BMW R18 First Edition Review

I’ve owned and ridden several motorcycles over my 30 years of riding, and like many of us have not had much experience with cruisers. I am however working for a car/motorcycle manufacturer, and one of the perks is to have a company motorcycle which is changed every 5 months. Given this amazing opportunity, I ensure that I pick something different each time, although I have had some favourites over the years. To my delight and excitement, I managed to get one of the first R18 1st Editions which I picked up in December 2020.

bmw r18 first 1st edition

I arrived at the site where we swap over our bikes. I was giving back a BMW F900R, which is quite a different machine to the huge, low chrome covered monster that awaited me. It was time to ride it home. Clutch in, press the starter button and the huge 900cc pistons fired into life with a side-to-side shudder, although much quieter than I’d hoped!

The ride home was very damp and an accident on the M3 caused me to have to negotiate some muddy back roads.  With brand new tyres and 1800cc of grunt, the bike handled everything I threw at it without a stutter.  After an hour and a half in the saddle, I got off feeling as comfortable as if I’d been on a touring bike. After only 2 more rides we’re back into lockdown, so the beast was put back in the garage with 100 miles on it and onto trickle charge.

After what seems like forever, April finally arrived, and I get to go out on a peer-to-peer ride with another Observer who’s on a BMW R1250RT.  The first thing I notice is that the R18 is slow to steer into corners. I adapt my riding style to go slower in and use the huge grunt to fire out. My friend commented that as they are following me, they had to really twist the throttle on the RT to stay with the R18, such is the bottom end and mid-range. After a couple of hours out on it, I still feel comfortable and am enjoying the torque and the surprisingly good front twin disc brakes.

Second ride after lockdown, we were off on a small social ride to the Cod and Waffle in Leighton Buzzard. Lots of fast A Roads and nice twisty back roads. There is a mixture of sports bikes, tourers and super nakeds and the R18 didn’t let me down at all. It has no problem on the straights or the twisty bits, and to quote what Bike magazine said, “ride it like a big retro, not like a cruiser”! Once you get your head around this it works perfectly.

Now what seems like only a couple of weeks and a few observed rides in mostly bad weather, its time to give the big beast back and onto the next one. I’ve really enjoyed the massive torque, excellent brakes, comfy seat and riding position, and despite what your mind tells you, I’ve never had an issue with ground clearance. Only negative side is that it gets absolutely covered in muck every time you go out, and takes ages to clean it and the suspension is a bit on the hard side.

I will really miss the R18. It has put a big smile on my face during the short amount of time I’ve been able to ride it, and I would definitely have another one. I’d encourage anyone, regardless of what you ride, to pop into your local BMW bike retailer and take a test ride on one of these amazing machines. I guarantee you’ll be surprised, and it will put a big smile on your face!

Chris Davey

First published in Slipstream June 2021

Zero SR/S (2020) Review

Are motorcycles finally ready to embrace electric motors?

2020 will be remembered for a lot of (mostly terrible) things, but it also stands to become the turning point for electric car ownership in Western Europe. A number of regulatory and social factors have collided with the relentless march of technology, and electric cars are finally good enough to replace their petrol-powered versions for many people.

There is now genuine choice from a broad swathe of manufacturers at a wide range of price points and form factors. Need something cheap and cheerful? The Renault Zoe has you covered. Got kids to haul around? The Kia E-Niro awaits. Money to burn? Sir or Madam’s Porsche Taycan is right over here. Time to replace your Volkswagen Golf? Try the ID3. All good cars at competitive price points, and despite their high-tech electric powertrains they are all genuinely usable real-world transportation.

Car manufacturers in Europe are under the gun of course, with new internal-combustion-engine (ICE) powered cars set to be banned from sale in the next couple of decades. The UK government has triggered one of the shorter countdowns, with 2035 looming large for manufacturers who have yet to dip a serious toe into electric waters. True, questions remain on how those forced to park on the street will charge their cars, and our high-speed recharging infrastructure is a patchwork of broken and incompatible chargers, but I’m confident that those problems can be solved in time. Price and range still leave room for improvement, but we’re honestly not far off. No, the bigger question and my chief concern is how our precious motorcycles will fare in this brave new world.

For now, the upcoming UK ICE ban does not include motorcycles and scooters, so it sounds like you’ll still be able to buy petrol-powered two-wheelers in 2035. Of course, there’s plenty of time for our Government to change its mind, and even if not, it’s only a matter of time before ever-tightening emissions regulations squeeze the petrol out of your tank. It’s also true that our electric two-wheeled choices are getting better, even if pickings are slim at the moment. In a few short years promising newcomers Alta Motors and Mission Motors have both risen and then fallen again, while electric pioneers Zero have been quietly, ahem, plugging away.

Despite Harley-Davidson’s £30,000 Livewire and its high-profile television debut garnering all the publicity, it’s Zero’s new SR/S that caught my eye this year. Essentially a faired version of 2019’s SR/F, the SR/S and its naked sibling mark a turning point in Zero’s product design and capabilities. Their previous offerings with their less powerful, shorter-ranged bikes never caught the imagination of mainstream motorcycling. Performance and finish quality equivalent to a 20-year-old Kawasaki Ninja 250 and asking prices not far removed from high-end Ducatis were of little interest to all but hard-core early adopters, though they did show up in some odd places. I’ve never ridden one because, quite frankly, they were just too expensive and too short-range to be serious contenders for any of my purposes.

But the new SR platform is a very different beast. Gone are the spindly wheels and questionable running gear, and instead we’re looking at proper modern sports bike tackle. Sure, the J. Juan brakes are an oddity and don’t quite match the bite and power of the best Italian or Japanese competitors, but twin four-piston radial-mount calipers are nothing to sniff at. Showa adjustable suspension front and rear ticks a quality box, while LED headlamps and a TFT dashboard present the very picture of high-tech modernity. But where you’d expect to see cylinder heads and a catalyst-packed exhaust system poking out from under shiny plastics, we instead see a lightly-finned battery pack and gold-anodised electric motor.

And what a motor it is. Packing 110bhp and a frankly ridiculous 190Nm from a single moving part, Zero’s latest-generation permanent-magnet brushless motor spools the fat 180-section Pirelli Diablo Rosso 3 rear tyre up through a maintenance-free kevlar belt drive. Numbers like this have to be taken with a pinch of salt, because the way that electric power is delivered is so different to what we’re used to. But in the right throttle mode, the SR/S builds speed more than quickly enough. I actually suspect that output at lower speeds is being limited by the traction control to prevent either burnouts or wheelies, and I wasn’t brave enough to try switching it off.

Conventional… until you notice the lack of exhaust

Zero were one of the first to market.

An unassuming piece, this beast of a motor has to be held back by electronics.

Even my dealer had trouble adjusting the settings, and that was with the bike stationary.

Electric motors deliver 100% of their maximum torque straight from zero rpm, so there’s no waiting for an engine to spool up and into its power band to make swift progress. But also unlike an internal combustion engine, that torque figure never gets any higher as revs climb. In unrestricted form an electric motor’s dyno chart would be a straight diagonal line, with output plummeting as revs rise. The Zero’s chart is weirder still, supporting the theory that the bike is massively limiting its output until almost 4,000 RPM. I suspect that 140Nm isn’t the maximum twist the motor can produce – it’s simply the maximum that the bike’s traction control system has decided that it’s safe to deliver.So what does that feel like to actually ride? Well, it’s…different. An electric motor under load actually makes quite an interesting array of (admittedly quiet) noises, and is honestly a lot more interesting to listen to than many of today’s overly-silenced petrol bikes under many conditions. It is utterly silent when stationary, however, and it’s almost eerie pulling up to a set of traffic lights and being able to hear the sounds of the city or countryside around you. It’s also hilarious to swoop past traffic on the open road in total silence, having changed no gears – just twist and really go.

There’s a hell of a lot to like about electric powertrains. Obviously, electricity is cheaper than petrol, but the fact that you can top up at home and leave the garage with a fresh ‘tank’ every day is a novelty that never gets old – or so I’m told. At a stroke, zero-emissions zones are of no consequence, and you’ll never wake up your neighbours leaving for an early Sunday blast, nor get dirty looks from people as you rattle past them outside peaceful village cafes. The instant on-demand power at any speed is addictive, and you’ll never experience a power train with more immediate throttle-response.

The ownership experience should be more relaxing, too. All those dirty, messy, oily reciprocating parts are gone, replaced with a big sealed battery pack and a spinning shaft inside some electromagnets. There’s no oil to change, no valves to adjust, no filters to replace – not even a chain to lubricate! Aside from your tyres and brakes there’s nothing to warm up when cold, nor anything to bed in when new. An electric motor is a devilishly simple thing compared to the incredible complexity of an internal combustion engine, and needs practically no maintenance. And that’s what makes Zero’s insistence on a 4,000-mile service schedule so baffling. Yes, pivot points need lubricating and brakes and tyres need checking, but not even Suzuki insists on dealer visits that often. Still, an electric motorcycle is a prime candidate for easy low-cost home servicing.

But there are downsides too – both to electric motorcycles in general and the Zero SR/S in particular. Electric motors are extremely efficient at turning energy into motion (95+% is not uncommon) with petrol engines struggling to convert more than 20-35% of their fuel into motion. Yet even state-of-the-art lithium-polymer batteries are hopelessly poor at storing energy when compared to liquid fuels. Based on a number of sources, it’s generally agreed that the energy density of a high-tech 14.4kWh battery pack like the Zero’s is handily beaten by just two litres of bargain-basement supermarket petrol. And that battery pack is heavy, pushing the otherwise mechanically simple SR/S up to a meaty 230kg curb weight.

The efficiency of that electric motor is a good thing then, because I doubt that even my V-Strom 650 would get very far on just two litres of fuel. But while Zero claim 150 miles’ range in the city, after just 13 miles of mixed riding I had already drained 23% of my battery’s charge. Ride normally and a fully-charged battery wouldn’t get you much more than 60 miles. Ride hard and you wouldn’t last an hour before stopping dead at the side of the road. Trundling in a more relaxed manner between public charging points might make a new type of touring possible, but one mistake and you’d be calling for someone to collect you in a van.

No clutch lever, obviously – just direct, instantaneous drive.

Commuting might make more sense. Regenerative braking, where ‘engine braking’ is actually the electric motor converting your unwanted momentum back into electricity, makes stop-start traffic a far less wasteful endeavour, and the average European commute would be comfortably handled by the Zero’s battery pack. My own ~70 mile round-trip to work and back might be a challenge, except that my employer has installed free electric charge points all around the parking lot. I’m the perfect target customer for a good electric motorcycle.

But while the Zero SR/S nails the electric part, it falls somewhat short on being a good motorcycle. I was actually surprised when I checked the specs later and found that the bike weighs ‘only’ 230kg, because on the go it feels like it weighs a lot more. In a straight line, even on bumpy roads the suspension does its best to hide the bulk, but arrive at a corner and suddenly you realise that there is almost no feel from the front forks. I can only surmise that the suspension and chassis are simply underdeveloped, the result of a tech company building a drivetrain first and a motorcycle second. The bike understeers when first tipped in, then dares you to lean it further to complete the turn, all while the front end is communicating nothing about how much grip is actually available. The contrast to Kawasaki’s identically-weighing Ninja 1000SX could not be starker.

Approaching a corner is almost as bad as riding around it. The brakes are fine, but again, the front forks let them down. You don’t have the confidence to squeeze hard, and for some reason the sportier the riding mode, the less of a braking effect the motors are programmed to give you. The result is that you freewheel into every corner as though in sixth gear, yet don’t have the front-end feedback you’d need to trail-brake to compensate. And before anyone suggests dragging the rear brake as a solution, it’s so ineffective that it’s barely adequate for slow-speed manoeuvres, never mind high-speed corner entry!

That battery sits low in the chassis, but doesn’t actually hold that much energy.

J.Juan front brakes are fine, but Showa-sourced forks deliver little feedback.

Unpack your sandwiches and a good book, and plug in the charger.

Direct-action shock absorbs bumps well, with plenty of adjustability.

Perhaps these handling issues are merely a symptom of my age-old problem – I simply don’t weigh as much as the suspension’s designers anticipated. Zero is an American manufacturer, so their average rider specification may well skew heavier than the European or Japanese brands. I am usually able to determine whether a suspension is otherwise good or bad just by riding it, and can make an educated guess as to how the bike would perform once adjusted for my lighter stature. But in the case of the SR/S, I simply can’t tell. Maybe the Zero would positively scythe down British B-roads after £1,000’s worth of suspension work, but that’s a heck of a gamble on an already £20,000+ motorcycle.

Switching the bike into ‘Street’ or even ‘Eco’ mode cranks up the regenerative engine braking in stages, and ‘Eco’ provides much more natural control going into bends as a result. But with the throttle set this way getting back on the power is so slow and woolly that you lose all precision, making corner exits a sloppy mess. My dealer tells me that it’s possible to configure a ‘Custom’ mode that would combine the crisp throttle-response of ‘Sport’ with the maximum engine braking I craved, so maybe that would provide a solution for more enthusiastic riding.

But switching back into a gentler mode for cruising is not easy. The clunky mode-switch requires multiple press-and-hold operations, and you’ll need to spend a frankly dangerous amount of time looking at the dashboard to confirm that your inputs have been registered before moving on to the next stage in the process. Imagine trying to program the timer on a digital watch while also riding a motorcycle and you’re just about there. The heated grips are a similar story – adjusting the heat requires delving into a menu and holding various mode switches down for a few seconds. Would an extra button or two really have been so hard?

And the thing is, when riding progressively an experienced motorcyclist will adjust their engine braking constantly by selecting the appropriate gear for the speed and difficulty of each corner. Binding the regenerative engine braking to throttle modes makes this impossible, and makes you wonder why there isn’t a foot-operated lever of sorts that would allow you to adjust the level of the effect in real-time? Electric cars do this exact thing with paddles behind the steering wheel, and the concept works perfectly.

The overall impression the bike gives is of a product entirely built around its core technology, with details at the periphery left as something of an afterthought. The much-lauded hard luggage requires one of the ugliest pieces of bolt-on scaffolding I’ve ever seen, and the optional top-box mount is barely integrated at all. The bike is meant to epitomise the latest in high-tech transportation, yet features what I believe are 2006 Triumph Daytona 675 filament-bulb indicators. The switchgear is rather cheap and nasty, and the plastic hatches on the faux-tank and charging ports are very flimsy indeed. When so much of the bike oozes class, these other pieces stand out a mile and would really spoil the ownership experience.

No gear lever, of course, but you do get belt-drive and a centre stand.

The seat seems fine for short trips; you’ll never get a chance to try it on long ones.

The seat and general riding position is relatively comfortable and nicely detailed, the paint and lines of the bodywork clean and uncluttered in pleasant comparison to many modern motorcycles. The wing mirrors are incredible – mounted low, like old BMW tourers, they provide a clear rear view completely devoid of shoulder or elbow. I’m a fan of the clean and easy-to-read dash, even if the user interface for configuring it is a nightmare. For my height the windshield works really well, keeping pressure off my chest but directing clean airflow at my helmet. With the handling issues resolved, it would be a lovely motorcycle to spend time on.

Low mounted mirrors are excellent, something other manufacturers should take note of.

Really well-judged screen is effective, with no adjustment necessary or possible.

Of course, that brings us back to the range, because you’d be spending just as much time drinking coffee while it charged as you would riding it. And that’s not really Zero’s fault, who have been relentless in their push to bring practical electric motorcycling to the mass market. Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire can reportedly get a little further on a full charge and has the added benefit of DC fast-charging support, rare as such chargers are in the UK. Given Harley-Davidson’s more extensive experience of actually building motorcycles, perhaps the overall result is a little more cohesive – although you’ll certainly pay for it. A brand-new LiveWire makes Harley’s petrol bikes seem cheap at an eye-watering £30,000 a piece.

Consider the specifications and performance of both these examples and you’d reasonably expect petrol-powered equivalents to cost around half what Zero and Harley-Davidson are asking for their premium electric motorcycles. And while electric cars seem to be around £5,000-10,000 more than their internal-combustion cousins on a spec-for-spec basis, it’s a fact that those massive battery packs add a tremendous cost to the parts list. The SR/S and LiveWire have batteries that are much, much smaller, so where is all that extra money going?

I fear that the answers lie in sales volume and development costs. Even if electric vehicle battery cells can be purchased wholesale from any number of suppliers these days, developing a good motor and the supporting electronics costs money. Then there’s the engineering required to slot it all into a modern chassis, whose design has been steered by the physical dimensions and necessities of internal combustion engines for more than 100 years. Styling, marketing, user interface design – all the things that don’t directly contribute towards the individual cost of a product must still be paid for in the end, and when that cost is spread over a relatively small number of customers, each sale must cover a larger chunk. Later, when all that prior expense has been paid off, and if the products continue to sell, then prices can come down. That’s why a new Suzuki SV650 today is significantly cheaper than its inflation-adjusted 1999 ancestor. Cars, even electric ones, can amortise those costs over hundreds of times as many actual sales, rapidly closing the gap on their petrol-powered versions.

The people who jump in at those early price points, who are willing to pay an outsized chunk of the manufacturer’s research & development costs are called early adopters, and it is they who Zero and Harley-Davidson and all the other nascent electric motorcycle manufacturers are aiming for. They need that money to pay for the work that’s already been done, so that future models can be offered to the rest of us at more palatable price tags. And perhaps some of that money will go towards refining the experience, sanding down the rough edges and ensuring that those future products aren’t just notable for their powertrain, but instead notable for being really great motorcycles.

First published in Slipstream December 2020

TFT dash is easy to read, but the user interface is an ergonomic disaster.

That battery doesn’t cost £10,000, so why is the SR/S £10k more than a Ninja 1000SX?

And if it sounds like I’m disappointed, it’s because I am. I really wanted to come back from my time with the SR/S gushing that it was worth the sky-high price, that electric bikes had finally reached the point when they were good enough to not only compete with conventionally-powered motorcycles, but to replace them as well. If you’re a technology enthusiast with money to burn and can overlook the many rough edges then there’s plenty to recommend here. But for everyone else, I have to recommend sticking with petrol for a couple of years longer.Nick Tasker
Rear brake is terrible, barely enough for low-speed manoeuvres.

Why I Bought a KTM 790 Duke

I’d had my Suzuki SV650N for 8 years and it was time for a change. I now own a KTM Duke 790 which is fantastic – though not the usual choice for a step up from an SV. What led me to the KTM?

I had been pondering a new bike for a while, as I had outgrown my elderly SV and needed more power. The decider for me was a 250 mile TVAM ride in August in the wind and rain on my underpowered SV650…. time for a new bike.

I wanted a bike with a bit of spirit that I wouldn’t outgrow quickly, yet calm and stable, light [not more than 170kg], upright and flickable but would double up as a tourer with a bit of kit on it. I also wanted riding modes, abs, traction control and an up and down quick-shifter, and it had to be narrow and light enough to squeeze through the alleyway to my back garden.

Initially I looked at the F900XR, Shiver 900, Tracer 900GT, Tiger 900GT pro, MT07 and the Street Triple. Although these are great bikes, none of them actually fitted me or my requirements, and I had to be quite disciplined in turning away from them. This was hard.

So what did I need? Well, what mattered most of all [after the squeeze] was that I needed an upright seating position – less stress on the joints. Looking up Cycle-ergo.com and using my SV as a comparison, I was able to see what it would be like sitting on different bikes. I know this sounds rather mechanical but it was actually very helpful, further proven from visiting dealerships to sit on bikes. It was fun going in with my list of what I NEEDED not what have you got, and helped me see through the marketing blurb.

Cycle-ergo.com indicated the KTM naked sports bike Duke range. Power-wise for me, this meant either the 690 or 790.  Anything bigger was wider and therefore irrelevant – I know you can get narrow bars for any bike but this was a mod too far for me. I wanted to keep it simple.

So it was down to the KTM Duke 690 or 790. A spin on Chris Brownlee’s 690R single was delightful – I came back saying, it’s really light I must have said it about 3 times, I was astonished at how quick and nippy it was yet stable and solid. However I wanted more technical gadgets and a twin, so this led me to the 790 and Alan Bradford who gave me loads of helpful tips on his, thank you.

I had first seen the KTM Duke 790 aka ‘The Scalpel’ in a ‘Ride’ magazine a couple of years back in 2018. The mere name of it put me right off. Who rides a bike called a scalpel? But two years on I saw it in a different light, looking closely at its features and found that it ticked all my boxes. I was ready to book in a test ride.

I loved it from the start. It was amazing. Light, powerful, flexible and equally at home filtering through town or out on the twisties. A little windy at high speeds and the original seat was like a plank but this was sorted with a touring screen and their comfort ergo seat. A parallel twin and 105bhp but only 169kg – perfect. Great price at £7,500 new for the 2020 version which I recommend, as they have re-designed and fixed some issues prevalent in the earlier version.

A second test ride confirmed my selection and I was ready to buy.

Early days were spent on local roads, learning all the technology – I had never had anything like this before, not even ABS on the SV. The emissions requirements make it a bit twitchy at low speed but I adapted and it doesn’t bother me now – choosing a lower riding mode helps. It is also a bit vibey at higher speeds but not excessive. Everything else is fabulous!

The first 600 miles were running it in so I was careful not to over-rev it. It felt like learning to ride all over again which was a surprise [only my second middle-weight bike]. A little ‘red mist’ was quickly eradicated by my advanced rider training.

