Thursday, 26 February 2015

I'm just a dude who loves motorcycles


Not too long ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to be practical and save up enough money to buy a new bike outright.

Or rather, a new-to-me used bike. Because my practicality was borne of the realisation that saving up all the cash needed for a brand-new version of most of the bikes on my What I Want list would take several more years than I'm willing to wait. I realised I would instead need to settle for a bike that was, you know, OK.

A motorcycle that is good enough (a).

So, I went about the process of trying to convince myself that I would want the Suzuki GSX1250FA -- a bike that is more than two decades long in the tooth, reportedly feels quite heavy (I've never test ridden one, so I can't speak to that personally), is visually unexciting, and has less than impressive fuel efficiency (roughly 39 mpg, according to Fuelly). However, this process of self convincing was instantly abandoned when Jenn's father described the Suzuki he once owned as: "The low point of my motorcycling career."

Thoughts of the GSX1250FA were killed extra dead when I spotted that it has stupidly frequent major service intervals. 

Meanwhile, when I look at the bikes I can afford to buy right now it is a reminder that I am still really far away from being able to get a bike that is, you know, OK. Unless I think the 63,000-mile 1983 Honda VF750S I found for £780 on BikeTrader is OK.

Well, actually, if I had the mechanical know-how to keep it running, I would think that Honda is OK. More than OK. But let's hold that thought for a moment.


My point is that recently I have been warming to the idea of financing. With my current bike and the money I've saved up, I could put down a decent deposit on a number of really, really nice motorcycles. I don't necessarily see myself doing this until after I get back from my European adventure, but my brain has already taken to the task of figuring out what bike I should get.

And from there, almost immediately my thoughts morphed again into the old question of what sort of "guy" I am.

I mentioned in my previous post that I have a long-standing desire to be a BMW guy. But if you've been reading this blog for any amount of time you'll know that I have also at various points expressed happiness in being (by default) a Honda guy, and a desire to be a Harley guy, a desire to be a Triumph guy, a desire to be a Victory guy, a desire to be an Indian guy, a desire to be a Moto Guzzi guy, a desire to be... well, you get the point.

Honestly, if there's any brand of motorcycle that I haven't expressed a desire to own, it is simply because I have not yet heard of that brand. And as soon as I do hear of the brand I will probably swoon for it, too (b).

Take that MZ TS250 I mentioned a few weeks ago. I had never heard of Motorradwerk Zschopau; now that I have, I would love to own one. As long as it weren't the only bike I owned. Which takes me back to what I was saying about the Honda VF750S. Were I the money and space, I would gleefully take on all kinds of bikes. Of all ages, of all genres.

Because, y'all, motorcycles are awesome. I'm not any sort of a "guy," apart from a motorcycle guy. I feel that at its core every motorcycle is more than OK. Yes, some bikes are better suited to certain real-world applications than others, but they are all inherently desirable.

My Honda CBF600SA is pretty OK

And perhaps the thing that gives me the most stress in thinking about financing a new bike is the thought of "marrying" myself to just one machine. I am afraid of committing to one style, one set of applications.

But that is a good attitude to have, I think. It helps me remember that all motorcycles are fun. Including the one I already own. It is going to take me some amazing places this summer and even though it's not a Harley-Davidson Street Glide or a Triumph Trophy SE (two bikes I've been daydreaming about this week, despite the fact they are totally out of my price range), I am still going to have a whole hell of a lot of fun. So, there is no rush to get a new bike. I may want one -- and that's perfectly fine -- but I don't need a new bike. It's not a race; there's no deadline.

I can take my time to try to find the bike with which I connect the most.

Equally, when I consider owning a different bike I don't need to get too worked up over such and such feature or specification. Whether I end up choosing a Royal Enfield Classic 500 (though, it's unlikely I would) or a Kawasaki Z1000SX (equally unlikely), the odds are incredibly good that I'll have fun on the thing. And regardless of whatever I end up with, it's a given that everyone on everything else will still be getting an enthusiastic nod or wave from me as they pass.


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(a) "Good enough" is admittedly a nebulous concept here and speaks as much to my emotional reaction to a bike as its performance attributes.

(b) The only exception I can think of is Boss Hoss. No. Just, no.

Monday, 23 February 2015

What I want: Triumph Sprint GT SE


"You need more than one bike," my wife told me recently.

She's coming 'round, boys! She's coming 'round! Though, sadly, I can't dupe myself into thinking this statement was explicit direction or permission to go out and get myself a second motorcycle. After all, where the hell would I put it? 

Instead, it was simply an observation that my love of motorcycles stretches across multiple genres of machine. At best, it was implicit agreement that, one day, if we have the space and finances safely allow, she wouldn't –– on principle –– have a problem with my owning multiple bikes. I'm happy with that.

In the present and immediate foreseeable future, though, I am a one-motorcycle guy. The question I am forever wrestling with then, is what kind of bike is that one motorcycle? You can see it in all the What I Want posts I write: one day I'm swooning over an Indian Scout, the next day I'm pining for a Honda VFR1200F. Increasingly, though, when I think about how I use my bike and how I want to use my bike, I find myself feeling that, if pushed, I would –– at this point in my life, at least –– choose the latter of the two.

And I suppose it's that oh-so-slight leaning toward sport tourers that caused me to wander into a Triumph dealership recently and spend a really long time talking to the guys there about the Sprint GT SE. Well, that, and the fact that it was freezing outside.

I had ridden the 80 miles to Blade Motorcycle Centre in Swindon, which serves as an official dealer for a number of motorcycle brands and is the closest Indian/Victory dealer to Cardiff. I was there to finally test ride the new Indian Scout.

