Greatest Hits

There are some motorcycles, that the first time you see them, tell you that they are the future.

You know what these motorcycles are.

The Vincent Black Shadow. The CB750. The 1977 BMW R100RS. The first Gold Wing. The Bimota Tesi. The FZR750. Bikes that seemed like fever dreams from outer space – bikes that were machines that were like nothing we had ever seen.

The motorcycles of DC’s 2020 International Motorcycle Show were not those motorcycles.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me, that for the most part, motorcycle manufacturers are looking to their pasts for inspiration. I guess I can understand why that might be happening. Motorcycling’s target market continues to age. The predictable end date of internal combustion engines is slowly coming into focus. The future of gasoline powered motorcycles is short. Motorcycling’s past, in that context, starts to look pretty good.

Let me fair. There are a few machines that do buck that trend, and either drive motorcycling forward, or change it into something else entirely.  Those bikes buck the trend, though, just confirm that the trend exists, and that it has legs.

Suzuki had their 2020 Katana – inspired by Hans Muth’s 1981 Suzuki Katana – on display at the most conspicuous possible place at the entrance to Washington DC’s Walter Washington Convention Center’s show floor.  The new Katana recalls some of the classic bike’s design characteristics – the diagonal slash of the windshield and the surrounding fairing. The more modern race style tailpiece departs from the original design, and, having to choose, I prefer the appearance of the inspiration bike to the new interpretation. From an engineering standpoint, the new Katana is simply a GSX-S1000 with revised bodywork and a much smaller fuel tank of only 3.2 US gallons. Whether one prefers the new suit or not, the resulting bike’s range is reduced to the point of near ridiculousness – this homage to a classic bike does not carry forward the utility of the original.

Suzuki’s other new bike also looks backwards, in terms of styling, but succeeds in presenting that styling with completely state of the art safety and rider aide systems. The 2020 VStrom 1050 XT borrows both styling and colorways that recall classic Suzuki Rally Racers and the DR-Big offroader – sporting the mother of all ‘beaks’ and a rally-style windscreen and handguards. In Suzuki’s traditional competition colorways – the bright yellow and blue and white and red variants – and with a set of decent knobby tires mounted, the 1050 XT really looks the part. Combining and updated version of Suzuki’s big L Twin motor with a modern ride by wire throttle, a 6 axis Inertial Management Unit (IMU), multiple lean angle sensitive power, traction control and ABS modes, and cruise control, the new ‘Strom should be a powerful and versatile daily rider and travelling companion.

Yellow, Beaky and Knobby. Score.

Kawasaki also presented several new or revised models that are designed to appeal to fans of the brand’s history.  Heck, the Big K has even created a category for motorcycles they call ‘Retro Sport’ which more or less institutionalizes this movement toward mechanical nostalgia. For you riders that never got past the Z1, one gets the 2020 Z900RS – a beautifully styled and well executed homage to the original Z1 – metalflake RootBeer paint job, flat saddle, twin gauges, round headlight and 4 into 1 header and all – a bike that somehow manages to look right while making use of the most modern tech available. It’s an amazing design balancing act – to make a bike that has inverted stanchion forks, water cooling, fuel injection, radial tires and radial mount brakes – look as all of a piece and somehow be completely evocative of a 46 year old motorcycle.

Four Jugs and Rootbeer Paint

For you Eddie Lawson Replica people, there is the Z900RS Café – in the Kawasaki Racing Green, Blue and White colorway – that, if you ride it, will help you to believe that the 1983 Eddie Lawson Replica was a much better motorcycle than it actually was.

Eddie Lawson Replica Redux?

And for folks that believe motorcycle evolution ended about a decade or two before the Z1, Kawasaki has their W800, which is intended to evoke Kawasaki’s W1, W2 and W3 of the mid 1960s, which itself was a licensed copy of a BSA A7.  The W800 – with its parallel twin, traditional styling and upright riding position — goes head to head against retro offerings from Triumph and Royal Enfield. How you want your Classic British Twin is entirely up to you.

Not every Kawasaki model, though, is backward looking. In keeping with Kawasaki’s engineering tradition of making maximum use of any platform they develop, there is also the Z900 – which takes the same 900cc 4 cylinder powertrain and dresses it as a state of the art streetfighter. A great motor, two wheels, strong brakes, a place to sit and a thing to hold on to. What’s not to love?

I don’t remember ever seeing a Kawi Monkey-class mini or micro bike, but a quick bit of research turns up the 1971 MT-1. Like anything retro, it’s now cool again, and if it’s really small and cute, it’s even cooler.  Accordingly, Kawasaki has the Z125 Pro, which, if it got any cuter – with its 70s style paint splatter paint job and matching wheel rim trims – it would need to explode in a shower of kittens and golden retriever puppies. Every motorcyclist that got within 10 feet of it was immediately consumed with notions of running the tiny bike flat out in a full roadracing tuck and began idiot grinning uncontrollably. Folks that have ridden one confirm that riding one is more fun than fantasizing about it.

Whatever it is, it looks like a LOT of fun.

And with the time continuum button mashed in the other direction, Kawasaki offers the the Ninja H2R, a 300 horsepower, carbon fiber bodied, supercharged track-only missile that takes advantage of the most current MotoGP Aero tech to give the pilot a fair chance of staying on the ground when that blower comes on the pipe.

Do You Prefer Your Wings In Carbon Fiber?

Heading in a completely different direction was Giant – the largest manufacturer of bicycles on the planet  — that was there to showcase 5 or six different lines of e-bikes – as in electrified bicycles – that were all built around a Yamaha-developed and supplied crankset, sensor, motor and transmission unit. The Yamaha E-power unit recalls, in many ways, their motorcycle engines, only miniaturized. Full on electric motorcycles that weigh 500 pounds and have to do highway speeds have to wrestle against the laws of physics  — all that mass to accelerate and decelerate works against you. E-bikes that weight 70 or 80 pounds and only have to do 20-30 mph have much friendlier math.

Yam E-Bike Power

Discover The Ride – along with Zero Motorcycles and Yamaha E-Bikes  — was at IMS doing their New Rider Evangelism thing. DTR has put thousands of people on specially configured Zeros and Yamahas and turned them into first time Motorcyclists. Discover The Ride is the sort of thing Motorcycling needs to interest new riders, and the numbers show that it’s working.

Robert Pandya of Discover The Ride Makes His Pitch

Honda, being Honda, can somehow manage to go towards the past and the future at the same time.  The two motorcycles The Honda Men were pitching this year was the updated Africa Twin – a new bike inspired by the 1988 XRV650 Africa Twin. The new 2020 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports is the lightest and arguably best offroad offering of all of the current crop of Adventure Class motorcycles – based on a narrow and tightly packaged 1084 cc parallel twin engine. The bike has well more than enough tractable power to conquer anything on or offroad, coupled with increased fuel tank capacity, and a suspension that has been lowered so that the Adventure Sports and base model have the same ride height and ground clearance. This might sound dull to you, but when I tried to sit on last year’s Adventure Sports, which was 2 ½ inches taller than the 2020, I had a full two inches of air under both boots.  It now appears to be physically possible for me to ride one, which is good, because I anticipate having a test bike available as soon as one is on the East Coast.