At 1,000 miles, what do I like about it so far? It has had its first service, oil change and the full rev range has been unleashed. This bike just keeps giving and giving, right through the rev range. It accelerates really quickly, is light and fun through the twisties yet stable and not intimidating. I don’t feel overpowered by it and love the different riding modes, abs and lean-sensitive traction control. I’m loving the quick-shifter and auto-blipper. Narrow for filtering and lovely sounding – bangs and pops through the exhaust. The suspension, though not adjustable on the forks, feels well set up, and the preload is adjustable. I have it on the comfort setting and it is great. This bike gives me the potential to grow with it. I currently ride in the ‘street’ mode but am looking forward to exploring the sport and track modes. Would I recommend it? Absolutely! Check it out, what have you got to lose?

Catherine Russell

First published in Slipstream November 2020

Moto Guzzi V85TT Review

An absolute winner on paper; can the reality live up to my expectations?

Now here is a bike I’ve been waiting a very long time to ride. I never found time last year, and with the pandemic shuttering the country for months on end it’s taking some time to work through my shortlist of sensible do-it-all motorcycles. Can Moto-Guzzi’s retro-inspired entry into the increasingly-crowded market win me over?

On paper, things look pretty good. Technical specifications list a modest 80bhp from the modified 850cc version of Moto-Guzzi’s venerable ‘small-block’ twin pushing an acceptable 229kg wet weight. Part of this mass is accounted for by the class-leading 23 litre fuel capacity, a welcome sight in a world where BMW’s F900XR carries just 15 litres. ABS and traction-control are to be expected, full LED lighting is on-trend, but cruise control is still a welcome surprise. Four-piston Brembo front brakes bode well, and an air-cooled shaft-driven drivetrain is a fantastic recipe for a low-maintenance motorcycle.

Build quality is first class, even if aesthetics are highly subjective. I can appreciate the retro styling, but some colour schemes are definitely more appealing than others. There are fine details galore, including the Moto-Guzzi wings emblem designed right into the twin headlight housing as an LED running light. Paint is glossy and thick-looking but the number of exposed alloy surfaces suggest a salty winter might not be a good idea. Still, this is clearly a clean-sheet design – there are model-specific castings everywhere, and even the V9-derived engine is essentially all-new for this application.

Colour dash is modern, but very much a first effort with clunky menus and tiny text.

850cc 90-degree longitudinal twin has lost none of its character.

The rather small full-colour dashboard comes to life with a flashy animation, confirming that Moto-Guzzi are trying hard to be taken seriously in an increasingly high-tech market. But the noise and physical response that result from pressing (and holding) the starter button tell a very different story. The starter motor clunks, seethes, and whines, and the two cylinders cough and splutter into life after a second and settle into a loping, uneven idle. This is nothing like the refined experience recent BMW boxer twins have become; it’s far more akin to coaxing a Harley-Davidson to life.

That engine – and the sensations and motions it generates in the chassis even before you’ve selected first gear – set the tone for the entire riding experience of the V85TT. My words on that score should not necessarily be taken as criticism – I happen to love this sort of mechanical theatre. It gives each ride a sense of drama and occasion, but others may find the crudeness at odds with their expectations and quickly resent it.

Holding the bike upright in preparation for takeoff, the whole machine throbs beneath you, and blipping the throttle causes the chassis to twist to the right in reaction to the spinning crankshaft. Dropping into first is a little clunky, but once warmed up the gearbox is as slick as any I’ve used, to the point where clutchless shifting becomes easy and fun. Not that using the clutch is hard work – it’s feather-light, a modern affectation that hints at the modern engineering lurking beneath the old-school aesthetic. The ride-by-wire throttle is equally light, enabling the one-button cruise control and variable riding modes that, while having zero discernible effect, are de riguer for any new motorcycle in 2020.

Once on the move, the mixed bag of new and old starts to become more problematic. The brakes work as well as you would expect from premium parts, and the suspension is on the good side of firm, but never quite settles. Turn-in is a little slow, possibly due to the extra weight of those spoked and tubed wheels. Still, the wide handlebars make it easy enough to lever the V85TT into corners, where it will happily hold or adjust a line without complaint. Trundling around town, the throttle seems a little imprecise, and there’s a definite feeling of stumbling from the engine, especially down low. I suspect that tuning an air-cooled engine to pass 2020 emissions regulations required some difficult compromises, and the ride-by-wire throttle is clearly being used to filter throttle inputs in compensation for the dips and bumps in the torque curve.

I like to think I’m a technical guy, but I couldn’t get the V85’s cruise control to work at all.

Beautiful to look at. Worst seat ever.

Outside of 30 mph speed limits some issues become magnified. The bike I rode was still being run in, with the engine speed limited by the computer to just 7,000RPM. Anything above 5,000 generated an increasingly distressing array of Christmas lights on the dashboard as the on-board computer implored me to take things easy with the new engine. As such, short-shifting was the order of the day, and while the 850cc 90-degree twin is willing enough low down, there isn’t enough power there for progressive overtakes, and not enough of a rev ceiling to go in search of all of the power plant’s claimed 80 horses. Once the unusually-long 1,000-mile running-in period was over and the full range of the engine could be used, things might be easier, but I can’t imagine the engine vibrating any less at higher revs. While this is one area where I was unable to make a fair assessment, I’m confident in saying that this is an engine that will always be happier on a relaxed trundle than a spirited ride.

And honestly, that could be said for the entire motorcycle. The firm yet unsettled suspension detracts from the enjoyment of the ride, giving a worryingly numb or detached feeling. Combined with the rather imprecise throttle, the V85TT comes across as somewhat bewildered at or above the national speed limit – more of an ivory-handled butter knife than a carbon-steel scalpel. But then you have to ask yourself – what would you rather have in your hand when buttering a scone during an unhurried afternoon tea?

The fact is, the Moto-Guzzi V85TT might be very good at a certain type of motorcycling, and might be the perfect choice for a certain type of motorcyclist. That person would still need to do something about the horrendous windshield, which generated buffeting so bad it almost gave me a headache after an hour. Standing full upright on the pegs only just put my helmet out into clear air, while ducking right down improved matters significantly.

Next, a new owner will need to do something about the worst seat I’ve ever encountered on a motorcycle. I can see what Moto-Guzzi were trying to do – it’s narrow near the front to facilitate a shorter reach to the ground, and wider further back for comfortable seating. But pushing yourself back that far creates an uncomfortable reach to the bars and prevents you from bracing your knees against the tank. I understand that shorter riders need to be accommodated, but those riders would also have even shorter arms, making this configuration a lose-lose for all parties. Moto-Guzzi offer an optional comfort seat, but I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about gambling on that solution with my own money.

Every bike should have a shaft drive, in my opinon.

Mode switch seems to be entirely for show – the bike doesn’t feel any different regardless.

Exhaust looks bland and is mostly drowned out by the wind noise.

There are a few other small niggles. The indicator switch has no click when you press it, and very little travel, meaning that you’ll need to look down at the instrument panel to check if you’ve actually cancelled your signal. I couldn’t figure out how to activate the cruise control system, and it took two of us to deduce how to change engine modes, which, as I’ve mentioned above, seem to have zero actual effect. If you move your boots too far back or in and touch the frame you’ll discover the unpleasant buzzing vibrations that the rubber-faced pegs are hiding, so you have to be careful where you place your feet. And the tubed tyres mean that any punctures will require either tyre levers or a breakdown truck, rather than a 5-minute plug at the side of the road.

It’s a damn shame, as I’ve recently confirmed that the maintenance costs on Moto-Guzzis are hilariously low, thanks to those exposed cylinders and lack of coolant. Not only can mechanics get to the valves easily, adjusting them is the work of a moment due to their old-fashioned pushrod design. No chain to oil or adjust removes a tedious job at the end of a long day’s touring, and the oversized fuel capacity and impressive 55mpg should make for an excellent touring bike – and for some people I’m sure it will.

For my purposes, I need something a little sharper on a twisty road with fewer potential compromises to put down the £11,000 Moto-Guzzi want me to hand over in exchange for my own V85TT. It’s possible that I could fix the handling and comfort with suspension mods and a new seat, resolve the buffeting with an aftermarket screen and get used to the frustrating switchgear. Maybe I could convert the wheels to tubeless tyres, or replace them entirely with an aftermarket alternative. That done, I could perhaps enjoy the character and practical benefits of an air-cooled, shaft-driven Moto-Guzzi. But that’s a lot of ifs and maybes, a lot of financial risk I’d have to be comfortable with, and I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.

If you like what the V85TT has to offer but don’t actually do any long-distance touring, then the reality is that you can pick up a V7-III Stone for almost £5,000 less and enjoy that same low-tech, low-effort, low-precision experience while trundling around your local roads. But if you are planning to do a lot of long-distance travel or need something you can rely on as your do-it-all daily bike, I’m afraid I have to recommend looking elsewhere.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream October 2020

Kawasaki Ninja Z1000SX Review

Can Kawasaki’s updated Sports-Touring stalwart win over a V-Strom fanboy?

Kawasaki’s Z1000SX has been a best-seller for the brand ever since it launched in 2011. It almost single-handedly breathed life into the dying sports-tourer genre of motorcycling, offering ageing sports bike enthusiasts an alternative to the unstoppable adventurer-tourer juggernaut. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, and has been revised every couple of years since with nips and tucks to keep customers happy. Now the evergreen bike has been re-branded the Ninja 1000SX, and has received a plethora of upgrades to match. Is it enough to tempt my fancy?

A first-generation Kawasaki Z1000SX actually made it onto the same shortlist as the freshly-updated Triumph Street Triple R, the bike I eventually purchased in 2013. Back then my criticisms were that it was expensive and heavy, and I was keen to try something light and flickable after my 250kg Suzuki Bandit 650S. But all the reasons I considered it then are still true today, and at £12,000 on the road for the Tourer model it’s downright reasonable compared to some of its increasingly expensive competition.

A shame then that it’s still a 235kg proposition, a mass figure that’s quite apparent when wheeling the bike around for photographs – and that doesn’t include the 56 litres of included waterproof plastic panniers that clip neatly onto the integrated luggage racks. You could save yourself £1,000 and choose the standard bike, but alongside those boxes you’d also lose the taller touring screen, tank pad and heated grips. The version I was given to ride for this review lacked all of those extras, but they’re certainly features I’d want on my long-distance touring motorcycle.

What has changed in the last decade is that motorcycle user interfaces have become significantly more sophisticated. Tucked away in the Ninja’s fairing is a neat little full-colour computer screen, providing more information than most people would ever want about their ride. The basics are all there – speed, tachometer, gear position – alongside some more modern content such as average and instant fuel consumption. Toggle through the display and you can also find some truly nerdy delights such as battery voltage and highest-recorded lean angle. You can even set the display to show you your current lean angle in real-time, a feature that is almost guaranteed to result in a spectacular crash!

While the right-hand switch cluster holds nothing more than an integrated starter/kill-switch, the left cluster has been hoarding the remaining buttons. Not only can you control every aspect of the dashboard from here, you can also activate this bike’s new killer feature – electronic cruise control. Z1000SX owners have been clamouring for this feature for years, and the best compliment I can give is that it works exactly as intended. What’s also new is the two-way quick-shifter, allowing you to change up and down through the gearbox without touching the clutch. Usually, I find these systems tend to disappoint, working only at high revs and at wide-open-throttle, but Kawasaki have clearly spent a significant amount of time calibrating their implementation. Any gear, any engine or road speed, any throttle opening – it just works seamlessly.

Passenger grab rails incorporate the mounting lugs for the 28-litre hard panniers.

Not as big and beautiful as BMW’s, but Kawasaki’s TFT dashboard is well designed.

So many buttons on the left cluster, and yet only a single switch on the right.

Quick-shifter works flawlessly up and down the gears; it’s genuinely useful.

Not that using the clutch is a hardship – it’s ridiculous how light modern slipper clutches are, and the Ninja is no different. Kawasaki apparently removed three of the six clutch springs and still somehow generate enough clamping force to keep all 140 horsepower directed at the rear wheel. The new electronic throttle is equally light. With no direct connection to the throttle plates, only a light return spring is working against your wrist, and the combination of the two controls makes tickling out into traffic as easy as on an automatic scooter.

Fuelling is ever-so-slightly fluffy at low revs when cold, but the engine quickly shakes off any cobwebs and provides entirely linear drive as you trundle through town. There’s no drama, it’s all very civilised, with no trace of the low-rev jerkiness I’ve come to associate with big-power motorcycles. What’s more, you can choose pretty much any gear you wish for this job – even sixth works just fine, the 1,043cc in-line four responding without hesitation or complaint to any request at any speed. Kawasaki could have left the engine modes on the drawing board and just reminded their customers that the gearbox will do the same job of modulating rear-wheel torque just fine.

Once opportunities to make progress appear, you might expect me to report that a twist of the wrist transforms the docile steed into a snarling, raging monster – but that simply never happens. I did find that you can provoke a slight head-shake through judicious throttle application in first gear, but the sophisticated traction control systems quickly bring things under control. Perhaps disabling some of these safety features would add a little terror to your day, but the only thing that makes the default bike scary is when you look down at the speedo and realise that you’re going a lot faster than you thought you were.

The brakes are excellent; the suspension sublime.

Rear shock preload can be adjusted easily to cope with luggage or passengers.

It’s deceptive. Whereas other bikes let you know you’re going fast through noise or vibration, the Ninja simply hums along quietly as you smoothly build speed. It’s almost as though Kawasaki have found a way to dampen inertia itself – you twist the throttle, and the tiniest moment later you are simply going faster. A lot faster. It’s just as well that the Kawasaki-branded mono-block four-piston brakes are so good, because you’ll want to know you can safely and quickly scrub off any excess speed before the next corner arrives. Overall, it’s honestly hard to judge your speed because it’s just all so eerily smooth…which is also when you first notice just how astonishingly good the suspension is.

You see, the way I can usually tell that I’m going too fast on most motorcycles is when I’m holding on to the handlebars for dear life while being bounced out of the seat. When I upgraded the suspension on my V-Strom I initially thought I’d wasted my money because nothing seemed to have changed…until I checked my speedometer. Good suspension does that – it lets the useful information from the road surface through while filtering out all of the noise and sharp edges that unsettle both rider and chassis. You should know that there was a nasty bump there without actually getting…well, bumped, and can instead focus on maintaining smooth, fast lines.

Well, the Ninja does that out of the box. I’ve never encountered a stock suspension setup this good before – it’s almost like it’s already been reworked for my 11 stone weight. Gripping the tank with my knees I could feel exactly what the front wheel was doing, could intuitively tell how much grip was available to work with, and as a result had more than enough confidence to scythe along atrociously-surfaced Northamptonshire roads within minutes of setting off. I was able to safely exploit the entire width of the carriageway, positioning myself and the bike for maximum advantage without worrying that I was going to be launched off my line by a mid-corner bump. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the council had magically resurfaced my test route just minutes beforehand. Amazing.

The trade-off for slightly softer, more compliant suspension is that you lose some handling precision. It’s the same on my V-Strom – at very high speeds you start to notice just a touch of vagueness, and the chassis seems to take a little longer to settle itself after big inputs – from yourself, or from the road. While the Ninja 1000SX enables a fast, smooth riding style, it also requires it. There’s no defying physics here – a 235kg motorcycle cannot be forced to react like a 190kg Supersport, and you won’t be flicking the big Ninja from side to side like a ZX-6R. It’s not exactly ponderous, nor are brakes or acceleration noticeably blunted by the extra mass as on some bikes I’ve ridden. I suspect that you’d want to tighten up the damping somewhat before your next trackday, but here in the real world, on real roads, it’s a compromise I welcome with open arms.

Wide, plush, comfortable – one of the best seats in motorcycling.

Tilt-adjustable windshield delivers good results in any position. Touring version is taller.

Supporting both the suspension and indeed my bony backside is one of the most comfortable motorcycle seats I’ve ever spent time on. In an era of narrow, scalloped designs prioritising low height over long-haul comfort, the Ninja’s seat is defiantly wide and plush. Another tricky area, wind protection, has also been resolved without apparent difficulty by Kawasaki’s engineers. The standard windshield can be manually adjusted for angle, and all positions result in a flow of quiet, clean air to my helmet. When so many stock windshields go in the bin on day one due to horrendous buffeting, Kawasaki should be commended for getting this part right straight from the factory.

What else is there to say? The wing mirrors are excellent, and even fold in neatly on a spring-loaded mechanism, allowing you to pop them back into position in seconds should you need to squeeze through a tight spot. Every light on the bike is LED, and the front indicators are even neatly faired-in for improved aerodynamics. You get a hydraulic preload adjuster on the rear shock for when you’re carrying a pillion or have over-filled those panniers, and both front and rear suspension is fully adjustable. Yes, you have to fetch your screwdrivers and do it yourself, but given how good the out-of-the-box setup is, that’s honestly not a problem.

Problems, in fact, are few, but they are there. The Ninja 1000SX is a sports tourer, and yet it’s unique amongst its competitors in not supporting the simultaneous fitment of both a top box and panniers. What’s more, Kawasaki say that this is on purpose, and that having all three boxes mounted at the same time would make the bike unstable at high speeds. Yamaha used to say the same thing about their FJR1300, but even they seem to have that figured out by now.

There’s also no way to mount a centre stand, as Kawasaki have filled that space with an ugly under-body exhaust silencer. Maintaining the drive chain would require a paddock stand at home, and an automatic chain oiler may be worth considering for solo tourists. Further still, because the Ninja 1000SX is technically a new product in the eyes of the insurance industry, the quotes I received were 50% more than an identical Z1000SX from the same insurers. Once the algorithms figure out that we’re no more likely to crash this new bike than the old one, prices should theoretically level out.

If I wanted to nit-pick I’d question Kawasaki’s mounting of the rear brake caliper underneath the swingarm where it will surely seize solid in winter salt. But they’ve been mounting it there since the 80’s, so maybe they know something I don’t. It does mean that paddock-stand lugs are set quite far forward, which might cause clearance issues for some stands. And I’m always going to wish they’d found a way to take 20kg out of the wet weight without compromising load capacity, but I guess that’s a trade-off I’ll have to accept. The dashboard screen is a little small perhaps, and I do worry that it will look out-of-date long before the rest of the bike does. And when everyone else is spoiling us with gold-anodized Nissins or big-block Brembos, the black Kawasaki-branded brakes look a little down-market. But honestly, these really are minor complaints.

No, the only big issues with this bike lie with its motor, and it’ll be up to each individual to decide if it’s a big enough fly to spoil the ointment. First up, my perennial bug-bears of fuel economy and it’s sibling fuel range. 19 litres of petrol seems like a reasonable amount until you look at www.fuelly.com and realise that 45 mpg (UK) appears to be average for this engine. That means around 180 miles to empty, with the low-fuel warning light coming on at just 150 miles or less. What’s softened my stance on this issue recently is the results of my research into long-term running costs, and determining that an extra 10 mpg really wouldn’t save you that much money, even over 100,000 miles. Maybe fuel prices will suddenly spike to £5 per litre and we’ll all switch to Honda PCXs, but otherwise it’s unlikely that many others will notice or care.

Paddock stand mounting lugs are forward, rotating chain adjuster is unique.

The second issue with the motor is down to the complexity and how it’s installed in the motorcycle. Kawasaki quote £400-£600 for minor/major services, and an additional £400 to check the valve clearances – more still if they need adjusting. That big engine is buried under bodywork, hoses, and wiring, and takes a long time to dig out. Combined with the poor fuel economy the Ninja 1000SX becomes one of the most expensive motorcycles to own long-term. It could be worse – valve checks only need performing every 26,000 miles, and if you’re comfortable handling oil and filter changes yourself you could save a lot of money while still leaving the really tricky tasks to the professionals. Still, that’s modern motorcycles for you – high performance, features, and reliability make for complex machinery. One more reason to look forward to electric motorcycles, perhaps?

The final issue with the motor is that it’s a little too good at its job. In-line fours have always prioritised high power-per-displacement ratios – it’s the boring choice, but it delivers results. Interesting inline-fours have existed in both cars and motorcycles in the past, but noise regulations have smothered raucous induction tones and made high-revving screamers impossible. The fact is that noise and vibration are waste products, energy not being used to drive you forward.

And while I still very much enjoy the aural sensations of an internal combustion engine, the tides are turning against us, with whole stretches of road in Germany and Austria now off-limits to all but the quietest bikes. The 1,043cc engine in the Ninja 1000SX has been around since 2003 in various forms, but it’s now so quiet and refined that I can’t imagine an all-electric drivetrain being that much different to experience. There’s a little more mechanical noise at very high revs, but it’s not really something you’d go chasing for aural pleasure.

Maybe you’d get used to it. Maybe you’d modify the airbox, swap out the exhaust, and liberate a little of that early-2000’s Superbike sound. Or maybe smooth, quiet efficiency is exactly what you’re after. Maybe you don’t want a torque curve littered with spikes that send the front wheel skyward when the engine comes on-cam. Maybe you just want to cross continents in speed and comfort, and then embarrass noisier, flashier riders as you overtake them on the outside of a corner while waving nonchalantly at them. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then the Ninja 1000SX might be just the bike you’ve been looking for.

I rode home after returning the Ninja on my de-baffled V-Strom, air-box and exhaust roaring a rousing symphony every time I slammed the throttle wide open for another overtake. It’s something I’d certainly miss were I to swap a mid-capacity 90-degree twin for a turbine-smooth inline-four. But the rest of the package is just so damn good that I may well forgive it this one flaw and learn to enjoy a different type of motorcycling for a while.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream October 2020

Yamaha Tracer 900 GT Review

There are a lot of motorcycles that, on paper, look perfect. Ride enough bikes and apply a little critical thinking and you can start to spot the things you like and the things you don’t in each offering. Eventually, you build up a list of the best aspects of each, mentally combining them into one bike that, if it existed, would have no peer. For me, that bike could well be the Yamaha Tracer 900 GT.

