Bikes we love The Journey

The search for true love

Honda CBF600 SA5

Many, many moons ago, when I was attending college at a forgettable Midwestern state university deep in the heart of American farmland, I dated a girl who was, by any metric I chose, close to perfect. She was easy on the eyes, witty, intelligent, strong, caring, attentive, a good cook, and, uhm… well… good at some other stuff, too.

But I didn’t love her.
Despite the fact she was wonderful, I more often than not found myself in her company thinking: “Oh, man. When are we gonna be done with this?”
It annoyed the hell out of me I felt that way. I felt evil. I felt vain. I felt hypocritical. I knew that if you were to have asked me to describe my perfect woman, the ideal girl for me, I would have more or less described this girl. OK, maybe my 100-percent perfect partner would have had a bit more fashion sense, and maybe she wouldn’t have worn a perfume quite so sickly sweet, but that’s kind of my point. I really had to dig to find problems with this girl.

Still, I could not make myself love her. I liked her, thought very highly of her and never spoke ill of her to anyone. But I didn’t love her. Goodness knows I tried. I would stare at her picture and recite to myself all her qualities. But, no. No love.

Eventually we broke up because, as I say, she was smart. When she could not pry the words, “I love you,” from my lips she moved on. I’ve not heard from her since.

For the sake of this story, let’s say the girl’s name was Ethel. It wasn’t Ethel, obviously; I have never met anyone named Ethel. Which is why I’m using that name.

Anyhoo, about a month ago, as I rode home from test riding the Yamaha XV950, I found myself thinking about Ethel. My Honda CBF600 SA purred easily through traffic and responded complacently to my twists of throttle. At an intersection, she clicked on her radiator fan to breathe out the excess heat of early summer. Her sliver, arched back of a petrol tank glistened in the sunlight, slightly chipped in a few spots from my magnetic tank bag.
“Ethel,” I said aloud. “You are the motorcycle equivalent of Ethel.”
And almost immediately I became depressed. Because it’s true. There is nothing wrong with my bike; as I mentioned just recently, on paper she is as good if not better than most machines I could realistically buy at this point in my life. She has faithfully, reliably taken me all across the United Kingdom, has opened up this island to me and helped me feel more free. She is fast, she is powerful, she is ideal in almost every situation. But I just don’t love her.

A great bike, but not the one for me…

I’ve decided we need to go our separate ways.

Understanding the feels

But now I’ve fully accepted that mine is not the bike for me, it opens up the question of what I want to do about it. And I’m finding that coming up with the answer is harder than I would have thought. Because whatever the answer, it won’t be entirely rational.

Motorcycling is, in part, an emotional thing. Emotion is what gets us on the bike in the first place and what keeps us there. Sure, we can make compelling arguments about efficiency and cost and lessened environmental impact, but we know the same arguments can be made about Smart cars. We choose motorcycles because they speak to the insular cortex, that mysterious part of the brain that makes us human — the part that controls emotion.

And when choosing a motorcycle, it’s good to be aware of that part of the brain.

“If you settle when getting a bike, then it’s sad for the bike,” says one of the interview subjects in Cafe Racers Japan. “And the rider will be disappointed… It’s not about money, it’s about feelings.”

This is something I think is especially important for myself, living in the United Kingdom. The winters here are long, dark, get-in-your-bones cold, and interminably wet. Whereas summers are short or, in some years, non-existent. To maintain one’s passion for motorcycling in such conditions it helps to have a bike that you just love, that you want to look at, and that you want to be seen on. A Honda CBF600 SA simply isn’t one of those bikes.

So, I have told myself that when I get my next bike (and who knows when that will be), I will allow my emotions to play a part in the decision. I will give credence to ridiculous things like aura, styling, sound, how I look on the bike and what it “says” about me. I’m not going overboard. These are not the most important things, obviously — I’m still unyielding in my insistence that a bike have anti-lock brakes, for instance — but they are more important than I had previously thought.

I’d like to think I’m not wandering down the dangerous path of trying to project an image or lifestyle via a mass-produced piece of machinery, but I will admit to setting foot on it. I will admit to thinking: “OK, such and such bike has some foibles, but I can learn to accept them because it’s otherwise soooo cool.”