2020 Africa Twin Adventure Sports

“…and I can reach the ground…”

The other, and arguably more exciting, news from Honda is their new CBR1000RR-R. Apart from the fact that the CBR now comes with more ‘R’ than anything else in motorcycling, it is clear that this motorcycle is intended to provide racetrack riders with a series production motorcycle that is closer to a MotorGP prototype than anything else they can buy. To prove their point, Honda brought along one of Mark Marquez’ older RC21V-3 MotoGP racebikes, and it was clear from detailed examination that many of the GP bike’s design features – especially in the frame and chassis, had been used to guide the construction of this series production motorcycle. Taking inspiration from a three or four year old MotorGP bike might not count as retro, but in MotoGP dog years, four years is a lifetime. The ManyR’s frame is almost identical to that of its bespoke cousin – down to every weld, every extrusion, the gusset plate at the rider’s knees, the works. After the entire engineering might of Honda helped to create the RC’s controlled flex structure, it was a wheel that didn’t require reinvention. From its motor, though its roadgear which includes state of the art Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes, to its state of the art 6 axis IMU and associated stability controls, and its GP-style aerodynamic winglets, this motorcycle is a statement of Honda’s engineering mastery, and an arms race entrant in the Superbike racing wars. Only the results on the track will tell if this is the new sporting champ.

Rs and Rs and Rs

I could really dig one of these….

One comes to the International Motorcycle Show to get a peek under the curtains and see Motorcycling’s future. This year, though, the Future looked a lot like Motorcycling’s Greatest Hits.  Enthusiasts will have to look to manufacturers of Electric Motorcycles, E-bikes and other technologies that have not yet broken cover to see what the future of single track transportation looks like. For now, it feels like we’re in a transition that makes the best of what Internal Combustion has to offer, but feels a lot like one or two corners from the end of the road.

 

Just One More Time Before You Go

Short and sweet, I guess, is the best way to go.

We are all, at one time or another, prone to these little emotional stumbles, where something newer and more exotic turns our head and captures our hearts.

One falls hard — it burns hot.

She’s all you can think about – You see her in your dreams.

And then it’s over.

We all have these moments of weakness, and then are left only with memories and regret.

 

***

 

How hard and how far I’d fallen was something I about which I could be in deepest denial about until, suddenly, it was over.

The e-mail was short and to the point. Zero needed their SR/F back. Could they come and pick it up… say, tomorrow?

The wail that sprung forth from the very depths of my soul was no doubt loud enough to hear from wherever on earth you sit reading this.

Tomorrow dawned bright. Even knowing that the truck was already headed inbound, time was all we had left, and I knew it was not to be wasted.

I turned the power up all the way, and headed for the twistiest roads we have.

One would like to say the ride was gentle, that we savored each other, that we took it slow.

But it wasn’t like that.

It was hot, hard, fast, desperate – on the edges of the tires, with the front wheel skimming on every corner exit, with each rise in the road being met with still more motor and long power wheelies.

Corners seemed to come closer and closer together – we went faster and faster – and then… we were done.

I had a sudden, inexplicable urge to smoke the thing formerly known as a cigarette. Which is weird, because I haven’t smoked a cigarette since Ronald Reagan was President.

I stood by, numbly, as Wade strapped the bike back down on the trailer. Then as his rig went around the corner, I caught one last look at the SR/F’s raised tailsection, of its large cross-section rear tire.

Then she was gone.

I think I might have had something stuck in my eye.

 

Her Best Angle

***

 

After having spent much of a month with the forbidden electric object of my affection, without so much as having started anything that burned gasoline, it was time to return to my own motorcycles, and to seek their alloy forgiveness.

The next morning I rolled the R90S from its spot at the rear of the garage out the door and into the light. The S surprised me by turning over strongly and firing on the third compression stroke. For a 44-year-old motorcycle, this bike is nothing if not a faithful and dependable mount. After a short warm-up period – “Warm-up? What’s that?” says the Zero pilot – I headed out of the neighborhood and down Horine Road towards the river.

Opening the throttle was nothing less than a shock.

The newest SpaceX rockets use a steering-capable air brake that looks like a giant perforated spatula – a big hydraulically controlled paddle that when stuck out into an airstream, slows things way, waaaaay down.

Rolling the S’s big grip wide open produced a whole bunch of noise, but the results made the bike feel like it was entirely made of giant airbrakes, combined with a drag chute or two thrown in for good measure.

Had this motorcycle always been this old, antiquey – been this goddamn SLOW?

It is going to take more than a little while to forget you, you damn Zero SR/F.

Unreal Life with Zero – 2020 Zero SR/F

I’d been waiting – well it seemed like forever – to ride this motorcycle.

The sense of dramatic tension – given the delays involved in getting one I could throw my leg over — was simply almost more than I could bear.

There had been delays in scheduling my initial interviews with the Zero and the Bosch engineering teams. Delays caused by me having to travel for business unexpectedly. Delays caused by me – juggling too much general life drama – taking my eye off the ball and writing an undisciplined and unprofessional first draft. A completely unexpected meteorite hit of a delay when the prestigious print publication that accepted the reworked article ceased publication. More delays finding another publication that was willing to take the orphaned article. And then more delays getting in queue for the limited number of Press Pool bikes located on the East Coast.

Finally, after all that, there was this cool grey-blue Zero SR/F, and a couple of days to feel the thing out running mostly in the bike’s normal ‘Street’ personality mode. When I found myself back where I’d left off with my previous Zero, I thumbed the bike’s Mode selector switch to engage ‘Sport’ mode, which turned the default color scheme of the bike’s LCD dash display to an angry orange-red. With the straight, uninterrupted subtle downhill grade of Rolling Physics Problem’s Top Secret Top Speed Testing Facility stretching out in front of me, with about 15 miles per hour showing on the display, I positioned my body as low and far forward on the motorcycle as I could, and deliberately rolled the throttle wide open.

“Unreal,” I said to myself in the silence of my helmet. ”Just fucking unreal.”

 

***

 

The Beast Arrives
The weather, hereabouts, hasn’t really been conducive to the unfettered enjoyment of naked, streetfighter style motorcycles. It’s been windy, cold, rainy – the whole gamut of conditions that cry out for motorcycles with fairings that shield the rider from Mom Nature’s Bag Of Effing Weather Surprises. So, of course, right on cue I get an e-mail from Zero’s marketing maven indicating that a bike will show up – well, tomorrow.

OK.

At the appointed time, my old buddy Wade, from Creative Film Cars – Zero’s East Coast Logistics contractor – shows up at the bottom of the driveway with his pickup truck and flatbed. Wade had been the guy that had volunteered for the Brooklyn to Jefferson Runs with my prior Zero testbike, and he must have liked the experience, because here he was again.

I helped Wade release the ratchet straps from the bike and we rolled it off the trailer and onto the street in front of my house.

