looks better from the rear than a Thruxton. So, a week or so later when I arrived at Motorcycle Live, I made a point of heading to the Triumph area of the show and spending some quality time with the Thruxton. It is beautiful in person and its ergonomics are far more comfortable than I had imagined. 

Were it equipped with ABS, the Thruxton is already a machine that could answer all the demands I have for a bike whilst looking so much sexier than my Honda. When I got home, I showed Jenn a picture of one in Brookland green and her simple reply was: "Ooh, babe. You should get one."

You may remember that my wife used to keep a sticker book of motorcycles when she was a little girl. She preferred the classic Triumphs -- the bikes that were, in her words, "real motorcycles" -- and of them, her favourites were those painted green. You may remember, as well, that back in March of this year, when I came very close to signing a loan deal for a Bonneville my wife had no opposition to the idea. Whereas she is totally indifferent to my swooning over, say, a Moto Guzzi Griso, and outright coughed in disdain when I once drew her attention to a BMW R1200GS, she is very much a Triumph girl. The Thruxton is 100 percent Mrs. Cope-approved and, obviously, that makes it quite desirable in my eyes.

It appears the R-spec version of this bike will have fancy suspension.
The Thruxton is, of course, part of the Bonneville line; the Bonneville, Scrambler, Thruxton, America and Speedmaster are all effectively the same bike, with different ergonomics and aesthetics. And since 2007, almost nothing has changed on the bikes other than paint. The platform has been in need of an upgrade for a while now, but that has become even more painfully obvious in recent months. Think of all the bikes against which the Bonneville line competes and consider the ways in which they are superior:
Admittedly, some of those bikes cost quite a bit more, but some do not. In particular, the Yamaha and (even more so) the Ducati offer bikes that make Triumph look lazy. And I'm not the only one to think that. In October, when Triumph announced its 2015 special edition Bonnevilles much of the reaction I saw online was akin to backlash.

So, it is good to know that this new Thruxton will be more than just the same old bike with government-mandated brakes. A larger liquid-cooled engine will offer more go, dual front discs will offer more whoa. I will be interested to see, too, how this new platform extends to the rest of the Bonneville line.

I am worried as to how it all affects the price tag, though. Some have noted that this new Thruxton looks similar to the Norton Commando 961 Sport and the BMW RnineT. My fear is that Triumph will try to price it similarly.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Where are the Americans?


Just a quick addendum to my previous post. One thing I noticed in the Honda video featuring world explorers was a lack of American accents. And that got me thinking: Off the top of my head, I can think of no world-travelling American motorcyclists.

I can't remember ever reading about even one. I've read about riders from Canada, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand and Ireland. I've read about loads of Aussies and loads more Brits. But I'm not aware of the story of one American who has travelled the globe on two wheels.

I realise there are plenty of Iron Butted Americans who have criss-crossed the United States and perhaps even sojourned in Canada or Mexico. I take great pride in counting as friends two people who effectively live on the American highways and byways. But why has my country produced no world travellers? 

Have I just missed hearing about them, or is there something about Americans that keeps them from straying too far from home? 

Full disclosure: I (currently) have little interest in riding around the world on a motorcycle. Sure, I'm fomenting plans to explore Europe, and I dream always of  wandering the great expanse of North America, but I'll admit that the thought of possibly breaking down on the Trans-Siberian Highway or having to bribe customs officials in Bali puts me off wanting to ride in areas that would force me too far from my Western sensibilities. I'm not entirely sure why I am this way (Am I afraid? Am I too comfortable?), but perhaps it speaks to the reason that other Americans aren't doing such a thing either.

What do you think? Why aren't there more American accents in far-flung places?

__________

(The picture above, by the way, is of American Sash Johnson riding near the Mexican border. I wouldn't put it past her to take up world travelling soon)

Thursday, 18 December 2014

I'm a sucker for good marketing

"A life without dreams simply has no meaning."
–– Soichiro Honda
I'm a Honda rider; I'm never really sure, however, whether you could call me a Honda guy. My emotional relationship with the manufacturer of the bike I ride is often tenuous. You can see that in a number of posts I've written over the past few years: the time I compared Honda to professional wrestler Lance Storm,the time I lamented Honda's utter lack of coolness, the time I compared my bike to an ex-girlfriend, and so on.

Of course, the mind immediately jumps to the question of whether it's necessary to be an anything guy. Why not just buy/ride whatever bike it is that you like according to your needs and wants at the time, rather than trying to shoehorn yourself into the illusory lifestyle of any given motorcycle manufacturer? After all, motorcycle ownership is not religion.

But I suppose we could learn a little about motorcycling from at least one religion: Sikhism. To paraphrase Guru Nanak, there is no Harley Guy, there is no Honda Guy, but each of us must still choose a motorcycle.

I digress. The point is: I'm a Honda owner but I often feel something akin to embarrassment because of it. People will ask me what kind of bike I ride and too often I'll attenuate my answer with words like "only" or "just," e.g., "Oh, it's only a little 600cc Honda, but what I really want is..."

Nevermind that my "little 600cc Honda" delivers more horsepower than a 1200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster, is more fuel-efficient and everyday useful than an Indian Chief Classic, and has better brakes than every bike Victory has ever made. For some reason, I have in my head a silly, childish, aesthetic, and all too often financially-based (a) vision of what coolness is, and Honda doesn't really fit within that.

But then there are things like the picture above of world-travelling Stephanie Jeavons, or my own interaction with American nomad Steve Johnson, or the chance conversations I've had with people like the guy I met at Motorcycle Live who had put 87,000 miles on his ST1300 and said of it: "Be careful if you get one because the bloody thing won't die and you won't have any good reason to replace it when you decide you want something new."

These people are adventurers. Their gear is often makeshift and almost always worn out from use. They just go and go and go, in part because the bike they've chosen doesn't stop. And that's pretty cool. 

