Thursday, 26 May 2016

Ride review: Indian Scout Sixty

When I was 21 years old, I decided I no longer cared about political science and dropped-out of classes at my dreary college in Northern Minnesota on the promise of working in a tourist trap at Lake Tahoe. I packed a duffle bag, told my roommate he could keep, sell or trash everything else, and spent several days making my way to the Silver State.

My pickup truck had no air conditioner or radio; everything was barebones. I often look back on that trip, and my decision to make it, as being a pivot point in my life. In the Story of Chris, it's impossible to get here –– to the person I am now –– without first going there. So, I'd never undo the experience. But if I could be 21 now, in 2016, I'd make a change: I'd sell my truck and get to Nevada on an Indian Scout Sixty.

Because the Sixty is that kind of bike. It is a cross-the-country-and-figure-out-who-the-hell-you-are bike. A tell-your-grandkids-about-it-in-60-years bike. A motorcycle of the sort that inspires people to write novels and listen to The Sam Chase on repeat. A motorcycle your girlfriend will accuse you of loving more than her; and deep down in your soul you'll know she's right.

It's not perfect. The Sixty's chassis doesn't quite live up to the engine's promise, and Indian has cut some odd corners in keeping the price low, but it is a very, very good bike.

First Impressions

It's strange to call the Sixty small. It has a 1000cc engine, weighs in at 561 lbs. wet, and is 4 inches longer than a BMW R1200GS. It's not small. But when you drop yourself down onto its solo seat, just 25.3 inches above the ground, "small" is one of the first words that come to mind. Or, it is if you are 6 foot 1.

The good news is that it doesn't feel cramped. With its standard set-up, the Sixty is not really designed for someone my size, but it works well enough. Extended reach and reduced reach options are available to fine tune things. My friend Sash is a wee 4 foot 11 and she swoons over her time with the Scout, which is effectively the same bike, save the engine.

When I first picked up the Sixty in London, facing a 200-mile journey back to my home in Cardiff, Wales, I made a promise to myself to stop every 40 miles to stretch. I expected this motorcycle to cause ache in knees and back. To my utter surprise, more than 100 miles passed before I even started to look for a place to stop.

Engine and Transmission

The Sixty's liquid-cooled 999cc V-twin is undoubtedly the star of the show. Unless you hate happiness, you will love this engine. Effectively the same lump found in the full-size Scout but with different bore and stroke, it puts out a claimed 78hp and 65 ft.-lbs. of torque.

I'd say those numbers are more or less accurate. More important, however, is how usable are the power and torque. Indian Scout Sixty Power delivery is stupid smooth. Well, for the most part; I found some anomalous jerkiness when maintaining 30 mph in third gear. And even that is very subtle (I only noticed late into my time with the Sixty –– when I was searching for negatives so as to avoid having this review come off as a lovefest).

At that speed and in that gear, the engine is barely ticking over idle. The Scout's rev limiter kicks in north of 8,000 rpm but you'll never get there by accident. The engine is surprisingly relaxed even at highway speed –– 70 mph sees the tachometer only flirting with 4,000 rpm. All this means you don't get the rattling performance that some manufacturers claim as character. The engine simply does what an engine is supposed to do: it goes.

For me, the smoothness and calmness of the engine make it ideal for the bike's stated purpose of cruising. But don't be fooled. Twist the grip with a little more enthusiasm and the Sixty takes on a different personality; it's like that scene in films my fraternity used to watch, where the librarian tears her dress and lets her hair down. Something deep within this bike whispers to the rider: "Hey man, let's play."

And it is a whisper. The Sixty's exhaust won't get you in trouble with neighbors. The sound of the engine is that of a sleeping lion, a bass that rattles deep within an enormous set of lungs. A part of me would like pipes that allow the Sixty to roar, but I'll admit there's a certain charm in being understated.

Meanwhile, the transmission is smoother than I remember on the Sixty's larger sibling, the Scout, which means it is pretty much the smoothest American transmission I've encountered. First gear is announced with a gentle clunk, but shifting up and down in heavy traffic requires no greater effort than in many other bikes. Clutchless upshifts are manageable outside of first and second.

The Sixty is equipped with just five gears. But the nature of how those gears are set up means you genuinely don't miss sixth. If you're a cynical person like me, you'll suspect I'm stretching the truth when I say that. Certainly that's what I thought when someone first told me such a thing. But, to my complete surprise, it's true. The Sixty manages to do it all with five gears. Really.

