My Grudging Admission of Harley’s Marketing Brilliance

To paraphrase Wes Siler, it’s no secret that I loathe cruisers because forward controls and ape-hangers are the antithesis of control, and chrome is gaudy. This is where I would normally launch into a rant about how “Harley sucks” because they’re the easiest target. But I have to give credit where credit is due, and their marketing machine knew exactly what they were doing when they introduced the Sportster Seventy-Two.

harley-davidson-sportster-seventy-two

Everything awful about cruisers, now available direct from the factory.

I liked the Forty-Eight from a design perspective and as a rider I came this close to buying an XR1200X, but I was appalled when the Seventy-Two was released. First, because the only good things to come out of the 1970s are Jaws and Star Wars. (If you believe otherwise, I assure you it’s just nostalgia talking. There’s a reason hipsters choose this decade to honor ironically.) But also because Harley-Davidson was finally starting to make some smarter-looking bikes, and in the case of the XR1200X a bike with decent handling and ergonomics. This abomination was an homage to the ugliest possible decade and a huge step backward in handling. The slight warming of my heart to the Motor Company was instantly quenched.

But Harley-Davidson is a company that sells lifestyle and image more than motorcycles, and they understand this very well. So well, in fact, that they saw a youth market where I never would have imagined one as a rider. Harley-Davidson is calling all hipsters. I’m more than a little embarrassed I didn’t realize this until now, because it makes all the sense in the world. The only problem Harley has is that they’re too mainstream. Otherwise, their faux cultures of nonconformity and being trapped in the past (ironically or not) are a perfect fit for each other. In fact, the only way in which Harley may have misstepped is to make this ad just a little too blatant.

Now, as I’ve said before and continue to maintain, a Triumph is a better choice than a Harley in every way and this goes doubly so for hipster appeal. [For the record, I ride a BMW R1200R.] The Bonnevilles have retro appeal, are better bikes, and from a less mainstream brand. But hats off to Milwaukee for seeing the niche. They deserve to profit wildly from the foresight and execution. The only question is if hipsters will spend $11,000 on a new motorcycle when “Thrift Shop” was one of the biggest radio hits of the last year.

Three Motorcycles from Just One Marque

I’ve ruminated before on what bikes I’d have if I could only have three. I’ve written about what I’d own if I could have just one. But what if the goal was to buy three distinct motorcycles from just one manufacturer? I’ll think on this for a few days and write a more fully fleshed out essay once I’ve decided (and have more free time), but whose brand would you choose, dear reader?

If you read my blog, you know that Harley is a non-starter for me, just because there’s not enough diversity in their lineup. But who, then? Ducati? Triumph? BMW? Do I betray my love of European motorcycles and say Honda? (They’ve made a really strong showing in the past year.) If you had to be a brand loyalist, whose brand do you choose?

Pinlock

Tacky vs. Tasteful, the helmet is also more practical.

Tacky vs. Tasteful, a full-face is also more practical.

By now, readers know I’m a firm believer in always riding helmeted- mostly because arguments against helmet laws are tremendously stupid. But what does one do when the weather turns cold? As it happens, a helmet is also better for shielding a rider’s face from cold wind blast than a tacky skull face bandana! The vents and visor of my Schuberth C3 Pro seal up nicely, the inner liner unfolds to cover vent inlet ports for additional protection and warmth, and the chin curtain encloses snug but comfortable around the rider’s neck to create an isolated environment. The one downside that’s always been with cold weather riders (or full face helmets stopped at a light) is fogging visors. There have been anti-fog sprays, coatings, etc. but most accounts I’ve read say they don’t work all that well.

Until now.

pinlock-anti-fog-visor

Note the fog on the visor and clarity of the insert when it’s in focus.

Holy cow, this Pinlock insert works flawlessly. Seeing physics at work as the edges of my visor fog but the pinlock insert stays clear and provides visibility is just another reason to be grateful for science! My particular helmet has an easy and tool free removal/installation process, which made dropping in the pinlock even easier and faster than the YouTube video embedded in this post. But the most effective example I can show is this gif I stole from webBikeWorld.com. Read their review for more proof and testimonial of how well the Pinlock insert works.

Clear Pinlock insert and helmet with integrated sun visor = perfect.