Years ago Triumph emailed existing Street Triple owners like myself a survey in an effort to discover what features and technologies we would prefer they focus on for future versions of our bikes. Many of the items they proposed in that survey made it into the current 765cc Street Triples, but one major variant never materialised. I’d always believed that my Street Triple would be perfect with a small half-fairing and hard luggage. Triumph teased that very idea in the survey, but it would appear that more power and gadgets were more interesting to other respondents.

MT-09-derived 850cc triple provides smooth, balanced power across the whole rev range.

Now that platform sharing has become the new normal, bikes like the Tracer series are inevitable. Developing, and crucially homologating a road engine is an expensive business, so manufacturers have joyfully embraced the opportunity to cheaply fill out their product lineup by reusing the same architectures. Take BMW as an example; there are Naked, Sport-Touring, and Adventure motorcycles based on their 1250cc boxer engine and associated running gear. The same is true for their 1000cc inline-four, which can be had in Supersport, Naked, or Adventure- format.

Yamaha’s naked MT-07 and MT-09 motorcycles donated much of their engineering to their Tracer variants, and the 700cc engine has even arrived in Teneré format. But while the Tracer 700 has previously proven itself a worthy adversary for the Suzuki V-Strom 650, the Tracer 900’s 847cc three-cylinder engine means that the bigger bike has the potential to represent that most elusive of concepts: a perfect combination of sporting performance, touring capability, and every-day riding practicality.

Low-slung exhaust hides a modern bulky silencer better than many designs.

First impressions of the GT-variant Tracer 900 are good. Four-piston radial brakes on adjustable upside-down forks? Check. Smart half-fairing with adjustable windshield and standard-fit handguards? Check. Integrated scaffolding-free lockable panniers with optional top box? Check. Cruise control, TFT instruments, LED headlights, reasonably large fuel tank and surprisingly frugal engine? Check. While 200 miles per tank is nothing to write home about in my book, it’s still welcome in a world where manufacturers are increasingly using theoretical incremental gains in fuel economy to justify smaller and smaller fuel tanks. Heck, you even get a centre-stand, something many other bikes don’t even support, never mind fit as standard.

There are, of course, also a few disappointments right off the bat. While the design is, in my eyes, a significant improvement over the ugly original, there are still a lot of untidily routed and exposed cables and hoses. Unlike the V-Strom 1050, the mudguard is too short to do any useful work. And despite this being a top-of-the-range flagship model in 2020, Yamaha still ask you to pay extra for indicators that don’t rely on super-heated wire filaments for illumination.

Some of the plastics seem a little flimsy, some of the decals look a bit cheap, and after experiencing BMW’s beautifully animated and easy-to-use TFT dashboard, Yamaha’s version looks functional at best. Brake hoses are cheap-looking rubber as opposed to braided steel, and the clutch lever is non-adjustable – something I’d expect to find on a 125cc learner bike, not a premium Sports-Tourer. Features aside, the Tracer can’t quite shake its budget-bike roots. This is a problem when the GT model now costs more than £11,000.

Pulling out into traffic, the riding dynamics of the Tracer don’t immediately impress either. When cold, throtte response is decidedly fluffy at lower rev ranges, and experimenting with the three throttle modes only seems to make things worse. Fixed in the lower of its two adjustable positions the seat seems to tip you forward into the tank, and even at its closest position, the brake lever is a bit of a stretch for small hands. The suspension seems fussy, never quite settling itself, as though the forks and swingarm are rubber-mounted to the frame. In reality, it’s likely that double-rate springs have been used in the forks, a common tactic in cheaper mass-produced units.

Handguards look small, but seem to be effective at deflecting wind and rain.

Once out of town and with the engine up to temperature, matters begin to improve. As familiarity with the light and sensitive throttle grows, so does the confidence to exploit more of the vast swathes of usable torque the three-cylinder configuration offers. Seemingly happy at any speed in any gear, choosing a different ratio merely changes how responsive the engine is to your throttle inputs. It sounds fantastic too, a rare feat on a standard exhaust system these days.

TFT dashboard is functional, but is beginning to look long in the tooth.

Front brakes work well, with plenty of power if not necessarily the instant bite I personally prefer, but further into the stroke the forks harden considerably causing the front wheel to chatter along the road surface and robbing you of any confidence during high-speed late-braking manoeuvres. Your mileage may vary along with your bodyweight, but once again we are reminded that motorcycle suspension will always be a one-size-doesn’t-fit-anybody affair. But while as a new owner my first stop would likely once again be MCT Suspension for a complete overhaul, once you start to turn the wick up it’s clear that the underlying chassis is excellent and the bike really starts to shine.

The riding position begins to feel much more Supermoto than Adventure-Tourer; you feel like you are sat much closer to the front wheel than on e.g. a V-Strom. I always believed that larger 19” wheels conferred an advantage on bumpy Northamptonshire B-roads, but Yamaha has clearly demonstrated that they can handle rutted surfaces just fine with the smaller, and therefore more accurate 17” wheel. There’s a sense of playfulness that other, similar bikes simply can’t match, helped of course by the class-leading 214kg wet weight. A modern frame and modern engine mean a 30kg mass advantage over many competitors, and the results are immediately apparent in how quickly the bike gains and loses speed.

It’s also a likely factor in how long the Tracer 900 can make its 18 litre petrol tank last. In mixed riding, the trip            computer reported that I’d managed 56mpg (UK), something that Fuelly.com confirms is a realistic and achievable real-world average. Take it easy, and pushing past 60mpg (UK) should be possible, a remarkable feat for a bike that, in the right gear, can build speed with deceptive and frightening ease. More than once I found my grumbling about brakes or suspension tempered when I glanced at the speedometer and found that I had wildly underestimated my rate of progress.

And you know what, I was having fun. It was hot, muggy, occasionally raining hard, and I was threading an unfamiliar bike along unfamiliar roads, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Yes, the stock suspension is far from perfect and would definitely benefit from the significant and expensive attentions of a specialist, but the potential is clearly there for this to be an exceptional multi-purpose motorcycle. And yes, the windshield, even in its highest position, is far too short for me, but ducking down just a little resulted in a bubble of silence with rain streaming off my visor. Clearly, a slightly taller windshield would do the trick, but it’s not something I would be enthusiastic about spending money on given the motorcycle’s stated touring intentions.

Four-pot calipers are fine, but let down somewhat by the front forks under hard braking.

Furthermore, the cruise control refused to engage in 30mph zones, a maddening oversight given the obvious licence-preserving benefit, and the right-side pillion footpeg can catch on your boot if you ride on the balls of your feet.

The minor annoyances continue with unintuitive on-screen menus, and the clickable scroll-wheel on the right-hand control cluster is stiff and awkward to use. Your left boot will catch on the footpeg when trying to lower the sidestand, and the up-only quickshifter is clunky at anything other than high-rev, high-throttle applications. The fuel gauge won’t tell you anything useful until after you have less than half a tank remaining, and activating or adjusting the heated grips can only be done by navigating into a submenu. It’s all a little bit…unrefined. Unfinished. And like Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050XT, at this price point the Tracer 900 GT is picking fights with Triumph Tiger 900s, BMW F900XRs, and Ducati Multistrada 950s – all bikes with more brand cache and decidedly more premium user experience.

Seat is two-position adjustable and both gel and heated alternatives are available.

Of course, buying European carries its own perils, not least of which are the cost and frequency of servicing. With valve clearance checks not due until 24,000 miles, the Tracer 900 costs just 6p per mile to maintain, and Yamaha regularly tops the reliability surveys that the likes of BMW and KTM sink to the bottom of. The Tracer is also noticeably lighter than anything in its class, a side benefit, perhaps, of dispensing with any off-road pretensions.

Windshield is adjustable while riding and well designed, but about 10cm too short.

Quickshifter only works going up the gears and is awfully exposed in this application.

As such, the Tracer 900 GT definitely makes my shortlist, in a way that I’m not sure the heavier, more expensive, and less exciting V-Strom 1050XT does. I’m still going to be sampling more of the competition first and may yet be swayed by the Moto-Guzzi V85’s charismatic air-cooled engine and shaft drive, or Triumph’s genuinely impressive build quality and uniquely-configured three-cylinder engine. As always, I’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons and may still decide that the Tracer 900 GT is the best choice for me, even with all its minor faults. So I can only recommend that you do the same and make up your own mind before handing over your credit card.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream July 2020

40,000 miles on a Triumph Street Triple R

Impractical, too small, no wind protection…a perfect all-round motorcycle?

Has it really been six years? My RoadTrip report reckons so. It was  the 5th of October 2013 when I signed the paperwork and rode away on my brand new Triumph Street Triple R. More than 40,000 miles later the very same motorcycle still sits in my garage, and though the odometer ticks up far more slowly these days, it still puts a smile on my face every time I ride it.

Part of that is down to how light the bike is. Triumph’s engineers shaved several kilos off the Street Triple’s wheels, frame and exhaust system for the 2013 model update, shifting the centre of gravity forwards and creating a bike with the same power to weight ratio as the original Honda Fireblade. 105bhp goes a long way when you only have 180kg to push around, and the lack of weight also helps fuel, tyres and other consumables to last longer when compared with heavier and more powerful motorcycles.

What’s more, this is a bike that seems to be growing in popularity, even as its 765cc successor receives styling tweaks and a price cut for 2020. It’s weird how many people have approached me in recent months to ask me my opinion on the older 675cc Street Triple. Perhaps the fact that the new, 17kg heavier version adds so very little to the experience and costs more than twice what a good-condition used example does has something to do with it. With that in mind, let’s dive into what almost seven years and 40,000 miles can tell prospective buyers about this wonderful little motorcycle.

Continuous hard riding pushes MPG down into the mid-40s, but the average is impressive

Firstly, the engine is a delight to use. It’s torquey off-idle and, with practice, you can pull away with barely a hint of the throttle. And yet, it’s smooth all the way to redline with a screaming, snarling exhaust note that puts an inline-four to shame. You can ride around in the middle of the rev range enjoying instant throttle response or waft along in a higher gear returning seriously impressive fuel economy numbers. And with the world moving to bigger, low-revving twins, the joy of a genuinely usable engine that can still rev to 12,500 RPM is something to be savoured.

Brembos would be a little sharper, but there’s honestly no need, even on a racetrack.

The brakes are great; in the years since taking ownership, I’ve had chances to sample some serious Brembo equipment that beat them on both bite and feel, but only by direct back-to-back comparison. Low weight means less mass to stop, and your forearms will give out long before you extract full power from the twin 4-piston Nissins. Triumph equipped the Street Triple R with high-friction sintered-metal brake pads as standard, and it’s the only bike I’ve ever owned where I haven’t felt the need to deviate from the OEM specification.

The fully-adjustable suspension wasn’t quite as great out of the box. As I’ve mentioned many times in previous articles, it doesn’t matter how high-quality or how clever the components are – a stock suspension setup will always be a compromise. The average rider doesn’t really exist, which means that the spring rates and valving will always be set either for someone lighter or heavier than you are. I seriously considered trading the bike in after just a few months because the bucking over bumps and skittering around corners had my confidence in tatters.

When I met Darren from MCT at the London Motorcycle Show and described my symptoms, he was quick to confirm that I wasn’t the first person to bring one of those Street Triples to his attention. He reckoned that there was a design flaw in the forks and that remedial work was necessary. It was an expensive trip, involving modification of the fork internals, but the results were transformative. Suddenly, I was riding what every journalist had promised me I had bought – one of the best-handling motorcycles in the world.

A further tweak was the reduction of the rear tyre pressure after my TVAM Observer commented that the contact patch on my rear wheel looked far too small. Reducing the pressures from the 42PSI indicated in the owner’s manual to the 36PSI recommended for the almost-identical Daytona 675 resulted in a much less skittish rear-end. There was no drop-off in fuel economy, nor an increase in tyre wear, and my only explanation for Triumph stating different pressures for functionally identical motorcycles is to blame their lawyers. With no separate rider/rider-with-pillion pressures listed as with most Japanese motorcycles, I concluded that the Triumph legal team didn’t trust their owners to make the necessary adjustments, and erred on the side of caution when writing the owner’s manual.

Same frame, same wheels, same engine, same suspension… different tyre pressures?

Shaving off several kilos makes a big difference in such a lightweight machine.

The next upgrade, and one I thought long and hard about, was the exhaust system. Believe it or not, the sound or volume was not the primary factor here, rather that the stock system is huge, ugly, and heavy, taking up a surprising amount of space underneath the bike. The catalytic converter is a separate piece from the silencer, so my exhaust emissions remain unchanged, and I’m still within the noise limits for most UK trackdays.

And that’s more or less it! I wanted to keep the bike lean and simple, and resisted excessive modification. I tried a filler-mounted tank bag for a while, experimented with Lomo drybags and eventually settled on a stack of Kriega luggage for my touring needs. A TwistyRide phone mount coupled to a 3A 5V charger handles GPS duties, and a 12V socket wired into the tail unit provides power for a compressor when encountering punctures. And finally, I swapped out the throttle grip for one from a contemporary Speed Triple, reducing the amount of wrist rotation necessary to fully open the throttle. It makes the bike a little snatchy for those not used to it, but means I can enjoy the whole engine, not just the first two thirds.

Without fitting scaffolding to the back of the bike, tailpacks are the only luggage option.

Somewhat disappointingly the paint on the tank quickly became scuffed where textile trousers rubbed on it and the seat has actually cut all the way through to the primer. The official accessory crash-bungs failed miserably at their one job when I finally tipped the bike over at a standstill last year. The indicator hit the ground first, bending the small mounting frame behind the fairing and finally crushing and popping open one of the cells in the radiator. Luckily the plastic pieces weren’t too expensive to replace, and while a new radiator was more than £400, a local specialist was able to repair and clean the old one for a mere £15. There wasn’t a mark on the crash bungs. Useless.

The crash bungs had one job, which they failed to accomplish the only time they were needed.

Other than that, the only issue to report is a hot-starting issue that’s plagued the bike for more than 30,000 miles. Often, when stopping the engine just long enough to fill up with petrol it coughs, splutters and stalls when trying to start again afterwards. It needs a little bit of coaxing and then settles down after a few seconds, but I’ve never been able to figure it out. I recently met another owner who’d experienced an identical issue and traced it to the idle control stepper motor, so maybe I’ll see if I can pick up a used one and swap it out.

Straight bars are a real asset on a tight track like Mallory Park.

And that’s it! With the help of ACF50 my bike commuted through two British winters before the V-Strom took over that job, and the standard-fit stainless bolts are all still shiny. Triumph charged me a fortune for servicing to maintain the two-year warranty, then refused to help when the hot starting issue materialised, so I gave them the finger and have been doing everything myself ever since. Oil changes are easy, but valve checks are a nightmare and due every 12,000 miles, so you’d best hope yours don’t need adjusting! You’d also better have a Windows laptop and a DealerTool handy, as that’s the only way for home mechanics to balance the throttle bodies and reset the service warning indicator.

What of the new 765cc Street Triples that Triumph launched a couple of years ago – am I tempted to upgrade? In a word, no. The resale value of a 40,000 mile Street Triple would barely cover the deposit on the new bikes, and the extra power and needless riding modes don’t interest me. And if you read the small print, you’ll notice that Triumph has started quoting dry weights for their bikes these days, leading some short-sighted journalists to claim that the new bike is slightly lighter than the old one. More recently a magazine actually weighed one and found that the bigger engine and reinforced frame add around 17kg to the total mass, cancelling out the benefit of the more powerful engine.

And in truth, those changes wouldn’t really add to the experience for me. Traction control is always nice, but the fact is that there’s nothing a Street Triple can dish out that modern sport-touring rubber can’t handle, even at a racetrack. If Triumph had made good on their threats to create a version with a half-fairing and hard-luggage, things might have been different. But as it stands, it wouldn’t be much of an upgrade.

Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg…

In the last six years I’ve commuted, visited friends and family, travelled the length and breadth of the UK, explored its limits on the racetrack and scraped my pegs around alpine hairpins. It’s handled the Hard Nott Pass and the Nürburgring, moved house with me three times, and eaten 5 sets of tyres. It’s drunk more than 3,400 litres of petrol, chewed up two sets of chains and sprockets, ground down four sets of front brake pads and even worn out a set of front disks.

I’m planning more trackdays, more trips abroad once the present situation opens up the tracks and borders for foreign travel, and still go looking for every opportunity to take my Street Triple R out for a spin on our bumpy local roads now we can get out there again. It’s not as comfortable or practical as my other bikes, it’s not great at motorways or in bad weather, and it’s the worst motorcycle I’ve ever owned for carrying luggage. But with motorcycles getting heavier, with electronics filtering our every input and with the days of new petrol-powered bikes numbered, I’ll treasure my Street Triple R for as long as I possibly can.

I’ll update you all when I hit 100,000 miles, or when it explodes – whichever comes first!

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream June 2020

Unusual & Infrequent Maintenance

How many of you have ever actually looked at the section of your bike’s owner’s manual titled “Service schedule”? At best, you’ve maybe glanced at the long list, noted the intervals, and made a note to drop your bike off with your dealer or independent mechanic at the specified mileages. The problem with this hands-off approach is that you risk a lot of important stuff getting missed, and suffering the reliability and financial consequences later on.

Whether it’s listed in your manual or not, the official maintenance schedule for your particular model of motorcycle will be defined by your manufacturer. They will have dictated what needs to be done at what mileage and time intervals in order to ensure reliable operation of the machine, or at least to ensure a minimum of warranty claims. The obvious, common stuff will be things like checking and lubricating pivot points (levers, sidestands, foot pegs), checking that no nuts or bolts have vibrated loose, and changing the engine oil. This stuff is easy to do and doesn’t take long, so it’s relatively cheap and makes the customer feel like they’re looking after their bike. Without this work, you’d notice significant degradation in your end-user experience of the product, followed by serious, and easily observable technical faults, such as your engine exploding.

See, long-term reliability and performance isn’t always a priority for the original manufacturer. If you’re a good little customer, you’ll be swapping your bike for a new one every 24-36 months anyway, so any long-term issues won’t crop up under your ownership. If the second or third owner experiences problems, who cares? Those riders aren’t really their customers, so their experience isn’t as important.

Of course, this short-sighted view is why I’d never want to own a BMW or KTM out of warranty but might consider giving Honda, Yamaha, or Suzuki my new-bike money one day. And if no-one wants to buy your used bikes, then suddenly the PCP business model collapses, and your ‘subscribers’ can’t afford your expensive new bikes anymore. But making the maintenance schedule entirely comprehensive would likely hurt new-bike sales. Servicing costs are a significant consideration for many buyers, so Ducati has worked very hard to reduce the frequency with which their bikes need taking in for maintenance. Initial purchase costs can easily be dwarfed by running costs if you’re not careful.

After 33,000 miles, what was left of my V-Strom’s fork oil resembled muddy hot chocolate.

Ask an experienced mechanic what you should be doing regularly to keep your machine at peak performance and you’ll likely be listed a number of things that aren’t on any manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. For example, suspension. Triumph, credit where it’s due, instruct their dealers to change the fork oil as part of regular servicing. Fork oil degrades over time, affecting damping performance, but isn’t considered a service item at all by many manufacturers.

Of course, shock absorbers degrade at the same rate in the same way, and stock units on most bikes are usually not rebuildable. In order to return like-new performance, you’d have to replace the entire shock absorber every 16,000 miles or so. No manufacturer wants to put that on their maintenance schedule, as OEM shock absorbers are hellishly expensive. I once asked a BMW rep at a trade show what their solution was for people wanting to get the suspension on their R1200GS refreshed. With an entirely straight face, he told me that it would never come up because at 18,000 miles I’d naturally be trading the bike for a new one anyway.

Aftermarket shocks can be serviced every 16k miles; stock units can only be replaced.

After a few harsh winters, the running gear under your bike will be in dire need of some TLC.

Staying with suspension for a moment, most modern bikes have complex linkages designed to allow short-stroke shock absorbers to support a wide range of wheel movement. These linkages are usually slung low in the chassis, often placed directly in front of the rear wheel, and get absolutely pelted with rain and salt. What’s more, there’s frequently very little grease pumped into those bearings from new, and after just a few thousand miles of wet-weather use can often by at risk of seizing up and acting against the movement of the suspension.

Because of the torque being applied to these moving parts, it’s rare for a suspension system to seize solid – you simply get metal-on-metal grinding that quickly turns into expensive damage. In the meantime, you’ll experience added stiffness to the ride, but odds are it’ll be so gradual that you won’t notice until it’s too late. Dismantling these linkages can be a very involved job – on a Yamaha FJR1300 you even have to remove the exhaust system – making it very expensive in terms of labour hours.

In a dry climate, with a bike that’s only ridden in nice weather, you could probably go for years and not have a problem. But I’ve taken apart linkages on both my Yamaha T-Max and Suzuki V-Strom when they had relatively low mileages, only to find that I’d caught the problem just in time. One of the linkages on the T-Max was completely seized at less than three years old, and the bearings all showed tell-tale signs of rust. This premium scooter had a full dealer history when I bought it, but nowhere in the maintenance schedule are suspension linkages mentioned at all. But worst of all is when stuff is on the service schedule, but lazy mechanics don’t do it because it’s too much work. Depending on how honest your mechanic is, you might still be paying for the work, but I have strong evidence to suggest that my Triumph dealer never checked the valve clearances during my Street Triple’s 12,000-mile service, despite charging me for the work. “Everything was fine, nothing needed adjusting, that’s 3 hour’s labour please.” I can almost understand the logic; if you’ve checked dozens of engines and they’ve thus far been in-spec at the 12k mark, then it’s very tempting to assume that they’ll all be fine. But you can’t officially not do it, or the manufacturer will blame your dealership if there’s an engine failure under warranty. So you tick the box and move on to the next bike on your to-do list.