Ride Quality and Brakes

Within the realm of what it's supposed to be –– a cruiser –– the Sixty's suspension performs admirably well, especially considering its price tag. On good, fair, or decent roads it handles imperfections with relative ease. Lean angle is generous enough that standard curves are welcomed and enjoyed.

But things get downright hectic when you push beyond those happy boundaries. Whacking into potholes will leave you struggling to stay in your seat, taking sharp corners with too much gusto will shred the pegs and put you in a panic.

That's what people always say about cruisers, though, and I feel the need to stress that these faults present themselves later than they would on, say, a Harley-Davidson Sportster, Yamaha Bolt (aka XV-950), or Triumph America. The problem is that the Sixty's engine is so much better than in any of the bikes I just mentioned. It wants to play. And that creates situations where the Sixty can suffer an identity crisis.

"Let's go, baby! Let's do this!" the engine will say as you power hard toward a bend in the road.

"Sweet Lord in heaven! What is wrong with you?!" the suspension will yelp as you go all kinds of wrong in said bend.

In other words, if you limit the Sixty to the sort of activity it was designed for, everything will be fine. But its fantastic engine will sometimes make that difficult.

The engine's being liquid cooled means no heat is felt on the legs, even when sitting still in heavy city traffic. However, I wonder if a passenger would be as happy; the Sixty's pipes get pretty hot. The plus side is that the bike still makes that air-cooled "tink-tink-tink" noise when you shut it off after a long ride. I loved this aspect of the Sixty and if Indian did it on purpose I think its engineers are geniuses for accomplishing this level of old-school feel on a modern bike.

The balloon-like Indian-branded Kenda tires are something I'd look forward to replacing if I owned a Sixty (which I've been seriously considering). They've earned a particularly bad reputation amongst British moto-journalists because they lack feel and grip in the wet. Having ridden the Sixty in Britain and Ireland I can confirm the tires' wet-weather inadequacy, but will say they aren't as bad as expected. The Sixty feels far more flickable than it looks, but also suffers a bicycle-like "floatiness" at speeds in excess of the legal limit. Not so much, however, that I would describe it as unsteady or worrying.

Brakes, meanwhile, are adequate. Especially within the aforementioned boundaries. You won't be doing any stoppies with the single-disc front brake, but I suffered no panics. In Europe, the Sixty is equipped with a rudimentary anti-lock braking system that is about as unobtrusive as ABS can be. Indian does not yet offer the feature on bikes sold in the United States, but I reckon it's only a certain amount of time until they do. And I'll bet the feature will be retrofittable.

The Sixty weighs a hell of a lot when you're muscling it around a driveway –– especially if that driveway has an incline. On the move, though, the weight is no hassle thanks to a low center of gravity.

Filtering (aka lane splitting) is easy. I mean, really, really easy. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a motorcycle I've ridden that's more effective at navigating through thick traffic. Though I wouldn't complain if the clutch lever were a little less stiff.

Comfort and Features

As mentioned above, the Sixty is more comfortable than expected. I am too tall for the standard set-up and had no screen, but was able to clock up just shy of 2,000 complaint-free miles over the space of a week.

Though the Sixty's seat is comfy it keeps the rider in a set position; you can't help but squirm after a while. Discomfort sets in at roughly the 100-mile mark, which I think is pretty good for a bike that wasn't set up for me and isn't targeted at long-distance riders.

Its 3.3-US-gallon tank is evidence of the latter. I'd normally complain about such a small tank, but the Sixty isn't too thirsty; 130 miles can be had before the fuel light comes on. So, something like 45 mpg reliably. Judicious riding will deliver better results.

Sans screen, the Sixty is most comfortable below 70 mph. Above that, you feel strain in your forearms. The good news, though, is I didn't experience the infamous cruiser head waggle at higher speeds.

The bike is minimalist, with a single display up front in the form of an analogue speedometer with digital information below. Mileage, trip meter, tachometer, engine temperature and gear indicator are all available via the display. The gear indicator isn't terribly reliable but you soon get used to the old-school method of keeping count in your head. Whereas the speedometer is spot-on accurate.

Out of the box, there's not much more to the Sixty in terms of features. Even bungee points are hard to find. I ended up strapping my bag to the rear shocks.


You wouldn't necessarily think of a cruiser as an all-the-time everyday machine, but the Sixty could easily fulfil that role. Especially if you're willing to splash out on an accessory rack and windscreen. It's ideal for lane splitting, it's comfortable, and it's relatively economical in terms of fuel consumption. It would be a great way to commute in style.

