Friday, 30 October 2015

The week that showed just how badly Harley-Davidson have failed with the Street 750

This is an exciting time of year for motonerds. Around the world, a number of trade shows are taking place and manufacturers are in the process of unveiling their latest, greatest products.

If, like me, you are a motonerd with a soft spot in your heart for hipsterism (I still contend that hipsters have saved motorcycling), this week in particular has been very exciting because it's seen the unveiling of no less than five new Triumph Bonneville variants, as well as the launch of the super sexy Yamaha XSR700.

At the presentation event for the latter motorcycle, Yamaha project manager Shun Miyazawa joked that in light of Ducati's success with its Scrambler model his company were "jumping on the hipster bandwagon." According to Visordown editor Tom Rayner, the joke fell flat –– in part because everyone knew it was true.

The style of bike that Triumph refers to as "modern classic" is where the tastes of many lie at the moment, regardless of how much it upsets the balding dudes in leather onesies, or their dads on SOLAS-tape-covered Honda Deauvilles. Personally, I love the modern classic bikes.

There's not much doubt that Triumph is at the heart of the current trend, and I'll admit to being pretty excited about everything they're bringing forward. That thing that I thought was the new Thruxton has turned out to be a new Thruxton and it is beautiful; a new, more powerful T-120 Bonneville has eliminated every complaint I had about the old Bonneville and added a few awesome things I wouldn't have even thought of; and an all-new catch-all base model known as the Street Twin has been unveiled.

I'll swoon for all of these in more detail in future posts, but it's the Street Twin in particular that set into motion a train of thought recently.

Triumph Street Twin

Prices haven't been released yet, but the Street Twin's 900-cc engine (all the others have been boosted to 1,200 cc) and single front disc brake suggest it will be the cheapest of the new Bonneville line up. My guess is that in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its price tag will slot in somewhere between £6,250 and £7,250, the former being the price of the Yamaha XSR700 and the latter the price of a Ducati Scrambler Icon.

Also between those prices is the £7,135 Moto Guzzi V7II Stone. A bike that's relevant to this discussion because it, the Ducati Scrambler, the Yamaha XSR700 and the Triumph Street Twin all fall into the category of affordable, retro-inspired modern motorcycles designed to tie into a lifestyle that encourages you to spend more money buying custom accessories and gear.

To make it easy for you to do this, Triumph and Moto Guzzi offer fancy customization kits that transform the bike to fit a number of current styles, including urban racer, scrambler and street tracker. Ducati offers four variants of the Scrambler (and has strongly hinted that more on the way at EICMA) and a growing accessories catalogue. Yamaha only launched the XSR700 a few days ago and already it boasts an accessories catalogue of more than 40 items.

Now, think about it: all this lifestyle and factory-provided accessorizing is straight out of the Harley-Davidson playbook. But in looking at the aforementioned bikes I am overcome by the realisation of just how badly Harley-Davidson bungled (and continues to bungle) its Street 750 model. Because, really, the Street 750 (and Street 500) should be a part of the above group. It should be, but it's not. It's not even close.

Let's start with the fact that it does not look good. The Street 750 is an ugly, aesthetically lazy motorcycle from a company that has not one other ugly, aesthetically lazy motorcycle in its line up –– a company that is renown for making beautiful motorcycles. There is no way you can claim with a straight face that Harley-Davidson did their best with this thing.
Harley-Davidson Street 500

And even if it didn't look like something you'd get on the cheap from Direct Bikes, the fit and finish of the Street 750 is known to be poor. The brakes were a particular target of derision when the bike was originally launched in the United States. That issue had been addressed somewhat by the time the bike was launched recently in Europe. (Or, well, it was thought to have been addressed. Until German magazine Motorrad found the brakes failed completely in an emergency stop test.) But other problems remain. Wiring is untidy and the plastic Harley-Davidson badge bends when pressed.

Meanwhile, the Ducati Scrambler and Moto Guzzi V7II are beautiful bikes in person –– the latter especially. The Triumph Street Twin and Yamaha XSR700 aren't yet in dealerships, but I have no doubt they, too, will far exceed the Street 750 in fit and finish.

Beyond the issue of aesthetics, though, is discussion of bike features, and that's where the Street 750 really gets walloped. Putting out just 56 hp, it is underpowered compared to all but the Moto Guzzi. It is the only one without anti-lock brakes (something that will have to be rectified very soon in Europe if Harley-Davidson wants to continue selling here). It is the only one without a gear position indicator. It is the only one without a fuel gauge. It is the only one without a clock. It and the XSR700 are the only ones without traction control or a 12v plug under the seat. (Possibly to compensate for this, the XSR700 is the only one of the group to have dual front brake discs) Not to mention the Street 750 weighs up to 30 kg more than the other bikes.

When compared to the Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Triumph and Yamaha, the Harley-Davidson attempt at capturing this market is an unmitigated failure (a). But what's more frustrating is the fact it's a letdown even without competition. Even if you judge the bike solely on Harley-Davidson terms it is a disappointment.

