Thursday, December 29, 2011

Last ride of 2011

I'm taking short rides at the moment due to my sore shoulder (which is improving at a rate of upwards of 5% a day, so I hope to be riding properly sooner rather than later). Fee and I took a 130km ride out to Yarra Glen and beyond in the afternoon summer sun today, stopping by a field to eat service station ice creams.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Alas, I have been waiting and waiting while illness, work and academic endeavours repeatedly held me back from riding; waiting for the time when I could mount my steed and make epic rides. But, alas, when the time came and the hindrances were past...I then injured my shoulder. I was in a lot of pain, and I was scared that the injury might have a more permanent nature as they sometimes do. But 1.5 weeks on and the pain is steadily, if slowly, receding. And so I was able to ride out to King Lake and back today - 120km. And while I was sore the whole time and this was very distracting, I would not call it pain. In a week's time I hope to be ready for a proper ride.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

1953 motorcycle holiday through Europe

I just read this wonderful travel story. A fellow has published the photos and story of his father's motorcycle holiday through Europe in 1953. It's well worth reading.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Euroa via my favourite roads

For years a string of empty roads have been my sanctuary. If you draw a line from Yea to Seymour to Euroa then Merton, and back to Yea, you draw the boundaries of a space wherein few people go. A patchwork of forests and paddocks, tall granite hills and low-cut creeks. With its old church, stone formations, its empty air blowing through craggy pines, this place has entered my soul, and riding through it gives me peace. I take my time, through the sweeping lanes with their constant lashings of gravel and fallen limbs. There's never anybody behind or in front; just the road, myself, and sweet solitude.

Yesterday I could have gone in any direction but I chose my sanctuary. I travelled via King Lake to Yea, from where I made to Highlands and on to these roads. Exiting them at Longwood I rode the Hume to Euroa for tea, then re-entered the magic near Creighton's Creek. When finally I returned to Yea, I rode the Melba Highway to Yarra Glen and home via Kangaroo Ground.

But let us stay with these quiet roads.

I feel invigorated by the purr of my big twin. The W650 is a Rolls Royce. Usually one begins to notice faults as the miles are added to a new bike, but the more time that goes by, the more enamoured and admiring I become of this machine. The W650's engine is superb, wonderfully suited to this area. When I feel like thumping away I ride at low rpm and the engine has so much vibrating character. On these sunlit roads the bountiful torque allows me to sit in one gear - usually second or third - and merely roll the throttle on and off.

While resting in quiet moments, I chanced to meet the odd friend.

I also sought to call up the magic of this place so that it might enter my self and my machine.

But such techniques were unnecessary. By simply being in this place, lovingly, and spreading my body over its spaces, I had absorbed something precious. Without giving it names I contemplated it as the day ended.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Yamaha SR500 / SR400 Review

For five years I rode hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers per weekend, on my 1978 Yamaha SR500. I eventually sold it to a friend and still ride it now and then. This meandering collection of thoughts - or 'review' - is an opportunity to reflect on what I loved about the bike, and why I think it is worth owning one.  

This post is a companion to my W650 review. Have a look also at my other blog where I write about philosophy and couselling. I will soon add a review to this blog, of the new Royal Enfield Bullet, for those who are deciding between these bikes.  

The heart of the SR, that which attracts most people, is the engine: the "big single" or one cylinder. Instead of the hum of multiple cylinders firing, there is the beat of just one. There is something about that sound, that feeling in your stomach when astride the bike, which is unlike anything else. I found it deeply 'soul-soothing'. I once went for a ride on my SR, but due to a mechanical problem (my fault) decided to return home. At the time I had a four cylinder Honda CB600F Hornet, and headed off again on that, up to King Lake, Yea, and thereabouts. The Hornet was so much more capable in the twisties. It raced through them like they were nothing, whereas earlier that morning I had to 'work' the SR through those same corners. I was struck by how admirable and competent the Hornet was...and by how bored it left me. I moved to the city at a young age to work as a professional drummer. My passion was for jazz. Riding a big single is like playing a drum solo. The rhythm of the engine-pulse is everything.  You ride according to it. It feels wonderful to interact with your motorcycle and negotiate the road in this way. The staccato of the engine, the way you 'play' (use) the engine rpm, it is all so glorious, so energising.  You feel in such connection with everything. It's quite enlivening. Left, then right. Left, then right. Through corner after corner. Light. Lithe. Shifting skyward up the hill like a bike-boy of the 1950s, laying down on the tank and discovering that it makes a difference to top speed, the engine a machine gun on a Spitfire. Or perhaps, enjoying the quieter side of the bike, sitting upright, a gentleman of old, the pulsations reverberating gently through your whole body. For those who want it, the SR takes you back to a time - in your imagination - when singles ruled the road and Sunday sounded different: no screaming or bored humming as a motorcycle went past. Rather you heard every explosion in its engine as a distinct event, glorious symbol of a speeding mechanical century.