Thanks to its simple design, the Sixty is really easy to clean –– just hit it with a hose –– and belt drive means you never have to fuss with a chain. Changing the oil requires minimal effort, though you'll need a pretty shallow oil pan to accommodate the bike's ground clearance.

Rear tire valve access to check tire pressure requires a certain amount of dexterity and is all but impossible if the exhaust is hot, but I suspect I'm the only person in the world who checks tire pressure as much as they tell you to.

The old-school-styled round headlamp is surprisingly good at throwing light.

Build Quality

The Sixty is built to a price point, which is something you notice a little in the tires, suspension and aesthetic minimalism, but it is high-end inexpensive. The overall feeling is one of quality and durability. You could drop this bike and not have it bite you in the wallet.

In addition to the five-gear transmission, cost has also been saved in eschewing the chrome engine covers and cylinder heads found on the Scout. And the Sixty's seat is vinyl rather than leather. Personally I prefer the Sixty's look, and I feel that vinyl is less hassle –– especially considering how easy it is to remove/steal the Sixty's seat (no tools or keys required, just yank on it).

However, my biggest complaint about the bike is the cost saving that resulted in the Sixty's ugly, loose-wire-laden triple tree. It's a blemish on an otherwise beautiful bike and feels like a particularly strange cost-cutting measure.

On the larger Scout, the tree wiring is covered by a simple plate. Indian will sell you that plate, which pops right onto the Sixty, for roughly US $50. The absence of the plate feels like cost cutting for the sake of cost cutting. Though, to be fair, it's hard to think of anything else Indian could have shaved off on such a minimalist bike. Plus, it's an aesthetic sin you don't notice when riding the bike. It's easily covered; I found that space was perfect for a Kriega US10 dry bag. And, really, if the worst thing you can say about a bike is that it has some unsightly wiring, you're not doing too bad.

Chatting with a dealer about it, he and I half wondered if Indian didn't leave the wiring exposed on purpose, to serve as a quirky feature of the bike. Perhaps in 70 years a retro movement will see bikes of all brands copying the look of the Sixty's loose wires.

Final Verdict

Taken for what it is and what it is supposed to be, I'd argue that the Indian Scout Sixty is one of the best bikes out there today. Yes, you can get bikes that are faster, bikes that are cheaper, bikes that come equipped with more standard features. But overall, total package, the Sixty is hard to beat.

Very few of those other bikes will have people running out into the street to talk to you about it.

The Sixty can frustrate when its delightful package leads to thoughts beyond the perimeters of what it is and what it is supposed to be. I sincerely hope Harley-Davidson sells a bajillion Roadsters, if not simply to convince Indian that doing the same thing with its Scout/Scout Sixty platform is a good idea.

Back within the reality of what the Sixty is –– a cruiser –– one thing I really appreciate is how good a motorcycle it is at base price. You can always improve a motorcycle with aftermarket modifications, but I'm of the mind that the basic package should be good enough that those modifications don't feel like requirements. You can add to the Sixty, certainly. But you don't need to go diving into your pocket straightaway.

The Sixty is there to be enjoyed and loved as is. Simple, easy, fun, and very, very good.

The Three Questions:

Any time I review a bike, I try to think of it from a consumer's perspective, imagining that I'm being asked to spend my own money on the bike. In doing so, I always ask myself these three questions:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
Not really, but I like to think that with a little investment perhaps it could. Maybe. I don't know. The bike is good enough, though, that a part of me would like to try. However, I used to phrase this question as "Will it fit in my garden?" to which the answer here is no. The Sixty is too awkward to be maneuvered into the space I have for a motorcycle.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. A huge one. The only time I was ever unhappy on the Sixty was when I had to give the keys back to Indian. Comfortable, fun, unique, and cool.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
That's a tricky one. On paper, the answer is no. But, as I say, the Sixty is a good enough motorcycle to make a person somewhat willing to forego the benefits of a Japanese bike for the inherent coolness of this one. Really, rather than being better than my beloved Suzuki V-Strom 1000, the Sixty is fantastic enough to make me ponder the practicalities of owning two motorcycles.

(Portions of this article were originally published on RideApart)

Friday, 13 May 2016

Exploring the Scout Sixty's Irish Heritage

When several weeks of gentle pleading recently resulted in Indian Motorcycle handing me the keys to a Scout Sixty, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: Ireland.