On this particular day, the weather had been incredibly cold (below freezing) but dry when I had set out from Cardiff. However, in Swindon I found myself riding through snow. Then, when I got to the dealership I discovered that the salesman who'd booked me in for a test ride had taken the day off and informed no one of my intended arrival (a). The bike was not prepped to be taken out. Considering the state of the roads and the fact that I'd be liable for any damage to the bike, I decided to just let the issue drop. Maybe I'll get a chance to test ride the Scout some other day.

Still chilled to my core, however, I decided to wander through to other parts of the centre rather than get back on the road. Before long, I found myself hanging out in the Triumph dealership, where there were actual salespeople to talk to –– all of whom were incredibly quick to offer me a mug of tea.

They had a Sprint GT SE on display. I've pondered that bike off and on since I wrote a post about middleweight sport-touring motorcycles more than a year ago, but hadn't put a great deal of effort into learning about it. So, this was my first experience of seeing the bike in the metal. And I was shocked to discover that it is a whole lot better looking in person than in pictures. I mean, this thing is gorgeous. 

The dash is so cool.
In red, the Sprint GT's paint is deep and transfixing. The finish and quality stand out in even the tiniest of places –– the fact the chain guard is metal, for example (the chain guard on my Honda is plastic); the way the suspension can be adjusted while you're sitting on the bike; the small, lockable compartment in the fairing. Everywhere you look, you find yourself thinking: "Oh, isn't that clever!"

Sporting a 1050-cc triple, the Sprint GT delivers roughly 130 horsepower and 79 ft. lbs. of torque. Looking at owners' reports on Fuelly.com, it appears the bike gets roughly 45 mpg, which is more or less in line with what Triumph claims and is relatively comparable to the fuel economy I get on my current bike.

Sitting on the thing, I found its ergonomics to be even roomier than the Honda VFR1200F, and its pillion seating is equally more ample. Not to mention that the standard gel seat is comfy as heck. The weight of the bike felt decently balanced, even though it was laden with luggage.

And that, of course, is one of the great selling points of the Sprint GT SE: it comes fully equipped. Panniers, top box, 12V outlet, the aforementioned gel seat, centre stand and heated grips are all standard. This, mis amigos, is a motorcycle that is ready to tour Europe right out of the box.

The luggage, by the way, amounts to 117 litres of storage and has a special mounting system that allows the panniers and top box to move slightly. Apparently, that helps reduce the negative effects of getting hit by a sudden gust of wind. Like I say, clever.

All of this spun in my mind as I sat chatting about the bike. I thought about how valuable the fairing and heated grips are to me on my existing bike, about how I prefer the security and ease of hard luggage, and how my whole modus operundi toward a motorcycle these days is to use it to travel the sort of distances that demand luggage. I thought about how good the pillion accommodation is on the Sprint GT, and how the power of the bike would be more than enough for hauling two people and all their stuff. And I thought of how it is just barely –– with financing –– a bike I could actually afford to get right now. Whereas machines like the Honda VFR1200F or BMW R1200R are realistically at least five years away. Especially if I want them equipped with features like those that come standard on the Sprint GT.

A beautiful machine like the Indian Chief Classic, meanwhile, is a good decade (or two!) away; a touring bike like the Chieftain or Roadmaster even more assuredly so. Meanwhile, I don't have the space for any of those machines and my experience has shown me their dealer network in the UK is piss poor. They are bikes for a different time, a different place and different conditions.

In the right now, in the reality that exists, a Sprint GT SE –– a British bike in Britain (b) –– is one of the best machines I could hope for. So, I have told myself that I will think about it seriously: I'll weigh everything in my mind and take the time to test ride the bike. If my love for this bike is just as strong (or stronger) in a month or so when my birthday rolls around, I will look into the possibility of actually getting one.


Having said all that...

Although £9,000 is an unquestionably good deal for such a bike, it is still a whole lot of money. All of my savings and a fair bit of good luck on the trade-in value of my Honda will be necessary to make a deposit sizeable enough to to ensure that the monthly repayment is truly manageable. And then there's the whole philosophical question of finance. You chain yourself with such deals –– chain yourself to a bank and to the 9-to-5 working drudgery needed to sustain the whole devil's deal.

Not to mention that it's a devil's deal that inherently demands paying for full comprehensive insurance. Look at all that fairing, yo. You don't want to risk being stuck paying for repairs to that stuff on your own. And if you have a bike via Triumph's TriStar Finance scheme you will want to make sure it spends the next three years being kept in good condition.

That's something to think about when you're sitting astride a 130-hp beast. All that power increases your chances of overcooking acceleration on a slippery surface and having the thing kick out from under you. Especially considering that the Sprint GT lacks traction control and much of the other electronic wizardry to be found on more expensive machines (although, it does have anti-lock brakes).

It also lacks their ease of maintenance. The Sprint GT is a chain-driven bike and, although it's not impossible, getting access to said chain for regular cleaning looks challenging.

To that end, the Sprint GT is a bike that feels a little long in the tooth. Although far, far more attractive in person, its styling is still just a bit outdated. And its engine is basically the same as was being used in the Sprint ST more than a decade ago.

If I were to sign an agreement on this bike, my plan would be to ride it for three years (the length of a TriStar Finance agreement) then use it as a deposit on a different bike –– perhaps entering a new 3-year financing cycle with that new machine, or perhaps having saved up enough money by then to buy it outright. Is the Sprint GT SE the sort of bike that I will be able to love for three years?

And lastly, there's the question Jenn asked when I told her I was thinking about all this: "What about the Thruxton?"