At first glance, the new SR/F looked to be serious, purposeful stuff – the new bike had wider rims and sports radial tires – Pirelli’s Diablo Rosso IIIs. Braking was also beefed up – where previous Zeros had sported a single front disk and conventional 4 piston caliper, the new bike wore dual 320mm disks, clamped by track spec radial mount 4 piston calipers. Both the new higher spec motor and battery pack feature now significantly more cooling fins to keep temperatures under control under higher levels of output and load. The SR/F also has one of the cleanest tailsection designs I’ve seen, featuring a very sculptural alloy grabrail and a smooth black cover covering up everything above the tire. To accomplish this, though, the bike hangs a steel bracket off the left side of the swingarm that carries the license plate, a mini-fender, and several reflectors at the very rearmost session of the rear tire. Motorcycle styling traditionalists that I’ve shown this to find this modern styling lick somewhat confounding.

A Handsome Beast

Applying power to the system, the new full color LED dash display was immediately apparent as an obvious improvement to the bike’s ability to convey a lot of detailed information in an organized manner. I threw a leg over, settled into place and applied some gentle ‘throttle’. The bike awoke with its customary gentle whine, and carried me at just above a walking pace with precision and control. My experience with my previous Zero DSR kicked immediately back in, and I was instantly comfortable. I pulled an effortless feet-up u-turn in the cul-de-sac at the end of my street, came back up the road, turned up the driveway, and stopped in front of the open garage bay.

Color LED Dash – Fully User Customizable

Wade provided a quick primer on operation of the locks for the under ‘tank’ storage trunk, the rear saddle, and the provided charge converter for use in normal 110v household electric sockets. Unlike previous Zeros, which used a standard NEMA-15 power cord that would be instantly familiar to any computer or IT geek, the SR/F is designed to use the now-standard SAE J1772 electric vehicle charge plug, which means that the bike can now be recharged at any public electric vehicle charger. Making the bike compatible with public chargers is a significant improvement – making it far easier and far faster to top batteries off in normal use. For home use, though, Zero provides a 110v charger which mates a small transformer to a 15-foot long cable and J1772 plug.

Knowing that the load in my garage – beer fridge, and a series of trickle chargers for teardrop camping trailer, Bosch 12 V power tools, Ryobi One Plus System and some rechargeable LED worklights – wouldn’t tolerate the additional draw, I ran a 25 amp rated grounded extension over from an outdoor plug in my front porch, plugged in the transformer, and connected the J1772 plug. Just like the DSR, after a two-second delay, there was the sound of a relay closing, the dash display went through its boot up sequence, the fans on the charger units – this SR/F, being a Premium model has dual chargers – briefly test spun, and then the charging indicator began to flash and the display indicated the state of battery charge, amps of power being pulled, and the time to completion. We were ready to rock and roll.

After getting Wade rehydrated, comfort stopped and headed back in the general direction of Brooklyn, I went to check the weather radar before heading out. Jefferson seemed to be the only place in the state where it wasn’t raining.

In retrospect, that was apparently a temporarily anomalous condition.

In my ‘Kid-at-Christmas’ state of overstimulated enthusiasm — I may have been operating under a form of mild cognitive impairment – I grabbed one of my more comfortable armored leather jackets, my Shoei full-face and some elkskin gauntlets, and headed for the garage – determined to get at least a short sample of what I’d been waiting so long to experience, before the rain closed in.

I mounted up, and booted up the motorcycle. I selected the bike’s ‘Street’ mode, and rolled down the driveway.

I did some low speed trolling around my neighborhood. The riding position on the bike is moderately sporty – the reach to the top triple mounted superbike bend tubular handlebar is pretty comfortable – they’re neither too low nor too far forward – Goldilocks. The footpegs are a little higher than I’m accustomed to, but make perfect sense once the Zero is on the road and underway – they combine with a slightly elevated saddle and tailsection to give one a good comfortable body position on the bike and all the leverage one requires to manage the bike’s progress through corners.

The SR/F’s crazily precise response to inputs of the ‘e-throttle’ — the engine’s quiet whine rising and falling and road speed changing instantly in response to pilot input — and the suspension’s very tight and controlled response triggered DSR-implanted muscle memories.

It was time to head for the highway.

 

***

 

The Jefferson Pike leads west towards Brunswick, and then turns down towards the River, and towards Knoxville. Rolling down the grade toward Brookside Corner, I played with the throttle grip, getting a feel for the electric motor’s response, and for the ‘Street’ mode’s relatively low levels of regenerative braking. I rolled the bike left and right with bar and peg inputs – smiling at the chassis precise and crisp response. Clearing Brookside, the huge grade that climbs away from Catoctin Creek always tells me what kind of motor we’ve got, and with the grip rolled about halfway open, the Zero simply inhaled and hill and vaporized it – with nothing but the motor’s rising whine and the sound of the wind around my helmet to signal the bike’s ever-increasing speed.

So of course, as I crested the hill, it began to pour. A nice, no rationalizing that it’s only a sprinkle and it’ll pass, cold, soaking rain.

We shall not dwell on my self-flagellation in thoughts of the Aerostich suit that was sitting on a hangar at home in my closet. Nor shall we dwell on this motorcycle taking its place in the line of test bikes which – needing to be photographed for publication – were rendered completely road-grimed filthy in the first 5 minutes of their residence here. No we shall not.

All I was able to think was – It wasn’t that cold; I wasn’t that wet – I had a brand new Zero SR/F with Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) and if it wasn’t built for conditions like these, then no bike was. So it was Jam On Time.

 

***

 

Maryland 17 from Brunswick to Burkittsville will tell you almost everything you need to know about a fast road motorcycle. The road is a lovely combination of elevation changes, technical corner combinations, with a few long fast straights thrown in just to keep things interesting. On the first of such straight sections I opened the bike’s throttle gently and progressively to about 2/3 whip, and 40 turned into 80 faster than I can ever remember. Still feeling things out on wet pavement I endeavored to be restrained, but one could tell there was two or three times that magnitude of lunge waiting in reserve – the SR/F would have been still accelerating that hard at 100, and 120, as it was at 80. There was a lot of up there up there that I didn’t have a compelling need to explore. The route through the tiny village of Coatesville is like a scene from The Island – shaded by mature trees, lined with hand-laid stone walls, and a series of corners that demand control of entry speed, line and throttle. The SR/F made short work of them – once set on a lean, the chassis held it effortlessly, and running the combination of lefts and rights felt as fluid and as precise as it’s ever felt.

Heading back out of Burkettsville, Maryland 383 continues the dance – the elevation changes get bigger, the curves tighten up, and the straights get longer. I found myself trusting the bike’s tires and behavior on the ‘gas’ more with each passing mile – that the roads were wet was only a background consideration. The ride became all about flow, and the exits from familiar corners were punctuated by that nearly ridiculous thrust. Coming back to the garage, cold and with my canvas work pants soaked, my every muscle was singing, and my head was reeling. It was going to take some dry clothes and a little time for me to fully absorb what I’d just experienced.

