Road Test: I am not a number

If only bikes were available on prescription to combat the misery of the Great British Winter

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By Bertie Simmonds on Sat, 19 Apr 2008 - 10:04

Visordown Motorcycle News


Because if they were you could forget 'take two daily internally,' to fight off the winter blues and, instead use an alternative medicine for which you take 'two-wheels externally' to any warm winter destination you can find. Me, ad-man Mark Shippey and snapper Jason Critchell, are already fed-up of the ravages of the coming winter, and so decide to head south. Our plans are soon scuppered though when Alex tells us to pack our passports away and dig out a map of Wales.

So now it's pissing down with rain, and I'm leaving the office and heading in the complete opposite of the magnetic compass direction I desire to be following. One thing we do have are bikes that should work almost as well in the rain as they should in the shine: the BMW K1200LT, Honda GL1800 GoldWing and the Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide Ultra Classic.

As I slithered home up the wet and uninviting M25 and M1 on the BMW, I was a little alarmed. The front end of just felt so vague. Hit raised white lines, overbanding or the odd rut and the thing just glides and wobbles as if you're not really in full control, or at least not until you get off the offending surface. As I got used to the physical size and weight of the K12, I started to filter through the heavy M25 traffic.

As I was now hitting raised white lines more frequently, it simply compounded my woes. Then, as I hit a cat's eye, those long, stalky swan-necked handlebars kicked in my hands. It didn't feel inherently dangerous, just un-nerving and uncomfortable.

As I arrived home in the rain and darkness, hardly lit by the small headlight. I decided I'd give the BeeEm the benefit of the doubt. After all, everything is better in the morning, right?

Day two and it was still pissing down. As I loaded my stuff up into the BMW, I thanked my lucky stars (for the first and only time) that I chose it, as I could get my whole Givi Traveller roll pack in the back and still pack an extra pair of boots in one pannier (waterproof boots are by their very nature, not) and a spare pair of waterproof trousers (ditto) and - in perhaps the greatest display of autumnal optimism ever - an open face lid. All told you've got 120 litres of lockable space. And it's easy enough to get into, too. Turn the key on each individual lock, press the lock and out pops a handle, pull the handle and the box will open. Nice.

I had to meet Jason at Corely Services on the M6 and sadly found the morning's motorway riding had brought no difference to my hastily formed opinion on the LT. Twenty minutes late (as usual) and Critch rolled up on the GoldWing, sparked up a Marlboro and nodded to the BM.

"Not so sure about those bikes. I had to ride one over the Pyrennees in sub-zero temperatures a year ago and I thought that its handling was weird." Great.

He had a smug grin on his mush, as if he'd piclocked the winner already...

Still, we had quite a few miles to go of motorway, followed by the glorious A5, so I thought I'd leave him to the Wing while I desperately waited for twisty roads to see if (perhaps) the BMW only hated wet motorways rather than just me.

Soon, the M6 and M54 are inconsequential blurs in the Beemer's excellent mirrors, and we're cutting through the worst rain Telford can throw at me, as up ahead, Shrewsbury and the A5 beckon.

"Right, you skinny little bugger," I say out loud, as I closed up on Critch and the Wing. The start of the A5 is a wide dual carriageway, and I crack open the throttle at 60mph to try and keep up with the lighter, but heavier laden Wing.

Not much happens. And then it does. A little bit. It's all a bit disappointing. The engine is a de-tuned four-cylinder from the K1200RS, which has a claimed 130bhp. I admit I never really liked the feel of the RS motor. Plenty of power, but it took an age to get there, as the motor had a real reluctance to spin up. I really expected that the 98bhp version would perhaps be more suited to big touring than the alleged sports touring RS.

Indeed, BMW states that changes to combustion, valve timing, intake manifolds and throttle butterflies etc should help provide more of that torque oomph you need when hauling a maximum all up weight of up to 600 kilos.

But sadly, the motor in the LT was every bit as boring as the RS, but with less overall power. So less, is more... more boredom, any road. It was adequate, and that's about it. So, the use of all five gears is a must, on this bike. Selection was no problem though and the clutch action was light enough. But while I was dancing on the BMW's gear lever, I was being left behind. The fat Wing and skinny Critch both bolting off into the distance.

