Features and Tips

May 14, 2011

ONE BIKE

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If you could have one motorcycle, and only one, what would you choose? The answer is obvious — just look in your garage.

For last year’s inaugural One Bike challenge, four riders each chose a new bike, given the premise that this would be their only motorcycle for a long time. No multi-bike fleets, no fantasy garages, and no choosing expensive motorcycles just because you’ve always wanted to ride one. This had to be a bike that you’d be willing to ride for all of the riding that you do. Upon publication of the story, the response from the readership was immediate, and, specifically, every Suzuki V-Strom owner with a subscription to Cycle Canada dashed off a perplexed/bemused/angry response. “Our V-Stroms” they wrote en masse, “are more useful than your 250 Ninja, V-Max, KTM single and, especially, that goofy Piaggio three-wheeler thingy.” You had a point. But you missed the point. Which was that participants had to choose a bike for the riding that they would do. Which explains why Tim Poupore, owner of a BMW K1200LT, chose the KTM single. OK, you’ve made your point. But this year, to appease humourless V-Strom owners (who, using last year’s letter-to-the-editor count as a yardstick, number in the thousands) we’re playing it straight. We’re bringing our own motorcycles.

The biggest cop-out for motorcycle hacks is when they use the “I’d buy that bike” statement while reviewing a motorcycle on test. It’s a completely useless term — unless you actually go out and buy the bike. It’s like claiming, for instance, that if a bear confronted you while out walking with your sweetheart, you’d set her safely on a toadstool while you attack the bear and pinch its windpipe until it died violently in your arms. Then, while losing blood at a frightening rate, you’d use your seven remaining fingers to claw it a proper grave, and then you’d give it a burial suitable for a vanquished foe. This scenario is unlikely. You’d likely do what we would do — create a diversion by thrusting your sweetie at the bear and then furiously two-step it back to the Range Rover. The four participants in this year’s challenge, editor Neil Graham, Web editor Derreck Roemer, and contributors Tim Poupore and Paul Bremner, actually bought the motorcycles in this year’s challenge — so we’re not simply musing.

It was one thing last year to ridicule a participant who chose a bike that you thought absurd, but, in the end, it wasn’t their bike. They had only borrowed it. But this year there would be no polite deflecting. Mulling about in a parking lot on a brisk morning, you could sense defensiveness. After making passes for the photographs on our own bikes, we swapped machines and the test began.

Derreck Roemer, after a spell on Tim Poupore’s 2000 BMW K1200LT, compared it to a Ford LTD station wagon he once drove. “Being a station wagon,” he said about the LT, “its blandness was to be expected, but when a motorcycle feels like a station wagon there’s a problem. The experience is one of complete and utter disengagement from the thrill of riding.” Tim uses his LT much as Via uses its trains — to rail between his home in Toronto and his cottage just outside Montreal along one of the most deadly boring stretches of highway yet conceived: the 401. Which explained one thing. The LT’s rear tire was squared off like a cinderblock. Neil Graham likened the sensation of cornering Tim’s bike to that of tilting back too far on a chair in math class. The only thing missing was the thwack on the head from the twit with a ruler in the row back.

Tim, who lowers his chiseled chin when he talks and peers over his glasses, lending him the visage of a professor who can’t see the students in front of him, seemed not to realize that tires need to be replaced more often than his wives. This set of tires had 30,000 kilometres — and counting — on them. But even accounting for the knackered tires, Roemer refused to cut the LT any slack, and even Poupore’s defense — that he uses the bike predominantly to slog to and fro on the highway, was up for ridicule by the unkind Roemer. “When you’re riding a motorcycle that feels like a car, in the manner of a car, so that its rear tire looks like it came from a car, I say it’s time to swap riding gear for a pair of khakis and a Tilley hat and just take the car.”