Steering head bearings are a similar story. Buried under fairing on many bikes, and requiring hours’ of work to get to even on unfaired models, checking, re-greasing and adjusting them must be a task that’s tempting to ignore. And how would the customer even know, one way or another? Steering head bearings can fail at any time, even if well maintained, and are considered a wear item. No warranty claims, no proof, no problem!

Getting to the steering head bearings is no mean feat, even on a naked bike…

The next problem you have is detailed service records, or the lack thereof. If you’re taking your bike back to the same main dealer, or a dealer with access to a shared records system, you might be OK. They’ll be able to look up what was done last visit and therefore know what is required this time, be it an annual service or something mileage-based. If you’re relying on a different dealer or a mechanic that simply doesn’t keep those kinds of detailed records, you’ve got a problem. You’ll have a stamp in the book showing when the last service was completed, but no details of what work was completed. So the mechanic will ask you what needs doing this time, and unless you’re like me and keep track of individual service items yourself, you’ll have no idea.

Is it time for the brake fluid to be changed? The fuel hoses to be swapped? Are you due a valve check or not? Some items are time-based, others on mileage alone, some a combination. Asking a mechanic to “service” your bike is like asking an artist to paint you a picture – you’re going to need to be a lot more specific. Asking for a “basic service” usually means changing the engine oil and filter, maybe an air filter, a check of the brakes, followed by a quick once-over to make sure nothing external is leaking or otherwise obviously broken. Do that same thing every year or every mileage interval and you’ll probably avoid catastrophic engine failure and maintain basic safety, but long-term reliability and performance will suffer, and you could be storing up some big, expensive repair bills for the future.

My approach is to meticulously document everything

Some independent dealers might list “bronze”, “silver”, and “gold” services, along with what each one entails. All will be generic, none will be model-specific, and even if you follow a sort of minor/major cadence there will be plenty of things that get missed from the official schedule – not to mention the unwritten list of other stuff that really should receive regular attention. The only thing you can do is educate yourself by talking to experts, asking hard questions of your mechanic, and keeping your own records and schedules. That way, you can be in control, can be sure that your bike is being properly maintained, and avoid some really nasty surprises further down the road.

Here are a couple of tips and best practices I’ve developed over the years:

  • Keep detailed service records of exactly what was done and when. Ask your mechanic or service writer for a full breakdown when you pay the bill.
  • If using an independent mechanic, do your homework and get hold of an itemised service schedule for your bike. If they are true professionals, they won’t mind looking at the previous work notes and official service schedule before talking to you about what they recommend needs doing based on your bike’s history.
  • Use forums and owner’s clubs to find out if there are any model-specific maintenance pieces that should really be added to the manufacturer’s list of service items. Discuss these items with your mechanic, with a view to seeking their advice – no mechanic wants to think that their experience is valued less than “wot I read on the internet”, so be diplomatic.
  • Find a mechanic you can trust and stick with them, making sure they understand that you’ll be using their services again. If they’re going to have to pick up the pieces of any corner-cutting, they’ll be less likely to cut those corners in the first place.
  • If you intend to keep the bike for the long-haul, let your mechanic know. The advice they would give to someone looking to keep a bike short-term might well differ from what they would tell someone who wants to still be relying on the same machine in 50,000 miles.
  • Have any particular maintenance tasks you think are frequently overlooked, or maybe a particularly clever way of logging everything? Send me a message and let me know!

 

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream April 2020

A Different Type of Riding (Part 5: Putting it to the test)

Turns out an oversized scooter makes an excellent two-up touring bike.

While I ride some motorcycles purely out of a sense of curiosity, newcomers to this site may not realise that, in many cases, I’m simply documenting the process by which I search for my next bike. I usually have very specific requirements, and I’m always very, very picky.

In this case, I had a very specific objective. To achieve it, I first tried out a Honda Forza 300, then a Harley-Davidson Sport Glide, before finding what I was looking for in a Yamaha T-Max 530. That meant that it was time to put my money where my mouth was and bring home a very lightly-used 2-year-old matte-black ‘DX’ variant of my very own. Buying used always carries risks, and I assumed I was relatively safe given that Yamaha regularly tops reliability surveys. And with just 2,300 miles on the odometer there weren’t a lot of opportunities for the previous owner to have abused the bike before I took ownership.

Sadly, the honeymoon period lasted just 24 hours before an electrical fault prevented the bike from starting after I rolled it out of the garage the very next morning. As you might imagine, I was fairly aggravated, but a private sale of a just-out-of-warranty vehicle left me with no recourse. Without a wiring diagram it quickly became apparent that I was stuck, and none being publicly available for such a new bike I gave in and paid my local Yamaha dealer to take it away.

Six hours of labour later the technicians finally traced the broken wire buried under the fairing and I was back in business, albeit with my wallet somewhat lighter. Still, their exhaustive search meant that any other potential gremlins have clearly been driven off, as my new T-Max has been faultless in the 4,000 miles since – many of which were under fairly extreme conditions.

My intention was to use the T-Max for a two-up low-speed 3,000-mile tour of the Italian and Austrian Alps, which my girlfriend and I set off for as August drew to a close. Luggage proved to be more of a challenge than expected, with the official Yamaha top box inexplicably on indefinite back-order, and the aftermarket racks too ugly for me to seriously contemplate. I was able to track down the smaller of the two options from a German dealer and made do by moving some day-to-day items to a ‘Tunnel Bag’, a sort of scooter tank bag that wedges between your legs. I took the under-seat storage, she claimed the top box, and we packed light.

Engine performance was sufficient for the intended task, with the DX-exclusive throttle modes proving more useful than expected. ‘T’ is very relaxed, exacerbating the already rubber-band-like throttle response of the constantly-variable transmission. Perfect for rolling on and off the power while trundling around, but also responsible for making slow-speed manoeuvres even more difficult than usual. In contrast, ‘S’ mode is considerably sharper than the only engine mode on the standard T-Max I reviewed, and it was quite a shock the first time I tried it out.

The engine reacts instantly, and the CVT’s design ensures that peak power and torque are delivered to the rear wheel at all times. With a relatively light curb weight of 215kg – the same as my V-Strom 650 – the T-Max shoots forwards immediately, the rate of acceleration defying its 45bhp peak power figure. Coupled with the surprisingly supple and controlled suspension, I was able to keep up with far more powerful motorcycles when blasting around solo. Two-up the power deficit becomes more apparent, with engine response far more sluggish and a noticeably reduced top speed.

Buying used means that the previous owner pays the 30% depreciation.

Yamaha claim 100mph is possible, but with the electronically-adjustable windshield at maximum and a top-box and pillion adding extra weight and drag this is clearly a fantasy. I set the electronic cruise control to a GPS-verified 130km/h as we blasted down the French autoroutes, but with the bike loaded this way the computer was unable to maintain those speeds during some of the steeper sections to the east of the country. Still, this extreme stress-test does mean that the kevlar-rubber belt transmission is clearly up to the task.

… but a private sale leaves you with zero recourse if something goes wrong.

Suspension proved itself to be just as impressive two-up and loaded with luggage as it had when riding solo. That being said I was disappointed to discover that even maxing out the preload on the rear shock could not maintain the chassis attitude, sagging a few degrees under our combined 130kg. On darker days and in tunnels I was regularly flashed by oncoming drivers convinced I had left my high-beams on, and the maximum 45-degree lean angles were noticably reduced. The centrestand touches down first on the T-Max, and with very little give it would be very easy to lift the bike off the ground on sharper bends. I think a stronger spring or new shock may be in the T-Max’s future.

Brakes are another area that proved adequate for the task at hand, even if they aren’t up to enthusiastic use when fully-loaded. With the centre of gravity so low in the vehicle, there’s not a great deal of weight transfer, limiting total braking before the ABS cuts in. Braking felt perfectly safe and stable in most realistic circumstances, but the feedback from the chassis, suspension and brakes advises against hooligan behaviour. If you’re a quick rider, and like to ride as fast two-up as you do solo, then this might be the bike for you.Fuel economy seems enormously variable. Spirited, mixed solo riding returns around 55-60mpg, and relaxed two-up touring sits in the 60-70mpg range. The full-speed autoroute trip drained the 15-litre tank in just over 100 miles, meaning that we were filling up once an hour and just scraping 40mpg. Later experiments at slightly reduced cruising speeds saw economy climb into the low 50’s, proving that no engine is truly efficient when running at its absolute design limits.

Comfort and stability were fantastic. The electric screen allowed me to dial out wind noise under the vast majority of conditions and the seats were comfortable for hours and hours of riding for both rider and pillion. I would prefer the handlebars be set further back, but then I do have notoriously short arms, and at 5’8” I was easily able to stretch out my legs on the spacious footboards. The wide seat meant that I had to settle for tiptoes on either side at a stop, but putting a single foot down flat is perfectly possible with the other on the boards. The weight is held low in the chassis, so balancing when stationary is much easier than it would be for a similarly-weighted adventure bike.

Oil changed, suspension adjusted, luggage packed and ready to go!

There are only two “modes”, but unlike many bikes they’re both different and useful.

Handling wise you’re limited by the slightly odd-feeling front-end. The low centre of gravity means limited weight transfer, so the T-Max handles a little bit like a telelever-equipped BMW; you just have to learn to trust it. That being said, turn-in is sharp and light, with the smaller 15” wheels providing less gyroscopic resistance than the 17-19” rims most motorcyclists are used to. Ground clearance only seems to be an issue if overloaded or riding excessively enthusiastically, and in ‘S’ mode the engine is responsive enough to allow you to maintain positive throttle through bends. Conversely, ‘T’ mode adds enough lag to discourage faster lines through corners, and I don’t recommend attempting hairpins or other low-speed manoeuvres with the throttle set this way.

It’s worth noting that the T-Max’s automatic clutch disengages at around 12mph on a closed throttle, resulting in a sudden loss of engine braking – very disconcerting if you’re following slower traffic through a downhill hairpin. I recommend trailing the rear brake all the way through such bends with the throttle partly open to maintain control. While it’s definitely easier to execute accurate manoeuvres with a clutch, you can certainly learn to work around the foibles.

The advantages are that you never have to change gear, never wear out your left hand in traffic, and are never going to find yourself in the wrong gear on an uphill hairpin. Instead, you can focus on your Roadcraft, maintaining the right lines while enjoying the stunning scenery. Whether rolling through sleepy Italian towns or dicing through Alpine passes with sportsbikes and adventure bikes, the T-Max never missed a beat, and the only times I wished for more power were when overtaking faster-moving traffic.

More relaxed touring returned acceptable, if not hugely impressive numbers.

Back home I’ve filtered down the motorway and into central London with ease, collected groceries using the cavernous underseat storage, and genuinely enjoyed a few twisty back-road blasts. An adventure bike is still a better all-round motorcycle, and for many riders a big scooter might be a step too far if they enjoy enthusiastic riding on solo trips. Even on days when my girlfriend and I broke from the rest of the group and did our own thing, we never once found ourselves wishing we’d brought something bigger, faster or more expensive. What’s more, I’ve since taken the T-Max out on some local loops and can confirm that I had no less fun than when riding the same roads on my proper bikes.What won’t come as a surprise to BMW or Harley-Davidson riders is the sheer joy at not having to lubricate a drive chain at the end of a day’s ride, nor having to scrub oily residue off the rear wheel and surrounding fairings at every wash. The belt drive certainly has its disadvantages; if it ever needs replacing, the part alone is more than £300. But Yamaha does not quote a replacement mileage, merely an inspection interval, and I’ve spoken to Harley-Davidson owners who are still on their original belt at 75,000 miles. Pulleys weigh more than sprockets, and the whole arrangement saps power over a traditional chain. If you get unlucky and pick up a piece of gravel it’ll punch a hole right through it, but all things considered, it’s a compromise I’m happy to make.

The release button on the glovebox door became very sticky after a couple thousand miles and needed lubricating with silicone oil, and the 2-amp fuse on the 12v socket popped when I tried to top up one of my tyres using my compressor. The toolkit is extremely lightweight, containing only a screwdriver and a couple of Allen keys. Notably missing is the hex-key driver necessary to access the battery compartment, which would spell disaster if you managed to flatten the battery while away from home. You can’t bump-start a vehicle with an automatic clutch.

No chain to oil and so far almost 7,000 miles with no adjustments needed.

Not an inch of wasted space; I’m not looking forward to the valve clearance check…

I’d argue that servicing is both expensive and unnecessarily frequent, with an oil change every 3,000 miles, more substantial checks every 6,000 and even more work at the 12,000-mile mark, which also includes replacement of the internal CVT-belt. Labour charges add up quickly with so much bodywork to remove, and Yamaha’s prices for parts and consumables are fearsome. On the other hand, oil changes are easy, with Yamaha providing full instructions in the owner’s manual, and resetting the service reminder can be done simply through the dashboard.

I was able to figure everything out in the end, and in truth it’s simply a very compact motorcycle squeezed under some unconventional bodywork. Given how few of these are sold in the UK, it’s quite likely that the only difference between you and your local Yamaha mechanics are that they don’t have to pay to access the service manual. I may cave in when the valve check is due, as there’s not a lot of space to work with, but I have until the 24,000-mile service to make up my mind about that.

The tyres probably have another 2,000-3,000 miles in them, but uneven wear has affected turn-in slightly. A new set of Michelin Pilot Road 4’s are waiting in the garage, the newer version in the series not yet available in the T-Max’s smaller 15” wheel sizes. I’m also tempted to try a more aggressive pad compound, or braided hoses, for the front brakes and would like a more adjustable rear shock. But I have to remember that I didn’t buy this bike for high-speed hijinks, and that any upgrades need to be entirely focused on the mission for which it was purchased.

And on that score, the T-Max is an absolute triumph. Yes, it’s down on power compared to what most fully-qualified motorcyclists are used to, and no, the seating position isn’t for everyone. At the end of the day, you have to be honest with yourself about which features and specifications you’re insisting on out of habit or misplaced pride, and perhaps consider that there are alternatives to conventional wisdom, because it turns out that you don’t need a 1.3-litre 150-horsepower motorcycle to go climb mountains with your partner; a 530cc scooter works just fine.

Nick Tasker
First published in Slipstream February 2020

End of an Era

As we reach the end of the decade and another season packed with motorcycle shows has wrapped up it’s worth reflecting once more on where the last ten years have brought us, and where we might be going. The age of the superbike is over, and the age of the hyperbike has begun. But so, I would argue, has the age of reason.

With the launch of the new Honda CBR-1000RR-R Fireblade, the last of the sensible road-biased 1000cc sportsbikes is dead, and a new era of £20k+ exotica is upon us. At a time when fewer and fewer new riders are choosing to embark upon their motorcycle journey, the crossing of this psychologically important barrier is triggering a wave of introspection across huge swathes of the biking community.

Such flagship models are now well and truly out of reach for the vast majority of riders. And even if you are personally financially capable of placing such a vehicle in your garage for the length of a PCP contract, the value proposition becomes ever-harder to justify when the real-world application of these bikes has shrunk at a rate inversely proportional to their rapidly rising cost.

A laser-focus on on-track performance has destroyed any real-world usability litre-class sportsbikes once possessed. Big adventure tourers like BMW’s R1250GS, KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure and Ducati’s Multistrada 1260 Enduro have gotten bigger and heavier to the point that they’re now no longer effective as all-road devices, more akin to two-wheeled Porsche Cayennes than Land Rover Defenders. The sports-tourer genre used to be where softer, slower sportsbikes lurked in order to avoid unflattering comparisons with razor’s edge performance machinery of the day. Yet Kawasaki’s H2 SX uses a supercharged 1000cc engine to warp space and time in a way that speed freaks from the golden age of sportsbikes could only dream of.

Don’t get me wrong – I love that these machines exist. But they exist now purely as statements, both of the technical capabilities of their manufacturers and the girth of their owner’s wallets. They have fully embraced their role as the Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the motorcycle world: expensive toys designed to mollify the wealthy rider’s ego with the knowledge that, if called upon, they could comfortably outrun a category five tropical storm.

Small Ones are Juicier

Not too long ago, mid-capacity motorcycles were considered to be temporary stepping-stones with zero street cred and significantly reduced build quality and specification. To roll up at a bike meet with “only a 600” was to invite ridicule and mockery. This attitude persisted for decades, with PCP providing a way for the illusion of affordability to persist in the face of soaring price tags. But now that thread has finally snapped, and there’s a kind of freedom in finally accepting that the vast majority of us can safely ignore the top-shelf selections entirely.

One of the best adventure-tourers on the market, featuring “only” 850cc of displacement.

What’s more, today’s mid-capacity bikes are a far cry from the bargain-basement parts-bin specials we remember from twenty years ago. The variety, capability and equipment level you can now purchase for half the price of the top-range machinery is truly remarkable, often far in excess of top-flight machines from just a few years ago.

890cc only seems small because KTM has desensitised us with their 1290cc version.

That Ducati 916 you always promised yourself one day? A new Panigale V2 will outrun it on the straights and leave it for dead in the corners, all while using less fuel and with service intervals that would’ve seemed pure fantasy just a decade ago. You really don’t need a Panigale V4, and now that you can’t afford one, you can happily forget all about it.

Owners love their Yamaha FJR1300s, and in ages past the brand’s Tracer 900 would’ve been ignored as a low-powered learner-tolerant alternative. But the FJR is heavy, thirsty, and not noticeably more powerful than it’s significantly cheaper stablemate. You’re not giving up build quality or electronic toys, nor are you noticeably sacrificing luggage capacity or pillion comfort. You get high-spec brakes and suspension, just like you’d expect on a flagship high-performance machine, and all for less than £10,000. The fact that Yamaha sells every one they can build supports my thesis that the era of egotism and excess is indeed over for most riders. Perhaps now we can finally agree that 115bhp is more than enough for a road bike and that choosing a “smaller” machine is no longer a sign of mental, physical, or sexual deficiency.

I’ve ridden and loved the Tracer 700 and the updated version looks fantastic. What’s more, the Euro5 updates don’t seem to have dented the power output nor added to the weight – it’s fully-fueled and ready to propel you across the continent at a lithe 196kg, and all for just £7,400. But nothing better highlights the “less is more” era we currently find ourselves in than the new Yamaha Ténéré 700. Sharing the same drivetrain as the Tracer and MT07, the Ténéré asks buyers to dig a little deeper at £8,700, but in return delivers far more capable off-road performance than any of the big-capacity flagships. KTM’s 790 Adventure pulls off the same trick, proving once and for all that anyone who tells you they need the bigger 1290’s power output to scramble down green lanes is lying to themselves, as well as to their bank manager.

Want to cruise in comfort? 650cc is plenty, and a £6,600 price tag is welcome.

BMW’s new F900XR makes the far-more-expensive, thirsty, and heavy S1000XR largely redundant for most riders. Anyone contemplating the purchase of a new Honda CRF1100 Africa Twin for an off-road adventure hasn’t seen the price tags, nor spent much time in the dirt and mud, where the brand’s own CRF250L reigns supreme. At almost £20,000, a top-spec Africa Twin will now cost you more than four CRF250Ls. You could pay for three friends to join you and still save money.

I’ve ridden and loved the Tracer 700 and the updated version looks fantastic. What’s more, the Euro5 updates don’t seem to have dented the power output nor added to the weight – it’s fully-fueled and ready to propel you across the continent at a lithe 196kg, and all for just £7,400. But nothing better highlights the “less is more” era we currently find ourselves in than the new Yamaha Ténéré 700. Sharing the same drivetrain as the Tracer and MT07, the Ténéré asks buyers to dig a little deeper at £8,700, but in return delivers far more capable off-road performance than any of the big-capacity flagships. KTM’s 790 Adventure pulls off the same trick, proving once and for all that anyone who tells you they need the bigger 1290’s power output to scramble down green lanes is lying to themselves, as well as to their bank manager.

Want something sportier? 700cc is all you need to tour Europe.

Buy this bike on PCP and it’ll cost you almost £21k. Not interested.

BMW’s new F900XR makes the far-more-expensive, thirsty, and heavy S1000XR largely redundant for most riders. Anyone contemplating the purchase of a new Honda CRF1100 Africa Twin for an off-road adventure hasn’t seen the price tags, nor spent much time in the dirt and mud, where the brand’s own CRF250L reigns supreme. At almost £20,000, a top-spec Africa Twin will now cost you more than four CRF250Ls. You could pay for three friends to join you and still save money.

Harley-Davidson’s idea of downsizing is entertaining, with their physically-imposing and aesthetically-challenging Pan America displacing a claimed 1250cc, matching all but the very biggest of its European competitors’ flagships in the segment. Even the 950cc Bronx is hardly a small machine, while unlikely to register as a serious alternative to Triumph’s existing Speed Triple or its ilk. Price, as well as weight and power figures, will be very telling. But as the new Indian FTR1200 has lately proven, American cruiser manufacturers are facing an uphill battle to compete in these market segments.

As a rider interested in exploring some off-road adventures after even a 650cc Suzuki V-Strom proved too large and cumbersome for the Trans-European Trail, I am delighted to see Fantic making some serious moves in UK market. Their interesting new Caballero 500cc single-cylinder road bikes appeared in magazine reviews earlier this year, providing a cheaper (and purchasable) alternative to CCM’s many hand-made Spitfire variants. What’s more, they offer a selection of 50cc, 125cc and even a 250cc road-legal enduro bikes, undercutting Honda’s popular CRF250L on both price and weight. Colour me interested.

Continuing the off-road theme, Husqvarna has diverged from their KTM overlord’s 690 Enduro by adding a Long-Range (LR) variant to their 701 Enduro. With 25 litres of fuel, the frugal and well-equipped single-cylinder motorcycle should be good for more than 300 miles of off-road riding. Only the BMW R1250GS Adventure claims a similar tank range, yet costs almost twice as much and would get itself wedged solid on trails a Husqvarna rider would breeze along. For those seriously planning some long-distance off-road adventures, the showroom choices have improved markedly this year.

