Finn and Greg Do IMS DC

I’d been looking forward to the IMS Washington DC Motorcycle Show. I’ll admit that I’m not much of a motorcycle show guy – I’m more of a motorcycle ride guy. This was different, though. My normal wintertime motorcycle fix is supplied by the Traditional Timonium Motorcycle Show (Hon!) — which is a combination dealership demand generation and discounting imbroglio, custom bike and chopper/artbike show, and no holds barred monster swapmeet. I’ve found some of my favorite hand tools in that swapmeet. The Timonium show is crowded, chaotic — the parking lot is a freaking deathmatch — and, like nearby Baltimore, is a little bit gritty and human scale.

The Timonium Show is for bikers, hon, and ain’t no bones about it.

The IMS motorcycle shows, on the other hand, are a bit higher production values, have participation by the motorcycle manufacturers, and — at least to my IMS-inexperienced eyes — appeared to be the big time.

Because of my increasing communication and coordination with the Press and PR people from the motorcycle manufacturers, it was clear the IMS was where the deals got done – it was kind of a rolling moto-convention that – if you were lucky – came to your town and allowed you some real face time — a rare modern occurrence — with one’s buds in the business.

I’d been getting the e-mails — “If you’re going to be in Long Beach…”. “Next Week in Miami…”, so I set my plans, got my credentials, and wrote it in thick Sharpie marker on all the calendars.

 

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When the appointed weekend finally arrived, I spent a little time fishing to see who might want to go with me. Sweet Doris from Baltimore evinced little to no interest – it was a opportunity for a ‘Girls’ Day Out’ for her and our daughter. Finn, on the other hand, was all up and all in, so a boy’s bonding day it would be. Although Friday was the so-called ‘Press Day’, Finn had classes, so we settled on Saturday, and set the bones of our plan.

Saturday morning — with a 24 degree start — I drove my Ford down to Finn’s place in Greenbelt, picked him up at his front door, and drove us both 3/4s of a mile to the adjacent metro station.

Greenbelt is the end of the line, so there was a train sitting on the platform when we walked in. We got on the train, sat down, and five minutes later the train started talking — “I am a seven thousand series train… please step away from the left side doors….” — and 25 minutes later we exited the train at a metro station that was technically inside of the convention center building where the show was being held.

Civilized.

The Walter E. Washington Washington DC Convention Center is absolutely enormous. There are at least 2, and maybe 4 main exhibition spaces. There are also somewhere north of 180 large meeting rooms — enough to ‘Death by Powerpoint’ the entire population of Earth. Inside this cavernous complex, the IMS Show — filling most of a single hall — rattles around in the Convention Center like a beer can pull tab that accidentally fell in the can. After a brief stop at the Press Credentials booth – where I introduced Finn – who was holding the camera – as ‘my photographer’ – we got our pair of press passes and entered the hall.

Look, if a little stunt was good enough for Hunter S. Thompson at the ‘Mint 400’, then it is damn well good enough for us.

Well, it’s certainly bright and shiny….

The American Honda set-up was right inside the door. They had brought pretty much everything they made – which was great, as it afforded us the chance to eyeball and butt-test a lot of models about which we had questions. I rolled up to the their booth to check in with the Press Liason, Collin Miller. The Honda Men politely informed me that Mr. Miller had grabbed an earlier flight home yesterday.

If your life had Microsoft Windows Error Sounds, this one would have gone “GLAAANK!”. Meeting with Colin was one of my primary IMS objectives, and it had been apparently wiped clean by the prospect of another Saturday back in Southern California.

I resolved to just roll with it, but it did set the tone for the rest of the day.

The Africa Twin Adventure Sports – A Motorcycle I Previously Lusted Badly Until I ‘Sat’ on It

I went straight to the Africa Twin Adventure Sports. I really wanted to love this motorcycle. And I really could love this motorcycle, if riding never, ever, involved stopping. After managing to throw a leg cleanly over the bike without breaking a hip, Finn and I were more or less hopelessly consumed by laughter, after the near impossibility of me getting my feet, or even a foot, solidly on the ground became apparent. My old days racing bicycles taught me to track stop — to sit on a two wheeler at a completely standstill. On the ATAS, I managed to sit, stopped, with at least a full two inches of air under each boot. We would have pictures but the photographer was laughing too hard to achieve critical sharpness.

The NC750X – possibly one of the most practical motorcycles on the planet. Between huge storage space in the ‘tank’, optional DCT and 70+ mpg, commuting warrior me would definitely want one of these

The 2019 Kawasaki Supercharged H2R: I don’t know whether these gobsmacked guys were looking at the horsepower rating or the price, but either way, ‘Sticker Shock’ definitely applies.

Supercharged!

Kawasaki W800 – Kawa returns to its roots with a ‘Britbike’ style vertical twin. Nice, but not $4000 nicer than the Royal Enfield 650 I just tested.

Finn Tries The ‘This Might Just Be Too Small For You’ Section of the Kawasaki Booth.

Suzuki Doesn’t Phone It In – A mint condition 1981 Katana 1100. The bike that the R90S designer, Hans Muth, designed next. “PLEASE DO NOT Sit on Bike.”

The 2019 Katana. Pretty cool. But.

If you’re going to do more than phone it in, you might as well bring Alex Rins MotoGP Bike. Ho hum.

That’s a lot of Carbon

Would YOU be comfortable with that open clutch basket spinning at 18,000 rpm just in front of your toe?

Yeah, another picture of it, cause, Gawwd, look at it.

 

It was at this point that something struck me. It wasn’t so much about all the motorcycle manufacturers that were here, but at all the one’s that weren’t. Motorcycle manufacture is actually a pretty small business, with perhaps about 12 major manufacturers. So it’s great, that Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki flew the flag at DC IMS. Oh, and my buds at electric motorcycle maker Zero, were too, down at the other, more interesting end of the hall.

But here are the OEMs that took a pass on DC, as a show destination: Harley Davidson, Indian/Polaris, Yamaha, Triumph, KTM, Ducati, MotoGuzzi, Aprilia and Royal Enfield. Now some of these brands were represented by local dealers, but the makers were not there to talk to riders and generate their own buzz. Heck, the only BWW in the whole place was a rat rod 1973 R60 that was in the small custom bike show. I don’t know if this was a lack of confidence in DC as a market, or for the IMS show or US market in general, but I have to think that some of the no-shows were in places like Long Beach and Miami.

The Vintage Guys Score Points: A Nice 1965 Matchless G15 – Bit of a Norton Mash-up with a Norton Atlas engine.

One of Three Really Nice Norton Commandos: Our Photographer Did Opine That The Vintage Guys Had More Appealing Help at Their Booths.

One Local Dealer Displayed This Lovely Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer – One has to Love The California Hot Rod Colorway.

 

At the other end of the hall, Finn and I sought out Robert Pandya, who was running the ‘Discover the Ride’ attraction — an unthreatening, inviting, easy entrance to learning to ride. Robert had worked with IMS, with Zero Motorcycles and with Total Control Training to put people who had never ridden before in the saddles of some Zero Electric Motorcycles. The Zeros, of course, have complete software configurability via any bluetooth smartphone or tablet. So these trainers, with the standard no transmission, no clutch direct drive of all Zeros, had their engine outputs dialed way back and their road speed limited to a point where even a brand new rider could have them circling the indoor track confidently in about three minutes. Personally, when I had my Zero test bike, I used the Zero App to turn the whole bike up to 11s, and might have never thought of this, but it makes perfect sense — a stroke of genius. Robert told us that Discover the Ride had the longest line at the show — a 90 minute wait that stretched all the way to the other end of the hall — and he did. More importantly, their information was showing fantastic conversion rates — up to 65% of the folks that took their first ride were planning to buy their first bike – “65% of folks that take the ride come in thinking that motorcyclists are ‘other people’, and leave thinking that they are.”

Robert is absolutely driven to get new people involved in motorcycling. Like a lot of folks who employ oblique strategies and who are well out in front of conventional thinking, the hardest part is in getting less astute people to just open up their minds and listen to the idea. In 10-12 weeks of running Discover The Ride Robert has helped make thousands of new motorcyclists. Industry heavyweights just need to look at the numbers and then figure out how to do lots more of this.

Another local dealer — Motorcycles of Dulles — was at the show with some Indian and Triumph motorcycles.

Indian FTR 1200 Street Tracker with Carbon Fiber Body Kit. Ooooh.

New Triumph Speed Twin. Thuxton Go with Bonneville Seating Position. Also Ooooh.

The Thruxton R – Upside Down Ohlins forks, Ohlins shocks, Brembo Radial Brakes. Perhaps Two Oooohs.

This Young Man Has Fine Taste In Motor Cycles.

Alloy strap tank, polished upper triple clamp, monza gas gap. How long do you think it will take to remove the safety message decals.

 

At this point, Finn and I were more hungry for a burger, having bikeshowed through lunch, than we were for any more motorcycles, so we Yelped up a joint called the District Tap house, which looked to have a great Tap Line, and had the additional benefit of being open at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon.

As we walked the block and a half to our burger, we came up behind two guys that were wearing every conceivable piece of KTM Sportswear — orange KTM logo jackets, hoodies, adventure boots, buffalo plad hipster lumberjack shirts done in KTM Orange — the works. Both of them had their head hanging down and displayed body language that looked like somebody had just shot their dog — there hadn’t been a single KTM in the entire show.

