Road Test: Boring Bikes To Belgium

Workaday middleweights sprout wings to prove their worth on a potter to Brussels.

Posted: 29 April 2008
by Jon Urry

Visordown Motorcycle News

Tucked between France and Germany, Belgium is a country easily overlooked. Quite small and not in any way exciting to the likes of us, to those who live there it's a very important place.

But what is it about Belgium that turns people off? Could it be the name, which rolls off the tongue like 'Slough' or 'Grimsby'? Or could it be that most people only travel through Belgium, never stopping to savour its sights? For such a small country Belgium has churned out some of life's wonders: Belgian chocolate, Stella Artois and those icing-covered swirly buns with a cherry on top. Delving deeper we discover its residents pretty much invented putting mayonnaise on chips, and Hollywood 'hardman' Jean-Claude Van Damme was born within its boundaries. On the plus side Belgians are, traditionally, a bit handy at motocross, and Belgium boasts one of the world's finest motor racing circuits, Spa Francorchamps.

The country has a deeply tedious side, too. Belgium, and more specifically its capital city Brussels, houses the European Parliament, the machinations of which are about as exciting as a night spent at a paint drying demonstration. Then there's the city's artistic centrepiece: a sculpture of a boy pissing into a fountain. In fact, the Belgians are so proud of this tiddling toddler that pictures of him are found all over the city.

Belgium had us baffled, so we decided to explore further. While Wozza planned his trip to a rock concert in Imola on three V-twin superbikes, muggins here was despatched to Brussels with a quartet of half-way house pseudo off-road middleweights under the 'Boring bikes to Belgium' banner. Ever get the feeling you've been shafted?

Now, before we get inundated with letters of complaint from disgruntled owners - and prospective owners - of the four bikes here, let's just clarify that point. These four bikes, the likes of which are hugely popular in continental Europe, have never really taken off in the UK, and are regarded here more as day-in, day-out workhorses.

Does this make them boring? It depends where you're coming from. Less experienced riders or those looking for a practical but entertaining commuter or all-rounder will perhaps be aspiring to one of these tools as their next purchase. But to be truthful, anyone who gets their biking kicks riding sportier machinery will find these machines somewhat dull. I suppose a better word is 'competent', although explaining that to Rob was proving to be something of an effort. And anyway, 'Competent bikes to Belgium' is a crap name for a road test, and Cameroon was just too far away.

"There is absolutely no way of having fun on that bike," reckoned Rob, pulling up at the ferry port in Dover on the Transalp after the first leg of the journey. "The engine is dull, the handling dull, brakes dull, even the bloody paint is dull. I nearly fell asleep twice on the way here. Hondas always lack character, but this feels like it has been subjected to a character enema, with all life drained out through its tail pipe."

Initial impressions not good then. But when you're used to the lure of sportsbikes it's all too easy to overlook smaller capacity, less sharply-focussed bikes and write them off instantly. It's all about context, and these bikes aren't thrill seekers. Still, I know where Rob is coming from...

Before we left for Belgium I had been using the DL650 as a commuter for a week, something it proved to be quite excellent at. The seat is comfortable, tank range easily the far side of 150 miles, it has a luggage rack, a light clutch and just about every box ticked on the 'commuter' application form. That lot made it hard to fault, apart from the fact that riding it just wasn't very involving.

I couldn't come up with any specific faults, (apart from the dodgy looks), but because the bike didn't provide any thrills I had to go looking for them - and that earned me three points on my licence. I've gone three years riding sportsbikes on a daily basis without collecting a single point, but because the DL was so easy and forgiving to ride I wasn't concentrating as much as I usually do. On the way into work I sailed past a marked cop car where usually I would have spotted him and slowed down. My fault, and maybe it's a bit rich blaming the bike, but I don't think I would have been caught out on a sportsbike because with their performance comes a greater degree of speed awareness.

With all of the bikes here boasting something in the region of 600cc, each one cruised pretty happily at the 90-100mph mark all the way to Brussels. That said, the KLE rider was always at the back of the bunch. Our first fuel stop was brought on by the KLE's reasonably pathetic 95-miles-to-reserve tank range, which saw Shitehawk frantically fumbling like a 16-year-old with the first girlfriend he hasn't had yet as he tried to locate the fuel tap. Filling up with unleaded, the Hawk, usually happy to ride whatever's available, was unusually keen to swap the KLE for something, anything, else.

And after a few miles I realised why. Just pulling out of the service station saw the other three bikes disappear off into the distance in an instant - opening the throttle on the KLE doesn't actually appear to do anything. I can't really describe the engine's response as 'acceleration', instead it's more of a slow build-up of momentum. After a few miles the Kawasaki wheezed itself up to an indicated 95mph, but by that time the rest of the bikes were several miles away. And then the weave set in.

