Three and a half years ago, when shopping around for a bike to buy, two machines with very different pedigree’s, from very different stables, emerged as strong contenders; the BMW R1200GS and the Buell XB9SX. The decision was a difficult one. On the one hand, I had always owned BMW’s and knew the bike and the brand well, on the other; I had loved the Buell ever since I had first seen it (over 10 years ago) and it continued to impress and inspire. In the end, I went with the BMW, for mostly practical reasons.
Fast forward a couple of years and the BMW is reluctantly up for sale, to make way for a house purchase and 18 long months later I’m back at the same juncture; lusting after another bike while enduring the indignity of a crowded bus journey during the 2 days of (illegal) strikes called by the RMT which brought the City of London to a standstill.
That same Saturday I found myself at Warrs Harley Davidson in Chelsea looking at the 2009 Buell XB9SX, which is now even better looking thanks to a new all-black option which was lacking from the translucent blue and cherry line-up offered in previous years. Miraculously, the price had also come down by 10%. The deal was sealed, I called and placed the order that Monday and collected my shiny, brand new Buell that Friday after work, just in time for the weekend. All credit to Warrs for pulling it together on such short notice.
Having had the bike now for a few months and really having the chance to really know it, I can comprehensively say, I love it. It is a riding experience unlike any other.
Upon first starting the bike, the 984cc Thunderstorm engine rumbles into life almost the same instant the starter button is pressed. For the first few minutes, the engine feels a little rough and the rear view mirrors are ablur, but as it warms up, it becomes remarkably smooth for an engine of its type and size. Selecting first gear might feel a little strange for sports bike riders. There can be no doubt the gear has been selected, much like the 1200GS, the gear thunks into position like the closing of a luxury German car door and you’re ready to go. The power delivery is constant through the entire rev-range and at no time does the bike feel distressed. There is no ‘power band’ like you get on many other bikes, the engine spins up and pulls hard, all the way. The Buell is light and agile, it feels and handles like a scooter, but has all the brute-force of a superbike. This, along with the low-down torque, makes this bike ideal for city riding, but it’s also at home on winding roads or the motorway, as I recently discovered on a round-trip from London to Manchester, although the lack of a front fairing means you take a bit of a buffeting. Riding 2-up is the biggest surprise, and pleasantly so. Even on the mighty 1200GS, one can really feel a passenger, but on the Buell, it’s almost not noticeable. The front remains solid and deliberate, instead of light and twitchy. The back remains taught and responsive, instead of sunken and lethargic. Best of all, the engine just doesn’t care, it happily purrs along oblivious to the extra weight.
There are however a few negatives and it would be remiss to neglect to mention these. First, the controls and instrumentation are generally quite poor. The indicator switch looks like a throwback to the 80’s and the clocks yield little more information than speed and revs per minute. Attempts to operate with winter gloves yields butterfingeritis. Second, occasionally when pulling off from an idle, the engine will skip a beat and splutter. According to the guys at Warrs, it’s peculiar to this type of engine and in fairness, it happens infrequently and is easily controlled. Third, there is very little space for luggage. Perhaps this is not a legitimate complaint as the XB9SX is, after all, a streetfighter with an exceptionally short wheel base, but I like a bit of luggage for those days in the country (I know, I know… “cake and eat it”).
I look forward to many more days out with the Buell and future offerings from the Buell stable. Yup, this could very well be the start of something beautiful.
