Scotland the Brave: Mackenzie V Four bikes V Scottish roads

Niall Mackenzie re-lives his youth and heads for Bonnie Scotland, with four very different bikes

It's been a few years now since I moved from Scotland to south of the border but, as any ex-pat Scot will tell ye, the draw back home can be strong. The wind (and, yes, rain) in your face, coupled with the smell of the heather brings it all back.

Well, almost. For me the smell of freshly fried chips and spilt Irn Bru beats it as it reminds me of my background back home in Scotland. If you were a teenage bike nut in the '70s, the chances are a chunk of your life revolved around a chippie and its car park.

Mine was called the 'Ochil View' and was a freshly built, white pebble dashed building on the edge of a new council estate - and we loved it. Sadly, it's now a grubby shadow of its former self, but happy memories still linger; memories of sausage suppers smothered in brown sauce, eaten while watching and listening to a huge variety of bikes.

On a typical evening you would savour SS50s, Fizzies, AP50s, all the air-cooled RD Yamaha range and all the GT Suzukis plus the odd Laverda, Tiger Cub and Bonneville.

A favourite run on a Sunday for the 'big yins' was the 100-mile trip from nearby Stirling to Fort William, a twisty run through the forests and alongside the lochs of Stirling on some of the best Tarmac in Scotland. So 30 years on, I thought it was time to revisit my youth (and my chip shop) on four quite different bikes to see which would work best on a variety of roads and in the fickle Scottish summer weather.



Chosen because: Wet or dry this supermoto should provide thrills on the lunar-like surface seen on some Scottish roads

The first 30 miles of the A84/85 leads past Loch Lubnaig and Loch Earn to Crianlarich and is both busy and twisty. Caution is necessary as there have been a number of accidents over the years - hence the police are never far away, especially at weekends. It's easy to get distracted by the scenery, so stopping at one of the many cafes is always the best way to enjoy the views. So what tool first?

I chose the KTM LC4 straight off for two reasons. Firstly because it was raining and I knew it would be the most fun with its upright riding position and wet tread pattern Pirelli Scorpions. The other reason being that I was the only one that could get close to starting the big 660cc single. With no electric start, it proved tricky until we could find bottom dead centre and then kick-start it (from the left hand side) with zero throttle. It saved me going to the gym that day but I'd still rather have a wee button.

Now, I'm not speaking from personal experience here, but I could compare this bike to an attractive sex crazed woman - no matter how sensible you want to be, you're continually tempted to do naughty things and be a very bad boy. In the wet, I just had to put my foot to the floor and get sideways round slower corners, then in the dry I found myself constantly doing wheelies and stoppies, which is great fun but of course will eventually wear you out and could land you in trouble.

That said, cruising along at 70 or 80 was pleasant enough apart from the slight vibes through the handlebars and pegs. The ultimate top speed would fluctuate between 95mph and 110mph, depending on how tucked in you wanted to get on long straights. I found the spread of power was very useable and accelerating past other vehicles was a doddle. Stopping was easily controlled in the wet and dry, with big contact areas from the tyres giving enormous feel. The big single front disc stayed consistent all day long, no matter how much abuse was dished out. Also, the rear brake gave great control whether braking sensibly on the road or broadsiding around car parks. I even ventured off road into the heather on a couple of occasions, which proved that, apart from being a decent road and supermoto tool, a bit of light trail riding would also be well within its capabilities.

For Scottish roads you can do worse than the KTM. It's got the suspenders to handle the roads and it feels sure-footed in the wet. Which it almost always is north of the border. Looks good, too

Yes, you've guessed it. It can come up short on the others on power. And practicality, too. Some may also mention the prospects of longevity. But TWO's had no problems with KTMs so far...



Chosen because: Triumph's twin should show us there's no need to rush

After joining the A82 at Crianlarich and with a faster, more flowing section ahead from the Green Wellie shop at Tyndrum to Glencoe, I swapped the KTM for the Triumph Thruxton.

From first seeing this beauty at the NEC I've wondered if the riding experience would match the looks. Iain MacPherson reckoned I looked like George Formby in his 1935 TT racing film No Limits, which didn't upset me too much although I would have preferred famous Scottish racer Bob McIntyre.

The strange rear-bias riding position takes a bit of adjusting to, as does the feel from the 18-inch front wheel and cross ply tyre, but after half an hour you begin to enjoy the relaxing feel of this loveable retro from Hinckley. Triumph excels at building bikes like these and so they should - after all, they did build them first time round. I think the Japanese should leave this market well alone - unless of course they want to build a new LC!

The riding position feels wrong. Not too far forward or back, just wrong. It's hard to explain, but you never feel in the right position. It also gave me leg cramps on longer stints. One good point is that the 900cc twin is surprisingly smooth, if a little lethargic all the way to the red line. Again, after half an hour you realise this bike is more to do with leisurely Sunday rides than Saturday sprints, so there's no point jumping onboard looking for an adrenalin rush. Top speed can be pushed to 120mph, but it's more likely you'll want to cruise effortlessly all day long.

I found the overall handling fine, providing I didn't expect to do anything in a hurry. The big single front disc is adequate, but not brilliant, so I always found it best to use a bit of rear brake at the same time just to be safe. Our four bikes are all completely different, but the Triumph Thruxton is the real individual here. From the colours and styling to the civilised riding experience, I liked everything about this bike and one day I'd like to own one.

But at the moment I still have too much fire in my belly, so I'm not quite ready yet.