To make matters worse, on the rare occasions that I was clawing my way a little closer to him, say as we sailed up to roundabouts on the brakes (more of which later), not only could he chuck the Wing in with a deal more aplomb than I could the BMW, but then I had to sickeningly listen to that beautiful flat-six roar as he opened her up and buggered off into the distance.

And what did I have to listen to? Sadly the four-cylinder 1200cc lump 'neath my crotch sounded like an old Cortina Estate and got the pulse racing about as much.

The only thing I could do was thank the BMW's seating position, which was comfortable (and adjustable to three positions) and the worst of the rain was kept off me. The screen's infinitely adjustable. I kind of liked the fact you can adjust the screen. Sometimes when I was trickling through traffic, I would cop the smell of diesel and could lower the screen to see where it was. Then, when I got up to speed and the rain started to become horizontal, I could raise it up again. The stereo was fairly good too, and masked the BMW's engine noise, but because of the wind noise it was a trade-off between how high the screen had to be and how loud the stereo had to be to compensate for the wind noise.

The ergonomics of the Beemer aren't so bright. All the buttons are spread almost randomly over the bars and fascia, as are the numerous displays.

The stereo mute button is so near the high-beam and screen adjustment, that it's a lottery as to which one you get, unless you want to take your eyes off the road. The on-board computer button is on the right bar, but the display is on the far left. The display for the stereo is smack bang on the tank, as are some of the buttons for it and then the circular volume control and seek button is on the left hand bar, so far past the mainbeam, mute and screen control that you have to take your hand off the bar to turn the volume up and down.

Normally, the standard BMW indicators where you have each indicator button on each handlebar and a 'press up to cancel' button on the right are merely a pain. But with all these controls to juggle, it becomes a nightmare, only elevating itself to merely a 'bad dream' with constant practice. Anyone who does loads of miles on this bike would end up with the manual dexterity of a piccolo player.

Ah.. I smell diesel ahead again, better slow down.

SHIT!!!

These linked EVO servo assisted brakes are sharp - real sharp. Even if you merely brush the rear lever with the sort of gentle touch reserved for your partner's erogenous zones, the BMW will still haul itself up in a violently short distance. Pat the rear lever and you get the same effect - just scarier. I've said it before about BMW's latest generation rear brakes. They are just way too sharp.

The front I could live with, especially as when used with the tiniest amount of rear you can come down very quickly from three figure speeds. If you use them at slow speeds in town and dab a bit too much the bike is hauled up so fast, you'd swear the road and tyres were made of Velcro. Only the excellent ABS system saved me from the odd fall on to those big plastic bumpers that the designers so cleverly scabbed on the sides of the fairing, as a last ditch vanity effort to save the rider's pride and joy.

Thankfully, me and Critch stop just outside Betws-y-coed on the A5 to see where the Harley is. Shippey decided to set off from Beckenham in Kent on the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide a good 140 miles south of our Midland meeting point.

Every so often as we stopped for Critch's obligatory fag, and we'd get a stream of text messages from Shippey, indicating his progress. 'Just stopped for a fag on the A5 near Shrewsbury,' and 'gone 10 miles the wrong way towards Bangor. Stopped for directions, but couldn't understand him at all, so sneaked a look at a map in a service station.'

We therefore deduced from the time of Shippey's texts, that he was only about an hour or so behind, so we pressed on.

We were all making for Porthmadog in North Wales for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's near Portmerion, a picturesque little village ideal for static pictures and also because it's the only place on the map we could pronounce without having to gargle with a pint of phlegm first.

We arrived at our little hotel with the weather still well and truly closed in. It looked likely that all we could do that day was wait for Shippey to turn up and then take a view of what pictures we could take.

Shippey turns up two hours late and none the worse for his 270 mile ride through the piss-pouring rain. "What a great stereo that thing has got," he says, pointing to the Harley, fag already on. "I even had to turn it down as I got to the ton as I was worried I would upset my neighbours in the other lane. Handling isn't too bad, although it does get a bit flighty when you slowly approach the ton."