Paul Bremner, lover of luxury and dried meat snacks, was only intimidated by the LT until he rode it. “Pure heaven” is how he described the sensation of lowering himself into the “broad, pillowy saddle. It took me a few moments to orient myself, but despite the advanced age of the design the cockpit still feels futuristic — more hoverbike than motorbike.” He went on. And on. “The LT doesn’t ride down the road so much as skim across its surface.” He also confessed to a sense of serenity while riding the LT. “Shielded from the wind, insulated from vibration, I was able to revel in what I most enjoy about motorcycling: the delicious sensation of flight.”

Neil Graham, spoiled as he is by riding new motorcycles with new tires most of the time, fiddled with the electric windshield as a distraction from his terror of a delaminating tire. Tim, increasingly defensive, dropped his chin further than ever. He called his LT a “graceful packhorse and willing participant for cosseting the body. And don’t tell me that the LT separates the rider from the environment — all it takes to rectify that is to lower the windshield and turn down the radio.”

Neil Graham was concerned that no one was paying attention during his pre-ride briefing for his 1995 Ducati 916. In it he cautioned that the bike was “not exactly modern” and “not exactly a street bike.” As befitting a proper race bike, there is very little steering lock. Tim called its ability to perform U-turns “criminally handicapped” and added that if “there is gravel in the laneway of your life, forget it.” There are also other quirks. The electrical system is so feeble that Neil fitted a switch so that he can shut the headlights off if he’s stuck in traffic or required by circumstance to travel at slow speeds. And you have to remember to make sure that the bike is in neutral before you push the starter, because if it’s in gear it’ll flop over on its side, which allows the factory to sell you absurdly expensive body parts.

“Between the clutch rattle and the rattle from the floating front discs,” said Tim, “the 916 gives you the impression that you’re on the world’s fastest shopping cart.” Neil, as the ride leader of the quartet (and gunning for One Bike victory) carefully kept sessions on his 916 short. Allied with an aftermarket seat and clip-ons slightly higher than stock, short bursts on the 916, while not exactly comfortable, were less gruesome than expected by the guest riders. “It’s quite comfortable, in a tiny sportbike kind of way,” said Tim, but Derreck wasn’t having any of that. “I wouldn’t go chasing after this bike like a jonesing meth addict,” he said, “not with a riding position like that.” But petty concerns over a perceived lack of comfort didn’t blind the participants from the bike’s charms. Paul called the power “immediate” and the roar from the exhaust system “outrageous.” Derreck said it was “incredibly visceral.” Tim called it “erotically beautiful.” Neil, who watched in horror as Derreck absentmindedly thumbed the starter while passionately stroking his goatee, was just glad that nobody stuffed it in the ditch. Derreck’s 1999 Triumph Tiger was the catalyst for his opponents to sharpen their tongues. “Let’s get the obvious out of the way first,” said Paul. “The Triumph is ugly. Someone beat this bike with an ugly stick, and they didn’t stop until they were good and tired. The most glaring flaw is the fairing. The twin headlights are too close together, which reminds me not of a tiger but of an inbred and mildly retarded housecat.” Tim, in saying that had he been in the market for a Tiger he would have chosen a different year and definitely a different colour, showed uncharacteristic tact. Neil didn’t really have any issues with the look of the thing. But he owns a Norton. A yellow one.

But it wasn’t the looks that ultimately let the Tiger down. It was the suspension, which handicapped it as much as Tim’s square-section tire hobbled the LT. Most surely untouched since the day of the bike’s manufacture, the fork and shock were virtually without damping. Tim called the riding experience “lumpy and blobby” and likened it to riding a hobbyhorse. Neil said the Tiger was like a “boat struggling to get up on plane. The stern drops, the bow rises but that’s where it stays. You know there’s a wheel out front somewhere, because you’re rolling down the road, but what’s under the front wheel is a mystery — there’s no feedback.” All riders, however, praised the Tiger’s riding position and engine. Three-cylinder Triumphs are among the most charming engines in motorcycling, and Paul loved the mill’s “feral howl. It has a wonderful noise when you rev it and it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”“The sweetly revving engine could have easily pulled another gear,” said Tim. Neil called it “smooth like a four but spirited like a twin.” Tim, who knows a thing or two about luggage capacity, liked the Tiger’s pannier volume: “One pannier has enough space in it for an entire muffler,” he quipped, referring to the large cut-out required in one bag to let the muffler pass. Paul, unsurprisingly, since the Tiger’s cockpit is similar to his V-Strom’s, appreciated the “wide handlebar, upright riding position and broad seat.” The Tiger has a tank-like robustness about it, and Paul envisioned it as a machine that “could withstand a lot of punishment. Derreck will be able to look at this bike in his garage for many years to come. God help him.”

