2012 G650GS

I enjoyed taking a spin on a 2012 BMW G650GS, essentially the latest and final version of the F650 line that started back in the early nineties. My own bike is a 1997 F650.

The engine is pretty much the same with the notable exception of fuel injection. I looked for the enrichment lever to start the bike and didn’t find one. Give it a little gas, press the start button and it fires right up!

It has the same characteristic big-single vibration in the 4000-4300 rpm range although a bit more subdued. Nothing in the bars, a little in the pegs, nothing in the seat. I think it has slightly more power in the 3000-5000 rpm range. I rarely use anything higher than that.

The sound is different with more of a growl. The exhaust pipe feeds into what appears to be dual mufflers, but they are connected in series and the exhaust exits from the one on the right.

The geometry and dimensions of the G are identical to the old F, but it felt a bit more nimble, maybe because the fuel tank is under the seat. Or maybe the rear tire had less of a worn flat center section than my Metzler Tourance tires with almost 8000 miles on them.

The suspension is identical as far as I can tell and, by the way, having gotten used to 6.5 inches of travel front and rear, I don’t think I would be happy with the couple inches you typically get on something like a Sportster.

The gnarly headlight works for me and I like the idea of running tubeless tires on the cast rims. It was a cool day and I enjoyed the luxury of heated grips.

Overall, the G has that contemporary BMW feel of substance. It’s a great bike and could last a lifetime with the remarkable support BMW has for older bikes. But this one is essentially brand new with less than 6000 miles on it.

The G650GS got me to the local SlashBurger restaurant very nicely, but I felt like riding it further.  Say, to Deadhorse, Alaska.

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A borrowed 2012 BMW G650GS and Bell helmet and my new Sedici jacket

 

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Running Lean: Part One

A motorcycle can be a pretty minimalist approach to transportation and I like that. Buy a good used 50 mpg bike for relatively little money, maintain it yourself, register and insure it for $150. Travel light.

Not really the North American way these days, but there was a time when that general approach to living was mostly what I knew.

In 1949 I was 5 years old and we lived just behind Elliott’s coal yard in a small cottage on a dirt road that led to the town beach on Pentucket Pond. My mother loved the beach.

But for my younger brother and I, a short walk through the back garden and into the the woods brought us to Mr. Bateman’s place, a 10′ x 14′ tar-paper shack. We called him Charlie. He was an old, slow-moving, WWI veteran who kept to himself, took care of himself and said little.

He had no car, no phone, no power, and no plumbing. Everything was dark. Kerosene lighting, coal stove, dark boards, black tar-paper walls and roof, old army blankets, and Charlie himself all in black with one of those heavy fabric vests that old men wore. One small window above a tiny makeshift table attached to the wall.

I was a bit afraid, not understanding Charlie and how he came to be there and what it meant, but there he was and there I was. My brother loved him easily and spent a lot of time shooting Charlie’s air gun, drawing cartoons at his table, and just hanging out.

The absolute best adventure was going hunting. Squirrel hunting. We’d hike down the abandoned railroad bed to a place in the woods Charlie liked. He had a shotgun and a big canvas bag with crossed rifles on it. The squirrels would go in the bigger part of the bag in the back. Our sandwiches and the shotgun shells would go in the smaller outer part. There were rules and only one of us could go with him at a time.

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A bag like Charlie’s, but his was darker.

One morning my mother found Charlie slumped down on the back stairs, unconscious. He had tried to come up to the house for help. That had never happened before.

It was my first funeral. I was surprised how good he looked in the casket, considering he was dead. At the grave site an honor guard of veterans fired their rifles in the air in a three volley salute. It was so loud! Again, and again, and I realized Charlie must have been young once and there was a whole world of stuff I didn’t know about him, and now shots were being fired out of respect for him and I could hear a distant bugle, beautiful and clear.

He’s one of the very few people I remember from way back then, before I went off to first grade.

In the years after Charlie died, the shack came down and the Elliotts built a large new home overlooking the pond on the wooded knoll behind the cabin site.

Down the Road

The old, hardwired part of my brain arrived genetically, a product of millions of years of evolution. It existed before agriculture and was used hunting and gathering. It knows how to carry all my possessions with me, to live light and free. It’s still there, operating in the background. There hasn’t been enough time to change it much.

That’s why a motorcycle feels natural. A minimal machine, carrying my gear down the road to the next good spot.

I can do civilization pretty well, but part of me objects to it and gets angry.

That’s why a regular dose of “the bike” is necessary. Even a photo does wonders.

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Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels.

 

 

 

Street 750

The idea of a motorcycle can be just what you want it to be. You can even attach a sense of well-being to it. “I can get on my bike and ride and be okay. Life is good.”  Why undercut that idea with negatives?