That's probably not what you were thinking. After all, the Sixty is a motorcycle imbued with more than a century of American heritage, seemingly designed first and foremost for the American road. But, as with so many American things, if you trace its history back far enough you'll find an Irish beginning.

In this case, that beginning is Charles B. Franklin, an engineer and motorcycle racer born in Dublin in 1880. There's a plaque commemorating Franklin's achievements outside the house where he was born. And, because among those achievements are the designs of both the original Indian Scout and Scout 101, it makes sense to ride the Sixty there.

My adventure starts, though, in Cardiff, Wales –– separated from Dublin by about 300 miles, roughly 80 of which are across the Irish Sea. I schedule a night ferry and set out to cross the breadth of Wales, which –– you probably didn't know –– is the birthplace of St. Patrick (yes, that St. Patrick). For me, the whole trip will be like this: tiny connections within tiny connections.

I learn of Prince's death just as I'm putting on my jacket to leave. Pointing the Sixty westward, I take certain pride in the fact its modern liquid-cooled V-twin engine was designed in Minnesota.

The roads are empty; the best time to travel across Wales, it seems, is after 9pm on a Thursday. This means I can relax and keep the bike below 65 mph. With no screen, that's where I'm happiest. The engine is capable of more (on another day I'll hit 105 mph) but going slow means not having to lean hard into the wind, not having to fight to hold on.

I've strapped a Kriega US10 bag to the triple tree and managed to secure an Oxford T50 Aqua rollbag to the fender, despite the lack of any bungee points. It's back-to-basics traveling. You know those hipster videos where some sexy tattooed person in a shirt that costs more than your monthly income straps a rolled Mexican blanket to the 'bars of a Sportster and takes six days to ride from San Diego to San Luis Obispo? That's how I feel: like someone cool.

No, that's not quite right. I feel legitimately cool. I like this vision of me. Everything feels right.

The Sixty's engine is smooth and drones into the darkness. To my surprise, despite the fact I am 6 feet 1 inch tall and the Sixty is mega-low, I am happy-comfortable. I arrive at the port too early, pull a Thermos of tea from my bag and wait.

After a while another motorcyclist shows up. He's just bought a BMW K1600GT in England and is taking it back to Ireland. Apparently he's saved a lot of money by buying it in the UK. We pass the time together trying to figure out what all the buttons and wheels and switches on his bike do. He delights in playing with the electronic suspension.

"Watch this, Chris," he says, making the bike go up and down. "Watch what she does."

I'm a big fan of techno whizzbangery, but the excessive amount of it on the K1600GT makes me appreciate the relative simplicity of the Sixty. Just turn the key and go.

Eventually, the handful of overnight travelers are allowed to board just before 2am. Four and a half hours later I roll off the boat at Rosslare with a lot more time to kill. Dublin is less than 100 miles away and the friend I'm staying with won't get home from work until 5 that evening. The best course of action is to try to get lost.

I adopt a tactic of approaching people and saying: "I'm trying to get to Dublin, but want to go by a really scenic route."

The Irish, though, know their country –– no wildly inaccurate suggestions are made. Not only do people give good directions, but offer suggestions of interesting things to see along the way. Even with tourist stops, though, I'm within The Pale by lunchtime, so I divert down into the Wicklow Mountains, the area that provides water for the Guinness brewery.

The narrow mountain roads here are of abysmal quality and too much for the Sixty's suspension. Fortunately, no one else is around. I slow to 10 mph and bounce along imagining I'm crossing the Himalayas. Every few miles I have to stop to re-secure the Oxford bag. There's something strangely fun about all this, but in hindsight I probably should have asked Indian to equip the bike with a rack.

This road was built by British soldiers in the early 1800s to allow them to hunt down Irish rebels. These days it connects a handful of charming towns, dotted by the odd pub or cafe in between. I stop to have tea and cake, and find myself in conversation with a 90-year-old woman who is baffled by Donald Trump. The Irish love to talk politics but her issue with him is a little less ideological.

"I can't understand how the hell any woman could go to bed with him," she says.

A little more than a century ago, the British would have still been patrolling these mountains. Charles Franklin would have been selling Indian motorcycles in Dublin and racing the bikes at the Isle of Man. He competed in the famous road race every year from 1908 to 1914. When World War I hit, a 33.3-percent tax on foreign luxury goods (such as motorcycles from America), designed to raise money for the British war effort, put him out of work.

Franklin landed on his feet, though, earning a position within Indian's design team and setting sail for Massachusetts in late 1916.

