14 September 2006

Picky, picky, picky...

To its credit, the LATimes is one of very few newspapers that actually does stories on motorcycles. To its discredit, it's too cheap to hire a motorcycle writer and uses automotive writers. I'm sure these folks know all about cars (What's to know? Gas goes in, wheels go 'round! [Just kiddin', Fixer!]), but they don't really seem to know much about motorcycles. I guess ya take what ya can get, since bikes are in the "Car Culture" section, but the car guys need a proofreader, a fact checker, and a 'sickle-speak translator.

I volunteer.

I read this article about a bike I am positively in lust with, the new Triumph retro-scrambler. Since I actually know a little bit about '60s-vintage English bikes, and even some newer ones (they make motorcycles in Japan now. Imagine that!) I was sorta taken aback by Mr. Neil's lack of knowledge about stuff. Little things, but the Devil is in the details. So here's the Triumph portion of the article, with footnotes from moi.

Let's keep it real. In terms of engineering, handling and performance, mid-century motorcycles were kind of awful, crude and wobbly protomorphs of the ultra-fast, super-stable, ever-starting wonder machines of the modern era. I rode an old BSA a few months ago and felt like I was going to fall off as soon as I heeled the kickstand. (1)

(1) Don't pick yer feet up 'til it starts ta move, ya idjit! Mr. Neil must be very young. Those sleds were fast and stable back in the day, and we didn't know any better anyway.

The fundamental changes in moto-tech - fuel-injection, monoshock/swingarm (2) rear suspension, disc brakes, emissions controls(3), you name it - make riding vintage-era bikes feel like trying to log onto the Internet with a rotary phone (4). And yet bikes were cooler back then(5) - raw and elemental, with a stark, stripped functionalism. So it's no surprise that "modern classic" design should appeal to the growing population of older, first-time riders(6) looking to buy the kinds of bikes they imprinted on in their youth. Here are three(7) that reprise a classic, emotional design from the grand era of two-wheel rebellion, in the context of current technology.

(2) "Monoshock" is a registered trademark of Honda. Most bike writers use the term "single shock", although it's kinda like using "Kleenex" for "tissue" or "snot rag".

(3) It's a legal requirement, not a "fundamental change".

(4) I like that!

(5) Fuckin' A! The Fonz rode a Triumph.

(6) I think he just plain missed the mark here. A lot of us old not-first-time riders like these too for the same reason.

(7) Retro-lookin' Ducati and Harley-Davidson. Go see.

Triumph: McQueen for a day

No footnote, but the image that conjures up is awful, like yer gonna get a new washing machine and a spa day. Probably inevitable, though.

First question: What, if anything, has Triumph Motorcycles - reconstituted after a devastating factory fire in 2002 - paid the estate of Steve McQueen? The iconic leverage of the new Triumph Scrambler pivots almost entirely on McQueen, who rode a Triumph Enduro(8) in the 1971 documentary "On Any Sunday"(9) and a Triumph in the WWII thriller "The Great Escape" (racer and stunt rider Bud Ekins doubled for McQueen in the famous jump scene, and the Triumph doubled for a BMW, lore has it). For guys who really want to channel the Steve, the Triumph Scrambler obliges. You can even order an optional "278" number board(10), McQueen's entry when he raced in the 1964 International Six-Day Trials(11) in East Germany. How bad do you have to have McQueen Fever to know that?

(8) There has never, ever been a Triumph model called an "Enduro"

(9) McQueen rode a Husqvarna in On Any Sunday.

(10) That term is never used. It's a number plate.

(11) He's got the 's' in the wrong place and there's no hyphen. It was the International Six Days Trial.

The Scrambler is the latest of four Modern Classics bikes from Triumph, and it might as well conjure '60s California with a Ouija board: the two-tone paint, chrome escutcheons(12) and rubber knee grips on the tank, bench seat with white piping, exhaust pipes intertwined like crossed fingers (though back in the day, the pipes were on the left side). Much like the echt Bonneville Scramblers(13), it has gaitered front shocks(14), wire wheels, wide flat handlebars and relatively knobby tires (Bridgestone Trail Wings).

(12) Elitist! Just call 'em "tank badges".

(13) Triumph never had a model called a "Scrambler" until now. The model that did very well in scrambles was called the "TT Special", and the street bikes with high pipes weren't officially called that until Honda did it.