Despite six hours in the saddle, he also reckoned it was comfy - and he's 6ft 6 inches tall. I immediately decided to requisition the keys as we were going to plod on optimistically through the rain and try and take a few shots of the bikes at Portmerion. Which was, if you didn't know made famous for its appearance in the cult late-60s TV series called The Prisoner.

The plot for the series is that actor Patrick McGoohan is 'Number Six' - not (as you might think) a cigarette, but in fact a political prisoner of some kind. He then spends the whole time telling people he's not a number, he's a free man and then is chased around the beach by large beach balls. We decide to take a couple of snaps outside the Portmerion Hotel, which I was forced to pop into after a call of nature means I have to urgently release my own 'Number Twos' from their imprisonment.

We're not allowed to stay at Portmerion, thanks to our cheapskate editor, so back at our 'cheaper' hotel and with the rain pouring down outside we talk about the bikes, over a few pints of Stella.

Shippey is still gibbering about the Harley, which I've been riding now, since late afternoon.

"It's great at protecting you from the elements," he said. "Look at the bodywork and you think that - in comparison to the others - there's not enough of it to actually do the job, but it's great. You've got little cubby holes for your feet which even hide my size 13 plates."

He's right, too. That afternoon for me was as pleasant and dry as it could be considering the downpour - at least as good as on the BMW. The big, wide upper fairing keeps the elements away from you, meaning that I could get away with wearing summer gloves. I did that on the BMW, also, but the heated grips on the Beemer meant that your gloves are constantly drying anyway. It's a shame that the screen isn't adjustable. It does a good job, but it's a little too shallow.

The Harley's major sleight-of-hand is that motor. Here is a piece of push-rod motive engineering that is losing out between 31 and 42 bhp on the BMW and Honda respectively, and yet it manages to feel so much better than the German machine and still be close to the Wing's on character, even if it doesn't come close on outright performance.

To be fair, I had to wring the beast's neck to keep up with the Wing and the BM that afternoon, so I soon devised a different set of tactics. Instead, the best thing to do was to refuse to go above 80 and take the tarmac on the Hog's and my own terms.

You soon realise that you've still got 100mph performance, it's just that you shrug and accept that it will take an age to get you there. Best to chill out and spend that age looking at the scenery, and letting the scenery look at you.

After all, you look good on this motorcycle. It's the purest form of the Harley American dream. Cut it in half and you could see 'Route 66' running right through the middle of it.

Cliche American bit over. More practically, we all found the ergonomics rocked. Your feet stick in those boxes - Critch's nine and a bits, through my 10's to Shippey's 13's all catered for, although to get into the box and heel and toe gearshift mechanism you have to place them in those boxes securely. Only thing I could criticise is the fact that the brakes on the rear were difficult to get to with the right boot. You have to really lift your foot up to tap the pedal. It's strong enough, though, and ultimately offered me more confidence and feeling than the BMW's tricked-up servo assisted ABS'd stuff.

The next morning dawns bright. Optimism sets in, so on with the open face lids. I'm back on the Harley to test Shippey's (the Stella Artois Artisan's) claims. Damn. The lanky git's right. It's all so useful here. I'm bounding along, turning up the sounds, scanning for new stations, swopping between modes, activating cruise control, changing gear (clunk, click every trip with Harley-Davidson, though, very 70s) and everything is falling naturally to paw and pad.

Look at some of the gauges and they look so quaint and Edwardian, as if they belong on H.G. Wells' Time Machine. Oil pressure, air temperature, battery level (needed, as if it starts heading too far downwards, you're in trouble...).

Mirrors are standard H-D, but you could do with something a bit bigger on this bike. Luggage wise isn't such a treat as the other two. You can fit two full-face lids in the roomy top box, but the panniers are a bit too narrow for really useful loads and are a tad fiddly to use.

Overall, the Harley does the Uber-tourer thing well, but in a slightly different way to the others. If the BMW represents 20th century touring and the Wing 21st century touring, then the Harley has to be from the 19th century - and to be fair it's none the worse for that fact at all.

An example.

Rather than smooth action space-age 'touch to open' cubby holes you get on the other two bikes, you have two holes above the foot wells with rudimentary 'pull to open' popper pouches in which you can stick tapes and the like into - they do leak though. Not so much 21st century effete, but rather 19th century effective.