All thrill-seeking aside, it is the latter mode that I loved, the way the SR made me relax. It is no accident that I’ve never had a speeding ticket; for the most part I did not feel like going fast on the SR, rather the bike made me feel like taking my time, head up and taking everything in - the summery hills and shaded lanes through which I would thump along. On modern sports bikes I have the opposite experience - I want to speed - and I consider its relaxing side, or its within-speed-limit-thrills, a real virtue of the SR. This has the added benefit of rendering one's license, and one's limbs, much safer. 

I did about 50,000km on my SR and the bike held up fine, with plenty of those kilometers on long, straight, hot highways through the Mallee. Having owned an SR for five years, and as a motorcyclist in his late 30s who rides a lot of kilometers and does not own a car, I can confidently say that were it not for the Kawasaki W650/800 I would seriously consider buying one of the new SR400s as my main transport. That would mean commuting on freeways and along 400km of highway to visit family, so I am essentially praising the capability of the bike for the real world regardless of its power limits. But it is true that the SR500 and SR400 are not powerful bikes. They can sit all day at 100kph, bit you will probably find yourself longing for another gear. The 400 is buzzy too – you feel it through your feet. But he bike really comes it to its own on backroads, cruising all day at 80-90kph, even for very long stretches. 

I also rode for a long time on an SR400. There is little difference between the 400 and 500 engines. Almost all parts are the same, the main difference being the crank which in the 400 creates a different stroke, reducing the capacity to 399cc. This however makes a real difference to the way the two engines feel. The 400 spins 6-800 rpm higher in most situations. It also revs more easily. If I was building a cafĂ© racer I’d seriously consider the 400 over the 500, as I have seen others do. It is a more revvy engine and arouses more adrenalin in me than the 500. It feels more sporty. The 500 (which is my preference) is much nicer for chugging along, and has noticeably more torque.

The engine is essentially bullet-proof. In my opinion, certain motorcycles of the 1970s hit a height of simplicity, robustness and real-world capability. The SR, along with the XS650, stands pre-eminent among them.  I had a major disaster and stripped the drive shaft, but this was completely my fault. $650 bought me a new engine with low kilometers from the wreckers. It took only a few hours to install it, done by myself with some friends, all of us with very minimal mechanical know-how. And I was away! This is cheap motorcycling! I have to admit that I really miss the simplicity of the SR. 

The bike is also cheap to maintain due to aftermarket suppliers and the universality of parts shared across Yamaha’s range. Another important factor here is the sheer simplicity of the bike.  A popular replacement for the 30 year old carburettor can be bought for $100 on eBay!  On this matter, it needs to be acknowledged that an old unrestored SR can be a pain to live with. It can be a nightmare to start, and I am not talking about the breezy difficulty of pushing a starter button without luck, nor kicking over the short kicker on my Royal Enfield Bullet. Kickstarting an unreliable big Japanese dirt bike can be hell. But it takes little money and few replacements – such as a carb, or CDI, or coil depending on the particular issues – to turn it into something that’s incredibly reliable. As I say my bike was originally painful to live with, but with the carburettor sorted it started on one to three kicks cold, and then first kick for the rest of the day. It got me to work without question everyday. It never stalled. Remember that we are talking about a 1978 model. Later model 400s are a breeze to start by comparison with the 500, and I strongly suspect that the EFI removes any concerns about starting the bike. 

I would highly recommend the SR, unless highway touring is your main activity and you need a relaxed, powerful engine for the job. The SR is a romantic motorcycle that favours the backroads. It hints at even older British bikes, but it is a classic in its own right. Indeed it is a motorcycle with a more character than most on the road. It draws forth a deep passion in many owners and is the sort of bike you can keep for decades. Indeed a friend of mine bought his new in 1980 and still rides it with passion.  It is now learner legal in all of Australia, but when you ride an SR you are not riding a mere learners bike, you are riding a classic that speaks to your heart and soul. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Peter's new W650

Here I am with my mate Peter Drum. Peter and I met mainly through teaching philosophy at a university. Peter also frequents the pub opposite my house. We were talking about a W650 for him before I decided to buy one, and I ended up buying one first, for which Peter called me some four letter words in his envy.  He rode mine and loved it, and the rest is history.