But because I'm a Gen X dude who can't think for himself, I sometimes need the capitalist machine to remind me that Hondas are cool. Which is why I have been really digging the marketing campaign for the forthcoming True Adventure motorcycle.




I kind of wonder how this hype will jive with the actual automatic transmission motorcycle that I saw displayed at Motorcycle Live, but, you know, Who cares, man?! These videos are awesome. Especially that second one (b); I've watched it about a dozen times thus far. And each time I do, it manages to set off a little voice in my head that yelps: "I need a Honda so I can explore all the things."

Hey, wait! I already have a Honda! Go me! I can explore all the things right now! Yay! Fire up Google Maps and let the dreaming begin!

And therein you have the power of good marketing. Harley-Davidson, of course, does it incredibly well, but this is the first time I can remember being struck by any sort of Honda campaign. Well done, Big Red: you've made me feel happy to be a Honda owner.

Though, I'm still not sure if I'm a Honda guy...

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

(a) For example, Hondas have a reputation for durability and quality. BMWs also have a reputation for durability and quality. BMWs definitely don't look much better than Hondas, so why do I swoon over them more? The only logical answer is that I am somehow enchanted (and duped) by the fact that they are more expensive.

(b) One of the people featured in the video is Steph Jeavons, who is Welsh and is a partial inspiration for my own Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure.

Monday, 15 December 2014

What can I actually afford?


You will know, of course, that I have a tendency to swoon over just about every bike I see. I'm not terribly picky, though I'll admit that the stuff I get most excited about tends to be rather pricey. My grandmother has always accused me of having such tastes. When I was a boy she would take me clothes shopping and claimed I had a magical ability to immediately identify the most expensive item in the shop.

I got to thinking about this a few days ago, after posting my review of the Indian Chief Classic. I absolutely love that bike, but as part of the review I went to the trouble to work out that at my current rate of saving I would have to wait until my 50th birthday to be able to buy one (I am presently 38 years old).

And that got me wondering: what bikes could I actually afford right now? So, I started searching eBay, BikeTrader, MCN,  and various other bike listings to see what I could come up with.

The first thing to really catch my eye was the 2001 BMW K1200 pictured above.

"it had a collision. I sell it for parts," explains the owner. "seat are ok."

Glad to know the seat is OK. The bike comes in under my budget and, golly, it's exciting to think of owning a genuine BMW. I could make a project of this bike -- fix it up and thereafter have my very own top-of-the-line tourer. All I'd need would be a garage to do the work in, appropriate tools, money for additional parts, and a mechanical knowledge that extends beyond "Righty tighty, lefty loosey." I have none of these things, however, so let's move on.

At my current budget, the bulk of bikes available are 125cc machines from China that have very clearly been ridden and maintained by 17-year-old boys from England's less-desirable towns and cities. Here and there, one finds an old Kawasaki GPZ 550 with interstellar miles, looking like it might -- just might -- survive a lap or two at Dirt Quake before needing to be sold for scrap.


The best bike I can find for the money I have now is this one: a 1989 Suzuki GSX750F with 32,500 miles on the clock. We all know eBay is a haven for liars and thieves, but let's pretend otherwise and take the bike's seller at his word.

"This bike really rides very well and is unbelievable to think it's 25 years old," says the seller. "Like a 5-year-old bike, not a 25 year old."

He adds, however, that the bike is currently on SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification), which is a UK tax designation given to vehicles that are not being used on the roads. Usually you SORN a vehicle because it doesn't run. But it's not unheard of for people to SORN a bike over the winter.

Either way, it means the bike is not currently allowed on British roads, which: a) calls into question the owner's claims of how well it rides; b) means I couldn't legally test ride it; c) I'd be faced with a lot of paperwork before getting it back on the road.

Maybe it's a sweet find. Maybe I could get my hands on this thing and experience the joy of riding around on a modern classic. I think, though, that I'll just keep saving my pennies and dreaming of another day.

Friday, 12 December 2014

GWTTA: Monmouth (Trefynwy)


Let's call the visit to Monmouth a learning experience. 

I learned, for instance, that I should probably do a little research on the places I visit as part of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure before going to them (a). Otherwise I'll arrive at said place with no idea of what might be there.

Additionally, I learned I should not attempt to explore a place when I haven't eaten. Being hungry makes me incomparably stupid and indecisive. Which, of course, isn't a good thing to be when you don't know what you're doing.

These two issues came to a head when I had the experience of also learning that the Waitrose in Monmouth doesn't have a cafe.

For those of you playing along at home, Waitrose is chain of high-end grocery stores in the United Kingdom. Often they have cafes. Or so I thought.

Monnow Bridge
I had ridden through Monmouth once or twice in the past and noted the existence of aforementioned Waitrose, so my plan had been to arrive, eat at aforementioned cafe and thereafter take a leisurely stroll through aforementioned town to see what I could see. But, as I said afore, the Monmouth Waitrose is sans cafe.

Because I had not arrived with a back-up plan, because I was feeling a little flustered from my ride here, and because I was being made stupid by hunger, I was not able to respond to this minor setback and simply choose somewhere else to eat. There are literally dozens of cafes, pubs and restaurants in Monmouth but in the face of them I became so indecisive that all I was able to do was walk around getting more and more upset at my inability to decide where to eat.

"Oh moan, that place looks a little too pricey. Woe is me, eating in this place might leave me too full for dinner tonight. Sorrow, with all my motorcycle gear I'd draw too much attention in there. Fie, this place looks so nice I'll want to spend the rest of the day in here. Distress, If I go in there I'll want a pint, too, but I have to ride home..."

In the end, I just chose to not eat. This in itself was a learning experience. From it I learned that if I spend all day riding around in the cold, having eaten nothing but two pieces of toast in the morning, I will end up getting a fever blister the next day and feeling awful for the next two weeks.

Monmouth Castle
All in all, I would say my visit to Monmouth was something of a bust. I was flustered and hungry and I failed to deal with it properly.

