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First Ride: 2006 Buell Ulysses review

If you like adventure bikes and you want that air-cooled Harley character, then your choice is pretty limited. Enter the Buell Ulysses

This review is part of the Monster Trailies Lap France mega-test review. Click the link for the rivals.

My part in this little lap of France doesn't start with a bleary, early-morning Dover-Calais ferry, like most. Nope, I got the job of flying to Sardinia (where Buell chose to hold the world launch of the new Ulysses) and picking up a bike. So I kick off with an overnight ferry from Porto Torres that deposits me early doors in Genova, Italy.

By the time we all finally get together - 24 hours after we'd originally planned and 48 hours after I got off the boat in Genova - I've already come to some conclusions. Firstly, make sure at least one rider in a group of four can read a map. Tossers... Secondly, that the Ulysses is good at some things, less so at others.

Leaving the horrible hotel on the outskirts of very nice Brive, the destination we finally gather at, in morning rush hour isn't a nice experience; the Buell is tall (extreme tip toes for me, and I'm Mr Average at 5ft 10in) and has a lazy turning circle that makes it awkward to manoeuvre in tight spots. At low speed the 1203cc air-cooled fuel-injected engine feels lumpy and coarse, giving the odd hesitant cough at just the wrong moment while the clutch and gearbox are plain hard work. Not the best town bike, then.

Mind you, the thing has a character all its own, like all Buells. It just takes a bit of getting used to. In theory the Ulysses is a sportsbike with adventure sports (that's light off-road) pretensions. Its roots lie in the pared-down Lightning S, but long travel suspension, fat, chunky Dunlops and wide, braced handlebars give the Ulysses an air of utilitarian usefulness. It certainly looks like one tough Tonka-toy mutha.

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.