“Look Finn — it’s the two saddest KTM riders in the entire world.”

“Oh yeah. Heh.”

So, motorcycle companies that didn’t come to DC. Your fans showed up. Where were you?

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Essence – Royal Enfield INT 650

There is a certain undeniable, immediate poetry to riding a motorcycle.

On a perfect sunny afternoon, on a properly twisted road, dancing with the double yellow line is so completely immersive that it becomes meditative – one can achieve a state of grace where nothing else in your life or even in an increasingly distracted and distracting world can possibly intrude.

There is a certain type of motorcycle that is, at least in my eye, most appropriate to this kind of mission. That motorcycle, first, must itself not be trying to distract the rider from their attainment of backroad enlightenment. All you rides with 11 inch LCDs in the instrument panel with SatNav, trip computers, Bluetooth music and Apple Car Play, kindly exit here. Supersports, GT Sports Tourers, and Brobdingnagian Adventure bikes are encouraged to follow.

What I’m talking about here are elemental, essential motorcycles. Two wheels, an engine, and a place to hang on. Everything the rider needs, and absolutely nothing they do not. If that motorcycle is narrow, light and allows one to see light through the frame, so much the better.

Bikes like this used to be everywhere – the CB450 Honda, the later CB350s, Norton Commandos, Triumph Bonnevilles. If you’re looking for such a motorcycle nowadays, there is very little made out there that will catch your eye.

Royal Enfield Motorcycles – of Chennai, India – wants to change all that.

Royal Enfield’s INT 650 – which is called the Interceptor in the rest of the world, but not in the US, because Honda of America owns the trademark, despite RE having produced their first Interceptor in 1962 – and its close cousin, the café styled Continental GT 650 – are classically styled, affordable middleweight motorcycles that want to put a generation of new riders on motorcycles that capture that essence of the ride.

A Pretty Girl

Royal Enfield began – in 1901 — as one of the foundational British motorcycle manufacturers. After a massive order from the Indian Government for police and military bikes in the early 1950s, Enfield UK authorized an Indian licensee to assemble the machines, and then to manufacture components. By 1962, there was no more UK Enfield, and all of the motorcycles were built and assembled in Chennai. Royal Enfield can accurately claim to be the oldest motorcycle company to be in continuous production.

Royal Enfield in India built two motorcycle lines – The Enfield Bullet in both 350 and 500 cc displacements. The bikes came in various states of equipment – olive drab military models, classic models with lots of chrome and pinstripes, everyday rider standards – and sold by the hundreds of thousands if not the millions in India.

The Bullets, though, were somehow strangely stranded in time – they were travelers from the 1930-1950s high point of the British Single – that had somehow avoided being changed. Royal Enfield, though, with some new ownership, investment and management, began to position itself to move quickly ahead. First the powerplant of the Bullets was updated – going to unit construction and implementing electronic fuel injection. Then, RE worked on a special project with England’s Harris Performance – who have been designing custom racing frames and complete motorcycles – including Yamaha’s Factory GP Bikes — since the early 1970s – to design a more capable motorcycle around one of their new Unit Singles. That motorcycle became the RE Continental GT 535 – a bike that RE appreciated so much that they then purchased Harris Performance.

The last missing piece needed to produce a thoroughly modern motorcycle– from an engineering standpoint – was a new engine. And the result of RE’s first twin engine design project since the company left England – a 650cc, single overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder, air and oil-cooled vertical twin – is nothing less than a stunning achievement. The 650 twin, which is slighty undersquare at 78 mm x 67.8 mm, uses a 270 degree crank and counterbalancers to deliver good strong torque right in the middle of the rev range — which makes the engine’s 47 horsepower and 38 foot pounds of torque feel a lot quicker than the brain says it ought to. The engine’s 270 degree crank makes power delivery mimic that of a V-twin – with uneven spacing of power pulses — with the engine revving quickly and providing a great exhaust sound, even on the OEM exhaust system. The 650’s engine design has yielded an engine with genuinely attractive character – smooth at high rpm, with just the right amount of vibration designed in, and punchy and quick to rev on the throttle. Every time I hit a corner exit all I wanted to do was roll the throttle wide open.

647 ccs of Air-cooled, SOHC, 4 valve Goodness

Engine Cutaway

The air-cooled engine should be both well-understressed and easy to maintain – it uses screw and locknut valve adjusters – and there is clearly way more power potential in the motor than is provided in stock tune. The engine’s output of 47 hp was specifically chosen to allow the bike to qualify for the lowest tier in several countries’ tiered motorcycle licensing schemes. RE has already supported a team that went out to Bonneville in September, and ran a modified 650 up to a new class record at a tick over 150 miles an hour. So if you’re the type of guy or gal that wants to do some hot-rodding, this engine will welcome it.

The 650’s Bottom End with 270 Crank

SOHC, 4-valves, and Home Mechanic-friendly Screw and Locknut Adjusters

The INT 650’s Harris-designed chassis uses the Continental GT 535’s design as the starting point – wheelbase is about 30 mm longer – but the general concept is the same – a modern, enhanced execution of the famous Featherbed dual downtube steel tubular chassis. The INT’s mid mount footpegs hang off a steel fixture that is designed to be swapped for one which supports the Continental GT’s rearsets – one mounting point – two different ergonomic setups. Steering head angle is a quick-steering 24 degrees, with 18 inch tires at both ends – a 100/90 in front and a 130/70 at the rear – sporting Pirelli Phantom SportsComp tires and built around Excel alloy rims. Front and rear suspension is by Gabriel, with 4.3 inches of fork travel and 3.5 in the rear. The only suspension adjustment is for rear preload.

Brakes are provided by Brembo’s Indian subsidiary — ByBre. All brake lines are braided stainless steel with a twin piston caliper with 320mm disk up front, and single piston caliper with a 240 mm disk up front, managed by a Bosch AntiLock Braking system. Both calipers are finished in the attractive gold paint that Brembo used on their sport bike calipers back in the early 2000s, paint which is also echoed on the rear shock gas reservoirs – providing a little moto jewelry for those after-ride bike gazing sessions.

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

Gabriel Rear Reservoir Shock – Gold Eye Candy

Fit and finish and appearance of the motorcycle are really world class – our test unit was finished in a bright orange paint RE calls “Orange Crush” – the paint is deep and lustrous with no orange peel. The bike sports a reproduction of the RD tank badge that dates back to their Constellation model of 1959, if not further. Chromed parts are bright, and cycle parts are painted with either a black or light grey tough enamel finish. With the exception of the fenders, there is very little plastic anywhere. The narrow, flat bench saddle is finished off with a diamond pleat pattern. Instrumentation is limited to the essentials – analog tach and speedo, a very small LCD fuel bar gauge, with indicators for neutral, oil, highbeam, charging and ABS. Were I was to take one of these motorcycles home with me, I would spend a few more dollars for the optional chromed fuel tank – which takes the INT from merely very attractive to out-of-the-box Vintage Bike Show winner look alike.

‘Orange Crush’ Paintwork – You Should See the Optional Chrome Tank

Pilot’s Eye View

Classic bike analogies stop the minute one thumbs the electric starter, however. The 650 mill fires on the third compression stroke every time, no matter how cold the weather may be, and settles immediately into a high idle with no noise from the valve train and just a hint of fuel injector whine. Blips of the throttle produce instant response, with a bassy exhaust note that pushes all the right biker buttons. Pulling in the cable operated, slipper clutch and toeing the gear driven 6 speed transmission down into first reveals a positively shifting, short throw gearbox – I had no missed shifts or false neutrals in an extended time testing the motorcycle.

And on the gas, the 650 is a flexible, torquey, good sounding motor with a broad spread of power – usable power starts at around 3000 rpm and gets genuinely grin producing at around 4500 before starting to trail off at about 6000. In our time with the INT it spent most of its time happily spinning around 5000 rpm which produces instant throttle response and seems to bother the engine not one whit. On the highway, the INT is easily able to cruise at 75 or 80 in top gear with passing power available. During our test we averaged a bit above 50 miles per gallon average.

The bike’s brakes are absolutely stellar – the front single disk has great feel, terrific power and is easily modulated.   I was able to get the front tire right up to howling in simulated panic stops without triggering the ABS – there if you need it, but the master cylinder, braided lines and caliper make all of the setup’s power available and easily controlled.  The rear brake is something I barely used – the bike’s slipper clutch allowed me to engine brake into hot corners without being concerned about rev matching or braking loose the rear on corner entrances.

The INT’s cornering manners took me a little while to come to terms with. Call it a character flaw that I respect and do not want to crash other people’s motorcycles. Riding conservatively, on smooth pavement the INT was close to magical – easy to turn-in, and held a line well. On some rougher, tighter, country roads, the bike’s fork and shocks seemed a tad overdamped – transmitting some road irregularities to the rider and occasionally prone to being knocked a little off the intended line. My inner lightbulb came on brightly when I ratcheted up the aggression level, and started to really give the twin the full berries — Harris Performance’s racing pedigree was on full display here – absolutely wail on the bike, and it settles down completely. Apex late, turn in harder, open the throttle more and sooner and the INT comes into its own, able to adjust and even tighten up lines mid-corner with no drama. I had underestimated this motorcycle, and it taught me something.