I was feeling flustered partially because my visit to Monmouth came on the same day I had visited Caerleon –– the two towns only being a few miles apart –– and that hadn't gone terribly well. But also because it was on the ride to Monmouth I learned I shouldn't rely solely on my sat-nav (known as a GPS in America-land) to get to a place. I mean, yeesh, everyone knows that. But especially my sat-nav.

Mine is a hand-me-down Tom-Tom given to me for free because its previous owner was convinced she couldn't trust it. I learned on my Monmouth adventure that I can't really trust it either. Especially not its battery, When I stopped in the middle of nowhere to click on the device, its battery was dead. I have since found that some sort of fault in the sat-nav (probably as a result of its being in my bag that time I got soaked en route to Exeter) causes it to take more than 48 hours to charge fully.

I'm going to need to come up with a solution to my sat-nav issue as I go forward with the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure. Navigation can be damned tricky in Land of Song. Physical maps are hard to use on a motorcycle anyway, of course, but also it can be extra difficult to find maps that even bother to include the small country lanes that are requisite to getting places in Wales.

Getting lost en route to Monmouth.
Meanwhile, outside of Cardiff and Swansea, phone signal is weak at best and sometimes non-existent, so navigating via Google Maps is ill-advised (not to mention it saps battery that will be needed to phone for help if your bike breaks down). But, for that matter, sat-navs, too, struggle to keep tabs as you wind through narrow valleys. My friend, Sian, was born and raised in Wales but lives now in London. She told me she often gets lost when she returns home. In trying to give me directions to the town where her wedding was held she said: "Head west and follow your heart."

Which is more or less what I did when getting from Caerleon to Monmouth (though, I was headed north and east).

There is a pretty straight-forward 70-mph route I could have taken, but that would have been boring. I wanted instead to make my way through the undulating country lanes that lie between the two towns. With my sat-nav dead, I studied an overview map of the area on my phone, memorised the names of a few towns I would pass, and set out –– planning to use road signs as a guide.

The phrase "road sign" is a misleading one when it comes to finding your way in the Welsh countryside. There are, indeed, signs by the road but often they were not designed for motorists. In these country lanes the signs can be upward of 200 years old, intended for the eyes of people moving at a far slower pace.

Random shop in Monmouth
If you've ever read PG Wodehouse novels, he frequently references the challenges of driving in the 1920s, literally having to stop and get out of the car to read a road sign. These are the sort of signs that were guiding me to Monmouth. And the route they prescribed was one that saw me bumping down lanes so narrow I could stretch out both my arms and touch the hedges on either side.

These lanes were pockmarked, crumbling, and caked with mud, livestock manure and, in some darker corners, algae. It is in situations like this that I am thankful I do not own an expensive motorcycle. As I rode along, I found myself remembering the claims made by the Michelin guys when they wined and dined me a few months ago. Pilot Road 4 tires have improved grip on every surface but snow, they said.

But "improved" doesn't necessarily mean "good." Not when tackling the literal and metaphorical crap found on a Welsh lane. I had several bum-clenching moments of having the rear tire kick out on me as I crept down the lanes. Fortunately, I encountered almost no other traffic on these roads (everyone else being smart enough to avoid them, I suppose) and was able to move at a snail's pace.

Eventually, I was rewarded for my efforts. I stopped on the rise of a hill, alone in the green, tranquil quiet of the countryside. I shut off my bike and was overwhelmed by the silence, the peacefulness. It felt otherworldly. Normally you just don't find this sort of thing in Britain. Everyone is so aggressive, so impatient and so crowded around each other on this little archipelago that when it all finally stops, when you can take a breath and actually hear the sound of fresh air filling your lungs, the experience kicks you in the stomach.

This was intensified by the views I had of the mountains to the north of me. I sat there for several minutes, listening to my breathing, the birds and faraway sheep. I didn't really think it at the time but it occurs to me now that this is the point of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure; this sort of thing is why I moved to Wales.

Statue of Charles Rolls upstaging statue of Henry V
Eventually, I fired up the bike again and bounced my way down to Monmouth. It is a nice town, far more English in its quaintness than most Welsh towns and villages. That makes sense, as it is quite close to the English border.

Thanks to a statue in the town centre, I learned it is also the birthplace of one of the most iconic Englishmen ever: Henry V. You know, the fella of, "Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George," fame. You can't get more English than that, lads. Especially considering the fact that before becoming king, Henry V cut his warring teeth by defeating and humiliating one of Wales' greatest cultural heroes: Owain Glyndwr.

Far more recently, Monmouth was home to equally iconic Englishman Charles Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, and in present day it is home to a whole lot of people who don't speak a word of Welsh. In part because of all of these things, the town is often dismissed by hardcore Welshies. And this speaks to something else that I sense will become a theme throughout the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure: often, the things I like most about Wales are, in fact, quite English in nature.

I didn't bother to ponder this at the time, however. I was hungry. After a quick visit to the crumbling remains of Monmouth Castle (built by the English to help them invade Wales) and a stroll through the town's older streets I headed back to my bike and sped home to dinner. It had been a positive learning experience, even if I was still pretty ignorant about Monmouth.

___________________

(a) If you've got any insider knowledge about the places I'm planning to visit, please clue me in.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Ride Review: Indian Chief Classic


There is only one reason you should not rush out and buy yourself an Indian Chief Classic. I'll get to that in a bit, but first I want to stress that the Chief Classic is the best motorcycle I have ever ridden.

That sort of thing comes with a caveat, I suppose, because of the truth that there is no perfect motorcycle. If you are looking for elbow-dragging cornering prowess, or crossing-the-Kazakh-mountains off-road capability, the Chief will disappoint. Indeed, there are any number of unfair comparisons that could be put to this bike that would leave it wanting. But if you take it for what it is –– an outsized torque monster that turns the head of everyone you pass –– then it is, without question, The Best Motorcycle Ever.

