I just bought myself a new motorbike.
The thing that struck me in the process of buying this new bike is what a strange sort of decision it is to pick a motorcycle. To me, the whole point of riding is that it's a full sensory experience. You're not sitting in a cage with a wheel in front of you watching the world go by on television, you're exposed to the world and tangled up with this powerful machine, so you need to find a machine with which you feel a personal affinitiy.
A bicycle has some of that physical immediacy: it's a lever that connects your body to movement through space. It's not as fast as a motorcycle, but the relationship between the movements your body makes and the movements of the fusion-of-body-and-machine is even more intimate. There are variables in choosing a bicycle, like what kind of gearing you want, but mainly you just ask yourself how you want to use the bike and find one that's as sturdy as you need and as light as you can afford. On a motorcycle, there's the way the suspension works and the way the weight is distributed and the engine's power curve and the gear ratios and so on. Every motorcycle feels different.
Sure, a car or a sailboat or a forklift have a lot of variables in how they feel, but the way they feel isn't as immediate and intense. When you drive a car, you don't shift your weight to do it. When you sail a boat, you don't have hurricane winds in your face. When you turn a forklift, it doesn't put whizzing asphalt within arm's reach. How a motorcycle feels matters a lot. How a motorcycle feels is the point.
So it's quite a decision.
My old bike, a red ’92 Honda Nighthawk 750 named Katherine Hepburn, has been sick for some time. She has 60,000 miles on her — a lot for a motorbike. Her rings have been going, so her power and fuel efficiency are fading. In recent months, she's started running hotter, burning a bit of oil, and stalling when she's cold.
I've been riding Kate for six years, and like the feel of her very much. I decided to bite the bullet and spend the money to rebuild her engine. But my mechanic, a deeply honorable man at Subterranean Cycles, told me, “I cannot in good conscience take your money. Knowing what that will cost, you should just go get a new bike.”
Behold the benefits of bringing a six-pack of Anchor Steam every time you pick up your bike.
Sad for Kate, sad for me. I really love Kate: she's served me well and taken me a lot of places. But also happy for me. I get to buy a new bike! Which one? Which one?
The fools at Honda discontinued the Nighthawk this year, so I can't just replace Kate with a shiny new version of herself, which I might have done.
A few considerations dramatically narrow the field. I favor an upright riding position, and these days, the market is dominated by zip-zip sportbikes which put the rider in a painful crouch and whoa-dude cruisers which lean you back too far. Plus, I have a philosophy that God intended motorcycles to have an air-cooled engines. Most bikes nowadays are water-cooled, with big radiators on the front: decadence and unnecessary complication, I say. I want shaft drive, as the chain has failed on me twice riding Kate and I never want to experience that particular adventure again. So not many options.
My presumptive choice was the BMW R1150R: simple and rock-solid, but a step up from the simple and rock-solid Nighthawk. Heated handgrips, anti-lock brakes, gratuitiously well-engineered suspension, and little touches like a clock on the dashboard.
I rented one last year, when Kate first took ill, and in an empty parking lot I got a taste of that suspension and braking system. I braked as hard as I dared and the BMW didn't even break a sweat: the brakes were smooth and the crazy German suspension meant the bike didn't rock on her springs a bit. I braked a little harder than I dared, and she still had plenty more. It was so good it was a little weird.
On the freeway, she hummed along at a cool 70 so smoothly that I dreaded to contemplate what her top end would feel like. On city streets, she gave me all the accelaration I wanted. My riding is spirited, but not all that fast by biker standards. So though the R is not a sportbike, she's significantly more than I am used to with Kate, and all the power I would realistically need. On city streets, she was a touch heavier than I was used to, but nimble enough, and I remember growing into a heavier bike when I first went from little Lazarus to Kate.
So I liked the R, and BMWs have one other special thing going for them: the odometer. An old car's odometer often rolls over to 00,000.0 at a hundred thousand miles, but any new car you buy today rolls over at a million. Motorcycles are like old cars, with 5.1 digit odometers — except for BMWs, which roll over at a million. Reliability. When you see a picture of some mud-spattered lunatic on a 4,000 mile ride through Africa, the lunatic tends to be sitting on a BMW.
On the other hand, I'm no longer so dependant on my bike for daily transportation, so I don't have to be quite so obsessive on this point. More poetic options are tempting. As with so many things, brains are the most important thing, but that doesn't mean I'm blind to beauty.
As I alluded to earlier, I've been fascinated by the sheer beauty of the Moto Guzzi V11. The Guzzi speaks not only to a sculptural aesthetic, but to an engineering aesthetic as well. The transverse V-twin engine is unique to the Guzzi marque and has a “yes it's weird but consider the advantages” charm, like the Wankel rotary engine, a kneeling chair, or my computer keyboard. I'm a sucker for that stuff.
So I dropped in to Munroe Motors to have a look. And the V11 is indeed gorgeous beyond words. And as expensive as the BMW. And racier than I really want or need. And bigger than I want or need. And doesn't have the little comforts of the BMW, like the hot grips or anti-lock brakes. So for that money, I'd go for the BMW.
But while I was there I got a look at the Guzzi Breva 750. I don't have a good photo of my own, so you'll have to settle for this photo of the same make and color I nabbed from the web.
Though I don't know how helpful that is. I didn't really take to photos of the Breva when I saw them on the Moto Guzzi website, but in the flesh — er, steel ... aluminum ... composite stuff — the bike is quite lovely, if not quite so stunning as the V11. To a biker's eye, at least, it's distinctive-looking in a good Moto Guzzi kind of way. More importantly, it is smaller and a third less expensive than the V11, if actually a bit less bike than I was imagining getting.
So I looked at some reviews on the web. They were positive, though hardly glowing. Reviewers for motorcycle magazines are people who ride obsessively and want to try a lot of different bikes, and so they like performance, performance, and performance. Most reviews said something about “a good, fun bike for first-time riders.” But at the risk of the other bikers calling me a sissy, they said that for what I saw as all the right reasons: comfort, versatility, and reliability.
I stopped back at Munroe and asked for a test ride.
She was light! At 420 pounds dry, the Guzzi is 40 pounds lighter than Kate, which doesn't sound like much but feels like a lot. I think having a lower center of gravity must also contribute to that, not only in the way the engine is mounted but also in being all-around lower and smaller. The BMW is higher and heavier than the Nighthawk; this was the opposite, and rolling down city streets I felt as though I could have weaved between the cars like an action movie hero. She didn't have quite so much power as I expected — in her prime, I think Kate had a few more horses than the Breva — but part of that is probably the relatively narrow powerband. Keeping her revs where they needed to be, I could move plenty well ... and paying attention to that stuff is fun.
MKB, with his shiny new zip-zip GSX-R, will probably laugh when he reads this stuff. His bike is 65 pounds lighter still, has its center of gravity about eight inches off the ground, and delivers a bit more than twice the horsepower. But because of the sportbike hunched-over riding position, his wrists hurt. Mine don't. While his bike's engine goes buzz-buzz-buzz, the Guzzi's sings.
It felt good sitting on her. I bought the bike. I'm a happy man.
Now I just have to figure out what her name is. My original plan was that my next bike would be named after Lauren Bacall, Betty for short. (Ms. Bacall's birth name was Betty, and she still used the name with friends after she took “Lauren” for the screen.) When I realized I was buying an Italian bike, I thought maybe she needed to be Sophia Loren. I know, Katherine Hepburn wasn't Japanese, but my Nighthawk is red, so don't argue my logic. But “Sophia” doesn't sound right either, so now I don't know.
Another ride, and I'm sure she'll tell me.
Update: “Betty” it is. Sexy.