On my second morning, I have a severe hangover and have lost my voice from shout-talking with friends in the pub. This happens every time I come to Dublin, but today it's a little worse because I hadn't realized that the lager of which I consumed seven pints was 7 percent. I'm less resilient than I used to be...

I don't get moving until mid-afternoon. Eventually, though, I am steady enough to ride into the heart of Dublin. Almost exactly 100 years after Franklin left the city I find his house and park the Sixty in front of it to take pictures. Perhaps things were quieter when he lived here, but these days the road is busy, so I'm drawing a crowd.

"Jaysus! I never knew," exclaims one man after I explain what I'm doing. "I walk by this house every day, an' I never knew dat. She's a beautiful machine, man. An' yer man who's responsible was from right here. Dat's amazin'!"

As I take pictures he takes it upon himself to tell every passerby the story of Charles Franklin, which grows more elaborate with each telling. At one point, an open-top tourist bus is stopped in traffic and he's shouts up at them: "Do ye see diss gorgeous machine here? Diss amazin' American motorcycle here? It's the best motorcycle in the world, and the man who designed it was born an' raised right here in diss house!"

Franklin never returned to the house after 1916. He brought his family to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1920 –– the same year he designed the first Scout. Two years later, he was responsible for the first Indian Chief. Then the lesser-known single-cylinder Prince in 1924, and the Scout 101 in 1928. The latter, of course, is the bike everyone remembers, the bike still favored by Wall of Death riders.

On this weekend the country is commemorating 100 years since the Easter Rising. Irish history is anything but clear cut, but some see that event as the beginning of the Irish revolutionary period –– the spark that helped lead to a free Ireland. Riding around on these streets, I wonder what Franklin must have thought about all that.

Of course, you can get too lost in thinking about these things. That night, my friend and I go to see an independent wrestling show and one of the bad guys is from Northern Ireland. The crowd chants "Sitch-yee ay-shun" ("situation" in a Northern Ireland accent) and he eggs them on in faux protest.

On my final day in Dublin, I pack up the bike under weak spring sunshine as my friend bounces his son on the Sixty's seat.

"Where to now?" he asks.

"I'm going to wander for a few days before catching the ferry back," I say. "I'm aiming for Tipperary today, then west to follow the coast."

"It's a long way to Tipperary," he says.

"So I've heard."

Sticking to smaller roads, I make leisurely progress south. The secondary roads, known as N roads, are gentle and undulating. The speed limit on them is 100 kph (62 mph), and Irish drivers are surprisingly respectful of the law. It all makes for an environment that leaves me imagining something more than looks has been carried forward from the Scout models of yore.

The Irish spirit is in there, too. The Sixty fits this place well. And the country's citizens somehow sense the connection. When I'm stopped, or even just moving slowly through villages, people walk out into the road to talk to me about the bike. Parents ask to have their children be photographed on it.

With the exception of mountain passes, most of the roads are good and I manage to avoid heavy rain. Even going slow, though, the smallness of Ireland reveals itself. I get from point A to point B far too quickly, so I loop back and ride the same roads again.

In this way I suppose the bike reveals its American nature; it makes me long for roads that never end.


This June I'll be taking part in the Royal British Legion Riders 1000 ride, helping to raise money for the Poppy Appeal. Please check out this page to learn more and donate in support of British veterans, currently serving military personnel, and their families.


Wednesday, 11 May 2016

My beef with Harley

It's an unfortunate truth of the internet that no matter what you say, somebody, somewhere will get upset about it. The persistence of that truth seems to increase roughly 1,000 percent when you say something about Harley-Davidson.

Doesn't matter what you say –– it can be good, it can be bad, it can be indifferent. You could make a seemingly innocuous statement like, "Harley-Davidson is a company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that is best known for selling motorcycles," and someone will lose their mind.


I don't really like that this is a truth of the internet, but it is. So, when a few people took issue with some of the things I wrote in a recent review of the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special, I didn't really pay much attention. Haters gonna hate, after all.

But then RideApart's creative director, Jim Downs, brought it up with me in an email conversation.

"Playing devil's advocate, I have to ask," he wrote. "What's your beef with them?"

It was a question that knocked me back a little, because the short answer to his question is: none. I have no beef. After all, I first found RideApart (the site I now write for primarily) many years ago while in the process of searching for articles about the Iron 883, a bike that I loved the look of so much it made me want to return to motorcycling after a few years break.