Riding to and from work, I was so thrilled by how well it worked that I caught myself breathing as hard as I could in an attempt to overwhelm the insert. Despite my very best efforts to the contrary, the insert stayed clear. The worst visual artifact I’ve witnessed is a slight and only occasional prism effect at the edges of my vision – and even then it’s only caused by man-made lights when riding in the dark and could be a result of my LASIK. Applying the same care and cleanliness as when I homebrew some beer kept my optics fingerprint free, and has made me an avowed fan.

I won’t own another helmet without one.

10 psi

I'll replace this photo with one I take of my blue caps, but the dash of color really stands out and helps for finding/reminding when airing up.

A dash of color really stands out and aids in finding/reminding when airing up.

I really wish I was a sophisticated enough rider to communicate what I feel when the air pressure gets low in my motorcycle’s tires, but the best I can do is say “it feels wrong”. More specifically (but more grammatically vague), it doesn’t turn right. Of course I’m not actually limited to left hand turns, it just feels funny whenever I try to change direction. It’s like the bike leans or falls into a turn too quickly, or the front and back halves are disconnected or something. And all this phrasal dithering is about as articulate or precise as my attempts to understand the handling of my bike. It’s really quite frustrating.

“Of the many imprisonments possible in our world, one of the worst must be to be inarticulate — to be unable to tell another person what you really feel.” -Roger Ebert

I’ve used terms like “squishy”, or when my wife has ridden pillion and I haven’t adjusted the pre-load I’ll say the rear end feels “squirrelly”, but I’m really just repeating what I’ve heard or read from others. If anything, compromised suspension on the motorcycle just serves to show me how little I actually know. It’s a very humbling experience to have a decent command of words and expression, only to realize my understanding of the event is the weak point. All I really know is this: a pocket air gauge usually proves that 10 psi makes all the difference in the world.

Three Motorcycles

At one point during our courtship my wife said (and I paraphrase), “I think you need three motorcycles. One for us to ride on together, then a his and hers.” I’ll not comment on the effect this may or may not have had on my resolve to marry her since I’m pretty sure sure we were already engaged at the time, but it really got me thinking about a question I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since then. If I really was limited to just three motorcycles (ever!), with her guidance being my rough objective, what would actually make the cut? Because I love motorcycles and everybody loves “Top ## of” lists, here’s what I think I’ve finally settled on.

The Touring Bike

Photo used without permission. Click to embiggen.

Photo used w/o permission. Click to embiggen.

This one’s a no-brainer and no contest. The only two-up touring bike I’d even consider is a BMW K1600GT/L. Incredibly fast, powerful, and comfortable, the GT truly lives up to it’s Gran Turismo or “Grand Touring” nomenclature while the GTL is just slightly more luxurious with a more upright or sofa-like seating. The same options are available on both bikes- they’re really just differentiated by two inches of posture in the handlebars and footpegs, and the size/shape of the windshield. I lean toward the GT, no pun intended, because I enjoy more spirited riding and I hate looking through a windshield. I firmly believe it to be a potential hazard on a bike and would rather look over than through a windshield. Why? Bikes don’t have windshield wipers. At least I can wipe the visor of my helmet with my free hand… Just sayin’. Although now that I’m stuck living in flyover country, with no really good motorcycle roads, the extra comfort of the GTL might sway me a bit… BMW K 1600 GT (10/2010)Nah. I’ll stick with the GT because someday I’ll move back closer to one of the coasts (either coast will do) and back in proximity of curvy, fun, and interesting roads. Beside, I can always swap the pegs, bars, and topcase/backrest when I get older. The GT and GTL have won Sport Touring and Touring bike of the year, respectively, since they debuted and haven’t been dethroned yet- three years later. That’s how far they’ve surpassed the competition. The GTL is pricey, but within $500 of Harley’s “Project Rushmore” Electra Glide Ultra Classic- and the German bike is faster, smoother, lighter, and still more sophisticated despite being three years older. (Though at least Harley’s side bags open upward instead of to the side.) The GT is a few thousand cheaper. I’ll take mine in the beautiful Persimmon Red from 2011, thanks. Read further reviews of the best touring bike on the road to-date here and here.