I haven't got any idea when the new Triumph Thruxton will be released, or even if it will, in fact, be a Thruxton. Most of the spy photos have referred to it as the Triumph Street Tracker. Equally, I have no idea how much it will cost, nor whether it will be available for financing via TriStar. I do know it won't have hard luggage and spacious passenger accommodation; I do know that it won't have fairing.

But I also know that Jenn has never expressed such interest in a motorcycle as she has for the Triumph Thruxton. It looks like the bikes she used to collect pictures of when she was a little girl, like the bike that was her dad's favourite. And I know that's important to me.

The Sprint GT SE is a Triumph, though –– made in the UK –– so it has a connection to that heritage and spirit. Maybe that's enough. Maybe it isn't.

Maybe. Maybe. We'll see...



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(a) Incredibly bad form, yo. If Indian expects to compete against Harley-Davidson it has to compete on all levels, including customer service. I committed myself to riding 160 fucking miles in freezing temperatures for the sake of getting to test ride the bike; the very least I'd expect is for someone to be there when I show up. Honestly, I cannot express how angry this made me.

(b) Whereas there is only one Indian dealership within 100 miles of Cardiff, there are 15 Triumph dealerships.

What I can afford this month: BMW K75S

This thing of tracking my motorcycle savings by searching classified ads for bikes I can afford right now is my new favourite game, y'all. Each month I have a tiny bit more money, so each month I am (presumably) able to climb a little higher in terms of desirability and quality.

The bike this month comes from someone who doesn't know how to upload photos properly, and it is technically £25 more than what I have in savings (surely I could talk him/her down that much) but that doesn't really matter because the machine he/she is selling is so iconic. It's a 1988 BMW K75S.

Wait. Is a K75 an iconic bike? I don't actually know. I thought the old R-series bikes were the ones to salivate over. But I assume the old Ks are, too. Admittedly, I only assume that because John Nelson has one (a 1986 K75RT) that he swoons over, and he strikes me as a cool sort of dude who would only surround himself with cool, characterful, iconic things. He rides a Royal Enfield, after all.

Ah, I'm sure it's iconic. It's a BMW, after all! And as I've mentioned before, there's some part of me that really wants to be a "BMW guy." Dude, I would be the most BMW-est BMW guy of them all if I were rocking around on this thing. 

That is primarily because I would almost certainly first need to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of not only how to maintain and repair old BMWs but also how to hunt down the necessary parts for them.

Taking a look at the pictures of this thing, although the owner says it is "in good working order" and "starts always first time," it is clear to me that some work would need to be done and I'm guessing that it would need to be done often. I'm guessing, too, that this would be one of those "delightful" old machines so imbued with "character" that it is inclined to do inexplicable things at incredibly inconvenient times -- like having the horn go off every time you shift into second gear, or discovering that it will only start if you lean it at a 30-degree angle.

To that end, uhm, I'm not really sure I want to be this sort of BMW guy. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure that the reason I want a BMW motorcycle isn't similar to the reason my father has always pined to own a 1960s Jaguar.

"Those things are finicky as all get out, Dad," I once told him. 

"Yes," he said. "That's partially the point. I'd like to own an old Jaguar because it implies that I would be rich enough to be able to pay someone to fix it all the time."

With that in mind, I guess it's best that I stick to my un-iconic Honda for the timebeing.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Indian Chief Dark Horse


So, mis amigos, what's our collective opinion of the new Indian Chief Dark Horse? The bike was unveiled in Chicago and London last weekend and shows more than anything that Indian is starting to find its stride. 

Changing the aesthetics of a thing and calling it new is a time-honoured tradition in motorcycling, and, though many of us find it to be an annoying tactic, within a certain timeframe it can be seen as evidence that a manufacturer has both the demand and capacity to diversify. 

I suppose "timeframe" is the key word there. When Victory churns out the same thing over and over and over again, it can be seen as indication that the company is out of ideas and on the decline. Suzuki is even worse. But with a relatively new platform such as the Thunder Stroke 111 –– which has really only been around for a year and a half –– it makes sense for Indian to be making the most of it, to be offering it in any number of guises (a).

Basically what I'm trying to say here is that even though Indian has done something that generally annoys me, I'm not terribly annoyed in this case. And if I had anything approaching the amount of money needed to buy a new Indian, I definitely wouldn't be annoyed at the Chief Dark Horse's price. Somehow, throwing black paint all over everything has washed $2,000 off the price tag. In the United States, an Indian Chief Classic will set you back $18,999, whereas the asking price on a Chief Dark Horse is $16,999.

The numeral difference is the same over here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the Chief Classic costs £18,499, the Chief Dark Horse costs "only" £16,499.


For that price you lose the novelty and difficult upkeep of a genuine leather seat, oil cooler and light bar found on the Classic. I'd like to hear a more technically minded person's opinion of the absent oil cooler, but the other stuff I am quite happy to do without. Meanwhile, you keep ABS and cruise control and all the other things that make the Indian Chief the best vehicle I have ever ridden.

According to Indian, the Dark Horse's blacked-out look and lower price tag is designed to help the company attract a slightly younger demographic. With its other big V-Twins it's been aiming at riders who are 55 years old and older. Whereas with this model, according to Indian Senior Project Manager Ben Lindaman, "We're targeting more around the 40-year-old."

I'll be 39 years old next month, so I suppose that means I am roughly the sort of person Indian is hoping to lure with this machine. If that's the case, I'm not 100-percent sure Indian has succeeded.