Which brings us to the final machine, Paul’s 2007 Suzuki 650 V-Strom. Tim, for one, was not impressed. “It’s the quintessential ho-hum appliance you pull out for a necessary task and then put away without a second thought. This is not what motorcycles should be about. ‘It’s paid for’ is insufficient justification for having to ride so soulless a motorcycle.” But Tim wasn’t finished. “Paul’s supposedlydo-it-all-without-complaint bike wasn’t set up to do much of anything well. The seat is rock hard and the only storage capacity is a bright yellow clasp purse perched on his fuel tank and barely large enough for a Happy Meal.”

Derreck, who had considered buying a V- Strom before getting his used Tiger, was, after a ride on the Suzuki, glad that he bought his Tiger. “Wee-Strom is an appropriate nickname for it because the top-end power is indeed wee,” he said. “Other than to say that the seat is uncomfortable, I have little in the way of feelings for this bike, so little did it impress. A decent entry level machine, I suppose, but certainly not my One Bike.” Neil, after being terrified by the tires on the BMW and after fighting a bout of seasickness following a spell on the Triumph, was just relieved to get on a bike with oil in the fork tubes and a profile on the tires. It was his first time on a V-Strom. “It’s competent, I’ll give you that,” he said, “and for a rider like Paul, who is not enamored by the mechanical goings-on of a motorcycle to the same degree that the rest of us are, it’s a great fit. It’s one of those motorcycles that you can’t remember much about even while you’re in the midst of riding it.” Paul, like all V-Strom owners, is sensitive to criticism, and his defense of his mount was so polished it sounded rehearsed. “I’ve heard it all before, the ‘it doesn’t have character/personality/that special something. Isn’t a motorcycle supposed to touch your heart/groin/adrenal glands?’ To all that I call bullshit. As any motorcyclist knows, ‘character’ and ‘personality’ are code words for annoying design flaws. My wife and I rented a V-Strom in New Zealand before buying one at home and it never returned less than 50 miles per gallon, two-up and loaded down with luggage. It has a punchy engine, nimble handling, a gigantic fuel tank and costs, with ABS, less than $10,000.”

But even Paul, especially now that he’s spent time on different motorcycles, has a few requests. “I’d like a better seat, a touch more power, a different bend to the handlebar and a slightly sweeter face. But considering the price, it’s damn near perfect.”

One Bike 2011 was heading toward a stalemate, but then Paul, shockingly, defected to the BMW. Derreck and Neil were speechless. Even Tim was surprised. The reason for this, which must be disclosed, gives us no pleasure in the disclosing. Paul came to One Bike 2011 with a medical condition that he withheld from his fellow participants, in clear violation of the spirit of the match. Paul was having troubles with his testicles. An infection after a vasectomy (the words are as painful to type as they are to read) caused him to be in misery for the entire comparison test. “After getting off the Ducati,” said Paul, finally telling the truth, “my testicles felt like Rocky Marciano had used them as a speed bag.” “Nuts!” said Derreck and Neil in unison, immediately regretting the use of the word. Tim peered over his glasses and gloated. “Any discomfort Paul may have experienced in casting the deciding vote,” said Tim, “was decisively overcome by the soothing confines of my BMW’s Comfort Saddle. His difficult decision took balls, even if his don’t work so well anymore, and I can respect that.”