HOLD STEADY

Published by Nick on March 23rd, 2012 - in FEATURES

The BG guide to slowing down without frustration – in style.

THE CONTEXT

For many of us the idea of generally going slower on a bike is counter intuitive – like going for a swim with boots on. It just sounds pointless, given that motorcycles are unique in their ability to offer phenomenal acceleration for minimal financial outlay –  by comparison with any other form of transport – courtesy of their inherent power to weight advantage. A decent five year old litre sportsbike will give you £200,000 supercar levels of performance, and then some, and that’s before you get to the first corner….

We all know that performance bikes in general feel compromised when not ridden with a certain amount of brio. Sportsbikes are designed with one aim in mind: to assist fast riding. Anyone who has ridden one across a city during the rush hour will confirm that slow speeds feel uncomfortable: there is no support from airflow, the weight is all on the wrists, the lack of a commanding ride position, no decent bar leverage…  give the machine a sniff of the open road and suddenly it all comes together. If you want to slow down, you need a machine that rewards riding (relatively) slowly, in the same way sportsbikes reward for being ridden briskly. Rather than curtailing progress on your weapon of choice, find it a companion which puts a smile on your face without breaking the speed limit. Or the bank. It can be done.

The inherent pleasure of riding a motorcycle, it turns out, is not solely vested in the notion of high performance. We’ve lost count of the number of riders we know who have turned away from performance bikes in recent years, and apparently don’t regret it. True, they aren’t all jumping on Royal Enfields: but they are effectively slowing their average speed, often by the simple expedient of buying a naked bike and thus being restricted by aerodynamics, irrespective of theoretical top speed. Others have kept the Fireblade – or whatever – and picked up an older, less powerful machine as an alternative ride. These people can’t all be wrong.

Quite apart from discovering that with the right bike sedate = seductive, there are other reasons for backing off. Increased traffic volume, iffy road surfaces, speed cameras, better fuel economy, more time to react – when all is said and done there are plenty of reasons for rediscovering a more laid back approach to riding.

We reckon there are four acquisition approaches on offer when it comes to backing off a bit (while still keeping a smile on your face).

MODERN RETRO

Retro: a horribly over used adjective. But ‘faux vintage’ is actually a very sane approach to calming down on two wheels. To define our terms – a retro bike is either a newish bike whose styling cues are based on old skool machines, or it can be a genuinely older machine which isn’t venerable enough to have been landed with classic or vintage status: say anything up to twenty years old (see TRUE RETRO, below). The former category includes the delightful Ducati GT Sport Classic.

Motor Guzzi is another modern retro specialist: much of their design ethos is rooted in a classic look, and sensibly the marque has not sought to re-brand itself along performance lines. The advantage of modern retro is that everything works. The disadvantage is that it can be an expensive way to slow down. Generally speaking, singles and air cooled twins in naked format work well as a back off template, with the additional aesthetic advantage of lack of clutter and plastic: no plumbing, no fairing. It just so happens that those design parameters correspond with the industry perception of retro.  Triumph is a company which has played the heritage card to great effect, and the Bonneville is one of the best handling modern retro bikes – the mag wheel versions in particular are surprisingly handy in the twisties. Kawasaki have their own Bonny in the form of the  W800, which if anything feels a more purist take on Brit Iron than the Hinckley version.

 

TRUE RETRO (but not classic)

The alternative bet  retro wise is to look for something which is a few years old but has avoided being described as a classic by all but the most deluded vendor.  This approach is arguably the sassiest of all them, since you avoid new or nearly new prices, without paying classic money.  Plus as long as you stay within the fifteen to twenty year window (or close to it), you are likely to get something mechanically and electrically sound, albeit the whole shooting match may need a freshener. So, where to start?

Start with the back off template as described – that way you are more likely to be looking at machines whose raison d’etre is far removed from that of an R1. It may well be that  you explore this category  because you are fiscally challenged – you want to slow down but cant afford that W800, and you regard Classic territory in much the same way a pretty boy young offender views his first visit to the communal shower at an adult  prison in Alabama….  Let’s just say you want to avoid being raped, financially speaking.