On the other hand, the real bike you own doesn’t hide negatives, it presents them to you in highlighted fashion. If it doesn’t start, you are stranded. And lucky to be just stranded. The top-heavy beast didn’t fall over and break your leg as well. (The kick-stand has to be up to start it.) Not to mention dangerous non-cancelling directionals, messy chain lube, too heavy in the driveway or too light on the highway, decaying rubber parts, leaks, etc.

So even though I own a great bike and have no intention of replacing it, it’s still enjoyable to conjure up the carefree, perfect-fit experience of an optimal motorcycle.

That’s how the Harley Davidson Street 750 came to my attention. Not when it first came out and I dismissed it, but now after riding the F650 for over 11,000 miles and also having seen some slightly custom Street versions like the one below:

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Harley Davidson Street 750

Compared to the F650, I like the lower center of gravity, lower seat height, belt drive, cast wheels, tubeless tires, low horizontal tank, good looking quiet 2-into-1 exhaust, simpler rear suspension, the advantages of a newer bike made in the USA and a nearby dealer. But what really makes this bike appealing is the engine.

Like a lot of imported bikes, the F650 doesn’t begin to develop any torque until 3000 RPM, so I have to rev it and slip the clutch to get it going. Typical. But the Street’s fuel injected V-twin is already producing torque at 2000 RPM. I like that. Low-down torque is in fact a hallmark of the Harley Davidson brand.

I would be able to loaf along on the Street at lower RPMs in situations that don’t require a lot of power, situations that would nonetheless have the F650 staggering a bit, requiring a downshift into a buzzier gear.

And I’m thinking the new counter-balanced V-twin is smoother than my single, even though the F650 is arguably the smoothest big single out there.

With greater engine displacement, the Street has more roll-on power at highway speeds. Where the F650 powerband leaves off, the Street keeps on going into higher RPMs. You have the horses to go, and that little bit of extra weight, longer and lower, makes you more planted on the pavement.

But a credible fantasy should have some reality in it. From a big Harley point of view, the Street is merely an introduction into the proper range of HD motorcycles. It’s not even as manly as the lowly Iron 883. I don’t care, but it affects resale. And I would prefer a slightly taller seat and the pegs a little more under me. I have yet to see a suitable luggage setup on the Street.

Even though the Street 750 is about half the cost of a “real” Harley Davidson, it’s still three times what I paid for the ’97 F650 about three years ago.  Also, I can maintain the BMW myself.

Remarkably then, all reality considered, especially money, the bike I really want is the bike I already have.

Still, using that old mental magic, I can skip over cost, make some superficial modifications, and wind up with a rather optimal incarnation of the approachable middleweight motorcycle.

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The fantasy is working!

 

 

 

 

 

Suzuki VanVan 200

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There’s a memorable scene in Out of Africa in which a band of Masai warriors comes trotting over the horizon into view carrying their weapons and we are given to understand that they can keep up their pursuit as long as required, day after day. Well, there is something immensely compelling about a performance that is clearly beyond normal human capabilities. I imagine our brains have been excited by this type of thing for countless millennia.

So compared to walking as our only means of getting around, a small motorcycle can almost be a transcendent thing. You can own it, maintain it, ride it easily and increase your range dramatically. Move around at 10-20 times the speed of a brisk walk. All the while carrying stuff, even another person.

When you get on your bike, your feet are flat on the ground and your eye can move from that ground all the way to the horizon, which is now only minutes away. Smell the grass and feel the air as you travel, listen to the engine working, watch the landscape and keep your balance, glance down at your feet gliding over the surface.

You aren’t disconnected from your natural habitat and your brain is comfortable with that. You are paying attention, applying yourself physically and mentally, and you have no time to think about other things. You have returned to your native self and you are okay.

On your minimalist motorcycle.

This primal machine of yours can’t have a lot of chrome or a lot of plastic, can’t be slick with a futuristic skin, can’t be too heavy to lift off the ground by yourself, can’t be a high speed machine, can’t sound like a chain saw and can’t cost too much.

It has to look good, feel good, sound good, work well, and be reliable and easy to maintain and repair.

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2017 Suzuki VanVan 200

 

The Suzuki VanVan 200 looks like a bike worth considering as a simple, lightweight, dual sport motorcycle. 199cc air/oil cooled, fuel injected single, 30.5 inch seat height, 282 lb. curb weight, 54.5 inch wheelbase, 1.7 gallon tank, 16 hp @ 8000 rpm, $4599 MSRP. Comfy seat and cushy tires.

The word VanVan in Japanese means something like “keeps going on”.

Forward, of course.

After all, that’s the whole idea.

 

Boanerges

T. E. Lawrence survived the dangers of WWI Arabia only to die later in a motorcycle crash back in Dorset, England. He was safe at home in a civilized world.