Update 18/05/2010: It is with great regret I note Buell will no longer be producing motorcycles. More from the founder of Buell here: http://www.buell.com/en_us/company/news/detail.asp?news_id=1497
Tip 24/05/2010: Somehow I punctured my back tyre this past Friday. I recall from the days of my R1200GS that a puncture on a bike is not a fun experience. Back then I just got the bike recovered to the dealership for a replacement. This happened twice, at £250 a time. So when it happened to my Buell I could see all kinds of expense coming my way. The first thing to remember is, don't use TyreWeld or any kind of in-tyre sealant, doing so renders the tyre irreparable and you are then required to purchase a replacement. Having said that, nobody will actually recommend repairing a tyre, but several people I have spoken to say they've never had a problem. Suffice to say, I used TyreWeld and was therefore in for a new tyre. I called up the dealership I bought the bike from, Warrs Harley Davidson and was horrified to be quoted £235 for a new tyre (including fitting). I was convinced it could be done far cheaper but after calling around I discovered almost nobody would touch a Buell, what with the belt drive and the fuel in the frame and the oil in the swing-arm, it proved too much for your average grease shop. That is, until I found HGB Motorcycles who not only had the tyre I wanted in stock, for the best price I found, but also replaced the tyre while I waited, with no apparent difficulty, for half the price of Warrs, with some free number plate bolts I was missing, and a smile
Over the years, I’ve had many bikes. When I was nine years old, my father bought me an 80cc Kawasaki motocross bike, ostensibly so my cousin and I could get into motocross together. In reality, he probably wanted the toys just as much as I did... but who can blame him really, those bikes were awesome, even back then. Despite a very shaky beginning and several subsequent visits to the hospital, most notably for a broken shoulder blade, I was hooked on 2-wheels from the very start.
Growing up, I was forbidden from getting a 50cc upon turning 16, a decision I absolutely loathed at the time and my father for making it, but it didn't take long for my friends with the very same bikes I wanted to find themselves in hospital also, some of them still scarred today by violent impact with cars and the road surface, at least falling off a motocross bike onto dirt meant a solid bruising, but hardly ever much more than that.
Much later on, in year 2000, I was living in London and quickly realised I'd rather be riding a scooter in the freezing cold of winter than riding cattle class on the tube or crammed in with the freaks on a red bus. I took the plunge and bought my first bike since those early days, an Aprilia Habana 125cc scooter, which served me well until I sold it some 10 months later and returned to South Africa.
Having started my biking career off-road, I was always biased towards that kind of bike and it didn't take long before I decided upon a shiny new BMW F650GS Dakar, a bike I was at once afraid and in awe of. I was barely able to reach the ground with flat shoes and managed to drop it on more than one occasion. My mother once had to help me pick it up, a moment of embarrassment I'll not soon forget.
The guy at the BMW dealership promised me at the time I bought that bike I'd be back soon enough. I figured an extra 525cc's over my last bike was a big enough jump and went with the Dakar anyways. Turned out the dealer was right, 6 months later, bored stiff and tired of experiencing short-man syndrome despite being 6 feet in height, I happily sold that bike and upgraded to a BMW R1150GS in the most beautiful of colour schemes, graphite metallic. It was positively exhilarating to ride, performed brilliantly with one or two up and got looks from adoring middle-age onlookers just about everyplace it went.
A sad morning five months later, I awoke to find the lock on my driveway gate gone and my bike along with it, but after some tearful commiseration, I quickly remedied the situation by purchasing the king of all bikes, the BMW R1150GS Adventure. Nothing on the road commands respect like the Adventure. Even cars would scuttle from its path. We were very happy together. Some time later, I decided it was time to return to London. I couldn't however bring myself to part with that great bike and I stored it in a friends garage for several months until I could no longer justify the expense for a bike I would ride a maximum of two weeks out of the year. Fortunately, the Adventure went to a good home when a friend later purchased it from me. He too was gravely sad to part ways with it when moving to London less than a year later.
By the time I had gotten back to Britain, my UK license had expired and I had to do the full license from the very beginning. After two unsuccessful attempts at passing the full license, I eventually capitulated and purchased a black Vespa GT 125cc, a bike which I still rate highly to this day. It was very smooth, very reliable and very cheap to run. Pound for pound, or perhaps more like ounce for ounce, it is singularly the best commuter vehicle for the city, but doesn’t have much range beyond that.
I wanted something I could take to Scotland one weekend and the Savanna the next. I knew pretty much from the start what bike that was, but decided not to be too hasty about the decision, as I had been in the past, and did a lot of looking around before eventually settling on the BMW R1200GS, the natural successor to the 1150GS and an all round superb piece of engineering. This is the bike I currently own and adore.
Biking is for me a way of life, an essential element of joy and a tool of freedom. I have no doubt that there are several chapters yet to be written.