Above 90mph the KLE's front end starts to gently sway from side to side, which is fairly disconcerting to say the least, and isn't helped by the engine buzzing and vibrating like crazy as it struggles to keep the pace up. Later, after his stint on the Kawasaki, a clearly shaken Rob was mumbling about his hands feeling like the first four items on page 63 of an Ann Summers catalogue, while the KLE's wobble made him "gyrate like a demented baboon on a knackered rowing machine." I think the above says more about Rob's personal life than anything else, but lets just say that travelling at any sort of speed on the KLE, and certainly for any distance, isn't a pleasant experience.

For motorway miles what you need is either the V-Strom or the Transalp. Although Rob wasn't too enamoured with the Honda on the journey Brussels-ward, it's a great mile-muncher with decent weather protection, including off-roadish brush guards - simply fantastic for keeping rain or winter chills off your fingers at speed - and a really comfortable seat. Simply put it in top, sit back and watch the fuel gauge creep down while the miles creep up. And do watch the gauge because, strangely, the Honda doesn't have a fuel warning light, just a red 'danger' area on the gauge.

Compared to the Honda, the V-Strom suits the larger rider. Looking at the way the engine sits in the frame - like a little boy lost - and the whopping great seat, it almost appears as though Suzuki has simply bolted the smaller SV650 engine into the 1000cc

V-Strom's chassis. At least it makes for a comfortable ride; even the largest of arses would struggle to cover the rider's seat, while the boniest will find little to complain about with the sumptuous padding. The screen isn't brilliant, but it does at least offer enough protection to be of some use, unlike the Multistrada's.

While the other bikes here take their design cues from the off-road side of things, the quirky-looking Ducati is a one-off, which is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your tastes. But styling aside, not being based around a trailie gives the Multistrada a less relaxed, more upright riding position, which isn't so good on motorways. As well as a slightly firm seat the screen is a little too low to provide much protection. While you can duck below it you'll end up looking pretty silly doing so, not to mention the grief it'll give your back. But with only 160 miles or so to Brussels from Calais, a little discomfort wasn't going to be too much of a hardship.

Reaching the outskirts of Brussels the first thing that struck us was how modern the skyline is. All over the city there were new skyscrapers being built, with acres of glass-fronted buildings as far as the eye could see. In contrast to this modern welcome there's the older section of town towards the centre, with its cobbled streets and olde worlde architecture. A real city of two halves - similar, then, to the 'enlightening' Brussels nightlife.

Taking a wander around the city we found some great restaurants, traditional chocolate shops and bars that serve a beer with a head so big you feel the urge to order a Flake to stick in it. But then we stumbled into one of the most bizarre clubs/pubs I've ever been into. Walking through the door we were greeted by the sound of gangsta rap and the words 'bitch, bitch, bitch' screaming out of the sound system as 50 or so people danced around. Well I say 'danced', but obviously if you're listening to rap you don't actually dance, more bob and sway about a bit while waving your arms in the air at your 'homies' or 'bitches' or whatever. Belgium's reputation as the centre of Euro-tedium was rapidly disappearing before our eyes. Even more so when, on the way back to the hotel, we took a wrong turn and ended up in a seedy Amsterdam-esque street, complete with neon-lit ladies on display in shop windows. Is this legal in Belgium? I can't believe the EU approve of this kind of activity!

The next day, armed with bikes aimed as much at the commuter as anyone else, we explored Brussels by road. Dodging through the traffic all four started to make a lot more sense. The much-maligned KLE actually started to redeem itself as its low weight and decent steering lock made it a fairly handy traffic splitter, although the gearbox wasn't brilliant and the lack of any real front brake was a bit disconcerting. Rob likened the Honda's twin disc setup to a GP bike's when compared to the KLE's brakes, which shows how poor they really are. Despite that even Adam, who was still slightly concerned about riding the Kawasaki once more after his motorway experience, was moved to admitting it wouldn't be too bad for a new rider through town.

The trouble with the KLE is that you're always making excuses on its behalf, saying 'it isn't too bad' and the like, which is basically saying, in the nicest possible way, that it isn't very good. Sure, it doesn't make a bad urban commuter, but the V-Strom 650 and Transalp are better, if physically larger bikes, with the Suzuki edging it over the Honda thanks to a much smoother engine and a lighter clutch.

