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.

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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.

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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.

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Classic Analog Instrumentation

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‘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.

 

***

 

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.

 

***

 

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’.

 

 

Noah

Nice Water Drops, Eh?

 

I had a bible as a kid, and I read it a lot.

Now please don’t judge me, but I approached The Book more as literature than as an expression of faith.

I’m an Irish Arab Jew, for Chrissake, so I hope I can be forgiven for some ambivalence or confusion in matters of faith.

Anyway, work with me here.

I mean, there are some ripping yarns in The Bible. Light splitting the darkness. The parting of the sea. 40 days and forty nights of rain, the building of the Ark, and the waters wiping a sinful and displeasing earth clean and new in the eyes of its creator.

We may not be up to 40 nights yet, but I’ve been starting to think about a boat.

 

***

 

I’ve been working for about six months to get set up with the PR Team at American Honda Motorcycles. There are more than a few bikes they make that look to be really compelling. The CB500F that I helped my son Finn buy has proved surprisingly capable and fun to ride. During our planning conversations we’d talked about the Africa Twin. The NC750X. And the Gold Wing.

It didn’t take long to figure out that The Honda Men really want people to talk about the Gold Wing. And so really wanted me to ride one.

I’ll come clean. I ride a big touring motorcycle, and it is neither the simplest or least expensive thing in the world to take care of. Honda reliability is real, and in the event of the demise of my current motorcycle it is not outside the realm of possibility that I would replace it with a Gold Wing. Especially if, for example, the ‘Wing was a much better riding motorcycle.

So The Honda Men wanted me to test the bike, to see if I could help them sell more of their biggest selling motorcycle, which they acknowledge they hadn’t been selling anywhere near enough of lately. And I wondered if they had been able to raise a bar that had been pretty high to start with, high enough to have me convulsively clutching for my checkbook.

So our interests overlapped. The hands were shook. Now we just needed to figure out how to make it happen.

 

***

 

Shit always happens.

In my worklife, project schedules that turn into geologic eras are kind of widely shared in-joke.

In ‘Project Wing’ plenty of excrement occurred – things that were scheduled got rescheduled, commitments that got made got broke. I was starting to think the whole thing was one big set up — a way to get my hopes up and never actually get there.

Then, there was the rain.

This year, Central Maryland has had more rain than I can remember seeing in my entire life. We’ve experienced these crazy giant size stationary fronts that freighttrain insanely intense thunderstorms — one after another — for 10-15 days at a time. These storms have rain rates in the 2-4 inch an hour range.

The original plan had been to take the ‘Wing to a conference I had to attend in Nashville — a 1300 mile or so round trip up and down the spine of the Blue Ridge sounded like a perfect way to understand a traveller’s motorcycle. When the ‘Wing got delayed, I had no issue making the trip on my own bike, but the weather had gone insane, washing out roads and bridges hereabouts, literally remaking all of our streambeds, dropping tons of lumber, destroying nearby Ellicott City (for the second time), and making safe travel, two- or four-wheel, nearly impossible.

Score: Weather One, Shamieh 0.

So, since I had some moto-bandwidth available, I took advantage of the opportunity to write about a new Indian Roadmaster.  The Roadmaster deal was a short term eval — over a stretched three-day weekend. Predictably, the only time it stopped raining was when I was taking it back.

As an aside – I am not much of an appearence-care motorcyclist. I try to buy bikes that have a minimum of chrome and brightwork that someone will expect me to shine and be disappointed in that expectation. But the Roadmaster, which was a brand new, out of the crate motorcycle, was an absolute orgy of chrome, two-tone paint and polished surfaces, and got an absolute thrashing through about 350 miles of frog-strangling, gully washing, roostertail throwing, boat waking insane rain.

On the plus side, I can vouch for the Roadmaster’s excellent fairing and great roadholding in conditions that had professional truckers pulling off to the side of the Interstate. On the other side of the coin though, that motorcycle probably still wasn’t cleaned back up after three days of rag snapping, and the dealership guys that had to detail that motorcycle are probably still pissed at me.

Score: Weather Two. Shamieh still zip. We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

So, finally, after more stops and starts than I -270 on the way into DC on a Monday morning, I finally set a time and a date certain to pick up my long-anticipated Gold Wing. The plan had me picking up the bike at the studios of Maryland Public Television, in Owings Mills, Maryland — about 55 miles from the shop here in Jefferson. The previous journalist to test ride the bike had been Brian Robinson — who does the ‘Two Wheelin’ motorcycle segment on MPT’s ‘Motor Week’.

The whole setup felt a bit improvisational — I had a street address, the name of the Security Officer on duty, and the descriptive phrase ‘The Bike would be in The Garage.’

After she registered a minuscule amount of complaint, I was able to convince Sweet Doris from Baltimore that she’d drive me to Owings Mills to pick up the ‘Wing. After an uneventful drive in I-70, we found ourselves rolling up the wooded driveway at Maryland Public Television just as the sun was going down. MPT’s headquarters looks exactly like a college campus — lots of low brick buildings, clustered together in a wooded glen, surrounded by a ring drive and lots of parking lots. We rolled the pickup up to the front door, and, since it was after business hours, rang for the security officer on duty.

After a delay just long enough to feel awkward, Officer John rang me in, and I introduced myself and my mission at MPT. I’d been assured that everybody knew I was coming, and that everything was in readiness. This of course, in hindsight, is absolutely the kiss of death.

Officer John knit his brows for a minute, mumbled something about thinking I was supposed to have been there this morning, and then asked if that was my truck outside the door.

After answering in the affirmative, John sold me he would grab his keys and lead us ‘down to the garage, as driving would be quicker’.

We followed John’s car around the corner and down the hill, and pulled into a driveway leading up to a grey steel industrial building. Over the door was a small stamped steel sign that read ‘Goss’ Garage’. John activated the power garage door and lead us inside.

I am not much of a TV enthusiast, but I have always watched Motor Week whenever the opportunity presented itself. Motor Week is the longest running motorhead show on American Television — presented in the form of a TV magazine — reviews of one or two new automobiles, an occasional motorcycle review, special interest pieces and ‘Goss’ Garage’ . Pat Goss is your friendly local expert mechanic — and does his piece – things like “How to Maintain Your Automatic Transmission” — from a set that looks like the idealized garage… lots of toolboxes, lifts, almost always at least one car with its hood up, metal signs from Car and component suppliers, and a fair amount of black and white checkered decor.

And now, instead of watching it, here we were.

I’ve had the experience before of being on the set of a familiar television show, and it’s always the same. Everything feels creepily familiar, but it’s always smaller than you think it should be, the colors appear off compared to their TV images, and, weirdly, it almost always smells funny. This version played out point for point from that comfortable script.

In the middle of my Goss Groupie reverie, though, I slowly became aware of the Gold Wing sitting in the corner at the very back of the set. The bike was what Honda calls ‘Pearl Hawkseye Blue’ — what we’d think of as a Royal Blue — that Honda had additionally styled with some decals — contour lines of an increasingly lighter shade of silver grey — which had the net effect of fooling the eye into seeing more contours to the saddle and top cases, and fairing side panels — that were actually there. It actually looks way better than it sounds.