Handling as well, is effective enough. You can enjoy yourself flicking the Hog from side to side, getting some scrapes from the adjustable footplates, although as you head towards big speeds, you don't have the safety-assured feel you get from the Honda.

And so, with a gorgeous lunch of lamb stew at the Plas Gwynant hotel tucked away, it's to the Honda.The GoldWing is the byword for long-distance comfort, but over the last few years it's lost out a bit to the BMW, because it's been allowed to fester unmodified for a dozen or so years.

Then, earlier this year it got a fresh new look, a new motor and new chassis.

I've done a few miles on Sonic's long-term Wing and found the whole experience wonderful, so how will I find it with a heavy photographic load?

If there's one (maybe two) criticisms, it would be the snatchiness of first gear. You need to get used to that first cog. On both the 2001 Wings I've ridden, I've noticed the same. Unless you are really smooth and know the ratios well, you will find yourself being very jerky with the whole 'standstill to start' thing. Jason almost had a moment as he negotiated a tricky, wet-leaves covered hairpin the day before. He got round it fine, then opened her up in first (he should have used second) and lurched forward, almost dropping the whole plot in the process. It could be an expensive lesson, but I tell you now, use second and let that massive torque curve carry you through. First is for pulling away only.

What saved Critch from an early bath was that handling. New for 2001 is a aluminium chassis which sits all that bulk low, so you feel un-intimidated by it.

You feel lower than on the stalky BMW, though not as low as the Hog. Overall, this gives you a much more confident feeling when you're handling the bike at low speeds. And when you do wind it up, you find that you can throw the big old bugger from peg to peg with a confidence previously reserved for much lighter and sportier machines.

Seriously, this thing handles. Despite an early touch down of the pegs. In fact, that's perhaps an advantage. It lets you know what's going on, slight scrape, hold the line, get round the corner and throw it into the opposite line. Wonderful.

Practicalities also abound. Luggage space - although rumoured to be less than the previous Wing - is still capacious enough. And now accessible by a car remote alarm style blipper, making all the kerfuffle we'd got used to with the other two bikes to get in and out of the panniers look a bit silly. Preload on the rear suspension and headlight adjustment - again important on these leviathans - is adjustable from the fairing side on your left and even features a memory control with two settings so you can instantly go from one up to fully laden travelling suspension settings at the touch of a button.

The centrally mounted information display means you concentrate on what's happening up front, controls are stacked on left and right bars in reach of your pinkies - save for a few radio controls (no cassette as standard... shameful!).

No matter what goodies are on the Wing, it's the motor what does it for me. That flat-six burble says '50s Chevvy, and you can't but help yourself to turn the stereo down from time to time to hear that exhaust note.

Power is there in abundance, and more importantly torque, too. After spending the day before chasing Critch, you can see why even heavily laden, he and the Wing made short work of it.

I'm really starting to enjoy this trip now. It's not just the fact that I'm on the Wing, it's just I'm amazed that the end of September can offer such a clear, warm day after the ravages of the day before.

We pull up at Llyn Dinas, a lake on the banks of the A498 and at the base of Snowdon.

God, this place is beautiful. We take some snaps and all comment on how warm it is. Oh yes, even in late Autumn, the British Isles can be a magical and humbling place to ride a motorcycle. Suddenly, we don't hate Editor Alex so much for sending us north, rather than south. We'd had a good ride.

Conclusions? We don't like the BMW.

Handling was the main reason. I really don't believe it was simply due to the tyres alone, this is the heaviest machine out of the three on test and it looks and feels as if that weight is carried very high up, which perhaps is where the problem lies. You just don't feel confident on it.

There are few areas that the BM actually claws back some points on the other two bikes. The standard heated grips are - as ever - fantastic, as was the optional inclusion on our test bike of a heated seat (a rocker switch under your left cheek alters it from 'warm', through 'off' to 'griddled-marked deep fried butt' settings.). This comes on both rider and pillion seats, as well as the backrest!

The reverse is better and quicker than the Honda, although harder to engage, and you need it more than the Wing, too. It looks perhaps the best of the three. It has sleek lines, marred only by the odd flap of clear plastic, added as if as an after thought to mar the bike's clean style.

"Best thing I can say about it," says Jason, "is that you can get an extra tape and a packet of fags in the tank cubby hole. Oh, and a credit card."