I should probably admit a certain amount of bias right uprfront, however. Indian Motorcycles is owned by Minnesota-based Polaris, and I tend to have a soft spot for all things Minnesotan. But even without that adopted-home-state connection, I reckon I'd be pretty hot on this machine. The Chief (I see no reason to differentiate between the Chief Classic and Chief Vintage, since the only difference between the two is that one has a screen and saddlebags as standard) has long been on my What I Want list. I have previously written about it both here and here

You will know, of course, that the resurrected Chief was introduced to the world in summer 2013. The forthcoming 2015 Chief Classic is only different from previous offerings in paint schemes. The machine I rode was a 2014 model, bedecked in deep Springfield Blue that, in my opinion, looked even better with a little bit of Birmingham road grime on it –– rather than shining and spotless on a showroom floor.

That's good to know. I'm not big into cleaning regimes beyond throwing some water on the thing to clear away road salt. I think if I were to own a Chief I'd be somewhat inclined to let the bike's chrome rust –– as chrome is so naturally wont to do –– and create a bit of patina, which you could then clear coat to keep it from rusting any further.

(I learned that trick from the guys at Gas Monkey Garage.)

You'd certainly have a fair bit of patina, because the Chief is dripping with shiny bits. Like the massive steer's head that is the headlight assembly and handlebars. I mean, good grief, that thing is huge. I am not exaggerating even slightly in telling you that just the headlight assembly is larger than my Honda's 19-litre fuel tank. It is the size of a horse's head.


This theme of hugeness extends to all corners of the bike: giganto pullback handlebars that are as thick around as a tree trunk, supersized forks, valanced fenders the size of a child's bicycle, a seat large enough to establish a homestead on, and so on. With Minnesota serving as the de facto home to Indian Motorcycles, one wonders if this thing wasn't designed with Paul Bunyan in mind.

At 8.5 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it is a big motorcycle. One benefit of all at girth (and all that chrome), though, is that it gets you noticed. As the rider of a 600cc Honda, I am used to being ignored by other road users, but when I was astride this beast, cars and trucks were stopping to give way –– partially out of respect for the bike's size and partially because it is a joy to look at.

It is also a joy to ride. Somehow, Indian has figured out a way to make the massive Chief handle far better than it has any right to. No, you won't be pulling any Royal Jordanian-style filtering moves, but the curves and awkward corners of normal British roads are surprisingly manageable for anyone who understands the basics of clutch/throttle control. Slow-speed manoeuvring is solid and relatively stress-free.

At speed, this great American land yacht floats over everything. It got to the point that I started targeting massive potholes, but still the Chief's suspension gobbled them up. Additionally, the bike's surfboard-sized floorboards allowed me to stand up off the seat when hitting speed bumps and the like. Add to this the bike's incredible leather seat, and it is genuinely the most comfortable vehicle I have ever experienced. Note that I say "vehicle" there; it is more comfortable than any motorcycle I've ridden, easily, but also more comfortable than any car, truck, bus, train, boat or aeroplane I've been on/in.


Twisting the throttle produces a deep, from-the-bowels-of-the-earth growl in the Chief's gargantuan 1,811cc engine. Hauling all that weight means you won't be popping any wheelies, but a fistful of throttle definitely hurls you forward in such a way that will have you whooping in your helmet. Indeed, I spent the whole of my ride laughing, shouting expletives of affirmation and grinning so wide my teeth went dry.

Because of the Polaris family connection, I had expected the experience of riding a Chief to be similar to that of riding a Victory, but it turns out that an Indian is so much more. First gear is a little "shorter" than on a Victory, meaning the engine's groaning will have you wanting to shift at about 30 mph. But the higher gears are much "longer." Sixth gear is very much a motorway/interstate gear; when cruising below 65 mph, you find no need to explore beyond fifth.

The clutch is relatively light –– especially when compared to a Victory –– though I should point out that I have long fingers (that's right, ladies), and I wonder how easily shifting gears would come to someone with smaller hands.

At higher speeds, that leviathan headlight assembly blocks a lot of wind –– to the extent I wonder whether I would ever want a screen. The Chief purrs at 75 mph, suggesting an ability to go far into the territory of illegal speeds before the engine shows any signs of stress. This is clearly a motorcycle suited to its home country. The United States is roughly 3,000 miles from ocean to ocean and this bike is a great way to tackle those miles in style and comfort. The roomy seat, the massive floorboards and the colossal pull-back handlebars offer plenty of wriggle room.

When it comes time to bring all that mass to a stop, the Chief's two front discs and single rear seem to be very much up to the job. Again, this is a markedly different experience than one finds on a Victory. With a Chief, you can use a sportbike-style two-fingered grab of the lever to temper momentum. The bike is also equipped with anti-lock brakes as standard.

I, personally, am not a fan of placing the speedometer and other info on the tank of the bike, but I'll admit that it works with the Chief's aesthetics and I had no trouble keeping speed and gear position in my peripheral view whilst riding.


Beyond that, I can find no other qualms with this motorcycle. Well, except for that one thing I mentioned at the start of this post –– the only reason I can think of for not running out right now and buying one: its price.

Good Lord almighty, is it expensive. Here in the United Kingdom, the starting price for an Indian Chief Classic is greater than my my net annual salary. At my current rate of saving (which is already overly optimistic), it would take me 12 years to put aside enough money to buy one of these magnificent beasts. Which means –– despite its greatness –– you will probably never see one in my garage.

All of this, then, leads to the three questions I put to every motorbike I get a chance to test ride:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
Sadly, no. The Indian Chief Classic is too big, too expensive and too demanding in its cleaning schedule to belong to a low-paid PR hack who has to store his bike outside.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. A massive, kid-on-Christmas-morning grin that sits on my face even as I think of riding the Chief. The thought of never owning one initiates a deep, trembling sadness in my soul.