Pretty Sweet, For A Blue Bike

The first impression of the bike was that it is clearly smaller, narrower, lower to the ground, and generally more compact than any Gold Wing in recent memory. In that restyling, the bike’s 1833 cc, single overhead cam, 4-valve boxer six cylinder motor had become visually a lot more prominent. The bike has an athletic stance where older ‘Wings were not getting off the couch. The fairing’s windscreen – now electrically adjustable – is a lot narrower and more tapered than its prior incarnation. The shape of the rearview mirrors and the structures that connect them back into the body of the motorcycle are clearly intended to manage vortices coming off the edges of the shield and provide hand protection and clean air in the cockpit.

It was clearly time to stop moto-overthinking, fire this bad boy up and go burn some gas.

And we’d have done that, too, if anybody had had a key.

After determining that the bike’s intelligent key fob was not within the motorcycle’s sensor range, I asked John if he knew where the key was. He told me he’d need to check back at the security desk and perhaps call Brian, if that didn’t bear fruit. Brian’s Arai helmet, gloves and leather jacket were on the table next to the bike, so, trying to put myself in the key fob’s shoes, I checked the pockets of the jacket, just in case the fob had stayed just where Honda’s description of the system’s function says it should always stay. No joy, though.

With John back inside HQ, I spent a few more awkward moments kicking imaginary rocks and checking out those bits of the ‘Wing that I could see in the dim light of The Garage.

Quickly, though, John returned bearing a standard Number 10 envelope with my name written on it and a pretty obvious fob bulge at the bottom. Bingo.

I told John I would move the bike out into the driveway, then pull my ‘Stich, helmet and gloves out of the truck to gear up for the ride home.

At this point I was genuinely thankful for the links to familiarization videos that Colin Miller — American Honda’s Press liaison — had provided. Between the Intelligent keyless ignition, the multi-level menuing system that makes up the bike’s instrument panel, and the controls for Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) — which have absolutely nothing in common with any motorcycle you may have ridden before — the acclimatization curve was very steep.

We shall not speak, for now, of the layout of the switches on the bike’s left and right handlebar control pods. My 1973 BMW has exactly one multi-purpose switch on each handlebar. This was absolutely not that. Taking one’s first ride just after dark was not going to help, either, in identifying and learning the many controls. On the way home there were several times where I would have liked to have had the horn as one of my available options, but never did find it until I looked in the daylight the following day.

Approaching the bike in the back of The Garage, when the Gold Wing detected that the keyless ignition fob was within range, the bike’s main switch began cycling its LED light from dim to bright and back again. I rotated the main switch once to the right to make sure that the ignition lock was retracted, then threw a leg over and pulled the bike up off the sidestand. The ‘Wing was easy to lift, with the effects of the low, balanced location of the motor and underseat fuel tank clearly making the bike easy to handle at a stop or walking speeds. I turned the main switch to the right again, than the bike’s systems powered on and booted up. I pressed the kill/run switch to the ‘run’ position, and the big boxer six lit off.

At idle, the Wing’s six cylinder engine is an internal combustion symphony. With both heads well out in the open, one can hear all of the many moving parts — fuel pump and injector whine, 6 pistons, cam chains, intake growl, 2 camshafts, with 24 vavles opening and closing, a slight burble from the exhaust — there’s just a lot going on in that engine bay.

I pressed the DCT’s control button for ‘Drive’ – leaving the bike in ‘Automatic’ mode – and the first clutch of the transmission’s dual clutches dropped into gear with a solid thunk. I applied some gentle throttle, and the bike’s automatic clutch smoothly engaged and I was rolling slowly towards the door.

After running about 40 feet down the driveway, I let off the throttle, gently applied some front brake and the bike clutched out automatically and came to a stop. I hit the ‘kill’ switch and set the bike back onto the sidestand. Because of the tropical conditions — it was 78 degrees out with a dewpoint of 76 — the minute the bike came out of the air-conditioned interior its cooled off surfaces instantly started collecting condensation, and every surface of the bike was instantly soaked with water.

The Gold Wing wouldn’t see anything remotely resembling dry for quite some time.

 

***

 

While pulling on my gear, I told Sweet Doris from Baltimore that she would likely beat me home — that I wanted to get a feel for 800+ pounds of ‘Wing on some secondary roads and surface streets before rolling onto the Interstate. Of most concern was the bike’s behavior when starting from standing still and coming to a stop — the operation of the bike’s automatic clutch and transmission was, for a now, a total unknown, and I prefer to meet the unknown someplace other than in the middle of heavy traffic. Sweet D and our pickup rolled out of sight while I finished strapping on my Shoei and cinching down my favorite elkskin gauntlets.

Other people’s big expensive motorcycles should, and do, make me nervous.

After a few moments of cleansing breaths to calm myself, I rotated the ‘Wing’s main switch to the right, watched the ‘Gold Wing’ boot up animation, read the ‘Motorcycles Can Hurt You So Please Pay Attention When You Use This Screen’ disclaimer from the Honda Lawyers, and then rocked the ‘run’ switch to on. With the big boxer whistling away down below, I spent a few moments checking that the rearview mirrors were properly adjusted, trying to familiarize myself with the locations of the switches on the control pods, then pressed the DCT’s ‘Drive’ control switch, and gently gave it some gas.

Fortunately, MPT’s campus was the perfect acclimation environment — in fact, its laid out almost identically to Frederick Community College, where the local Motorcycle Safety Foundation Beginning Riders Course is taught. I rolled around the ring road, working the bike back and forth underneath me, toward the rear of the campus, were the road connects a series of substantial parking lots. I headed to the center of the largest one, and then did a few starts and stops with the bike, to get a feel for the engagement and disengagement of the automatic clutch, which of course, operated flawlessly. The I did a few Os and figure eights, which were so trivially easy — given the size of the bike — that I was literally laughing in my helmet. My anxiety was clearly misplaced, and I headed back out for the road.

The driveway of the MPT complex is a long, gentle, wooded slope of about a third of a mile in length. With the falling temperatures, there was some mist starting to form about halfway to the treetops. I gently rolled the ‘Wing down the slope, on minimal throttle. As we rolled down the driveway, the DCT ran the bike up through the gears — making all of the same noises — ka-chokk, ka-chokk, ka-chokk– and most of the same sensations as any normal motorcycle gearbox — except that the rider — Me! — wasn’t doing any of the normal things that make those sounds happen — no gear shift lever — no clutch — nothing.

It was positively weird.

As I got to the bottom of the driveway and approached the intersection with the highway, as I braked, the DCT ran back down through the gears and then clutched in automatically as the bike came to a stop. Had you been sitting across the highway watching this, you’d have seen my left hand flapping spasmodically as it made clutchy – clutchy motions for a clutch this motorcycle doesn’t have. Having spent some significant seat time with a Zero electric motorcycle, which doesn’t even have a transmission, much less a clutch, my brain understood this on an intellectual level, but muscle memory is a strong thing to be reckoned with, and right now, anyway, muscle memory was winning.

Owings Mills Boulevard is a pretty bog normal suburban American road – flat, wide, featureless — an endless strip of concrete. At about 8:30 in the evening, there were only a few cars about. Not knowing the motorcycle at all, I waited for a nice open space of road, then rolled the throttle open, leaned the bike to the left and pointed it up the road.