Runners Up

R1200GS_AdventureA 2007 BMW R1200GS Adventure, or a Ural. 2007 was the last year the big GS came without traction control and electronically adjustable suspension, and while I’m fine with those things on a street bike I get (probably needlessly) nervous about them failing on an off-road bike. I love the big square aluminum cases for luggage that can double as seats at a campground, the roomy and comfortable accommodations for rider and passenger, and that year came with a beautiful white paint job. Since I don’t live in California and the rest of the United States stupidly doesn’t allow lane splitting, I’ve always kind of hoped to be confused for a motorcycle cop and have traffic scoot out of my way when I hover in their rear view mirror. ural-retro-bike_src_1The realization that I don’t actually go camping or riding off-road, despite loving Long Way Round, coupled with the speed, comfort and stereo featuring iPhone integration on the GT is why I’m sticking with a street machine. And while sidecars are very cool, the Urals just aren’t reliable enough or fast enough for me to take them seriously as a touring machine for the missus and me. They come with the most complete toolkit you can get on a motorcycle for a reason…

The “His” Bike

This one’s tough, because there are so many cool bikes to choose from. I love my 2011 BMW R1200R Classic. I loved my 2006 Ducati Multistrada 620 Dark, and I’d own a 2009 Multi 1100S in a heartbeat. I’d love an old classic BMW like an R69S or R90S or R100S. Or a Vincent Black Shadow! Maybe a K75S, to have something kind of weird and unique. Maybe a Ducati Diavel…? I love the blinkers, taillights, and how the passenger pegs fold out of sight when solo, but the gas mileage is awful. Choices, choices…

Time to break the mold a little bit here, but my choice has to be a Triumph Bonneville T100 Steve McQueen edition (first image in the mosaic above). I’m too young to care much about Steve McQueen, and would be sorely tempted to remove the sticker of his signature from the bike, but everything else about it is perfect. No chrome except for the exhaust and tasteful pea shooter mufflers, otherwise it’s brushed aluminum. Classic good looks with a standard seating position for optimal control and modern reliability. Bash plate and spoked wheels for light off-roading pretense, a solo seat for that lone awesome guy image, a luggage rack for my Brooks Brothers duffle… The T100 is silent, smooth and refined on the road, beats Harley Sportsters and Moto Guzzi V7s in every comparison, and has plenty of aftermarket parts and support to add more power. In the imaginary world where I own a BMW luxury rocket touring bike, this is the “his” bike for solo manly awesomeness I’d choose to compliment my collection.

The “Hers” Bike

Choosing this bike always seems the hardest. Part of the difficulty is knowing it’s the last on the list. After this one, in my little fantasy world, there are no others. No mas. This is the one to complete the set and end fantasizing. But the other tough part is that this bike is ostensibly for my lovely, who had a bad experience in her MSF class and isn’t terribly interested in riding her own bike- so it’s really more like a plaything for me that needs to double as her practice bike (my excuse for owning it). Maybe things will change in the future, but for now that’s the criteria being used for this selection.

honda-grom-beauty-redPreviously, the runner-up choice would have been a Honda Ruckus scooter, because it’s kinda cool looking and lack of body work to be hurt if it gets dropped. The Ruckus was never quite a real contender though, because it’s just not fast enough and drum brakes suck. There are some really cool Ruckuses (Rucki?) out there, but this isn’t the bike in my collection for a project and dumping lots of money into customisation- that would be the “his” bike if I’d done something vintage. No, there are only two realistic choices for “hers” and one of them would be the Honda Grom. Inexpensive, fuel injected, disc brakes, extremely light weight, 100+ miles per gallon… There’s nothing else new worth considering half as much for a starter/fun bike. And if this list were real life, the Grom would be the clear and only choice.