When I eventually rode one, I was considerably less enthusiastic about the bike, but I still get all dreamy eyed every time I see one on the road. I'm like that for most Harley-Davidson motorcycles; I really like the looks of them. As I wrote of the Street Glide Special: "It looks fantastic. This is a motorcycle upon which any sane human being wants to be seen."

In that same review, I also wrote: "Riding a Harley is like riding a tractor. [And] riding a tractor is awesome."

Which, to me, isn't an attack — unless the definition of "awesome" has changed since I left the United States 10 years ago. I did have some criticisms of the bike, but that's part of a review: You look for things that might become issues to the people who eventually shell out thousands of dollars/pounds/euros/darseks for a bike. But, for the sake of answering Jim fully, I decided to sit back and ask myself, honestly: Am I, in some way, biased against Harley-Davidson?

I think it's impossible to write about motorcycles without some kind of bias. Otherwise every article would just be a list of numbers. The trick to writing honestly, I think, is adjusting your bias to favor the motorcycle-in-question's stated strengths. For example, no one ever complains that a BMW S1000RR isn't suitable for off-road trails, or that a Honda Goldwing can't do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. We don't expect those things.

So, the real question is not whether I'm biased, but whether I'm failing to adequately adjust my bias when assessing a Harley-Davidson. Am I expecting things that shouldn't be expected? Well, I don't know. To me, if you sell a motorcycle for more than US $23,000 and you tell people that it is "plush, top-end touring technology," that's kind of what I expect.

My experience was that the bike in question didn't meet those expectations. It was uncomfortable and not up to the given task of touring. Even there I didn't feel I was being excessively harsh. I went so far as to point out that my experience might be unique (my 6-foot-1 frame is apparently beyond the target audience of Harley ergonomics) and suggest that if a rider's expectations were different than my own — if he or she planned to use the bike less for touring and more for stylin' and profilin' — it might still be worth the asking price.

I feel my expectations were fair. Or, would have been fair if I had been riding any other bike... But it's not any other bike, is it?

A Harley-Davidson is a wholly unique thing, and perhaps to assess it you have to do so in a wholly unique way. Maybe part of the unique way is to be consumed of the same mindset that makes so many of its customers so vociferously loyal. You have to be able to place yourself under the Harley spell.

Because I was uncomfortable, because the bike hurt my lower back and gave me a headache, I wasn't really able to do that. I wasn't able to connect on a metaphysical level, and as a result, was left to evaluate the bike as just a material thing.

So, whereas I don't possess a bias against Harley-Davidson products, I equally lack a bias in favor of them. And perhaps, for some people, that is the real problem. Because part of the Harley experience is being wrapped in the Harley mystique, having the faith.

If I have a "beef" with Harley-Davidson, then, maybe it's that I don't get it; I'm unable to comprehend the emotions that lead other people to get tattoos of this corporation's logo. And maybe –– maybe –– because of that, I'm jealous. I'm annoyed that I don't feel the spirit.

I use religious allusions because, in a way, the whole thing reminds me of when I joined a church group in college. I did that primarily because there was an extraordinarily gorgeous girl in the group whose Kentucky drawl and affinity for tight jeans absolutely melted my brain. And ohmygoodness the way she moved! To me, she was clear evidence there must be some kind of God.

But the group's interpretation of that God was something I didn't jive with, its focus too narrow for my tastes. And as a result, I never really connected with any of them. While they were jumping around and shouting, I was thinking: "This music is kind of basic. This chapel is a little cold."

Unable to get myself to feel whatever they were feeling, I was left to assess it all as just a material experience, which of course meant I was missing the point. And that annoyed me enough that I was eventually able to convince myself it would never work out between myself and the gorgeous girl — even if she hadn't been dating a point guard.

Such is the case with the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson, I suppose. I don't quite get it. I get cruisers, and ohmygoodness some Harleys look cool, but the thing that's not there, the thing that you can't attach a number to, the thing that would make me reach for my wallet, is the thing I'm missing.

I don't hold that against the faithful, though. I mean, what's wrong with loving a thing? The whole point of this website is that it's for people who love bikes. If a certain segment of those people love one brand of bike considerably more, well, they're welcome to do so.

That I don't feel that way isn't a beef, though. It's just lack of belief.


This June I'll be taking part in the Royal British Legion Riders 1000 ride, helping to raise money for the Poppy Appeal. Please check out this page to learn more and donate in support of British veterans, currently serving military personnel, and their families.