Set in ‘Tour’ mode, the ‘Wing uses a gentle power map that combines gradual throttle response with a short shifting DCT profile. Holding about one third throttle, the transmission grabs the next gear before the big engine clears 2000 rpm. There’s tons of torque, so it doesn’t really affect progress down the road any — but at those RPMs the engine felt vaguely grumbly, which was the last thing I ever expected from an opposed six cylinder. Really noticeable though was the absence of any sense of working the throttle to work through the gears — it was just ‘dial it on and let the computer figure things out’. ‘Letting the computer figure things out’ did have one new feature, though.

Honda’s Dual Clutch transmission is an outgrowth of its racing programs, both two wheels and four. The DCT is technically a manual transmission — by which I mean it has meshing gearsets that are selected by sliding dogs — but its a manual transmission where the operation of the dogs and clutches (plural) is done via electronics and hydraulic actuators, rather than by shift and clutch levers worked by you, the human. It really is a genius design — the box has seven speeds, with the first clutch controlling first, third, fifth and seventh gear. The second clutch controls second, fourth and sixth gear. Going up through the gears, the system essentially is already in second gear at the time the shift up from first gets executed. To shift, the system simultaneously decouples the first gear clutch while engaging the second gear clutch. On the road, this translates to a shift that essentially has absolutely no loss of drive.

Think about that for a second. Or maybe more like three-quarters of a second.

Three quarters of a second is about that time that it takes for a normal motorcyclist — not, you, Valentino — to disengage the clutch, select the next gear, apply the throttle and clutch in to the next gear. During that three-quarters of a second, the bike stops accelerating, and either goes neutral or actually begins to slow down during the gap before the next gear is engaged and the driveline is accelerating again. Every motorcyclist understands this in his bones — the bwaaap, bwaaaap, bwaaap of the motorcycle speeding up, pausing and then speeding up again as each gear is engaged. That staccato stairstep of increasing speed is the fundamental, atomic set of sensations that define what most motorcyclists dream about when they’re dreaming about riding.

And with the DCT, that shit is gone.

With the Dual Clutch technology, those 3/4s of a second when the driveline unloads and then drives on again disappear – there’s just a seamless rush of power with the space between gears measured in milliseconds, if it can be measured at all. The system isn’t quite as seamless as a good Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), buts its damn close.

Rolling up to 50 mph on Owings Mills Boulevard, that big whoosh was instantly evident, even if the bike’s default ride mode had 7th gear engaged at that speed.

I’d planned to ride Liberty Road about halfway home — Maryland 26 is a major state highway, that — at least in between towns — has a 50 or 60 mile per hour speed limit, and has rolling, open highway with minimal traffic once well west of Baltimore. It’s a perfect place to come to terms with a new motorcycle, which was exactly what I wanted to do before picking I-70 back up and really stretching back out at speed.

I’d already memorized a map of the area, and knew I only needed to make two turns to be pointed back out in the right direction, and still, somehow I blew it. I have to guess I was so tied up on learning the tactical elements of riding something this different that I completely struck out on the strategic ones — you know, where you are, where you expect to be going — that sort of thing.

In my tiny predicament, I did something I didn’t expect to do. While stopped at a traffic light I worked a few buttons on the ‘Wing’s center console, and put live navigation up on the LCD display. In this mode the system just displayed the roads that were stretched out in front of you, and well as your direction of travel. Much to my surprise, the position of the display was not as distracting as I’d anticipated — it was there if you needed to see it, and out of sightline if you didn’t.

The Nav Display made it quickly obvious that I’d righted where I should have lefted back there, and at the next major intersection, I pulled a big whopping U-turn, with a degree of ease — both due to the bike’s stellar low center of gravity and the DCT’s perfect clutch control — that is really notable on a bike of this size and power.

For the next 20 miles or so I just watched the world and the yellow line roll up to the windscreen. I’d adjusted the ‘Wings electrically adjustable shield to just below my line of sight, and even in these foggy, misty conditions my head and my eyes were in clean, still air, even with my helmet visor open. Coming into traffic lights at towns along the way, the DCT snapped off reasonably clean downshifts while slowing down or on the brakes, automatically selecting first and clutching out as the bike came to a stop.

In seriously suboptimal, spooky riding conditions, the bike felt like I was in command of the road, like I couldn’t put a wheel out of place, and was comfortable in conditions that were anything but.

When I arrived at a North-South route that took me back to the interstate I was ready, and rolled the 5 or 6 miles back to Interstate 70. On the onramp I finally got a bit demonstrative with the throttle, and kept the revs up as I entered the highway. With the engine’s single throttle body’s butterflies well open, we didn’t get 7th gear selected until just touching 80, which is where it stayed until we got back to Jefferson, and home.

I-70 though Carroll and Frederick counties as actually pretty curvy, and by my 30th mile in the saddle, the combination of the bike’s balance, neutral ergonomics, incredibly flat torque curve and compliant suspension had me feeling as comfortable as bikes I’ve ridden for 50,000. At highway RPM — about 22-2300 — the ‘Wing’s engine smoothed out, although, unlike the vintage ‘Wings I’m acquainted with, this engine had a bit more character in the form of some vibratory feedback. On the newly repaved pavement on I-70 the bike was agile and held its cornering lines perfectly, even when carrying higher than average cornering loads — we were hustling. The Lander road exit came up far too soon, and I killlswitched and standed a very damp motorcycle at the top of my driveway.

This bike would be here for 17 days. I had no way of knowing then it would pour rain for 14 of them.

 

***

 

Rain Much?

The next morning, when I came down to my office, I looked out my window and was greeted with the sight of two world-class, cross-continental capable touring bikes – my bike and Honda’s – doing their level best not to be motorboats. Conditions like these are why most of my Gold Wing photos look like professional car porn shots, where somebody goes to a lot of trouble to spray the car flesh with a hose so that all the pointed surfaces have big water drops on them — in my case, though, it was both effortless and unavoidable.

Gold Wing Instruments and Controls

Business End of The Big Boxer

Now You See It

Now You Don’t

I don’t know, maybe the water drop model treatment makes one more appreciative of typical Honda mechanical engineering elegance — like the bike’s nicely tapered alloy passenger floorboards that click upwards — with a nice detent and then disappear into the contours of the bike’s bodywork.

Then again, I’d like to have had the choice of appreciating them without having to stand out in my driveway in the rain.

So, with this beautiful motorcycle in my driveway, I looked for openings.

Which I didn’t get.

Owning an Aerostich Roadcrafter suit, I applied everyone’s favorite expletive, and went riding in the rain.

Someday, I hope to be able to test a motorcycle without being able to say how well its fairing works to protect the rider in the rain.

This is not that day.

The 2018 Honda Gold Wing’s fairing does a magnificent job of protecting the rider in unfavorable conditions. Even in pouring rain the air in the rider’s pocket is still, non turbulent, and does a stellar job in keeping the weather happening outside the cockpit outside the cockpit. Honda’s extensive use of fluid dynamics modelling software and the wind tunnel are clearly in evidence, with the shapes of the rearview mirrors and their fairing mounts clearly designed to shelter the riders hands and to manage vortices coming off the edge of the windshield. They look, and are, purposeful.

Air Control At Rest

It actually took three or four days before I got a real break in the rain, and was actually able to ride on something approximating dry pavement. Switching the DCT over from automatic to manual mode — where the rider controls the shifts from the paddles on the left switch cluster — upshifts via a finger trigger on the far side of the cluster, and downshifts via a thumb button on the front — really unleashed better shift behavior. I was able to keep the big boxer up higher in the RPM band, and both throttle response and engine smoothness improved.