How fast do you ride off-road? 250cc versions are available too.

The second evolution of the motorcycle?

Which brings us neatly back to the very start of this piece. For years, bikers have persuaded themselves and each other that they needed more power, more engine, more speed, and manufacturers were only too happy to oblige. We pushed them harder and harder, to the point where whole new kinds of electronic rider aids had to be developed to keep these new monsters in check, and still we demanded more. But now the bubble has burst, and we’ve finally realised that not only can smaller, cheaper motorcycles be just as fun and capable as their high-end cousins, in many cases they can actually be better in almost every way.

The Cycle Begins Anew

And not a moment too soon. Because while the motorcycle industry continues to wrestle with chronic addiction to baby-boomer cash, competition is arriving from an unexpected and ironic source. Motorcycles were originally born from bicycle manufacturers bolting early petrol engines into beefed-up frames. And while our evolutionary offshoot has produced the dinosaurs of our time, the meteorite of demographic, social, and political change is poised to kill it off entirely.

Threat or salvation? Motorcycle alternative or stepping-stone?

In the meantime, the original strain has persisted, and in the last ten years has begun to rapidly mutate. Across Europe, more bicycles are now sold with electric motors than without. These electrically-assisted bicycles take the bite out of hills, provide a safeguard against exhaustion, and are even providing a way for older or less fit individuals to get some much-needed exercise. As legislation begins to choke the life from the motorcycle industry in its current form, this unlikely competitor has emerged to nibble at the edges.

Boutique builders may one day be all that remains of mainstream motorcycling…

Prices have plummeted, and a high-quality multi-purpose e-bike with luggage rack, lights and mudguards can now be had for under £3,000. In increasingly-densely-populated urban centres, even a motorcycle no longer makes sense. And while a traditional bicycle might leave you arriving at work hot and sweaty, an e-bike does not. All these factors combined mean that motorcycling is fighting for relevance in a world increasingly hostile to its very existence.

It’s entirely possible that motorcycling can co-exist with autonomous cars and swarms of cyclists, both in terms of space on our roads and room in our budgets. But if it does, it will be as a much smaller version of itself, and with much smaller, more affordable motorcycles. There will always be room for high-priced exotica, and people willing and able to purchase and perhaps even ride them. But those few riders alone won’t keep the bike cafés open, the leather and textile makers in business, nor provide enough of a voting population to keep the encroaching safety legislators at bay.

Manufacturers follow the money, and if we show them that mid-capacity motorcycles can sell, then more will come. This will make the sport more affordable, and if we desist in our hostility towards small-capacity motorcycles and their riders, then perhaps some of those e-cyclists will be tempted to try something faster, without pedals. The next ten years will make or break motorcycling in the UK, and perhaps the whole of the developed world. E-Bikes could save us or destroy us, and the outcome is entirely up to whether we can embrace a small-capacity future or choose to hide in the past.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream January 2020

One Bike to Rule Them All?

Motorcyclists, on average, own more than one motorcycle. Only truly hardcore automotive enthusiasts own more than one car, the financial and logistical constraints of the format conspiring to ensure that even most performance-oriented cars need to be able to function as someone’s only mode of practical transport. Motorcycles don’t have that problem.

Today, it’s possible to have a garage full of bikes that have dramatically different operational envelopes. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we need multiple motorcycles because each one is only good at one thing? Or is it the other way around, and brands are only able to thrive while selling specialised hardware precisely because they know you have other bikes for other purposes?

There are dirt bikes for exploring byways; sportsbikes for clipping apexes at trackdays; naked roadsters for B-road blasts; big tourers for nipping to the Black Forest for a long weekend in comfort; and even long, low cruisers for rolling up at your favourite biker cafe in style. In truth, I could spend the rest of this article just listing the many genres and applications of motorcycles, and still have someone email me a list of those I’d missed.

And yet, even if you have the means to stock your garage with diverse choices, there’s a purity to doing it all on just one bike. There have been several times in my riding career when the question of which bike to ride was moot, and it’s always liberating. No worries about whether I’ve brought the wrong bike for a particular ride or trip, no nagging concern that I might’ve had more fun on one of my other motorcycles. It was a bike ride, I rode my bike. Simple.

Insurance, tax and MOTs all need paying for regardless of how the mileage is divided up, and the reality is that you can only sit in one saddle at a time. Sure, there are practical benefits to sharing the load – if one bike is off the road for repairs or maintenance it’s handy to have a backup. Although it must be said that this argument breaks down if, like me, you aim for your fleet to have as little overlap as possible. If your sporty bike gets a puncture the day before a trackday you can’t exactly shrug and take your cruiser instead.

And yet, I’m increasingly convinced that one bike can do it all. Twenty years ago the only way to get good brakes, suspension and decent power was to grit your teeth and clamber aboard a dedicated sportsbike – comfort and practicality be damned. They were the flagships, and everything else was compromised in some way – and so people compromised on luggage and comfort instead. But these days the most expensive bikes in the showroom stand tall on their dirt-styled tyres, glowering down at lesser bikes with their array of LED spotlights. Adventure Bikes can do now everything as well, or better, than everything else in the showroom.

20 years ago, top-flight sportsbikes were the only way to get good performance.

Touring, trackdays & commuting – there’s a certain simplicity to doing it all on one bike.

Upside-down cartridge forks and radial brakes, but also two-up comfort and luggage?

Comfort? Check – Adventure Bikes, or Adventure Tourers as some variants are labelled, are designed to soak up big miles with ease. Performance? Check – the top-flight models from the European manufacturers use big engines to put out more torque and power than can be usefully employed anywhere outside a racetrack. Brakes and suspension are not only better quality than race bikes from just a few years ago, they manage the trick of enabling these big beasts to out-handle dedicated performance machines on the bumpiest of neglected British roads.

Want tech? Sportsbikes are the ones playing catch-up these days, with the slickest TFT screens, automated electronic suspension and riding aids going to the Adventure Bikes first. And finally, luggage; beefy subframes and fashionable yet functional top-loading panniers mean that the dedicated touring motorcycle has all but died out, with only BMW and Honda offering a grand total of three models between them in the UK. I know that there’s a little more choice in North American markets, but in Europe, the Adventure Bike has completely taken over.

And honestly, I’m just as guilty of contributing to this state of affairs. I bought a V-Strom 650, modified it to suit and then spent 75,000 miles riding it in all conditions, on all surfaces, in every type of terrain and weather, across borders, on road, track and beyond, with and without luggage and passenger. And during my adventures, did I ever think that another bike might have been better at performing the task at hand, might have made a trip, ride or other biking experience that much more enjoyable? Sure – but only for one small part of the journey. You see, unless you do all your riding within a few miles of your house, you’re going to put down some miles travelling to the good roads, or the racetrack, or the trailhead. And while a sportsbike will be slightly more fun when you’re actually knee-down at Mallory Park, there’s a reason why hardcore track-rats cart their bikes around in vans. Carving up mountain passes is indeed more rewarding on my Street Triple than it is on my V-Strom, but only just. And the V-Strom will make the journey there far easier and more enjoyable, with better wind protection, as well as easier-to-use, more spacious and more secure luggage.

Dedicated touring bikes still exist, but adventure bikes have largely made them redundant.

With bumpy roads, variable weather and lots to carry, would they have been better off on ADVs

After several days of re-packing and re-strapping my tailpack, I really started to miss my topbox.

This point was driven home by me earlier this year across two separate trips – one 7-day blast across the Swiss Alps, and another shorter loop around the Scottish North Coast 500 – both undertaken by myself and a friend on our trusty Street Triples. We both had an absolute blast, but after long days in the saddles we realised that we would’ve given up very little in terms of cornering enjoyment if we’d been riding middleweight Adventure Bikes instead.

500 miles along French motorways was a trial to be overcome. Squeezing clothes and toiletries into tiny tailpacks was a daily frustration. The bumpy roads of the highlands knackered our wrists and short fuel ranges were a constant gnawing concern. Sure, you may want to stop every 100 miles, but you can’t always find an open petrol station in many of the most interesting parts of Europe, never mind beyond! When the rain arrived, I missed my V-Strom’s windshield, fairing and handguards. And while oiling my chain would’ve been easier with the V-Strom’s centrestand. Many adventure bikes solve the problem entirely with shaft-driven rear wheels.

A BMW R1250GS is lighter and more nimble than it’s fully-faired RT cousin, has better wind protection than the naked R and will be far more comfortable during the long motorway stretches than the RS. An S1000RR has more power and weighs less than an S1000XR, but which one would you rather take for a long ride through the Pyrenees? Which one would your pillion prefer? Naked bikes, sportsbikes, retro roadsters – they all look great and perform brilliantly when the conditions are magazine-photo-perfect, but at any other part of the trip you’ll want something a little less single-minded.

Twenty years ago the compromises would have been huge. I would have had to sacrifice a massive amount of engine, handling and braking performance to get my desired level of comfort and practicality. Not any more. And there will certainly be those of you who see the pain and discomfort of using a more focused device as a badge of honour and pride, and I certainly understand that. There are those amongst you for whom any compromise will be one too many. My brother maintains that he’ll never give up the front-end feel he enjoys from his sportsbike, and his wife seems perfectly happy to tour from that tiny back seat. That said, it’s funny how he’s putting far more miles on his CCM GP450 these days…

And so, as always, it comes down to personal preference. I’m not going to be thinning my personal fleet just yet, nor stop adding more specialised bikes to the garage to fill ever-smaller niches. I’m fortunate enough to able to afford to keep multiple motorcycles, even if the annual mileages on my more focused vehicles is dwarfed by that of my Adventure Bike. And if you only have the resources or the space to keep a single motorcycle in your garage, then why not pick one that is a jack of all trades, while also managing the impressive trick of damn near mastering them all?

“Call that an adventure bike? This is an adventure bike!”

 

 

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream November 2019

Europe for Beginners

Top Tips for First-Time Travellers

Since returning from a European motorcycling adventure last year, I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn my experiences into an interesting article for the magazine. A straight-up ride report (“…and then we carved through yet another dozen hairpins…”) doesn’t make for terribly engaging reading in my opinion. And as readers of my scribblings will know, I prefer to try to educate while I entertain, and there’s always something new for all of us to learn.

So let’s consider this a review of sorts; a short(ish) summary of an unconventional motorcycling adventure, where I challenge conventional wisdom and somehow convince my first-time touring partner into coming along for a non-stop, full-speed dash through the European countryside.

To give you an overview, this was a 3,500-mile, two-week all-inclusive sampler of European motorcycle touring, an opportunity for me to show my partner what she had been missing all these years during which her riding had been constrained to our rainy little island. This included French motorways, Belgian forests, the valleys of the Mosel, forests of Bavaria, derestricted German Autobahns, Austrian food, Swiss Alpine passes, Italian roadworks, French lakes, Spanish mountain gorges and a lot of McDonalds restaurants.

Cramming my favourite bits of Europe and the entire Pyrenees mountain range into a 14-day vacation that included my own brother’s wedding was a little ambitious. 300-400 miles a day quickly proved impossible, with an average of 250 more realistic, despite my creative interpretations of continental traffic regulations. Rural road maintenance crews love to dig up (and then abandon) the only route out of town with maddening regularity, but empty sidewalks will work at a pinch. We also learned that Honda Fireblades consume around a litre of oil per thousand miles, and had ample opportunity to discover that 10W40 is pretty much the same in any language.

Pay at the Pump is one of the greatest inventions of the current century, and our continental cousins have embraced it wholeheartedly. So have McDonalds, with their restaurants now featuring multi-lingual touch-screens alongside table service. This means that meal stops can be short and your interaction with the locals can be reduced to an absolute minimum.

The more sociable among you may be horrified at the idea of travelling thousands of miles to computer-order the same bland-tasting American hamburgers for lunch, day after day, but the truth is that rural Europe really leaves you no choice. The Spanish and the French seem to compete for who amongst them can shut down the longest during the afternoon and, if you are somehow fortunate enough to discover some dingy roadside café willing to feed a pair of strangely-dressed foreigners with a limited grasp of the language, they do so only with extreme reluctance.

My purpose for travelling is to ride motorcycles on entertaining roads through spectacular scenery and the routes I chose clearly did not coincide with the European Good Food Guide. Google proved no help either, as outside of major cities what little information is available on the platform is inaccurate and incomplete, making the task of reliably locating any functioning establishment beyond multinational chain restaurants impossible.

And you know what? McDonalds isn’t so bad. The architects appear to have been competing with one another for the most interesting interpretation of the American fast-food staple, with regional variations in menus providing a modicum of culinary variation. The food is fine, the toilets are clean, the WiFi is good, and the air conditioning is extremely welcome. But most importantly, they’re open. And they have parking. And you can find them, easily, without having to detour to some traffic-clogged capital and traipse around baking city streets in a vain attempt to find somewhere that offers the bare-minimum of celiac-friendly menu options.

The Booking.com app means that you can pick your daily end-point during your afternoon coffee break, although first-time travellers should be aware of a few peculiarities. The French interpretation of the word Hotel is fairly broad and it is only after booking that it is possible to discover the latest allowable check-in time. This might be far earlier than you would expect and supremely unhelpful if you’re running late and still an hour away from the room you just paid for.

The following day we left Mandawa and headed for Bikaner, covering another good mix of road types and avoiding herds of camels. We were now really loving the Bullets, the big 500cc single, thumping away, exhaust burbling, plus the popping and banging on the overrun. We stopped off for a tour of the Fort of Junagarh then on to Bikaner, where we stayed in an ancient palace which now served as a 5 star hotel.

After a good breakfast of traditional Indian or European fare, we were back on our Bullets heading for the golden city of Jaisalmer, on the edge of the Thar desert. Dinner in the open roof-top restaurant watching the sun set on Jaisalmer Fort was spectacular. The fort looks like a giant sand castle rising from the sandy plains.

Breakfast Included is also subjective. In some places it’s a multi-menu banquet from 7am onwards, while in others you delay your departure only to discover you’d have been better off saving your money and opting for a petrol-station coffee & croissant instead. Our last hosts informed us upon check-in that breakfast wasn’t served until 9am – a full half-hour after our latest realistic departure time, should we still wish to catch our ferry. We left the room keys at an abandoned reception desk when we left. They’re just lucky I’d paid in advance before arriving as there was no-one awake to check us out either.

I do recommend picking somewhere that has an on-site restaurant, however. The couple of times we chose more characterful bed & breakfast options we got badly burnt when no alternative meal options were available in any nearby towns. The hotel’s own restaurant might not be the last word in quality or value but it’s better than cereal bars and bathroom tap water. I’ve decided to pack a can of baked beans and a tin-opener next time, just in case.

As for routes and riding, Europe certainly offers plenty of surprises. The observant number-plate spotter will note that while the British do not seem to venture much further east than France, the Dutch seem to have fled their own country en mass, with bikes and cars alike strewn across the entirety of German-speaking Europe. Petrol stations rarely sell anything other than E10, the 10% ethanol-fortified fuel that the continent switched to some years back. Those of you running newer bikes might notice a slight drop in fuel economy, while those running older machinery might notice it eating holes in your petrol tank and associated piping.

The Italians have an interesting way of discouraging speeding with, what I could only deduce were, speed-sensitive traffic lights. No junctions, no pedestrian crossings and they’d turn green again as soon as you’d stopped but if you approached them more slowly, they wouldn’t change in the first place – an interesting tactic, for sure. Speed cameras themselves are slowly spreading across the French countryside like an infectious disease, usually concealed and on otherwise perfectly safe roads. Fortunately the locals seem as unimpressed as I was, with the overwhelming majority having been comprehensively disabled through the generous application of spray paint.

Mountain passes, both in the Alps and Pyrenees, can vary tremendously in terms of traffic, road surface, severity of corners and width of carriageway. If a pass crosses a border, then you can often tell when you’ve moved into a new sovereign land not merely by noting the abandoned check-points, but from the sudden change in tarmac quality. Italy – I’m looking at you.

You might also find that a pass that was all flowing, well-telegraphed bends on smooth, wide, empty tarmac on one side of the mountain becomes a treacherous, single-width goat path with, in many cases, actual goats waiting for you on the other side of a blind hairpin. Cows, too, are frequently to be found enjoying the tarmac and evidently doing their best to cover every square inch in dung as they move up the mountain.

Tunnels are frequent and sometimes many miles long, offering a welcome respite from hot or wet weather. But beware – the smaller ones sometimes feature unexpected livestock seeking shelter from the rain, whilst the larger tunnels often sport surprise toll booths on the other side. The remote operators of these booths apparently subscribe to the very American idea that getting a foreigner to understand you is merely a matter of shouting more loudly at them, in this case through a tiny little speaker. It’s ok though; after a while they seem to give up and let you through anyway.

Choice of bike is important for a trip like this. A 100-mile tank range is insufficient, as taking the scenic route can easily mean fuel stops are necessarily further apart. Sportsbikes – even those with raised bars – simply aren’t comfortable for consecutive 10-hour riding days, and the rest of Europe seems to agree. We saw just two fairing-clad travellers in two whole weeks on the road. BMW has half the market sewn up with R1200GS’s littering the slopes and K1600’s and S1000XR’s dotted around liberally to break up the monotony. Harley-Davidson is clearly doing very well in Europe, with an easy third of our fellow bikers having chosen the bar-and-shield brand for their twisty, mountain adventures. Honestly, it was impressive to watch – limited ground clearance simply means your lines through the hairpins have to be spot-on.

But adventure bikes of all shapes and sizes are clearly the weapon of choice for travellers of all stripes. I finally discovered where all of Suzuki’s European V-Strom 650’s have been hiding – they’re all in the Alps, making the absolute most of their modest horsepower to embarrass their better-heeled brothers and sisters. More than once I wished I could hand out TVAM business cards as I overtook well-financed yet dangerously-unskilled riders on my way up a mountain. With cornering lines like that, they may well find their ride back down the mountain takes considerably less time than they might have previously expected.

No matter what you ride, make sure that you have a firm set of low-speed riding skills under your belt before you venture into these mountains. Some hairpins are closer to uphill u-turns than any of the bends you’ll encounter on our comparably flat little island. Also, ensure you have enough power and confidence to execute overtakes on relatively short pieces of road, or you may find a wonderful stretch utterly ruined by the maddeningly slow Fiat or Citroen blocking the view ahead.

Being comfortable on loose surfaces would be advantageous too. More than once we found the Spanish mountain roads strewn with gravel and at one point the racetrack-smooth tarmac simply stopped mid-way through a fast right-hander, becoming a genuine hard-core gravel track. My V-Strom took it all in its stride, but Jasmine on board her Fireblade was unamused.

Others may disagree, but I also recommend that you stick to a full waterproof textile suit for a trip like this. Leathers and waterproofs may be your preference for an unavoidable shower, but up in the mountains it’s easy to be caught by surprise. In the space of ten miles we went from sitting outside a café drinking hot chocolate in the sunshine to peering through dark clouds at flooded roads on the side of a mountain. If your default gear is already waterproof you can just ride on but anyone who needs to stop to get changed will already be soaked by the time they find somewhere safe to pull over. Heated grips can be most welcome, even in September.

Down in the foothills of Spain however, you’ll wish they were electrically cooled as well. Even in mid-September, and even in the hilly north of the country, we were consistently suffering high 20’s, with a genuine 33ºC predicted for the day after we set sail from Bilbao. A friend from Portugal had previously advised me that, should I wish to venture any further south, I should restrict my plans to early spring at the latest, and I think I can see why.

If you’ve never travelled in Europe, you’ve really got to get out there. TVAM runs a number of trips each year, with several specifically designed for first-timers to get their first taste of riding on the right. And it’s really very easy, and relatively inexpensive – the Eurotunnel is around £80 return for bikes and even less if you’re going for five days or fewer. Weekend trips are doable and your range only increases if you can get a Friday or a Monday off work too.

Travel light, take a toolkit, keep your smartphone charged up and enjoy Europe before they decide they don’t want us difficult Brits visiting anymore.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream July 2019

Triumph Tiger 800 XRT

It’s safe to say that Triumph and I have had our differences over the years. My 2013 Street Triple R is the only motorcycle I’ve ever bought brand new, and the brand’s response to my textiles scuffing the paint on the tank within a few hundred miles was that it was my own fault for not paying extra for the paint protection.  I paid many hundreds of pounds on maintenance to maintain the official service history during the first two years, and when I began to experience a hot-starting issue as the warranty drew to a close they refused to even investigate until I’d paid another £1,000 for the 24k service, 3,000 miles early. I gave my dealer the finger and did the work myself.

Beyond that, I’ve reviewed a number of Triumph‘s bikes in the years since, with mixed results. Still, time moves on and Triumph has been working as hard upgrading their Tiger 800 as I have upgrading my own V-Strom 650. Strange as it may sound, there are some things you can achieve with an entire engineering department, a couple of factories and hundreds of thousands of pounds that I can’t match with my meagre resources.

What’s more, contrary to the impression I may have given with the likes of my BMW R1250GS review, I’m not a complete technophobe. My disdain for the integrated electronic gadgetry increasingly infesting modern motorcycles is based on my overwhelming impression that they are primarily intended to improve manufacturer profit margins rather than the rider experience. In some cases, they actually seem designed to fix self-inflicted problems. For example, user-selectable engine or throttle modes (too much power), electronically-adjustable suspension (too much weight) and full-colour TFT dashboards (too many of the aforementioned throttle and suspension modes). It’s little wonder that many people are favourably comparing the genuinely old-school Royal Enfield Himalayan with bikes four times the price.