Mass-produced coolness

Case in point, the Yamaha XV950R. I really like the look of that bike — especially in green. I have taped a picture of one to the wall by my desk. For a solid three or four weeks I was telling myself that this was it, the bike for me, and I would get one as soon as humanly possible. Despite the fact that it is a little underpowered (52 horsepower), has very cramped passenger accommodation, and no wind protection.

Yamaha XV950R

“Well, I don’t even use all the horsepower of my Honda,” I told myself. “Jenn doesn’t ride with me all that much anyway. And I can get a sport screen for the XV950R; that still won’t keep a whole lot of weather off me, but I can learn to toughen up.”

This thinking then gave way to a kind of competition in my mind: a race between several bikes to see which will become my own. The race was this: will the Triumph Bonneville, Triumph Speedmaster or Victory Vegas 8-Ball (a) offer anti-lock brakes before I build up the money for a sizable deposit on the XV950R? Anti-lock brakes are coming to all those models (and exist already on the XV950R); anti-lock brakes will be legally required on all new motorcycles (above 125 cc) sold in Europe from 2016. So, I’d expect announcements on ABS-equipped models to come within the next year.

The above machines are the sort that appeal to my heart. I think they’re cool. I’m trying to be realistic in terms of what I would actually be able to afford, though. Hence the reason I make no mention of things like the Victory Cross CountryThe Harley-Davidson XL1200 Sportster pops on and off the list, too, depending on my mood that day.

To me, these are bikes that have character. They are also motorcycles of the sort that my wife would refer to as “real” bikes. And I can’t stress how important her opinion is to me. Yes, I’m my own man and can make my own decisions and grrrrr-harrumph manly bollocks, but I care what she thinks.

The case for practicality

In regard to my caring about what my wife thinks, the XV950R is now no longer an official competitor in the Race to Be Chris’ Next Bike. I still love the look of it, but its passenger space is just too cramped. I had told myself that wasn’t an issue because Jenn rarely joins me for rides, but I learned the other day she finds my existing bike a little uncomfortable on rides more than 40 miles. The XV950R’s passenger accommodation is far worse. I suspect that a bike offering plenty of room and, perhaps, a backrest of some sort might entice her to join me more often.

In other words, I might get Jenn more interested in biking (and thereby fuel her recent musings on the possibility of getting herself a scooter) if the bike I rode were, you know, a little more practical. Indeed, she’d already be eager to hop on the bike with greater frequency if I had practical things like lockable side cases. That way we could ride out to one of Wales’ many beauty spots, lock all our riding gear up, and go hiking.

And, hey, while I’m being practical, remember what I said about the almost-always-crappy British weather? Fairing helps to mitigate that. None of the bikes I mentioned above have weather protection. In all cases, I accept that the purchase of a windscreen would be an automatic part of getting one. And even then it’s quite likely I’d suffer more of Mother Nature’s wrath than I do now.

The fact is, my experience has been that cruisers/standards are most enjoyable at speeds below 60 mph. And I’m not sure that really fits with the kind of riding I do, nor the kind of riding I want to do.


I started thinking about all this recently when I was visiting Minnesota. By and large, I ride my motorbike for pleasure. I ride as often as I can, but my day-to-day routine sees me walking or riding a bicycle to places because I live in a compact urban area where doing so genuinely makes the most sense.

Where I actually live is not like the Twin Cities, which is where I want to live. There, in the great urban sprawl of a metro area that includes some 182 cities and townships (a few more than are implied in the name “Twin Cities”), one could keep off the freeways and ride for hours and hours and hours well within the speed comfort zone of a weather-protection-free bike. Here, unless you live in London, that’s not really the case.

Sure, by U.S. standards I suppose all of Britain could be classed as urban or suburban, but where I live one really can’t go too far without needing push to speeds that can be a little traumatic sans windscreen. And because it is for pleasure, I tend to cover larger distances when I ride — I rarely do less than 120 miles.