Moto Guzzi V7II Stone

As I said above, the other brands are attempting to take a page from the Harley-Davidson playbook in trying to create a lifestyle brand of easy customisation. So, it is baffling that Harley-Davidson's own efforts toward the Street 750 are so sub-par. There are no multiple versions of the bike, as Ducati has done with the Scrambler Icon, Classic, Urban Enduro and Full Throttle; there are no "inspiration kits," a la Triumph and Moto Guzzi; there are not even the number of accessories available as those for Yamaha's XSR700.

There are strong rumours that BMW is set to offer its own version in the not-too-distant future. Quite possibly we'll see it unveiled at EICMA in a few weeks. And I'm willing to bet that they, too, will do a better job at playing Harley-Davidson's game than Harley-Davidson has.

Meanwhile, you'll probably have seen the recent news that Harley-Davidson's sales and share price are in slow decline. Partially that's because the bikes are again gaining a reputation for being unreliable (the company has had to recall 312,000 bikes this year and has recalled an average of 94,000 bikes a year over the previous decade). But Harley-Davidson readily admits that one of its biggest problems is its woeful inability to connect with a younger audience, while its older audience ages out of its riding years.

Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Yamaha and, soon, BMW have shown (will show) that Harley-Davidson were essentially right to develop the Street 500/750. It makes a whole lot of sense. But those companies have also shown that Harley-Davidson just doesn't get it. Harley-Davidson is so rooted in what it has always done that it is seemingly incapable of doing anything else.


(a) I use "failure" in a broad sense, not necessarily referring to its economic performance. I don't actually know how the Street 750 is faring financially overall. I would argue that if it is selling respectably that is solely because of the name on its plastic badge, rather than as a result of the bike itself.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bryan Harley, I hope you're right

By now you will have figured out I'm a Victory mark; I get grumpy when they don't do exactly what I wish they would do, I swoon every time that they do something cool, and I will bite on just about every rumour I hear. 

So, it goes without saying that I've been going out of my mind ever since I read speculation by MotoUSA's (a) Bryan Harley that Victory may be planning to unveil a new liquid-cooled model at EICMA

The basis of his speculation comes from a save-the-date-type email sent out last week to members of the media, letting them know the time and place of a "world premiere" at this year's EICMA show in Milan.

"Victory Motorcycles has been showcasing American Muscle throughout its product line and in racing," the email says. "Our pathway to the latest evolution of the brand will be revealed (at EICMA)."

Also within the email is the above photo of a Victory-branded case cover unlike those seen on any of the manufacturer's existing models. In fact, it looks a whole lot like (and may, in fact, be) the cover seen in this photo:

That, of course, is a picture of the engine that was used in Victory's renown Project 156 bike, that CycleWorld editor Don Canet rode as part of an effort to conquer Pike's Peak earlier this year. Although the effort wasn't successful due to incredibly bad luck, the snarling beast of a bike was a huge hit, serving as one of the best examples of American know-how and ability since... uhm... a hell of a long time. It sounded amazing, it looked fantastic and it moved.

Drawing on these two bits of information -- the cover and the email's text -- Harley has come to the conclusion that a long-awaited liquid-cooled Victory is finally set to arrive. And when I say "long-awaited," I mean looong.

I was writing articles wildly hoping for speculating on such a thing almost a year ago. Harley himself had been expecting the news even further back. In July 2014, when Victory brought moto-journalists to Las Vegas for what turned out to be the launch of the world's most disappointing bike, the Magnum, he had been expecting to be presented with a liquid-cooled model. After all, he reasoned, why else would you launch a bike in Las Vegas in the dead of summer?

Of course, Victory didn't deliver in that instance and thus far hasn't since. Which is a fact that lies at the heart of my cynicism toward Harley's speculation. Additionally, why EICMA?

A huge part of Victory's ethos is the fact that it's from 'Murica, y'all. It talks about "American muscle" and prides itself on the fact its first model was produced on the 4th of July (in 1998). Meanwhile, when Victory finally does deliver a liquid-cooled bike, it will undoubtedly be seen as the first step in Victory's new direction, the new way forward that has been promised and hinted at ever since Polaris resurrected Indian. Why would this American-flag-waving company choose to launch something so crucially important in Italy?

Perhaps, though, that's the point. By and large, Europeans don't have the weird obsession for air-cooled V-twins that Americans seem to have. And it's a good bet that anyone bothering to turn up at EICMA, even American journalists, will agree with or be sympathetic to that line of thinking. So, launching a liquid-cooled bike at EICMA helps Victory avoid the inane "OMGWTFBBQ!!" response that the American old guard are certain to deliver.

Additionally, to launch something at EICMA would be something of a declaration for Victory, a means of asserting itself on a world stage. It would be a way of saying: "We're not some 'also-ran' company. We are important and worth paying attention to."

Personally, I am desperately hoping that Bryan Harley turns out to be right. As it happens, I will be there in person to find out if he is (b).