The first thing I'm not sure about is the act of blacking out everything. That's a trick that feels a little outdated to me. Perhaps "outdated" is not the right word to use on a motorcycle that so deliberately follows styling cues from the 1930s, but hopefully you get what I mean. It's something that made sense a few years ago but doesn't quite fit a bike being released in 2015.

I think "younger" riders are averse to excessive chrome, but not necessarily averse to colour. I think bikes like the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight or Triumph Speedmaster or Victory Gunner strike a good balance.

Meanwhile, Indian has chosen to keep those damned studs on the rider's seat, which I think is a bad call. I look at things like that (and fringe) and all I can think of is that scene in Police Academy when they go to the Blue Oyster Bar.


Though, having said that, one of the things I like/respect most about the Dark Horse is the fact that the absence of chrome seems to highlight just how unapologetic Indian's designers were in being faithful to the brand's famous art deco lines. It really is a mobile work of art, and, in as much, a declaration of style and taste. This is a bike that will not aesthetically appeal to everyone; the design seems to acknowledge that and almost flaunt it.

Also, I totally approve of the alloy wheels. I think they look better, they're easier to clean, and they (presumably) make it possible to ride with tubeless tires.

With all this in mind, I find that if I look at it long enough, the Chief Dark Horse is a bike I can love. I'm not sure it quite possesses the je ne c'est quoi that would make me willing to bend myself over a financial barrell to own one –– that thing that makes me think, "Dear Lord, I need this thing in my life right now" –– but if I had the requisite money to hand I would happily part with it. If someone were to give me one, they would receive Christmas cards for life.

I have a number of friends my age who do earn enough money to buy a Chief Dark Horse, but none of them ride motorcycles. Indeed, when I've tried to cajole some of them into developing an interest in riding they've told me I'm an idiot. One of my friends said: "I would rather learn to speak Tagalog. Keep in mind I don't know anyone who's Filipino."

For Indian's sake, I hope that my own cross-section of people who are "around 40" isn't representative of the whole. I'm eager to see Indian flourish and perhaps one day blossom into a full motorcycle manufacturer –– producing several different types of motorcycle. I often think that the Indian motorcycle I really want is the one they'll be making 15-20 years from now. Think of the differences between the recently reborn Triumph of 1995 and the Triumph of today. Whatever Indian is producing in 2035 could be amazing.

For that bike to exist, though, these early steps need to succeed. So, if you've got the money please go out and buy a Chief Dark Horse. If you don't like it, you can give it to me.


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(a) I am most interested to see how Indian chooses to develop its Scout platform. I think there is a viable demand for using that engine in something that competes ergonomically/stylistically against the Triumph Thruxton, Bonneville or Scrambler.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Europe 2015 pt. II


My ferry tickets have been purchased; it's actually happening. 

"It," of course, is my ridiculously grand adventure to Italy –– a motorcycle journey through seven countries, covering at least 3,000 miles. On my own.

I have more than 4 months to prepare for this epic ride, but already I can't sleep. At least I've taken the first and most important step: committing to it. On 3 July 2015, I will ride to the other side of the UK and board a night ferry to the Netherlands. Then, I'll spend the next few days making my way south to the Tuscany region of Italy.

I am planning to visit a friend in Saarbrücken, Germany, on the way, which explains the slightly odd route I've chosen. The Google machine insists I should get to the continent via ferries or trains that run from Dover, England, to Calais, France. But what Google doesn't take into account is the fact that taking the ferry to the Netherlands costs less, all things considered.

I'll be taking an overnight ferry and have booked a cabin for the journey. That in and of itself feels exciting and exotic. Far more so than just staying in a hotel in Calais, which was my original idea. And, as I say, it's cheaper –– even with breakfast thrown in. Not to mention the fact that the ferry inherently provides strong incentive to stick to a schedule. On the second day of the trip I should be on the road and riding to Germany by 8 a.m.

A nifty side-effect of this new route is that it means I'll be spending the bulk of my time in German-speaking countries (Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland), which makes things easier in terms of language learning.

Just about everyone I've spoken to and everything I've read (thank you, Gary France, for your very useful European touring guide) has insisted I need not worry about learning the local lingo. The majority of Europeans are fluent in English, they say. And certainly that was true 20 years ago when I was hitchhiking across France. I have no reason to believe things are different now, but my years of living in Wales and knowing just how much people appreciate that I can speak Welsh makes me want to put in the effort.

Not too long ago I downloaded some German learning podcasts and have been listening to them on a daily basis. Obviously, I won't be able to discuss the meaning of life with Germans and the Swiss, but hopefully I will have enough of the language to at least show respect and get directions to good restaurants.

I've had someone suggest that when in Germany I take the time to ride the famous Schwarzwaldhochstraße, a particularly popular route for motorcyclists that conveniently leads to the Weltgrößte Kuckucksuhr, aka the World's Largest Cuckoo Clock. Because, dude, that is exactly the sort of thing to be checking out on a road trip. How could you even consider passing that up?

Weltgrößte Kuckucksuhr

I'm planning to go to Bern, Switzerland, at some point, as well, for the sake of swimming in the River
Aare, though I'll probably save that as something fun to do during the trip back from Italy. As my route slowly materialises, I can't help but also turn my attention to other facets of planning –– what to bring, how to bring it, etc. Those of you with a keen eye will notice something different about my bike in the picture at the top of this post. I've finally broken down and bought some hard panniers.

Frustratingly, I will probably need to get a new set of tires before I go, as well. At the moment, the Michelin Pilot Road 4s that I have on the bike are in really good condition, but they've already got nigh 4,000 miles on them and I know I'll be racking up at least 2,000 more miles before the trip. Considering that my European adventure could see me clocking as many as 4,000 miles (not to mention I'll be loaded down with gear) and I don't know how long PR4s are supposed to last, I'm thinking it will be wise to just get a new set shortly before I head out.