And while we’re at it, and on an American theme, let’s get rid of the assumption that anyone looking to calm things down a bit is really hankering after a Harley. Cutting down on power does not mean handling must be sacrificed: for example, early two valve Monsters are worth checking out – the 900 offers a nice balance of grunt, agility and relaxed cruising. They tend to have low miles on the clock  by comparison with other bikes of a similar vintage, since many of them were basically weekend toys. It should go without saying that a genuine service history is probably the most desirable accessory if buying mid 90s Italian.  If you still want a Harley, you’ll have to pay handsomely for the privilege, since they tend to retain their value – which has more to do with owner aspiration than mechanical sophistication. Despite their well documented short comings, the right HD is in fact an excellent chill out bike, but finding the right one for the right money is another thing altogether. Early Sportsters and ratty Shovelheads are probably the closest you will find to cheap HD.

BMW boxers seem to fit our bill, but like HDs, they tend to hold a high residual value – which, unlike HDs, they tend to deserve. The problem with boxers from our point of view is the timeline. In the mid nineties BMW made the key change from aircooled to oil cooled on the boxer range: the last airheads – which fall just inside the twenty year catchment – will cost you dear.  You might be surprised to find that first generation oil cooled models represent a bigger saving.  Character in a chill out bike is what compensates for a lack of outright performance, and older boxers have it in spades, including the oilers.

Japanese retro contenders which fit the back off template and slot into the true retro time frame are surprisingly few and far between. They heyday of aircooled Jap bikes falls into the earlier,  near classic category (see below): by the mid nineties the big four had largely reverted to IL4 territory. Which means there is value in the format. Kwasaki’s Zephyr (in 750 and thou guises) is one such to consider (although in Japan they have already achieved cult status, as the image below suggests).

Trading shamelessly on Big Zed heritage, the Zeph has strong claims to being the first true retro motorcycle, and was marketed as such. The Zephs are heavy, a little underpowered, grunty, and good looking.  In the UK they are still value.  (The water cooled ZRX which replaced the Zeph retains the latter’s handsome looks but is more likely to speed you up than slow you down, courtesy of its ZZR dna.) The Zeph is more funky than Yamaha’s robust XJR, better looking than Suzuki’s monster GS 1400, less bland than the CB 13o0 and a shed load cheaper than any of them.  If shaft drive is a must have, and an IL4 passes muster, Yamaha’s bombproof XJ 900 is another cheap bike which scrubs up well . Both the Zeph (above) and the XJ (below) are a bit blinged up for BG tastes and have had far too much money thrown at them, but they do show how something originally thought of as utilitarian can go to the ball…

 

THE OLD SKOOL OPTION

More than twenty years old takes us beyond retro, but not necessarily into a world of classics. Never utter the C word, least of all when trying to buy an old motorcycle: don’t give the vendor ideas. Welcome to old skool, and for the purposes of biking old skool means pre 1992 and the dawning of the Fireblade.

The 80s: big hair needed – on the chest, if you were into bikes. IL4 machines became more powerful and unwieldly, but nothing could touch them for grunt. Despite the uneasy mix of testosterone and bleached highlights (and that was just the women), the 80s were a decade of motorcycle design innovation. Honda’s VFR and the Fireblade itself were 80s concepts. Two stroke technology blossomed. Beam frames were spotted for the first time. Tyres began to stick. Many would argue that the real pay off for all this came in the following decade, culminating in the R1. What this means in practice is the 80s (and to some extent the 70s) are a happy hunting ground for anyone needing some weekend fun without exciting the interest of speed cameras.

This was the heyday of the airhead boxer. Less than five years ago, they were top value. We’re talking shaft driven machines with home service potential, capable of six figure mileages, seen on the market for around £1200 – sometimes less. Those days are history, in part courtesy of the current vogue for turning 70s and 80s bikes into cafe racers, street trackers and so on. The machine has become a cult object as it has receded towards classic territory, while the value headed for the hills. Despite the recent price hike, if you see one for two grand or less, with under fifty thousand miles on the clock, in OK nick and with some credible history – it could be a bargain.

There are four cylinder choices aplenty from this era, but we reckon later ones make more sense while costing very little more money – another consequence of 70s and 80s classic claims. Avoid 80s Ducatis unless you have a surplus of time and dosh: you’ll be needing both to keep one in top notch form.  If you want proper old skool Italian, go Guzzi – our advice would be to try and find a California, and strip all the touring crap off it. Shaft drive, low state of tune, bundles of character, robust, and more funky than a Beemer.