Feeling brave, I changed drive modes from the default ‘Tour’ to ‘Sport’. I had been told to expect significant change, and I got it.

It’s important to note that unlike many modern, throttle by wire, computer managed motorcycles, with the new Gold Wing, Honda has elected to provide an essentially fixed map of ride modes. The Gold Wing’s ride modes provide a fixed menu of engine torque/horsepower, DCT transmission shift profiles, ABS/traction control settings, linked braking front/rear bias settings, and suspension damping settings. Rear suspension preload is electronically adjustable from the instrument panel. These ride mode maps — ‘Eco’, ‘Rain’, ‘Tour’ and ‘Sport’ provide different functional behavior combinations — think of them as ‘Personalities’ — that adjust the bike for road or travel conditions. The ride modes, however, are Honda’s decisions about which combinations work best. Want the high rpm DCT shift schedule of ‘Sport’ mode with the power curve of ‘Tour’ mode? Tough. The Gold Wing doesn’t give the rider any ability to adjust or tune any system parameters — i.e. a ‘User’ mode. I know Honda knows how to do this because the Africa Twin provides it. But in the ‘Wing you get what Honda has picked out for you and you’d better like it.

Gold Wing Ride Mode Matrix

‘Sport’ mode, for what it’s worth, turns the ‘Tour’ mode’s Dr. Jekyll into a snarling, foaming at the mouth, full-on Mr. Hyde. Based solely on the subjective Shamieh Butt Dyno, it feels like an extra 20% of torque and horsepower are set free with the mode switch — DCT shift scheduling goes from nearly comic levels of short shifting to the types of gearshifts I’d be making on a manually transmissioned bike — and valving in the ‘Wing’s shocks firms up the ride, making fast changes in directions on corner entrances feel smooth and natural. On an open, twisting secondary road, ‘Sport’ mode is magic, with the possible exception of the DCT’s tendency to slap off a late downshift when entering corners off the throttle. Because rider-selected paddle overrides are always available — whether in manual or automatic mode — once I developed the habit of snapping off an extra manual downshift on corner entrances, I was never bothered by that again.

You won’t be using ‘Sport’ mode around town though. Throttle response is just too abrupt, and coming out of a ‘Stop’ sign or traffic light and having, for example, to make a left turn off a standing start, it’s just too challenging to modulate. In fact, the whole notion of modulation, or moderation just doesn’t compute in ‘Sport’ mode. Get tentative with the throttle and the whole bike — refined though it may otherwise be, turns into a herky, jerky, electronically confused mess. I shared this impression with Colin Miller — Honda’s Press liaison — and his advice to me was that the rider interface assumed aggression — that if one was aggressive with the controls, the bike was completely able to understand the rider’s intention. As a rider that has spent multiple decades in the pursuit of analog smooth, I’d need to throw that shit out the window if I wanted to take the most from this motorcycle. That turned out to be perfectly good advice.

 

***

 

So, I kept looking for opportunities to really stretch this motorcycle out and understand it in its chosen environment. Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I planned a two-up weekend trip to the Maryland Eastern Shore, to visit Rock Hall, a quiet little village that has potential as an inexpensive retirement location. We could then skip the summer beach traffic coming back from Ocean City by looping up through Delaware, and working our way back across the secondary roads in rural Northern Maryland. I was curious to see how the ‘Wing handled up two up and loaded, and if Sweet D liked the bike. So, of course, It poured rain non-stop for two days before, the day of, and two days after the planned adventure.

We’d also planned to take some action photos of riding the motorcycle, which of course also demanded that the sun come out. Which it never did. We made it out to a decent location about 3 miles from the house, but between the time we left the house and the time we arrived on-location, it clouded over, leaving us stuck with shutter speeds like 1/60th and 1/125th of a second, which aren’t really suitable for shots of fast-moving action. If you look at the one almost critically sharp picture below, in the background you can see the cloudburst coming in that ran us off the road five minutes after that.

An Almost Critically Sharp Action Shot

 

 

***

 

My frustration, with a world-class travelling motorcycle getting drowned in my driveway, grew to almost unbearable levels. The date for the bike’s pickup was already confirmed, and compared to the 1000s of test miles I’d originally envisioned, I was struggling to make 300.

Finally, I saw an opening on the 5 day forecast — an actual, endangered species sunny day, with low humidity and highs ranging from the high 70s to low 80s — a perfect riding day. I remember shutting the Weather.com window and looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had seen me looking at a good forecast — I didn’t want to blow it.

Surprisingly, over the next four days or so, the forecast held.

Sunday morning, I woke up to sunshine coming in my bedroom window. I got up, had some cold brew and some breakfast, and pulled together my insulated 3 liter water jug and a sandwich bag filled with cashews and raisins. I went outside, dried off the bike’s saddle and grips from the overnight rains of the previous night, and placed my water, snacks and DSLR camera into the top case. It does strike me as odd that the interior of the ‘Wing’s topcase is bare plastic — my experience of other touring bikes is that the top cases are usually finished with carpet or a rubber mat to keep from chewing up whatever you place in them — but the ‘every ounce counts’ ethos of this bike’s redesign had probably extended to that ounce of arguably necessary padding.

The rest of the redesigned Gold Wing’s luggage does bear additional comment. All three cases — saddlebags and topcase — have electromechanical latches that are opened by pressing a weatherproof diaphragm switch on each case. In the case of my blue bomber, I had a series of ‘no open’ events — where the switch would not open the case — and a series of ‘false positive’ error codes where the bike’s instrument display would throw up a ‘case open’ or ‘topcase open’ error message even though the case in question appeared to be closed. Is it possible that being drowned for two weeks straight was causing issues with wet seals having a bit more seal than the design called for? Maybe. It’s also possible that use of electromechanical components where a strong mechanical latch might do better could be the root of the problems I experienced.

Almost As If It Was Vacuformed Around The Final Drive

Then there is the size and shape of the cases themselves. In all things during the redesign, Honda strove for minimum aerodynamic drag and minimum mass. The side cases, for example were pulled in towards the rear wheel to the extent possible — to the point where the inner liner of the right bag clearly shows the outline of the shaft and final drive where the bag had to be shaped to fit around it. The basic shape of the bag’s interior is an elongated hexagon, and one which is pretty shallow at that. The bags are measured to be 30 liters capacity each – but the combination of the weird shape and relatively low volume — every hard case I’ve ever owned, from vintage Krausers, through 80s Vintage BMW ABS Touring Cases, to the built-in luggage on my K1200LT, are larger than 30 liters — make fitting anything into these a struggle. Items I routinely carry when on tour — a shoulder bag that easily fits two or three days of change of clothes and toiletries — won’t fit into these bags. Helmets will not fit into these bags, either — it isn’t even remotely possible. Even the top case, with its shallow design, tapered rear and sloping lid, is an odd shape that will challenge people trying to pack it. The electro latches, of course, don’t make any kind of overpack and stuff closed scenario any more likely.