As a result, it was with mixed feelings that I took note of the newly-updated Triumph Tiger 800 at EICMA in 2017. In showrooms last year, it demonstrated that Triumph had spent the eight years since the launch of the original 2010 model nipping and tucking, rather than completely redesigning the bike. Some changes, such as the fashionable new TFT dashboard, I regarded with suspicion. Others, such as the new LED headlights, cruise control and upgraded front brakes were very welcome indeed, and I’ve been meaning to arrange a ride ever since.

 

But which one would I buy, in theory? Like many of their European competitors, you cannot simply walk into a Triumph dealership and select a bike anymore; you also need to choose a trim level and then pick from a list of optional dealer-fit accessories. A lot of glowing reviews from professional journalists fail to mention that the version they enjoyed on the press launch would cost a paying customer thousands and thousands of pounds more than the advertised retail price.

A base-model Tiger 800 XR can technically be bought for £9,200 but this is a price-point model so poorly equiped that even Triumph doesn’t expect anyone to actually buy it. Choosing the XRX version instead adds another £1,500 to the price tag and the XRT you actually want is almost £13k with a set of crash bars fitted. Adding the three-box luggage set means you’ll be riding home with a £14,000-sized dent in your wallet. Given my well-documented history of criticising the likes of BMW and KTM for similarly inflated pricing, why would I even entertain such an expensive motorcycle?

Setting aside the substantial price tag for a moment, we could have a perfect V-Strom replacement on our hands here. Regardless of trim level, you get very similar weight and dimensions as the Suzuki, the same cast 19″ / 17″ wheel combination, good weather protection, and a comfortable, upright riding position. Assuming you ignore the bare-bones XR trim level you get higher-spec Brembo brakes on the front wheel, solving one of my main criticisms of the original bike by dramatically improving braking performance. The suspension is also of higher quality, and Triumph claim to have improved the fuel economy through internal friction reduction and throttle management.

Spend enough money to get the top-of-the-range XRT model and you and your passenger are treated to heated seats, with the rider enjoying heated grips and full LED lighting. Many of the upgrades I made to my own V-Strom 650 (and would make to a new V-Strom 1000) are now standard-fit on the Triumph with other niceties such as cruise control, back-lit switchgear, tyre-pressure monitoring, self-cancelling indicators and traction-control thrown in for good measure. What the Tiger 800 lacks compared to its German, Austrian and Italian rivals is electronically-adjustable suspension, keyless ignition, hill-hold assist, a quick-shifter and an electric screen. For me, at least, that means it offers everything I want, and nothing I don’t.

Of course, if you’re of the 21″ wired-wheel persuasion there’s a mirrored set of trim levels available for you with the XCX and XCA versions. You also get slightly higher bars, a skid plate and taller, softer WP suspension.

Personally, I wouldn’t bother; the bigger wheels are heavier, blunting braking and handling considerably, with the only advantage being greater resistance to damage from high impacts off-road. But let’s be honest, here – if you’re taking a 230kg motorcycle out where that sort of situation is likely, then dented wheels are the least of your worries. Buy a Honda CRF250L instead.

Before I hit the road, I had the Triumph salesman take me through the new full-colour onboard computer – it took nearly twenty minutes. There are four riding modes, each of which can be customised with varying levels of traction control, ABS, several throttle maps and even three different dashboard layouts. While tachometer, speedometer, current gear, air temperature and time of day are ever-present, a small joystick underneath the indicator switch allows you to toggle between two trip meters, each with average and real-time fuel economy and range, coolant temperature and more. Separate buttons switch through the various heat levels for heated grips and seats, riding lights can be switched on and off, and cruise control can be enabled and adjusted in 1mph increments all the way down to 30mph.

I strongly recommend anyone buying one of these to set aside an afternoon with the owner’s manual to learn how to access all the various pieces of information, but it’s certainly true that you could simply hop on and ride the bike as-is. The default Road engine mode, unlike on many bikes, is just fine and the factory suspension settings are well judged across a variety of surfaces, something that can’t be said for many, far more expensive, systems. The brakes are good, if not quite as sharp as a set of four-piston calipers would be, but are nonetheless a far cry from the wooden, squishy mess that most two-piston systems offer.

The touring windshield fitted to the XRT is adjustable by grabbing it with one hand and then pulling it up or down and in the highest position is almost tall enough to push turbulent air right over my helmet. A clever arrangement of winglets, designed to work in conjunction with the mirrors and handguards, means that there is zero buffeting around the sides, suggesting that we finally have a maker who is paying attention to something the aftermarket has been fixing for years.

Throttle response is much improved over the first-generation Tiger 800, the new ride-by-wire system smoothing out the off-idle throttle transition extremely well. Even Sport mode is not as snatchy as the previous cable throttle and there’s noticeably more bite to the power delivery as you climb up the rev range. One downside of a fully electronic throttle manifests itself as a slight dip below 4k, as though the computers are just taking the edge off my inputs in order to satisfy noise and emissions requirements.

A look at a dyno chart reveals something else interesting however: a horizontal line as soon as the output hits the 94 horsepower mark. That is the maximum allowed if you want to be able to restrict a bike for 47 horsepower A2 license holders and the ECU is clearly holding power steady from this point on, even as the revs rise the rest of the way to the redline. It honestly looks like there’s another 5-10 horsepower waiting at the top-end for someone who’s willing to visit their local tuner and have such restrictions removed.

Beyond that, the riding experience is rather unremarkable, which can be taken as a compliment or a criticism, depending on your point of view. A snarling, roaring beast of raw fury and adrenaline the Tiger 800 is not, though there’s significantly more character than there was in previous models. Build quality on modern Triumphs is generally very impressive; fasteners are stainless steel by default and metal finishes are tough and should shrug off a salty winter with aplomb. Painted plastics still scratch like any others so it will be interesting to see how the optional matt blue paint would stand up to daily use.

Fuel economy was mid-50’s on my relatively conservative ride. My father was able to average better than that over two years on his 2012 example and Triumph claims that significant improvements have been made since. Controls are of good quality and satisfying to use, with the possible exception of the indicator switch; the fashionable modern microswitch design means that it barely moves when you press it, much like on modern BMWs. In thick gloves, it might be hard to tell whether you hit it or not. Another odd move is that both heated seats are now adjusted via the handlebars, which means that your pillion will have to tap you on the shoulder if their bum gets cold.

Ergonomics are good, although with my short arms I’d ask my dealer to fit a set of risers to the handlebars. Lower seats are available for the short of leg, although you’d lose the heating option, and all seats have two different height settings that can be switched without tools. For the truly vertically challenged, you can even order a version of the Tiger 800 XRX with lowered suspension, although ground clearance suffers and a centre stand can no longer be fitted. I’d encourage interested parties to try the low seat first – it makes a big difference. With my 30″ inseam I actually found the standard seat in the high position to be perfectly manageable, with the added benefit of reducing the bend in my knees.

Aesthetics? Well, adventure-tourers are never going to be the prettiest of motorcycles; upright riding positions and tall fairings/screens can make for ungainly proportions, although Triumph‘s designers have done their best to build a very angry, angular structure into the front end. The matt blue paint on my tester looked even better in the flesh, and the metallic silver or white, which are the other two options at this trim level, look suitably sparkly in the sunshine.

Behind the tank, things quickly descend into a mess of scaffolding and black plastic, with the seat floating on top as though the designers just sort of gave up half-way through. What’s more, choosing your colour has no effect on any part of the rear half of the motorcycle. Still, I’ve seen worse, and there’s no denying the practicality of having so many bungee points available. I’m sure the Italians would be horrified at the focus of function over form, but I could probably learn to live with it.

At the end of the day, I find myself rather taken by the Triumph Tiger 800 XRT. Sure, it’s expensive – a full £2,000 more than a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, which is a closer match in terms of power, suspension and braking performance. But I have to say, you do get quite a bit for your money – the materials and construction on current Triumphs simply ooze quality.

As for me? Well, I’d have to make a choice. The base-spec XR model almost achieves price parity with Suzuki’s V-Strom 1000, though with its more basic brakes and suspension it can’t quite match it for performance and loses much of the electronic gadgets that would make the Tiger 800 such a nice bike to live with. Where the Suzuki really wins, however, is simplicity and reliability.

The last chinks in the Triumph‘s armour are the running costs. The official maintenance schedule dictates minor services at 6,000 miles, with prices between £300-400 for each visit. At 12,000 miles the checklist for the mechanic is extensive, and includes an extremely time-consuming check of the engine’s valve clearances. Assuming everything is in spec, you can expect a bill of around £800, and it gets far worse if any of those valves actually need adjusting.

I suspect that most Tiger 800 owners cover more than the UK-average 4,000 miles per year, so it’s worth doing some calculations to determine just how expensive things could get for you before signing on the dotted line. At my rate of 25,000 miles per year, I’d be looking at paying my local dealer a hefty £2,400 annually just to maintain the warranty. I’m sure you can see why I tend to do my own servicing these days.

Like my own V-Strom 650, a new V-Strom 1000, or any of the other 800cc road-focused Adventure-Tourers, the Tiger 800 XRT is an effective way of crossing countries quickly. The top speed won’t make headlines, but the focus on rider comfort and compliant suspension matched with a real-world fuel range approaching 250 miles per tank means that the miles just fly by.

Cruise control takes the stress out of the motorway stretches, and the wide bars and light handling make easy work of curvier roads. By focusing on genuine, practical improvements rather than flashy but marketable gimmicks, Triumph have succeeded in turning the previously disappointing Tiger 800 into a motorcycle I can wholeheartedly recommend. I can give no higher praise.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream June 2019

A Different Type of Riding (Part 4: 2019 Yamaha T-Max)

It’s been a little while since I test-rode any new motorcycles as part of my search for a comfortable, relaxing, low-speed, two-up touring bike. I wanted something with a feet-forward riding position, that could carry two in relative comfort while being sufficiently engaging that I wouldn’t mind the slower, more relaxed sort of riding that typifies my family tours. Frustratingly, it seems that motorcycle design has become extremely polarised, with manufacturers pushing their designs into increasingly narrow genres, and finding the right mix of price and features was proving increasingly difficult.

I started by giving scooters a go in the shape of Honda’s new Forza 300. Perfect on paper, the reality was a disappointment, largely due to the forgettable riding experience and unpleasant buffeting at speed. The next obvious contender for riders seeking a feet-in-the-wind stance were cruisers, exemplified in my case by the Harley-Davidson Sport-Glide. There was an awful lot to like – an engaging engine, comfortable ride, and lockable hard luggage, but a starting price of £15,000 proved too bitter a pill for me to swallow.

Other, cheaper cruisers are available, but pillion accommodations on smaller and cheaper models are clearly an afterthought. The attitude of both Harley-Davidson and Indian is that riders intending to bring company along on their adventures should be looking to their respective full-price, full-dress tourer ranges. Triumph is no better; I had high hopes for their new Speedmaster, but the brick-like pillion perch was vetoed by my partner after just a few moments’ seat time.

Yet even as I was forced to give up on cruisers, scooters kept pulling me back. I’d previously dismissed the larger Suzuki Burgman 650 and Yamaha T-Max thanks to their circa £10,000 price tags, but on paper, they really did tick almost every box. The bigger the scooter, the bigger the under-seat storage, with enough legroom to let you really stretch out. Top speeds north of 100mph as well as features such as cruise control, heated seats, and electrically-adjustable screens mean that these scooters begin to look more like half-price tourers rather than oversized city runabouts. Considered thus, the £10,000 asking price starts to look a lot more reasonable.

So, could a maxi-scooter do everything for me that a £15,000 Harley-Davidson Sport-Glide offered, but for several thousand pounds less? I zeroed in on the Yamaha T-Max first, its reputation as the better-handling of the big scooters giving it a better chance of meeting my exacting requirements. Confirming this proved a real challenge; none of the five Yamaha dealers I contacted kept a demonstrator on their fleet, the last finally suggesting I call the brand’s head office to track one down.

So what does your £10,000 buy you compared to, say, a Honda Forza 300? The extra 251cc of displacement doesn’t tell the whole story – it’s an under-square parallel twin rather than a single-cylinder engine, almost doubling the power output to an A2-compliant 45 horsepower. What you can’t tell without stripping away the bodywork is that, unlike smaller scooters, the T-Max’s engine is bolted to the frame, independently of the wheel and swinging arm. This arrangement matches conventional motorcycles, where the larger engines make the idea of mounting the entire powerplant as unsprung weight unpalatable.

Yamaha has pushed the T-Max’s parallel twin up near the front of the bike and the entire powertrain lies completely flat under the floorboards for a kerb-scrapingly-low centre of gravity. A cruiser-style belt handles final-drive duties, and a stout monoshock is tucked up underneath. Front suspension is by way of a pair of upside-down forks with twin radial 4-piston brake calipers hanging off the bottom. And lest you think that Yamaha needed R1-spec stopping power to handle the excessive mass that maxi-scooters are famous for, the advertised wet weight is a mere 216kg – only 16kg more than the R1.

Weight, incidentally, that Yamaha claim is perfectly balanced fore and aft, in sharp contrast to most notoriously rear-heavy scooters. The result of this is that while the T-Max doesn’t handle quite like a traditional motorcycle, it comes incredibly close. The scooter feels light to turn in, holds a line with poise and doesn’t fight back if you need to push harder in decreasing-radius corners. Lean angle is an impressive 50 degrees, which is just as well given that there’s nothing to grip your knees against, so hanging off isn’t really an option. As such, you can take curves with significant speed and confidence.

Driving out of corners is easy too, because the smooth, torquey engine works with its continuously-variable transmission, rather than seeming to be endlessly straining against it. Certainly, when pulling away from a stop or requesting a sudden burst of extra speed, the engine revs jump quickly and seem to hang in place, disconnected from the bike’s own rate of acceleration. But a couple of seconds later things seem to sync up again, with the engine speeds rising in conjunction with the speedometer, rather than droning listlessly regardless of the situation.

You never quite escape that drone, however. YouTube shows us how these scooters can actually sound fairly entertaining, popping and crackling on overrun as part of an enjoyable sonic accompaniment to more spirited riding – but only if you shell out for an aftermarket exhaust system. Yamaha wants more than £1,000 for the official Akrapovic option, and the T-Max definitely loses points for a stock system that is so quiet and devoid of character as to be quickly (and mercifully) drowned out by wind noise.

Which is a shame, because I’ve been racking my brains since I handed the keys back, trying to think of any other reasons to subtract points from the T-Max’s score. Yamaha’s designers did their best in wrapping an attractive body around a naturally bulbous layout, but I’d appreciate a more interesting selection of colours than varying shades of black and grey. The stock windshield is good, if not great – wind hits me right in the helmet and can cause a bit of noise at higher speeds, but it’s mostly smooth flow – no buffeting.

The £1,500 extra you pay for the DX version of the T-Max gives you a couple of extra buttons that raise the height of that windshield a considerable amount, theoretically solving that problem at a stroke. It also gives you electronic cruise control, heated grips and even a heated rider’s seat. There’s also a clever telematics system that allows you to remotely track your bike in case of theft, and view statistics about where you’ve ridden and how fast you were going – the latter not necessarily a benefit, perhaps. But that’s it – the rest are minor cosmetic differences, and if it weren’t for the blanking plates on the left-hand switchgear you’d never know you’d skimped and ordered the cheaper model.

All flavours get large twin dials for speed and revs, both chosen more to make four-wheeled converts feel comfortable rather than provide any real benefit to the rider. Digital speedos are always easier to read, and on an automatic transmission the tachometer only serves as a distraction from the road ahead. And it really is surprisingly easy to get distracted; I frequently found myself looking around and admiring the scenery, so easy was the T-Max to ride.

That should have meant that the experience was boring – I wasn’t being called upon to focus every fibre of my being on the task at hand, yet I was somehow enjoying the ride all the same. If anything, I worry that my riding standard might suffer when I’m not trying to hone my skills to a point with each ride, in every corner. And I would definitely need to decrease my speed further still if I’m going to start admiring distant mountains instead of watching for hazards ahead. But isn’t that what I’m looking for here? I really struggled to figure out what my opinion of the T-Max was, something tangible and objective that I could pin down in writing. But the overriding point is simply that I’d really quite like to ride it some more.

It’s not thrilling or raw, and doesn’t offer any kind of visceral riding experience. It’s not spectacularly efficient for its engine size, the Continuously-Variable-Transmission and barn-door windshield conspiring to push fuel economy down to about 60. Yet, like my V-Strom 650 it’s pretty good at everything while adding a wealth of practical functionality. You can rarely exploit the massive horsepower of a modern sports-tourer in the real world, but you can make use of the T-Max’s genuinely comfortable seat for every second of every ride.

The price of admission will be an issue for some, although a quick scan of the classifieds reveals that there are bargains to be had on nearly-new models. Oil changes are every 6,000 miles, with 12k major services including replacement of the transmission v-belt. Pay a workshop to remove all that plastic and the labour rate can really add up, but my research shows that it’s nothing that a patient home mechanic should be scared of. And being a Yamaha, valve clearance checks aren’t necessary until 24,000 miles, something I feel other manufacturers could learn from.

There’s no oily chain to maintain, thanks to the belt final-drive, headlights are modern LEDs and the massive fairing will keep you warm and dry in conditions when most motorcyclists would be huddling for shelter under bridges. The T-Max genuinely seems to offer all the advantages of the much-maligned scooter format, without suffering from many of the issues that gave rise to that battered reputation. And if you want to tweak the format, the T-Max has one of the most extensive after-market followings I’ve ever seen – at least, once you reach outside of our insular British bubble.

Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It may well be that the best low-intensity touring motorcycle is, in fact, a scooter.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream June 2019

Go to Part 2

Dedicated Follower of Fashion?

BMW R1250GS Review

Henry Ford is said to have opined that, should he have asked people what they wanted from a future transport solution they would have simply requested a faster horse. Apple famously made its fortune delivering products that nobody knew they wanted, and it’s arguable that the original BMW R80GS did the same thing. Journalists at the time were baffled, complaining that it was too heavy to compete with dirt bikes, and that more traditional touring bikes had it beat on paved roads. Yet a combination of genuine everyday capability, iterative improvement and a healthy dose of clever marketing mean that the modern-day iteration sold more than 4,000 examples in the UK in 2017.

Almost 40 years of development brings plenty of improvements and refinements, as engineers try to satisfy marketing’s desire to appeal to wider and wider demographics. Lower seat heights entice the short of leg to join the fun, while better brakes and suspension as well as a power output 270% of the original bring in those of a more sporting persuasion. Stronger chassis and subframes provide the passenger and luggage requirements of the touring set and an ever-more sophisticated electronics suite rounds off the package for tech fetishists. The latest revision, the new R1250GS, really should be all things to all people.

Every major manufacturer is working hard to constantly broaden the appeal of every bike in their range. The main problem with iterative development arises when you keep moving the goalposts, when your target keeps shifting. Before you know it, you have lost sight of the original purpose of the thing you were building, and have created something that is a caricature of itself. But going backwards, aiming for less weight, less power, and more control would be unthinkable! It would surely be commercial suicide, as no-one would buy a bike that had lower numbers than the competition!

This story isn’t unique to the R1250GS or even to BMW; consumers have never been good at separating what we ‘want’ from what we ‘need’, and the people in charge of selling us stuff have zero incentive to discourage our appetites. Marketing, journalists and consumers all demand more power, but riders can’t actually handle that, so electronic aids are brought in to compensate. The chassis and suspension can’t handle it either, so they are both beefed up and yet more electronics added to shocks and forks in a desperate attempt to keep the rising mass of modern motorcycles under control at ever-higher speeds on fast-degrading roads.

All those electronics now mean that handlebar switchgear has begun to resemble video game controllers, so manufacturers are sticking with the theme and adding full-colour computer screens where the dashboards used to be. You need a half hour with the instruction manual to get the bike ready to go, and piloting a modern motorcycle at speed is now like flying a modern-day jet aircraft, the laws of physics kept barely in check by an overlapping network of electronic safety nets.

I rode the first-generation water-cooled R1200GS back when it first launched, and found it to be extraordinary. The tremendous capability of the machine far exceeded what I could make use of at the time, and while my riding has continued to develop in the intervening years I suspect that the 2013 machine still has more performance than the average rider can safely use on public roads.

BMW hasn’t been idle either, making nips and tucks throughout the life of the water-GS, with premium features becoming standard-fit and new tech introduced almost every year to tempt well-heeled buyers into adding more ticks to their options list. In fact, the only really notable change over last year’s version is the extra 80cc’s of displacement that give the R1250GS its name. As such this new BMW is simply an example of the culture of excess that has spread throughout mainstream motorcycling; let’s see if we can identify the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Figures show that mass has increased over time, with the latest GS now weighing in at a shade over 250kg with a full tank of petrol. The optional spoked wheels add a few more kilos, as will the crash bars, luggage and other accessories that owners will undoubtedly bolt on (or more likely have their dealer install). Styling tweaks have served to add a fair bit of visual bulk over the years, and the German flagship is now a truly imposing beast.

Switchgear is of high quality, with a satisfying feel that is a joy to use – with the sole exception of the indicator and cruise-control switches. There’s so little movement that you find yourself looking down to confirm you’ve definitely pressed them. Despite adding an actual scroll-wheel (which itself contains an additional two tilt buttons) many of the dozen or so buttons have different functions depending on how long you hold them down. Outside of the basic riding functions, the bike is impossible to operate without looking down at the gloriously animated full-colour high-resolution digital dashboard.

The new BMW computer screen is far better than anything Triumph, Ducati or KTM have on offer at the moment, and feels like a genuine functional improvement over existing analogue or LCD units. It’s large, clear and easy to read even in direct sunlight, uses colour to enhance rather than distract, and provides all the information you need at a glance. Triumph’s units have fascias so large they remind me of old CRT televisions, and reading a Ducati TFT is like trying to decipher a detailed spreadsheet.