Peter also has a '74 Honda CB750 which he has commuted on since the late 1970s. He had decided it was time for something newer. This will allow his CB to receive the classic-status care that it deserves.

Peter also owns a '32 Ford and a 1940 Tiger Moth.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Maldon with Rosy

In the humid sunshine on a blue motorcycle, that was yesterday, stretching out in a late Spring day. I went riding with my good friend Rosy. Sunlit swarms of white butterflies exploded into us, mixed with the scent of wattle as we gently banked left and right on empty roads from Daylesford to Maldon.

That journey constitutes one of my favourite stretches: through Hepburn Springs, Shepherds Flat, Newstead. The W650 rode it like a gentleman, a Rolls Royce, confidently negotiating every turn and rise, accelerating rapidly when needed but with a lightness, a confident cool. The twin purred, and never was there any angst in the engine, any feeling that one ought to hurry. The W never screams or yells. Throughout the entire rev range the bike is relaxed.  It invites me to take pleasure in its pulsing engine and to give attention to the world I am passing through. The W wants to be a beautiful motor cycle in a beautiful world.

At Maldon Rosy and I ascended Mount Tarrengower and climbed its tower.

Looking over the town.

Looking South.




West, overlooking Cairn Curran.

From the tower I took some photos of the bikes and of Rosy.

300 kilometers of simple motorcycling, coffee and talk.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Kawasaki W650 / W800 Long-Term Review

There are many good reviews of the Kawasaki W650 and rather than repeat what they say, or give technical information, I want to describe why I find this bike so wonderful to own. Much of what I have to say should apply to the W800 too.

I am editing this review in September 2014, and at this later time I have owned my 2004 Kawasaki W650 for three years. I bought it used as a grey import from Japan with 23,000km on the clock, and it now has 75,000km. I am in my late 30s and for most of my adult life I have commuted daily through Melbourne, and toured the countryside on the weekends, on a motorcycle. Hence I've owned a good number of bikes and am prepared to criticise the short-comings of any of them. But of the W650 I have, essentially, nothing negative to say!  This can be said of no other motorcycle that I have owned.

At the time of purchase I was decided between the W and a Triumph Bonneville, Harley Sportster or Royal Enfield. The W won based on looks, feel and mechanical reputation. To list some of its virtues from an owner's perspective, it has:

  • Classic beauty 
  • Great engine character - it really pulses between 3000 and 4000rpm 
  • Reliability, with excellent engineering and build-quality 
  • A degree of mechanical simplicity
  • Real ease of maintenance 
  • Parts are relatively cheap and readily available (often universal)
  • It is very stable on the highway and great for long distances
  • Yet it is light and flickable  
  • It is good on dirt roads
  • Pillions report that it is very comfortable – their seat is generous

I demand a lot of my motorcycling. It is said that to ride with others is good for the heart and to ride alone is good for the soul. Motorcycling refreshes my heart and soul. An important part of such motorcycling is the bike itself. Professional bike reviewers are often sports riders at heart and write from that perspective. They focus on power and speed. Motorcycling is a very aesthetic experience for me. A bike's distinctive character and looks, the visceral experience that it provides, the imaginative associations it invites, and the way it opens up the landscape to my senses, all get to the heart of why I ride.

In another post I review my old SR500. It was a wonderful bike. However I have to admit that it was not quite comfortable on the highway, which is a problem given that I enjoy riding long distances. Cue the W650, which brings to the ride all the aesthetic qualities that I so prized in the SR – sometimes to a greater degree - while being very relaxed and capable on the highway.

What is so charming about the W650 is what it evokes of other motorcycles, as well as what it has of its own.

