If you like adventure bikes and you want that air-cooled Harley character, then your choice is pretty limited. Enter the Buell Ulysses
Once away from the snarl of town the Ulysses gets the room to stretch its legs and is lightly transformed. The back road we find that leads us north could almost have been built for the beast, with its mixture of surfaces from awful to ace and combinations of hairpins and fast sweepers. It steers well enough for such a big ol' thing, though you pay for the plush, soak-up-anything ride from the 43mm forks with a lot of dive on the brakes and, as the steering geometry changes when you wind on the gas and the forks extend, occasionally some understeer that needs rider input (read 'muscle') to stop the Buell running wide.
I really enjoy this lofty sliver of motorcycling freedom - to be honest I think all four of us do - as finally, at last, the sun is shining, albeit limply. After all the wet péage-bashing, it feels great to get a bike on its side after being bolt upright for so long. The meat of the Ulysses' power is delivered between 3 and 6000rpm, and I find the best way to ride it hard is to pick a gear - third or fourth will do - and leave it there, rolling the torque in and out. I try to avoid downchanges on the way into corners since it seems to stop the engine dead, instead just relying on the tractor-like pull of those slugging pistons to maintain some semblance of corner speed.
Having said that, the Ulysses is not really a corner speed merchant, but does have some real potential. Swap the tyres for something a bit more road-oriented - such as Dunlop D208s - and firm up the suspension (a ring more spring at the front and as good as maximum compression/rebound damping, plus more preload in the shock, which is easily done thanks to the remote adjuster) and the bike would be tauter and give a load more feedback. That's one area where the Buell struggles; it just needs to transmit a little more information back to the rider.
As the weather closes in (not again... ) it's back on the motorway. Critchell, toasty on his hot-gripped GS, reckons if we head north and west, we'll find the sun. Good enough, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, they say, and he seems to know what he's talking about -armed as he is with a 3G phone that reads satellite forecasts, or summat.
The wide-open road is where the Buell falls short relative to its peers, which for all their off-road style embellishments are basically touring bikes. The first problem is weather protection. The Ulysses ain't got any to speak of and while that little fly screen works up to 70mph, at motorway speeds (and in France that's 80-100mph) it offers knob-all. So while the others sit in their snug (smug?) cocoons, I'm battling a constant headwind. It gives me a headache and a stiff neck. Then it starts raining, of course, and the misery is compounded.
The second problem? Fuel range. With a tank capacity of 16.5 litres (compared with everything else in the low 20s) stopping at 100 miles is a must. The most I ever see before the fuel light comes on is 120 miles, the least 105... and with a three-odd litre reserve I can't take any chances.
Take the large and well thought-out panniers and top box off and it'll improve for sure. The others, by comparison, will do at least 140-150 miles before fuel's needed. Normally this isn't a real issue but doesn't help when you're trying to cover large swathes of France in a relative hurry (as you do). Each extra stop sucks a little more time out of the day, between the fags, food, urination and faffing that happens when two or more humans ride together, so by the time we all get separated in Tours, patience is running low. Mine, mostly.
As, unfortunately, is the oil in the swingarm of the Ulysses, thanks to a leak in a union near the filter at the front of the engine. Lucky I find it when I do (as we finally set up camp among the hypodermics, condoms and lowlife detritus on the bank of a river somewhere near Tours) since another 400-mile day like the one we've just had would've run the engine dry about 100 miles short of Calais. Still, tomorrow is another day and, with dusk wallpapering the cracks of our temporary home, tents mostly up, a massive fire raging (courtesy N. Mackenzie), boxes of wine open and steaks sizzling, we've breeze to shoot. And after all day churning out the miles, we've all night to talk about it, among other things. The last thing I think about as my hammered head hits the tarpaulin is the Buell Ulysses. It's a fun bike when you get somewhere fun, it's just getting there ain't always that much fun. And the last thing I hear is Jim vomiting cheap red wine in elegant little patches around the opening of his tent. Happy days.
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