(14) They are called "front forks". Period. Some kinds of forks such as leading- or trailing-link or Earles forks do have shock absorbers.

Which in no way should lead you to believe this is a true dual-sport bike, a la Ducati Multistrada(15). As soon as the tires touch gravel, form and function part company. The Scrambler - based largely on the Bonneville T100 streeter - has a wet weight of about 500 pounds and tires that are not much more trail-able than your average street tire. Also, the historically faithful rear coil-overs(16) don't surrender much suspension travel, so the Scrambler rear starts to jackhammer at moderate speeds on chuck-holed fire roads.(17)

(15) Just plain wrong. The Multistrada is, like the Scrambler, a little bit dirt-road capable, more properly called an "Adventure Tourer". A "true dual-sport" bike is a dirt bike with minimally legal street equipment, like these.

(16) This is an automotive term not used by bike riders.

(17) Try to miss the chuckholes, fool! Don't look right at 'em. Look just to the side of them. "Look where ya wanna go". An off-road novice mistake.

This is essentially a road-purposed bike - more specifically, an urban commuter. Between the gloss-black frame rails is Triumph's 865-cc, dual-overhead cam parallel twin - the same mill(18) as in the nostalgia-themed Thruxston(19) and Bonnie T100. However, the engine has been slightly detuned for more low-end torque (51 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm) at the expense of horsepower (54 hp at 7,000). The bike steps off the line nicely and can clear four-wheeled traffic without much trouble. But the bike strains a bit at higher rpm and quasi-legal interstate speeds. The rider strains a bit too. The lack of a windscreen, combined with the very upright riding position, makes for a face-first buffeting that would shame a North Sea gale.(20)

(18) "Mill" is a car word, not often used by motorcyclists.

(19) Misspelled. It's "Thruxton".

(20) Wussie! Motorcycling is called "gettin' in the wind" for a reason. Real buffeting is a product of a poorly designed windshield or a poorly adjusted one.

What this bike truly is, is easy. Make that effortless. The seat height and relaxed riding position is a huge relief from the Nigel-the-human-cannonball posture required on sport bikes(21). The handlebars are easy to reach. The seat is soft, the engine note well-tempered. This bike is two-wheeled Paxil. It is also - though I'm sure this isn't the sales pitch Triumph would trumpet(22) - a perfect beginner's bike(23).

(21) No shit, Sherlock!

(22) A probably-unintended pun. Triumphs have been called "Trumpets" for years. Detractors, usually Panhead riders, also call 'em "Turnips".

(23) Just a matter of opinion, but I still think beginners should start with a smaller, lighter bike.

If you push the Scrambler, it does have some reserves of street performance. It drops into a corner with finesse - all that extra leverage from the big handlebars(24) - and holds a line well. It has good lean angles and makes side-to-side transitions with less drama than Sunday morning C-SPAN(25). The handling is seamless and reliable, with low-speed agility(26) and parking-deck maneuverability. Like I said: easy.

(24) The width of the handlebars has nothing to do with how well a bike corners. It's a function of rake, trail, wheelbase, and center of gravity.

(25) That's maybe a little too easy! Borr-ring!

(26) Wide handlebars help a little here.

The bike is carbureted, not fuel-injected, so riders will have to pull the choke and let the engine warm up a bit before it falls into a shuffling chuff. With a fuel economy in the neighborhood of 50 miles per gallon, the dead-simple Scrambler makes an excellent commuting bike, while offering a hugely romantic presence on the street. Expensive? Rather(27). Nobody said being Steve was going to be cheap.

(27) MSRP $7,999. Pretty cheap these days. My '69 Triumph TR6 was $1350 out the door with a Bell helmet thrown in.

To be fair, Mr. Neil didn't do any worse than most journalists do. Scary.

By the way, my first job in the 'sickle biz was at Bud Ekins' shop in Sherman Oaks CA. A real character and a true icon of the sport. He also gave me my first (and only!) shot as a movie star in The Thing With Two Heads wherein he set a new record for the number of cars wrecked in a movie! Go read about The Great Escape jump at his name link, or his Motorcycle Hall of Fame bio.

Well, I had fun tearing the poor guy apart. ! guess I'll just sit back and wait for someone to do it to me. Probably Badtux. Later.

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