Ok ok, so I know the last few blog entries have been all about bikes, but this one is entirely called for. After severe agonising and deep deliberation the likes of which cardinals electing a new pontiff would have been proud, I have finally made a decision on exactly what bike to buy… and the winner is, wait for it, waaaait for it, the BMW R1200GS, just the like the one you see pictured on the left side here, complete with heated grips, ABS brakes and of course, a top box.
After trying out both the Buell Lightning XB9SX and the BMW R1200GS, there was just no denying the fact that the BMW just plain made more sense. Let’s face it, the Buell gets the blood pumping, hard, but you really can’t take it anywhere, or with anybody for that matter. The BMW on the other hand gets the blood pumping, but not to the point where veins start to pop out of your forehead. As a friend of mine once put it, “it’ll blow your hair back, but it won’t take your rug off”, this is fine by me… and my mum!
Let the touring begin!
Eager to keep up the momentum of last weekends test ride on a Buell Lightning XB9SX CityX, I booked a test ride on a BMW R1200GS in a bid to end the showdown between these fierce competitors. I’ve always been a BMW type of guy. My first real bike, since motocross days, was a BMW F650GS Dakar, a single cylinder thumper that made me feel like a midget when stationary, but a giant on the move. The day I bought it, the salesman at the BMW dealership said I’d get bored quickly and that I’d be back soon. That all sounded like sales talk to me at the time, but no more than 6 months later I was back for more. More size, more power, more range, more luggage, more everything and I found it in the R1150GS. Friends of mine had purchased the same bike some years before and taken them round the world. One of them remarked it was the last bike I would ever buy and had it not been stolen from outside my house some months later, they might have been right. Fortunately the replacement was an even more appealing option in the form of the BMW R1150GS Adventure. The Adventure model was basically the same bike but came in much better colours along with a much larger fuel tank, engine protector bars, headlamps and a set of very cool aluminium luggage. Sadly I had to leave that beauty behind when I moved to the UK and some months later my good friend Phil purchased it from me. He had a similar crushing experience upon moving to the UK. Sometimes we get together and commiserate about those painful memories. The Adventure is still manufactured today, but it’s a wholly impractical bike for London, although I’ll admit I have nonetheless been tempted walking around the BMW showroom on Park Lane.
But I digress, quite massively, from the point of this post which is the test ride on the replacement to these great forerunners, the R1200GS. It was hailed as BMW’s most important bike and the designers must have known the loyalty of the BMW rider community was at stake, because they rewrote the book on this one. The bike scarcely resembles it’s predecessors with the exception of the massive beaked front of the BMW enduro class. It’s lighter, more powerful (by 30bhp no less) and on the whole a more refined machine in every way. When I mounted it this past weekend to begin my test ride, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was at once a strange and familiar feeling. The bike feels a bit like the 1150GS of old, but it’s far more nimble. The gears are positively impeccable compared to the 1150GS, which received a lot of criticism for it’s very long first gear and clunky changes. After two hours of riding I still hadn’t missed a gear. Acceleration is not to be toyed with lightly. The sales guy at the dealership had warned the front end had a tendency to remove its self quite easily from the tarmac and he was right, one need be only a tinsy bit over zealous on pull-off and you find the clocks a little closer to your nose than you might want. Still, nice to have that kind of power under the hood, or well, under your err, well… just under.
For now, my head swirls in turmoil, the Buell is definitely more city orientated but when you get right down to it, the BMW is on the whole a more refined machine and more importantly it has luggage. Even on my Vespa, the top box is invaluable. I guess there is always going to be a trade-off between size and speed, between practicality and manoeuvrability, between gentleman and hooligan. The Buell is as exciting as it is aggressive while being a practical city bike. The BMW is a gentleman’s ride but won’t slide right in there between those two red buses on the roundabout at Hyde Park Corner. It does however offer the possibility of embarking on an impromptu world tour at a moments notice, in style. You might say one really needs two bikes, or possibly even three. A scooter for the commute, a Buell for serious fun and a BMW for weekends away. I guess that’s something to aspire to.