Monday, 9 May 2016

Gear review: TomTom Rider

The first thing to get out of the way in reviewing the TomTom Rider is to determine exactly which device we're talking about, since it goes by different names. The Rider 40, Rider 400 and Rider 410 are all the same device in terms of hardware and functionality; the numerical differences identify the maps offered.

As far as I can tell, the only version sold in the United States is the Rider 400. It comes equipped with maps for the United States, Canada and Mexico. Buy the Rider 410 in Europe, though, and you'll end up with maps for the entire world, which strikes me as the better buy.

Either way, TomTom promises "lifetime" updates for the maps, which is a dubious claim because TomTom isn't very specific as to what it means by the word "lifetime." It's not your lifetime, nor even the lifetime of the physical device. Instead, "lifetime" roughly translates to: "as long as we feel like it." Or, in TomTom's words, "the period of time that TomTom continues to support your device." How long is that period of time? Dunno. Maybe a year, maybe 10 years, maybe a week. There's no clear information that might make you feel better about paying so much for a product that does something your phone does.

Worth The Cost?

That said, I prefer a motorcycle-specific GPS to a phone for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I like to go places that aren't in cell range. Shortly before buying the Rider last year, I tried mounting my LG G4 to my bike and using Google Maps. The phone got confused pretty much as soon as I left the city, went hot, then gave up and shut itself off. Additionally, phones aren't weatherproof, nor necessarily designed to tolerate the vibration they're subjected to when mounted on a bike.

Lack of weatherproofing is also the reason I chose the Rider over a less expensive car GPS; it's impossible to escape the rain in Britain. If you live somewhere dry, a car GPS may work for you.

Unique Features

Perhaps to discourage fair-weather riders from doing such a thing, TomTom offers a handful of features unique to the Rider for motorcyclists. Most notably, there's the clumsily named "Plan A Thrill" feature. It lets you arrive at a destination via the most interesting route available. You can even choose different levels of hilliness and twistiness.

I've found the feature to be generally disappointing. For example, asking it to navigate from my house to the headquarters of Brecon Beacons National Park, about 40 miles away, I am given a route that takes upward of three hours and wends through every urban center in the space between. It's twisty, yes, but hardly thrilling.

More useful, though, is the real-time traffic feature. Pairing with your phone, the Rider can alert you to delays up ahead, give you an idea of how long those delays are and will occasionally reroute you. Note my use of the word "occasionally," sometimes I feel it's too willing to put me in traffic.

Nonetheless, it's one of my favorite features. If nothing else, it gives me a sense of how long the traffic is going to last, with the status bar indicating how long I'll be delayed and how far I am from the incident that's delaying me.


The Rider attaches on handlebars or accessory bar via RAM mount. I made a redneck accessory bar for my Suzuki V-Strom 1000 using plastic tubing and a shower curtain rail — it's hilariously ugly — but I've attached the Rider to the handlebars of bikes I've tested for RideApart and found I'm usually able to put the screen in or near my line of sight.

The mounting base can be wired to the bike's battery to ensure the device stays charged. If you're unwilling to mess with wiring, my experience is that it will last more than five hours on a charge. 

Menu and Keys

Timing it, the Rider takes a full minute to boot up. Once awake, it's easy enough to use. The menu is simple though not immensely intuitive. A recent software update has helped things a little in allowing you to choose where icons are placed.

The touchscreen keys work most of the time, but you haven't got a snowball's chance in hell of pressing them if you're wearing winter gloves. Even summer gloves can be too much for smaller keys. Meanwhile, I've had the touchscreen get confused by heavy rain.

Related to the above, the system of sub menus can be annoying. For example, in the main menu there is an option that says "Gas Station." Think about what you'd want from that option. The nearest gas station, right? Instead, you're presented with a map too large to be of use. You have to click and zoom in on the map to see how close stations actually are to you, or you need to click to a list view and select a station that way. You have to click again to choose a station, and again to set a route, and again to initiate that route. All this clicking is too involved to be done on the move, usually needs to be done gloveless, and fails to understand the urgency inherent in a person's having chosen the "Gas Station" option in the first place.

On-Screen Information and Directions

The Rider's map display is a strength over similar GPS devices. It's clear and accurate. The arrow indicating position never lags. At key points, such as motorway exits, the map will automatically zoom, telling me which lane I need to be in. The screen is bright and easy to read even in bright sunlight, and switches automatically to a less retina-burning night view once sunset hits.