I honestly don’t know what the designers were thinking — the ‘Wing is on the short list of the three or four most significant load-em-up-and-go-until-you-feel-like-coming-home motorcycles in the world. And if one is going to live off a motorcycle, that means tents, and camp stoves, and raingear and toolsets. Having not tried myself to pack the bike for two weeks on the road, I can’t say for certain, but my subjective expert says this case setup won’t accomodate any of it. If you buy this motorcycle you will be buying the Honda case liners, which — my apologies — look for all the world like an oddly shaped set of lady’s purses.

I understand that handling, motorcycle dynamics and range were foundational requirements. And the results of that are Good Things (TM). But a Gold Wing with skimpy luggage is the answer to a question that no potential buyer will ever ask.

With my day ride’s supplies aboard, and all the cases showing properly latched on the instrument panel, it was finally time to ride.

 

***

 

So there I was, sitting at Jefferson’s only red light, with a partially warmed up boxer six cylinder engine audibly working below me. I toggled the bike into ‘Sport’ mode, the light turned green, and I gassed it, banked left, and rolled up Holter Road.

A perfect morning. A perfect road. I wanted this to be the perfect bike.

The DCT was spinning the motor — spending more time with RPMs up above 2500 — remember, this big boxer is a low revving motor — redline is only 6000. With the revs up, the sharper throttle response felt right, the engine felt happier, the DCT seemed happier, making your pilot, speaking, wanting to participate and join in their happiness.

Working Holter’s familiar, sweeping and technical corners, I was amazed by the action of the bike’s redesigned front end. With the linkages of the Honda Hossack-type Double Wishbone working in view in the cockpit, it was amazing to see how much movement was being fed into the suspension, especially when compared to how little of it was actually being passed to the frame or rider. Honda’s design, which uses bearings for all points of movement, dramatically cuts the weight of the front suspension and its unsprung weight, and reduces the sliding friction of a telescopic suspension to virtually zero. The front end’s cornering behavior was crisp with good turn in — although there’s no hiding the engine’s presence in the gestures needed to control the bike. Honda has used every trick imaginable to cancel out the transverse flywheeled motor’s torque reactions, but no transversely mounted opposed six cylinder is ever going to be made to turn as lightly as, say, a parallel twin with a inline flywheel layout. Despite its big motor’s roll moment, the Gold Wing carves really well — one has to appreciate what a high accomplishment that is.

Double Wishbone Front Suspension Linkages In View in The Cockpit

After six or seven perfect corner entries, and six or seven enthusiastic corner exit displays of 1800 cc boxer motor, I had a mental lapse that is not characteristic for me.

“Damn,” I thought, “This is just about perfect. What could possibly go wrong?”

Oops.

About 9 and half milliseconds later, I heard a nice, soft, furry thud in the left earpad of my brand new Shoei RF-SR.

A thud that Buzzed.

The Gold Wing also has really good brakes. Big power. Great balance. Zero drama. It is the first version of any linked braking system I have ridden that I didn’t find objectionable – I could select a front or rear wheel bias that allowed me to exercise most of the benefits of discrete controls — but when you had to just haul off and stop with it, it had impressive stopping power.

So I stopped. With enthusiasm.

Big Six Piston Brakes, with Linked Braking Plumbing In View

I found a paved spot beside the road where it crossed a culvert. I punched the bike out of gear from the handlebars, set the parking brake (yes. it has a parking brake. because you can’t stick it in gear to park it like your old technology motorcycle.), set the sidestand and briskly dismounted.

I got one elkskin gauntlet off and a set of D-rings unfastened in Guinness Record Book time.

Really. I’ll race ya. I’m that good.

With the helmet now upside down in my hands, I looked for either the Bee or The Wreckage That Used To Be The Bee. And I found neither.

Which I found puzzling.

I was pretty sure about what I had heard. I looked a little harder.

And then I heard a perfectly calm, healthy, “Buzz!”.

OK. Where the heck was the little buzzer?

The RF-SR has pretty typical Shoei internal pads — they’re all interchangeable, come in plus and minus sizes, and they detach so they can be washed. Where the cheek pad in my helmet meets the fixed pad of the shell, there’s a tiny gap. I pulled my other glove back on, then gently pulled the liner away from the shell.

And saw two antenna and two shiny compound eyes looking back at me.

You gotta laugh. I know I did.

After steeling myself for action — Stingy Bugs! Brand New Spendy (for me) Helmet! — I reached in again, pulled the liner back firmly, and shook the helmet with the opening pointed away from me.

Mr. Honey Bee bounced off the side of the Gold Wing’s fairing, landed on the ground, did about three loops of the Homer Simpson Shuffle, and then flew away indignantly.

I know it was indignant because about 15 feet out, he changed his mind, and then took another run at my head. At that point he probably figured we were square and he split.

What were the chances of that bug hitting that gap unharmed? About the same as hitting that vent on the Death Star.

Laughter does slow down the process of re-donning that helmet and glove, but I wasn’t feeling pressed.

I pulled off the parking brake (which was a hard habit to get into, ehem?) dropped the bike back into ‘D’ and moved back up the road.

Flash forward to Myersville, the entrance to I-70 , and a brisk roll of the throttle back onto the Interstate, westward to Maryland’s mountains.

This Gold Wing was home, baby.

 

***

 

Once that 1833 cc six is warmed through, seventh gear and just over 2200 RPMs translates to a pretty relaxed 78 mph or so. I’m confident you could burn though tanks of gas like that — in my experience, 225 to 240 miles per tank — over and over, until you just couldn’t manage to do it any more. With the revs up the big 6 is smooth but not so smooth as to be characterless – a thing at which Honda has become genuinely adept. 7th gear passing power in ‘Tour’ mode was a little flat for my tastes, thumbing up ‘Sport’ mode made the bike far more able to move with authority and defend itself by finding empty space in congested traffic.

The fairing, while found to be not bee resistant, could be set to where cleanest, quietest air at speed was with the screen just below my eye level, which is something that seems like free lunch to me. With any narrow motorcycle windshield, managing what happens when the airstream around both sides of the shield comes back together is really the trick. (I’m talking to you, KTM.) Get it wrong, and the rider literally gets beaten to death at speed. Get it right, and you have clear quiet air like this that allows you to run with your visor up if you feel bee-brave, and in an environment that is quiet and comfortable as any 1000 pound, 80 mph hurtling thing blasting through the air can possibly be engineered to be.

I set the cruise control, which was dead simple and worked perfectly — because on days where I burn 5 or 6 hundred miles of Interstate I will use the cruise. This one had zero surprises and get the seal of approval.

After an hours’ cruise, as we got to the point where the highway begins to climb in earnest, I took my customary Sideling Hill stop to briefly stop and honor my riding friend.

The View At Sideling Hill

Respects paid, I gassed it, and headed for the mountains.

 

***

 

I-68 from that point west is really a touring or sport touring bike playground. The roadbed climbs through the Mountains of Allegheny and Garrett counties, and twists entertainingly as it climbs. There are only a few places in the Interstate highway system where you’re going to be cornering a fast bike hard, and this is definitely one of them. The cruise control came off, and we had many miles of jamming — reading the road and sighting corners, executing exits and climbing the big grades. A time or two I’d find myself fending off crazy huge hot rod pickup truck guys that were pushing their acts well over the line.

This Gold Wing cornered precisely, and put down big flat power, keeping speeds up and making it all seem easy.