I will be covering EICMA for RideApart and, in fact, I will be riding to Milan on a Victory Cross Country that the good folks at Victory Motorcycles UK will be lending me. I was already looking forward to the trip, and now I have even more reason to be excited.

But what will it be?

So, if it turns out that Victory actually does unveil a liquid-cooled something less than a month from now what, exactly, will it be?

Remember these sketches?

As much as it pains me, I doubt the new model will be the Victory adventure-tourer that I've daydreamed about. And I think it's even less likely that the company will deliver a pure sport machine. But sticking to the cruiser genre seems to me a bad idea, since I'd think a big part of Victory's modus operandi at the moment would be a desire to clearly set itself apart from Indian (which already has a liquid-cooled cruiser in the form of the Scout).

The picture sent in the media email (which I also got, by the way; and I am kicking myself for not putting the pieces together as Bryan Harley did) doesn't offer any clues. Indeed, it appears that in that particular shot there is no bike, just engine.

To that end, perhaps that's all that would be revealed at EICMA: an engine. Similar to the way Indian first launched the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage and Chieftain a few years ago. They teased us with the engine first, then revealed the actual bikes later. So, perhaps the actual bike reveal would coincide with Daytona Bike Week. After all, that event, which is technically centred around an actual motorcycle race, celebrates its 75th year in March. And it was that venue which Victory chose as a platform when launching both the Judge and the Gunner.

But a four-month tease seems a little long. Especially considering the fact that the fabled new liquid-cooled engine is almost certainly nothing more than a modified version of Indian's liquid-cooled V-twin. You don't need four months to hype that.

Perhaps a clue in what will come can be found in those sketches that were leaked back in March 2014. One of them turned out to be the Indian Scout, but we've still not seen anything like the other three. Disappointingly, the sketches were of cruisers, but at least two of them had mid-set pegs, putting the rider in a chair-like seated position, which Harley-Davidson and Star Motorcycles would call "sporty." So, maybe Victory will go back to the well from whence the Judge originally came.

I'd hope not. I'd hope that Victory would push a little further and perhaps deliver something to rival the BMW RnineT in style and power and handling. I sense they have it in them to deliver such a thing and to do it well. And, as Victory's head of external relations, Robert Pandya, told me back in June, the company is aware that a demand for such a thing exists.

"Certainly there's been interest from our existing customers" he said. "And our desire is to draw in new customers in different categories. We've got different venues we can play in, in terms of the overall opportunity on market. There are spaces where American bikes are not currently present, and maybe there's an opportunity for us."

Whether Victory seizes that opportunity and in what form it chooses to do so... well, maybe those questions will be answered in mid-November.


(a) Is it MotoUSA now? When did it stop being Motorcycle USA? I missed the memo on that one.

(b) Bryan, if you happen to be reading this I have memory of once promising to buy you a beer. I hope I'll get the chance to do that at EICMA.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Gear review: Buffalo Bay leather motorbike gloves

I'll admit that I bought the Bay motorcycle gloves by Buffalo in something of a panic. Summer was on its way and the Furygan Revol Evo gloves I had been using through winter and early spring were getting to be uncomfortable. 

With temperatures pushing north of 16ºC my hands were getting sweaty in the Furygans, soaking the fleece lining and making them difficult to put back on after a stop. Unfortunately I had no money to speak of, so I bought the cheapest pair of gloves I could find that looked like they could hold up at least until my next paycheck.

That was in 2013. I've put in thousands of miles with the gloves since then, including using them almost exclusively during my trip to Italy back in July. And only now, with their third summer having come to a close, am I thinking of replacing them.

That will be hard. They have become my favourite gloves to wear –– so comfortable now, so broken in, that I don't really notice I'm wearing them.

The leather of the glove is decently thick. I wouldn't trust it at the sort of racing speeds suggested by the glove's design, but in any sort of spill below 45 mph I'm confident it would keep my skin intact. 

Anything above that speed and, well, honestly I don't know. I'd really prefer not to find out. Though, whatever protection this glove offers at highway speeds will obviously be better than nothing.

The stitching is good, by and large, and the glove secures well to the hand. A strap goes across the top of the wrist and two Velcro flaps help secure the glove at the carpal area. Lots of extra little padding at the palm and near the ulna and radius bones give the glove a robust feel. As do solid knuckle and joint protectors.

Venting in the knuckle protector and on the fingers helps to move air into the glove. When I was suffering borderline heat stroke on the Italian motorway, the only things not bothering me were these gloves.

However, as you'll see in the picture above, the stitching on the Velcro patch of my right glove is coming undone. If it were a more expensive item, I'd simply have the patch repaired and carry on using these gloves forever. As I say, they are really comfy.

But with their low cost in mind, I can't help feeling I should use this as an excuse to get something a little more upmarket. Something that I would actually trust at higher speeds.

Additionally, it should be noted that even when slathered in Nikwax these gloves are in no way waterproof.

All in all, though, I'd recommend the Buffalo Bays. They're worth the money as long as you are honest with yourself about what £30 will buy. It's not a Klím Induction or the like, true, but take the Bay for what it is and you should be happy for a few seasons..