What else but the classic looks? Plenty, in fact. The motor is pretty solid and delivers the goods. Even if 'the goods' aren't what you'd call modern oomph. Either way it's a civilised take on old-style biking

Brakes aren't brilliant, merely adequate. Riding position is odd and for some people it could be way off, so try before you buy! You have been warned

If you love classic retro Brit bikes then Triumph do them best - look no further. However, in comparison to more modern bikes, power and braking may be lacking. Looks superb, mind



Chosen because: all the fun of a supermoto but with some real world practicality (and V-twin motor) thrown in

If the Triumph Thruxton is the Labrador of the bunch, then the Aprilia Tuono must be the Rotweiller. It really should have a sign on it saying 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. This is a bike with a big presence and muscles to match so, not being the proud owner of any tattoos, I felt a bit out of place in its company.

I found this big streetfighter the most comfortable bike on the longer stretches of the trip. From Glencoe to Ballahullish then on the tight twisty road into Fort William, I enjoyed feeling like a hooligan on the big twin. Although our trip wasn't about racing, I reckon this would be the bike that would manage the whole trip in the shortest time.

It likes to be ridden hard and being an old model RSV with no clothes on, its stopping and turning talents were pretty faultless. Sitting high up behind its wide gold anodised handlebars gave great visibility, but felt more like being behind the wheel of a Scania than the bars of a motorbike.

Scarily, I also felt like I'd prefer to bulldoze other road users out of the way rather than actually come to a halt. I did like the sit-up-and-beg riding position though, as it gave me plenty of leg room, and wind blast hindering speeds was never an issue due to the abundance of horsepower.

If I were to fault anything, it would be the lack of top-end rpm and the dated looking square black clocks. From sitting up high looking over hedges on the Tuono, it was down to a more familiar level and tucked in position for me on the Ducati 749.

The motor is a peach and the most powerful in this test while the handling is superb, thanks to the high bars which seem to work well with the Aprilia's high centre of gravity

A bit parts-bin-special with the old Mille clocks not repositioned to suit the upright riding position. Comfort isn't as good as it could be over distance. Snatchy throttle low-down in the rev-range

Dead simple idea (remove Mille's bottom fairing, fit high bars) becomes a sophisticated machine. It's great for most of the Scottish roads, despite snatchy throttle and firm suspenders



Chosen because: For the price of a Japanese 600 you could own this Ducati. Is this the ultimate tool to attack smooth Scottish bends with?

I admit I've never been a fan of big, high performance race rep twins - in fact Ducati is convinced I have something against them - but this baby 999 has come close to converting me. For a start, I liked the matt black finish, which contrasted well with the standard chrome fork legs and the big white dash, plus I've always thought black is the only colour that suits the unusual look of the 21st century Ducati's front end.

I jumped on the 749 as we headed into thick black clouds on the journey home, thinking we'll have stopped for coffee by the time the heavens open (and I could jump back on the KTM). Well, the rain came just after we set off and I was shocked to find I actually had a ball riding back through Glencoe with the summer rain pissing down.

The suspension seemed to be set quite soft which complemented the Pirelli Diablos, so I just rode and rode. There was a fair bit of standing water, but the handling was sweet apart from a few front aquaplane twitches. We've experienced the odd misfire or electrical gremlin from Ducatis in previous wet tests, but this time the Ducati never missed a beat in some really extreme weather. The sun appeared around lunchtime, so I happily stayed on board for the remainder of our journey. Soft power from the free-revving engine let me open the throttle early and longer, which all adds to the feel of being the boss in the rider/bike relationship. The light handling doesn't wear you down, but I had to get used to the pin sharp brakes after swapping from the other bikes on the test. I found it easy to miss gears if I wasn't super positive while shifting, especially while accelerating hard through the box.

Like the GSX-R750, I now think the 749 is a more enjoyable and useable package than its bigger sibling. After a few hours of riding, my knees started to cramp, so I wouldn't like to do huge trips on a regular basis, but then not everyone has mangled knees like me.

The day after our test was complete, I had to choose a bike for my Knockhill Riding School. I picked the 749 and it rocked.

Softish motor (compared to its bigger brother) means you can make more use of it. Super-sharp brakes and looks that are complimented by the black bodywork complete the package

Gear lever needs a good boot to make sure it's a positive change. Not the most comfy bike out there - or in this test. Looks still causing concern among some hard-core Ducatisti

Yes, less really is more. Less motor, less (harsh) suspension with less colour for less money equals a Ducati four-valve supersport bike which is, quite simply, more super than a 999


So which one would I pick to hang out on at the chippie and play with my mates on a Sunday? Well, there hasn't been a machine with two wheels and an engine built that I couldn't have fun on, so the answer is all of them - for different reasons.

I'm not yet quite old enough to choose the Thruxton and although it's a fun to ride and I could see myself owning one in the future there is still a bit of life in this Old Trout yet.

But my age must be showing, because the Tuono is just a bit too aggressive for me. Good fun, but I'd like something a bit less full-on for a day-to-day bike.

The 749 Dark was a huge surprise: much more enjoyable than its bigger brother and the best Ducati I have ever ridden. However, a few too many accidents has limited the amount of time I want to spend cramped in a Ducati riding position.

You're pushing me for a decision aren't you? Then it will have to be the KTM, because I'll never get fed up doing wheelies and it's fun in both the wet and dry. Hope my mates at the chippy agree.