vespa-gtv-125-rodBut this is a fantasy list. This is my dream sheet. And there’s no way I want all three bikes to just be bikes without throwing a sidecar or a scooter or something offbeat into the mix. The third and final slot is, has to be, a Vespa GTV 300ie. I’ve wanted a Vespa since the GTS 250ie, and something Italian would round out my Euro-centric fantasy bike stable. Motorcycle.com called the GTV 250ie a “two wheeler fit for nobility“. I’d choose the mildly updated 300ie for it’s standard luggage racks both front and rear. I don’t care that it costs a bit more than twice the Grom’s MSRP; this is a fantasy list and the Vespa has a higher top speed that is freeway legal and a gorgeous genuine leather seat. No shifting with a twist-and-go CVT transmission, glove box, luggage hook to carry a bag (maybe groceries?) conveniently between your legs, beautiful and high-end details in the dash, handlebars… Even the reservoir caps are polished metal. Under seat storage and 2010-vespa-gtv300-i01even a compartment that holds a cover for the aforementioned leather seat to keep it pristine from the threats of sun and weather. The available paint colors have varied over the years, but there’s always been at least one favorable hue to purchase. This year the Sienna Ivory provides a nicer contrast with the leather saddle than Espresso does. Depending on the paint, it may be worth going back to previous year 250ie and buying the front luggage rack out-of-pocket. But no question about it, for the elegance, style, practicality, and variation from the others, this is the last bike in the stable.

vespa-gtv-300-04It’s tough to narrow down choices like this when there are so many good options and so many roles to fill (and so few places on the list to fill), but I’ve been mulling this over for about a year and I’m pretty set in my dream sheet. Of course, it’s also not really final, because life is fluid and I could still get an old R27 with sidecar if I really wanted (another potential “his” bike). But as a hypothetical, with the criteria given…?

So, if you had to quit daydreaming and settle in on a set of hobby items or goals for life, what’s your criteria and how do go about choosing?

 

Adventure Motorcycling

I don’t own this image, I just love it for some reason and wanted to share.

IMG_3014Also, it makes me want a BMW R27. A cross-country trip using only printed maps and staying off the Interstates, on a 250cc motorcycle? Sounds like a fun adventure right now. Of course, if I ever get an R27 I’ll probably attach a sidecar

 

A Love of Multistrada

This one’s a hidden gem, folks. I love my R1200R and there’s really not another bike I’d want to trade it for- anything else I see and lust after would be an “in addition to” bike. A big luxury tourer couldn’t replace the around-town-ness of BMW’s camhead roadster. A small scooter or pit bike is a kick in the pants, but not Interstate worthy. Bonnevilles and Sportsters don’t make as much power. The only other do-it-all bike that merits serious consideration, and that I love as dearly, is the old air-cooled Ducati Multistrada.

Ducati_Multistrada_1100_2007

Two talking points appear in Multistrada reviews so often you’d think they were mandatory: the bike’s name means “many roads” in Italian, and it had off-putting looks designed by Pierre Terblanche. Does it look vaguely like a sportbike on stilts? Yes. Is it beautiful in the Italian tradition? Gods, no. But every review also states that you forget about the looks once you’re riding- it really is that good. The translation of the name rings true because in a real-world setting (that is, off the race track), it’s hard to find a better or faster machine.

Please ignore the goatee. It was 2006. I was going through a phase.

Please ignore the goatee. It was 2006. I was going through a phase.

I owned a Multistrada 620, and it’s hard to overstate what a wonderful do-it-all motorcycle it was. Throw a Givi v46 top case on the bike and it’s pretty much ready to fulfill any in-city errand running or chores that come it’s way. The high seating perch gives you a good view in traffic. The standard foot pegs fall below the rider’s hips (not forward or rear) and handlebars rather than clip-ons give tremendous amounts of control to the pilot. The only other addition on my bike was hand guards to help shield my fingers from the cold winter air at sustained high speeds.

Granted, I was younger, always wanted more power, and the 620 engine simply isn’t an instrument of weaponized speed. It doesn’t wheelie if you sneeze, but any idiot can twist a throttle in a straight line. The real fun of riding well is how a bike handles in the twisties, and that’s when the Multi really shines. (Mouse over the images below for captions.)

OneWheelDrive.net did a crazy comparison of the Multi 620 vs. a GSX-R 1000 and while the little Desmo couldn’t keep up with the litre bike in straightaways, the article really highlighted the handling of the Italian bike and how much more usable it is in the real world. I experienced that very scenario. If you watch the random header images of this blog, sooner or later you’ll see a pic of three roadside bikes: my Multi 620, and a friend’s GSX-R 1000 (and his wife’s 600). If I blinked when the road straightened Dan was gone, but as soon as the corners came I could pass him, laughing all the way.

