For a while, a couple of years ago, I had an ST1100 – a Honda Pan European. It was THE most competent bike I’ve ever owned. My business partner, James, and I rode back from Cornwall one freezing February – him on his Triumph TT600, me on the Pan. I was quite happy at 90-ish, heated grips on, snow building up on the sideboard-sized fairing as I sat there snugly. James nearly froze to death and we had to pry his fingers off the bars when he got back.
I hated that Pan. You couldn’t interact with it. It just sat there, smugly, knowing it was smarter, faster and way more competent than you. Check the oil? Why bother? It’s a Honda. It won’t have used any. And, besides, to look at the oil level you have to unbolt a little panel in the Tupperware that shrouds the engine. Tappets? You could, but it’s a Honda. They’ll still be as perfectly in adjustment as the day one of Sōichirō Honda’s chaps snugged down the valve covers to precisely 20nm when it left the factory. And you’ll have to unbolt enough plastic panels to make a couple of exhibition stands to do it.
In short – a splendid, effective, fast, comfortable tool. Like a drill or a microwave. Not – in my view – a motorcycle.
Motorcycles should be about interaction. Working on bikes is as much part of being a rider as the riding. How can you trust your neck to something when you don’t know how it works and can’t maintain and fix it?
It’s why I love the Ural so much. It’s truly interactive. Don’t maintain it? It’ll let you know pretty rapidly. Forget the weekly checks – brakes, oil level, bolt snugness? Soon – very soon – it’ll start running rough. Then really rough. Then stop. Or not, if you’ve forgotten to adjust the brakes.
Invest some time and love though, and the bike’ll repay you. It’ll run smoothly, purr as much as a Siberian-manufactured Russian lump of iron ever can, and reward you in the process. There’s something wonderful, in our sealed for life, sealed off, throwaway age about making something mechanical and complicated run as beautifully as it can. You learn. You start to recognise the sounds your bike makes – and what they mean. It’s a bit quiet – better check the tappet adjustment as they’ve probably nipped up a bit.
And, slowly, you realise you’re hooked. It’s a drug. You could no more ride a modern bike, with its plastic panels and nasty little tinny fasteners and electric engine management systems, than fly. Or, in my case, dance.
And I like it that way. Yes, my bike is slower than yours. It’s more unreliable than yours (but when it goes wrong I know how to fix it). It’s older and more primitive than yours. And I don’t care. I like it that way. I’m a rider, not a passenger.
But, best of all, I own my bike. Because you don’t ever truly own a bike until you’ve worked on it, interacted with it mechanically and, in the process, invested some of you in it.
Riding is as much about the spannering as the road.