For me the W650 evokes the motorcycles of the middle of the twentieth century.  Wrapped in my waxed-cotton jacket and gauntlets, winding through green fields in winter, I feel like I am in a scene from Heartbeat.  But there is something deeper, too.  Riding is, for me, about being in, and moving through, places as an act of appreciating not only what is before my eyes but also what my imagination hints at.  Think of how that tumbledown farmhouse made you feel that time on an empty road.  These imaginings have a human-centred, historical sensibility – I like to ‘feel’ the presence of people who once made their lives in this place and who imprinted something of themselves on the landscape. To ride a motorcycle that evokes the machines of past years is to be more readily drawn into this imaginative sense of past things, to more readily connect with this implicit aspect of the places through which I ride. The W650 does this to a degree that few modern motorcycles do. You only have to look at it to see what I mean. Of course it would be best to ride an original machine from that era, but as a mechanical simpleton I could never afford to keep such a machine on the road (i.e. fund the mechanic) while doing the miles I do.

The W650 has its own historical precedence. In the 1960s Kawasaki manufactured the W1, a 650 twin which looked like a BSA – it started out as a licensed 500cc BSA copy but evolved in Kawasaki’s hands into a mechanically superior machine by the time it became 650cc.  You can see one in the centre here (this is an old Australian photo):

Kawasaki pretends that their modern W650 is a remake of that, but we all know it looks more like a 1960s Triumph Bonneville. This makes sense: if you were to design a bike to evoke the great British twins, would you not take inspiration from the model which many consider to be the most beautiful and exciting?  

The W650 is clearly a retrospective motorcycle, a tribute, an evocation. I think it achieves this aim better than its obvious competitor, the new Bonneville. To me the new Bonnie looks like a 1970s UJM. Plus its engine feels too smooth for my liking.  And it is unnecessarily complex to service the shims.  Some people get angry about the W, about others preferring it over the new Bonneville (I had one fellow, a local, email me physical threats because of the comments I just made). And this is interesting. Their attachment to the Bonnie is to a British bike. However the Australian Bonnevilles are made in Thailand. But what is most curious about their criticism is the way in which it misses the point, for me at least. For me, what I love about British bikes, alongside their cultural accretions, is their beauty. Retro, derivative, whatever, they have beauty in their own right. Here is a subjective opinion with which some will disagree – I am expressing my taste - but it seems that vehicles between the 1930s and 1960s had a strong emphasis on aesthetics, and that from the 1970s onwards this has seemed to matter less to designers.  I think that the phenomenon of retro vehicles is driven by people's desire for beauty.  For art deco, for mirror chrome, for circles and fins.  And so what I appreciate in the W is not just the fact that it reminds me of a 1960s British bike – although that is an important part of its attraction – but equally that it is beautiful in its own right.  

So how does it ride, this motorcycle which is both an evocation of an era and a wonderful machine in its own right?

The W650 has two different personalities. For the bike to evoke a mid-century motorcycle it must have vibration, pulsation. ‘Silky-smooth’ and ‘sewing-machine-like’ do not describe those old bikes. Kawasaki did a wonderful job of offering both vibration from its long-stroke engine, as well as smoothness. The smoothness is of two kinds in relation to the pulses. First, the engine pulses are themselves smooth, as opposed to biting or harsh. They are very present, at the centre of the riding experience, which gives the bike a lot of character, but they have a ‘rounded’ quality that makes them pleasant. There is not that hard edge that makes you tense up. And so the engine feels relaxed even as it’s thumping you up to speed. That is the first kind of smoothness present in the W. Second, those engine pulses are mostly dominant within a certain rpm-range, and otherwise the engine is smooth in the sense of being without those vibrations. On cue at 3000rpm the pulses start, they hit their climax at 3,500rpm, then immediately beyond 4000rpm they smooth out and the engine takes on a more calm purr. What this means is that you can choose to ride in thumper-mode by remaining mostly in that rev-range, or smooth mode by riding below (as I do in the city) or above it (as I do on the highway). The other side of this story happens above 5000rpm. The W takes on a new character yet again – the fire-breathing twin. It is a lot of fun up there, a place for adrenalin on tight roads while overtaking cars.