That's not a financially pleasant thought, but it makes more sense than pushing my luck and then finding myself having to get a new set put on in Düsseldorf. Similarly, I'm thinking it will be wise to invest in a quality sat-nav. I'll have to get one regardless, because my existing hand-me-down device only has maps for the UK and Ireland. I'm considering getting the new TomTom Rider, although it's stupidly expensive.

I'll need some physical maps, an emergency tire repair kit, perhaps a new visor for my helmet (the existing one is starting to get pretty scratched up), maybe a CrampBuster, and so on. Lots of little things. So many little things, in fact, that I'm not sure of what all I'll need. And I'm not sure what I won't need. The tendency when looking at such a daunting task is to over-prepare, to bring too many things.

I remember when I took my 3-month road trip across the United States back in 2009; I ended up hauling around a whole load of crap I didn't need –– too many sweaters and a pair of boots I never wore. In that case, I was in a car. So, it didn't matter too much. But everything I carry to Italy will be a thing I can feel the burden of: when I'm trying to accelerate, when I'm at a stop and balancing the bike. Logic says I should try to be as minimalist as possible but emotionally I feel a need to pack all the things.

As always, any advice you may have is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gear review: Oxford X30 magnetic tank bag


If you've ever seen any of the pictures I've posted of my motorcycle it's a good bet you'll have noticed the presence of the Oxford X30 magnetic tank bag in most of them. This speaks to the main feature of the bag: it is so damned useful that it's hard to live without.

That's not to say I don't have complaints. There are a number of things I don't really like about the bag. It's simply that I have yet to come across a superior option.

So, let's start with the positives. Easy to throw on the bike and expandable to hold 30 litres of stuff, the bag comes in handy in pretty much every situation. "Installation," if that's the word we want to use, is ridiculously simple: You set the bag on your tank.

That's it. Wing-like flaps on either side of the bag contain strong magnets that secure the bag to any metal tank, a rubber-like underside helps to keep it from slipping. The bag also has an easy-to-buckle strap that you can loop around your headstock or handlebars to keep it from escaping, but I've had situations where I forgot to secure that strap (such as when I was riding in Scotland) and suffered no ill effects, despite the bag being loaded with stuff.

On any ride more than 50 miles I like to over-prepare; so, I pack into the bag a litre of water, a few breakfast bars, a map, a rain jacket, a baseball cap, sunglasses, spare brake lever, spare clutch lever, Leatherman tool, ear plugs, Allan key, house keys, tire gauge, side stand pad, and two sets of latex gloves (to use as glove liners if its raining heavily). From experience I know that even with all that crap there remains plenty of room to hold a full lunch (sandwich, chips, and orange), a can of ACF50, and a second pair of gloves. 

Unzip the bottom portion of the bag and it can hold double that amount of crap. When I rode up to the Yorkshire Dales last summer, the tank bag and a backpack were all I needed for two days away.

The version of bag I own looks just slightly different than the one pictured above. My X30 has a large soft plastic window running across the top where I can place written directions to where I'm going. Time and experience have taught me to write such instructions as simply as possible because it isn't terribly easy to look down at directions when on the move.

The bag's large main compartment is accessed via zips that are easy to get at even when wearing winter gloves and is incredibly simple to open and close in a rush. This comes in handy in parking garages or toll booths or the like, when someone hands you something (e.g. a ticket or receipt) and you are expected to move on straight away. No digging in pockets, just throw it in the bag and go.

When you get to where you're going, the bag can be detached from its magnetic base and used as a backpack. Somewhat optimistically, Oxford have placed on this bag one of those around-the-chest straps seen on hiking backpacks. It's not comfortable enough for that, but is perfectly acceptable for wandering around a town.

Durably made, the bag is in better condition than almost any other piece of kit I own, despite constant use in all weathers.

That's all the good stuff, but as I say: I do have complaints

I can't help feeling the bag looks like a penis when extended.

Firstly, it is ugly. I mean, woo Lordy, is it ugly. It absolutely ruins the aesthetics of my bike. I realise that doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot when you're rollin' on a Honda CBF600SA, but the look of this tank bag is the motorcycling equivalent of socks with sandals. No, it's the equivalent of wearing socks with sandals and tight running shorts. Whilst dancing to 90s hair-rock band Nelson in your front lawn.

When the bag is extended to its 30 litre capacity it looks even worse. It looks like the head of a penis. Nobody wants that, man. Especially if you're leaning against it when tucking in against the wind.

Secondly, although the bag has held up well in all weather conditions, it offers your stuff little protection against that weather. Water gets into the bag easily when it rains. Oxford provide an allegedly waterproof liner bag in which to place all your stuff so as to protect against such an issue, but I don't really trust it. I suppose it's worked well enough in cases when I've been caught unaware, but in times I knew I would be riding in heavy rain I found it better to wrap all my things in plastic bags.

Thirdly, the bag is causing some damage to the paint. Said damage is very minimal, and outmatched by the damage being caused by the zippers on my jacket and riding trousers, but it is damage nonetheless. I try to tell myself that I don't care all that much, that scratches are a sign you're actually using your bike, rather than displaying it, but, you know, it's no less annoying.

And lastly, like all soft luggage, it is not the sort of thing you can leave on your bike and walk away. Because it has no locking feature, because it is not secured to the bike as a top box or hard panniers would be, I can't just hop off my bike and wander into a restaurant. I have to detach the backpack and sling it over my shoulder. Because it's such an ugly backpack, I'm often left feeling a little silly.