We kept up the turning climb – through Green Ridge, though Flintstone — until we arrived at US 220 South – which immediately took us across the border into West Virginia. 220 is one of many West Virginia motorcycle-friendly secondary roads and this continued to be a perfect way to roll. I left the bike with the DCT on auto — which gave great access to two-lane passing power that I used many times this afternoon.

I tried a little fairing gizmo that Honda calls a ‘airstream diffuser’ — a small plastic popup device located underneath the shield that redirects some of the laminar flow behind the windscreen into the cockpit… it works, too, but makes nearly double the sound pressure of the screen in its ‘clean’ configuration. I’d have to be pretty desperately hot to use it — on a day like today where noise equals fatigue, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Managing fuel range had me sighting on Keyser, West Virgina as a town large enough to have good fuel, and after crossing the high bridge over the Potomac River, I rolled into a Sunoco Station sat prominently on the corner that made up the entrance into town. I pulled in, accessed the ‘Wings characteristic underseat fuel tank, and took on 4 odd gallons. I took advantage of the facilities, hit the topcase snackbar, did extreme hydration, then went stands up and boogied.

Coming back out onto 220, I left the parking brake set again, as I has several times before. Frankly, ‘parking brake check’ just hadn’t made it into my subconscious rider checklist, and the parking brake indicator light just got lost in the huge number of indicators and other displays on the ‘Wing’s instrument panel. Hint to Honda — this might be a rare case where an audio alert – which I usually eschew — might be appropriate.

Following 220 had us running in the valley between two ridgelines, enjoying the scenery and rolling through open country, with minimal company from the four-wheeled set. 220 has plenty of legal passing zones, and with the Gold Wing’s 100 plus foot pounds of torque across the entire tach, fast passing those isolated fellow travellers was one aggressive roll of the throttle and a downshift away. In this environment, I noticed another one of those areas where the DCT’s software might need another adjustment. After any downshift and aggressive blast of acceleration, on a manual transmission motorcycle, I will roll out of the throttle and upshift after the need for acceleration has passed – this will lower the RPMs, help to bleed off acceleration and drift back down to the desired cruise velocity. The more thrust and punch a motor has, the more pressing this behavior is, and the Wing’s boxer six, especially in sport mode, has plenty of punch. Two and a half seconds with the throttle wide open on the GL during a 55 or 60 mph pass has the bike rapidly closing on 90 miles an hour… speeding up is good, but only if one has a mechanism for getting back down from the ‘Arrest Me, Please, Officer’ zone. On the DCT-equipped ‘Wing, I found that rolling back out of the throttle — indicating that the need for acceleration had passed — wasn’t interpreted by the DCT as a signal to shift back to higher gears — the result of this was that after an aggressive two lane pass, I’d roll out of the throttle and move back into the lane in front of the passed vehicle, and the transmission, which might have downshifted to 5th or 4th gear, would stay in the downshift gear with the big motor still screaming away at 4500 or 5000 rpm – which doesn’t sound like much until one recalls this is an engine with a 6000 rpm redline. I’d be drumming my virtual fingers on the imaginary dashboard wondering when the heck the control module was going to figure out that we weren’t going to need full blasting past thrust any more.

This was another case where rider override input became routinely necessary. After a two lane pass and rolling out of the throttle, I’d need to use the upshift paddle to put the transmission back in a higher gear, lower the revs and decelerate back to cruise speed.

After working my way down the valley, we got to New Creek, and the intersection with US 50. In either direction, US 50 is a legendary road for Mid Atlantic riders, connecting multiple mountain ridges, Wilderness and Wildlife management areas, State and National Parks, rivers and stream canyons across Western Maryland and West Virginia, and eventually into Ohio. One thing 50 never is is straight, which is why we’re here. Today, we’d be running east, towards home, as unnatural as that seemed with this motorcycle — it was goading me to check out Montana, but there were more than a few people who would have been miffed by that “I might be a little late” phone call.

Running US 50 became a highlight of this motorcycle in its element — a wide open, twisting road following stream canyons, setting up for corner after corner, dancing with the yellow line as it rolled toward the screen. My approach towards motorcycle travel is right in line with Honda’s design intention — I’m not a relaxed tourist, but someone who knows that to cover ground, you’ve got to keep average speeds up, and so we were on the throttle, on the charge and really enjoying the bike’s behavior in the corners — driving deep, turning hard, and feeling relaxed due the bike’s stable handling, balanced ergonomics, and low effort steering. It was noteworthy that after a couple of hundred miles, my shoulders, which normally experience some stiffness as a day in the saddle goes on — felt completely loose and comfortable.

Pushing hard in a series of corners through one stream canyon, I did find myself wishing for just a little more rebound damping in the front damper unit — with the bike requiring one extra fraction of a second and one fraction of a bounce to settle into the cornering line. This slightly underdamped behavior also tended to show up at elevated speeds on less-than-perfect divided highway — where expansion joints or waves in the pavement would have the bike subtlety porpoising when jamming in a straight line.

It wasn’t a day or a ride for focusing on the negative, though. The sun stayed out, broken up by some high clouds, the temperature stayed down, and the curves of 50 just kept coming. As as long as the curves kept coming, the Gold Wing and I just kept dancing. We ran out of 50 long before I ran out of wanting to ride it.

In the middle of the afternoon, I found myself working my way back into the West Virginia panhandle, and my extended Rider’s Backyard. Not ready to go home yet, I turned away from home and picked up West Virginia 9, a brand new, state of the art divided highway that frankly, doesn’t really go anywhere — a concrete monument to the appropriations power of West Virginia’s late US Senator Robert Byrd. Out on The 9, I wicked the Gold Wing up — which proved to be as mechanically comfortable and unstressed at 90 as it is at 75.

The turn for home gave me one more good road — Loudoun Heights Road, which gave me a lovely combination of wide open sweepers and some tighter technical corners to cement my appreciation of the Gold Wing’s grace on a back road — a motor with good punch everywhere, and the handling behavior of a much smaller motorcycle.

It was over too soon, though, leaving me wishing for simpler, less busy, dryer life where I had time to ride 3000 miles in place of the 300-odd we’d covered today.

 

***

 

The 2018 Honda Gold Wing is a travellers motorcycle, and one which gets down the road in a way that is unique to itself. The motor has an absolutely dead flat torque curve, with a single throttle body and its four valve heads tuned to give good throttle response and good breathing at all RPMs, in place of the high RPM power step of more sporting motorcycles. Revving the big boxer 6 doesn’t get you access to any more power, so the DCT’s shift profiles take that into account. The engine is happiest right in the middle of its rev band where there’s plenty of torque, plenty of response to more throttle, and plenty of balanced smoothness.

Most Bikes Have a Torque Curve – The GL Has a ‘Torque Flat’

The bike’s suspension is state of the art, although the damping rates have been selected with compliance and comfort in mind. The bike never does anything evil under cornering loads, but compared to my 20-year-old european bike, which is equipped with aftermarket Ohlins damper units, there’s just a lot less communication of what is happening at the contact patches. Whether that’s important to you or a step in the wrong direction is a matter of rider’s preference.