No feature on laid back riding would be complete without mention of a Gold Wing. The earlier four pot bikes (mk 1 1000cc and some mk 2 1100s)  have the advantage of being naked, cheaper and lighter than subsequent incarnations. Thus they are also the most stylish – check out this page  for more.  Strangely, given the bike’s cult following, the naked GL represents better value than the airhead beemer (in the UK). We reckon that’s because the bike is less suited (thankfully) to cafe racer type restorations, by reason of its bulk and long wheel base. Which just means you get a better deal and a far more original look once you get out the angle grinder.  If you’re not inspired (or too lazy) to customise, early naked goldies look pretty good as stock – or close to it.

But beware – you might get inspired….

 

DOWNSIZE OPTIONS AND ALTERNATIVES

Finally, you might consider the obvious: buying something with a smaller engine, irrespective of period. One problem with this approach is that unless you buy a smaller bike which really handles, taking advantage of its lack of bulk, you could simply end up being frustrated. The bikes we’ve looked at so far all have character and shove, but drop the capacity and the grunt goes missing.  Compensate by buying something genuinely lightweight – and the character becomes vested in the bike’s ability to retain corner speed.

The implicit difficulty with this is that revvy bikes which really handle encourage a ride approach which is very far from laid back. On the other hand you can have enormous and legitimate fun by simply backing right off on the straights and dispensing with braking altogether for corners… Put it this way. If you go lightweight, you’ll be still be riding hard, but you will avoid ‘go directly to jail’ speeds.

Forget exotica like 400 race reps: their naked counterparts are often almost as light, and far cheaper. Equally, dodge the classic contenders. Thus ignore Honda’s 400/4 but consider seriously the under rated Super Four which eventually succeeded it. They are brilliant fun, cheap and reliable. Remember that import Jap 400s tend to be built for small people. Remember that middle weight, utilitarian bikes beloved of training schools are not nearly as much fun, despite being more comfortable. A better alternative for average size persons is something like a KTM Duke 2.

We’re not massive fans of single pot machines – you always feel like you’re punishing it as the revs clamber up – but  KTMs can take it, just as long as they are looked after with respect.  A more realistic alternative may be Suzuki’s DRZ 400 SuperMoto – the later bikes have an excellent reliability record and are becoming decent value.  Enduro style machines like Kawasaki KLR 650s and  Suzuki’s eccentric Dr.Big DR 800 ( a mammoth left field single) can offer a relaxed road ride, and you wont want to be doing big speeds on either.  The difficulty is that proper, lightweight Enduro bikes are expensive by comparison, and like their cheaper relatives, wasted if not occasionally pointed off piste. Early adventure bikes like cheap TDM 850s (mk 2) and 900s are arguably a more practical bet, offering a decent combination  of fun and relaxation. They are also brilliantly suited to poor road surfaces courtesy of long travel suspenders, although neither are particularly light. Nevertheless, they do fit the bill: despite their ton up capability they are happier cruising. I’d love to see a naked, stripped down TDM with an open pipe. No one ever seems to cutomise them…. hang on a minute….

Lightweight naturally implies a stroker connection, but it’s too easy to pay way over the odds for period examples right now. And as with 80s Ducatis,  the expenditure is only just starting when you hand over the asking price.  Plus, many stokers are by their very nature unsuited to chilling out: a four stroke 400 is a better bet insofar as you can back off without the bike feeling like it’s been filled with tar instead of petrol.

THE JUDGE SUMS UP…

There is no point in buying a machine to slow you down unless your head is in the right place: get it wrong and you will become bored and frustrated.  That is why bike character and / or handling ability is so important in this equation. A Suzuki GS500s and its direct competitors are admirable utility bikes and will slow a sportsbike rider down – but he or she may find the experience bland and without much to recommend it, compared with say a Super Four (or any of the others suggested above).

Your head also needs to be in the right philosophical space. You need to embrace the joy of riding purely for its own sake, and that means recalibrating. Get the purchase right as well, and you maybe surprised to find that your ZX10 (or similar) is spending rather more time in the shed than you had planned on. 40 brake and skinny tryes is just a different type of fun.

Meanwhile, what does this remind you of?

 

 


One Response

  1. Alexander says:

    This reminds me of the Ducati 900GTS I bought new in 1980.

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