3) Is is better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. In looks, acceleration, comfort, quality and coolness it is –– unsurprisingly –– superior to my hard-working little Honda. In comfort alone it is, as I said, superior to every other vehicle I've ever experienced.

If your financial situation is better than my own, I urge you to get a Chief. I wish you many years of happy riding. Please don't be surprised when you see me gaping in envy as you ride past.



Friday, 5 December 2014

Victory drops price of Gunner in the UK


Victory fans are somewhat few and far between in the United Kingdom (and who can blame them considering the outdated marketing philosophy Victory displays at shows like Motorcycle Live?), so the number of people who will be interested in this little bit of "news" could probably be counted on one hand. But I thought I'd mention it, anyway:

I just happened to check Victory's website today and it appears that the asking price of the 2015 Victory Gunner (due to arrive UK dealerships in March) has been dropped. Its starting price is now just £9,999

As recently as last week, the asking price had been listed as £10,399 -- the same as the Indian Scout (also due to arrive UK dealerships in March). Both machines will be equipped with ABS, to adhere to impending EU legislation, and as such cost comparatively more than their U.S. counterparts.

I find it interesting and perhaps a little concerning that Victory has chosen to slash £400 from the Gunner's asking price before it has even arrived at UK dealerships. But, hey, if you're a Brit who's keen to own a kick-ass cruiser, it's a deal for you.

Recently Motorcycle.com did a comparison between a Victory Gunner and Harley-Davidson FXSB Breakout, which saw the two bikes coming out pretty evenly matched. Here in the United Kingdom, both bikes are equipped with anti-lock brakes as standard. The starting price for a Breakout is £15,895 -- almost £6,000 more than the Gunner! 

That is damned impressive. It makes me worry a little bit for Victory (I hope they're not struggling), but mostly it makes me wish I had £10,000.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ours is to scream against standardisation

I've mentioned before my love of El Solitario –– a custom-builder from Spain whose work is part of a movement in motorcycles that I love. Here's an interesting little film about him that talks, of course, about motorcycles but also about art and its relevance. 

Subversively, this little film also explains why I need to improve my Spanish and move to Spain.

 

Monday, 1 December 2014

A look back at Motorcycle Live

I went to my first motorcycle show recently: Motorcycle Live. The show takes place in Birmingham every year and is reportedly the country's largest.

I can believe that claim. The show runs for nine days, thereby incorporating two weekends, and when I was there on a Wednesday it was packed. Test rides booked up within minutes, empty places to sit were few and far between, and you had to do some pretty aggressive hovering to be able to sit on the models that appealed to you.

The models of motorcycles, that is. As opposed to the other type of model. I'm not sure we would have been allowed to sit on the underfed girls who prowled the convention halls shoving leaflets into people's hands.

I can't find any recent figures, but in 2011 the show drew more than 112,000. If you consider that the European economy has improved (just a tiny bit) since then, and there have been a huge number of new and interesting bikes announced this year, it's safe to say they are on track to do better this year. (UPDATE: 117,000 attended this year) I'm terrible at gauging such things, but I'm willing to bet I was one of at least 10,000 people on the day I visited.

There was plenty of space for us, to be fair, with the hundreds of exhibitors and manufacturers spread through a number of gigantic aeroplane-hangar-sized halls. I suppose the cost of heating such an enormous space is where the bulk of one's £17 ticket price goes. And to that end, I don't imagine I'll go to Motorcycle Live again in the future. I loved getting a chance to see and sit on so many bikes, but overall I don't think it was worth the money, nor the effort I had to put into getting there. Birmingham is 125 miles from Cardiff; riding there in a cold drizzle was a whole lot of not-fun. Riding home in the same conditions was even worse in the dark.

Still, there were a number of positives and I came away from the show with lots of things for my motorcycle-loving brain to spin around on for the next several months. Here are my impressions of the show, organised by the manufacturers that drew my attention most.

BMW
Tiny men love this bike. 
Short guys fucking love the R1200GS. I don't understand this at all, considering it is such a tall bike, but they were swarming around this machine, almost crawling on top of each other for the opportunity to sit on it, squeeze the levers and click the gears up and down.

This is what you do at a motorcycle show, it would appear: click those gears as if they were your path to the Heavenly Kingdom. Make sure you put on a very serious face when you do it, too. You are testing the... uhm... something. It is serious business that demands a serious face. Equally, you should bend down and stare intently at a random part of the engine. Poke it and furrow your brow, so people know you are seriously assessing this bike seriously.

BMW fans were easily the most guilty of this behaviour. They were primarily also white males over the age of 40, with expensive shoes and hairstyles that would have been stylish 10 years ago. Being amongst them made me feel a little sad. I don't want to be one of these guys. But I sure as hell would love to own a BMW. 

I have already stated my desire to own a BMW F800GT. Finally getting to sit on one at the show only increased that desire. I also found myself intrigued by the F800R, which costs less than its fully-faired sibling and isn't as ugly as it looks in pictures. I was surprised to find myself generally unimpressed by the RnineT, but I really dug the R1200RS and R1200R models. I did not dig their prices. The R1200RS will start at £12,500 in Her Majesty's United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the staff at the BMW area knew very little about BMWs. This was a common theme for all the exhibiting manufacturers. The F800GT on display was kitted with panniers and other extra bits, so I found a woman and asked her if she knew how much that bike would cost.

"There's the... uhm... on the... uh..." she said, pointing to a display board next to the bike.
"Yes," I said. "The standard price is there, but this bike has panniers, a top box, and some other stuff."
"If you... uhm.. ah..."
"You don't know, do you?"
"No. Sorry."

She directed me to a bloke who also didn't know.

Ducati
I couldn't care less about a Panigale; my attention went instead to the new Scrambler, which looks pretty damn good in person. Though, I'll admit that something –– I don't know what –– cooled me on the bike a little. Maybe I'm just not that big a fan of scramblers. Maybe it's the fact that I really can't imagine quite how a Scrambler would fit to my actual life.