And yet, as I alluded to earlier, I strongly suspect that BMW’s primary motivator was not to one-up the competition, but simply to make all their technology manageable through a graphical user interface. It’s already a bit like using a digital watch, with multiple functions attached to each button, and navigating the various menus via the left-hand scroll wheel is probably something that gets easier with familiarity. There are main menus and sub-menus, with screens hidden behind other screens. At one point I resorted to turning the bike off and on again as the fastest way to get back to the regular dashboard layout.

The R1250GS has all the hallmarks of a bike designed through exhaustive focus testing. It has loads of power – 135bhp and 143Nm of torque. The levers, screen and seat are all adjustable, and the suspension can not only be adjusted electronically on the move, it’s now self-levelling depending on load and passengers, and even adjusts the damping in real-time to manage whatever surprises the road surface can throw at it. The brakes, despite no longer sporting the ultra-fashionable Brembo logo, are stupendous; how quickly you can stop is solely dependent on how much g-force your upper body can handle.

You can attach loads of luggage, and even remove the pillion seat for more space to strap stuff to. The lighting is now full LED, and fully automatic. It has cruise control for long motorway trips, the seat is comfortable and the windshield height-adjustable from the cockpit. It even gets acceptable fuel economy, and only very aggressive riding managed to push the average mpg down below 50. Everyone wants multiple riding modes now, so it has those too. Good grief, it even has a quick-shifter, something originally designed for racing and now this season’s must-have accessory. As I said earlier, this bike has been designed to be all things to all people, the formula polished until it gleams – this should be the perfect motorcycle.

And yet, there are serious issues. Every review of the R1200GS inexplicably complained that it was underpowered compared to the competition, and so an incredibly clever new variable-valve timing system was developed that boosts torque and power across the entire rev range. Despite the 80cc more cubic capacity this enormous engine revs up more like an inline four-litre bike engine than a big, torquey twin. I’m used to the snatchy aftermarket quick-action throttle on my Triumph Street Triple, and in Dynamic mode the R1250GS was far twitchier.

BMW know this, which is why you have to pay extra to even get access to that particular riding mode. ‘Road’ and ‘Rain’ dampen response considerably, but also add a woolly feel and even hesitation that made smooth gear changes extremely difficult. The new quick-shifter suggests that BMW spotted this issue as well, allowing fully hands-free gear shifts. Unfortunately, in almost all circumstances it works very poorly, resulting in jerky upshifts and even worse downshifts. It was so bad that I was prompted to ask the BMW rep if the system was disabled on my example, and I was condescendingly told that I merely needed to get used to it. Perhaps having your pillion’s helmet crashing into the back of your own is an acquired taste?

Similarly ferocious sportsbikes are normally equipped with extremely stiff suspension to counteract the squatting and diving forces caused by accelerating and braking. Matters are complicated somewhat when you’re carrying around 50kg of reinforced subframes, and probably another 100kg of luggage and passenger. But touring riders want a soft, comfortable ride, so computer-controlled suspension is available to try and provide the best of both worlds. It’s a testament to BMW’s engineers that it almost succeeds. The trick, it seems, is to keep the shock absorbers soft most of the time, and then firm them up quickly in response to large, sudden inputs to control excessive movement.

In practice it seems that the on-board computers just can’t cope, at least on Northamptonshire’s rutted tarmac. Small surface undulations are absorbed well enough in ‘Road’ mode, making for a comfortable ride and allowing you to maintain the rapid pace that the engine enables. But hit a patch of rougher asphalt and the dampers seem to lock up, transmitting the shock into the chassis and causing the entire bike to shudder and flex. I’m afraid it’s not what I’d expect from a brand new £16,000 flagship.

Switching the suspension over to ‘Dynamic’ simply made matters worse, delivering a ride so firm that both wheels were frequently bouncing off the ground and triggering the ABS and traction control. The only solution was to ride more slowly, rendering all that power utterly pointless.

Perhaps a beefier rider might better suit the spring rates that BMW have chosen for their shocks, and if you only stick to smooth, open roads you may find the suspension to be perfectly adequate. But surely the whole point of adventure bikes is that they allow us to continue enjoying our roads even as they continue to fall apart? Perhaps that fast-revving engine would be blunted somewhat were I to weigh more than my meagre 70kg, and the bike further loaded down with a pillion and full complement of hard luggage. And perhaps the steep inclines and high altitudes of the Swiss Alps would smooth things out the rest of the way. But unless I just described your sole use-case of a purportedly ultra-versatile machine, I think there are less compromised solutions out there.

I really wanted to like this new GS, I really did. I have tremendous respect for the bike and the BMW brand, and I think that they’re one of the few manufacturers actively trying to solve the marketing and dealership problems that threaten to strangle the motorcycle industry. But I’m afraid that their product has fallen victim to fashion, and the demand for more power and gadgets has resulted in a demonstrably compromised motorcycle. I’d love to see what a 900cc version would look like – 100bhp and a 30kg diet might be the sweet spot, and more of the bike could be enjoyed without computer interference at every turn. It’s a shame the road-oriented F750GS has been so badly neutered to give the off-road focused F850GS room to breathe.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, the iconic motorcycle that kick-started the entire adventure segment has now become just like the company’s cars: overweight, overcomplicated and overpriced. An impressive technical showcase whose electronic faculties are less of a testament to innovation and more of a desperate attempt to win the ultimate game of motorcycle Top Trumps. It’s a little bit like my cooking, in fact: all the right ingredients, yet somehow the result just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream May 2019

A Different Type of Riding (Part 3: 2018 Harley Davidson Sport Glide)

Those of you who have been following this mini-series will have discovered that while mid-capacity scooters tick a lot of practical boxes, they don’t provide a visceral low-speed experience to augment a sight-seeing tour through Scandinavia. Given that a feet-forward riding position is on my checklist this time around my next area of exploration was obvious: I needed to look at cruisers.

The thing is, cruisers are surprisingly hard to find in the UK market. The reality is that we’re a nation of recovering sports-bike addicts, shifting to adventure bikes as we and our road network suffer the ravages of age and abuse. Those still looking for their low-tech, low-speed, hair-in-the-wind experience go to the player everyone else gave up competing with; they go to Harley-Davidson.

And yet, my riding experience of previous Harleys was underwhelming in the extreme. Weak brakes, scrunched-up riding positions, minuscule fuel tanks and non-existent suspension led me to conclude that Harley-Davidson were rolling art, and nothing more. Based on conversations with Harley owners over the last few years, my mistake had been riding the “small” Harleys, rather than the “full-sized” ones. They assured me that the build quality and riding experience on the big-twin models was in another league, and that I should stop using their 300kg+ kerb weights as a reason to avoid them.

One of the latest of these new Softail models was the Harley-Davidson Sport-Glide. I was intrigued; blacked-out engine with a minimum of chrome, hard, lockable quick-release luggage as standard and even a nifty removable mini-fairing. Black & polished alloy cast wheels and a comfy-looking bucket seat completed the image of a relaxed, light-duty tourer, clearly designed as a stepping stone for those not yet ready to commit to a fully-faired bagger from the Touring range.

The first surprise was the lack of an ignition key. Like the little Honda scooter, all Harleys now use proximity keys instead. The kill switch toggles the ignition state if the fob is nearby, allowing you to start the engine without fishing through your pockets, although locking the luggage still requires an old-fashioned key. Harley also has a typically low-tech solution to the question of opening the petrol tank – they simply don’t make it lockable.

Tucked away on the left instrument cluster is another surprise – a cruise control switch. Further up is the control for the multi-function trip computer, represented by a small LCD screen tucked away underneath the analogue speedometer. You can scroll through a couple of trip meters, the clock, fuel range and even current engine RPM, with a digital segmented fuel gauge running along the top of the display. A single number on the right indicates the current gear, although generally you’ll only need it for confirming when you’re in sixth on motorways.

That enormous clutch-lever is a two-finger pull, and the rumbling engine responds smoothly and easily to the feather-light throttle. I’ve ridden 125’s that were more difficult to set off on, although I did later discover some slight hesitation on initial throttle openings that my salesman attributed to the upgraded camshaft & associated fuelling changes. I would have to ride a stock example to be sure, but it was no worse than any other modern bike I’ve ridden lately.

Harley’s new engines are now fully counter-balanced, leaving just enough of a throb to remind you it’s there without causing your glasses to rattle off your nose at stop lights. Turning onto the road demonstrated that low-speed manoeuvres would be a little tricky with that large rear-brake pedal, but I had already forgotten that this machine weighed a full 100kg more than the bike I’d arrived on – it certainly didn’t feel like it.

Rolling down the first stretch of road demonstrated a compliant and controlled suspension system at work, communicating the details of the road surface whilst softening their impact. As I approached the first junction I braced myself to begin the process of slowing down 317kg of steel using a single front disk. Imagine my surprise then when I had to ease off the front brake entirely to avoid stopping a dozen metres short of the lights, such was the bite and power of that single four-pot calliper. Harley now out-sources their braking components to Brembo, and the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide stops impressively quickly despite its considerable weight.

Taking a stop to look up some specs online revealed more interesting facts. Thanks to the low-revving engine (redline is somewhere around 5,000RPM) Harley valve trains use hydraulic lifters, meaning that they will never need their clearances adjusting – ever. The kevlar final drive belt means there’s no chain to oil, and anecdotally have been known to last 70,000 miles and beyond without replacement. That new eight-valve engine is also more frugal than the previous generation, thanks in part to twin spark plugs per cylinder, and averages of 50-55mpg are to be expected in normal riding.

Submitting to the inevitable and introducing small oil coolers to keep the exhaust valve temperatures down also means that there was no more heat spilling off the power plant than from any other bike I have ridden. And this was no ordinary engine; the previous owner had dug into the performance section of Harley’s famous parts catalogue and equipped this bike with a higher-lift ‘Torque’ camshaft, a freer-flowing exhaust and intake and a full dyno remap to match. According to the Harley salesman, horsepower was up 30bhp over the original 75, with a matching jump in torque.

Those may not sound like earth-shattering numbers from what is essentially a 1.8litre engine, but the area under the torque curve is immense, delivering more thrust at 3,000RPM than a KTM SuperDuke does anywhere in the rev range. While acceleration is of course a factor of mass, there’s simply no ignoring that much sheer thrust. Let the engine climb up to 3-4k and you’ll be holding on for dear life, with no signs of the engine letting up. Admittedly I would expect an unmodified engine to reign things in somewhat, but all of those upgrades were fully warrantied and fitted by Harley themselves for around £2,000 extra. Think of it as a Sport Glide”R”, then.

So; the engine and brakes impress, in a way that I genuinely didn’t expect. What about the handling? The aforementioned low-speed manners are faultless, and while I daresay that tighter roads might require a lower pace than from a modern super-naked it handled the sweeping curves of Oxford with aplomb. Twice metal met tarmac despite my caution, although I later discovered it to be the after-market exhaust system that was grounding out, not the considerably higher forward-set footpegs. I’m quite certain I would not recommend a Harley-Davidson to someone plotting to chase down sports bikes through the Pyrenees, but then I already have my V-Strom for that.

Which brings us to the raison d’être for this test; I didn’t need or want another fast sports-tourer – I needed something that would be just as much fun when ridden in convoy behind a Belgian camper van as it would chasing down empty tarmac. And I’m extremely pleased to report that the truly characterful engine, a joy to use at any speed in any gear, made for a fantastic low-intensity journey. Motorway riding was a little less relaxed thanks to the minimal windshield. My example was equipped with the optional taller screen, but I do wonder if removing it entirely might net less buffeting.

The integrated panniers solve the luggage problem; the 19-litre tank and (relatively) impressive economy makes 200 miles between fill-ups possible, and the wide, plush seat means I could happily empty that tank multiple times in a single day. I’d personally want to bring the handlebars a little further back to compensate for my stubby T-Rex arms and add a luggage rack to increase carrying capacity further, but the beauty of that Harley parts catalogue is that there are fully-warrantied options available for every taste and requirement.

Dipping too heavily into that catalogue can prove expensive, however, which is a problem when the Sport Glide – one of the cheapest bikes in the Softail range – starts just shy of £15,000. Add an exhaust, a couple of replacement trim pieces to dispatch the remaining chrome and we’re quickly approaching BMW K1600GT territory. Many people will find those prices somewhat difficult to justify when a similar sum thrown at the BMW salesman will see you rewarded with a much lighter, much faster, and genuinely capable motorcycle.

But if we accept for a moment (and I’m still struggling with this myself) that in 2019 big bikes cost big money and start to look closely at Harley’s offerings, you can start to see where all that cash goes. There’s no electronic suspension, but then there’s barely any wiring to speak of – at least, not that you can see, with cables routed internally and hiding inside the handlebars and frame. There’s no forum-argument-winning top-end power to be found, but while an inline-four or 90-degree twin is a more efficient way to go fast, that big Harley engine is simply more enjoyable to use. It’s satisfying in the same way that power tools and food processors are – you find yourself doing odd jobs around the house or making smoothies just for an excuse to use them.

That headline price is going to prove the biggest challenge for me, however. The build quality is incredible, the paint deep and mirror-perfect, and Harley residuals are famously good, although I suspect that’s because many owners barely ride the things. But having met a few who do pile on the miles without a single complaint or mechanical malady it’s clear that an under-stressed, proven formula can make for a reliable motorcycle. I also appreciate the fact that Harley make it easy for those of less average proportions to swap out handlebars, footpegs and seats, although I wish that such items could be fitted at the factory rather than expensive dealer-fit extras.

I’m not done shopping just yet- and I’d very much like to try out an Indian Scout to see if I can find a lower-priced alternative, but the fact of the matter is that the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide has set the bar very high indeed. The search continues…

 

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream May 2019

A Different Type of Riding (Part 2: The Honda Forza 300)

Feet-forward riding position? Low-speed comfort, lockable luggage and epic fuel range? Surely there can be but one solution – a mid-capacity scooter!

Scooters are much-maligned here in the UK, our past obsession with sports bikes often pointed to as the reason why we are apparently the sole nation on this continent not to whole-heartedly embrace this most practical form of two-wheeled transport. Visit a major European city and they’re absolutely everywhere, complete with massive windshields, huge top-boxes and leg-covering scooter skirts. Unfashionable? You may think so, but the Italians seem to disagree, and fashion is kind of their thing.

Cost could be a factor. The example frequently held up is the Yamaha T-Max, which starts at more than £11,000. Admittedly this isn’t exactly a pizza-delivery vehicle, with a spec list that includes 500cc twin-cylinder engine, radial brakes, upside-down forks, heated grips & seat and even cruise control. It’s less of an oversized Vespa, more of a two-wheeled luxury sedan, with performance to match.And other scooters are available. If you don’t need or want motorcycle-grade top speeds then there’s new growth in the 300cc scooter segment. Yamaha revamped its X-Max last year, Kymco and Kawasaki have been swapping badges and paint on their respective offerings and Honda’s latest 300cc Forza has just landed here in the UK. It’s a perfect opportunity to test out the concept and see if a 20-30bhp automatic could meet my needs as a low-speed tourer.

First impressions are good, but probably depend on your own aesthetic preferences. I happen to like the angular spaceship-with-wheels styling, but I’m sure it isn’t for everyone. The wheels are well-proportioned, although at fifteen inches are still considerably smaller than what most of us will be used to. Where the Forza begins to really impress is when you take a closer look and start to dig in to the spec sheet & features lists.

To start with you get full LED lighting from stem to stern – no incandescent bulbs to fail unexpectedly while on tour, which means no need to carry spares. They’re also a damn sight brighter, and do a great job of attracting the attention of perennially distracted car drivers. Next up, a centre stand comes included, something that – with fitting – often adds close to £400 to your average adventure-tourer’s price tag.  Unfortunately, it turns out the real reason for this is that the Honda refuses to start or run while the side-stand is extended, a safety feature necessitated by the automatic twist-and-go gearbox on the Forza.

At the back we have a secure cavernous under-seat storage area, easily matching the capacity of an average top-box, while simultaneously keeping any luggage weight low to the ground. A top-box is available if yet more storage is required, with the added benefit of being linked to the same keyless access system the ignition uses.

That’s right – up front, there’s nowhere to insert a key, a proximity fob similar to many high-spec cars is provided instead. As long as this key is somewhere about your person, you can push the ignition knob to activate the system and then twist it to the relevant position. Setting the ignition to On wakes up the comprehensive dashboard tucked away inside the fairing. Road & engine speed are represented by large dials with easy-to-read numbers either side of an inverted LCD display. Here a bored rider could monitor air temperature, charging system voltage and instantaneous fuel consumption, alongside the usual twin trip meters and multi-segment fuel-gauge and coolant temperature.

Settings can be scrolled through using the left-hand switch-gear, which also includes the controls for disabling the traction control system (not really necessary with just 25bhp) and raising and lowering the electronically-adjustable screen. This last piece of equipment sounds great on paper, reacting quickly to the controls and allowing you to keep your view clear around town and dial in more wind protection on the motorway.

Unfortunately, in practice the windshield is at best ineffective and at worst downright awful. I’m 5 foot 10, and my choices were limited to where on my helmet I wanted the turbulent air directed. In the low setting I got a whistling noise and an amplified amount of air forced through the tiniest gaps in my visor’s seal. In the highest setting my head was batted around like a tethered ping-pong ball at anything above 50mph. A new shape and possibly a much taller screen are desperately needed. Either that, or a hacksaw to remove it entirely and let my Shoei’s aerodynamics do their job in a clear air stream.More useful is the small fairing cubbyhole on the left-hand side of the front fairing. Neatly integrated and otherwise invisible so as to avoid tempting casual thieves, it’s surprisingly spacious, large enough to hold a water bottle. It also contains a 12V power socket, although this will be limited to charging smartphones. Heated gear will draw more power than the meagre 24 Watts on offer, and would require leaving the cubby open to allow the cables to exit.

It’s very telling that we’re almost 1,000 words into this review and I have yet to mention the brakes, suspension or engine at all. Unfortunately, this where it all falls apart for me. None of those components do a bad job, per se. There’s just nothing remarkable or memorable about the experience they offer. The suspension, basic as it is with old-fashioned twin-shocks hanging off the end of the swing-arm, works fine, absorbing the undulations of our pock-marked road surface without too much difficulty. Pot-holes are to be avoided, especially with those smaller wheels, but given the superior quality of tarmac available on the continent shouldn’t present a problem while on tour.

The brakes are odd. Both operated by levers on the bars, the front brake is relatively tame and squishy, the rear biting so hard that it the ABS system can be triggered at will. I quickly reverted to my usual scooter tactic of squeezing both levers hard and genuinely wonder why a single linked lever couldn’t be offered instead. The rear is too sharp to be used for slow-speed manoeuvres, and the smooth engagement of the constantly-variable transmission and automatic clutch mean that U-turns can be executed using throttle alone.

The whole drivetrain, in fact, is utterly unremarkable. If it weren’t for the very faint vibration and low buzz at the edge of earplug-dampened-hearing you could believe that this was Honda’s first electric motorcycle. Torque off the line is smooth and plentiful, tapering off quickly as speeds rise towards the national limit. An indicated 90 is possible, or so I’ve heard from a friend, and if it weren’t for the atrocious windshield the Forza would be perfectly capable of crossing the empty expanses of northern France during the opening salvos of a longer tour.

At lower speeds the throttle response is perfectly judged and the added headroom over lower-capacity scooters means that overtakes are perfectly achievable, albeit with a little more forward planning than is necessary on the 150+bhp monsters many of us are used to. On the other hand, at an impressive 80mpg during mixed riding, as well as cheaper consumables and servicing, it will cost an awful lot less to run than such powerful machines.

While trundling along at 30-40mph is utterly effortless, it’s also utterly forgettable. Riding a bicycle would deliver a more memorable experience than this, and means that what I remember most about those stretches of road is the podcast I was listening to at the time. And that, I’m afraid, means that the Forza 300 fails a critical litmus test in my search for a family touring bike. In its attempts to create a two-wheeler to tempt bored commuters out of their anodyne four-wheeled boxes, Honda has succeeded too well. Even the colour options – mostly various shades of grey – match the soulless identikit cars clogging up our nation’s cities each morning.

All the practical stuff is accomplished with the usual efficiency, and as a way to get to work cheaply and easily I cannot fault it. But I don’t need a commuter. I need a fun-to-use low-speed tourer that will galvanise rather than homogenise every mile ridden, that will add flavour to my travels and become a memorable part of those future adventures. And I’m afraid the Honda Forza 300 fails hard here. My search continues…

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream April 2019

Yamaha Tracer 900GT

Do expectations always deliver? And just what is the true potential of the new Yamaha Tracer 900GT? Keith Yallop reports on his bike purchase of May 2018. After over 9,000 miles he asks, “Is this the ultimate jack-of-all-trades?”

I have been biking for many decades having ridden about 1/2 million miles – or to the moon and back – on over 50 different machines of various sizes and capabilities.. My last few bikes have all been high-performance sport tourers with the emphasis on ‘sports’. I do quite a lot of touring in this country and across Europe with my riding buddy, Paul Ruden. We quite often do over 500 miles a day. In 2017 we did a European trip with me on my Kawasaki Z1000SX, which is a great bike, but the riding position was starting to take its toll on my ageing joints. At the end of a day’s ride I was glad to get off it. I came to the conclusion that my biking requirements needed some major reassessment.

So over Christmas 2017 I drew up a list of what I wanted from my motorcycling, taking into account that I was entering into my twilight years and my ageing joints were not as flexible as they used to be. High on my list was comfort, ease of handling, light-weight, narrow (to aid filtering), panniers which were not too large and could be easily removed. Low on the list was dropped bars, big cc, massive horsepower and MotoGP acceleration. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a bike with low down punch but over 100mph top speed was definitely moving off my radar and comfort was becoming a priority.

