Sunday, 10 February 2013

Zembatek Goes Riding

I Ride a Motorcycle. 

I came (sort of back) to it quite late and passed my CBT (or Compulsory Basic Training - which is the "are you safe enough to be let loose as a learner rider" test required in the UK before taking to the roads on anything from a 50cc moped to a 125cc proper bike) four and a bit years ago aged, well more than 40 - but less than 50!

My first bike was brand new, a Honda Varadero 125. I bought it because having ridden a pretty knackered CB100 on the CBT I didn't want to be struggling with the mechanicals of a bike whilst trying to learn to ride and stay out of harm's way. I chose the Varadero as essentially it doesn't look like a learner bike (except of course for the rather obvious 'L' plates) but more importantly it's big, especially for a 125, and I'm fairly tall and so it made sense.

After passing my main test I stuck with it as "Niunia" (kinda means "little pony" in Polish) is a lovely little bike. Great for meandering through the smaller roads of the rural county of Herefordshire where I live. However when I started commuting to Bristol, despite keeping up with traffic on B & most A roads, she just didn't hack it on the motorway. So I got myself a Honda Transalp. Both of these bikes fall into the "adventure-style" bike grouping with their sitting up, quite commanding road position. As I started chucking on the miles on the Transalp (circa 12-15,000 a year) it wasn't too long before I needed to consider a replacement and so I embarked on a quest to choose a new bike.

What Bike to Buy?

One of the wonderful things about bikes is that even if you've got 2 grand to spend, you can get anything from a moped, to a learner 125, to a sensible commuter to a out and out nutter bike. So, the first thing I needed to decide is what style of bike was I after? Given that my first two were both the adventure-style bikes and even the bikes I'd had first contact with as a teenager were off-road trail/trials bikes it meant that these were the only style of bike I knew. So I resolved to try a mix of bikes and styles before deciding what new bike to buy.

What Bikes Did I Test?

Where Did I Ride Them?

I wanted my test ride route to both be familiar and encompass as many different road conditions as I could sensibly squeeze into a test ride of a little over an hour. I also wanted to take each bike over the same route and chose the following near 25 mile route;

The three dealers, Bransons (Honda), Cotswold (BMW) and Frasers (Kawasaki/Suzuki) are all in the South East part of Gloucester and so marker A (hiding behind I in the picture) is the approximate starting point. (The Triumphs & Yamaha were tested around Swindon – out to Fairford airbase & back – and the KTM around Tewkesbury.)

Moving Off

Up the A430 towards the A40 gave me enough time to start to adjust to each bike's;
·         Riding position - How upright was I, was this comfortable, what position the foot pegs put my legs in and the associated hip spasm cramp from an unfamiliar position.
·         Throttle manner - How did I have to handle the throttle so I could control the damn thing!
·         Clutch position - Where was the clutch biting so I wasn't going to stall or pop a wheelie when pulling away.
·         Steering - How do I steer it! I'll come back to this so you understand what I mean.
·         Braking "profile" - How much brake pressure did I need to use to stop and not do a stoppie!

The last short stretch of the A430 before the A40 was the first chance to start to get more comfortable with the bike as you either just pulled round a nice left hand T junction at a conservative 40mph opening onto that short 50mph stretch or you got caught at the lights which gave the chance to maybe filter through to the front but anyway pull away and take the left hander. A nice opportunity to use the torque.

Up the A40

The first bit of the A40 is single carriageway with a reasonable semi-hatched centre section. Lots of opportunity for fast filtering when I'm commuting this section but for most of the rides there just wasn't the congestion that I experience travelling through there at 8am on the way to work. It's a 50mph zone, but a "quick 50".
Straight over the roundabout (point B) it opens up into a dual carriageway that relents to the national speed limit after a few 10's of metres of the remaining 50mph zone. There's then a few miles of fast national speed limit dual carriageway as the A40 "turns into" the A417 with a couple of nice roundabouts and fast exits before getting to an almost motorway feeling straight section - that runs under the M5. Very good visibility - especially of vehicles that might be sat on bridges or on the slip roads  - and fairly sparse traffic allowed the umm, err, aerodynamics of the fairing/windshield to be "explored" before pulling left and onto the slip up to the large roundabout and right over the A417 and onto the A46 (Point F).

Off Towards Birdlip

This is a proper 40 zone which allowed, particularly for some of the bikes, a welcome breather and a chance to drain off some adrenalin! There were a few filtering opportunities and a petrol filling station on the roundabout (point C) - which I took every bike to for a drink.