You know, as a motorcyclist, bedecked in your gear, you want people to look at you when you enter a restaurant/bar/coffee shop/Build-A-Bear and think: "Hey look, the cool guy is here."

But then they see me rocking my 1990s-styled Oxford X30 backpack and think: "Oh dear, someone's escaped from the Home for the Mentally Inept."

Still, despite all that, the bag's usefulness and the incredible convenience of being able to have stuff (like a map or water or sunglasses) right in front of me and to hand when I'm on the bike has made it almost indispensable. It feels strange to ride without it.

If you can handle the shame of having the motorcycle equivalent of a fanny pack/bum bag, I recommend getting one.

Dorky, but ready for adventure

Monday, 9 February 2015

GWTTA: Porthcawl


It's 9 a.m. and I am riding down the main road of Porthcawl on a sunny, crisp winter morning. Already, there are people walking the promenade. Outside the beachfront cafe, old ladies in decades-old winter jackets hawkishly stake out places to sit while their husbands stand in queue for milky tea and dry cakes. And in this I find myself strangely reminded of another town, some 6,000 miles away: Julian, California.

Not because Porthcawl and Julian are in any way alike. Julian is nestled in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California, whereas Porthcawl sits on the southern Welsh coast. Julian maintains a classic Americana small town feel, with a number of wooden buildings dating back to the 1860s. Porthcawl is worn and piecemeal, its architecture reflecting decades of failed attempts to make it into something more than it will ever be.

The similarity comes simply in the fact that, in both cases, just about every person from the surrounding area insists you should go there. And when you get there you are suddenly confronted with the inherent flaw in crowdsourcing for advice. Because, see, if just about every person you meet tells you that you should visit this or that town, the odds are extremely high they've told other people the same thing.

Julian and Porthcawl are sold to newcomers and visitors alike as quaint and charming. And conceivably they could be were it not for the fact that everyone and their uncle –– and their uncle's uncle –– has come in search of that quaintness and charm. So, your main impression is instead of a place so overcrowded that every fibre in your being aches to get away from it. Its beauty is all but lost to the fact you are trying not to get run over by confused drivers as they dart for parking spaces. You are trying not to run over their children as they leap from cars into the road. You are trying not to kill their grandparents, who have apparently reached the age where they no longer know how to cross a road.

Pictures you take of the town will include all of these people, no matter how hard you try to frame them out of shot. If you stand still long enough, these people will literally walk into you. Because the bustle is all just a little too much for them, as well, and they've lost basic spatial awareness. 

Porthcawl seafront. The businesses on this end were shut, so it was less busy.

I have of late been trying to follow the riding advice of Gary France: "I like to ride my favourite roads very early in the morning, while others wanting to ride it are still in bed."

I suppose 9 a.m. isn't "very early", but in the dead of winter it feels early enough. The sun has only been up for an hour at this point, and I have spent that last hour meandering my way across the Vale of Glamorgan from my own seaside town, Penarth, which is about 25 miles east along the coast.

The VOG is a damned lovely place to ride if you time it right. The A48 stretches the width of its 129 square miles, but even that is relatively relaxed thanks to the fact it runs parallel to the presumed-to-be-faster M4. Almost all other routes in the borough are B road and country lane, most of it relatively well-maintained and affording the sort of broad sightlines on corners that I prefer.

Its close proximity to the major urban centres of South Wales means you can encounter a fair few impatient and inattentive drivers during commuting times. But on a winter Sunday morning all is calm. The fields are so heavily covered in frost it looks like snow. Here and there, patches of black ice glisten in the unusually bright sun.

I have arrived at Porthcawl via an indirect and gentle route. After all, slow = warm. With my heated grips cranked to 100 percent I am able to keep feeling in my hands.

The approach to the Porthcawl seafront is an unspectacular series of roundabouts and poorly labelled roads that leave you feeling as though you've accidentally turned yourself in a full circle, but I keep following signs to the beach and eventually know I'm on the right track when I pass the sign famously warning drivers to keep an eye out for individuals riding giant ducks.

Caution: People riding ducks

That the seafront is crowded causes me to suffer a classic Chris moment of crippling indecision. Assuming the streets and pavements would be empty at this time of day, I had planned to ride my bike onto the promenade and take artsy photos. Or, well, as artsy as one can achieve with a Nexus 4 (Jenn has promised to get me a real camera for my birthday). But with the pedestrian walkway buzzing, and the winter chill forcing an aggressive determination into people's gait, it seems quite possible that riding my bike onto the pavement now would result in my knocking someone down or, at the very least, getting a stern talking to.

Especially if I park up anywhere near the beachside cafe. The people sat outside it wear a look of belligerence that suggests they could not be moved even with artillery fire. I am reminded of an observation my friend, Chris Phin, once made of efforts by residents of Edinburgh to mimic a hip, Southern Europe lifestyle despite the realities of the Scottish climate: "They're all sitting at these outdoor cafes, turning blue, with a look on their faces that's like: 'I will sip this fucking latte and smoke these fucking designer cigarettes if it fucking kills me.'"

The cafes in Porthcawl are not hip, nor their clientèle, but the spirit is the same. They are trying to imagine themselves as being somewhere else. Like almost all British seaside towns, Porthcawl has at least two abandoned hotels and a crumbling concert venue advertising a DJ Spoony gig from about 5 years ago. 