I will add a comment which was submitted to an earlier incarnation of this review – thank you to Dave:

I have the 800; the only difference between the two engine is a slight increase in the bore and the fuel injection. The 800 has more torque at lower rpms - essentially flat from 2000rpm to 7000rpm redline and maxing at 2500rpm rather than 5250 like the 650. The power is around 48hp @ 7000 compared to 50hp @ 7000 for the 650. The bike feels very much like a late 60's Royal Enfield Interceptor as far as the engine 'feel' goes, albeit smoother. When new they do feel a bit dismal due to the almost silent mufflers, but after about 10,000km they really loosen up and a slight change to the baffles makes quite a bit of difference to the feel, as I've found riding my modified bike and unmodified ones. Wrenchmonkees in Denmark reckon they dynoed 90Nm @ 3500 at the rear wheel with nothing more than pod filters and different exhausts so it may be true.
They are a lovely bike though. One of my main rides is a 1953 AJS 500 and the feel of the two is quite similar oddly enough. The big AJS/Matchless singles are quite smooth cruising up to about 90kmh and with the same sort of pulsing.As mentioned though, over 4000rpm the Kawasakis get very smooth and right on the old 360 degree twin powerband. They really 'hammer' - no other word for it - above 5000 rpm and are a lot of fun playing boy racers in the twisties. Lovely sound with the baffles done too.”

At an indicated 100kph the bike sits on 3,500rpm in fifth gear. The W by comparison feels utterly, unbelievably, beautifully relaxed at 100kph in both fourth and fifth gear. Thanks to its lavish, even spread of torque which begins just above 2000rpm, the W feels ‘in the zone’ in any gear at any rpm. There is little need to change gear through the corners or when over-taking: I just open up the throttle and it pulls away. I don’t even know what horespower the W is meant to produce, and neither do I care – such specifications are all over the web, but horespower has nothing to do with what is wonderful about this bike.  

With over 50,000km under my belt on this bike I have never had to visit a mechanic. I do all my own servicing on the footpath and it is very simple. Even changing the shims is simple. Kawasaki have designed the bike with servicing in mind. The W has, quite simply, given me no trouble whatsoever. Well, at 75,000km I have two small cracks in the rear fender. And the clutch sometimes (very rarely) slips when dropped quickly at the lights on a cold engine. Tyres are cheap sizes - about $350 for a pair here in Australia. The chain however is an odd size which precludes buying a good one on sale. These bike have a reputation for doing very high kilometers – in the hundreds of thousands – without trouble, and I hope to ride mine until the engine wears out and rebuild it.

I am very, very happy with my W650. So much so that I would face a real dilemma if mine needed replacing. For I would love to try owning another motorcycle on my bucket list, but having owned one I am so happy with this model, and feel so confident about its reliability, that I suspect I will ride Ws for years to come.

If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my other one, here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

W650: First Ride

Today I went on my first proper ride on the W650. I absolutely love this bike! The best motorcycle I have ever ridden.

I did 430km. For the first half of the ride I was with a friend, Jeff.  He rode a CBF250 and this was his first proper country ride.  He did very well. Last time I took a first-timer out on these roads - Chum Creek, Myer's Creek Road - she crashed. If Jeff's new job -- in a Bee Gees tribute band in Las Vegas -- falls through then he will appear more on this blog.  Speaking of blogs, check out my other one, here.

After Jeff left at 4PM, I continued on through the Black and Reefton Spurs, with no traffic to hinder me. The day was warm, and sometimes wet, sometimes sunny. In the next post I will offer a review of the W650 based on this ride, but suffice to say I rediscovered the feeling of getting myself lost in the motion of the road.

Friday, November 4, 2011

My new bike: Kawasaki W650

Today I picked up my new motorcycle.

The XV535 was just an interim.  I had been approved by the bank for a loan, and hummed and harred for a few weeks on what I really wanted.  Time to get something I have lusted after, which is reliable, rather than something that is merely cheap and reliable.  My three 'best' bikes were the Kawasaki W650, Harley Sportster, and (modern) Triumph Bonneville.  

The W650 is, in my opinion, better than the Bonneville in every way except for the brand, and the brand is not enough to win the day, especially when the Bonnies are not actually made in England(so the badge really is nothing more than a badge).

I tried four times to take a test ride on a Sportster but luck conspired against me every time. Not that it mattered. The more I considered it, the more I could see that the W650 is the bike for me.  And so I purchases a 2005 model with 23,000km.  It's a machine which I've wanted for years, and hopefully I will own it for years, just like my SR500.

I will write a review of the bike after my first ride. I've done too little riding for too long. The bike has a 5000km/3 month warranty, and I am determined to ride those 5000km in that time.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bonnie and the Pretenders

Here's a great, but very hard to find, review / comparison / road test between the Kawasaki W650, the new Triumph Bonneville, and an original Bonnie.