I liked it. I just didn't find myself sitting on it and thinking: "Oooh, I need this."

EBR
The same could be said of the EBR 1190RX and 1190SX. Poor EBR got very little love from show attendees. People walked by without even glancing at these American-made machines. They were so ignored I felt I probably could have wheeled one out of the hall without being noticed.

That made me feel just a little sad, because I'm an American and I want to see American things do well. But I have to say I don't really blame all the people who ignored the EBR bikes. In person, they are not terribly exciting. The ergonomics of the bikes are awful for someone of my height and the seats are about as comfortable as laying a sweatshirt across a keyboard.

Harley-Davidson
Impractical but sexy –– Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two
I don't really know what Harley's doing in terms of marketing in the United States these days, but over here they've gone for a completely different vibe than the one I had always known. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Remember that all the old dudes on Road Kings I used to see when growing up in Minnesota are what put me off biking for so many years.

I saw none of that at Harley's area of Motorcycle Live. There were no leather vests with patches. No bandannas and long beards. No biker babes. None of the clichés. Instead, the exhibit area had a live DJ mixing house music replete with bleeps and bloops added via Launchpad. None of the stuff contained in that last sentence ("house music," "Launchpad") would make a damned bit of sense to the Sturgis crowd, and I love that fact.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with the former head of marketing for Mercedes, who told me that one of the most important things to do when promoting a brand is to reduce your philosophy to three words –– four at the most. From there, you make sure that everything you do fits that three-word definition. Here, the three words I would have used for Harley-Davidson were: Unique, Intelligent, and Modern. If allowed to add a fourth, I would say Urban. I like seeing Harley-Davidson perform this tack.

I sat on a number of bikes and found them to be ergonomically awkward compared to those offered by other manufacturers. This is the same thing I experienced back when I got a chance to test ride the Sportster 1200 and the 883 SuperLow. Harleys just don't seem to fit me well. The exception is the Seventy-Two, which I got to sit on and really enjoyed. I can't imagine how I could ever argue such a bike from a practical side, but man it was cool. Somebody buy me one, please.

Herald
Ever heard of Herald Motor Company? Neither had I. They seem to be a Chinese outfit, offering a load of 125cc machines. But they are pretty cool-looking 125s. Odds of my ever owning one are extremely low. They drew my interest simply because I have a long-running fantasy of duping Jenn into riding by showing up one day with a 125 for her to learn on. She prefers "real" motorcycles, so the aesthetics of these machines would suit her.

Honda
Probably not the demographic Honda was
hoping to capture with the Vultus.
Take the number of short dudes clamouring for a glimpse of the BMW R1200GS and increase it by a zillion: therein you have the number of bald and semi-bald white dudes in their 60s and beyond who were swarming the bulk of Honda's offerings. This made me a little sad considering I am a Honda owner, a general fan of Hondas, and a white guy. I don't want to be anyone's grandfather yet. But here I was hanging out with loads of them and finding much in common.

The redeeming aspect of this is that when you look at Honda owners in general they are a grubby crew who ride their bikes into the ground. Their gear is worn to hell from use. And I suppose, ultimately, that's the group you'd want to be associated with, even if they don't look as flashy as the BMW guys.

Meanwhile, as far as the actual bikes were concerned, I didn't really find myself swooning over them. Many models (e.g., the ST1300 Pan-European and the VT750 Shadow) are long in the tooth and in need of a refresh. Whereas others (e.g. NC750X, et al.) were so mind-numbingly practical I felt I needed a nap.

Also, the Vultus looks terribly cheap in person, and its ergonomics were awkward. It's definitely off my list.

Some positives, however: Honda's sport bikes were drawing a decent amount of attention from younger white males, many of whom still had their hair or, at least, the wisdom to cover things up with a baseball cap. The look of CTX1300 continues to grow on me, though I still struggle to imagine scenarios in which I would choose to buy it over the similarly priced Victory Cross Country. And I found the CB500 series of bike (CB500F, CB500X, CBR500R) to be more formidably sized than I had previously realised. I could definitely picture myself getting by on a nicely-kitted CB500X –– still perfectly able to travel anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The new True Adventure bike revealed at EICMA was on display, and I found one aspect of that bike to be particularly interesting: there was no clutch lever or gear pedal. That suggests Honda will be equipping the machine with the DCT automatic transmission, and creates a whole lot of questions.

Honda seems to be going all-in with its 750cc DCT platform, using it to create the NC750S, NC750X, NC750 Integra, Vultus, and probably soon in the bike currently known as the CTX700 (not sold in the UK) once Honda runs out of old 700cc stock. And now, apparently, the True Adventure. So, what does that mean for the NC750X? Does it get scrapped? Does Honda rework the X's engine to get a little more oomph and transform it into a middleweight adventure-tourer? Will the True Adventure be an expensive novelty machine like the Vultus?

Indian
I got a chance to test ride an Indian Chief Classic as a part of the show and will be writing up a review in the near future. The short review is that it is an amazing machine.

What I was most looking forward to seeing, however, was the new Indian Scout. It is a beautiful machine up close and I am delighted to report that its ergonomics were perfectly agreeable to my 6-foot-1 frame.

I am looking forward to test riding the bike once it officially arrives in Blighty in March. The day the Scout was launched back in August I called my nearest Indian dealership, Blade Victory and Indian in Swindon, and asked to be contacted as soon as test rides are available.

Swindon is some 80 miles from Penarth, which would be a pain in the ass if I were a Victory or Indian owner and needed work done. Though, the guys at the Indian area of the show said the company is working on expanding its dealer network.

In contrast to the image of urban modernity being promulgated Harley-Davidson, the three words I would use for Indian's approach are: Authenticity, Heritage, and Quality. Again, though, there were no leather vests with patches, no biker girls, no incessant blaring of "Born to Be Wild." The feeling was high-end, and I think it "sold" well to the crowd. In a country where cruisers get the least amount of love, Indian was garnering quite a lot of wide-eyed attention. I found it especially refreshing to note how many women were keen to sit on these bikes.