Up the C road through Witcombe and I'm now on the back road up to Birdlip - on a heavy traffic commute day this is a great way to avoid the 2 into 1 tailback going up the A417 to Birdlip and on a test ride a nice little bit of uphill twisty and beautiful with the trees in full Autumn mode. There's a challenging point just on the junction with the B4070 where you've come up the steep bank, into a 30mph zone (from "40") and then into a no forward visibility tight left hander pretty much straight into where the B4070 to/from Stroud comes in at you from the right. Here you're fairly reliably either dealing with someone pulling out onto you, or someone stopped pulling right onto the B4070 AND you're also met with some good potholes to manoeuvre past, so a challenging little junction for an unfamiliar bike.

Having pretty much reached the top of the hill you're now going through little old Birdlip, a very tight left hand bend out continuing through and past the 30 zone until a sweeping right hander takes you to the entrance on the left to the Birdlip beauty spot viewing point (Point D).

Larking About in the Layby

On entering the quiet slip towards the parking I took the opportunity to pull over, and try an O-turn, i.e. a slow 360. Some bikes managed this, others didn't. Once I was facing back towards the parking I waited until completely clear behind and performed a number of emergency stops, typically from about 25-35 in second gear. Following 3 or 4 of these it was down over the cattle grid and down to the parking area for some more slow circles and figure 8s before turning back. Up over the cattle grid and then making use of the damp leaves on the edge of the slip road to try out the ABS. So it's 5-10 mph in first, legs out and I'm deliberately trying to skid £8,000+ worth of new and heavy motorcycle. Heh heh. I'd never felt ABS on a bike before and it was interesting to experience it and notice how the systems behaved differently. It was now time to just stop and take stock of my ride so far, so stopping each bike in about the same place I took pictures and had a breather and chocolate bar. It was also an opportunity to have a good look around the bike at different things.

Heading Back, Concentrate

Composure regained - those ABS "tests" are damn nerve-racking! - its back onto the bike and time to head back to the respective garages, via a bit more variety. Pulling back out onto the B4070 and back into Birdlip, the right hander in the village is VERY tight, a very slow first gear corner with lots going on about. The corner is also a junction with traffic from your left having to give way to you, then comes a hotel on your right with vehicles in and out, followed by the B4070 peeling off on that junction to the left and then down & round that tight-ish right hander. A great way to be sure how you cope with mirrors, front & rear braking throttle and clutch control all thrown in with the massive observation you're doing on an unfamiliar bike. With that behind you it's down through the glorious wooded run with a little bit of twisty going on. Nice.

Bikes in the Brown Stuff

About halfway down this back road (point E) there's a little one track lane on the left, turning into here it's also a little holey and then there's a gate into a field on the right. A great place to check out how easy it is to turn a bike around in slightly muddy, rutty grass. So with a new bike sliding about a little I stop & turn & yank it back & fore and get it back onto the road with muddy tyres and back onto the back road. Stopping at this little junction - it's downhill and with a mass of soggy leaves - is another great opportunity to check out the ABS and how easy it is to keep a slippy bike upright!

Test Ride Through Town?

Continuing on I get to the roundabout (point F) and head right back to the A417. This roundabout gives a very tight right hander which I manage on some bikes better than others! Pulling back onto the A417 in now the other direction for one hop lets me have one more blast before hitting proper town traffic. One last opportunity on each bike to simply let it pull and pull, as far as I dare let/allow it. Sweeping off the A417 left towards the Gloucester Business Park I go twice around the island where Tesco lives and head off into 30 mph zone territory in search of the mundane side of riding a motorcycle. Town traffic.

Homeward Bound

Hucclecote Road leading onto Barnwood Road is Roman straight all 30 mph with pedestrian crossing humps and cars and buses. Some filtering opportunities here until at point H I get onto the "homeward stretch" - at least for the bikes it is - of the A38. This is now 40mph but delivers some traffic light starting grids to play with. It's long and tedious but perfect "real-life" as far as how my bike will often be used.

How I Compared the Bikes 

This is my summary table. It’s not an expert’s thorough road test opinion, simply how I felt about what I’d ridden.
Quite surgey, very controllable
Not much
Felt cramped.
This was my next bike "on paper". Was left very underwhelmed and very disappointed.
Kawasaki Z1000SX
Very Sharp
Immensely powerful response, just controllable and extremely quick. Probably only got 60% to redline
Brakes, Acceleration
Likely fuel consumption, threat to my licence & being