With its single cylinder Bullets, Royal Enfield had been strictly a niche manufacturer in the United States motorcycle market. In a market characterized by an explosion of motorcycle categories, and preoccupations with engine displacement, irrational speed and electronic gadgets, their humble singles were a truly an almost eccentric acquired taste. The Royal Enfield INT 650, though, is a complete departure from RE’s prior US offerings.

Completely ignoring RE’s long heritage and prior offerings, and evaluated on its own merits, the RE INT 650 is simply an elemental, classic motorcycle that uses a bare minimum of modern engineering and technology to produce a bike that captures the essence of motorcycling. I can hardly recall a motorcycle that has been as much fun to ride as the INT. Every time I have taken this bike for a ride I’ve been smiling ear to ear every charge I took up though the gears, every time I braked hard to setup for a corner, and every time I came back after a blast around the valley.

The Royal Enfield INT 650 looks great, sounds great, and is an unadulterated blast to ride. At an MSRP of $5799 – including a three year, unlimited mileage warrantee, including roadside assistance – the only question might be why you haven’t got one yet.

 

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Portions of this story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 Issue of Motorcycle Times. All rights reserved.

An extended riding impression of the Royal Enfield can be found here.

Sloppy

One of the reasons I like living in Maryland, is that mosttimes, we really don’t get Winter here.

Sure. It might get cold. It might even snow a little.

But tell a rider from Michigan, or Wisconsin, or somewhere up in Northern New England that You, as A Marylander, are experiencing Winter, and those riders will laugh right in your face.

The flip side of that bummer though, is a day like this one.

It had snowed a few inches two days ago — it was dark, cloudy, cool and grey out. I’d been at home by myself, head down in my office, doing various forms of energy sucking focus, when all of a sudden, the Sun. Came. Out.

I hadn’t expected that at all.

I had actually wrapped the things that had me in the office, so I accepted this as a sign from the universe, grabbed my helmet and split.

The temperature out was 38 degrees f., and headed for 40. All of the pastureland hereabouts would be shedding snowmelt, and most roads would be doing a passable impression of one of the nearby creeks. It’s days like this — and many other kinds of days — that make me glad I have an Aerostich — no amount of road spray is going to get past my suit.

The Royal Enfield INT 650 test bike that still lives here fired right up coming off a few nights of disuse and deep freeze.

The cold air felt great, snapping me to full awareness until the tearing and blast of cold air on my cheeks forced me to close my helmet’s visor until it was only opened a click. The first pastureland I passed by, right as I picked up the Pike, had water streaming out of it, right where I’d expected, setting the theme for what would prove to be a wet and sloppy ride.

After crossing 340, heading west on the Pike, each successive farm had at least one new stream cutting across the roadway, making riding this motorcycle, with its scrambler bar and riding position, far more scrambley that most previous rides had been. I rode in a horseman’s position — standing up yet knees and back bent — keeping my weight positioned forward and over the bars — able to steer with hands, legs and feet.

Headed to the back roads there were spots in the treeline where it wasn’t clear that ice had all melted out — where those spots of flowing water also looked somehow skaty — we’d go to neutral throttle and take the frame straight up and down just to minimize the potential of one of Mother Nature’s Unpleasant Little Surprises.

But in all of these snotty wet, dirty and maybe frozen intersections and stream crossings — little baby stream fords — the Orange Menace never so much as put a wheel out of place. In only a few hundred miles, this bike has gained my confidence to do exactly what it has been told and no less and no more.

These kinds of conditions are where too much power is just not your friend. Where too much of anything — mass, power, entrance speed in a corner, too much drive coming out — translate instantly to sparks and a sickening scraping sound.

But balance — where there is just enough of what one needs without there being too much — can turn what could be a whiteknuckled wrestling match into just another zen ride — dancing on the razor’s edge while smiling all the while.

 

I’m going to have to figure out how to wash this bike in January before giving it back.

Twins – Life With Royal Enfield INT 650

This is probably as good a time as any to admit that, until very recently, I was a British motorcycle virgin.

I know, you’re shocked.

It wasn’t like I didn’t have plenty of curiosity about the breed — I just didn’t have the opportunity.

Think of the classic British motorcycles – Norton Dominators and Commandos, Triumph Speed Twins, Tigers and Bonnevilles, Royal Enfield Meteors and Interceptors, BSA A10s. Although Classic Brit Iron has its share of singles — Velocettes, the Matchless G50 and the Norton Manx — and a smattering of V-Twins — Broughs and Vincents — after Triumph’s Mr. Turner had his epiphany in 1937, the vast majority of British motorcycles were built around the parallel twin engine — an engineering breakthrough that produced the power and torque of a V-twin in a form factor that had the mass and width of a single.

A 1970 Royal Enfield Interceptor, I Believe

Only one of my string of close riding friends over the years had a British motorcycle — a Last Edition T140 Meriden Triumph Bonneville — and as pretty as it may have been, it wasn’t the most dependable runner — and I generally endeavor not to borrow motorcycles that I either cannot start or that will provide me with the unplanned opportunity for a nice long walk home. Walt’s ‘Last Edition’ qualified on both counts. My maddening curiosity about the bikes that had carried Brando’s Johnny, McQueen, Dylan, The Fonz and countless other dudes way cooler than me would just have to wait until the right opportunity presented itself.

 

***

 

I’ve been following closely the stories coming out of Royal Enfield about the development of their new twin cylinder engine, and the motorcycles that would use it. Although Enfield’s operations were relocated to India a very long time ago, there is a direct line between the current operation in Chennai and the old HQ in Redditch. As Enfield’s development project wrapped, details of the 650 cc, single overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder, air and oil cooled vertical twin began to fill in. With modern machining, fuel injection, and other tricks like a gear driven primary drive, 270 degree crank, counterbalancers, and a power assist/slipper clutch would provide RE with a classic appearing but fully modern engine that could put them right in the hunt to provide reasonably priced, classically styled and versatile motorcycles to people that didn’t see the motorcycle technology and arms races as producing unalloyed progress.

After well more than a year of talking with the nice folks at RE USA, I was finally rewarded with a scheduled and confirmed date for an independent vehicle transportation contractor to drop a brand new Royal Enfield INT 650 at the bottom of my driveway. And, after a late start in the morning the day after Thanksgiving, I heard a big diesel engine come out of gear in the street outside. I grabbed a hat and jacket and headed outside.

Ben – of A&B Transport – really had quite the setup. One of the last made Ford Diesel Expeditions, pulling a tandem axle car transporter trailer. We pumped hands and exchanged pleasantries as he lowered a loading ramp door off the trailer’s front right side. Inside was our Enfield — with its bright orange tank, chromed exhausts and gold painted components simply glowing — but it wasn’t the only treasure onboard. In the motorcycle wheel cleat next to our Enfield, was a vintage Yamaha YZ360, with its distinctive strapped gas tank. She was definitely not a show queen, this was a runner, and a well loved one at that.

But it was what was in the back of the trailer that was really eye-catching — a Shelby Cobra, with the expected royal blue and white Shelby Stripe paintwork — perfect, and not so much as a fingerprint on it. Ben shared that it was a replica — with a modern 5.0 liter Ford V8 for power — but other than that it was original spec in every way, right down to its wooden steering wheel and leather strap door hinges. I told Ben that after we got the Enfield unloaded and before he left, I’d like Finn to have a look at the car.

We got the ratchet straps on the bike undone, and Ben keyed the bike and went to start it up. It turned over more than a few times — and more than I would have expected, for a modern fuel injected engine — before it finally caught on about the fourth or fifth attempt. We ran the bike up the driveway and then I ran inside to grab Finn.

When we both got back to the transporter, Ben was in the process of showing off one of its tricker features — the entire left side of the trailer was designed to raise up on gas lifts so that a show car could be displayed without being unloaded. With the trailer — most of which was billet aluminum — opened up, the Cobra was doing a creditable pearl in the oyster impression.

After Finn and I had spent a few minutes checking out the auto jewelry, Ben sat into the driver’s seat, and fired up the 5.0. The sound from the open side pipes was internal combustion music at idle — on the throttle though, it was the whole orchestra.

We thanked Ben heartily for delivering our Enfield, and for showing us the car. He buttoned the transporter back up and dieseled out of the neighborhood. Even though my mother and father in law were expected for a post-holiday visit, I grabbed my helmet, jacket and gloves for a short indoctrination putt around the neighborhood.

I set out for about a 2 mile loop through the farmland behind my house – a loop that ends up back in town before coming back to my house. I headed down MD 180, and headed for Saint Mark’s Road — which is a lovely, bumpy, tight single laner which is the perfect place for any classic motorcycle. I immediately appreciated the broad, midrange based power delivery, and the revvy, easy lope of the 270 degree crankshaft twin. Suspension was a tad more taut than I’m accustomed to, but would turn out to have a reason.

As I headed back up out of The Bottoms, I noticed the fuel bar graph in the LCD insert at the bottom of the speedometer. It had only one bar, and that bar was blinking.

“Naaaah…” I thought, “Nobody would be so thoughtless as to ship a motorcycle with a completely empty tank.”

Actually, they would, apparently.