Ever since I got my full bike license a few weeks ago I have been wrestling myself into the dirt just about every day agonising over whether to buy a shiny new big bike right away, or do the practical thing and wait until next year before upgrading. Eventually, my impatient excitable half, or rather 9/10's, got the better of me and I booked a test ride on a Buell Lightning CityX XB9SX, one of the main contenders in the ultimate purchase decision. After barely 6 hours sleep and several pints on Friday night, I awoke like a kid on coca cola and a stray diet pill on Saturday morning to make the journey to Warrs Harley Davidson in Chelsea for my test ride. After signing my life away, I was on the road and immediately struck by just how impressive this bike is. At 984CC's producing a formidable 84bhp, this bike is not for children or beginners. The salesman told me warningly before I left the showroom to let her tyres warm up a bit before putting the hammer down. His advice was noted and after about 20 minutes pottering around watching scooters overtake me, I’d had enough and let gravity exert its influence on my right hand, a motion which simultaneously injected about as much adrenalin into my bloodstream as fuel into the cylinders. Talk about letting loose the hounds of hell, I finally understand what all this American Thunder fuss is about. It truly is a machine that commands respect from bikes and cars alike. Rolling up to traffic lights is like being mounted on a great white gliding through a shoal of minnows. Scooters flee in terrified panic, motorists’ eye the new-comer wearily from the safety of their metal cages and bigger bikes make space in a way that shows respect. This bike is raw power and fun and it was with a great feeling of dejectedness that I handed back the keys, remounted my scooter and rode off, mortal and minnowed again. I thought about that experience all weekend and started making calls to arrange insurance on Monday, determined to be back on a Buell by the next weekend. My enthusiasm was short lived though. The Buell, for whatever reason, is classified as category 15 for insurance purposes. This, combined with street parking and a 3 week old full license, ended up securing a premium roughly equivalent to half the purchase price of the bike. I could effectively buy a new one every 2 years. Practically speaking... there's that pesky 1/10th putting in 2c again... the Buell, despite its massive appeal, is not a practical bike in the way a BMW 1200 GS is. There is no possibility of luggage anywhere on the bike and passenger space is severely limited, making biking weekends a virtual impossibility. For now, the jury is out on this one. I have a test ride of a BMW 1200 GS booked for this weekend at BMW Park Lane. Who knows, it might be even more impressive.
Finally, after two unsuccessful attempts at cracking a pass on the UK motorcycle license test, I have prevailed. Henceforth, I am no longer required to ride around with those prissy giant red 'L' plates stuck all over my nice shiny black Vespa. More importantly, I can now lift a passenger and the way is at last open for the purchase of a proper motorcycle, a BMW 1200GS.
I want to say a big thanks to H (for Haden) at Elite Motorcycle Training who coached me through every aspect of the test, always in a patient and positive manner. It felt real good ripping those 'L' stickers off my bike.
Finally, after months and months of aspiring to become the proud owner of a new BMW 1200GS, I finally capitulated and compromised on my second choice, the Vespa Granturismo 125cc. The Vespa, manufactured by Italian company Piaggio, has been something of a style icon since the introduction of the first model in 1946. Since then, Piaggio has produced scooters which were always eye-pleasing while still maintaining a reputation for reliability and performance, not bad for a company that started out making airplane engines only to be bombed nearly out of existence during the Second World War. Having taken ownership of this, my first Vespa only a few hours ago and having already clocked up 60km, I can understand why one can scarcely pass a bike parking zone in the city without noticing more Vespa's than not crammed between the striped lines. It truly is an elegant piece of engineering, graceful in its delivery, exciting in its inception, it raises my pulse to look at and curls the corners of my mouth skyward, I think this could be love. The black model usually comes with a mock-leather brown seat, but my dealership, Scooterpower, was good enough to switch that out for a black seat. in my opinion, this is a vast improvement and lends a certain classic disposition to an already iconically retro masterpiece. With smooth power delivery and granite solid build quality, the Vespa Granturismo 125cc is practically an urban survival tool and is highly recommended for anybody looking to escape the cattle mentality of red buses and scorching summer-time tubes. Set yourself free!
UPDATE 24/11/2005: I sold my Vespa to ScooterDen yesterday, it was a sad parting.