 

***

 

Getting To Know You
Spending time out in the garage looking at the thing, it was clear that Zero’s styling department had hit a home run with the SR/F. The bike’s narrow waisted trellis frame echoes some obvious streetfighter role models from the European motorcycle orbit – bikes like the Ducati Monster and the KTM Super Duke. The tailsection is among the cleanest I’ve seen – of course not having to incorporate an exhaust canister or canisters makes that somewhat less challenging. The shroud formerly known as the gas tank – here concealing charge ports, storage frunk and dual battery chargers — has a high and wide-shouldered form that provides the rider both with good purchase on the motorcycle via a shaped knee grip, and, when combined with the premium model’s small fly screen, a surprising amount of weather protection. The tires and suspension elements are meaty, beaty, big and (not) bouncy – the rear curved aluminum swingarm looks like a MotoGP refugee, and the front end, with large diameter inverted telescopic forks, huge dual front brake disks and radial mount calipers, also looks all business. The combination of the trellis frame and some inspired color and air cooling fin treatments allow the functional bits like the new motor and battery case to be clearly on display, instead of camouflaged as on some previous Zeros. As the first electric motorcycle worthy of garage oogling time, give the SR/F a few extra points.

The Stopping Business

 

The Going Business

 

Clean Rear View

Looking, though, is nowhere as much fun as riding, so I’ve frankly been riding the wheels off the thing at every opportunity.

The morning after it was delivered, I had a scheduled dental cleaning. Now trips to the dentist rank pretty low on the fun continuum, but not when one does it like this.

The previous day’s rain showers had given way to a perfect day for riding – high 60s and bright sunshine. My Dentist’s office is in Germantown, Maryland, just over 20 miles from RPP HQ, so it was a perfect opportunity to try and get to know the bike a little better. There are a few ways from Jefferson to Germantown, and I mentally selected two different routes that would show off different performance profiles for the motorcycle. Being generally averse to Interstate highways, the way down featured a favorite shortcut to the Dreaded I-270 – one that cuts off the run into Frederick, and uses some backroads to pick up the highway south of Frederick in Urbana. That route is actually shorter, and even if it doesn’t save time, it’s a lot more pleasant motorcycle ride. Mountville Road strikes southeast by crossing the high ridge that separates Jefferson from the South County. There are some switchback corners and some steep grades that gave me a chance to play with how the bike responded well on the sides of its tires, and how it felt under various levels of throttle. Going down the other side of the ridge, I then got a complete primer on regenerative braking. On a sunny day, and on dry pavement, I had a whole lot less ‘somebody else’s bike’ anxiety, and everything this motorcycle was doing was making me smile.

Fingerboard Road – Maryland Route 80 – between Route 85 and I 270 – is a motorcyclist’s rollercoaster of a road. If you could ride it over again just by giving the nice man another 50 cents, you’d ride Fingerboard till you ran out of quarters. The road starts with a long straight run up a shallow ridgeline, and then goes total spaghetti until one gets to the end. There is a series of increasingly wider and wider radius bends – with apexes on the tops and bottoms of hills – that allows one to set up a rhythm, and with this motorcycle, out there alone after rush hour, I fell right in the groove.

I wish I’d had the time and the quarters handy – I’d have done it again.

The impression of this bike I was starting to get was one of total responsiveness – it was almost as the bike just disappeared and became an extension of the rider’s body, a reflection of the rider’s will. As temping and as silly and as fun as it was to just open the throttle and ride like a knob every time one had to speed up, it became quickly apparent that the SR/F was way more than that. The directness, immediacy and sheer magnitude of the bike’s power delivery made minutely nuanced riding possible – the SR/F could be made to do exactly what the rider requested almost as soon as it was requested. Whether the inputs were to the bike’s chassis or motor made no difference – think it and it’s already happened.

It required that the rider be far more focused on the operation of the controls – everything was so responsive, that this was no seat in which to be daydreaming. The engineers that built the first Honda CB750 liked to say that each 1 degree of throttle opening should produce an effect that the rider could feel, and that that then 3, or 5, or 75 degrees were perfectly predictable based on that granularity of control. This was the same – subtle throttle inputs produced results – unsubtle ones produced…. well there was just SO much more.

At the end of the Coaster Ride, I hit the traffic circle and onramp for I 270. The Diablo Rossos made big leans easy, and there is really something liberating about shedding the mental processor overhead of gear selection, RPM management and clutch operation – the Zero just lets one seek out one’s line on the road, and just roll on it. Getting on the highway provided proof of the Zero’s accelerative superiority – getting to a 75 mph cruise speed was nearly instant and effortless. On the slab the bike seems a little out of its element – the control formerly known as the throttle has a light action which can make maintaining a cruise speed occasionally challenging. Any stiffly sprung sporting motorcycle has the same challenges — certain road speeds on a concrete road with expansion joints can induce some porpoising behavior – backing off the compression damping at both ends would likely help this.

On the other hand, though, if you want to move through traffic, the Zero will move through traffic. In an urban traffic stream, one is always able to control one’s own destiny by being where they ain’t. Urbana to Germantown is only 9 miles or so, so we basically arrived just before we left.

Isn’t physics grand?

Some grimacing and scraping later, I pulled my ‘Stich back on and headed back to the parking lot. In a vignette that has continued to play out for the whole time I’ve had the motorcycle, I found another enthusiast all but crawling all over the bike trying to figure out what he was looking at – think of it as ‘sidecar syndrome on steroids’. I gave him the Zero Elevator Pitch and then was on my way.

Getting back out of Montgomery County, Maryland provides several options – Maryland 28 is essentially an extension of River Road, in that it follows the Potomac River through some fairly pricy territory with horse farms and the like up into Frederick County. Outside of rush hours the road is basically empty, and follows the topography of the land in ways that make for entertaining motorcycling. 28 is wide open, with sweeping curves, great sightlines and even a few well-placed legal two-lane passing zones to complement, well, the other passing zones. On a Zero SR/F, the whole planet might be one big passing zone – there is certainly nothing I’ve ever encountered that it couldn’t pass, and mostimes with extreme prejudice. Early on the run up 28 I came up on a pretty typical farm duallie pickup with a dual axle flatbed trailer loaded with four of the large round hay bales that we see hereabouts. Running ‘Sport’ mode, opening the throttle from about 40 yards back shifted the space time continuum — it was almost like the unit had instantaneously shifted into reverse. Normal two lane passes have some anxiety involved with the time to clear the passed vehicle. Not here – just ‘Banggone’.

28 gave me the chance to really become comfortable on the motorcycle – in sweepers the bike was dead stable – continue to feed in more motor and it held its selected line despite any amount of acceleration dialed in on exit. Tighter corners that asked for more lean felt dead stable and nailed down – many times I’d exit a corner and see a car or pickup in the chute before the next entry – dispatching them was a gestural triviality – check for clearance in the left lane, ‘gas’ it, flick and go – many times the pass seemed to be completed in less than the length of the vehicle I was passing.

On the home stretch back to the shop, it was time for something completely different. Pleasant View Road cuts off 28 and head back north towards Jefferson – the view might be pleasant but as a motorcyclist, one is best advised to not admire it. Pleasant View is tight, technical – comprised of a string of off camber, decreasing radius corners that follow a creek through the woods – make a mistake here and you’re either harvesting trees or swimming, or both. Most fast motorcycles are out of their element here – it’s too tight to uncork anything – wick things up and you’ve blown your next corner exit – but with judicious applications of the throttle, the SR/F was able to stay in the zone – its chassis able to stay on line and in control, regardless of road camber or lean angle.