So why did he then go considerably out of his way to ride a series of seven high performance Brough Superior motorcycles, beginning in 1922 and ending with the SS100 in 1935?

He called them Boanerges, by the way, meaning sons of thunder.

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Lawrence was disillusioned with post war military life but the civilian experience was not for him either. On a fast motorcycle he could leave it all behind.

“I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man’s very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.”

“The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich.”

“The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside.”

from The Road, by T. E. Lawrence

 

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George Brough and T. E. Lawrence

 

Lawrence once matched his Brough motorcycle against a WWI Bristol Fighter flying low overhead. The pilot pointed at the road to Lincoln and the race was on. Lawrence fell behind when he nearly crashed on a rough stretch of road but he recovered the lost ground and the race ended in a draw just as they were approaching the outskirts of Lincoln.

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Bristol Fighter

 

At $50,000 in today’s money, the Brough SS100 motorcycle was special. It had a super-tuned 998cc V-Twin which smoothed out nicely once you got rolling in high gear. A very fast bike for the early 1930’s, it encouraged ever more throttle. Each one was tested at 100 mph before it left the factory. But it was “skittish” and had poor brakes.

Lawrence was apparently a speed addict, so it was natural that he would love this bike, and visa versa.  He said, “Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.”

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Lawrence’s last great motorcycle up close, when it was displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London. Privately owned, it is estimated to be worth almost $2,000,000.

 

 

The Himalayan

On the day we bought the 1997 BMW F650 two years ago, my wife and I had looked at two bikes.  The second was the F650. The first was a fairly new Royal Enfield Chrome Classic 500. The RE was less motorcycle, more expensive, and had some surface rust on the fasteners from being stored under a tarp in a damp place. Still, I was drawn to it.

I can’t help myself.  There’s a place in my brain that is sort of owned by Royal Enfield motorcycles, probably in the same neighborhood as apple pie and Walter Cronkite.

So I was intrigued to learn that RE has a new bike just now appearing on the scene in India. It’s called the Himalayan, a reference to the expeditions RE riders take up into the Himalayas, and to the fact that the bike has many of the enhancements often found on those expedition-modified machines. And some new features as well.

A Royal Enfield with a counterbalanced engine? With a rear mono-shock suspension? Overhead cam? Take a look.

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Royal Enfield Himalayan

The bike weighs about 400 lbs with 4 gallons of fuel, giving it a range that approaches 300 miles. 21 inch front wheel with 8 inches of fork travel, 17 rear with over 7 inches of travel for the mono-shock suspension, and disc brakes front and rear. Plenty of ground clearance. Engine is a counterbalanced, air/oil cooled, 411 cc, two-valve, carburetor single. The smoothest RE engine ever built. And yet it still has that signature long stroke for good low-rpm torque.

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The Himalayan is different, simple, visceral, bordering on crude. I like it.

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Hopefully, a version of this bike will show up in the USA. Reports indicate 55 mph to be an ideal cruising speed, so you could ride it all day long on the secondary roads of New England, for example. It’s not going to be too happy on the interstate.

Nonetheless, with attachments for various bits of luggage, good range, comfortable seat, smooth engine and good fuel economy, it’s a legitimate medium-speed adventure touring machine. Not to mention just hauling stuff locally.

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In the USA, we bought about 2.5 million new pickup trucks in 2015 alone. Mostly, they just haul the occasional tube of caulking from Lowes. Even a Himalayan is overkill for that.

The bike is more off-road than street, which aligns it with the $6500 DR650S here. The DR is lighter, faster, more powerful, and proven. You can get a new leftover model for $5500. But it doesn’t have the character and “approachability” of the Himalayan.

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DR650S

 

With the same single-cylinder engine displacement, we have the streetier $5000 KTM Duke 390, which is smaller, lighter, liquid-cooled, fuel injected, faster and more powerful. It has the upright riding position of a dual sport, but also the 17-inch wheels and shorter wheelbase of a sport bike. A thoroughly modern design. Not as good a comparison as the DR, but it shows what you can buy for $5K.

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KTM Duke 390

At $4300 -$4500, the Himalayan would fit nicely into the market here, and not in a small way. At a higher price, you move into the space occupied by the classic RE bikes. Not competitive technically, but oozing character. If I bought a Himalayan today, I can imagine still owning it in 10 years. I can’t say the same for the other two.

In the USA, you can buy a new fuel injected RE Bullet 500 for $5K, and it’s possible the Himalayan could work in that price range also if it had good build quality, fuel injection, and maybe slightly more power.

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A few days from now, I’ll be riding 250 curvy blacktop miles up into the North Maine Woods, followed by another 20 miles of dirt into the “back of beyond”, hoping the log cabin is still there.

Which is probably why that part of my brain is chanting, “Himalayan. Himalayan. Himalayan.”