It is the cycle of British seaside towns that the country will get two good summers in a row, so some have-a-go investor will set up a cheaper, half-assed version of a thing he saw while on holiday in Spain, telling himself: "This'll really pack 'em in." Then the reality of British non-summer will return for several seasons; the business will decay, flounder and shut. The cycle repeats every 7-10 years.

It's hard to tell where Porthcawl is in its cycle. Enough people come from the nearby area to keep the cafes busy on sunny days, but no one stays overnight. Well, usually, no one does.

The town's main claim to fame is that it is home to an annual Elvis Festival, which sees literally thousands of Elvis impersonators and tribute acts pour into the town for a few days each September. I've found no particularly good explanation as to why this happens: why it got started, why an Elvis Festival takes place in Porthcawl. If you ask locals, it's clear they've given it no thought: "I don't know, to be honest. He had some sort of Welsh connection, didn't he? A grandmother or an aunt, like."

This hardly seems like a viable reason to me, but then, local newspapers regularly report anything and everything about Australian pop star Kylie Minogue because her mother was from Maesteg.

Like almost every place along the South Wales coast that isn't a cliff, Porthcawl once served as a coal port during the Industrial Revolution. There are thankfully little signs of that today. Indeed, there is little sign of anything that would employ a person outside of the day-tourist trade. To that end, the bulk of Porthcawl's residents are retirees or commuters.

Just to the north (or west, depending on how you think about it) of the town's main seafront area lies Rest Bay, which is apparently renown among local surfers. I know this because there are always surfers there, regardless of conditions -- which are frequently atrocious. I suspect surfing in Wales is something akin to religious self-flagellation: the serenity of it comes through pain.

Looking over Rest Bay. I had to crop several people out of this photo.

I park my bike overlooking the beach. On a rare warm and sunny summer day, it would be crowded with literally thousands of people. Today, just a few hearty souls wander the coastline, throwing balls to their dogs or kicking at stones. In the water, a handful of fully wet-suited learning surfers try and fail to stay upright against the cutting winter winds.

From here I can see clearly across the Bristol Channel to the Exmoor coast of Somerset and Devon. Each time I'm afforded a view like this I am reminded of a story Jenn told me once of her mother, from the days when Jenn was attending Cardiff University. When her parents would drive up from Devon to visit, her mother would phone as soon as the road afforded them a view of the coast.

"I can see you," she'd say. "I can see Wales."

With U.S. shores so impossibly out of view, I have partially adopted Jenn's home county as my own. From here I can see Devon and I feel vaguely homesick. In a content sort of way. In Wales, they call this feeling "hiraeth."

I am still wearing my helmet because it helps keep my head warm, but it is only after I stomp some 150 metres across a field to a public restroom and stand there at the urinal do I realise how odd I must look. Coming out of the toilet I pull off the helmet and, out of habit, my gloves. By the time I get back to my bike, my fingers and ears are stinging with cold.

I fire up the bike, turn the heated grips to 100 percent and slip my gloves over them for heat. Then I crouch down to hide from the wind and and place my bare hands on the crankcase. Honda efficiency and winter cold mean it is only warm.

The bike, I see from this close vantage point, is filthy. Salt and sand and manure from the road is caked on the bike's exhaust pipes. I decide that I need to get home and spend my afternoon cleaning off the crap picked up in the morning's ride. But first I will spend another hour or two drifting through the VOG's lanes.

I loop back through the seafront area as I leave Porthcawl. I stop at a crosswalk to allow an a middle-aged woman to cross the road. When she is directly in front of me, she pushes back her windblown hair and says: "Lovely day for it."

Then I am off and moving away from the place that everyone will tell you to go to.

Winter muck


____________

This visit to Porthcawl was part of the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure, my attempt to fall in love with Wales again through visiting some 66 places listed on a tea-towel-based map.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

What I want: BMW R1200R


"It suits you, mate. Really does."

I furrowed my brow at him, half trying to communicate that I didn't quite believe him, half trying to communicate that I hadn't asked for his opinion.

"That's an important part of it, I reckon," he said, unfettered. "How you fit on the bike, like. Me, I look better on that big K1600 over there. Not sure the missus would agree if I told her how much it costs, but, you know, that's how it is. Anyway, I'm just sayin': it suits you, mate."

This conversation took place a few months ago at Motorcycle Live, as I was sitting on the new BMW R1200R. The random bloke in faded high-vis wasn't a salesman trying to sell the bike, he was just being friendly. I think.

His accent was clearly Southeast England -- possibly Kent or Essex -- and I always have a little trouble reading those dudes. Britons love being ironic, so a knowledge of the subtleties of dialectical intonation is key to understanding whether they are joking. I get the Welsh. I get people from the West Country. I'm pretty sure I've cracked Brummies. But my interaction with natives of the Southeast has been limited, so I'm never 100-percent sure. Hence the furrowed brow.

Eventually, I decided he was expressing an honest opinion. I look good on a BMW R1200R.

I guess that's good to know.

And ever since that day -- because I am so highly impressionable -- I've found myself paying more and more attention to the iconic flat-twinned machine that is the R1200R. There's something in its look I find deeply appealing. I have long said I identify more with John Sutherland in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than with Phaedrus/Robert Pirsig. The new R1200R feels like a natural, almost organic progression of the R60/2 that carried John and his wife, Sylvia, to the West.

It looks like a motorcycle you would want to keep for a very long time. Every review I've read of the R1200R suggests you would be rewarded if you did. The engine's character, 125-hp oomph and presumed durability has had moto-journalists swooning. 

"From where I'm sitting, BMW can do no wrong," wrote Luke Bowler.