I arrived back home after roughly 50 miles of spirited back roads and wide open highways – again, every muscle in my body was singing, just like it does after 25 miles or so on my bicycle. Battery state of charge was in the low 30 percent range – likely adversely impacted by my level of aggressiveness on the throttle and the fact that the route emphasized twisty backroads where there was no constant throttle – every corner was an opportunity for acceleration. It was, though, enough to give me some concern about my primary use case – which was long-distance commuting usage to my job in Baltimore. There would be only one way to find out, though.

 

***

 

Supercommuting and Day of the Living Brakes
Not everyone views motorcycles as practical, day to day transportation. Mark this down as another one of those things that identifies me as more than a tad eccentric, and not in the dictionary geometric definition sense, either. Any motorcycle that asks its owner to lay out 20 large had damn well better be capable of getting said owner to work so that said motorcycle can be paid for. With that in mind, I had to make a few changes to my commuting gear to accommodate the Streetfighter form factor.

I’d traded in a motorcycle with a Greenspring Valley Dairy milkcrate bolted on the luggage rack for a BMW /5 with hard cases in 1985 and had never again had to worry about how to get my stuff there with me – until now. Here, I’d need to take a lesson from my son and sometime riding buddy Finn, who – even given the choice – will choose a backpack over hard cases for commuting duty. His rationale was something about easier lane splitting and parking, and something else about the cases lowering his bike’s top speed that, upon reflection, I’d rather not consider too deeply. Fortunately, one of my prior employers had provided an Oakley backpack as swag, and it would work perfectly in this application. Or it would work perfectly once I’d covered their logo – there were one of several companies in my working life that had placed profits over people by including me in mass layoffs – with a Motorcycle Times Magazine embroidered patch. Thus improved, the Oakley SportPak was perfect for the task at hand.

Now it’s perfect.

The ride into Baltimore is about 63 miles – depending on some route variables on the Baltimore end – consisting of just over 55 miles of Interstate, coupled with 7 or 8 miles of either stop and go on the Baltimore Beltway and 95 into downtown, or slightly fewer miles through surface streets on the West Side of the city. Since I didn’t really know – until I’d tried – how much reserve charge I might have – if I had any – I’d need to be as conservative as possible until I had a power consumption baseline from which to work.

So, with my lunch and laptop strapped on, and the Zero’s ‘Eco’ power saving mode dialed up, I set out for Baltimore. Interstate 70 – during rush hours – sees a lot of folks who, like me, are hypercommuting – coming into the city from Frederick, Hagerstown, Martinsburg and other commuter communities that are springing up in the panhandle of West Virginia. Folks with 60-70-80 or more miles to get to work are not patient, they are not understanding, and for them, any speed short of flat out is an anathema. In that environment, the SR/F’s ‘Eco’ mode, which limits torque and acceleration so as to maximize range, and also limits top speed to 75 mph, had me feeling like a sitting duck over in the right lane of the traffic stream. But, in order to learn and be able to share the capabilities of this motorcycle, I did my best to get into a comfortable semi-tuck – I’ll cop to not being the most aerodynamic pilot ever created – and worked to maintain what – at least for me – was a low and slow cruise speed of 72 miles an hour. I spent a lot of time that morning scanning my rearview mirrors.

Upon arriving at the Beltway interchange – with a little under 50% of battery remaining — the customary signs of Beltway Backup were on full display, so I elected to use my favorite Plan B – learned during my early years of working at the Social Security datacenter in Woodlawn – cutting through the west side of the city through Leakin Park. Leakin Park is actually the largest undeveloped tract of land within the city limits of any American City – even bigger than New York’s Central Park – which gives a strange impression of a brief country ride even though one is in the middle of West Baltimore. The road through the park is twisty and hilly, and the surface is in genuinely awful shape, but at lower road speeds the agility of the SR/F’s chassis allowed me to pick the smoothest spots with ease. Coming across Gwinn’s Falls Parkway, ‘Eco’ mode’s high regenerative braking settings made it possible to effortlessly control my speed and following distance in traffic with just the throttle – the SR/F might be best inner city traffic motorcycle ever devised – without having to deal with clutch or gears, all of one’s attention can be devoted to staying aware of surrounding traffic, and when the opportunity to clear presents itself, no car can stay anywhere near you. The last two miles of this commute route pick the Jones Falls Expressway back up – the JFX is crazily curved for a major inner city highway. On the Zero the Jones Falls is just another excuse to make cars seem like traffic cones.

At the bottom of the expressway, one block of Fayette Street landed me on the ramps to the Baltimore City Hall Parking Garage. Once inside, the second level has eight Level 2 electric vehicle chargers which are free to use to paid parkers. Upon dismounting, I had 34% battery remaining – a good first run. I went to plug the Zero in, and a nice man next to me with a Prius informed me that the charger I had selected was on the fritz – “Use this one”, he said, handing me his charge plug, “my Prius doesn’t really need it”.

“Thanks, Man”, I told him, “I DEFINITELY need it – it’s a long walk home.”

Upon seating the J1772 charge plug, the bike went through its charge self-check, and ran up its amp draw and time to complete numbers. On the 110 slow charge at home, I’d normally see about 11-12 amps of power draw, and a change time estimate for this level of discharge of around 6 hours. On the high voltage public charger, I was pulling 58 amps, and a time to complete estimate of about 85 minutes.

Pulled Up and Plugged In at a Public Charger

At lunchtime, I went back to the City Hall garage to move the bike to my building’s parking garage, which I don’t have to pay for. I plugged Prius Guy’s car back in when I left.

Running home I was liberated from debilitating range anxiety – I knew I had extra capacity to spare, and wasn’t going to be walking just because I’d passed an extra car or nine – I made the run this time with 30% capacity showing.

Upon arriving home, I pulled out my Motorola Android Phone, on which I’d installed the Zero Motorcycle App. After some initial fiddelyness in getting the Bluetooth pairing to work, I was able to access the mode programming interface. I set up a custom ride mode with a bit more power and torque output than the default street mode, and set higher regenerative braking settings and a 90 mph speed cap – I’d still be relatively economical in my power consumption, but would now have the ability to defend myself in highway traffic.

Day’s 2’s commute with the ‘Greg’ mode was better – my riding was closer to my normal traffic behavior, although top speeds were reduced slightly when compared with my ICE bike. Battery Capacity was only nominally affected by the increased speed and power – which wasn’t at all what I expected. I arrived at work with 28% state of charge. The operation of my right wrist, it seemed, was still the single most important determinant of power consumption.

Day 3 – to be somewhat British about it – was when things went entirely pearshaped.

I’d checked the Google Maps traffic before mounting up. What I saw looked like the end of the traffic world.