Indeed, throughout the show I noticed that women gave most of their attention to cruisers and classic-styled machines –– the "real" motorcycles my wife likes. I would hope that some of the manufacturers' marketing teams were there to notice this. With the exception of Harley-Davidson, too many manufacturers are ignoring women as customers.

Kawasaki
Kawasaki Vulcan S
Women were giving a lot of love to the new Kawasaki Vulcan S, too. Though, they weren't the only ones. Indeed, with the possible exception of the Triumph Bonneville range, I saw no other bike at the show drawing so much attention from such a wide range of ages, genders and social classes. Kawasaki had three models of the Vulcan S on display and still you had to muscle your way through the crowd to sit on one.

Previously I described the Vulcan S as looking a little "meh" to my tastes, but I rescind that criticism having now had a chance to see it in person. It has a great, quality look, is nice and roomy, and is comfortable as all get out to sit on. I have promised myself that I will test ride one as soon as I can. This is dangerous, because the Vulcan S is "affordable" (less than £6,000) and a positive test ride might result in my just going nuts and getting one.

Royal-Enfield
The Continental GT; what a joke. Uncomfortable to sit on, tiny, and looks cheaply made. I was thoroughly underwhelmed. As were most show attendees, it seems –– the Royal-Enfield area was almost as quiet as the EBR space. Whereas it makes sense for a small, relatively new American company to get little attention it felt a little sad to see a long-standing brand like Royal-Enfield being so ignored.

The bikes getting the most attention were the Classic 500s. They were quite popular with ladies who appeared to be in their 70s and 80s. Seeing this, it suddenly became clear why Royal-Enfield has struggled in recent years to find a UK distributor.

Suzuki
Whereas some of Honda's models are long in the tooth almost all of Suzuki's are. And even those that aren't look that way. Case in point: the "new" GSX-S1000F. Its awful paint scheme makes it look 10 years old. Playing the three-word marketing game with Suzuki, the words that come to my mind are: Affordable, Decent, and... uhm... Affordable. Suzuki's bikes are just a little underwhelming.

Regardless, I am still saving up to get a GSX1250FA. To that end, I spent a lot of time staring at and sitting on the GSX1250FA that was on display at the show. I am pleased to report that I found the ergonomics to be quite agreeable.

Additionally, I found myself warming to the V-Strom 650. It is a formidably sized machine and for all the European journeys that I imagine myself taking on a GSX1250FA, I suspect the V-Strom would be just as well suited if not in some cases better. And it gets better mpg. This is something Bob Leong told me years ago; I trust he's in heaven now saying "I told you so."

Triumph
You have to pay extra for a fuel cap that locks.
Because Triumph.
The staff at the Triumph area knew very little about Triumphs. They did not know when the Bonneville line will get ABS. They did not know if the alloy-wheeled Bonneville can take radial tires. They did not know whether certain Bonneville accessories would fit the Speedmaster. They did not know if you can simply add cruise control to the Tiger XR or if you inherently have to get a Tiger XRx. And on. It was annoying.

That didn't stop me from falling in love with the Thruxton, though. My local dealership doesn't have one on display, so I'd not really had a chance to stare at one in person before. Yes, it uses stupid bias tires and the mirrors are only a tiny step above useless and I wouldn't even consider buying one until Triumph adds ABS and you have to pay extra to get a fuel cap that locks, but it is so cool! I mean, really, really cool. Especially in green.

That bike is so cool some part of my brain has already started to rationalise getting one. My ultra-practical side, the side that is trying to keep me from locking myself into the challenge of making monthly payments, is clinging to my ABS dogma like a priest clutching a crucifix at an exorcism. When Triumph eventually delivers anti-lock brakes (I would expect to see it announced before the summer), I may not be able to hold out any longer. Practicality be damned.

Victory
Speaking of bikes that look good in green, oh my goodness is the Gunner a sexy beast. I have never seen a picture of this bike that manages to capture just how attractive it is in real life. Sitting on the machine, I felt a deep urge to just hug it and thereafter refuse to let go. I could easily imagine a scenario in which staff from the National Exhibition Centre were having to pry me off the bike as I wept and shouted: "It's mah baby! She needs me!"

The seat of the Gunner is ridiculously comfortable; the overall ergonomics of the bike felt ideal. Whether the Gunner is £1,300 better than the £9,000 Victory Vegas 8-Ball, however, is up for debate. I realise the former is presently the only Victory cruiser with ABS as an option, but oof.

Meanwhile, I continue to be disappointed by Victory's marketing strategy. Here is where you hear classic rock being blared. Here is where you see scantily clad women tottering on high heels who don't know a goddamn thing about the bikes they're shilling. I mean Not. A. Single. Fucking. Thing.

At one point in the afternoon, there was a guy who demonstrated that Victory bikes can actually be manoeuvred into very tight turns (if you've had shedloads of training and you don't mind the very high possibility that you'll drop your bike). As he was setting up, one of his crew was flirting with a Victory girl and showing her how to start the bike. He had to show her how to twist the throttle.

I almost started screaming. That kind of bullshit is everything that's wrong with motorcycling. All those females at the show who were paying attention to cruisers and classic-styled machines, you will never sell to them if the underlying message of your marketing is that women exist solely to be stared at.

Don't get me wrong, I like sexy women; I married one. But I can just imagine what my wife's response would be if I were to take her to a Victory event where Lycra-clad anorexics galumph about on 6-inch heels amid a soundtrack by The Offspring. In the game of trying to convince her that bikes are a really good idea we should spend money on, I'd be set back a decade.