That it fails so utterly is a surprise to one such as I, who has a fondness for two wheelers that carry the blue and white propellor logo.

In the end, the Wing was the winner. Although we were all so surprised at how close the Harley pushed it. A thing looking like a classic motorcycle should not run Japan's latest and finest, so close, surely?

The fact it does is due in no small way to the dictum 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' So they haven't and God bless 'em for it.

"We know the Honda is the best performing bike here," said Shippey. "But there's just something special about the Harley. The fact that it works so well is the icing on the cake."

But, perhaps, one day, we'll simply say GoldWing instead of supertourer in the same way we say 'Sellotape' instead of stickytape and 'Tannoy' instead of public address system.Yes indeed.

For the Wing to simply become the generic term for long-distance two-wheeled comfort would be a fitting tribute to one hell of a motorcycle.

SPECS - BMW

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2001

PRICE NEW - £12,635

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1171cc

POWER - 98bhp@6750rpm

TORQUE - 85lb.ft@4750rpm

WEIGHT - 378kg

SEAT HEIGHT - n/a

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 220miles

SPECS - HARLEY-DAVIDSON

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2001

PRICE NEW - £15,495

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1449cc

POWER - 67bhp@4200rpm

TORQUE - 81lb.ft@3100rpm

WEIGHT - 357.8kg

SEAT HEIGHT - n/a

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 200miles

SPECS - HONDA

TYPE - TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2001

PRICE NEW - £17,300

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1832cc

POWER - 119bhp@5500rpm

TORQUE - 123lb.ft@4000rpm

WEIGHT - 363kg

SEAT HEIGHT - n/a

FUEL CAPACITY - N/A

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 160miles

Because if they were you could forget 'take two daily internally,' to fight off the winter blues and, instead use an alternative medicine for which you take 'two-wheels externally' to any warm winter destination you can find. Me, ad-man Mark Shippey and snapper Jason Critchell, are already fed-up of the ravages of the coming winter, and so decide to head south. Our plans are soon scuppered though when Alex tells us to pack our passports away and dig out a map of Wales.

So now it's pissing down with rain, and I'm leaving the office and heading in the complete opposite of the magnetic compass direction I desire to be following. One thing we do have are bikes that should work almost as well in the rain as they should in the shine: the BMW K1200LT, Honda GL1800 GoldWing and the Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide Ultra Classic.

As I slithered home up the wet and uninviting M25 and M1 on the BMW, I was a little alarmed. The front end of just felt so vague. Hit raised white lines, overbanding or the odd rut and the thing just glides and wobbles as if you're not really in full control, or at least not until you get off the offending surface. As I got used to the physical size and weight of the K12, I started to filter through the heavy M25 traffic.

As I was now hitting raised white lines more frequently, it simply compounded my woes. Then, as I hit a cat's eye, those long, stalky swan-necked handlebars kicked in my hands. It didn't feel inherently dangerous, just un-nerving and uncomfortable.

As I arrived home in the rain and darkness, hardly lit by the small headlight. I decided I'd give the BeeEm the benefit of the doubt. After all, everything is better in the morning, right?

Day two and it was still pissing down. As I loaded my stuff up into the BMW, I thanked my lucky stars (for the first and only time) that I chose it, as I could get my whole Givi Traveller roll pack in the back and still pack an extra pair of boots in one pannier (waterproof boots are by their very nature, not) and a spare pair of waterproof trousers (ditto) and - in perhaps the greatest display of autumnal optimism ever - an open face lid. All told you've got 120 litres of lockable space. And it's easy enough to get into, too. Turn the key on each individual lock, press the lock and out pops a handle, pull the handle and the box will open. Nice.

I had to meet Jason at Corely Services on the M6 and sadly found the morning's motorway riding had brought no difference to my hastily formed opinion on the LT. Twenty minutes late (as usual) and Critch rolled up on the GoldWing, sparked up a Marlboro and nodded to the BM.

"Not so sure about those bikes. I had to ride one over the Pyrennees in sub-zero temperatures a year ago and I thought that its handling was weird."

Great.

He had a smug grin on his mush, as if he'd piclocked the winner already...

Continue the tourer test

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