It seemed that there had been a serious accident on I-70 in the early morning hours – a tanker truck had rear-ended a Honda Civic at about three in the morning, and both vehicles, in the resulting wreck, had crossed the median together and come to rest against the guardrail on the opposite side of the highway. Five hours later, the interstate was still closed with no ETA for restoration.

“No matter,” thunk I. “I know some backroads and can route around the closure. It’ll be fine”.

For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that everyone else has Google Maps too, and that its adaptive mapping would send everyone else the same way.

On the normally empty Frederick County secondary roads, it became quickly apparent that my confidence had been misplaced.

Even in tiny Adamstown, there was congestion in the village’s only intersection. Clearing the one stop sign onto Md. Route 80, I was greeted by a GMC Tahoe that decided to exit a daycare business without even looking to see if the real estate in question was available. There was another SUV coming westbound and me, heading eastbound. When the Tank Pilot in question realized her error, she panicked and simply stopped, blocking the entire roadway and the path of both me and the other driver. On an 850 pound touring bike, a 35 mph emergency stop can be a tad dramatic. With the SR/F’s braking power, we just stopped. No drama, no adrenaline, no nothing, other than instant cessation of motion. I could get used to this.

As I proceeded east, I encountered full-on gridlock on tiny secondary roads that are usually empty in the morning. In ‘A-Team’ speak, this was not a plan that was coming together. The next hour plus was spent at under a mile an hour, mostly with my boots on the pavement. Normally, these type of conditions would produce a bad case of ‘clutch claw hand’, but here, it wasn’t an issue. Problem was, relaxed though I might have been, we weren’t going anywhere.

After 90 minutes or so, I finally came to where I’d planned to get back on the highway – where I was greeted by the sight of some Maryland State Troopers removing the barriers to the onramps which had been closed. I looked at the time on the dash display – at had taken nearly 100 minutes to get the equivalent of about 12 highway miles – and Baltimore was still more than an hour travel time distant. My home office – with a full battery and sport mode available was about 10 minutes run – versus another hour plus and showing up for work at around lunchtime. I redflagged the ride and headed west towards home on the just-opened highway.

Traffic in the reverse direction was very light, and I was not in a mind to dawdle. I adopted my ‘Marginally Bulky Man’s Best MotoGP Pilot Impression’, got low, got (as) aerodynamically clean (as possible), and lit the Zero up. My attorneys have advised me not to provide any further detail.

I suppose a man in a more contemplative and unhurried state of mind might have been able to predict what happened next – unfortunately, I was not that guy. About three miles west of New Market – where I’d entered the highway – I rolled up on the location of the accident which had kept a major interstate highway closed in both directions for nearly seven hours. People being people, all three lanes of traffic – which had been averaging more than 80 miles an hour – all braked suddenly, looking for some signs of the earlier carnage which had been largely removed before the State Police re-opened the road. Me, who was carrying – ehem! – somewhat more than the average speed, was suddenly looking at three lanes of solid brake lights two or three vehicles deep. My choices were either extreme lane splitting or a full-on high-speed braking test.

The things I do to ensure my readers are fully informed.

Moving my body as quickly rearward on the motorcycle as I could, I supplied pretty significant front wheel braking force. I talk to myself when things go bad… as I kept about a quarter of my attention on the rearview mirrors, the self-address here was something like “PleasePleasePleaseDon’tRearEndMe…PleasePleasePleaseDon’tRearEndMe… PleasePleasePleaseDon’tRearEndMe…” Years of muscle memory prepared me for the sensation of the rear wheel lifting off the pavement and beginning that sickening wiggle waggle as the entire motorcycle pivots around the steering head. Even my 1975 R90S, which has had some upgrades to antique braking hardware like a handlebar-mounted master cylinder and braided steel lines, will lift its rear wheel under maximum braking. I was ready, but that rear wheel stayed firmly planted on the ground and the bike stayed calmly and undramatically in line. Having shed somewhere well above 60 miles an hour of velocity in as short a distance as I’ve ever experienced, the Zero’s Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control – which features a rear wheel lift avoidance function – had just put on a non-show of its own.

10 minutes later, I was back at my home-office desk, booting up a work PC, and preparing for another day of VMware designs and technical reviews.

What on many other motorcycles could have been a trip to the plaster unit, was just another day at the office.

 

***

 

Time To Jet
Zero Motorcycle’s Chief Technical Officer, Abe Askenazi, likes to describe riding the SR/F like flying an electric fighter jet. The description, based on the miles I’ve put on the bike, is pretty much spot on. Short of barrel rolls and outside loops, the level of easily controlled power and responsiveness is jet-like in every way.

Many of my motorcycle rides result from some practical need to go somewhere, and to get or do something while I’m there. Riding for the sake of the ride, for me, is a nearly priceless luxury. So when, on a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon, Sweet Doris from Baltimore suddenly asked me, “Don’t you want to go for a ride?”, apart from wondering if that was even a question, there was no hesitation when I said yes on my way to the riding gear closet.

I grabbed a light technical fleece, my Roadcrafter 3, an Astronaut model white Shoei and my favorite elkskin gauntlets. I had some roads that run the ridges in the North County that back up to Thurmont, Maryland and feed back down into Gambrill State Park that would be empty and perfect riding on a Sunday afternoon. Suitably ATGATTed, I stored the low speed charge cable in its carrying case in the frunk, booted up the Zero, and headed for the curves.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least pause briefly to observe that this motorcycle has completely beggared my normal means of moto-description. It isn’t the performance of the bike that is the problem, it’s the nomenclature. Simple things like ‘The Throttle’ – although everybody knows exactly what I mean, the simple fact is that a Zero motorcycle doesn’t have one. ‘Throttle’ is defined as “the mechanism by which fluid flow is managed by constriction or obstruction” – on an internal combustion engine motorcycle, that is manifested by a butterfly in an air intake plenum – either controlled by a cable or by an electronic stepper motor — that regulates engine speed by controlling the amount of combustible mixture that is available to the engine. The Zero has an analogous structure so that we understand what to do with it – “twist this and it goes” – but it would more accurately be described as a ‘Speed Control Potentiometer’ or a ‘Current Regulator’, both of which make one sound like a geekier version of Marvin The Martian – at least ‘Perambulating Reframulator’ has a bit more pizazz to it. Motorcyclists have been ‘gassing it’ since Daimler finally managed to get Einspur to start – that doesn’t work here either. Just as much a problem with the motorcycle’s ‘tank’. Visually, it’s clearly intended to look like a fuel tank — it even functions as one of a fuel tank’s multiple functions by giving the rider something to squeeze with the knees during cornering and something to rest on during high speed operation. But the part that functions as a tank — i.e. that component which stores the energy that makes the thing go — is actually the battery. The Zero’s ‘tank’ is just a shroud which covers the chargers and provides a storage compartment which becomes sacrificial if one purchases the upgrade range extender battery. So folks, if you think you can come up with new ways to talk about this motorcycle and riding it which depart from the nomenclature of the past and embrace the new technical truths which have indelibly changed, please let me know what they are. The part of me that is a recovering technical editor will feel a whole lot better than the writer me that is consistently using terms that everyone inherently understands but are absolutely incorrect.

We now return you to your regular programming.