In the shooting world, the 1911 trigger is considered so good that it makes bad shooters look better. It’s effortless. That’s the Multistrada. The handling is so insane it makes a novice look like a pro. Top speeds aren’t as high as superbikes’, but cornering is so much better that everything else is faster and the overall ride becomes light-years more fun.

I got used to the looks. Heck, I even got to liking them! I used to imagine my Multistrada “Dark” was a two-wheeled F-117 stealth fighter. The one piece of the design that looked like an afterthought to me was the rear swingarm. To save cost on the smaller Multistrada, it got a generic swinging fork swingarm instead of the single-sided unit the more upscale Multi 1000DS and 1100 had. What I didn’t know was that the swingarms were completely interchangeable between the big and little bikes (I guess because they share the same frame). The photo in this paragraph was stolen from this blog, and he’s got perhaps the coolest Multi 620 documented on the web. I especially like the wheels he’s put on- the Multistrada never had good looking wheels until it’s 1200cc liquid-cooled update in 2010.

Now, the Multistrada 1200 won praise from all over. It was Cycle World’s 2010 “Best Open Streetbike”, and Motorcycle.com rated it the best Sport-Touring bike and runner up to Motorcycle of the Year. The Duc can do anything, is insanely versatile and regarded as one of the best bikes on the road, bar none. Except it cost $20,000 US, and that’s a lot of money. But the new liquid-cooled 1200 meant that air-cooled models were now outdated, and the old outdated models depreciated, and that means they cost less, and that means… One of the best bikes you can get today is a 2008 or 2009 Multistrada 1100S.

Any of the air-cooled Multistradas are great bikes and worth consideration. One of the traditional complaints about Ducati ownership is the high cost of maintenance, but a lot of it can be done DIY-style to reduce costs by visiting the Ducati Suite. It’s such a good site I keep it bookmarked in my web browser even though I don’t own a Duc at the moment.

An all-day comfy Italian sport-touring bike? Yes, please!

An all-day comfy Italian sport-touring bike? Yes, please. I’ll take two.

What makes the 1100S such a stand-out (when it was upgraded from the 1000 DS in 2007) isn’t the marginal bump in torque, but that Ducati ditched their signature dry clutch. The sound of the rattling dry clutch has it’s place in history, but it’s much more suited to a track bike than a civilized sport-touring machine. I hate loud pipes on Harleys and a loud clutch at a stop light is no different- they’re both just rude. A quieter machine is more peaceable for a neighborhood during quiet hours, the minivan mom at a stop light that’s already frazzled by her crying kids, and even just the rider during an extended outing. There are enough causes of fatigue and risks to hearing as a motorcyclist already. The quieter clutch is just smarter.

The Multi 1100 also got extended valve service intervals for reduced maintenance cost and better vibration isolation from the engine. I focus on 2008 or 2009 as models of choice because they had refinements in the fuel injection. And get an “S” model for the Öhlins suspension- it’s absolutely the best in the business and always cheaper to get included on the bike than to add it later.

Now, some of my love of this bike is pure sentimentality. This was my first “real” motorcycle, and for a brief and glorious moment in time it was the only motorized vehicle I used. Living in Arizona allows year round riding, and there’s something really special about the experience if you can swing it. When it rained, I got wet. Riding on the highway on a winter’s night meant pulling over and warming my fingers by the engines radiating fins. There were times that it sucked, of course. But without those moments of misery, the blissful ones wouldn’t be as sweet. The smell of fresh cut grass as I rode past a golf course. Feeling hot and cold on the back of my neck as I passed from sunlight to shadow through a mountain pass. Noticing a consistent temperature drop of a few degrees every time I crossed a certain intersection. This was the machine that taught me how visceral riding a motorcycle could be. It wasn’t about being the fastest; it was about being the most alive.

I could sing the bike’s praises all day and it wouldn’t be enough. I don’t have command enough of the English language to transport a reader to heaven through my words. But that’s what this bike does through it’s trellis frame and throbbing L-twin engine. Read more effusive praise of this overlooked treasure of a bike here, here, and here. Then go buy one before everyone else wises up and there are no more for sale.