As I headed back up Maryland Rt. 383’s steep hill up to town, and the nearest gas station, the RE quit in the middle of the grade under full throttle, and I drifted over to the narrow shoulder on the inside of the curved ascent up the hill. I pushed the bike as far out of the roadway as I could, and then yanked my helmet and went for my cel phone.

I couldn’t have been more than a third of a mile from either fuel or my house.

“Finn,” I said when he picked up his phone. “Go to the shed in the back yard, get the gas can from my mower, get in your car and head down 383 toward the bridge. I’m sitting over on the left hand side of the road. Stinking bike didn’t have any gas in it.”

Humanity, of late, has had plenty of chances to either disappoint or amaze me, and today humanity came though. The road I was pulled over on is a massive, curving grade that most people drive with their accelerator foot on the floor, to try and make reasonable progress toward the top. It’s a genuinely dangerous place to get stuck, and even more challenging place to try and pull over. In the perhaps 5 to 7 minutes before Finn pulled up, three separate folks pulled over to ask if I needed help.

It’s nice to know had I not had any help I’d still have had help.

After Finn rolled up I took about a gallon and a half out of my mower can, and the RE fired right back up and carried a humbled me directly home with authority.

It sure wasn’t an auspicious start. I texted Ben to let him know why he’d had such a hard time starting the bike originally, which provided him with a LOL.

We had a few days opening with some noticeably warmer weather in the forecast, and I felt optimistic that with a little more preparation, and under less hurried conditions, Interceptor Life would be better.

 

***

 

My buddy Paul is a quintessential Triumph man — a little bit quirky, a little bit rebel, and cares not a whit about what you might ride and how you might ride it.

I’d made my own tiny contribution to Paul’s delinquency as a rider by lending him my /5. At the time, Paul had been riding an original 1980s vintage Honda CB750, which was not known for its tight suspension and steering control. After some limited and slippery experience on my BMW, Paul recognized and quickly acted on his compulsion to get a bike with some superior roadholding.

Paul located a very low mileage and unmolested 2008 Triumph Bonneville — the last carburetted, air and oil cooled Bonneville. His Bonnie combines all of the modern internal combustion engineering and better manufacturing of the modern Hinckley Triumphs with the simplicity and agility of the Triumphs that went before. It was arguably the best of all possible motorcycle worlds, and one he obtained under commercial circumstances that have significant overlap with outright theft.

Paul and I have discussed me taking his Bonneville for a ride. The willingness was there, but the opportunity hadn’t really presented itself.

I sent Paul a note asking if he wanted to go for a ride on Saturday. It was a chance for him to check out the Enfield. And a chance for me to benchmark it against its British Motorcycle cousin, the Bonneville.

 

***

 

After our little fuel level fandango, you can assume I was no longer making any assumptions about the preparation of the INT 650 test bike. I’d check the chain, air pressure in the tires, and any other setup items there might be — rearview mirrors, that sort of stuff. I was starting to be pretty sure that this bike was a pretty early — and likely pre-production example. For starters, the bike’s VIN ended in 149 — so this was likely the 149th unit built. Second, US DOT has some labelling requirements that identify the stock, certified tire sizes, and the designed tire pressure. When I went to look for the label — because there is nothing that will screw up chassis performance worse or faster than the wrong tire pressures — my little orange buddy didn’t have one.

A Pretty Girl

I spent some time on the Internet, looking for an Owner’s Manual. RE had a US and an International web site, both of quick claimed to be able to provide User Support documents. I know a little about tech, but neither of the two web sites seemed to be able to provide me with that manual — web code that asked you to register, and then log in, and then wouldn’t get you to the Manuals anyway. There was a Support E-mail form — I filled it out, telling them I was a US Motorcycle writer and needed the Manual to support a Magazine test. Crickets.

I could find recommended pressures for the Royal Enfield’s other motorcycle — The Bullet — but the recommended pressures were clearly not appropriate for modern tires and suspension — stock pressure for a 350 Bullet is 19 PSI in the front tire.

I was finally rescued by a Fast-fingered Brother in the Indian Motorcycle Press, who had been invited on a factory tour, and bagged cell phone pictures of the first two pages of the factory service manual, including — drumroll — tire pressures.

So thank you, Fast Fingered Brother, you provided, and my rechargeable inflator set things right.

We continued to exercise oblique strategies and creative thought — an excerpt from a Continental GT 535 Owner’s Manual showed me how to access the locked side cover and release the saddle. I hoped to find either a User’s Manual or, at minimum, the registration form I’d asked Ben the Transporter for and he hadn’t been able to provide.

Were those things in there?

I did get a fleet insurance form.

So No. Live dangerously.

I also spent a few moments with a 14 mm wrench, setting up the rearview mirrors. The rearviews are a classic type, having not one but two locking collars — one at the usual position at the stem, on the handlebars, and a second one located at the base of the mirror at the top of the stem. The setup is precise, sturdy, and once dialed in stays dialed.

After a trip back to town to fully fill the tank and set the bike’s trip meters, I was now confident of my setup (incorrectly, it would turn out) and ready to really ride.

 

***

 

Sunday turned out to be an almost perfect riding day — sunny, calm winds, and a high just under 60 degrees f. I generally try not to plan — but the rough non-plan outline was to head off towards Shepherdstown, West Virginia and then find the most oblique, inefficient, nondeterministic route back to Jefferson. Paul and I would switch bikes a few times during the ride.

It was an opportunity to really put some twisty road miles on the INT. A chance to get some feedback on the RE’s new design from a skilled rider with tens of thousands of miles in the saddle of a British Parallel Twin. And a chance for me for finally ride the Bonnie, and to compare the two motorcycles — two branches off the same family tree — head to head.

With the aftermarket exhaust Paul had fitted to his Bonnie, I heard the basso rumble at least a half mile before he hit the bottom of my driveway.

 

***

 

As a place to start a good ride, The Jefferson Pike heading west out of Jefferson doesn’t leave much to be desired. Heading away from The Shop, the road drops down dramatically though the greenest pastureland towards Catoctin Creek and Brookside Corner. The INT is so light and nimble that I ended up well inside of my intended line and had to correct at the apex. Coming back up the grade I rolled the RPMs on the 650 out, enjoying the feel and power delivery of the motor, and revelling in the sound of the Enfield’s engine as it mixed with the report of the Bonneville that was stretched out behind.

After clearing the circle at Brunswick, the road down into Knoxville is a mini-motorcycle amusement park — a series of descending, decreasing radius sweepers that terminate in the little village where the road then makes an abrupt right. Setting the INT on the sides of its tires — Pirelli Phantom SportsComps in a classic spec 18 inches at the front and rear — the orange bike was easy to keep on line once one had been selected. There was something about the bike’s transitional behavior — the turn in and exit on the power — that felt unsettled to me. It was subtle, but it wasn’t right.

The Pike ends with a weird, pre-uniform highway code left hand entrance ramp to US 340. With the RPMs up, both motorcycles had no problems picking their spot and moving smartly around and into existing traffic. Paul and I continued to roll westward — after clearing the bridges and intersections around Harper’s Ferry, 340 opens up, and the INT seemed right comfortable at a 75+ mph cruise showing just under 5000 RPMs in top gear. I’ve become pretty adept at finding body positions on naked bikes that minimize the CD of my substantial ass, and it was easy to find a spot where the wind supported my upper body without feeding input into the bike’s front end. The INT still had usable power on cruise in 6th gear, and good acceleration with a downshift into 5th. The 270 degree crankshaft engine’s character and vibratory feedback was spot-on — just enough to know one was riding a motorcycle — but not uncomfortable or objectionable in any way.

When Paul and I got to West Virginia Route 230, I indicated a stop, and found a good level and visible spot on the shoulder, where I killswitched the INT and set her on the stand. With the two bikes sitting nose to tail on the shoulder, the resemblance between them was uncanny — from the shape of their fuel tanks, through the construction of their wide-flange hubs on the spoked wheels, to the bench seat and the positioning of the tail lamp and turn signals perched on the back fender — the bikes might not have been twins, but were certainly cousins with a strong family resemblance. The only significant styling departures were the use of the more classic spec 18 inch wheels on both ends of the Enfield, where the Triumph sported a more modern 19 inch front and 17 inch rear combo, and the Enfield’s more modern upswept megaphone style dual exhausts in place of the Triumph’s low mounted peashooters.

Hubs On Any Proper Bike Look Like This

I gave Paul a quick briefing on the control layouts and specifics of the Enfield’s drive train — 6 speeds, slipper clutch — other than that the control layouts between the two motorcycles were nearly identical.

“Any questions?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s ride.”