My first stop along the way was the Rolling Physics Problem Top Secret Top Speed Testing Facility. I could tell you where it is, but then I would have no choice but to kill you. The RPPTSTSTF is a stretch of rural roadway that has no intersections, is dead straight, and has a very subtle downhill grade that allows a rider to clearly see the entire mile and a half length of the roadway from the start point. Every motorcyclist that I’ve ever discussed this stretch or roadway with has our conversation inevitably deteriorate into guttural utterances and maniacal laughter that has one subtly looking for the hypodermic needle and the nice sport coat with arms that tie in the back. The first time any rider sees this road, they know exactly what it’s for, and exactly what bad thing it is that they should immediately do.

With this motorcycle, there aren’t too many places where more than a second and a half of full throttle are even possible, much less recommended. Here though, it’s OK. Rolling Physics Problem, as a direct result of limited funding, doesn’t have radar guns, dynamometers, or fancy digital timing gear – all we’ve got is the author’s well-calibrated butt dyno and the One-Mississippi timing unit. They’ve gotten us this far, so I’m not going to stress about it.

So we find ourselves right back where this story began – staged, range clear, in full tuck on a slow roll, and waiting for the voice of Jean-Luc Piccard that lives in my head to say, “Engage!”

When he did, I rolled open the Perambulating Reframbulator, and hadn’t even hit my third ‘Mississippi’ when the motorcycle’s LCD display was already rolling up three digit numbers at a rate I found sufficiently alarming to quickly moderate the power output and at least begin to slow its rate of speed increase. It was hard to keep from laughing at this display of conspicuous muscularity, but knew I had to to avoid what I knew would be that laughter’s directional inputs into handling, so comically grim I remained.

Properly steeled, I turned up Holter Road towards the North County, and the back side of the Catoctin Ridge, and her twisted mountain lanes.

 

***

 

Off Harmony Road north of Myersville, one can turn up the mountain anywhere and find yourself instantly taken right out of this century. Roads like Coxey Brown or Fisher’s Hollow Roads turn to one lane goat paths that run though farmland and through forest, and that cross small creeks on single lane bridges. With ‘Greg’ mode’s power and regen both turned up, one could leap out of corners and then let the motor wind back down for corners – with the sound of the engine modulating when it switched from power to braking – from a whine under power – ‘wheeeee’ — that somehow ran backwards – ‘eeeeeeehw’ — under regen.

The SR/F is magic on these tiny roads – one can place it exactly where you want it – the suspension works, and neither gravel nor the damp moss one sees up here on the ridge can faze the bike a bit. I deliberately turn onto smaller roads whose names I don’t recognize, happy when the paths get smaller still.

It’s wonderful to ride in the woods silently like this – hearing nothing but wind around the helmet and some hiss from the tires and the bike’s belt drive. One hears birds – One hears insects. I see a lot of deer and smaller forest animals that I’d never see on my gas bike – the critters aren’t scared because I’m making no noise – they’re still here and don’t panic or run when I pass.

Eventually, I emerge from the woods in a spot I didn’t expect to recognize – having never come this way – on Gambrill Park Road – a road which follows the park’s ridgeline for a good 15 miles – mostly open and flowing, with a few tight spots and switchbacks thrown in, just to keep one on their toes. On the many rises that occur on these roads, I become quickly adept at accelerating over them and producing predictable and exhilarating power wheelies, regardless of road speed. Coming through the switchbacks off the side of the mountain, I pass a brand new Ducati booming in the other direction – making wonderful noise. Given the Zero’s silence I can even hear his dry clutch rattling as he goes by – when I look in the rearviews he’s headswiveling bigtime in order to check me out.

I do everything possible to delay heading home – taking roads that head the wrong way, which suddenly seems right. I run 40 ALT westward, then run down 17 though Middletown and Burkettsville. Nearly back home on the Pike, there’s an anonymous looking white SUV, running tourist-level road speeds well under the posted limit. The SR/F is the motorcycle that can pass anything – I’m in the groove, it’s a properly marked legal passing zone, and there are no red flags… until there are.

As I come alongside the rear quarter of the car, a six point buck explodes off the bank that rises above the road, and runs for all its worth across the front of the car I’m about to pass. Car pilot does not react – I get out of the throttle which keeps me behind the car, but have time for no more – the buck stays on his line and pace, clears us both, and disappears on the other side of the road.

A minute later I’m back at the shop, replaying the buck pass over and over in my mind while trying to rid myself of the hollow feeling in my stomach – concluding that while safety technology is good, a little luck is way better. The universe apparently still needs to have me around for something.

 

***

 

Endless Thrills
I still choose the Zero for any trip where it can possibly work – only 35 degree rainy days rule it out – not because the motorcycle – with its ‘Rain’ mode won’t handle it gracefully, but because it doesn’t have a windshield, and I choose not to suffer needlessly.

So bank runs, beer runs, trips out to the store, and the store, and the store are all sufficient excuses to go for another Zero ride. Every time the SR/F displays its ‘ready to run’ dash icon, my opinion doesn’t even enter into it – it is going to be a thrill.

Nothing, not even this, though, is completely perfect.

It was Finn that observed that the bike had no way to drop it into a gear to park it. Not all spaces that you may be forced to use are flat. Some sort of parking brake like those on Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission bikes – which also can’t be stuck in gear – is something that Zero needs to look at.

Being able to run silent is mostly cool – in the woods, in your own neighborhood in the early morning or late at night. There are times, though, when silence is less cool – I seem to have my right of way violated more often than usual in parking lots – the sound seems to be material in other people processing that me and my motorcycle are there. In tight confines pedestrians seem to be even more so afflicted – I have lost count of the times I’ve had to quietly say, “Excuse me, Sir” to get suddenly large-eyed people out of their phones long enough to notice they’d just walked in front of a motorcycle.

On a related note, the bike’s horn is Honda Cub silly on what is a very serious and rapid motorcycle. Two Words: Fiamm Trumpets.

One other thing became very obvious to me when riding in an urban environment. Setting the bike up to make use of regenerative braking is – at least to me – very desirable, as it increases range and allows one to precisely control one’s position in traffic using just the control formerly known as ‘the throttle’. Here’s the thing – with regen properly cranked, the SR/F will slow down and nearly stop without ever using the brakes. And… if you don’t use the brakes, you don’t display any brake lights.

You Don’t Display Any Brake Lights. Folks that have either been trained in or have personally worked at motorcycle road safety know that – especially in city traffic – you need to be displaying brake lights to avoid being invited to a game of involuntary bumper cars.

“Oh c’mon dude, just cover the brake pedal just like you always do.”

Point taken, but regen does really slow the bike down in a significant and transparent way such that you come to depend on it, and frankly also stop thinking about it. Regenerative Braking is called that because it is Braking.

Braking needs to display brake lights.

I’ve trolled the electric bike forums and there are all sorts of hacks being discussed on how to get regen to trigger a normal brake light switch, but in the case of the SR/F, the Bosch MSC System itself is the best source of a braking event signal. The system’s Inertial Management Unit measures, with a high degree of precision, deceleration of the motorcycle. My recommendation is for Zero to upgrade their software to give riders the ability to set a threshold of deceleration at which the brake light will light. IMU plus CANBUS should make this pretty easy to do.