I've never ridden a BMW, so I can't fully imagine what it is that earns so much praise. But from aesthetics and features, it's certainly a damned impressive bike. Firstly, it's shaft-driven. As I mentioned in talking about the Honda VFR1200F, that is a fantasy feature for me. Oh! To be free from the hassle of constantly fussing with a chain!


The R1200R carries its 230 kg curb weight down low, which is another feature I find myself looking for in bikes. My current motorcycle tends to carry its weight (220 kg) a little high, which means there's a lot of huffing and puffing to keep it upright when moving around in tight spaces. Additionally, in all the motorcycles I've ridden that have had a low centre of gravity I've found manoeuvring at speed to be pretty much effortless.

Traction control comes standard on the R1200R, as do anti-lock brakes. I've had a little experience with the former and refuse to even consider a motorcycle without the latter. The Triumph Explorer XC I rode last year was equipped with traction control, and only several months after the fact did I clock that this was why a little light on the dashboard would occasionally flash as I navigated the muddy and broken-up roads of the Peak District.

Every time my tire slips on the cow manure that is inescapable on Welsh lanes, I wish my present bike had traction control.

Of course, there are dozens of other features. Electronic suspension. LED lights. Computerised this and that. And on and on. But, truthfully, the things that appeal to me most about the R1200R are its looks, and the fact it is a BMW.

BMW, yo. Though I may occasionally poke fun at the image of BMW guys, some deep-seeded (or is it deep-seated?) part of me wants to be one of those guys. I feel simple-minded for being so drawn to a brand -- wanting to "connect" with its heritage, its image, and all that nonsense -- but I equally can't deny that I am. BMWs just suit me, mate.

This one in particular. Just looking at the R1200R makes me feel a little jittery with excitement and want. I want to hear the engine, feel its heat. I want to swoop through curving roads on it. I want to launch it down the motorway. I daydream of bedecking an R1200R with panniers and screen and taking ridiculously long and meandering treks through Europe, perpetually coming up with weak excuses to take road trips ("Hey, I want to celebrate Bastille Day in Marseilles," "I'd like to see Eurovision in person").

And all the while, I would look so cool doing it.

Having said all that...

The BMW R1200R is as expensive as all get out. The base model will set you back £10,250 (US $15,500) in Her Majesty's United Kingdom. And to get the sexy grey version with fancy gold forks and all the farkles will see you paying out £11,910 (US $18,000).

That's before you invest in a screen and panniers.

To that end, I'm half inclined to say that the faired version of this bike, the R1200RS, might be a more practical choice. But it doesn't look as viscerally good.

Meanwhile, prices for the R1200RS model have not yet been released, but it's a good bet they'll be considerably more than the unfaired R1200R. And it's at about that point, when you're looking at a bike that costs twice that of, say, a Kawasaki Ninja 650 (aka ER-6f in Not America), that a real feeling of doubt creeps in.

Would the BMW be worth it? Especially considering that the maintenance and servicing costs would be greater than with other bikes? I don't know. I wish I had the money to find out.


Monday, 2 February 2015

The Super Bowl commercial I'd like to see


On the way into work this morning, I found myself coming up with an idea for an advert for Zero Motorcycles, or whatever the hell it is that will come out of Polaris' recent acquisition of Brammo. I ride my bicycle to work. By the time I got into work, I had cemented the advert in my mind. I think it would have made a good Super Bowl ad:

Open with a CCTV-on-a-pole overhead view of an empty American city intersection. A motorcycle whirs through the intersection and you see the double flash of a speed camera/red-light camera taking a photo. A new angle, this from a security camera in a shop, shows the motorcycle coming to a rapid stop, engaging the bike's ABS. 

The rider dismounts and begins to strut down the empty street back toward the red-light camera. The rider is wearing jeans, a hoodie and Shark Vancore helmet (or similar). The camera angle is now from the perspective of the red-light camera. The rider walks close up to it, looking up, and takes off the helmet to reveal a woman who is, or looks a whole lot like, Olympic boxer Nicola Adams. She squints in exasperation and says:

"Do you ever feel we've lost something?"

Jump to another security camera angle, behind her, showing how the city dwarfs her.

"Maybe it was stolen."

Back to close-up.

"Maybe we gave it away without thinking."

Overhead view

"We're safer now; there's no denying it. Statistics show. We're safer, healthier, wealthier. Better off than we've ever been."

One or two onlookers step cautiously into view. They are filming her on their phones.

"Our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents -- they gave this to us. They laid down these roads, they built these cities, these grids, this structure. Then, they fought to protect it. Some of them died, so we could have this."

Close-up

"But do you ever feel we've let go of what they were protecting? Lost that thing that drove them to do all this in the first place?"

Different store security camera angle, with a shining over-chromed cruiser conspicuously in the shot.

"Some of us still make plenty of noise."

Onlooker's camera footage.

"We bang the drum. But we don't really know what the drum means."

Tight close-up

"Maybe it's not about how loud we are. How fast. How strong. How much we can consume."

Camera pulls out to reveal close-up is via a phone's camera, the rider gently pushes away the phone and is now talking to a fellow human being.

"Maybe it's about something more. Something deep. Something our ancestors understood... And maybe -- maybe -- we haven't lost it."

Store security footage, showing the woman walking back toward her electric motorcycle.

"Maybe it's still there within us, all of us."

She gets on the bike, you see its dash panel light up. Close up on her face.

"Maybe we just need to get out, get away, and remember what it's like to be free."

Camera angle shows back of her head as she slips on the helmet, revealing a large, stylised Guy Fawkes sticker on the back. She rides away and the focus blurs. You hear the whir of an electric motor.