Eleven and a Three by Maynard Hershon


     Tamar and I flew to San Antonio TX for a long weekend with friends. Just before delivering us to the airport for our flight home, our host Corey took us to a classy BMW-Triumph store whose owners evidently love both two- and four-wheeled sport - bikes, karts and racing cars.

     Just inside the showroom doors lurked a racing green Lotus Eleven, a gorgeous sports-racing automobile so low and sleek it took your breath away. Just a few feet in front of it was another British road sports machine, a Triumph Rocket Three Tourer.

     I looked at the Lotus, so purposeful and frill-free, and I looked at the hulking Triumph. I wondered: Is the motorcycle as heavy as the car? When I got home, I found their dry weights: Lotus, 910lbs, Triumph, 788lbs. Need I remind you that the Lotus is a CAR, and the Triumph is...not.

     How did we find our way here? When did 600lbs (oh, and lots more) become an acceptable weight for a motorcycle? Not long ago only Gold Wings and Harley baggers weighed that much. Now, adventure bikes, tourers and sport-tourers, muscle cruisers and cruiser-tourers like the Triumph are that heavy. The new VFR weighs 600lbs. Virtually every new model (cars too) is heavier than its predecessor. Evidently, lightness is not a design goal.

     Most of us think of our riding as sport. Is a 600lb motorcycle a sports motorcycle? Is it a sports motorcycle the way an SUV is a sports (utility) automobile? Does the "sport" in SUV mean the car will transport you to sports venues? Or is it a sporting vehicle, a responsive "driver's car?"

     Is this trend market-driven? Do motorcycles that weigh twice what their famous ancestors did sell faster than lighter ones? Do we demand bikes that weigh three times what we do to coddle us as we go softly into our Buick years?

     Few of us enjoy superhighway travel but we buy autobahn bikes. Though we prefer more appropriate motorcycling roads, we buy autobahn bikes because we believe somehow that more must be better. So we want more, even knowing that more motorcycle may not mean more fun on fun roads. And the weight makes the bike less attractive for transport - for use instead of a car.

     We buy bikes with top speeds nearly double our usual freeway pace. Because the bike's mph potential is so great, its tires have to be designed to be safe at Salt Flats speeds. Those tires are huge, shallow-treaded, short-lived and expensive. If we ride the distances that our "transcontinental" bikes suggest we will, tire expense will outstrip fuel or insurance costs.

     And for what? For the 100mph cruising we never do? So that the 80mph cruising we actually do seems effortless - as if we were in our cars?

     When we choose weighty, large-displacement bikes capable of 100mph sustained in wind-protected comfort, are we sacrificing anything? Do such bikes give anything away to provide us with superhighway luxury? Unless all our rides are loaded tours, I believe there is a sacrifice.

     I'd say those bikes sacrifice motorcycleness. If there's an imaginary line between a racing bicycle and a motor home, the mass of many of today's motorcycles (Imagine - they used to be called motorbikes) inches us toward the Winnebago.

     We know better. We know that each pound of weight resists being accelerated, turned or stopped. We know that a bigger, more powerful engine means more a massive frame and suspension, stronger wheels, bigger brakes and a huge battery.

     The best sport bikes are built as light as durability and their price points will allow, but standards, touring bikes and cruisers get steadily porkier. Testers suggest we lower our expectations in terms of handling, suspension and braking for cruisers and tourers. The weight disappears once we're underway, they say. But undeniably that weight hinders every change of direction or speed - and worries us as we execute tight, low-speed turns or when we paddle our bikes out of our garages or diagonal parking slots.

     We didn't fall in love with riding on huge, comfort-at-all-cost bikes. We fell in love with the responsiveness, with oneness with the machine, with the struggle with wind and weather. We loved the pure thing, the sport. That's why we're here.

     Many of us have fond memories of bikes that weighed half what our present bikes weigh. Not a hundred pounds or so less, not a third less. Half. Who'd have believed we'd be paying $20,000 for super-tall, 600lb trail bikes we can't pick up?

     Today, bikes as light as and more powerful than '60s road-burners get no respect.

     A real rider's bike, in contrast, if it's a tourer or sports tourer, has a huge lazy engine, perhaps a power reverse, heated seat and grips, an electrically raised or lowered windshield, ABS brakes, traction control, cruise control, tire pressure sensors, non-jacking shaft drive, no center stand or an electric one, a useless owners manual and no, or nearly no, toolkit.

     You're expected to take your bike to your dealer's service department for anything beyond oil level checks. You can't hoist the rear wheel off your garage floor without a motorcycle lift. Removing that wheel can be an hour's work - in the shop. Nearly impossible on the roadside. Your 135mph potential top speed isn't much comfort as you wait for the tow truck.

     If Triumph built a Jenny Craig Bonneville - a 400lb version, not much heavier than a late '60s Bonneville, with fuel injection, 65hp and today's electrics, suspension and metallurgy, that sweet, svelte twin would be all the bike many of us would need. I think it or something like it would be a bike we would love - big enough for two-up travel but still compact, fast, light and flickable.

     It'd be a bike for the other 51 weeks, not merely for the annual drone across four states to the big rally or to visit the relatives back home.

     Why won't this happen? Because 400lb motorcycles aren't serious motorcycles these days. Serious motorcycles weigh 550 pounds minimum. They aren't faster than 65hp, 400lb bikes - or they don't feel faster, but their mirrors defrost themselves and they monitor their own tire pressures. That's progress, I suppose.

[Ed Note:  Check out more from Maynard at his web site:  www.maynardnet.blogspot.com]

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