I like bumper cars, but only at the State Fair.

These things though, are minor issues with a motorcycle that is otherwise a major step forward in the performance and functionality of electric motorcycles. The Zero SR/F is a dramatically better handling and higher performance motorcycle than the electrics that came before. The ability to make use of public charging infrastructure makes day to day use far easier. The direct drive drivetrain makes this the easiest to control and most agile urban assault commuter ever devised. The implementation of state of the art Motorcycle Stability Controls allow the SR/F able to make use of all of that performance at levels of safety that were formerly not possible.

All cool stuff, but nowhere near as cool as the immense rush of cornering and acceleration that you can access whenever you care to, simply by actuating the perambulating reframulator.

 

***

 

Thanks to the folks at Zero Motorcycles of Scotts Valley California. They told me this thing would make me feel like Superman. Up, up and away!

A complete Road Test of this motorcycle appears in the November 2019 issue of Motorcycle Times.

 

***

Zero SR/F Specifications

MOTOR
Type Z-Force® 75-10 enhanced thermal efficiency, passively air-cooled, interior permanent
magnet AC motor
Controller High efficiency and power dense, 900 amp, 3-phase AC controller with regenerative
deceleration
Estimated Top Speed (max) 124 mph (200 km/h)
Estimated Top Speed (sustained) 110 mph (177 km/h)
Peak Motor Torque 140 lb·ft (190 Nm)
Peak Motor Power 110 hp (82 kW)

 

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission Clutchless Direct Drive
Final Drive Poly Chain® HTD® Carbon™ belt
Wheel Sprocket -Number of teeth 90
Motor Sprocket – Number of teeth 20

 

SUSPENSION/BRAKES‘/WHEELS
Front Suspension Showa 43 mm big piston, separate function forks with adjustable spring preload,
compression, and rebound damping
Rear Suspension Showa 40 mm piston, piggy-back reservoir shock with adjustable spring preload,
compression, and rebound damping
Front Suspension Travel 4.72 in (120 mm)
Rear Suspension Travel 5.51 in (140 mm)
Front Brakes Bosch Advanced MSC, Dual J-Juan radial-mounted 4-piston calipers,
320 x 5 mm disc
Rear Brakes Bosch Advanced MSC, J-Juan single piston floating caliper,
240 x 4.5 mm disc
Front Wheel 3.50 x17
Rear Wheel 5.50 x17

 

TIRES
Zero Motorcycles Factory installed tires
Front Tire Pirelli Diablo Rosso III 120/70-17
Rear Tire Pirelli Diablo Rosso III 180/55-17

 

POWER SYSTEM
Standard SR/F
Type Z-Force® Li-Ion Intelligent Power Pack
Maximum Capacity 14.4 kWh
Nominal Capacity 12.6 kWh
Charger Type 3 kW Integrated (6 kW Integrated on Premium Model)
Input Universal 100 – 240 V AC
Estimated Power Pack Life to 80% (city) 217,000 miles (349,000 km) 217,000 miles (349,000 km)

 

CHARGING TIME
Input Voltage Charging Lvl*
110V – 120V Level 1 8.5 hours (100% charged) /8.0 hours (95% charged)
8.5 hours (100% charged) /8.0 hours (95% charged)
208V – 240V Level 2

4.5 hours (100% charged) /4.0 hours (95% charged)

2.5 hours (100% charged) /2.0 hours (95% charged) ( Premium Models)

The Scoop

140 foot-pounds on a dry lake bed could be a handful

Several months ago, I was involved in an online discussion on the subject of Zero Motorcycle’s new SR/F electric motorcycle. For reasons that I had a difficult time understanding, all of the new model coverage in the media omitted the most significant technical feature of the new motorcycle.

Being me, I said exactly that.

One individual immediately agreed with that opinion.

That most significant technical feature was Bosch’s Motorcycle Stability Control (MSC) – and the implementation of it on the Zero was the first one to come to market applying this state of the art suite of electronic rider aids to an electric motorcycle.

The guy that had agreed with me turned out to be Justin Magri – A Technical Project Manager that works for Bosch, and a guy that had worked on the MSC Integration Project with Zero.

After a few traded e-mails and a phone call or two, I knew I had a story that needed to be told.

Insanely Short MSC Cycle Times are clear to see – look at the traces in the gravel

Justin engaged and got the blessing of Bosch’s PR and Marketing Departments. I made a few calls over to Zero – who’d worked with me previously on a review of their DS/R Motorcycle.

Everybody signed up, everybody wanted their story told, and so I did what writers do, which is talk to people and try to get right to the bone of the story.

Only I didn’t.

With all of the significant distractions I had going on in my life, my first cut at the story frankly missed the mark. From this point the whole tale gets as hairy as a full throttleZero with no MSC running on fine beach sand. Shopping a reworked story around, it was accepted by a prestigious motorcycle print publication. I was ecstatic for about three seconds which promptly ended when said print publication promptly ceased publication.

Good Timing has never been my thing.

A couple of earth/sky/earth/sky/earth/sky post motorcycle crash tumbles later, the story found a home at Revzilla’s Common Tread.

Click here to read the story.

I hope you enjoy and learn as much reading it as I did writing it.

Finn and Greg Do IMS DC

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

Civilized.

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

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

Well, it’s certainly bright and shiny….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supercharged!

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

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

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

The 2019 Katana. Pretty cool. But.

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

That’s a lot of Carbon

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Young Man Has Fine Taste In Motor Cycles.

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

 

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

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

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

“Oh yeah. Heh.”

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

Essence – Royal Enfield INT 650

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pretty Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Engine Cutaway

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

The 650’s Bottom End with 270 Crank

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

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

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

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

Gabriel Rear Reservoir Shock – Gold Eye Candy

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

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

Pilot’s Eye View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

***

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

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

Sloppy

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t expected that at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Twins – Life With Royal Enfield INT 650

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

I know, you’re shocked.

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

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

A 1970 Royal Enfield Interceptor, I Believe

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, they would, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

A Pretty Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Were those things in there?

I did get a fleet insurance form.

So No. Live dangerously.

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

Hubs On Any Proper Bike Look Like This

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

“Any questions?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s ride.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

Welcome To Mountain Road

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

dsc_0018

Motorcycle Begins With Motor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dsc_0020

Classic Analog Instrumentation

dsc_0019

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

There is the small matter of The Name.

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

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

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

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

Brakes By Brembo – ByBre – and ABS by Bosch

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

Upon his return, I asked him about his ride.

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

Thing is a lot of fun, though.”

 

***

 

So there you have it.

The Thing IS a lot of fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Which Pooh Figures It Out

I have a new test bike.

Which I love.

What it is is almost immaterial.

Almost.

Pretty, isn’t she?

OK, you got me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was it?

ThinkThinkThinkThinkThink (Pooh Implied)

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

Has Somebody Been In Here Already?

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

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

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

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

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

Now I can really enjoy this motorcycle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honda 7 Speed Dual Clutch Transmission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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