Putting them side-by-side the Suzuki beats the Honda at most things because it just feels like a newer bike. True, Honda has updated the Transalp this year with a few tweaks here and there, but underneath it's still the same old bike that has been kicking around for what seems like (because it very nearly is) an eternity. The Suzuki, however, was a completely new bike last year, and it shows in the general finish, the smoothness of the more revvy SV650-derived engine and gearbox, and touches like the digital fuel gauge, funky clocks and huge tank range. And it even comes with slightly more road-oriented tyres.

Speaking of which, it's a bit of an issue I have with trailies: why do manufacturers insist on putting such skinny tyres on them? There is no way a KLE or Transalp is ever seriously going to be taken off-road, so stop pretending. Skinny tyres simply offer no feedback and give the rider a lack of confidence in the front end - a confidence the less experienced riders likely to be attracted to these machines would do well to have. Suzuki has seen the light with the DL650, which has sort of pretend off-road tyres that are actually really good road tyres, but Ducati has gone one better with the Multistrada (which never had any off-road pretensions anyway), fitting it with 17-inch wheels and proper road tyres.

In town the baby 'Strada was every bit as good as the DL, and its punchy little air-cooled engine and ultra light clutch were perfectly suited to the urban assault. But those tyres set it aside and above the other three. When it comes to handling and hard braking, the 'proper' sized rubber on the Multistrada gives so much more confidence. True, it doesn't have the V-Strom's steering lock or quite the same level of seat comfort, but personally I would trade those every time for decent, sure-footed handling - although I would insist someone sorts out the Ducati's mirrors, which are, quite simply, a disgrace.

Bikes aside for a moment, having spent two days exploring Brussels all of our opinions on Belgium - and the Belgians themselves - were well and truly changed. Where it got its boring reputation from is a mystery, because we had a great laugh. I would thoroughly recommend stopping over in Brussels for a night or two next time you're passing through.

And the boring bikes? Well, to be fair they are still quite dull. Rob summed up our feelings: "There's no excitement to be found in these bikes. They are practical and do everything practical people want them to do, but I could never own one."

I've spoken to a few people who have these bikes as daily run-arounds, keeping their sports-bikes for weekends. Why ruin a decent sportsbike on a daily commute when there are cheaper bikes perfectly suited to the job? But upwards of five grand is a hell of a lot to spend on a second bike. How many people can afford to do that? Not many.

Kawasaki brought the KLE back from the dead this year, but I can't see why. I could never really recommend buying one; the suspension feels like it's from the Dark Ages, the motor pre-dates even that and it just feels cheap and a bit nasty. And that's without mentioning the speed weave and crap brakes. Oh, I just did. Yes, it's £1000 cheaper than the others but you're still spending four grand on what isn't a particularly good bike.

The Suzuki does absolutely everything a commuter could want and would make a brilliant daily workhorse - and it's also good fun to ride. On top of that it could even try its hand at the odd tour or two. The Transalp would also fulfil this role well but, while well put together and benefiting from Honda's build quality and reliability, it really is so devoid of personality I couldn't face owning one.

But if personality is what you're after, the Multistrada 620 could be for you. I wouldn't be upset to open the door to my garage and see the Ducati parked in there - in fact, it may even raise a smile. It doesn't quite have the wind protection of the Suzuki, its engine is slightly less powerful and its seat harder, but it has buckets of character built into it and is a genuinely fun bike to ride.

SPECS - DUCATI
TYPE - DUAL PURPOSE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £5495
ENGINE CAPACITY - 618cc
POWER - 64bhp@8700rpm
TORQUE - 40.5lb.ft@5400rpm
WEIGHT - 183kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 15L
TOP SPEED - 122mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 135MILES

SPECS - HONDA
TYPE - DUAL PURPOSE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £5249
ENGINE CAPACITY - 647cc
POWER - 52.8bhp@7000rpm
TORQUE - 36.1lb.ft@6300rpm
WEIGHT - 191kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 843mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 19L
TOP SPEED - 115.6mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 146MILES

SPECS - KAWASAKI
TYPE - DUAL PURPOSE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £3995
ENGINE CAPACITY - 498cc
POWER - 46bhp@9400rpm
TORQUE - 27.4lb.ft@7300rpm
WEIGHT - N/A
SEAT HEIGHT - 680mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 15L
TOP SPEED - 104mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 125

SPECS - SUZUKI
TYPE - DUAL PURPOSE
PRODUCTION DATE - 2005
PRICE NEW - £5149
ENGINE CAPACITY - 645cc
POWER - 72.5bhp@8900rpm
TORQUE - 47lb.ft@7300rpm
WEIGHT - 190kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm
FUEL CAPACITY - 22L
TOP SPEED - 115mph
0-60 - n/a
TANK RANGE - 221MILES


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