So what fitted these requirements? I started to look at a range of bikes all in the upright adventure touring position. During December 2017/January 2018 I visited BMW, Triumph, Honda, Ducati, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha. All the dealers offered great sports tourers, all with good points and some not so good. However at The Motorbike Shop in Farnborough I was invited to take out a Yamaha MT-09 Tracer. This bike was not on my list but I thought why not give it a try? After an extended 50 mile ride I felt that this machine and I could have a long and happy relationship. It all seemed to gel for me, this was probably helped by the fact that I have owned a number of Yamahas.

The throttle response was very lively, especially when in sports (A) mode, where with its short wheelbase it would easily lift its front wheel if you left traffic lights too energetically. On my return to the shop I was informed that a brand new model called the Tracer 900GT would be launched in early summer 2018. It would have an extended swing arm to reduce front wheel lift and make the bike more stable with panniers fitted. It would have a host of extras as standard, including panniers, touring screen, narrower bars, better seat, quick-shifter, updated suspension, cruise control and the list went on. It would be sub £11k. They offered me an excellent part-exchange price for my Z1000SX so I made an instant decision to place an order, one I hoped I would not regret.

I spent a nervous 5 months wondering if I had made the right decision and found myself asking if it was going to be anywhere near as much fun as the demo MT-09 on which I had ridden. Or had the practical additions to the GT changed this new model for the worse?

On the 21st of May I was the first rider in the UK to take delivery of the Tracer 900GT, or so I was told. The first thing that struck me was just how impressive the bike feels. It has the same grand presence as an adventure bike, but obviously with the road-focused bias. Sitting on the machine allows for a good view over the traffic ahead and the large screen appears to provide good protection (more on that later).

The bike feels tall with an 850mm seat height, but despite this I’m still able to flat-foot pretty easily when sat on it (I’m 5’ 11”). For those who might be a little more vertically challenged this could be more of a problem, however there is a lowering kit available.

It’s all well and good babbling on about the GT’s finer details but unless it rides well on the roads and operates well in real situations then it doesn’t mean diddly squat. So how does it ride?

Well the suspension was not one of the best points of the MT-09 based models of old. I was therefore pleased to discover that the revised suspension immediately puts to rest any previous questions over the earlier model. The suspension has been uprated using Kayaba units featuring dual springs and adjustability of both high and low speed compression damping, as well as preload and rebound damping. The rear shock preload is easily changed thanks to a side-mounted adjuster, perfect for those who are looking to travel with a pillion and/or lots of luggage. Yamaha have obviously been listening carefully to their customers, which is certainly refreshing in the motorcycle industry. Through corners it is probably one of the most ‘flickable’ bikes I have had the pleasure to ride.

Yamaha have also gone to town on reprogramming the MT-09 ECU mapping. Renowned for being a little snatchy on the power, the old map has been updated to give a much smoother delivery and also make the bike much more manageable when sat at a higher revs.

After riding over 9,000 miles on the bike in this country and across Europe, I must say it is a very pleasurable bike to be sat on for long distance cruising. It is very responsive and agile even though it weighs in at 227kg fully kitted out with panniers and fuel. Combining the excellent chassis with the brilliant 847cc triple power unit makes for an engaging ride that doesn’t leave me feeling disappointed or achy.

It would be pretty easy to think of these rather significant updates being the end of the story, but it is in fact just the beginning. Yamaha have seemingly thrown most of their accessories catalogue at the GT to make it into a machine that you could pick up tomorrow and set straight off on a European tour.

The most notable of the accessories is of course the hard luggage, which offers a mediocre 44-litres of storage. As the silencer is tucked away under the engine this allows both panniers to be of equal size. However the panniers will not take a full-face helmet. I have modified a soft bag of similar capacity to clip onto the rear seat thereby giving me close on 90-litres total luggage for touring. I replace this large bag with a smaller bag of 15 litres for weekends away. A plus point is that the paniers are very easy to remove using the ignition key and there is no scaffolding left behind.

Alongside the panniers the GT also comes with a centre stand, hand guards and heated grips where all 3 settings can be programmed individually to allow 10 different heat choices for each setting (30 in total), this makes winter riding a far less disconcerting prospect.

The rest of the electronics package is also very impressive with three selectable engine modes and traction control settings. There’s also cruise control, which definitely makes long range touring much more pleasurable. The coloured TFT instrument panel is from the R1 dash and although it is a bit on the small size it can be programmed with just about any information you would like the bike to give you, including gear indicator.

Impressively, the Tracer 900GT also comes with a slipper clutch down and quick-shifter up. The quick-shifter certainly makes for a smooth and simple affair when kicking up through the gearbox, it’s very easy to get used to clutchless upshifting. However I have to say that I still often prefer to use the old way and change gear with the clutch. But the choice is yours.

With panniers removed the bike is fairly light at 205kg and with the ECU programmed to give low down torque it is no slouch. For those of you who are interested in the tech figures, the bike has a triple cylinder 847cc engine producing 115bhp at the crank, has a top speed of 140mph, does 0-60 in 2.7 seconds and quarter mile in 10.6 seconds. But what about stopping? Well the rear brake is ok but not super efficient, the front brakes come from the R1 and are very positive having ample stopping power with very little effort even when the bike’s fully loaded.

However it is not all honey and roses – I do have a few gripes. The first is with the original tyres. The Tracer 900GT came with Dunlop Sportsmax D222 as standard and I was not at all impressed with them. I think Yamaha must have got a bulk cheap deal from Dunlop! Driving hard out of bends the back end seemed to be a little skittish and lively which took me back to my old days of scrambling. It also seemed to grab at every crack or seam in the tarmac. Not quite what I wanted on my new touring bike. So at sub 2,000 miles I visited Mel and he advised fitting a pair of Bridgestone Battlax T31’s. The difference in handling was amazing, the skittish feel had gone and the line grabbing was vastly reduced. What a difference a good tyre can make!

Secondly, I don’t personally like the fuel gauge. It only starts reducing after you’ve dropped to lower than half of the tank’s 18 litre capacity, then it shoots down and hangs around for a long time at 1/8 of a tank. It’s not a big deal and to most of you it won’t make any big difference at all, it’s just what I prefer. So I have set the TFT screen to show how much fuel I am consuming. When it gets near 4 gallons (18 litres) I know I need to look for a petrol station pretty quickly. The fuel consumption indicator is showing 55mpg and on tours I have managed to push a full tank to over 200 miles, the warning light comes on at around 185 miles. That makes it one of the most economical bikes I have owned, other than a BSA Bantam and a Triumph Tiger Cub!

My other major gripe is the screen. I seem to be in good company with this moan as nearly all magazine and online testers say the same. At higher speeds the wind coming around the screen is noisy and seems to buffer me around, especially on motorways travelling behind vehicles. Before my tour to Europe I purchased an MRA touring screen with an aerofoil on top and that has made a lot of difference. The screen is manually pinch and adjust with one hand which was useful in Alps when we came out of a tunnel straight into a tremendous rainstorm. Yamaha do offer their own larger touring screen but it costs a lot more and I am not sure how good it is.

Another minor moan is that you cannot fully put your toes on the foot pegs without hitting your heels on the pillion foot-peg mounts. However I have learnt to come off my toes and use the balls of my feet, seems to work just fine and is probably a little more comfortable.

My final moan is the position of the ignition key. If the handlebars are straight ahead then it is difficult to get your hand in, if they are turned to the right it’s impossible to reach. So steering needs to be turned left to get to the key. Why could they not mount the key in a more accessible position?

I have to be honest though, what I’m most impressed with is the price. While on paper the £10,649 price tag may seem like quite a lot, what you get for the money is nothing short of incredible value. I could not find another comparable motorcycle in this price bracket that even comes close to the specification of the GT as standard and it really makes this motorcycle very hard to fault.

So what extras have I deemed necessary apart from the MRA screen (£108)? Well I have fitted a radiator guard (£40) along with a front mudguard extender (£22). I have also fitted twin horns (£15), a Yamaha larger side-stand foot (£48), a pair of R&G bar ends (£23) and Givi engine crash bars (£126) – just in case I feel the need to gently lay the bike down.

So did the Tracer 900GT tick all my boxes from my Christmas 2017 ‘nice to have’ list? I think it has and probably more. I believe the hard fact about the Tracer 900GT is that you’ll grin like a Cheshire cat whenever you ride it, despite the weather, season or journey. Cold or hot, rain or shine, commuting or charging; the GT will be everything you could ever need and be lots of fun whilst doing it. It’s definitely a bike that has been designed to be a little easier to live with and, importantly, you don’t need to remortgage the house to buy it. The Tracer 900GT is definitely going to appeal to those who want just one bike that will comfortably do a bit of everything and do it well. And finally, to quote MCN, ‘a seriously good bike at a seriously great price’.

Keith Yallop

First published in Slipstream March 2019

A Different Type of Riding (Part 1)

It may come as no surprise to many of you that not everyone wants to ride everywhere as fast as possible. It certainly puzzled me for quite some time.

My entire riding career has been spent in the pursuit of optimising, improving and developing both my skills and the tools I use in an effort to become an ever safer, smoother and faster motorcyclist. I approach everything I do in this manner, always seeking to improve on previous efforts, iterating on designs and techniques in a rewarding, yet ultimately futile attempt to achieve perfection. It’s probably something to do with growing up in Germany.

When my rudimentary skills proved too limited, I joined TVAM. When my bikes held me back, I upgraded and modified them to increase their performance envelopes. I daresay my V-Strom 650 is the most over-developed example in the world, and I’d like to think I could keep up with most of you just fine through any alpine pass of your choice. But I’ve also come to the realisation that for many motorcyclists this might just be missing the point.

Where I find satisfaction and enjoyment from a series of perfectly-executed mountain hairpins, my parents are quite content to trundle along in the middle of their lane, gazing around at the surrounding scenery, often at a considerable amount below the posted limit. When returning from our last trip they enthused at length about the villages, towns and countryside monuments they had seen on our travels. I mostly recalled a series of apexes amongst a green blur in my peripheral vision. Everyone had a great time, in their own fashion.

For a number of years we toured together, with myself and often my brother waiting at junctions and the top of passes for parents, aunts and uncles to catch up. But as time has gone by the performance delta has increased; myself and my bikes have become faster, while they have preferred to dawdle at a decreasing pace. Last year the frustration this caused became too much and we resolved to no longer ride together, parting ways each morning and meeting again at the evening’s hotel to eat, drink and swap stories.

While this initially appeared to be an ideal arrangement, the truth is that in practice it strongly resembles two parallel vacations. We aren’t really on holiday together and there would be precious little difference should the two trips happen in series, rather than parallel. From my perspective nothing would change if they swapped out their bikes for a minivan; either way, we weren’t really touring together anymore.

And so a new solution is needed. Encouraging my family to join their respective IAM-affiliated clubs and learn to keep up has been unsuccessful, because they’re not actually interested in getting any quicker. They have the skills, forged over decades of riding, but aren’t interested in using them to cross countries at speed. And if they won’t go faster, and if I want to get back to riding as a family, then I’m going to have to slow down.

That sounds easy; just use less throttle, right? Except that it’s not. Everyone has their own stride, their own pace – walking down the street with someone who’s gait is considerably shorter than your own offers a similarly frustrating experience. You speed up and slow down, see-sawing back and forth as you attempt to force your own pace to match theirs and, while this is of course possible with considerable restraint, on many motorcycles it can make for uncomfortable and even painful riding.

Both of my own bikes are built to go fast. They’re fun to ride quickly, satisfying tools designed for the purpose of covering distance at speed, regardless of how twisty the route. But sat upright at half their usual speed they are uncomfortable to ride, with engines, brakes and suspension that are ill-suited for this unfamiliar task. With their smaller engines, they demand higher revs for smooth operation, which does not make for a peaceful ride at lower speeds. This results in bikes that are fun when ridden hard, but supremely dull and unmemorable when reigned in for a gentle cruise.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying that I need a new bike! Not a replacement for either of my existing steeds – each serves a very particular purpose and fills a considerable niche of my motorcycling world. There’s still a large gap where a proper dirt-bike should be (watch this space…!) but for now it’s time to fill the newly-created slot designated “Family Touring Bike”.

This means I will be shopping for a motorcycle using radically different requirements than I have ever considered in the past. Horsepower isn’t important. Cornering ability is secondary. As a touring mount items such as hard luggage, wind protection and a 200-mile tank range are minimums, but experience has also taught me to value compliant suspension, low maintenance engineering and seats and handlebar configurations that are all-day comfortable.

New to the list is a feet-forward riding position. Despite my best efforts with foot-peg relocation, my knees still ache after long days on the V-Strom, never mind my Street Triple. That discounts your usual suspects – most tourers have your knees at a 90-degree angle at most and I am really aiming for much more than that. Highway pegs are one suggestion, but as the name suggests they don’t work terribly well on winding roads where the rear brake and gearshift might be required at any moment.

But more than anything, whatever I choose absolutely, positively must be enjoyable – rather than frustrating – to ride at low speeds. It’s time to go shopping…

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream March 2019

The Royal Enfield Himalayan

Remember when the Dacia Sandero launched in the UK? It made a big splash in the automotive press and even beyond; an actual, proper car for just £6,000. With the competition priced close to three times that amount it was no surprise that a lot of people picked one up almost on impulse. Once things calmed down a bit, the more serious, cynical journalists got their hands on them. Eventually a consensus was reached that, while you could buy a new car for just six grand, you could also buy a much nicer used car for around the same money.

My suspicion is that the Royal Enfield Himalayan might suffer a similar fate. Right now, we’re all going crazy for the things and, on paper, it’s easy to see why. A brand-new air/oil-cooled 411cc single with a low seat height, genuine off-road capability, and impressive luggage capacity for just £4,200 on the road? Surely there must have been a mistake? The internet is already awash with videos of people loading them to the gills, throwing on a set of serious knobbly tyres and tearing off into the wilderness; the big-dollar BMW/KTM/Triumph adventuring experience for a quarter of the price.

While at our local Royal Enfield dealer, I saw a chap pull up on a Himalayan wearing what looked like a full set of very clean BMW adventure textiles. It occurred to me that someone who had already signed on the dotted line for a motorcycle that was just a few accessories short of costing £20,000 would probably not be too keen on risking their expensive new machine down a rutted country lane. One mistake, one surprise rock or rut and the repair bills could easily be in excess of what a whole Himalayan costs to buy outright. And so, in a way, this new Indian-made motorcycle might simply be the world’s most expensive set of crash bars.

Those of you who have recently sat down with a salesman in a European motorcycle dealership will have noted how little adding thousands of pounds of electronic suspension, heated seats and aluminium panniers seems to add to the proposed monthly payment. I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before some enterprising BMW dealership starts offering to roll a whole second motorcycle into that 3-year plan.

But does the Himalayan deserve better than this? Can it stand alone as a perfectly good motorcycle, a worthy competitor to our overwrought, over-complicated and over-priced Japanese and European machinery? Have the Indian-owned Royal Enfield finally got the hang of quality control and delivered a reliable, dependable, rugged motorcycle that we can be proud to put in our garages?

Judging that last point is normally very difficult on a carefully-controlled test-ride. Manufacturers, and by extension, their dealers, are understandably very careful to ensure that a potential customer has a flawless introductory experience that will encourage them to hand over their credit card at the end. Fortunately, the Himalayans we took out obliged by breaking down almost immediately, thereby putting the matter to rest.

My brother’s bike decided that throttles were for wimps and wedged itself wide open, refusing to be fixed and needing to be coaxed back to the dealership with the clutch. In addition, neither of us could read half of our instruments due to the significant condensation behind the glass on the displays – a common issue, according to the internet, and apparently preventable by greasing all the connectors to the clocks, but still not really something I would expect to have to do on a new machine.

The next black mark was for the brakes. We both discovered that stopping distances were far, far greater than we would expect, and had to haul on both lever and pedal rather brutally to prevent obstacles in front causing unplanned wheelbase reductions. The front brake has no feel and no bite, requiring the rider to simply squeeze the lever as hard as they can as far in advance as possible. The rear is the opposite – loads of feel and bite, but it locks up almost immediately, causing the ABS to cut power to the brake and rendering it essentially inoperative. It’s possible that the softer brakes might be ideal for use in dirt or gravel but on the road they’re simply not fit for purpose. Better pads might help, but again, it’s something that should have been resolved at the factory.

Things start looking better as we work our way down the parts list. The seat is surprisingly comfortable – even for pillions – and the riding position somehow works well both when sat down or stood up on the pegs. Combine that with an extremely low seat height that would allow most riders to rest both feet flat on the ground yet miraculously fails to result in my knees sticking up around my ears while on the move. Our shortened ride time did mean that an extended test would be required to confirm if things remained comfortable for longer trips.

The suspension was soft, but not sloppy, and probably a good fit for the sort of riding this bike was designed for. I’m quite sure that the higher cornering speeds possible with better tyres might cause wallowing but achieving those high speeds would be a challenge with the meagre 24bhp on offer.

That’s not to say that the Himalayan feels slow, as long as your expectations are realistic. The 411cc air/oil-cooled engine is surprisingly smooth and relatively punchy, feeling more like a slightly breathless V-twin than a thrashy single. There’s not a whole lot going on below 4,000rpm, even if it’s more tractable than plenty of larger multi-cylinder bikes I’ve ridden, but the show’s all over before the needle reaches 6K. Even then you can feel valve float setting in and distressing noises can be heard from the top-end before the tachometer is past 5,500, so the usable power band is surprisingly narrow. It’s just as well that the gear shift is accurate and the clutch light, as you’ll be using both frequently.

Speaking of the clutch, one modification I would have to do on day one would be an adjustable lever. The biting point on the Royal Enfield is somewhere just beyond my fingertips, meaning that those of us with smaller hands may find pulling away from a stop a matter of setting the revs and just letting go of the clutch entirely. The soft bite and small displacement mean that setting off isn’t too bad but low-speed manoeuvres inevitably lack accuracy.

Other than that, it has to be said that niggles, irritations and deal-breakers are notable by their absence. The Himalayan may not do anything spectacularly well, but neither does it fall noticeably short anywhere. The footpegs don’t get in your way when you set your feet down, and the side stand is easy to extend and retract, two tricks that plenty of bikes costing 3-4 times as much somehow struggle with. The windshield is well designed, if a little too short, and a small fairing would make motorway stints entirely manageable.

As standard it comes fitted with a pair of practical tank-mounted pannier rails, with an optional rear-mounted set and matching metal panniers available from your local dealer at a refreshingly low cost. The dashboard is fully-featured, offering an analogue tachometer and speedometer as well as various trip meters and even a compass – something I cannot recall having ever seen before on a production motorcycle. So far owners have been averaging almost 80mpg in mixed use, meaning that a 250-mile range is easily achievable from the relatively meagre 15 litre tank.

I would prefer to reserve judgement until I’ve had more time in the saddle, but my brother feels that the only test ride long enough would involve multiple border crossings and a few months of atmospheric exposure. All the enthusiastic video reviews online seem to be shot in the driest, dustiest parts of Utah or Arizona, and I can’t help but wonder how well this machine would survive a couple of wet British winters. Used Bullet 500’s seem to be either immaculate fair-weather bar-hoppers, or look like they’ve been dredged up from the bottom of a river.

I could excuse a lot about the Himalayan by recalling that I could take one home for just £4,200. I could excuse the cheap components, the list of urgent upgrades/repairs, and even the 3,000 mile service intervals that include a valve clearance check every single time. I can appreciate the rugged styling, practical touches, low seat height and impressive fuel economy, and I would probably struggle to point out a serious competitor at any other new-bike dealership.

The Honda CRF250L would come close for entry-level dirt capability, although luggage and pillion capability are comparatively non-existent. Triumph or Ducati’s latest small-capacity Scramblers would be just as capable off-road and far better on it, but are double the price. In fact, the biggest competition for this £4,000 new motorcycle is a £4,000 used motorcycle. And that is where, test-rides or not, things fall apart rather upsettingly for the Himalayan.

You see, you can buy a whole raft of used mid-capacity adventure bikes for around the same price and, with matching dirt-oriented tyres, would be no less capable off-road than the small-capacity Royal Enfield. There’s nowhere that I would take a Himalayan that I wouldn’t take my V-Strom 650 and you can buy those for £3k. It wouldn’t be new and it wouldn’t be covered under a warranty but experience has shown me that you wouldn’t actually need one in any case. It would shrug off a few winters, be more competent during the tarmac sections of your trip, and would likely feature fewer pre-existing issues that required your immediate attention.

Certainly, a BMW F700GS or Triumph Tiger 800 would weigh more than the Himalayan, but not by much – the small 411cc single manages to tip the scales at a surprisingly heavy 190kg. If the low seat height is what caught your attention, then might I suggest you leave the majority of your budget in your pocket and pick up an early Honda CB500 instead? Similar weight to the Enfield, similar seat height, but with double the cylinders, power and torque. Bolt on a set of crash bars, lever on some Mitas E7’s and hit the trails.

I think that the Royal Enfield Himalayan’s biggest triumph may be to demonstrate conclusively to the rest of us that you can take pretty much any bike anywhere as long as you don’t care if it gets a little beat up. It has reminded us that most off-roading is actually just gravel roads with a bit of grass; trails that do not require any of the trappings of a serious enduro machine.

There’s a chap circumnavigating the globe right now on a Ducati Scrambler – a motorcycle roundly mocked by off-road enthusiasts as a poser/hipster/city bike – and Nick Sanders has toured the length of Africa on a Yamaha R1. Charlie and Ewan took BMW R1150GS’s on their famous cross-continental adventures, but their cameraman got stuck far less on the piece-of-junk Russian motorcycle he picked up at a local market. As far as I can tell, the biggest problem the Royal Enfield Himalayan has is that we don’t actually need it.

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream January 2019