The bike’s Dual Clutch Transmission is, at this stage, a mixed blessing. I used the transmission in Automatic mode as much as possible to get a complete appreciation of the system’s capabilities. That the system works as well as it does overall, is, on one level, an engineering masterwork. But to someone who has spent more than 30 years in the saddle honing shifting skills, there are some areas where improvement is still needed. Compared with creating an automatic transmission for a 4 wheeled vehicle, creating a good automatic for a two-wheeled vehicle is a level of magnitude more difficult. The DCT’s corner entry and aggressive passing-gear behaviors in automatic mode are still problematic, but, like all software controlled motor vehicle behaviors, a fix might only be a system flash away. If I owned one of these motorcycles, I suspect that on any technical road, I’d operate the system in manual mode, where my shift decision matrix and the electro-hydraulic gearset and clutch controls would result in perfect, millisecond shifts. On longer tours, in routine commuting duty, or stuck in congestion, the automatic mode would be a lifesaver.

Other parts of the bike bear a brief note. The ‘Walking Mode’ of the DCT, which gives riders access to engine-driven ultra low-speed reverse and forward drive, are tremendously useful in manoeuvring the bike in tight confines. The horns on the motorcycle are the best I’ve ever experienced — they have the same sort of punch as a New York Central streamliner locomotive — the percussive thump in the gut literally will take the breath away from anybody in their path. Similarly impressive are the bike’s LED headlamps, which have 5 projector units in each of the two light housings. On a late night backroad run in farm country near my home, use of the highbeams threw enough light to ignite roadside barns. You’re not going to be buying aftermarket horns or driving lights for this motorcycle.

Barn Burning Lighting

You will, however, be buying power outlets. Touring riders farkel. And although the bike’s built-in navigation and audio/communications systems will reduce what you need to add, regardless of whether its heated gear, radar detectors, CB, whatever, the stock motorcycle doesn’t have any power outlets, which seems like another design oversight that is hard to understand.

I had really high expectations for the redesigned 2018 Honda Gold Wing. Expectations, frankly, that made it unlikely that any bike could have met them. The base platform of the motorcycle — the engine, frame and suspension, brakes, riding position and fairing — is a balanced, capable combination that optimizes comfort and dynamic capability. The Dual Clutch Transmission is a technology advance that still feels like it is in its early stages, with future refinements in certain areas really necessary. The design, construction and execution of the bike’s luggage seem to be a repudiation of this bike’s traditional buyer — Honda clearly thinks that its new buyers will be hotel/motel travelers that live via their iPhone and their credit card, with tiny requirements for clean clothes and nothing else. People who go out on their motorcycles for weeks at a time — as this bike is clearly capable of — will be looking at their touring gear and scratching their heads.

The behavior of the bike on a winding road is confidence inspiring, capable, comfortable and fun. Whether it will work as your travelling partner is something only you can can decide for yourself.

 

Time Traveler – 2018 Indian Roadmaster

Into the Green

My buddy has an Indian.

Or, to be completely truthful, he has a do-it-yourself Indian Motorcycle kit.

As long as I’ve been visiting Al’s shop, he’s had a collection of boxes on a baker’s rack next to the roll up door. Bright blue, deeply valenced fenders. A set of obliquely finned, flathead cylinder heads. Linkages and levers for the hand shift and foot clutch. Sheet metal for the drive chain and alternator covers. The lower engine cases, with the connecting rods small ends poking out the base gasket openings. A tan leather ‘Chummee Seat’ with fringed rear skirt. A set of matching saddlebags with conchos and jewel glass appliques. The spring sets and covers for the rear suspension’s plunger units.

I haven’t ever been down to the very bottom of those boxes, but if there isn’t a cut glass Indian head wrapped in a chrome Headdress down there, there certainly needs to be.

The Warbonnet Rides Again

That 1952 Chief has been a project awaiting the time and resources needed for an extensive and total restoration, and so that classic motorcycle – at ease at speed gliding down some highway – has always been something that lived only in my imagination, and forever hung just out of reach.

Because the original, Springfield, Massachusetts-based Indian Motorcycle company went bankrupt a full six years before I was born, their motorcycles have always seemed to exist as something sadly lost to the past.   And while the company had spent the early part of its History earning a reputation for engineering leadership and competition success, mental pictures of the Indian were all sepia-toned black and whites, men wearing their competition Indian-script sweaters on motordromes and dirttracks, the Big Chief trailing flapping fringe as it disappeared into history, a superior machine that had inexplicably just vanished.

Lots of companies felt the pull of that legacy, but no one had the engineering or the capital to build a motorcycle worthy of it. Before Polaris Industries bought the remains of those companies in 2011, lots tried. Lots failed.

Which makes the Motorcycle sitting in front of me – a 2018 Indian Roadmaster — one of the most unlikely formerly assumed to be fantasy things to ever actually exist. It’s all there – the Art Deco fenders, the obliquely finned V-twin cylinders, the jeweled, lighted Warbonnet on the front fender. Underneath that skin, however, is a thoroughly modern motorcycle that is functionally as far away from that 1953 Chief as one could imagine.

The heart of the Roadmaster is the Thunder Stroke 111 engine – a new from the ground up motor that was designed solely to power the Indian Big Twin motorcycles, and to appeal directly to Indian’s History and Fans. Unlike the predecessor Indian companies, that used existing third party motors that they could purchase, Polaris correctly concluded that this shortcut was simply not acceptable. If their motorcycle was to be embraced by riders as an Indian, it couldn’t be, as the predecessors had been, powered by anybody else’s engine and dressed up with full fenders.

A Very New Engine With A Very Old Look

The Thunder Stroke does use the architecture and appearance of the old Chief’s motor as it’s jumping off point, but is as modern internally as any air-cooled motor can be. The engine carries over the oblique cooling fins of the vintage bike’s heads, its larger head and smaller barrel finning, and its downward pointed exhausts and parallel pushrod tubes. The new motor continues the vintage Indian’s use of a gear driven primary drive, and combines this with unit construction, a six speed helical cut gear transmission, three cams, an automatic starting decompression system, pushrod overhead valves, EFI, and a belt final drive. Engineering details are thoroughly modern – using slipper pistons, fracture split connecting rods, and wedge combustion chambers like those in the Corvette LS7 engine. The 49 degree V-Twin displaces an immodest 1811 ccs, and produces 119 ft-lbs of torque at peak.

The rest of the chassis and running gear are similarly new tech. The entire motorcycle is hung from a cast aluminum chassis, which provides serious strength and rigidity with relatively low mass. The Roadmaster is suspended by a cartridge fork in the front, and an air adjustable monoshock in the rear – both working through about 4.5 inches of travel. Rear air preload is adjusted via a nice little aluminum hand pump with integral pressure gauge through a Schrader valve under the left sidecover. Brakes are high specification – dual 300 mm disks grabbed by 4 piston calipers in front with a single unit in the rear.

The Roadmaster’s touring equipment is road ready – a fork attached fairing with electrically adjustable windscreen and fully adjustable lowers as well – air routing through the lowers can be tuned to allow lots of air in warmer weather, or to close off both direct and spill air overflow when Mother Nature loses her temper. The fairing houses a full complement of information and entertainment gear – trip computer, stereo, Bluetooth phone integration, GPS, all controllable from either the central touchscreen or from bar mounted controls. Saddlebags and top case are centrally locking – with the side case lids swinging outward from stoutly made chrome-steel hinges, and the deepest, most commodious top case I can remember. The topcase also features a usable chrome steel luggage rack – useful for a small tent and bedroll – that many touring motorcycles no longer provide. Foot controls are far forward on spacious footboards.