There’s a ‘Stop’ sign right after WV 230 leaves US 340 – immediately afterward the road turns into a pretty typical West Virginia Winding Road – tight, decreasing radius 90/90 combos, grades, and long straights shaded by trees. It was clear from the first corner that Paul felt immediately comfortable on the INT — he was leaned well over and in the gas. From the saddle of the Bonneville, the contrast between the two machines was immediately on full display. With its more than 200 cc displacement advantage, the Bonneville had a bit more urge lower on the tach face, but on a back road the two bikes were still pretty closely matched — The RE pilot might be spinning a few more RPMs, but neither bike was able to run away from the other. The RE’s 6 speed transmission – compared to the Triumph’s 5 speed – helped to keep the engine spinning in its happy place and keep it in the hunt. The Triumph’s engine — with its 360 crank and extensive counterbalancing was smoother than the Enfield’s mill — but it was almost too smooth — the RE felt like a motorcycle, where the Bonneville seemed to have become so refined it had all but lost its distinctive character. Steering on the Triumph — which had four degrees less rake on its front end, was noticeably slower, but with its wide bars the rider was still able to corner briskly enough on these twisting roads. The compliance of the Bonneville fork was worlds better than that of the Enfield, though. Although the two bikes weight are within 3-4 kilograms of each other, the Bonneville felt like a locomotive on a back road – heavy, stable, comfortable — where the Enfield felt more like a go-cart – taut, nimble, always ready to change direction with minimal rider input.

Although I might have had a tad more power available, keeping Paul in sight was not a trivial exercise – he was clearly enjoying the INT 650. Riding these two good handling, midrange power happy motorcycles we quickly put all of 230 in the rearviews, rolled into Shepherdstown, banged right and recrossed the Potomac headed for Sharpsburg. Maryland 34 is a wide open, rural highway, which helps me come to appreciate the Triumph’s smooth top gear power delivery.

On the far side of Sharpsburg, Paul calls for a stop. He swaps back to his Bonneville – I swing a leg over the bright orange INT.

“You got anything specific in mind for the route back?”

“Absolutely not. Do what the spirit says do.”

Paul was, apparently, receptive to the spirit, and after a fast pull up 34, breaks right at Keedysville on Dogstreet, then Nicodemus Mill, then King Roads. These are tiny, technical little roads with short straight blasts punctuated by single lane arch bridges which provide the rider with a chance to go all Flying Manxman if that’s what one is into. The INT makes rolling the throttle wide open on a corner exit a delicate thing of pleasure.

We continue to play find the smaller road, until we run out of county and Md 383 drops us out of a full throttle top gear run at a ‘Stop’ sign just yards from the shop.

If anybody smoked cigarettes any more, Paul and I would have both smoked one while we stood at the bottom of the driveway, all black leather and tilted heads drinking in the subtle shapes of two fuel tanks and the tink-tink-tink sounds of hot exhaust parts quickly cooling. But they don’t, so we didn’t, but their absence seemed palpable anyway. We had to settle for just admiring two really pretty motorcycles as a single malt, unblended treat.

It had been a great ride – a gift from the universe at the beginning of December – and we’d both been surprised a few times by these motorcycles and learned some things we hadn’t expected.

I told Paul I’d kept sensing that weird transitional cornering behavior — especially on corner exits — where the bike just seemed to want to wander. Paul tells me I’m imagining it — he didn’t notice it — and I resolve to take tools in hand, if necessary, to get to the bottom of it.

 

***

 

The bottom of it, as it turned out, was a very shallow pool.

A Royal Enfield INT 650 has exactly one point of suspension adjustment. And on my test unit, it was adjusted wrong. RE’s chassis for this motorcycle was designed by their newest wholly owned division, England’s Harris Performance. Harris’ success on the racetrack is legendary — many years worth of Yamaha 500GP bikes were Harris bikes. The INT’s fork rake of 24 degrees is pretty aggressive for a street-only motorcycle — my 70s vintage BMW S bike runs 27 — Pauls’s 2007 Bonneville runs 28. A BMW S1000RR, which is a track focused missile with every form of electronic stability control known to science, is 23.9.

On classic or vintage motorcycles — many of which had fork rake angles that were not deigned with agility in mind — it was a pretty standard shortcut to jack the rear preload, which would effectively reduce the rake and make the bike far more willing to turn in. On the Royal Enfield INT 650 — with a frame and suspension setup that was biased towards sporting dynamics — such a cheat was not only unnecessary, but would likely be counterproductive.

That would have been bad enough, but as it turned out, the preload collars on the twin rear shocks were set to two different settings — with the right shock set to five out of six and the left one set to four out of six. Reasonable engineers can and will disagree – some will say that the swingarm and rear wheel assembly will continue to operate as a unit even if the forces on it are unequal – others though will posit that such a configuration will result in a subtle bias in the direction of the less sprung shock — in this case, a tendency to come off of bumps with a slight left turn.

There was only one way to see if I was right, and that was to head back to the road.

 

***

I went back to the same stretch of the Jefferson Pike for a Moto-mullligan.

The transformation was dramatic. With the rear end of the bike lowered to the correct attitude and the preload evened out between the two shocks the Enfield was now a solid and stellar handler. All of the flaky transitional behavior was gone, and I began adapting my normally conservative big bike lines to what the INT Twin was demanding. Most of my cornering behavior had been pretty conservative – with early entrances and easy lines to the apex. With the INT apparently dialed in, I started delaying entrances and cutting harder. The INT , it seemed, really liked the whip — the harder I rode, the more settled the bike seemed — a conclusion which isn’t remotely surprising given Harris Performance’s heritage. Instead of picking up US 340, though, I decided to take the final exam — Mountain Road.

Welcome To Mountain Road

Mountain Road is another Frederick County Classic — it’s mostly a one lane road that cuts from the bottom of Knoxville up the mountainside back towards Md 17 North and Burkettsville. Mountain is tight, steep, twisty, dirty and bumpy. If a motorcyclist is looking for a workout for both the bike’s suspension and him/herself, Mountain is what the Doctor Ordered. Cutting up the initial grade the INT was doing precisely what it was told — I could put the bike within an inch of where I wanted it on the road, despite all the havoc being caused by the road’s uneven surface. In the middle section of the road, it runs through a forested section where a series of decreasing radius, downhill bends are camouflaged by the tree canopy. I ran the Enfield in wider than I have on any other bike, and then rolled the twin into corners with nary a complaint — the Pirellis gripped with zero drama, and absolutely nothing ever touched the pavement. It was even trivial to tighten lines mid corner. As enthusiastic as my cornering had become, the Enfield felt like it had plenty left in reserve — more than I’d ever find prudent on a public road.

After finishing off Mountain and picking up Maryland 17 north, I ran the bike hard up through the gears — making my changes at about 6500 RPM and setting up at about an 80 mph cruise when I hit top gear. About halfway to the tiny village of Coatsville, there’s a classic set of big radius 90/90s — there’s always a section of gravel on the exit of the second one, which given the hand laid stone walls on the inside of the road helps to keep one honest. I got in to the first corner at right around 60, and managed the bike on the throttle — with a good blast of acceleration in the chute between the two corners, and then running on engine braking to get in the second one at about 55 and staying slightly wide to avoid the gravel patch, which was right where it always was.

I finished my test loop by coming back down Burkettsville Road back to Jefferson, working the amazing sets of corners at each of the places where the road crosses Catoctin Creek. The Orange Menace continued to amuse and amaze — cornering on rails while making the most of its revvy, raucous motor.

 

***

 

Since that day, I’ve done exactly what I promised the nice folks at Royal Enfield I would do — riding this motorcycle everywhere I could and every chance I got. The only limitation I’ve had forced on me is I haven’t been able to do really long distance point-to-point travel because I have no heated gloves, no windshield, and its been consistently colder than most people consider survivable motorcycle riding weather. But for the first hour and a half to two hours, a combination of natural insulation, ability to handle cold and raw cussedness has enabled me to have as much fun as I can recall having on a motorcycle.

The bike isn’t perfect — as a brand new, clean sheet of paper design, it’s nearly impossible that it could be. But it’s so close that I have to give the design team at Royal Enfield a tip of the hat for creating a bike that has so much personality that it just makes one want to ride at every opportunity and for no reason other than to have more fun riding the thing.

dsc_0018

Motorcycle Begins With Motor

Taking care of one of these Royal Enfield 650 Twins — our INT 650 or its café styled brother, the Continental GT 650 — at least looks to be a total cinch. The engines are air and oil cooled. Valve adjusters on the SOHC 4 valver are screw and locknut type working on the ends of roller cam follower rockers. The roller followers should keep wear to a minimum and the screw adjusters make the adjustment as easy as it gets. The engine has an easily accessed car type cartridge oil filter — it’s a pretty good size one, too — so oil changes should be nearly trivial. The throttle and the clutch both have cables.

Adjust and lube your chain. Lever on new tires. Change oil. Repeat.

In the time I’ve had the bike, it’s spent a lot of the time being enthusiastically wrung out — RPMs up in the 5-6000 range for extended periods of time. The 650 has felt solid, felt happy there — it’s smooth, cooling properly, maintaining proper clearances and making good usable power there. It is not consuming any oil. RE’s 650 feels like a confidence-inspiring, solidly engineered and thoroughly modern engine.

Enfield certainly seems to be willing to properly back that confidence — both 650s come with 36 month, unlimited mileage factory warranties.

Both 650s also make use of a slipper/power assist clutch pack. I haven’t been able to obtain an engineering drawing of the clutch assembly to help visualize what’s going on, but I can clearly feel the mechanism – usually a ball and ramp set up of some sort – operate through the cable when the low effort and easily modulatable clutch lever is initially pulled in with the engine running.

Most riders would never even notice it, but to an ‘Old Bike Guy’ — which for clarity involves the chronological gifts of The Bike and not The Guy — the microscopic ‘click’ one feels through the clutch lever feels exactly like the first of sixteen cable strands in one’s clutch cable letting go.