And this is the kind of riding I want to be doing. I want to be riding further. When I daydream about motorcycling it is almost always of covering great distances. In September, I’ll be heading up to Yorkshire, and later in the month out to West Sussex. At some point in autumn, I’m hoping to take the ferry over to Ireland and visit friends there. And I am constantly fantasising about multi-day journeys down to Spain, and so on. You know, the kind of riding to which a Harley-Davidson Sportster is perhaps not best suited (no offence to Curt Carter, who would probably argue otherwise).

And this is pretty much how I sometimes break from thoughts of a Bonneville/Speedmaster/Vegas and slip into very serious contemplation of the BMW F800GT. I wrote a little about it in a post several months ago, but it’s been on my mind a lot more lately. That’s definitely a knock-on effect of my visit to Minnesota. I couldn’t help noticing that almost every person there was astride a cruiser. I also couldn’t help noticing that the overwhelming majority of said riders displayed an appalling lack of basic riding skills. So, naturally, there’s a part of me that is desperate to separate myself from such boneheads.

The other other me

But talk of practicality is a ruse. I will spend long hours daydreaming about the F800GT but not, say, the slightly more powerful and considerably less expensive Suzuki GSX1250FA. Why? Because the latter is not a BMW. The same goes for the also-more-powerful, also-less-expensive Triumph Sprint GT SE (b).

Truthfully, it all comes back to emotion. Perception. My perception of the “character” of the bike, and my desire in terms of how I want to be perceived. And if I’m going to be honest with myself and admit that feelings are relevant to my next motorcycle purchase, the big challenge is to figure out what my feeling are. What am I hoping to project?

Victory Gunner –– a bike I wish they sold in the UK.

With cruisers, I sometimes wonder if their greatest appeal to me is my incredible desire to be back in the country where they are most appropriate. A homesickness-induced affection, like the Englishman who moves to a different country and only then develops a taste for fish and chips. Like the way I drink Coors Light here but absolutely hated the stuff when I was living in the United States.

As I say, I was a little put off cruisers recently by all the boneheads I saw in Minnesota and the fact that said bikes were so ubiquitous. It made the scene so homogeneous. But that is not the case in the UK, so most certainly I haven’t gone off them completely. That said, though, if I’m entertaining the idea of forcing myself to adapt to a bike that’s not best suited to the conditions in which I presently exist, I must be trying to say something through that act. There is a statement being made.

I’m not 100-percent clear on what that statement is. I suppose it’s something along the lines of: “I’m not Welsh; I never will be. And I’m proud not to be one of you.”

Certainly motorcycling for me has long been wrapped up in those emotions. This whole Motorcycle Obsession thing started in part because I was frustrated with the too-small nature of my world; I wanted to be able to get away. A Speedmaster, or Vegas, or Sportster would allow me to do that: both physically get away and assert my psychological desire for separation. But, so, too, can an F800GT — albeit in a slightly different way.

Perhaps better suited to my present situation, the BMW doesn’t really say “I’m different in a cultural sense,” but instead asserts: “I’m better than you.”

Both bikes are means of offering the same sentiment, I suppose: that I don’t belong.

All of this, however, leads to an even greater question. Going back to the start of this post, like every motorcyclist who’s honest with him- or herself, I want to find a bike that I can truly love. Love looking at, love riding, love being seen on. But is that really possible when my motivators in choosing a bike are so spiteful?


(a) You may ask: “Wait, Chris. Didn’t you say a while ago that the Vegas has looks that could only appeal to someone living in a trailer park?”
I did. That was before I really took the time to really look at one in person. Also, I have since seen pictures of a Vegas with bullet fairing and I think it looks pretty cool. If Victory were to offer the Gunner in the UK, I’d go with that one instead. 
True, a stock Vegas/Gunner would cost £1,000 more than a fully kitted Bonneville T-100. But engine-wise it’s so much more bike for not a lot more money. And it’s a bike with Minnesota connections; for that I would bend myself more to make payments.

(b) Actually, depending heavily on my response to a test ride, I could probably induce in myself a bit of love for the Sprint GT.