VStrom 650
A step-up from my Transalp, quite responsive, very controllable
Fuel consumption, responsiveness for engine,
Seating position,
Gear indicator
Whilst with more power/acceleration than my Transalp, still quite a lot down on what I'd feel far more comfortable with
Felt very at home on this bike as soon as I got on it. Nice bike, really liked it.
GSR 750
Very Sharp
Very strong powerful response, controllable and very quick.
Brakes, acceleration, noise
Likely fuel consumption,
Biggest dislike was nakedness, not a good all weather workhorse.
This bike was a big surprise. Looking at it initially I thought, "Nah, sports bike", within a few miles I absolutely loved it, it was suprisingly comfortable, felt really good. Just not practical, but still lovely.
Suzuki Bandit 1250
Strong, determined powerful response, controllable, very very useable and very quick.
Solid feel/presence (even at +++ speed), wind protection
Likely fuel consumption
A very sensible decision, nice quick, handleable bike and would definitely be in the frame...if it wasn't for the last 1/2 mile of "green lane" to our house. Just not comfortable with taking a road bike up through stoney, grassy, muddy track.
BMW K1300S
Very Sharp
Insanely powerful response, only just controllable and unbelievably quick. Probably only got 50% to redline
The experience of having ridden it
Unusable (for me) gearing and power, hand position (very far forward/downwards riding and aching under braking)
If I owned it it would be a waste. Like keeping a greyhound on a leash. Also not a good bike for green laneing.
BMW 1200RT
Strong and tourqey
Electric windscreen, heated seats, potential for stereo installation (I.e. toys), brilliant weather protection (but I have another BMW for that, it's called a 5-series)
Restricted leg positioning due to boxer engine whilst manouvering, too large chasis
My least favourite, and whilst obviously good enough for Her Majesty's Constabulary, just didn't do it for me.
Honda 800 CrossRunner
Powerful, quite quick, past 6000rpm and the additional 2 valves of the 4-valve VFR technology kicked in and the bike started quacking! Absolute hoot. Very nicely controllable and useable.
Quacking performance, seating position
Stupid thin line tacho (albeit as used on other bikes, still crap),
Fuel consumption,
I absolutely loved this bike. Brilliant. Never experienced Vtech engine before and never mind the grin factor,  that had me cackling like Sid James inside my helmet!
Just put off by fuel consumption and tacho.
Honda CB1000R
Strong, determined powerful response, controllable, very very useable and very quick.
Very solid & stable.
Nothing dramatic about it. 
 Probably very dependable, reliable, decent bike. Just not for me.
Honda 700 Transalp
Pretty sluggish and not much better than my older 650 Transalp. Exhaust doesn't sound anything as nice as my Arrow after market.
Very familiar.
Very familiar.
Nah. My second least favourite!
BMW 1200GS
Very tourqey, very useable, very controllable, just really nice.
Very solid, just sits there. Oh, this felt so right.
Shaft drive.
Non-standard indicator controls, tamperable clutch & brake resevoirs.
I think I found my bike.
Triumph Tiger 800XC
Quite surgey, very controllable, not huge.
Light enough to chuck about a bit. Feels like a good off-road choice.
Not much really, probably the smaller engine performance.
 I’d already ridden a GS by the time I rode this!
BMW 1200 GSA
Very tourqey, very useable, very controllable, still really nice
High seating position, sheer size & presence.
Shaft drive. Availability of after market farkles!
Non-standard indicator controls, tamperable clutch & brake resevoirs. A HEAVY bike!
Loved this bike. Loved it.
Triumph Tiger 1200 Explorer
Very Sharp
Despite some claims about the electronic throttle being very light, I found the “feedback” to be fine. Response was quick and offers different profiles that I found did make a difference, but it mostly stayed on Sport! Nicely powerfull.
This was a very nice bike to ride and it’s British! I loved the right angle tyre valves – why doesn’t every bike do this????
Shaft drive, cruise control!
Big generator to drive all my little add-ons.
I’m not a great fan of the angular styling.
This “might” be a future bike, but for now it’s a new bike, there may well be things to iron out and certainly nowhere near as many extra gadgets for it.
KTM 990 Adventure
Very Sharp
Nicely torquey and very controllable.
Commanding riding position. Loved the brakes.
Chain drive. I commute and need as little day-to-day maintenance as possible.
Really nice bike this, but it just wasn’t “enough”.
Yamaha 1200 Super Tenere
Very torquey, very controllable.
Shaft drive.
The view from the seat into the front felt like a tea tray sat in front of me, it was a bit weird.
Of the big adventures (including the KTM here) this would be last on my list.

So, What Did I Buy?

Two bikes. A Suzuki 650 V-Strom, I adore this bike! And a BMW 1200 GS Adventure – there’s a very good reason it’s the bestselling bike by a country mile!
Now the gadgettering can start!