Call it a personal failing, rather than an engineering one.

On the flip side, the operation of that clutch on a winding road feels like a magic trick, a cheat. It didn’t take long to figure out that on a really gnarly corner entrance, snapping off what would be a plaster inducingly ill-advised number of downshifts on a dry clutch would produce a very light and self modulating amount of engine braking that made it far easier to manage one’s corner entry line and attitude. All my corner entries on the 650 started having a soundtrack of the twin on a lovely overrun burble.

Speaking of burble, the INT makes Proper Motorcycle Noises. It is by no means obnoxious, but the combination of the 270 degree firing order, and a properly tuned exhaust provide for a nice muted rumble and the previously mentioned burble. Triumph Paul went out of his way to tell me that the Enfield sounded much better than his Bonneville had with the factory mufflers which he no longer had.

It also has a proper dual horn. I have a freely disclosed bias for motorcycles whose horns covey authority.

dsc_0020

Classic Analog Instrumentation

dsc_0019

‘Orange Crush’ Paintwork – You Should See the Optional Chrome Tank

There is the small matter of The Name.

Everywhere else in the world, this bike is called the Interceptor 650. All of the press pack pictures show sidecover decals that say ‘Interceptor 650’ where this one says ‘INT 650’. It makes perfect sense, as Royal Enfield first sold a motorcycle called ‘Interceptor’ in 1962. American Honda – by dint of its line of VFR Motorcycles, sold here starting in 1982 — owns the US Trademark though, so RE has a bike called the INT that I will inevitably refer to accidentally as The Interceptor and who the heck can blame me?

If you are the sort of person that chooses to ride your motorcycle in cold weather the 650s will do that willingly. The coldest morning start I tried was at 28 degrees f. – it had been colder overnight – and the bike spun with authority on the starter and fired on the third compression stroke just like it does when its 70 outside. It was immediately ready to ride away with no cold running issues.

I’ll freely admit that I’ll ride motorcycles with my revs restrained and minimal throttle in neighborhood streets or in tight confines like parking lots. The INT didn’t appreciate this rider behavior — under 2000 RPM my twin ran a little bit unevenly. I suspect this is one of those pre-production issues that an FI mapping update will likely slay. On the gas, though, no one will remember that or care a whit.

The brakes on the bike are absolutely beastly. The ByBre brakes — produced by Brembo’s Indian subsidiary — appear everywhere these days — lower displacement motorcycles by BMW and KTM both use ByBre brake components. The front caliper on the INT looks for all the world like a 80s-90s vintage Brembo gold line two piston caliper — and in concert with the 320 mm full floating disk and braided steel line — stops like one, too. The front brake generates as much braking power as this chassis can safely use — and does it in a way which is easily modulated and controlled near the limits. If you blow it, there is Bosch ABS to back you up, but if you need to brake harder than this setup permits, you’ve already crashed.

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

Maybe this is another subjective thing, but the fork on our test really needs another look from the design team. While I understand that Harris Performance might lean towards racetrack suspension settings, the fork is just too overdamped for street use — while on smoother pavement the front tire will just stick, on bumpier surfaces there’s just too much shock being passed to the suspension and to the rider. It may be stiction, and it may be damping rod orifices that are just too small, but a little bit more compliance would go a long way towards more comfort on the street. If this were my motorcycle, I’d be ordering up a set of RaceTech Gold Valve cartridge emulators and taking wrench in hand, stat.

I’ll admit that the racetrack vibe from the 650 is so strong, I couldn’t help but think that as a platform, these bikes would make for a great spec racing series. And if I thought this way on the upright INT, it would have been ever more noticeable on the sportier Continental GT. If people will race CB160s, one could certainly race these. These bikes will certainly be affordable — the INT’s price is $5799, while the Continental’s is $5999 — and a hot-rodding supply chain is already forming for the bikes. Enfield USA has already been working with S&S to create power parts for the 650. The stock state of tune was deliberately engineered so that the bike could qualify for the lowest tier of international tiered licensing requirements — and an S&S-modified RE 650 has already set a FIM Bonneville class Speed Record at a tick over 150 miles an hour. So Enfield USA, I’d be burning up the phones to sanctioning bodies — with WERA or AMRHA, where it would make for a natural support class — trying to figure out how to get these motorcycles out on the track and banging bars.

 

***

 

Somewhere in a Product Planning Team Room inside Royal Enfield, there is at least one person that becomes very, very happy if one suggests that this motorcycle might become accessible to and popular with young, new motorcyclists.

And here, at Rolling Physics Problem Labs, we take this part of the testing very seriously, indeed, so we keep – on our staff – Finn, a calibrated, certified germ-free and highly unlikely to wad your bike young new motorcyclist to evaluate the Youth Appeal of test motorcycles. In the interests of transparency, said Test Youth’s daily rider is a 2016 CB500F Honda, which is a motorcycle — at least from the spec sheet — whose size and performance are in the same neighborhood as the INT. And in the interest of still fuller transparency, the Test Youth is a future looking Youth who, especially after his recent Tesla automobile test drive, would probably be OK with a Zero electric motorcycle.

In this context Youth may not be a fully ideal test subject, but he’s what we got.

On another freak sunny day The Test Youth got tossed the keys, and he geared up and headed off. He looked good, sitting upright on the saddle. One can just see he has great clutch and throttle control (or at least I can, anyway) and knows how to manage his position on the bike.

He’s a natural, which means if he inherited those traits, Sweet Doris from Baltimore must be some kind of rider.

Upon his return, I asked him about his ride.

“Should have worn plugs — it’s loud. Liked having the power down lower, though. Corners great. Still like mine better, though. It’s quieter and more comfortable.

Thing is a lot of fun, though.”

 

***

 

So there you have it.

The Thing IS a lot of fun.

So much fun that my BMWs have mostly sat unridden in the time the Royal Enfield has been here.

So much fun that on a cloudy, dark grey-skyed day today that was struggling to make 40 degrees, I suited up and fired up the twin. I have really internalized the appeal of motorcycles like this — light, narrow, simple — and now understand what all those BritBike guys were going on about.

It had gotten really cold overnight, and it had produced a few road conditions that were a tad out of the ordinary. We just wrapped up a year where The Valley got 75 inches of rainfall, so we have gotten accustomed to having water running across or over things it normally does not run across or over. Most of the bigger farms around have at least once place where drainage from a pasture has created a very small but persistent new stream crossing the road.

Last night, all those shallow streams across the road froze solid. I’d get some warning of one of these coming because my county highway guys had been laying down heavy salt to melt them out. I’d see a few grains and know to back down. I am glad I am not one of those guys that’s out at first light to get to work, cause that guy would have gotten more than his fair share of pants soiling extended zero traction moments early this morning.

Out on Maryland 67, the longest straightest road around, I ran The Interceptor hard up though the gears, and stretched my last shift out till well above 80. Your Royal Enfield INT will do The Ton, making it clearly worthy of its Interceptor name. She really is quite comfortable maintaining a 75-80 MPH top gear cruise, which means it can travel anywhere in America or anywhere else.

Headed back to the shop I elected Mountain Church Road, which is an absolutely gnarly one laner with a questionable and highly variegated surface that runs over a well forested mountain. There’s lots of change of elevation, blind treelined corners, and workout for the suspension on this thing that probably once was a path for goats. It’s the sort of road that to be willing to ride it you need to accept the likelihood you will get whacked in the shins and elbows by an occasional errant tree branch, at least if you are staying on your own side of the road. I was standing on the pegs but crouching down — getting me quite the workout, but having a blast nonetheless. In this environment the Royal Enfield is in its element – solid, agile, making good motorcycle sounds and steering precisely around corners or road obstacles on the gas or on the brakes.

On this cold afternoon, this Enfield 650 has all this rider needs.

 

In Which Pooh Figures It Out

I have a new test bike.

Which I love.

What it is is almost immaterial.

Almost.

Pretty, isn’t she?

OK, you got me.

It’s a brand new Royal Enfield INT 650.  A great motor, great sound, classic attractive looks.

I’ve been riding the wheels off it every chance I get — so far I’ve been able to thread in between hard freezes and a few snow squalls.

Call it Lieutenant Columbo syndrome: “There’s just one thing bothering me…”

The front end on the bike just felt…. unsettled.

The fork just seemed like it was chasing its tail … it was harsh, not confidence-inspiring… on the road it just seemed too willing to change directions.

The frame and suspension on these bikes are designed by England’s Harris Performance — blokes who have been building custom race bike frames since Nixon was President.  They are not knobs. Their bikes work.

So what was it?

ThinkThinkThinkThinkThink (Pooh Implied)

Today I was in the shop really inspecting the bike. At first, I suspected that something might be amiss with the fork – with a damper rod setup, it could be something as simple as oil volume or weight. The fact that this brand new bike had some wrench marks on the fork caps didn’t do anything to help my anxiety.

Has Somebody Been In Here Already?

But when I checked the preload settings on the rear dual shocks the light came on and stayed on.

The INT 650 has piggyback style shocks made by Gabriel. The shocks feature a bog-standard six position preload collar. On this bike, the right shock’s collar was set to the 5th highest preload setting. The left shock’s collar was set to the 4th highest preload setting.