You can choose to display the map in horizontal or portrait view simply by turning the device (the Rider's base allows you to click between positions with minimal effort). I prefer the horizontal view because it offers a status bar that shows distance left to my destination, estimated time of arrival, and indicates key points of interest—.e.g, traffic congestion, rest areas or gas stations — that I will encounter ahead. The device also alerts me to the presence of speed cameras, stoplight cameras and high-accident areas.

Direct Route

My primary use for the TomTom Rider is getting from point A to point B. This is a simple process of searching a location or address, selecting it and initiating the route. Most of the time this works. However, in Italy I learned that the way Italians write their addresses is not the way TomTom thinks they should be written.

An annoying quirk of the Rider is that it will initially tell you the distance to a destination as the crow flies. It's only when you actually initiate the route that you learn how many miles you'll be riding. You can also set a location by painstakingly dragging the map, zooming it in and out, and clicking on a specific point. I tried this once; it was so frustrating and awkward I almost threw the device off a cliff.

You can choose a number of options in how the route is determined, e.g., fastest route, shortest route, most eco-friendly route, twistiest route, etc. You can also choose to avoid highways and tolls and so on, but it's not possible to set an upper speed limit. Older car TomToms had that feature, and I think it would make sense on the Rider; imagine the naked cruiser rider who'd like to avoid the turbulence that comes from riding above 60 mph.

Route Planning

When it comes to more involved route planning, the Rider offers a "lifetime" subscription to Tyre Pro, an interactive route-planning software that doesn't interact with Apple products. So, I've never used it.

TomTom's MyDrive website allows you to plan a route with multiple destinations, but you can't specify roads. It's also a glitchy process that only seems to work on 1 out of 5 attempts. The good news is the Rider has no problem accepting GPX files. Which is to say, once you work out the circuitous process of downloading GPX files onto the device it has no problem using them. So, if someone else creates a route for you, or you're lucky enough to be going someplace recommended by Ride magazine, everything is peachy.


The Rider is generally pretty quick to serve up alternative routes if you miss a turn or decide you don't like the look of something (perhaps the road is flooded or, as happened to me in Mid-Wales recently, occupied by a wedding party on tractors). The chances are 50/50, though, that the recalculation will either desperately try to put you back on the exact same route, or run you 30 miles in the opposite direction up an unpaved mountain pass –– I've been subjected to both scenarios.

Meanwhile, alternative routes as a result of live traffic information are suggested a little late in my opinion. On the motorway, an alternative route will be suggested only half a mile from the necessary exit. Which means scrambling to get into the correct lane in a relatively short space of time.

The system is better than it used to be, though. When I first bought it, a message would ask if I wanted to take the alternative route and I had to click to accept. See above about the Rider's functionality when wearing thick gloves. Now, the potentially new route is simply displayed in flashing green and the status bar indicates how much time the GPS thinks you'll save; no need to touch the screen, just follow the route or ignore it.


The Rider offers Bluetooth pairing, so you can hear the GPS instructions if you have a headset. I don't have such a device; there are already too many voices in my head. And I have concerns as to how well it would work.

The GPS also uses Bluetooth to pair to my phone for traffic updates and I know it struggles to maintain connection. I have heard from someone with a Sena SMH10 that the same thing happens with his headset: it connects and disconnects constantly.

Apparently you can set up the Rider to serve as a kind of interloper between your phone and headset, so that when you receive a call you'll see it on the screen and can press a key to accept the call. I'm not sure I get the point of this. See again what I said about functionality when wearing thick gloves. Plus, Bluetooth headsets are designed to allow you to answer calls pretty easily anyway.

Final Verdict

If you haven't guessed, my overall opinion is that the Rider isn't worth the money that TomTom asks for it. At the same time, however, I think it's a device worth owning. I'm not aware of a better motorcycle GPS, and ultimately I find the Rider to be incredibly useful. That is primarily because of the increased sense of freedom it gives me.

One of my favorite things to do is head out with no particular destination in mind, allow myself to get completely and utterly lost, then click on the Rider and allow it to guide me home. That provides a psychological safety blanket that has made me far more adventurous and daring than I am naturally inclined to be. I've so far felt free to wander in nine different countries with this little device always there to help me out.

Cost: US $499 (£319 / €399)
Used for: 11 months/ 10,000+ miles


This June I'll be taking part in the Royal British Legion Riders 1000 ride, helping to raise money for the Poppy Appeal. Please check out this page to learn more and donate in support of British veterans, currently serving military personnel, and their families.