Motorcyclists often scoff at this idea –– and there are always exceptions –– but when you buy a bike you are buying into a lifestyle. Or, at the very least, you are buying into an acceptance of a lifestyle, a willingness to be associated with that lifestyle. Buy a Honda and you are embracing all those raggedy old white men. Buy a BMW and you are welcoming the association with short, rich guys. Buy a Suzuki and you're telling the world you're a cheapskate. Buy a Triumph Bonneville and you're showing love for those who take facial grooming very seriously. I'd accept those other associations. I do not want to be a part of or condone the idiot misogyny implied by Victory's marketing.

I weep for Jaqui van Ham.

WK Bikes
WK 650TR (aka CF Moto 650TR)
For quite some time I have pondered whether the WK 650TR –– aka the CF Moto 650TR –– is a bike worth having. A China-made machine whose engine copies the Kawasaki Ninja 650 (aka ER-6 outside the United States) and wears the aesthetics of a Honda ST1300, its price is incredibly appealing. In the UK, it will set you back just £5,200

For that, you get a fully faired bike capable of nigh 68 hp that has incorporated hard panniers, a fancy little 12V plug for your sat-nav/phone, and some nifty wee storage compartments in the fairing. By comparison, if you were to get an actual Ninja 650R (known as an ER-6f in the UK) and add accessory panniers and 12V plug, you'd likely be paying close to £7,200.

Of course, you'd also be getting a Kawasaki. With the WK, you get a bike whose name changes depending on which country its sold in and a sparse dealer network made up of independent shops that look as if they are about to shut down. In fact, they frequently do –– a number of dealers listed on WK's site no longer exist.

But still. What if? That's what any economy-minded motorcyclist asks. What if this WK 650TR were actually good enough? What if I really could get all that bike, brand new, for so little money?

I know other people ask this, too, because the two 650TR machines on display were drawing a decent amount of attention at Motorcycle Live. And clearly all of the people looking had similar concerns about quality. Every bloke I saw get near the bike would first take a furtive glance to make sure no staff were watching, then strike some part of the bike with a certain amount of force. They were yanking on the panniers, banging the tank with their wedding rings, tugging at the doors of the fairing compartments, thunking the mirrors, mashing the pedals, squeezing the levers and otherwise treating the display models as roughly as they felt they could get away with. And when I say "they" I mean "we."

If you consider that thousands of people were doing this day after day, it seems the build quality of the 650 TR is pretty good. What that says for the actual running of the bike, I'm not sure. The truth is, I still don't think I'd trust it. Not least because the 650TR does not come with ABS. A quick glance at AutoTrader tells me that a 2010 ER-6f with antilock brakes and less than 5,000 miles on the odometer can be had for £3,100. Givi panniers and a 12V plug will add another £500 or so. That leaves you paying £1,600 less than the asking price of the 650TR, with a still-higher resale value and a legitimate dealer network.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the 650TR's 12V plug is oddly located right where my knee pushes against the fairing, which means it would probably be useless. My leg would be accidentally disconnecting whatever I had plugged in. I realise I am a bit tall for the bike but I can't imagine anyone being so tiny they would not disrupt the plug. Except for a baby. And babies really should not be riding full-size motorcycles; it's dangerous.

Yamaha
Yamaha MT-09 Tracer (aka FJ-09)
Instead of getting a 650TR you could get an MT-07. Because that is one of the best bikes I've ever ridden. Equipped with ABS it costs just £100 more than the Chinese bike. No, it doesn't have any wind protection or panniers but it is so much fun you won't care.

The bike of most interest to me at the Yamaha exhibit, however, was the newly announced MT-09 Tracer (aka the FJ-09 in the United States). It's got the look of a legitimately solid and useable machine, comfortable ergonomics and will be priced at £8,100 in the UK. That puts it at almost £2,000 less than most of its competition and still several hundred pounds cheaper than the new Triumph Tiger XR, while offering more standard amenities.

Though, you know, if you do a side-by-side comparison, the difference in price is somewhat visible. Just by looking, a person could probably guess the cheaper bike. That's OK, because the MT-09 Tracer is still (probably –– I haven't test ridden one yet, obviously) a good bike. But it's something to be aware of.

What's baffling is that you would have the same experience when comparing the XV950 (aka Star Bolt) and the Harley-Davidson Iron 883. But in this case you'd be wrong about the cheaper bike. The Yamaha actually costs more in the UK. I personally think the Yamaha is overall the better bike, but it is not so much better as to be worth more than a Harley. This is especially true when you can do such direct comparisons in build quality.

I was able to look at the H-D Iron, then walk across the hall and look at the XV950 and see that the latter really doesn't match up. It doesn't even match up against the Kawasaki Vulcan S, which costs almost £2,000 less (the ABS-equipped Vulcan S costs £5,950; the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 with ABS costs £7,650; the XV950R [ABS equipped] costs £7,800). That's a damn shame because I really, really like the XV950. You'd be silly to pay so much more for it, though.

Other stuff
  • Did you know Peugeot makes scooters? I didn't either. That's probably down to the fact that I pay almost no attention to scooters. If I lived in London or an equally sprawling mega-city, I'd probably be crazy for them. They certainly look like fun and I dig how much stuff they hold.
  • I saw three black people at the show. Three. This was in Birmingham, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Britain and home to the largest black population outside of the London metropolitan region. Three black people, y'all. Whereas there is still work to be done in attracting women to motorcycling there is a whole lot of work to be done in attracting minorities.
  • £10 for a cheeseburger, fries and a soda.
  • The NEC offered free, covered, secure motorcycle parking. Through this, one of the highlights of the show for me was the opportunity to chat with different people about the bikes they rode. I got into a particularly long conversation with an old white dude from East Anglia about his 11-year-old Honda ST13000 Pan-European, upon which he had ridden some 87,000 miles thus far. Apart from brake pads, tires and the like, he had experienced no problems with the machine and lamented the fact he had no reason to get rid of it. I decided he was a pretty cool dude and secretly admitted to myself that if the opportunity ever presents itself, I will definitely get an ST1300. Though, if I do, I will in my mind probably associate myself with Steve Johnson, who is neither old nor white.