After removing my palm from the center of my face, I went to my /5 and retrieved my shock collar wrench. I backed the preload off to an even 2nd position on both shocks — a setting I selected based on the assumption that I weigh a material amount of pounds more than the bike’s target market.

Was pretty sure what the result would be. On badly designed classic bikes a slow steering bike could be made a bit more willing to turn with a little extra rear preload – raising the rear end. On a properly designed motorcycle, raising the rear would make a good steering bike a nervous mess. The uneven spring preload wouldn’t have helped, either.

On the road the transformation was dramatic — quick steering, and good on the sides of the tire and on corner exit.

Now I can really enjoy this motorcycle.

The Control Freak — or Letting Go of the Clutch Lever: Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission

I spent the better part of two decades working to become a Jedi Master of Motorcycle transmissions. Preloading shifters, feathering dry clutch levers, matching RPMS, optimizing drift and drive entering and leaving corners – seeking the smooth.

All of that, apparently, counts for nothing, now. The robots have come, and they are our masters.

When Honda asked me to evaluate their Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Operating the gearbox and the focus it demands is one of the pleasures of proper motorcycle operation, and one I from which I took great pride.

Still, there are times when that focus can become a chore – like while stuck in congested traffic during a commute or worse still, hitting a huge construction backup or accident delay during a long tour. Sadly, we all don’t get younger, and clutch hands can and do wear out, and what do you do then? With The Gold Wing’s DCT offering an F1 style manual paddle shifted mode, one has the option of doing the shifting if you want to, and not having to if you don’t want to.

The DCT is an outgrowth of Honda’s 2- and 4-wheel racing programs. DCT is technically a manual gearbox, but a manual gearbox where the forks and selectors are operated by electronics and hydraulics. If that was the design’s only trick, that would be enough, but the real genius is the transmission’s dual clutches. The way the gearbox is constructed, the first clutch controls 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th gear, while the second clutch controls engagement of 2nd, 4th and 6th gear.

Honda 7 Speed Dual Clutch Transmission

To effect gear changes, the transmission controls have already engaged the next gear during an upshift, and simply disengages the first gear clutch while simultaneously engaging the second gear clutch. The bike is never out of gear, for even a millisecond, and there is never any break in forward momentum while accelerating. Same thing happens while decelerating, only backwards.

You can’t do that, no matter how much The Force may be with you, Mr. Jedi Motorcycle Transmission Master, and your back seat passenger, who has smacked helmets with you an infinite number of times, knows it too.

Thumb the Gold Wing into ‘Sport’ mode, with the DCT in automatic, and find a long empty stretch of rural highway. Roll the throttle wide open and the DCT will simply amaze you with a series of seamless, peak power shifts that keep the bike hooked up and hauling, front tire skimming the pavement through the shifts into 2nd, 3rd, 4th… In its selected environment, and demonstrating clear intent and aggression at the throttle, the DCT is simply amazing.

Like all things managed by software, get tentative, though, and things could be better. In the bike’s default ‘Tour’ mode, automatic shift decisions always carry too few rpms. The bike always has the torque to bull through it, but it feels like emergency acceleration is just out of reach (although with automated downshifts, it really isn’t), and the engine feels less than smooth when it clearly is at higher rpms.

‘Sport’ mode is better with shift points – holding the engine in the middle of its output and making decisions which more closely mimic my own – although after hard acceleration it tends to hold onto a gear way too long when the throttle goes neutral to closed. Both modes will occasionally snap off a downshift just after corner entry if you’re coming in off the gas, which was a behavior which had me saying non-G-rated words.

Fortunately, the system has the ability – even when in automatic mode – to accept user overrides from the paddles, so once I got in the habit of snapping off a downshift before I started corner entry all was right in Wing World.

Where the system really shines is in ‘Manual’ mode, though. With all of the shift decisions being made by a skilled rider, the DCT is magic. The Robot is faster than you, he’s smoother than you, and he never misses a shift. On a flowing two or four lane highway the system is responsive, smooth and powerful – taking repeated seconds out of shifting in ways you could have never appreciated until they were gone.

The Robots may be here, but the humans still have a thing or two to show them.

 

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This article was originally published in the September/October 2018 edition of Motorcycle Times.

The Traveler — 2018 Honda Gold Wing Tour DCT

In the Beginning, there was my motorcycle.

Right after I learned to ride it, I went places.

Places like New Mexico and Arizona, Alabama, Kentucky, The Carolinas and Tennessee. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and The Trans-Canada Highway.

From my home in Maryland, any of these places are more than a few tank-to-tank rides.

When I have to travel for work, if the destination is less than 1000 miles from home I will usually find ways to ride, rather than fly.

I’m a motorcycle traveler, because I know that out there, somewhere between your 13th hour and your third day in the saddle, everything you know and everything you believe will suddenly illuminate and align, and you will attain enlightenment and inner peace.

Riders that feel the way I do are a weird brother- and sisterhood – the monks and sisters of the meditative road.

It’s for this kind of rider that Honda designed the new Gold Wing.

Pretty Sweet, For A Blue Bike

My previous exposure to Gold Wings had been extremely limited. A riding friend asked me to evaluate a vintage ‘Wing that had been listed for sale in my neighborhood.  The bike turned out to be a perfectly maintained, completely original 1976 GL1000.

With the original GL, Honda simply set out to build the best motorcycle ever built, and started out with some of the same design assumptions that helped to create my beloved air-cooled BMW boxer. Those assumptions were so close that the original Gold Wing prototype had actually used many of the components from my motorcycle – pretty much everything rearward of the Honda M1’s bell housing was a BMW /5 component – transmission, rear subframe, shaft final drive, rear wheel (with it’s dead-giveaway chrome hubcap), saddle and exhaust.

1972 Gold Wing Prototype – 6 Cylinders and lots of BMW /5 Parts

 

So it’s no surprise that my favorite motorcycle and the newly born Gold Wing came to the road with very same qualities in mind – weight carried low and forward in the frame, low roll moment, stable frames and long, long legs.

The GL I’d been asked to check out was perfect – complete service records back to delivery, and period correct matching Vetter Windjammer and cases. The bike was red – the Vetters were bright white – all the maintenance had been done – and the bike appeared to run well. I’d have no problem telling my friend he could have confidence buying this old motorcycle. When the seller found out I’d never ridden a Gold Wing though, he insisted that I ride the motorcycle, even though I explained (a few times) that I didn’t intend to buy it.

1976 GL 1000 with Vetter Windjammer and Cases

Would you have told him no? Didn’t think so.

I hadn’t ridden the GL more than 50 yards before I was completely comfortable on it – weight low, sit up riding position, sure-footed handling, and the incredibly broad spread of big drive torque. On the mountain roads around Jefferson – Fry and Mountville Roads – that original ‘Wing carved as well as many 30 years newer motorcycles I’d ridden. The indelible impression I had of the bike was that its engine was so well balanced and so refined that it almost disappeared in use. I’ll admit that my personal tastes might have preferred a different character for my motor, but there was no question that the original GL was an engineering masterpiece, and one of the short list of truly classic motorcycles.

Honda’s customers felt the same, and had demonstrated what they wanted from their Gold Wings. The Bike that Honda delivered in 1975 as a 4 cylinder, 1000cc, 650 lb. naked motorcycle were dressed with Vetter fairings and luggage and taken to the long road. Honda got that message, loud and clear – by 1980, the GL came with factory fairing and cases. Successive ‘Wings got bigger, heavier, and more complex – eventually growing to 6 cylinders and 1800 ccs – I believe one Aspencade model even featured an onboard air compressor.

As the GL grew, though, it put distance on the agility and elemental quality that the original GL1000 had delivered.

And Honda got that message too.

So they decided to do what they have always done. Which is to design something better.

Standing in front of the new Gold Wing, I get a very clear visual signal. The Gold Wing has always been Honda’s flagship touring motorcycle. The now-discontinued ST1300 was their Sport Touring bike. The new GL1800 looks like the love-child of the Old GL and the ST1300 – the new bike is smaller, narrower, more angular – the prominence of the engine, the shape of the shield, fairing, headlamps and cockpit combine to create the impression that the two motorcycles’ DNA had somehow been combined. And to anyone with a lot of ground to cover in one big hurry it’s hard to understand how that could be anything but a good thing.

The engine of the new ‘Wing is where everything starts. The 1833 cc motor is a water-cooled, boxer 6 cylinder of square design – with a 73mm bore and a 73 mm stroke – with a single overhead cam and four valves per cylinder. The engine uses coil on cap ignition and a single, shared 50mm throttle body to produce tuned intake behavior and fuel efficiency. Every dimension of the engine has been optimized during the new design to reduce dimensions and mass and optimize mass centralization. Features like a combined starter/generator illustrate the focus on mass reduction.

1833 ccs of Boxer 6 Cylinder

 

The Gold Wing’s engine design has a different set of requirements than that of many motorcycle motors. The emphasis is on torque, and maintaining big torque numbers across the entire operating range, and this GL delivers on that request – the ‘torque curve’ for this bike is more like a ‘torque flat’ — delivering over 100 pound feet from under 1000 rpm to its 6000 rpm redline. On the road, the engine delivers solid punch everywhere, although there is no power step at the top of the rev band.