Vintage…with Touchscreen

“How”, you ask, “does all that work on the road?”

For a motorcycle whose visual appeal is a wholehearted appeal to motoring’s past, this motorcycle rides like something straight out of the future. Suffice it to say if – in a world increasingly filled with talk of all-electric transportation – you are someone who prefers your motorcycles enthusiastically internal combustiony – the Roadmaster will push every single one of your buttons.

The Roadmaster makes use of keyless ignition. If the ‘Intelligent fob’ is secreted in one’s leathers, when one mounts the bike and presses the large, Apple-like ‘Power’ button, the bike’s onboard information and entertainment systems boot up with an animated rumble and flames sequence on the dash display. Starting is accomplished by rocking the kill switch from ‘stop’ to ‘run’, which allows the bike’s electronics to manage the motor start process.

The bike’s clutch has a very light activation – once underway the Thunder Stroke motor revs far more quickly than other twins of this size, and provides a very broad spread of thrust everywhere in the rev range. Although the torque peak occurs at 3000 rpm, while covering small, technical backroads I was able to make use of usable power from as low as 1300 rpm. The combination of gear driven primary and the output shaft cush drive mean that power at low rpms is smooth and snatch free. At larger RPMs and throttle openings, power delivery is immediate – backroad passing power is always available. Throttle response from the ride by wire fuel injection system is smooth and progressive – unlike most ride by wire systems with which I am familiar, I never found myself wishing for a cable and carb. Fuel economy is what you’d expect for a very large displacement twin — in mixed highway and backroad use during our test, the Roadmaster returned 34.7 miles per gallon. On the interstate, the engine transmits just enough throb to reinforce the sensation of being on a classic American motorcycle without ever crossing the line into being objectionable or uncomfortable.

The helical gear transmission shifts positively, with just the right amount of ‘thonk’. I had nothing even remotely resembling a missed shift in my entire time with the bike. The exhaust note of the stock exhausts is absolutely perfect – a mellow low tone with that narrow V syncopated beat. That combination makes running the bike up through the gears on big throttle so pleasurable that the proper descriptive terms aren’t available for use in a family publication.

The Roadmaster’s handling is both surefooted and agile. Part of our test route included some miniscule, single track byways that wandered through West Virginia’s Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, on a day when nature served up a cool, misty day. The bike’s turn in behavior, and ability to deal with slippery surfaces, limited sightlines and a fair number of 270 degree switchbacks was low effort and relaxed – the chassis worked together with the engine’s broad power spread to make all of these roads a one gear, wind it on and wind it off affair. Credit needs to be given to the Thunder Stroke’s designer – it was striking how gentle and controllable the engine’s compression braking was – for a motor with such large drive torque, one would expect dramatic and over-strong engine braking – and that wasn’t what one gets.

The Roadmaster’s braking is nothing short of amazing, when one considers this is a 900+ pound motorcycle. Give a firm pull on the lever, and give a boot to the big, pickup-like pedal way out there, and stopping just happens. Cornering clearance is also spot on – not one part touched down during our test.

All this combines to provide a ride that – in its sweet spot at about 75 mph in top gear – feels like one that could take one relaxedly from coast to coast.   The Roadmaster’s electronic cruise control saves one’s throttle hand, and with the electrically adjustable windshield in the fully raised position, the cockpit is quiet and still enough to run with a full face helmet’s visor open. Drop one’s road speed down to 60 or so in top gear, and with the low revs and rumble it’s easy to imagine the ghost of that old Flathead Chief rolling just off your six.

There are, as always, things that could be better. Polaris’ big twins have always used a combination of a radial rear tire and a bias belted front – the Roadmaster is no exception. The front tire has a slightly nervous feel during certain tentative cornering lines – it seems to be more easily knocked off line by pavement imperfections that are parallel to the line of travel than radials I have used. The horn, frankly, made me laugh. When a motorcycle feels and looks like a New York Central Streamliner locomotive, its horn shouldn’t sound like a Honda 90.

The Indian Roadmaster is not intended to be a motorcycle for everyone. The aesthetics of the bike – the fenders, the tank, the footboards, the chrome, the embossed leather and concho badges – are clearly intended to compel folks whose tastes run toward the history and tradition of American Motorcycles. If your idea of the word “motor”, conjures up images of the B-17 Bomber’s Wright Cyclone – a massive, obliquely finned, roaring air-cooled monster of power and torque – then this may be the motorcycle you’ve always dreamed of. There’s a certain deterministically massive mechanical quality to all of it, from the deep rumble of the exhaust, to the solid thonks of the transmission shifting, to the unmistakable sounds of the massive valve train working in your lap while on cruise on the highway.

The Roadmaster truly is a time machine, but one that somehow manages to travel into both the past and the future at the very same time.

 

***

 

Portions of this piece originally appeared in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times. Thanks to the folks at Twigg Indian Motorcycles of Hagerstown, Maryland, who worked with Indian to provide our test bike.

An extended riding impression of the Roadmaster can be read in here in Omps, The Indian and The George Washington Heritage Trail.

 

***

Indian Roadmaster Specifications

 

Engine & Drivetrain

Bore x Stroke     3.976 in x 4.449 in (101 mm x 113 mm)

Compression Ratio     9.5:1

Displacement    111 cu in (1,811 cc)

Drive/Driven ClutchWet, Multi-Plate

Electronic Fuel Injection SystemClosed loop fuel injection / 54 mm bore

Engine TypeThunder Stroke® 111

ExhaustSplit Dual Exhaust w/ Cross-over

Gear Ratio (1st)      9.403 : 1

Gear Ratio (2nd)     6.411 : 1

Gear Ratio (3rd)      4.763 : 1

Gear Ratio (4th)      3.796 : 1

Gear Ratio (5th)      3.243 : 1

Gear Ratio (6th)      2.789 : 1

Horsepower            N/A

Peak Torque           119 ft-lbs (161.6 Nm)

Peak Torque RPM   3,000 rpm

Transmission/Final Drive2.2 : 1

Transmission/Primary DriveGear Drive Wet Clutch

 

Dimensions

Fuel Capacity5.5 gal (20.8 L)

Ground Clearance5.5 in (140 mm)

GVWR1,385 lb (628 kg)

Lean AngleN/A

Overall Height58.7 in (1,491 mm)

Overall Length104.6 in (2,656 mm)

Overall Width39.4 in (1,000 mm)

Rake/Trail25° / 5.9 in (150 mm)

Seat Height26.5 in (673 mm)

Weight (Empty Tank / Full of Fuel)897 lbs / 929 lbs (407 kg / 421 kg)

Wheelbase65.7 in (1,669 mm)

 

Brakes

Front BrakesDual / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 4 Piston Caliper

Rear BrakesSingle / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 2 Piston Caliper

Tires / Wheels

Front TiresDunlop® Elite 3 130/90B16 73H

Front WheelCast 16 in x 3.5 in

Rear TiresDunlop® Elite 3 Multi-Compound 180/60R16 80H

Rear WheelCast 16 in x 5 in

 

Suspension

Front Fork Tube Diameter46 mm

Front Suspension Telescopic Fork – Cartridge Type

Front Travel4.7 in (119 mm)

Rear Suspension Single Shock w/ Air adjust

Rear Travel4.5 in (114 mm)