 

Paging Mr. Hossack – Mr. Hossack to the Courtesy Phone

The bike’s suspension and running gear have also been thoroughly redesigned. For the front suspension, Honda has included a Hossack-type double wishbone – with a central, electrically adjustable shock absorber – with rotation of the fork controlled by a set of tie rods that link bank to the motorcycle’s steering bridge. This design permits the movement of the front wheel to be constrained to a vertical axis – compared to a telescopic fork, which allows the wheel to move simultaneously up and to the rear – and allows the engine to be moved further forward in the frame for handling advantages. The complete absence of stiction in the system’s linkages allow for astounding levels of compliance as road imperfections are encountered – plus it’s also fun to watch the movement of the fork and linkages though their fairing cutouts inside the bike’s cockpit. Rear suspension can be automatically adjusted for preload from the cockpit controls when not in motion.

6 Piston Brake Calipers for Honda’s Linked Braking System

Braking is handled by Honda’s proprietary linked ABS braking system. 320 mm twin front disks are gripped by a six piston set of calipers, and a 312 mm rear disk is gripped by a three piston unit. The center pistons in each caliper are cross plumbed to the system at the other end of the bike so that activation of the front lever pressurizes the outer four pistons in the front brakes and the center piston in the rears – while use of the rear brake pedal works the outer two pistons in the rear and the center pistons in the fronts. Braking bias – front to rear – is variable and managed electronically. The system is a dramatic improvement over prior versions I have ridden – at speed, operation is transparent and trail braking to set up corner entries using only the rear pedal is now possible again. Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) models get a second, cable-operated rear caliper that serves as a parking brake, since the DCT design precludes sticking the bike in gear to prevent it rolling away.

What’s that extra Brake Caliper For?

The Gold Wing’s aerodynamics are state-of-the-art. The narrow fairing features an electrically adjustable windscreen – controlled from a switch on the left handlebar cluster. Honda’s use of fluid dynamics software and the wind tunnel are on clear display here – the shapes of the rearview mirrors and the structures that connect them to the fairing are clearly designed to control vortices coming off the edge of the screen, and it clearly works. Many touring fairings make use of either width or height to keep the rider’s head in clear air at speed – sometimes forcing the pilot to look through the screen. The GL1800’s, in contrast, provides clean air around the rider’s head when the screen is lowered below the pilot’s sightline – this is aerodynamic magic of the finest kind.

Honda Finally Implements an Electrically Adjustable Windshield — it was Worth The Wait

Other functional touches abound. The bike has heated grips and saddles, and a perfect glovebox in the tank top. The all LED headlamp arrays look suspiciously like their cousins from the new Acura automobiles – with each lamp – left and right — having 5 LED projectors. Absolutely no one will be looking for accessory driving lights for this motorcycle. Honda gets 6 thumbs up for the horn – which has the same punch in the gut breathtaking impact of the one on the Amtrak Acela. There is a full complement of Infotainment functions accessed through an LED screen in the center of the instrument panel – NAV/GPS, trip computer, Bluetooth phone/music integration, Apple Car Play, and detailed performance and status displays. The bike has Electronic Cruise Control and an integrated set of ride modes which control pre-set combinations of power output, traction control, linked braking front/rear bias, suspension valving and transmission shift points.

While there are less of them than there were on the previous model, there are still a great many buttons on the handlebar clusters and on the bike’s instrument panel. You will be needing some acclimation time.

The GL’s built in luggage is perhaps the one area where progress is a little tougher to identify. All three cases have electromagnetic latches, and all of mine kept throwing false positive ‘Bag Open’ messages, forcing me to dismount and latch the case again. Overall, the bike’s luggage – like every other part of this motorcycle — has been optimized for drag – pulled in tight to the rear wheel and streamlined to an extent never before envisioned. Even the top surface of the top case has been teardropped – obviously the voice of the wind tunnel, again speaking loud. The GL has two 30 liter side cases and a 50 liter top case for a total of 110 liters total capacity. This is a reduction of 30 liters capacity from the old bike – and while in principle, the reduction in mass and the improvements in aerodynamic efficiency make engineering sense, in practice, the folks that buy motorcycles like this are going to find it less functional.

It’s Not Big In There

Things that fit in every other hard case I have ever used – my overnighter shoulder bag, a helmet – will not fit inside the GL’s cases. All three cases have unusual interior shapes that seem to further limit their utility. If you buy this bike you’re absolutely going to need Honda’s accessory bag liners to carry anything. People who commute or travel for work on their motorcycle – I mean, this is a really nice motorcycle – you’d ride it to work if you could – won’t be able to store their riding gear in the bike while working. People who really pack up and live off their motorcycle – carrying camping gear, bedroll – will look at Honda’s stylish top case-mounted accessory luggage rack and laugh, or maybe cry, depending. I can understand that Honda might want their target market to travel with just a credit card and their iPhone, but there’s also lots of potential riders that want to be self-sufficient, and need to take stuff with them when they go.

Our test unit also had Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT), which is a 7 speed, electronically controlled gearbox – a gearbox which can be operated either as an automatic controlled by the computer, or manually by the rider via a set of paddle shifters located again, on that busy left bar cluster. The DCT brings with it a slow speed forward and reverse system called ‘walking mode’ – which sounds kind of foofy until the first time you have to park the bike in tight confines and it makes child’s play of it.

“So ride the bike already, willya?”

The Gold Wing riding experience is spookily space age right from the get go. As you approach the motorcycle with the key fob in your pocket, the bike’s central control switch will start to glow – cycling its LED brighter and darker – to indicate it has detected your presence. Rotate the main switch once to the right, and the electronic steering stem lock unlocks – rotate it a second time and the ‘Wing’s ignition turns on. When the systems finish booting, operate the ‘run/don’t run’ switch on the right bar to the run position, and the bike will start itself. The default run mode is ‘Tour’ mode with the DCT set to ‘Automatic’.

At idle, the engine sounds busy and purposeful. If it sounds like there is a lot going on down there – with fuel pump whine, injector noise, and a whistling exhaust note at idle, six cylinders, overhead cams, and 24 valves – it’s because there IS a lot going on down there. Press the ‘Neutral/Drive’ switch on the right bar – which produces a nice solid sounding ‘thunk’ as the primary clutch engages – and either leave it in ‘Automatic’ or press the ‘Auto/Manual’ selector switch to select manual mode, where you make the shift decisions.

Roll the throttle open, the clutch smoothly engages, and you’re riding away, wondering what you’re going to ever learn to do with “The Hand Formerly Known As Your Clutch Hand”. In ‘Tour’ mode, the motorcycle short shifts, sometimes shifting as high as 5th gear before 40 mph. Low speed handling is breezily perfect – in my first few moments of acclimation I decided to take a few loops in a parking lot before jumping out into suburban Baltimore traffic – and was quickly giggling in my helmet at how easily the bike handled low speed circles and figure eights – the bike’s 29 in saddle height, low center of gravity and predicable clutch application quickly took all the customary drama out of the “Big Bike /Low Speed” situation.

Once the road opens up, though, let’s face it, magic happens. This GL is as willing to turn in and as light on its feet as anything with a boxer 6 spinning beneath you could possibly be. The new front end is optimized for compliance – the steering tie rods visible in the cockpit show how hard the fork girder is working, but none of the shock and impact comes through to the rider. There were times – either on bad quality Interstate pavement or slinging pretty elevated cornering loads when I would have opted for slightly more damping, but overall the comfort and control of the system is stellar.

Once up in top gear – running 7th gear at about 2500 rpm – the boxer is just smooth enough to ride from tank-to-tank until one gets to, say, Albuquerque. Honda, to their credit, has not smoothed all of character out of this motor – like other new Hondas it does communicate its personality in a way that is only appealing. It has some growl in it where its vintage forefather had none. Those tank to tank stints will be about 225 miles or so before its time to look for a pump. Our GL averaged just over 42 mpg during the time of our test.

The Ride Modes of the motorcycle make a substantial difference in the character of the bike. ‘Tour’ mode is focused on smooth operation – with the DCT in auto mode short shifting, damping set to compliant settings and throttle response smoothed out. ‘Tour’ keeps the rpms low – so low that the engine takes on a grumbly quality at times because it’s really running a gear or two or even three too high. But switch over to ‘Sport’ mode and all that gets blown away. The RPMs come up – it feels like a full 20% of output gets unleashed there – throttle response sharpens, suspension is stiffened, and when this motor’s revs get into the happy middle you can turn the bike as you wish on the gas.

During our road tests, we ran a long stretch of US-50 coming east from Keyser, West Virginia – a road that just throws endless hills and corners at you, and after a few hundred miles of dancing with the twisting yellow line, it felt like we should turn around and run it a few more times, just for fun.

Gold Wings were always about getting there, and comfortably, if possible. The stress-free ergonomics, weather protection, and monster driveline in the new GL1800 have ensured that that part has not changed. But this motorcycle has been sharpened up, and goes harder, stops better, corners better and looks for a way to get there faster, and to have more dynamic fun doing it.

With this new Gold Wing, you’ll be looking for whole states to turn around and run again, just for fun.

 

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Portions of this Story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 Edition of Motorcycle Times Magazine.

An extended riding impression of the new ‘Wing was published in ‘Noah’.